§ 4.5 p.m.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. Ernest Marples)
I beg to move,That the Draft National Assistance (Determination of Need) Amendment Regulations, 1954, a copy of which was laid before this House on 1st December, be approved.I have looked up previous debates on National Assistance Regulations and I find that the opening speech has usually been short and only an exposition of the Regulations. In view of what has happened in the last half-hour, and the number of hon. Members on all sides—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. It has happened once or twice recently that when an hon. Member is addressing the House, from either side, there has been a good deal of noise through hon. Members leaving the Chamber. If hon. Members wish to leave the Chamber they should do so quietly, for it is not fair to an hon. Member addressing the House that his speech should be interrupted in this way.
§ Mr. Marples
I looked up the precedents of various hon. Members who have moved National Assistance regulations in the past and I find that their speeches have generally been very short and in the nature of an exposition rather than of an argument. I therefore propose to make a brief explanation of the Regulations which the Government now ask the House to approve. During the debate no doubt many and varied points will be raised, especially now that more time has been allotted for the debate and, in replying, my right hon. Friend will deal with those points.
These draft Regulations, if approved, will amend the principal Regulations. By the principal Regulations I mean the original Regulations passed in 1948, plus the various Amendments made to them subsequently.
The number of people affected by these Regulations is quite substantial. The National Assistance Board pay about 1½ million to 1¾ million allowances, but an allowance may cover more than one person and the estimate—and it is only an estimate—is that these changes will improve the position of about 2½ million 2450 people, which is a substantial proportion of the population.
The National Assistance Board Regulations provide for two things—a weekly sum of money and then an amount for rent. These Regulations increase these weekly sums of money. There are two scales for the sums paid by the National Assistance Board—an ordinary scale and a special scale. The special scale covers the blind and certain persons suffering from tuberculosis. The increases which are proposed under the draft Regulations are the fourth set of increases since 1948. The figure in 1948 for a single person was 24s; in 1950, it was 26s.; in 1951, 30s.; in 1952, 35s.; and in 1955 it is proposed that it shall be 37s. 6d.
The present increases proposed by these Regulations over the scales now operative are as follows: 4s. for a married couple and 2s. 6d. for a single householder. The rate for a married couple will be increased from 59s. to 63s. and that for a single person from 35s. to 37s. 6d.
I have spoken of the ordinary scales and not of the special scales, and I now come to the special scales which deal with blind persons and those suffering from tuberculosis. Here, we propose to give a greater increase than in the case of the ordinary scales. The rate for the married couple will be increased from 77s. to 82s., which is an increase of 5s., compared with a 4s. increase in the ordinary scale. For a single person on the special scale the increase will be from 53s. to 56s. 6d., which is an increase of 3s. 6d., as against an increase of 2s. 6d. for the ordinary scales.
There has always been a differential between the ordinary scale and the special scale. In 1951, the special scale was 15s. more than the ordinary scale. In 1952, the differential was 18s. and under the proposed Regulations the differential in favour of the blind and certain tuberculous persons will be 19s.
In both scales, there are appropriate increases for persons in other age groups, such as children. I want to make clear that neither scale rate includes rent. I should like to give one or two examples to show what would happen in the case of a married couple paying a certain rent and a married couple with children paying a certain rent. A married couple, paying 15s. rent, would get 78s. a week, 2451 which is payment at the rate of £202 16s. per annum. I say "at the rate of" because National Assistance is payable weekly, and we all hope that no one will be on National Assistance for a whole year. A single person living alone, paying 12s. 6d. rent, would get 50s., a rate of £130 a year.
I have worked out, for my own interest, what would happen if a married man had a number of children and was unfortunate enough to be on National Assistance for a year. A married man with a wife and three children, aged 12, eight and three, paying 12s. rent, who was unfortunate enough to be on National Assistance for a year, would have his need assessed under these proposals at the rate of £308 2s. per annum.
These Regulations cover rates only and not conditions. Neither do they cover any other provisions of the principal Regulations. In particular, they do not affect the general discretionary power given to the Board's officers to adjust the allowances to meet special circumstances.
This general discretionary power has been used more frequently in the last year than ever before in the history of the National Assistance Board. During each of the last three years, the allowances have increased in scale and have cost the Exchequer more money. I will give an example. In November, 1953, there were 574,000 cases, and the average allowance given in each case was 5s.—an average is misleading, I know—but it was 5s.—and the total cost to the Exchequer was £7,600,000. In 1952, taking one week in that year, there were 530,000 cases, compared with 574,000 cases in 1953, and the amount to the Exchequer was £6,830,000.
§ Mr. Marples
I have taken the same week and tried to find out the number of cases which received this supplementary assistance, and then worked it out at the annual rate, making what is, I think, a fair comparison. There were 574,000 cases in 1953 and the cost to the Exchequer for the whole year was £7,600,000. In 1952, there were 530,000 cases which cost the Exchequer £6,830,000 and, in 1951, there were 2452 490,000 allowances, which cost the Exchequer £5,770,000.
I make this point because it shows that the Board's officers are using this discretionary power—I will not say more generously—but to a greater extent now than in the past. I am not saying that that is wrong; I am sure that it is right that they should do so. But I am saying that by doing so, they are imposing on the Exchequer a larger burden.
I have dealt so far with people who receive benefits under the National Assistance scales, but there are certain classes of persons to whom the scale rates are not applicable or are inappropriate. They will not benefit directly from the improvements in the scales. I refer, in the first place, to persons living in accommodation provided by the local authorities under Part III of the National Assistance Act, 1948. They are given such an allowance as will enable them to pay the minimum charge prescribed by the Minister of Health in England and Wales or the Secretary of State in Scotland. They also get a weekly sum, similarly prescribed by the Minister of Health or the Secretary of State for Scotland, as being necessary for personal requirements. That is the first class of cases which these scale rates will not benefit.
The second class of case which will not benefit is composed of persons paying an inclusive sum for board and lodging in homes for old people and the like not under Part III of the National Assistance Act, 1948. There, since the scale rates which we propose exclude rent, they would, generally speaking, not be adequate to meet the inclusive charge in the case of people living in homes and similar places. They may have personal commitments and requirements, and the Board's officers have discretion to decide what they would pay.
The third class of persons who will not benefit by these scale rates are persons in hospital. The reason is, of course, that as they are in hospital they are maintained free of charge. They do not need an allowance for board and lodging, but they do need a small sum for personal requirements and perhaps for outside commitments, and, here again, the Board's officers have discretion in the payment which they make.
§ Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
The Minister has referred to the exercise of discretion. As the beneficiaries under that discretion will not be of any class subject to any scale, will there be any guiding principles by which the discretion is to be exercised, and have these beneficiaries any assurance of continuity or equality of treatment under the exercise of the discretion?
§ Mr. Marples
The discretion really applies to what is paid by the National Assistance Board, regarding their personal requirements and outside commitments. In the case of a hospital, board and lodging is paid for by the hospital. It is, therefore, a question of their personal requirements.
I speak from memory, but I think the exercise of this discretion is guided by the Ministry of Health and the Secretary of State for Scotland: if the Minister of Health makes his regulations laying down that the present 6s. 6d. a week is increased to 7s. 6d. that would be one of the rules taken into account by the Board's officers. Therefore, I would say that the discretion depends to some extent on the regulations made by the Minister of Health and the Secretary of State for Scotland.
§ Mr. Hughes
I am much obliged for that ruling. The Minister will see, no doubt, that unless a very clear guiding principle is laid down the exercise of discretion might result in unfairness or inequalities.
§ Mr. Marples
Discretion really means that the man on the spot has fairly wide latitude in making up his mind, having regard to particular circumstances. If he were given a guiding principle which is too rigid and he applies it too rigidly, that means that he has no discretion but has to conform to the rigid rules laid down at the centre. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that the Board's officers have been very reasonable in exercising their discretion.
The next point concerns the question of timing. These Regulations will take effect as from Monday, 7th February, 1955. I want to say a word or two about the pensioners because I believe that this will be a point raised in the course of the debate today and tomorrow until 7 o'clock. Over one million out of 1¼ million allowances are given to people in 2454 receipt of retirement pensions or other National Insurance benefits. In April, the pensioners will get an increased pension as of right, and there will be no test at all as to their needs or means. Those pensioners on National Assistance will get an increase in assistance in February. Those not on Assistance get their increase in pensions in April. That means that those who are in need will get help first.
Those who are drawing National Insurance benefits and who get Assistance will get their increase in February. The other National Insurance benefits will go up in April and their Assistance will be adjusted accordingly on that date. That, of course, is what has always happened in the past, whichever party has been in power. When pensions and insurance benefits do go up in April, it will mean that some people will no longer require assistance, and those who still require assistance will get no more income at that stage but will, of course, retain the benefit of the increase which they had in February.
Now I come to the question of administration. The great majority of the 1¾ million regular weekly allowances issued by the Board are paid by means of books of orders which are cashed at post offices. Every allowance in payment will have to be reviewed in order to give effect to the Assistance increases, and nearly 1¼ million will have to be further adjusted to take account of the changes in pensions and benefit rates. The Board's officers, therefore, face a fairly heavy task during the next two months. During the first five months of 1955 they will have to make about 3 million reassessments of allowances which, I think hon. Members will agree, is a formidable task.
On the basis of the number of allowances in payment at the end of October, the increases in Assistance now proposed will cost about £14 million in a full year. On the other hand, the cost of Assistance will later be reduced—that is, in April—by a considerably greater amount as a result of the increases in pensions and insurance benefits.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards (Caerphilly)
Could the hon. Gentleman tell us what is the expected saving to the National Assistance Board after the payment of the increased insurance benefits?
§ Mr. Marples
I could not say offhand. I think the figure was given by my right hon. Friend in answer to a Question the other day. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman knows that that question has been asked several times in different ways by his hon. Friends and that the answer is on record.
I hope the House will approve these Regulations, for this reason. This is a more generous provision than we have ever had before. When we make comparisons, they can be made with many things. Comparisons can be made with what we would like to give people who are in need. They can be made with what we have given in the past, and they can be made with what economists think is possible fox the national economy to sustain. But compared with what has happened in the past, they are the most generous benefits of all time.
With that brief explanation, I hope the House will agree to approve these Regulations. Of one thing I am certain, and that is that hon. Members will have many aspects of National Assistance to raise, but I want to stress that this draft Order is not concerned with conditions. It is, like the National Insurance Bill, on which we have spent so much time in the last few weeks, connected purely with rates. For that reason I have not dealt with conditions, for they are outside the scope of the Regulations.
§ Mr. Marples
No, I did not say the debate. I said, "outside the scope of Regulations."
Hon. Members can raise many points dealing with the conditions with which I do not think it would be right or proper for the opening speaker to deal. I have, therefore, confined my remarks solely to what is the Regulations and I have dealt with the rates. As they are the most generous that we have yet, I hope the House will agree to them. I also express the hope that the debate will be wide and varied, so that my right hon. Friend who will reply tomorrow will have many questions to which I am sure he will give satisfactory answers.
§ 4.24 p.m.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards (Caerphilly)
The Parliamentary Secretary opened the debate in a manner which seemed to suggest that the Regulations ought not to 2456 cause very much fire, but I am afraid that he will be rather disappointed. He has taken these Regulations as a matter of course. He has summed up the matter by saying that 2½ million people will be better off. He then went on to tell us that they will be either 2s. or 2s. 6d. better off. He seemed to regard that as being quite adequate in the circumstances of the day. I was comparing in my mind his very quiet and restrained speech with the speech which was made at West Derby. Here was the most "stupendous alteration" in the field of social insurance.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
Yes, "Wait till you see it." Today, we are seeing it. The Minister of Defence blew himself up and promised all sorts of things, and even the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, on Saturday evening, did not show undue modesty in his broadcast. It has been left to the Parliamentary Secretary today to reduce the Government's "stupendous effort" to a very common place contribution.
I think we have had four debates this year on this matter, and that there have been two Motions of censure. Let us go back to what was said at West Derby by the Minister of Defence. He said:When you see the details of our proposals you will be satisfied that we have given a fair deal to these deserving people"—
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
Let me conclude the quotation—… who suffered more than any other section from the damage six years of Socialism inflicted on our economy.
§ Mr. J. N. Browne (Glasgow, Govan)
That was with reference to pensions and not to the National Assistance Board, which is not a Ministerial responsibility.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
If the hon. Gentleman will read the fullest report that I have been able to get—that was in the "Daily Telegraph"—he will find that the Minister of Defence was talking about the plight of the elderly people, without any distinction at all. But the people about whom we are talking today are also pensioners. We are to see how 2457 they have been treated. The right hon. Gentleman gave a promissory note to buy votes at West Derby.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
Yes, it was disgraceful. He promised something to these deserving people. Today, the Parliamentary Secretary has "blown the gaff." He said that they are to get either 2s. or 2s. 6d.
§ Mr. Browne
The right hon. Gentleman referred to a promissory note to buy votes at West Derby. The" Daily Herald" of 15th November said:… only victory for Labour there on Thursday will make it certain that the pension is raised quickly.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
The hon. Gentleman's party got the votes, but we will see how his party is honouring the promissory notes. We will see whether the new pension rates exist. We will see whether the cheques are "dud" ones or not.
Let me refer to the debate on the Motion of censure on 16th November. There, we had a speech by the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance. In reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham, West (Dr. Summerskill), he said:It may reasonably be asked why we did not take emergency action last summer, so that we could have increased pensions before Christmas off this year. Of course, if decency and humanity had demanded emergency action, then it would have been forthcoming without hesitation, as it was forthcoming in 1952 as soon as we took office.Then he said—this is most significant:But there really is no evidence at all of hardship which could not be avoided by recourse to the National Assistance Board.The right hon. Gentleman said that on 16th November. Did he know that at that time the National Assistance Board was considering bringing in revised rates? Was this a hint to the Board that the scales were adequate to meet hardship? The Board, apparently, was never informed—if one is to believe its memorandum—of what the increases in insurance benefits were to be. But it appeared on 16th November that the right hon. Gentleman himself thought that for 2½ million people hardship could be avoided on these scales.
Apparently, his view of the 16,000 was that there was no hardship which 2458 could not be met by Assistance Board scales. Exactly 10 days later the Board brought in the proposed Regulations to increase the scales in order to deal with hardship. That, surely, is a strange situation.
Also in that debate, the Minister of Defence—who was put up as he always is to make a performance when there is very little substance in debate—said:We know now that any cheques drawn in favour of the pensioners will be genuine cheques and will be met.He talked of the fast improving economy of the country and went on to say:… our national finances have improved. Our production is rising, we are earning more, we are saving more and we are spending more.Then he went on:We know now that any cheques drawn in favour of the pensioners will be genuine cheques and will be met."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th November, 1954; Vol. 533. c 241–338.]Today, we are to see how the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance deals with hardship. We are also to see whether the West Derby promissory notes are genuine or whether the cheques are "dud" ones. It will be part of my job to prove that they are, and I hope that I shall do so before I sit down.
The Parliamentary Secretary rightly said that more than 2½ million are covered by these Regulations. They are people drawing supplementation in one form or another, and there are 1,735,000 cases. Many of these cases represent more than one individual; in some cases three, four, or five individuals. Of the categories, as the hon. Gentleman said, there are 395,000 children, 1½ million old people—I take the figure in the Report, 1,400,000—and 252,000 sick, disabled, or injured persons in that 2½ million. We have to remember that under these Regulations we are dealing with the poorest people of the country. We are dealing with people who are judged to be the most needy. To the extent of more than 250,000 we are dealing with sick and injured people. These people have little defence and, very largely, they are those with the smallest resources.
The hon. Gentleman said that if these Regulations are passed they will come into operation on 7th February and that the further insurance benefits will come into operation on 21st April. I believe that some are to come into operation in 2459 May. I am not sure about that. I thought we would have a little more information about when all the rates are to come into operation and whether a date has yet been decided. This Father Christmas is three or four months late. I thought we might have been told when the sickness benefit rates were to come into operation. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will give us some information about that when he replies to the debate.
I will take three typical cases to see how this matter will operate. When the announcements were made newspapers came out with great headlines saying, "Eleven shillings for a couple, 7s. 6d. for the single man." Those were the increases which far too many elderly people were led to expect as a result of the presentation given in the Press. Equally, right hon. and hon. Members opposite gave priority in their speeches to the 7s. 6d. and the 11s., but it was fairly obvious in subsequent debates that some of them did not know anything at all about the 2s. 6d. or the 2s.
These three types of case will, roughly, cover 70 per cent, of the cases which come under the Assistance Board. A man and his wife paying 10s. a week rent with no resources other than the pension at present get 54s. old-age pension and 15s. supplementary pension. The total income is 69s. The hon. Member for Govan (Mr. J. N. Browne) will correct me if my arithmetic is not correct. Under these Regulations, on 7th February the needs scale will go up to 63s., but this couple will still get the present pension of 54s. and will get a new supplementary pension of 19s. making a total weekly income of 73s. In other words, they will be 4s. a week better off in the first week of February than they are now.
These are the benefits about which the Minister of Defence blew himself up and his right hon. Friend the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance expressed so much pride on Saturday evening. In the week ending 25th April the pension is to go up from 54s. to 65s. and the supplementary pension is to come down to 8s., so that they will have a total income of 73s.
I hope that these figures are accepted. As compared with 7th February, the 11s. promissory note turns out to be fraudulent. The cheque of 11s. in April is 2460 found, in February, to be not worth a penny. All these old people, under the National Assistance Board, will get new books in April. They will go to the Post Office with one book giving them 11s. and another book taking 11s. away. Is that the way to treat these deserving people?
§ Mr. Raymond Gower (Barry)
Has that not happened every time the basic rate of pensions has gone up without a recommendation by the National Assistance Board for an increase in assistance?
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
The hon. Member for Barry (Mr. Gower) has been in the House long enough to know that things are not quite so simple as that. Although he might find precedents, he will never find precedents so large as this, especially in view of the boasting of hon. Members opposite about this greatest extension in the field of social insurance.
Much of this has been misunderstood throughout the country. Take the case of a widow or widower living alone and paying 6s. rent. His or her only resources are the old-age pension, and 6s. rent is not an uncommon figure, because half the house is perhaps let to lodgers or as apartments to help with the rent. I am taking simply a normal case. This widow or widower now gets 32s. 6d. old-age pension and 8s. 6d. supplementary pension, giving a total income of £2 1s.
In the week of 7th February, the scale will go up and this pensioner will still get 32s. 6d. old-age pension, but 11s. supplementary pension. In other words, the supplementary pension will increase by 2s. 6d. In the week of 25th April, however, this widow or widower will get a 7s. 6d. increase in the basic pension, and will think, "This is all right. I have another 7s. 6d." But what happens? The widow or widower will get the new £2 old-age pension, but the supplementary pension will be cut from 11s. to 3s. 6d., and in comparison with the February rates the increase is not worth a penny. Is the cheque a "dud" or not? Is the promissory note to be honoured?
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
Let me take a third typical case. I am trying to be fair 2461 to what the Assistance Board is doing, and in making this analysis I am not shooting any stones at the Board's administration.
My third case is that of a widow of a man who has been killed in industry. Today, this widow gets 37s., and if she pays a rent of 12s., which is a typical figure for a mining valley cottage, although often the rent is higher, there will be a 10s. supplementary pension. In February, under the Regulations, the widow's position will be changed and she will get 12s. 6d. supplementary pension; so that whereas she now gets 47s., she will then get 49s. 6d.
In April—I do not know on what date, because I have not been told—this widow will get a 7s. 6d. increase in basic pension to the new figure of 44s. 6d., but all of this will be taken from her supplementary pension and she will get a new supplementary pension of 4s. 6d. Her income in April, therefore, will be exactly the same as in February, although she will have had a 7s. 6d. increase.
I ask hon. Members on both sides who are interested in the disabled soldiers to apply this reasoning to them also. A disabled soldier now gets his 54s. retirement pension. I assume that he gets 22s. war pension, and a supplementary pension of 13s., making a total of 89s. In April, after going through all this rigmarole, he will get an 11s. increase in retirement pension and a 5s. increase in his war pension, but he will be only 4s. better off. That is the benefit to him of the cheque for 16s. When he comes to present his promissory note, it will be worth only 4s. This is not fair play for these deserving people, and I cannot understand how the Minister of Pensions can justify this sort of playing about with the needs of the old people and of the sick and the wounded. If ever there was a cynical indifference to their needs, this is it.
The Parliamentary Secretary said that the increased cost as a result of the scale increases will be roughly £14 million a year; that is the estimate given by the Assistance Board. But I have not yet seen the Board's estimate of the savings. The hon. Gentleman is so familiar with it, apparently, that he does not have the figure with him. I should like to know precisely what the Assistance Board 2462 thinks it will save as a result of this major operation.
If an increase in the scales of 2s. 6d. for single persons and 4s. 6d. for married couples will result in an extra £14 million outlay, surely the bringing in of reductions of 7s. 6d. and 11s. attributable to additional resources must result in a saving of about £30 million.
It looks to me as though the Assistance Board will have its burden reduced by roughly two to three times the cost of the scale increases. On the whole operation, therefore, the new scales will result in a saving through the Assistance Board of £16 million a year, or sufficient to have doubled the present increase in the scales without costing the Government another penny.
The position is worse than that when we take the overall picture. How does this biggest and boldest operation in the pensions field work out financially? It works out in this way: that the cost of the new insurance benefit rates falling on the Exchequer is £25 million, according to the Minister of Pensions. I was rather surprised the other night to hear the Financial Secretary to the Treasury say, when reading his brief, that it was £21 million. I do not care whether it is £21 million or £25 million, but the hon. Gentleman is supposed to know his business. Yet that was the figure he gave from his brief and he stuck to it. Under the National Assistance Regulations, on the poorest and the weakest the Assistance Board saves a net amount of £16 million, and toward the cost of this boldest operation in the field of social insurance the workers will pay nearly £50 million a year more in contributions.
The Exchequer will pay £5 million if we take the figures of the Financial Secretary, or £9 million if we take the figures of the Minister of Pensions, while the workers will pay nearly £50 million. And the Tories boast about the help they are giving to the needy and deserving. What they have done is to shift the burden from the Exchequer on to the shoulders of the men in industry, many of whom are being called upon to pay more for pensions for some people than the money they themselves earn.
The Minister of Pensions said, in his broadcast, that he hated to see deserving people having to go to get help. I almost took out my handkerchief. Who is 2463 stopped from going to the National Assistance Board to get help by this stupendous operation? Has the Minister saved anybody from going there? Are the old-age pensioners now relieved of the obligation to go to the Assistance Board? I would say that 95 per cent, of the people who go to the Assistance Board today will, if they are alive then, go to the Board next April. Has the right hon. Gentleman stopped one from going there? If he has stopped one, perhaps he will explain what category of person he has saved from going to the Board by this operation.
The Parliamentary Secretary made no attempt to justify the size of this increase in the scale. Why did he not do so? Is there no justification for it? Why did the hon. Gentleman let it go by default. Surely it is the responsibility of the Minister to explain the reasons for the size of the improvement and to attempt to justify it. He has done nothing of the kind. I suppose he takes the attitude that this is a matter for the Board itself, but I should have thought he would have compared this increase with other increases.
The Minister quoted the number of increases, but he should have gone a little further. In 1950, when the Interim Index of Retail Prices went up six points, we had increases of 3s. 6d. and 2s. In 1951, with an increase of 11 points in the Index, there were increases of 6s. 6d. and 4s. In 1952, with an increase of 10 points, there were increases of 9s. and 5s. Now, with an increase of nine points, we get a proposal for 4s. 6d. and 2s. 6d. It is the smallest proportional increase in relation to the increased cost of living in the history of the National Assistance Board. Why? There has been no attempt to justify the size of the increase in relation to the rise in the cost of living.
§ Mr. J. N. Browne
Has the right hon. Gentleman taken into account the fact that the previous increase to 35s. went further and went faster than the cost of living went up? Surely we must take the two together, and not the last one in isolation.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
I presume, therefore, that we should join this one to the previous three increases? Where do we draw the line? After all, old-age pensioners do not live on statistics on comparison with the remotest past. What 2464 they are looking at is what they are getting today and what they will get tomorrow, as the hon. Gentleman himself said when he quoted the letter from an elderly lady in Glasgow. I wonder what kind of a letter she would write him if she was one of the 2½ million? It would be one, probably, that the hon. Gentleman would not quote in this House.
I say that the whole structure of National Insurance and the coping stone of these National Assistance Regulations has been the biggest piece of political trickery in this field which I have seen since I have been in the House. Talk about electioneering tactics; this is electioneering tactics. Talk about the cheques that were to be real cheques; the cheques are "dud" cheques. The West Derby promissory notes will turn out in April of next year to be "dud" notes, fraudulent notes, which ought never to have been submitted to the people of this country.
§ 4.57. p.m.
§ Mr. J. N. Browne (Glasgow, Govan)
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) has done very well in making bricks without straw. He knows just as well as I know the injustice of some of the points he was making. I do not think either side of the House wants to make a point about electioneering, but since the right hon. Gentleman mentioned that, he will remember that the pension remained exactly the same throughout the life of the Labour Government and was only partially increased when they went to the country in 1951.
The right hon. Gentleman is not clear about the difference between National Assistance and National Insurance, and, by confusing the two, he has made a case that cannot stand up when examined. Until today we have been considering National Insurance; National Assistance is an altogether different issue and has to be treated as such. For example, the right hon. Gentleman quoted my right hon. Friend the Minister of Pensions as saying that there was no evidence of hardship which could not be dealt with by recourse to the National Assistance Board. Then the right hon. Gentleman complained that the National Assistance rates went up shortly afterwards. As he knows perfectly well, my right hon. Friend was referring there to the case for National Insurance.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
I know the hon. Gentleman can read as well as write, so surely he can read the quotation, which was as follows:But there really is no evidence at all of hardship which could not be avoided by recourse to the National Assistance Board."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th November, 1954; Vol. 533, c. 241.]The Minister was obviously referring to the National Assistance Board provision as being adequate to meet hardship. If he did not mean that, he meant nothing at all.
§ Mr. Browne
That is all right, but what does the right hon. Gentleman expect? Does he expect the Government to wait until there is proved evidence of hardship before the National Assistance scales are raised—because that is what he is suggesting. It is for the Board and not the Minister to do this. I am sure that everyone, on both sides of the House, trusts the National Assistance Board to look after those for whom it is responsible.
The right hon. Gentleman went on to quote examples. I was able to check his examples extremely well, because all but one were in the "Daily Herald" this morning. So there is nothing very original in his speech. He referred to a "fraudulent 11s. promissory note." That is the sort of phrase one reads in the "Daily Herald" and hears elsewhere, which should be answered. This was a promissory note for 11s. as a right, without a means test. The right hon. Gentleman quoted the case of someone being given 7s. 6d. and yet being no better off. But that person will be getting 7s. 6d. as a right and can now leave the National Assistance Board. Surely that is a step in the right direction.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
Does the hon. Member think that an old-age pensioner who is given one book containing an 11s. increase and another book containing a 7s. decrease regards that as decent treatment and as honouring the pledge?
§ Mr. Browne
In my experience, in my area, with old-age pensioners on National Assistance, the answer to that question is that they understand it. I found no difficulty when the 2s. 6d. increase was made. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that in my part of the world the majority understand it, and those who do not, quickly have it explained to them 2466 by those who do. I think that in the areas of some of my hon. Friends, as well as of some hon. Members opposite, it is not understood.
The article which the right hon. Gentleman wrote in the "Daily Herald" formed the basis of his speech. That is very handy. I have done the same thing myself. In the article he gave three examples of the benefit of increased pensions to those drawing higher rates of National Assistance. I would say, first of all, that one of his figures is wrong. He wrote:After all this juggling to keep the books straight,' how much better off will the two-and-a-quarter million people be? Perhaps 2s. a week, perhaps 4s.
§ Mr. Browne
I had hoped that I could say that it was a clerical error, but the right hon. Gentleman in his speech said:"2s. or 2s. 6d." The difference is 6d.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
Previously I asked the hon. Member whether he could read. I now ask whether he can count. After all, 4s. for two people is 2s. each. The figure is 2s. 6d. for a single person and 4s. for the couple.
§ Mr. Browne
I thank the hon. Member. I made my first point and I withdraw my second point. But 6d., in this clerical error, is a lot of money.
§ Mr. Browne
I sat through four days of a previous debate listening to hon. Members opposite explain what terrible things the Government were doing about Id. a week. We cannot so lightly brush off the effect of the 2s. 6d. increase. Those hon. Members who brush it off do not realise that a 7 per cent, increase is quite important and that people who get 2s. 6d. more will appreciate it.
What the right hon. Gentleman is saying is that he does not like what are the inescapable consequences of the present system. We have both National Insurance and National Assistance. It may be that we do not like it, but we are stuck with it and there is nothing we can do about it. I should like to read to the House the last paragraph of the right hon. Gentleman's article, because it is a gem:These examples are typical of the result of the implementation of the Tory Government 2467 promises. This is the Tories' idea of a fair deal for the 2¼ million people who come under the Assistance Board Regulations. Anyone concerned with the well-being of the aged people of Britain cannot give approval to this bit of intended electioneering by the Tory Party.What does the right hon. Gentleman want to do? He wants us to believe that this arrangement, which is the inescapable consequence of the law as it stands, is very unsatisfactory to the pensioners, and then he pretends at the same time that this is a piece of electioneering. He is talking about National Insurance again, not about the National Assistance. I ask him this: he has criticised us for nearly half-an-hour, but what is his alternative? I know that the Opposition say, "It is not up to us to give an alternative"; but there must be an alternative, and I must try to think what is in the right hon. Gentleman's mind. Perhaps he wants the National Assistance Board rates to exceed a reasonable subsistence allowance. In that event, he must consult the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the country as a whole. We believe, as do any right hon. and hon. Members who have been in contact with their constituencies, that the rates are good now.
§ Mr. Harold Wilson (Huyton)
The hon. Member should realise that these scales will have to go up a great deal more than what is proposed at present before they become too high in relation to present subsistence costs. The hon. Member seems to want some figures to consider. Will he tell us why he is not pressing his own Government to increase the National Assistance scales this time to an amount equal to the increase in the basic pension?
§ Mr. Browne
What I think the right hon. Gentleman is saying is the second point which I was about to make: does he want National Assistance to run hand in hand with pensions all the time? If he does, that is a policy, it is the inescapable result of what he is suggesting. But is it what the House wants and what the country wants? Surely the obligation under National Assistance is to give a reasonable subsistence rate—which means that we do not wait until people are starving or hardship is proved before it is increased but which gives enough and no more than a reasonable amount. But the responsibility of 2468 National Insurance is to give the old people a share in the country's prosperity, and we do not want to put a limit on National Insurance.
§ Mr. Browne
The right hon. Gentleman made this point in his speech; he said there was enough saving to have double the proposed increase in the scale. What he was suggesting was that pensions and National Assistance would have the same basic level. According to the way in which he is thinking we shall never get the National Assistance figures down or the number of people on National Assistance. I am sure that is not what the nation wants. The National Assistance Board does its job in a wonderful way and we hope it will continue to do so, but surely we want people to be given money as a right and not to have to go through a means test, which is the only alternative suggestion which the right hon. Gentleman has made.
The other possibility is the reverse situation. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting an increase in National Assistance without being very keen on increasing the pensions. I do not think he would suggest that. But apart from the alternatives which I have outlined, no intelligent suggestion has been made from the benches opposite. I do not agree with the alternative that, as a matter of policy, the National Assistance scale should be the same as the National Insurance scale.
The truth is, of course, that these changes will to some extent reduce the number of people who have to go to the National Assistance Board—and that is something at which we all ought to aim. The right hon. Gentleman will remember that in 1946, when the National Insurance pension was 26s., the National Assistance rate was only £1, so that we still have some way to go with National Insurance. It is far better to try to keep people off National Assistance and to increase National Insurance benefits than to do anything to keep people on National Assistance.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
Can the hon. Gentleman cite a single case which will be removed from National Assistance as a result of these changes?
§ Mr. Browne
Subject to correction, the right hen. Gentleman himself cited a case of a lady receiving 7s. 6d. and being no better off. Unquestionably there will be cases which will come off National Assistance, but we will leave the facts to the Board's report. The point is that this is the sixth rise since 1946. The 2s. 6d. will be very welcome indeed. Things were getting a little tight and the Board acted properly and correctly. The present National Assistance Board rates are not at subsistence level, but slightly above subsistence level, as everybody who knows anything about it already knows. It is no good hon. Members saying "Tut-tut." It is absolutely true.
§ Mr. J. N. Browne
It is not nonsense. People are not as well off on National Assistance as we should like to see them, but at least today they have better purchasing power than ever before and that is something of which we can be proud. The country's problem is not National Assistance; it is National Insurance. I have no hesitation whatever in welcoming these Regulations and asking the House to pass them.
§ 5.10 p.m.
§ Mr. James Carmichael (Glasgow, Bridgeton)
I was surprised at the observations of the hon. Member for Govan (Mr. J. N. Browne). Some years ago he made great play from the Opposition benches with a widow's budget and with an old couple's budget. I was expecting that, having made some inquiries in his own constituency among old people, he would today have quoted the cost of living and an old person's budget. But he made no reference to them. He is quite satisfied that old people are above the subsistence level. What does he regard as a subsistence level?
§ Mr. J. N. Browne
It is a level which I for one would have nothing to do with; but technically subsistence level is only enough to keep body and soul together, plus rent. None of us wants to see that.
§ Mr. Carmichael
The hon. Member wants to keep them at a poverty level.
I want to raise three points, shortly to deal with the Regulations, with the scales and with some observations about the Treasury. The Regulations have always disturbed me. At no time whatever are we allowed to amend the scales. When National Assistance came into operation, we were told it was a great advance on the conduct of the local authorities.
In many parts of the country people were subject to a very small scale, but not in the great industrial centres where they had a reasonable scale. If a local authority came forward with a new scale, it could be amended as one desired. Even in this House when the Finance Bill is introduced, if anybody is uneasy about Purchase Tax, we can apply to amend it. We are here dealing with the lives of the poorest people in the community, but we are not allowed to amend one single scale.
I want to deal with one point of the Regulations touching upon subsistence level. To get clothing from the Assistance Board is a bit tighter now than a few years ago, because, with all due respect to the present Board, the former Chairman knew the poverty of the common people better than anyone else on the Board.
§ Mr. Browne
In fairness to the past Chairman, he is still acting on the Board and co-operating with the present Chairman. We still have the benefit of his wise advice.
§ Mr. Carmichael
Yes, but he has been considerably demoted. I do not say this in any disparaging way, but the present Chairman was put there by the present Government to economise the scale.
§ Mr. Carmichael
I will prove it as I go along.
"Exceptional needs" are the two most shocking words in the Regulations. I know from my own experience in the Bridgeton area that the officers there are exceptional people. They are tolerant and broad minded. But I have been at offices in many parts of Glasgow where I have asked why people have been refused clothing grants. I have been told by the officials that an old fellow's jacket 2471 will last a bit longer and that the shoes he is wearing are not yet finished. When we abolished the Poor Law, I thought we abolished the most abnoxious word associated with Poor Law—destitution. When competent people who have had an education draw up a report and say that a jacket can last a little longer, it is evidence that they know it is in a very bad state when they say that it will last only a little longer.
The Government should bring in a Bill to give us an opportunity of amending the scales from time to time instead of the House having to accept or reject the Regulations. I know something about this problem, because I was on public assistance for 17 years. Prior to that I was a minor official in the Glasgow parish council. We did not give scales and ask the old people, or the sick, to purchase their clothing from those scales. Every year we spent hundreds of thousands of pounds in Glasgow clothing the people, and we used money outside those scales.
§ Mr. Browne
Does the hon. Member realise that whereas Glasgow people are prepared to accept help in kind, in other towns, such as Liverpool, they would be very insulted indeed at an offer that Glasgow people were glad to accept, namely, that clothing should be provided?
§ Mr. Carmichael
Does the hon. Member say that people with a meagre scale, living in rags and in deep poverty, would not accept decent clothing?
§ Mr. Carmichael
If those are the facts regarding Liverpool, I still maintain the conditions of the Glasgow people under public assistance 20 years ago are far better than under National Assistance today. The hon. Member is inferring that they were less dignified than the people of Liverpool.
§ Mr. Browne
I quite agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about Glasgow and how good were the arrangements. But the National Assistance Board has to see things on a national and not a local scale, and that is one of the difficulties of giving emoluments in kind.
§ Mr. Carmichael
I was a Member on the Standing Committee which dealt with the Bill. That was one of the unfortunate things. Some people recalled the old Poor Law days, the giving in kind. They thought in terms of margarine tickets. Though people were given the full scale, it was impossible to provide for clothing and the other necessities of life.
§ Mr. J. A. Sparks (Acton)
Is my hon. Friend aware that in some cases the National Assistance Board is referring people in need of clothing to the Women's Voluntary Service? They have to select secondhand clothing, and if they fail to do so the grants are withdrawn.
§ Mr. Carmichael
I have often thought that Scotland is pretty far in advance of England. They would not dare to attempt that kind of thing in Glasgow, not only because of hon. Members who represent Glasgow constituencies in this House, but because the ordinary decent people in Glasgow would rebel against it.
From the Regulations there is a strong case to be made for re-examining the whole approach to National Assistance. It is the Poor Law in operation again. As was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks) people have to go to charity organisations. That is the Poor Law again, and hon. Members argue about a means test—
§ Mr. Carmichael
By February the National Assistance scales will go up to 63s. The last time there was an increase was in June, 1952, two years ago. Is any hon. Member prepared to suggest that the cost of living can be measured by that 4s.? The insurance scale will be 65s. for a couple and 63s. for those on National Assistance. A single person will receive 37s. 6d. He has an increase of 2s. 6d.—and the hon. Member for Govan says they are very proud and happy to get that 2s. 6d. It will be 40s. under the National Insurance.
For as long as I can remember the public assistance scales in Scotland were always ahead of unemployment benefit. 2473 Even in the bad old days, when there were a great number of unemployed in Glasgow receiving the full unemployment benefit, they could get an augmentation from public assistance. It is true that there was a means test, but there were hundreds on the rolls. This is the first time—apart from the period in 1940 when we were transferring to the new National Insurance scheme when there was a slight gap—that public assistance and National Assistance has not been ahead of National Insurance.
§ Mr. Carmichael
I am not addressing myself directly to the hon. Member, but I think I have given him enough already—
§ Mr. Browne
I apologise for interrupting the hon. Member again, but let us get the facts right. National Assistance was below pensions, from 1946, 1948 and 1950, and only drew level in 1951.
§ Mr. Carmichael
The whole purpose of National Assistance was to augment incomes that were too low. This is the first time there has had to be a cut. If I am correct, the only people who will suffer are the sick, and those little shopkeepers in old age who have not been in business sufficiently long to obtain insurance.
In the White Paper on the Regulations the Minister states:For existing cases the increases in assistance now proposed would cost about £14 million in a full year.That is in February, if there is no other alteration in the scaling. But by April, the National Insurance at least will wipe out a great percentage of the people at present receiving National Assistance. The Minister ends the paragraph by saying that there will be a saving, through National Assistance,… but the sum cannot toe estimated until the amounts by which the pensions etc. are to be increased are decided.In other words, the Minister did not publish this White Paper without having a good idea of the actual saving. He knew the increase he was giving to the pensioners; the number of people who will be taken off National Assistance and 2474 the millions of pounds which will be saved by the Treasury.
During the last two years the Treasury has been pressing every Minister associated with the social services. A few weeks ago I put a Question to the Minister of Health and to the Secretary of State for Scotland asking the amount of money paid privately for prescriptions. The total sum is in the region of £8 million for the year 1953–54. That is a saving to the Treasury. Having listened to the debate on National Insurance, I think in the main the contributors are the only people paying for the increased contribution. The amount paid by the Government is not in keeping with previous allocations. The same thing applies to National Assistance.
There again millions will be saved. It is the old story, that they are gradually cutting into the Welfare State.
§ Mr. Carmichael
Yes. There is a saving of £8 million from the Health Service, probably £9 million in this financial year. As has been said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) there will be a saving of millions because of the encroachment on National Insurance.
Yesterday I read something in the Press about the Royal Yacht. It has already cost over £3 million to build. It is going to cross from this side of the Atlantic to the other, which will mean the expenditure of further thousands of pounds. It will pick up the essential passenger on the other side of the Atlantic. The whole thing will cost millions of pounds. Two weeks ago the Estimates Committee made a statement referring to the expenditure incurred abroad by the Foreign Office.
Apparently it is all right to spend hundreds and thousands of pounds upon cocktail parties, but when we consider giving a few shillings to the destitute and the poor, hon. Members opposite adopt the attitude that the poor will always be with us. If it is possible by legislation to keep the poor with us we can depend upon the Conservative Government to do it. I hope that the hon. Member for Govan will go to his own constituency and tell the people there they ought to be proud of him and happy to know they are getting half-a-crown extra after two years during which the cost of living has continually increased.
§ 5.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Kenneth Thompson (Liverpool, Walton)
I wish to preface my remarks with a few words of congratulation and compliment to the National Assistance Board. It is very easy for hon. Members on either side of the House to indulge in facile blackguarding of political parties, and it is not very difficult to write defamatory newspaper articles about the motive of one's opponents, but I think that most hon. Members, and all people who are engaged in public life, in however modest a sphere, recognise that the work done by the officers of the National Assistance Board and the spirit in which it is done merit the highest praise and commendation from us all.
There cannot be a Member of this House, or of a public authority, or voluntary organisation, who has not had experience of the broad and generous humanity, timely understanding and gentle sympathy with which the officers of the National Assistance Board handle the day-to-day material which makes up their life's work. We are all indebted to them for the way in which they do that job. It is easy to cite cases of seeming hardship. It is quite easy to cite cases where National Assistance Board officers—I think without impropriety—may have directed an applicant to take advantage of some of the other resources available to those in need.
There is nothing wrong in the efforts of the Women's Voluntary Services to help those in need. There is nothing improper in somebody who needs something taking advantage of some provision which is made to meet that need. There is nothing wrong about voluntary effort, from wherever it comes and whatever need it is designed to meet.
§ Mr. Marples
My hon. Friend will remember the invaluable help that was given by the W.V.S. during the time of the floods.
§ Mr. Carmichael
No reference has been made by hon. Members on this side of the House to the work of the W.V.S. Our point was that the officers of the National Assistance Board have told applicants to go to the W.V.S. without dealing with the cases themselves.
§ Mr. Thompson
I was hoping to be allowed to get to that part of the matter without too much delay. If it is true that 2476 the statutory provision against poverty and destitution is withheld, as suggested by the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Carmichael), because there may be another form of relief for need, I suggest that that represents a departure from the intention of the House. I believe that our intention is that need of that kind should be met by statutory provision, and that other relief should be supplementary to it. In my experience within my constituency and the wider area of the City of Liverpool, I have never met the type of case to which the hon. Member for Shettleston has referred.
§ Mr. Thompson
I am obliged. So great is my admiration of all the hon. Members who represent Scottish constituencies that I tend to carry their names in a jumble in my mind.
§ Mr. H. Wilson rose—
§ Mr. Thompson
My admiration does not necessarily extend to hon. Members representing constituencies in and around Liverpool.
§ Mr. Wilson
I wonder if the hon. Member would come back from Scotland to his own area of Liverpool, and say whether he has seen the report of some medical practitioners in Liverpool, which says that in the very recent past there were 39 cases of people suffering from illness and malnutrition due to lack of sufficient money. These medical practitioners found that anyone spending less than 12s. 6d. a week on food was suffering from malnutrition.
§ Mr. Thompson
Yes. I was coming to the question of the payments made for the ordinary run of need among those who find it necessary to go to the National Assistance Board for assistance to meet that need.
We must remember that the regulations with which we are concerned are entirely separate from the National Insurance pensions provisions which we were debating two or three days ago. We are now dealing with what I hope I may refer to without offending anyone as the residual need, after all the calculable risks and hazards of normal life have been accounted for so far as it lies within human ingenuity to do so.
2477 We are dealing with those whose need is outside the ordinary insurance arrangements which we have been able to make for the hazards of industrial life, the approach of old age, normal sickness, and so on. Here we are dealing with a set of cases which can vary as between every one of a thousand, and produce the kind of situation to which the right hon. Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson) has just referred, where there can be real need, in the sense that there is not enough food available out of this small payment to provide the necessary standard of life to maintain good health. But there is nothing original about this. It is not the first time that this situation has occurred. It is not the first time that its presence has been recognised.
The National Assistance Board, apart from its rent allowances, basic payments, and casual payments for clothes which may be needed from time to time, has authority, delegated to it by this House, to meet special need by discretionary payments. Discretionary payments have been made, and will continue to be made, on as generous a scale as is necessary to relieve that special need. In those circumstances there should be no need for any person in this land to find himself unable to buy the necessary amount of food to maintain himself in physical good health.
We are all aware that some people do not like to go to the Assistance Board, and there ought to go out from this House an assurance to all those who are in need—whatever the cause of their need and whatever their state of mind—that if their resources are so limited that they cannot maintain themselves in good health, in decent accommodation, and properly clad, they should go to the National Assistance Board and seek to have their resources supplemented by a discretionary payment, or by some similar means.
The right hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards), who opened the attack upon these Regulations, made great play about what he considered to be the political motives behind the action of Her Majesty's Ministers in framing them. Here was the Minister of Defence, and my right hon. Friend the; Minister of Pensions, making all sorts of promises about what the Tory Party and the Government were going to do. Here was West Derby, dragged again into the 2478 forum of pension debates, which has been carried on as a serial story both upon the Floor of this House and elsewhere for too long a time.
Here were all sorts of political motives being imputed to my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench and those of us who support them as to what we were really trying to do in introducing increases in pensions and in the scales of National Assistance. It seems to me Chat this party has been more careful in endeavouring to avoid the political charges that have been made against us than have our predecessors at any time, so much so that it seems to me that there is very little political kudos for this party in these increases in pensions and in supplementary payments by the National Assistance Board that we are now making.
It lies ill in the mouth of a leading speaker from the Opposition Front Bench to charge the Government with having a wicked object in mind in introducing these new proposals, both in regard to the pensions provisions which we discussed a few days ago, and the National Assistance payments increases which we are now debating. Indeed, we have endeavoured throughout to avoid that.
That criticism, from a party which so arranged matters that, when they did manage after a very long time to come to the relief of the old-age pensioners, or some of them, the new pensions books dropped through their letter boxes coincidental with the arrival of the election addresses of the Labour candidates in the 1951 election, seems to me to be a most extraordinary acrobatic feat of reasoning. We have tried to avoid that.
The right hon. Gentleman made a great deal of play about the fact that not only had we made promises, as he said with political objectives, but we had failed to carry them out. He said that the promissory notes or cheques which we had issued were without value, and he quoted a number of cases which showed that one of the effects of raising statutory pensions payments is that when those who have been drawing assistance in supplementation of their pensions go along for supplementary payments some time later, they will find that the supplement has been reduced because the pension had earlier been increased.
2479 What is new about that? Where did this great principle emanate from? This is no wicked Tory device to take the crumbs out of the mouths of those who need supplementary payments. This is written into the law of the land, and we are not responsible for it. We have to apply the legislation as we find it, and surely the right hon. Gentleman is on entirely improper ground in suggesting, as he clearly did, that this was simply a device of the Conservative Party to secure some political fame on the one hand without having to find any of the resources to meet the need on the other.
Moreover, the right hon. Gentleman went further in his intellectual gymnastics. He endeavoured to prove that, when somebody goes in February next for an increase in these assistance payments and actually draws an increase according to the new Regulations, he will find later, in April, when he comes to draw his increased pension, that the total that was promised will no longer be added to what he will be drawing in April. The truth of the matter is, as the right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, that the first part of the increase in the National Assistance payments was given two years ago, when assistance payments for the first time were placed ahead of insurance payments in size. From then on, assistance payments were larger in size than insurance payments.
Secondly, by providing the first of the increases for the poorest of all and those whose need is greatest at the earliest date, that is to say, in February, we do not do them an injury, but instead confer a benefit. It seems to me that the right hon. Gentleman opposite, being perfectly well aware of this, ought at any rate to have added that to the explanation which he gave of the so-called wicked and tortuous workings of the Tory mind.
The people about whom we are speaking today are not only poor people, but very often quite simple, ordinary people who are not in possession of the detailed knowledge of regulations which some hon. Members of this House command. They are not able to see all the details of debates that take place in this House, and are not able to avail themselves of detailed knowledge of the working of the laws of this country. It is, therefore, entirely improper that hon. and right hon. 2480 Gentlemen opposite should so abuse their position to take advantage of that fact and to cause these people to believe that they are being "sold down the river," to use a colloquialism, by those who are responsible for their welfare.
From the insurance Regulations which we introduced a little while ago, and again in respect of the assistance Regulations now before us, we are entitled to say that where need exists in this country, it shall be met, and shall be met on as generous a scale as possible. I believe that this House will have no difficulty in supporting the Regulations that are now before us.
§ 5.46 p.m.
§ Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent, South)
These new scales of National Assistance are a further contribution towards Britain's retreat from the acceptance of freedom from want. The retreat started with devaluation, and it has taken many forms in the British economy, in administration and in regulations, since the day of devaluation. The effects of this retreat, it is true, are felt only by a very small number of our people.
They are mainly the fixed income group—the old-age pensioners, the unemployed, the sick, the injured workers, and especially those who have to apply for National Assistance. Continued full employment is covering the full effects of the retreat, which, as a result, have not yet shown themselves to the extent which they will do. Full employment can be maintained in a prison.
At least 150 hon. Members of this House—a large number have said that they feel uneasy and very concerned about these scales—have put down a Motion on the Order Paper. A similar Motion was placed on the Order Paper in July, indicating the seriousness of the position of the people about whom we are speaking tonight. This Motion appeals to the Government to withdraw these scales and Regulations, and asks them to consult the National Assistance Board in order to reconsider the proposals at present before us. I am convinced that, if this House had been full, this uneasiness would have reflected itself, and I am hoping that there is still time for the Minister to say that he will withdraw these scales in order to give further consideration to them.
2481 The present Prime Minister, speaking on 16th May, 1947, said this:We seek to establish a minimum standard of life and labour below which no one who is prepared to meet the obligations of good citizenship should be allowed to fall.I want to ask the Minister if he will answer that when he replies to the debate. Does he consider that these scales fulfil the promise made to the people of this country by the Prime Minister in that speech?
I propose to quote a number of extracts from a speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, West (Mr. J. T. Hall) on 19th March last. It is a change to be able to quote from speeches made by people who have a long history in particular areas within the working-class movement. They have firsthand experience and great knowledge of the people for whom we are speaking tonight as a result of years of work on their behalf. My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, West is one of these people.
In the debate on 19th March, hon. Members on both sides of the House pooled their ideas and experiences about the present position. It is greatly to the credit of hon. Members that, as a result of that pooling of experiences and knowledge, the Minister accepted the Motion then before the House. There was complete unanimity, and the Minister gave an undertaking that the Government would really consider what had been said during the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) also made his contribution, as did other hon. Members with similar great experience.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, West said:I honestly believe that this section of the Community is having a harder struggle to live than it has had for the past 20 years. … I was a member of the county Public Assistance committee and in those days before the war we allowed 30s. 9d. a week for a couple on Public Assistance with a 5s. addition for rent. This scale operated from 1934 onwards until the war years … The scale of 30s. 9d. before the war was better than the 59s. at present received by a person under National Assistance… Before the war the average wage rate was £2 4s. and now it is £7 5s., so that wage rates have advanced by about 300 per cent. Out the other hand, comparing present day figures with the old Poor Law system, which catered for nearly all the old age pensioners before the war, we find that their subsistance allowance has increased by only 100 per cent. … I believe that the Government have made the position much worse by the 2482 reduction of food subsidies and the abolition of price control."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 19th March, 1954; Vol. 525, c. 821–2.]I have purposely quoted extracts from that speech, because, in my view, it is time that this movement in particular had regard to those who have built it up and who know what the people are going through—what they are thinking, and what their needs are—and who reflect those things in this House. Those of us who knew the Poor Law system with its criminal administration can never forget it.
I can never forget meeting, in 1931, a man in Longton who had lost a leg in the First World War. He told me how he had been treated by the Northrop brothers in Longton, who in those days administered the Poor Law. I was so indignant that I sat among the applicants, having tried to hide my identity, and watched what was taking place. I saw enough to enable me to approach the officials with confidence, because what the man had told me was confirmed by what I had seen with my own eyes.
It was against that background that we welcomed the introduction of the National Assistance scheme, with its new scales, its new disregards—I hope that hon. Members will emphasise the importance of the disregards—the sympathetic administration and the courtesy of the officials of the National Assistance Board. We were delighted when we received concrete evidence of the great change which had been brought about.
The National Assistance Board, especially in the great industrial areas, had built up a good name among the people, but that is now beginning to change. These scales will accelerate that change. It is because of that knowledge that I was forced to take action as soon as I saw the proposed scales being introduced.
Some of us are active members of trades councils, of federations, and of regional areas where regular conferences are held in connection with this matter, and at which we are able to hear the views of men like my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, West. There are others who are as able as any of us, but who have not yet had an opportunity of playing their part in this House. 2483 However, they are playing their part in the localities, in the local organisations, and in the trade union branches, and when ones hears them relating their experiences, one cannot help but be concerned when proposals of this character are put before us.
Here is an indication of the contrast. The new Chairman of the National Assistance Board was noted in this House for his advocacy of economy. Every right hon. and hon. Member knows that to be true. That traditional policy of the Tory Party is now being applied at the expense of the people for whom we are appealing, by way of new interpretations, the tightening up of administration, and by no addition being made to the disregards, in spite of the change in values.
My wife said to me last night, "Whatever you do, stress that for all you are worth." She is in touch with the local people in the shops, in the guilds, and in the various movements with which she is connected. It is because we can see this traditional policy again being applied to the working classes in particular, and especially to the poorer sections, that we are bound to speak in this way.
§ Squadron Leader A. E. Cooper (Ilford, South)
Sir Geoffrey Hutchinson, who is the present Chairman of the National Assistance Board, was a colleague of mine and the hon. Member for Ilford, North. He is not able tonight to defend himself against what I might call the unwarranted charge which the hon. Member levels against him. Sir Geoffrey Hutchinson served the people of Ilford faithfully for many years, and to such an extent that when he ceased to be their Member in this House the citizens of Ilford made him a freeman of the borough in recognition of the great services which he had rendered to all sections of the people.
§ Mr. Ellis Smith
If the hon. and gallant Gentleman holds the new Chairman of the National Assistance Board in such high regard, and if he was a colleague of his, then I do not resent his interjection at all Indeed, I am glad that he has made it. I remember Sir Geoffrey Hutchinson sitting on the benches opposite, and I remember the group with which he was associated. If anyone attacks me because of my political opinions, I do not blame them. They are 2484 entitled to do that. This is a democracy and we are all entitled to state our views and to speak according to our experience.
I know that it is very difficult to separate an attack on an individual from an attack on his policy, and, therefore, I hope that the hon. and gallant Gentleman will make allowances in that respect. Let me assure him that from my knowledge of Sir Geoffrey Hutchinson, I got the impression that he was a straightforward man of great integrity. But he differed from me fundamentally in his political outlook and in dealing with the people, and it is from that basis that I am now speaking.
I must say that I was surprised when an hon. Friend of mine, in an interjection a few minutes ago, said that in London—and this was substantiated by other hon. Friends of mine from other parts of the country—applicants are now being referred to the W.V.S. I hope that is not true, but if it is, then it is further concrete evidence in support of what I am saying.
The Poor Law standard in this country was disgraceful, with the exception of areas like Poplar, Durham, and South Wales, and, to a less extent, Blackpool. We welcomed the improvements that were made up to 1952 on those low standards. I shall produce figures showing the comparative values of the gross national product from 1946 to 1953. This was 71 per cent. higher in 1953 than it was in 1946. The consumer price level had risen by 46 per cent. in the same period.
On the other hand, the pension level—this is what many hon. Members and people in the country tend to forget—did not keep pace with that change. The poorest of the poor are entitled to share in the increased national income and the improvement of standards. It is the industrial areas which, in the main, help to increase the national income. People who are suffering through no fault of their own ought to share in that increase.
In 1953, the percentage increase over the 1946 figure for Poor Law relief for a married couple was only 68.6. For a child of five it was only 46.7. The average for the whole of the applicants shows that the increase over the terribly low standard of 1946 was only 68.7 per cent. I have details of the internal purchasing power of the £ from 1946 to 1954. It is 2485 necessary to get the facts on record when we are considering these very low scales.
Taking the figure of the Consumer Price Index for 1946 as 100, the value of the figure for 1954 is 146. In 1948, the gross national product was £10,250 million. In 1953 it was £14,796 million. The Monthly Digest of Statistics shows how the cost of all that the people need is going up, although people who need National Assistance are kept to these low scales.
The proposed scales mean a worsening of conditions in relation to the national income. I have before me the budgets of a number of people, taken on 4th September, 1954. If any hon. Member doubts them, he can see them here, item by item. Here is evidence of the necessity for increasing the scales if we are to do justice to the people about whom I am speaking. All the statistical evidence proves that these scales are far too low.
A married couple on the ordinary scale receive £2 19s. 0d. at present, plus rent allowance. Under the new scale they will get an increase of 4s., making the total £3 3s. 0d. According to the "Economist," which is not sympathetic to those of us on this side of the House, especially to those of us who take a working-class view of things, this scale should be at least £4 per week, plus rent allowance.
These scales should have been raised months ago, as most reasonable people would agree, which means that the poorest of the people have been robbed of many pounds during the past few months. If a calculation is made which allows for the increase to which I have referred in the national output, the national income, and the cost of living, the very minimum of this scale should be £3 15s. 0d. for a married couple, plus rent. The "Economist" goes even further than I do, in saying that it should be £4 plus rent.
In 1944, the assistance for a child of five years of age was 7s. 6d. In 1955, if we pass these scales, the figure will only be 12s., despite all that that means in these days, when the mothers of the country are taking care of the children land have a greater pride in them than ever before in our history, and despite the enormous change in money values since 1944.
2486 The tragic aspect of the lives of our people is that if they depend on insurance benefits they can manage for a few weeks. Many have limited resources, like savings, and may manage for a few Months. Some may be able to exist on trade union benefits. Above all, they have hope, because they look forward to a job. When they have exhausted their insurance rights and have little left, they begin to lose hope and slowly their energy is sapped. Many of them have young families.
I have a letter here from one of the finest men that it has been my privilege to be friendly with. Through unfortunate circumstances he has been unemployed. He is living in an area in which it is difficult to obtain a job. He relates the circumstances in which he is living. He has young children, who are as good as anybody else's children. They go to school, and the mother wants to see them nicely shod and clothed. At Christmas time they are entitled to toys, like anybody else's children. In many homes there will be a sorry time if we pass these scales. There will be a worse time in these homes because of the changes that are occurring.
People may become sick. Only those who have been through that kind of experience know what it means, especially if they have had a serious sickness. They become convalescent, and all the time their resources are going, and the position at home is worsening. This applies equally to those who suffer from industrial injury or disease. Those who have no resources left apply for National Assistance, and we need to have scales that give more assistance and not less, as is being proposed today. Is any hon. Gentleman prepared to get up and, in answer to what I have said, say that the scales proposed in these Regulations are adequate to do justice to the people for whom I am speaking?
What is the explanation of the point which I am now going to put to the Minister? The increase in these National Assistance scales comes into operation on 7th February next year. The increases in the insurance benefits come into operation during April, and it is hoped that they will be fully paid by the end of May. The resulting adjustments will continue for weeks. Does the Minister think 2487 it good policy to put people in such uncertainty, and to create the friction which is inevitable as a result of increases first and then reductions? Will any applicants have reduced payments after having received increases? If so, will the Minister, in his reply, give us examples?
Widespread sympathy with the people about whom I am speaking has led to all kinds of proposals being made. Some are being put into operation in one area but not in another. That leads to differentiation in treatment of the kind of which complaint has already been made. In some areas there are suggestions for free travel, for cheap travel, for free milk, and assistance of that kind. That indicates the worsening position of these people. The assistance scales should be sufficient to allow them to live as decently as their fellows, and should apply, not in one area only, but in all.
Many of us would have voted tonight against these proposals, but, as a result of democratic discussion, our party decided by a majority of two to one that it would not be in the interests of the people to do that. Tonight I am reminded of one of the greatest men I knew. He used to speak in this House time after time, and in spite of his long-held and definite views—which differed so much from those of many people—he was always listened to with respect when he spoke. I refer to the late George Lansbury.
By his attitude in Poplar he taught us the kind of thing we should do. Gradually, he brought about a recognition that the time had arrived when people should not be humiliated by having to go cap in hand to the Poor Law administrators, but should be able to apply for National Assistance benefit as of right, based on their insurance record, and that, when that was exhausted, they should still be entitled to go with head erect for further assistance, and be treated courteously by every administrator. It was because of that developing public consciousness that, in 1946, 1947, and 1948, the Government were able to put through proposals which won the admiration of the world.
The foundations of the structure then built are now gradually being sapped. It is because of our recognition of that that many of us are speaking as we are doing tonight. We believe it to be the best attitude to induce all hon. Members, even 2488 if they support these proposals now, to think of them later so that further proposals may be introduced as soon as possible, and so that the foundations now being sapped may be rebuilt.
Twice within my lifetime we have had all kinds of promises. Between the two wars I saw one promise after another being broken. After the last war we hoped that the promises would really be kept. For a few years they were kept, but we now begin to see a change. While there is yet time, let the House be worthy of its history and call a halt to this present process, so that our people may receive the treatment which they so justly deserve.
§ 6.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Richard Fort (Clitheroe)
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) covered such a wide field that I find it a little difficult to take up many of his points. I found his statistical argument about the inadequacy of the present proposals a little difficult to follow, because the bases on which the statistics were quoted seemed to vary very considerably. Admittedly, it is a field in which it is difficult to find uniform statistics, but, even so, I found him a little unconvincing.
§ Mr. Fort
Statistics, even from official sources, are often compiled on very different bases, as the hon. Member, with his long experience, knows.
I was even more surprised to find him quoting from the "Economist" which, in this matter, has an outlook that I am very far from sharing. It takes the emphatic view that more of the money which we give from insurance or National Assistance should go to the very poorest, defined presumably by a means test, and then it does not define what it means by poverty.
When we discuss the whole problem of National Assistance the real difficulty is to lay down exactly what we mean by poverty. A feature of the Report of the National Assistance Board—and I should like to join with those who praise that institution; certainly, in my own area, it is staffed by fine, sympathetic men and women—is that it shows the large amount of capital represented by the disregards before the means test 2489 comes into effect. Indeed, in the Phillips Report, the amount of disregards is referred to as over £30 million.
The problem of what poverty is was brought home to me by a letter I received recently from a constituent. He puts, in a very easily understood form, just what poverty means. He writes of… the anomaly of the present means test which puts one's assessed capital at 5 per cent. or 10 per cent, per annum, irrespective of what it is producing. I am 80 years of age, and cannot draw any pension on account of my assessed capital which does not yield anything like 5 per cent. I have not been an insured person as I was self-employed, and when the voluntary Act came into operation I was over age …My capital is mostly in … Farm which is let to my son in law and does not yield me much more than £1 a week and at present it requires a lot of money spent on it to bring it up to date, and yet, if I sell it, it will deprive my daughter and her husband of their living and I could not sell it without vacant possession. We had, when my wife was living, a pension of £2 a week between us and she left nothing, and my income is less than it was then.I know that constituent quite well. He was a farmer and he put his savings into a farm. His life savings are invested in it. He cannot lay his hands on a penny of his capital, for the reasons which he so graphically describes, and yet, by the operation of the means test he is prevented from getting a non-contributory pension. It seems to me, and perhaps to other hon. Gentlemen, that my constituent is, in fact, in a condition of poverty a great deal worse than that of many who are able to draw National Assistance.
What the solution is I do not know. I have one or two points on non-contributory pensions which I hope my right hon. Friend will deal with when he comes to reply. As I say, the example which I have given—and I am sure hon. Members will have similar, if not identical, examples—indicates that the question we must always ask ourselves is, "What is poverty? How can we best help those who are in a condition of poverty?"
I should like to ask my right hon. Friend two questions about noncontributory pensions. Most people who might benefit from them are over 70 years old, and are clearly at an age when they cannot improve their situation very much. As the number of people concerned is relatively few, would it cost very much to reduce the rate of interest taken for the disregards from 5 per cent. 2490 or 10 per cent. to which my constituent refers, to one which would at least be nearer the ordinary return on money, and perhaps even slightly below.
The other point I wish to raise is this. There are, if I remember rightly, no more non-contributory pensions being granted after 1961. As the treatment of interest under the National Assistance means test is much more severe than it is under the non-contributory pensions means test, what is to be the position, after 1961, of people who would have been able to draw the non-contributory pension but who will, in fact, be unable to do so because of its lapsing, and yet will be even further away from drawing National Assitance because of the operation of the interest clauses?
It seems to me that there is always liable to be a considerable number of people who are poor in the way that my constituent is poor. When we come to consider, as I hope we shall next year, this whole problem of providing for old age, I hope that we shall consider some arrangement like the non-contributory pension arrangement—I do not suggest identical with it—to help people who at present, unlike my constituent, are able to draw it but who, because of the operation of the interest clauses, are unable to draw National Assistance.
Hon. Members who have such detailed knowledge of poverty should constantly turn their attention, not to scoring political points and collecting a few votes at by-elections and General Elections, but to ascertaining the difficulties and working out the best way of helping people—often only quite small groups of them—who are in real need because they fall between the classes provided for in the different Regulations. That should be our object here.
I was very pleased indeed to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Walton (Mr. K. Thompson) rebuking, very justly, those who made what were, no doubt, politically profitable but really very cheap sneers about these Regulations. The Regulations will not revolutionise the problem of poverty in this country, but no one who knows anything about this problem can deny that although they are modest, these provisions are a real step in the right direction towards helping to remove poverty, a cause which we all have at heart.
§ 6.24 p.m.
§ Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
I am sure that the country, if not this House, will be astonished to read some of the speeches which have been made from the Conservative benches. To me they seem anomalous, unrealistic and almost fantastically remote from the conditions of the poor. As I listened to them, I wondered what kind of constituents those speakers have. Are there no poor in their constituencies? Are there no old-age pensioners? Is there no rise in the cost of living? To listen to their speeches, one would think that that was the kind of fairyland in which they dwell.
Worse still, their speeches showed no realisation of the economic facts of life today. Indeed, they showed little human kindness and no indication that they know how the poor live To them a 2s. 6d. rise seems a generous sum. I wonder what they would do with 2s. 6d. Would they "blow" it in half an hour? Would it go in a small quantity of petrol, or a cigar, or a dinner in town? Half a crown to them is a very small sum, but the poor must eke it out as best they can.
The true picture was suggested by a remarkable phrase used by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith), "Full employment can be maintained in a prison." That thought suggested to me that the poor are in a prison. They are in an economic and social prison, and we on this side want to release them from that prison into the comparative freedom of the Welfare State which is being nibbled and whittled away by the present Government.
A moment or two ago my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South spoke of the officials of the National Assistance Board. No officials of any board or any Government Department can do good in the exigencies of the situation in which we find ourselves unless we empower them to do so, and that is one reason why it is of the utmost importance that we should scrutinise these Regulations and the legislation related to them.
These Regulations have been put forward as a great improvement in the standard of life of the poor. They do not represent a great improvement in 2492 the standard of life of the poor. I regret to say that the Government, both in this House and in the country, have beaten the drum about this matter, no doubt in expectation of the General Election next year. But I warn them that they will not deceive old-age pensioners, any more than they have succeeded in deceiving either this House or the country by the boundary jerrymandering. That, of course, is not relevant, and I cannot discuss it, but it is an indication of the kind of General Electioneering spirit which seems to be getting into the veins of the Government not only in that sphere but in this.
It is true that the Parliamentary Secretary made a most unhappy and uninspiring speech in opening this debate. These Regulations follow other speeches which have been made in this House and outside. But there is a great contrast between their speeches in the country and their speeches in the House. The first are the speeches of Pecksniff and the others are the speeches of Scrooge. In the country the Government have spoken optimistically, hopefully and colourfully about the wonderful improvement which they will make in the lives of the poor. Their speeches were full of promises, of adjectives, of colour and of indications of better lives for the people, but in the House those speeches have been watered down. They have spoken in undertones, almost apologetic, because they know that in the House they have to stand up to criticism which they will not meet in the country.
This miserable rumbling is like the mountain in labour which brought forth a mouse. The ungenerous inadequacy of these Regulations is emphasised by the spectacular rise in the cost of living about which the people outside all know. The colourless and meagre character of these Regulations will not deceive the people. I warn the Government in their own interests, if I may offer a word of advice to them, that the poor people of the country realise the inadequacies of these Regulations because they are guided not by speeches, not by tenners, fivers or even pound notes, but by the stark facts of the poverty which stare them in the face.
They will ask, why are these increases so poor, so miserable and so meagre? Above all, they will ask, why are these 2493 increases to be postponed? Why must we wait until after Christmas? Why, when the sum is so small, roust it he postponed for months? That is the kind of question which the people will ask.
§ Mr. J. N. Browne
The hon. and learned Member is criticising the Government for the inadequacy of the increases. Does he level his criticism at my right hon. Friend or at the National Assistance Board?
§ Mr. Hughes
That kind of tu quoque cuts no ice. We are dealing with the facts of the situation as we find them and it is not a fair criticism for any hon. Member to talk about other conditions and other circumstances. Let us deal with these regulations and not try to drag in matters which do not help forward the argument.
Let us consider a concrete case. The hon. Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Fort), who is apparently making merry about this very grave matter, read a letter to illustrate what the poor have to face. They have to face increased costs of food, rent, transport and clothes; all these have increased since the Government came into power. Dare anyone on the benches opposite say that the increases which are embodied in these Regulations are at all comparable with the increases in the cost of living since this Government came into power?
§ Mr. Browne rose—
§ Mr. Hughes
I have given way to the hon. Member once and I must tell him this: I did not interrupt him in the course of his speech, or anybody else, and I have noticed that those who barrack others and who seek to interrupt others are those who make that their form of self-expression in the House. Interruption appears to be their form of self-expression. I have given way once to the hon. Member and I beg him not to try to carve up my few remarks by persistently jumping up like a jack-in-the-box. I apologise to him, because when I said "jack-in-the-box" I forgot that his Christian name is Jack, which is indeed a very good name. I hope that I have made amende honorable to the hon. Member.
Now to resume my interrupted argument: What is half-a-crown? It is 30 pieces of copper which, spread over seven days, amount to about 4d. a day. What 2494 is 4d. a day in these days? It is just the bus fare which an old-age pensioner would have to pay once a week in order to go to the pensions office where he will receive his pension.
This is all out of proportion, and I beg the House and the Government to look at these matters in the proper perspective and to realise the environment in which the poor and the old-age pensioners live today. They read in the papers of vast sums being spent on civic and municipal decorations. They learn of vast sums being spent on yachts to go either full or empty across the Atlantic. They learn of expensive trips abroad and various other large sums which come out of the national Exchequer. I do not decry these things, because they add colour and beauty to life, but they are part of the environment of life today and in which the old-age pensioners live. These are some of the things which the Government and hon. Members opposite should take into account when making their excuses and saying that the nation cannot afford to give the old-age pensioners more than they are given in these Regulations.
Someone has truly said that the old-age pensioners do not live on statistics. No; they live mainly on thin tea, which is getting thinner and more expensive every day. They live on bread, for which they find it difficult to get butter and often impossible to get jam. The Government have spent much time and effort on undermining the Welfare State, on de-nationalising industries. They might have laid that aside in order to do good for the old-age pensioners. It looks very much as though the Government are very improperly using the needs of the poor for electioneering purposes.
If this is a bait to catch the old-age pensioner's vote, I can tell the Government—I who know the old-age pensioners very well and who visit them in their clubs and meeting houses—that they are too intelligent to be caught by that kind of bait. I can tell the Government that they are underestimating the intelligence of the poor. They forget that the old-age pensioners are citizens who are very close to the facts of life. They forget that the old-age pensioners, although they may not be working now, were the workers and the wealth producers of yesterday. In my submission they are just as much entitled 2495 to fair access to the necessaries and, indeed, to the luxuries of life as when they were producing those things.
I beg the Government not to forget these things. I beg hon. Members opposite not to treat lightly the needs and the lives of the poor. The poor and the old-age pensioners work all their lives, they produce national wealth, they give their blood and tears and sweat. They have climbed to the summit of their lives and now, when facing the setting sun, I think it not right that they should be treated in this mean and ungenerous way.
Mean and ungenerous I say; when we look at the provisions of Regulation 2 (1, c) they are horrifying in their gradations and cynicism. Ages are set out basing a calculation as to how much a human being eats at a particular age. There is the age of 21 and over and they get so much, 18 to 21 get less, 16 to 18 less, 11 to 16 less, five to 11 still less and under five less still. The blind and the tuberculous are mentioned. It would be difficult to find anything more cynical in its gradation than Regulation 2 (1, c).
The hon. Member for Govan (Mr. J. N. Browne) made a clever and, in my view, thoroughly unrealistic speech, which I imagine he will find very difficult to explain to some who go to his meetings in Govan. He spent a considerable time saying that 2s. 6d. will be very welcome indeed. I suggest there is a great disparity between the value of 2s. 6d. to him and 2s. 6d. to the poor people of this country. He spent a great deal of time in raising mathematical difficulties of an ungenerous kind in order to show that the amount could not be greater.
He should remember that these poor people built big houses but do not live in them, have made fine clothes but do not wear them; produced luscious food which they cannot afford to buy and eat. They made great motor cars but do not own them nor drive in them.
I do ask hon. Members and the Government to realise the meanness and un-generosity of these Regulations and to look at this great nation and its circumstances in their true environment. I wanted to say a word in criticism of some of the other speeches made today. I have devoted my observations entirely to criticism because I think criticism is 2496 called for. I hope it is constructive criticism which will induce the Government to hang their heads in shame, take back these Regulations, sneak out and think again in order to introduce more generous regulations more fit for the circumstances in which the poor of today live.
§ 6.44 p.m.
§ Squadron Leader A. E. Cooper (Ilford, South)
I do not claim any special knowledge in the field of National Assistance and pensions, a subject of which I know many hon. and right hon. Members have made a great study. My division, however, is an industrial one and I suppose I have as many problems of this nature to deal with as most hon. Members have.
My first comment is in connection with the Chairman of the National Assistance Board. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) is not in his place. I think the statement he made concerning Sir Geoffrey Hutchinson was unjustified and certainly not in accord with the experience this House had of Sir Geoffrey Hutchinson. For very long he was an honoured Member of this House. I should like hon. Members opposite to understand that in Ilford, the North division of which he represented from 1935, he was highly esteemed and respected by all sections of the community, and earned the respect of his Labour opponents.
I have already mentioned that the town honoured him by making him a freeman of the borough. That is an honour not lightly bestowed, and Sir Geoffrey Hutchinson was the only Member of Parliament to whom such an honour has been given by the town of Ilford. I should like to feel that hon. and right hon. Members opposite have the same confidence in Sir Geoffrey Hutchinson to conduct himself as Chairman of the National Assistance Board with that impartiality which we on this side of the House always felt we could rely on the previous Chairman of the Board showing.
I wish to refer to a speech made by the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, West (Mr. Steele) when the National Assistance Act received its Third Reading in this House. In closing his speech, he said:I think it would be inappropriate to wish the National Assistance Board an active future. Our hope on this side of the House, …2497 that is, the Labour Government—and probably on all sides of the House, is that the extensions of insurance, and eventually a rising level of prosperity for all, will in the long run leave it with little to do. But, for some time to come it is likely to remain responsible for providing, in whole or in part, the maintenance of more than a million people, and we trust that in this Bill we have supplied the right statutory background to enable it to do its work in a way we should all expect."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th March, 1948; Vol. 448, c. 715–6.]I am not criticising that.
The right hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths), whom I see in his place, stated on 24th November, 1947, that the purpose of the Bill was to take people out of Public Assistance. At another stage of the debate he said that the Labour Government intended to hold the cost of living steady at its then level of 31 per cent. above the figure for September, 1939. By 1951, when the right hon. Member and his Friends no longer had the authority for looking after the affairs of this country, the cost of living had risen to nearly 70 per cent. about that figure. I do not think that the Labour Government could claim that their intention of holding the cost of living steady at 31 per cent. above that figure was fulfilled.
Many speeches which we have heard today from hon. Members opposite were very different in tone from speeches made when they were on this side of the House. Many of the speeches to which we have listened tonight have been frankly electioneering. Here is a lemon which the Labour Party have said, "We will squeeze until even the pips give up their oil. Christmas is approaching, a time for sentimentality. We can get into the hearts of the old-age pensioners and make them feel that the Labour Party is looking after them."
I would remind hon. and right hon. Members opposite that during the time they were in power the right hon. Lady the Member for Fulham, West (Dr. Summerskill) was asked for several years if she would give a Christmas bonus to old-age pensioners, but she replied, "I have no power to do anything like that." When further pressed about the hardships of old-age pensioners, she said, on 12th March, 1951:any person in difficulties can apply to the National Assistance Board for supplementary help."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th March, 1951; Vol. 485, c. 1051.]2498 That was typical of the attitude of hon. and right hon. Members opposite when they were responsible for the affairs of this country, but who now are sitting in Opposition.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
Is the hon. and gallant Member not aware that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance gave precisely the same reply last week? Does he also regard him as cynical?
§ Squadron Leader Cooper
The point which I am making is that people in need can apply to the National Assistance Board for supplementation. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the point."] We have always said that that should be so, and that is the purpose of National Assistance. Today, we have been hearing cries from the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes) and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) that we are whittling away the whole fabric of the social services.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
I put the point quite simply to the hon. and gallant Member. He referred to the reply by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham, West (Dr. Summerskill) about a Christmas or winter addition. The present Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions only last week gave precisely the same reply about a Christmas or winter addition. Does the hon. and gallant Member still think that that was a cynical indifference to the needs of the old-age pensioners?
§ Squadron Leader Cooper
I do not criticise the right hon. Lady the Member for Fulham, West for making that statement. What I am criticising, and why I criticise hon. and right hon. Members opposite, is that they said one thing when in office and something entirely different when they are in opposition.
There are, of course, some hon. and right hon. Members opposite who from time to time demonstrate to the world their proper feelings, and what they really think. The hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman), for example, writes a column in the "Sunday Pictorial," in which, on 7th November, 1954, he said:while prices, profits and wages all soared under the Labour Government, the standard of 2499 living of our people went down. They were cheated even of the modest slice of the national cake which they had been promised.I do not know what the hon. Member for Coventry, East got for writing that, but he got a lot more for writing that article than the poor people got from the right hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) when he was Minister of Pensions.
§ Mr. J. Griffiths
Since the hon. and gallant Member has all these quotations, would he like to quote what he promised about the cost of living in his Election address?
§ Squadron Leader Cooper
No, I have not forgotten what I said in my Election address. I can go to the people of Ilford, South at the next General Election, and I can show that in the three years during which we have been responsible for the Government of the country the cost of living has risen by less than 10 per cent. I can also show that the right hon. Member for Llanelly said that the Labour Government would hold the cost of living at 31 per cent. above its former level but that in a similar period of three years he let it rise to nearly 80 per cent.
§ Mr. Griffiths
Has the hon. and gallant Member forgotten what he said himself? Did not he and his leaders in 1951 say that they would mend the hole in people's pockets, that they would stop the cost of living from rising and would not cut the food subsidies? Did they not promise us all those things?
§ Squadron Leader Cooper
The right hon. Member, who recently visited my constituency to open a Labour bazaar, no doubt found that occasion prosperous; but the Labour Party does not feel that it has much opportunity there, because it has recently dismissed its agent, but that is by the way.
So far as subsidies are concerned, I have always said in Ilford that I have been, and still am, opposed to food subsidies. I think that they are entirely the wrong way in which to help people. That is simply answering the point raised by the right hon. Gentleman. I have nothing to worry about in that direction at Ilford. Under the present Government, wages have risen faster than prices—that cannot be denied; all the statistics show it to be 2500 so. Neither can it be denied that under this Government, prosperity is higher than ever in the history of the country. We are building more houses, production is higher, far more food is being consumed—
§ Mr. Speaker
I am a little doubtful as to what all this has to do with the Regulations. The hon. and gallant Member might use these points in a general argument upon the cost of living, but I do not know how the question of housing is relevant to the Regulations.
§ Mr. Griffiths
I thought that the hon. and gallant Member would quote from his 1951 Election address.
§ Squadron Leader Cooper
With respect, Mr. Speaker, I should have thought that these facts had some bearing upon the Regulations, especially following the arguments put forward from the other side of the House that we are undermining the present system of social services, and that by virtue of our policy people are not able to buy all the things which they need. I am simply submitting arguments which, I hope, rebut the position taken up by the Labour Party.
§ Mr. Speaker
It was the reference to housing that brought me to my feet. I do not know that housing has much to do with these Regulations.
§ Squadron Leader Cooper
Even old people live in houses, Mr. Speaker, and we have built many more houses. By virtue of slum clearance schemes, we have done more in three years to provide for the old people and those in need than did the Labour Party when they were responsible for the country's affairs for six years. However, I will not pursue that point further.
We on this side of the House, in the manner in which we have looked after the old people, have nothing whatever of which to be ashamed. In fact, we have a record of which we can feel very proud indeed. I remind hon. Members opposite that the figures which we have before us are provided not by the Government, but by an independent, impartial body, the National Assistance Board. Surely, 2501 the right hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) knows that. Surely, he knows that the Minister cannot alter the Regulations; he can only send them back. The Regulations are produced having regard to all the facts.
§ Squadron Leader Cooper
If the right hon. Gentleman had been Minister, would he have sent the Regulations back?
§ Mr. Ness Edwards indicated assent.
§ Squadron Leader Cooper
The question is purely academic. It is very easy for the right hon. Gentleman, with his tongue in his cheek, and without any sense of responsibility, to say that he would have sent them back. He knows perfectly well that had he been sitting on the Government Front Bench tonight, he would have been defending the Regulations in precisely the same way as my right hon. Friend is doing.
§ 6.58 p.m.
§ Mr. William Keenan (Liverpool, Kirkdale)
There appears to have been quite a lot of misunderstanding of the Regulations. Hon. Members opposite, apparently, are not very clear about them. My complaint against the Regulations which are designed to give only 4s. to a married couple who are in receipt of National Assistance is that they are inadequate.
One of my hon. Friends has explained that we shall not vote against the Regulations because, if we did so, we should be accused of opposing this miserable amount by which the National Assistance scales are being increased. That is my only justification for not voting against them, and it explains the position of my hon. and right hon. Friends on this side.
I believe that very soon the Minister will have to do something to make amends for the great blunder and mistake he is making. I am not prepared to agree with the hon. and gallant Member for Ilford, South (Squadron Leader Cooper) that the question is not one for the Minister. If the right hon. Gentleman is to let the Chairman and the National Asistance Board decide what 2502 is to be the position of the million people who are dependent upon the National Assistance Board, there is something wrong with the Minister, because his is the responsibility.
I do not share the point of view expressed by the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Ilford, South. I agree with some of the criticism of the Chairman of the National Assistance Board made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent. South (Mr. Ellis Smith). I remember the attitude of Sir Geoffrey Hutchinson when he was in this House. He was a nice chap, he was never offensive to anybody, but his political outlook and the manner in which he acted here did not fit him for that position.
The Minister must accept the responsibility for these changes. There is a difference between what is being done under these Regulations and what was done a week ago for the other pensioners, some of whom are affected by these increases. They are getting 11s. for a couple—7s. 6d. and 3s. 6d.—whereas the scale for the poorest section of our community is to be 2s. 6d. for a single person and 4s. for a couple.
One thing that worries me is that the Minister is repeating the mistakes which have been made so often before. I dare say the right hon. Gentleman will remember my criticism of the scale of National Assistance which we are now altering, which was that a couple were 5s. better off than those receiving contributory pensions. That created enormous difficulties and, if I may offer the Minister advice, I would urge him to make the scales the same, as that would create less confusion. As it is, the Minister will have the same difficulty as there was three or four years ago when the new scale of National Assistance came into being more than two months before the others. There were then half a million who asked for National Assistance, but now there are considerably more contributory pensioners who do so. When the scales of the contributory pensions were increased, with an adjustment of National Assistance, many of those people thought wrongly that they were robbed of 6s. 6d. because of the way the scales were adjusted. That is why the scales should rise together.
What will happen now? On some date in February there will be an increase of 4s. for a couple and 2s. 6d. for a single 2503 person living alone. That is not very generous, although it is true that a rent allowance can be given in addition to the 35s. or 37s. 6d. The majority of those applying for National Assistance are either receiving National Health Insurance or unemployment benefit or they are contributory pensioners receiving a rent allowance. They will all be re-assessed in April and many of them will get no advance then.
The present scale of National Assistance is 59s. for a couple whereas the contributory pension is 54s. This means that for the last three years the National Assistance scale, which is applied to everyone who can prove need, has been 5s. better than the contributory pension, the unemployment benefit or the National Health Insurance rate. Now, the Minister is stupidly, if not maliciously, altering the scale for National Assistance so that, instead of being 5s. more, it will be 2s. less, which is a difference of 7s. comparing like with like.
§ Mr. Browne
I follow the argument of the hon. Gentleman, but the difficulty is that everyone drawing National Assistance does not draw the scale but draws an average of 14s. more in supplement, so that the basic National Assistance scale does not affect the issue.
§ Mr. Keenan
Apparently the hon. Gentleman does not know that if a person receiving a contributory pension or National Health Insurance in any form goes to the National Assistance Board, he immediately gets the National Assistance scale applied.
§ Mr. Keenan
Yes, but in April, when the full effect of the two changes is in operation, he will have applied to him a scale which will be 2s. less than the present one; whereas it is now 5s. more, it will be 2s. less, which is a difference of 7s.
We all feel aggrieved about this deplorable thing, and the Minister must look at it again. If he does not do so, the confusion will continue. I shall not cover the background, as that has already been done by other speakers. We are dealing here with the poorer section of our community and we are not availing ourselves of the opportunity of helping them because the 4s. contained in these Regulations is ridiculous.
2504 The Minister has suggested that the Government have been generous and considerate and have recognised the increase in the cost of living—for which, however, they continue to deny that they are responsible. The fact remains that since 1952, when there was an increase in the National Assistance scales, as well as in the National Health scales, the party opposite have been in power and prices have gone up. So, since the justification for these increases is the rise in the cost of living, the Government cannot deny their responsibility.
This 4s. is totally inadequate to meet the need of the class of persons we are considering today. Their present standard of living is not very generous, so no one living on National Assistance is having a good time. Indeed, these people have to go without many things which we would consider necessities.
With all due respect to the Chairman of the Board, during the last couple of years I have observed a tightening up in the National Assistance administration. I am prepared to pay tribute, generally speaking, to the different situation today compared with what it was when I was concerned with Public Assistance and the old Boards of Guardians; but there has definitely been a tightening up. I certainly pay tribute to the different atmosphere these days, but I still have to complain about some people employed by the Board because of their manner when interviewing people. I have had to make representations because of that in recent months, and so there is still something to be done.
The Minister ought to take note of what has been said today and should consider what the changed scales will actually mean. The Government are not being as generous as they ought to be to the most deserving in the community. The Minister ought to be able to recognise as easily as we do that the 4s. is inadequate, and he should be prepared in a month or two's time to make the increase comparable to that in the case of the pensions.
§ 7.11 p.m.
§ Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, West)
I agree with a lot that my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkdale (Mr. Keenan) has said. I want to make one or two remarks in the context of what the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance said in 2505 his broadcast at the weekend. The right hon. Gentleman said that the Government could do something really substantial now, because, among other things, they had been uncommonly successful in restoring national solvency and increasing national prosperity. The implication was that, because the nation was doing so very well, much could be done for the very poor people about whom we are now talking.
I take that remark by the Minister and couple it with the remark made earlier by the hon. Member for Govan (Mr. J. N. Browne). Let me make it clear here and now that I will not give way to the hon. Member. He has already made half a dozen speeches in the form of interventions. He said he was satisfied that we had now provided a level of subsistence for people on National Assistance, and when he was asked to define what he meant by "subsistence," he replied "sufficient to keep body and soul together."
Therefore, what the Government are, in effect, telling the country now is that, largely due to the Government's policy, we have enormous prosperity and are able to keep the bodies and souls of 1¼ million people together, and that we ought to be very happy about it.
§ Mr. Hamilton
We have roughly 2½ million people on National Assistance. I do not think that anyone in the country can be satisfied while one in 20 of the population is subject to a means test in the year 1954.
In another place some time ago, Lord Beveridge remarked that at the outset of the National Insurance Scheme there were about 500,000 people on public assistance. That was about one in 100. If we accept that the position today is one in 20, it means a five-fold increase in the number of people on National Assistance since the introduction of this Scheme. There has been a steady increase in the number of people seeking National Assistance over the years. The biggest increase was in 1952, when more than 200,000 additional persons applied, and that surely indicates the inadequacy of the scale. Whatever the solution may be, none of us can be complacent about this state of affairs.
2506 The Minister supplied me with some figures in answer to a Question on 8th December. I asked for the total number of pensioners in certain years since the end of the war, and for the total amount paid to them in the form of pensions and in the form of National Assistance. The figures were startling, showing certain things about which we cannot help feeling disturbed.
In 1949, the first full year of operation of the Act, the proportion of the income of pensioners represented by National Assistance was roughly 5.8 per cent. The figure has increased steadily year after year. In 1950 it was 7.7; in 1951, 8.3; in 1952, 9.9; and in 1953, 10.6. Consequently, the proportion of the income of old people derived purely from National Assistance, and, therefore, based on a means test, is continually rising.
An important factor in this connection is the rise in the cost of living. The Government cannot escape responsibility for it, and I would point out that there were adverse conditions in the world market when the Labour Government were in office, whereas the terms of trade have been in favour of the Conservative Government. On that score, the defence of the Labour Government is much sounder than that of the Conservative Government.
I asked the Minister, at Question Time today, whether, if the cost of living rose between now and when the increases come into effect in April, he would introduce amending legislation to take account of that fact. This seems to me to strike at the very root of the problem that we are considering. It is no use seeking a solution to the problem merely by giving 2s. 6d. here, 4s. there, and an add 1s. or so elsewhere, if we are not prepared to adopt policies to stabilise or reduce the cost of living.
It is not much good putting 2s. 6d. into the pockets of an old-age pensioner if he finds that he has to pay an extra 3s. for his tea during the week. It must be remembered that food prices play a much more prominent part in the budgets of the old-age pensioners than in those of other people.
The hon. Member for Govan talked about rents. We ought not to drag the subject of rent increases into the debate, but it is relevant to our argument. The 2507 Government have already introduced two Measures, one of which will increase the rents of council house tenants by reducing subsidies, and the other will affect those who do not happen to live in council houses.
I appreciate that the argument from the other side of House is that if the rents of those who are on National Assistance rise, the increase will be met by National Assistance. The other people will get the full increase in the pension, 7s. 6d. in the case of a single person and 11s. for a couple, but they will have to pay the rent increase. In either case the rent increases will have the effect of reducing the standard of living of those concerned.
Earlier this afternoon the Joint Parliamentary Secretary said that the National Assistance scales would come into effect in Ferbruary; and, therefore, those who were in the greatest need would receive help first. But what are they to do between now and February? Would the Minister be prepared to live on the National Assistance scales on which some of these people will have to endure for the next two months? That is the simple test. The hon. Member for Govan talked about keeping body and soul together. I would love to put him on these National Assistance scales for a year. I doubt if he would survive. There would be a by-election in Govan long before that.
I wish to refer to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkdale about the dangerous psychological effect of giving something to people in February and taking it away again at the end of April. I know it can be said that that is as it has always been, but that is no reason for continuing the practice. While this Scheme is evolving we are discovering mistakes and anomalies of one kind or another, and it is time that that anomaly was remedied. The only solution is to make the increases in National Assistance and the increases in National Insurance at the same time.
§ Mr. Hamilton
The hon. Member for Govan has already made about a dozen interruptions, apart from the silly little speech which he made, and I do not think that we ought to tolerate his muttering while he is sitting down.
I was referring to the psychological effect of giving these people an increase in February and taking it away in April—
§ Mr. Hamilton
Not at all.
I put this point seriously to the Minister. The hon. Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Fort) spoke about the disregards. It will be admitted that there has been a considerable change in the cost of living and in the purchasing power of money since the end of the war. Yet there has been no substantial change in the disregards. I wonder if the Minister would consider making representations to the National Assistance Board to examine these disregards to see if it can take that factor into account when framing these Regulations?
It has been pointed out to the Minister that hon. Members on this side of the House will not divide the House on the question of these scales, for the simple reason that we are conscious of the way in which such an action can be distorted by the Government and by the Conservative Press. We never oppose an increase, but we believe that these increases are completely inadequate. For anyone to suggest, as was suggested by the hon. Member for Govan, that we should be satisfied to keep body and soul together in this year of grace 1954 is a reflection on the Tory Party and the Tory Government.
§ 7.23 p.m.
§ Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)
Whatever may be said subsequently in this debate, one thing which has already been stated is unchallengeable and undeniable—it was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards)—that these Regulations will affect the poorest of the poor. To whom do these Regulations apply? It is well that we should examine the situation and discover who 2509 are the recipients of this so-called boundless generosity on the part of the Government.
Altogether there are six categories. The supplementation of the non-contributory old-age pensions is one section, and they amount to 143,521. The retirement pensions or contributory old-age pensions total 948,893; the widow's or widowed mother's allowance, or widow's pension, 91,370; sickness benefit, 105,190; industrial injury or disablement benefit, 1,688; those in receipt of unemployment benefit and forced to go to the National Assistance Board, 23,120. I mention these figures to show that it is the poorest of the poor on whose behalf we are pleading.
I am not implying that the Government are unsympathetic to these people. I have discovered that the administration is sympathetically inclined. But when I go round to the various area offices in my constituency, as I do from time to time, I discover that many of the officers, whom we call investigating officers, would do infinitely more than they are doing now if the Regulations permitted. That is one of the facts which I wish to emphasise to the Minister. These officers have to work rigidly to the Regulations, and time and again they have told me that some of the cases with which they have to deal are so tragic that they wish they could do more. I do not condemn either the Chairman or the Board but I wish to put a definite question to the Minister, which he in turn may wish to put to the Chairman of the Assistance Board; or the right hon. Gentleman may even be able to answer it during this debate.
Within the last 12 months there has been a tightening up in the application of the Regulations. There is not so much generosity over what we call "rounding off"—the Minister knows what I mean—the twopences and threepences in borderline cases. Is it true that a private or confidential circular was sent out by the Assistance Board, or possibly by the right hon. Gentleman's Department, telling area officers and investigating officers what to do and how to do it?
That is a very pointed question I am putting to the Minister. If that is not so, I shall be delighted. But if I am correct I think he ought to tell the truth to hon. Members and to the people who have to look after these cases. Then we shall 2510 know exactly where we stand and who is responsible. I know that different people make different approaches. Our make-up and temperaments are different. But I am as convinced now as I was many weeks ago that something is creating a different atmosphere and that the approach now is different from a few years ago. I know that the Minister cannot be blamed for that, and I am not blaming him. But if such a circular has been sent out, he bears the responsibility.
We have never really faced up to the question of supplementation and subsistence. We must adopt what I described last week as a realistic approach to the problem. There has been too much guesswork about the proper rates of supplementary assistance. Since 1948 there have been four increases. First, the figure stood at 24s. Then another 2s. was added, and then 4s., making a total of 30s. Then it rose to 35s., and it is now 37s. 6d. What is the basis upon which these allowances are calculated? Is a scientific or an economic approach made to the problem? I should like to know how the latest increase of 2s. 6d. was arrived at. Is it just guesswork or a case of saying that the people will be satisfied with 2s. 6d. because of the increase in the basis pension? Public conscience must be awakened to the fact that this or some other Government will have to approach the question of supplementation from a realistic point of view.
In the case of disregards, I want to ask the National Assistance Board, through the medium of Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, why the disregards have been disregarded. The disregards allowed under the National Assistance scales since 1948 have never been changed. Last week we were concerned with improving disability pensions and the rates for compensation for loss of faculties, and many increases were agreed upon in the Measure that was then passed. But when these people receive their increases, they will be worse off because of the fact that the disregards have remained unchanged.
I want to get these figures on the record because we shall have to consider them at a subsequent date. At the moment, the disregards are limited to 20s., as they were in 1948. In the case of sick pay from friendly societies or trade 2511 unions, the first 10s. 6d. a week is disregarded. In the case of workmen's compensation, disability pensions, disablement benefits, civilian injury benefits and maternity allowances, the first 20s. is disregarded. The rates of these benefits have been increased. Is there to be no change in the disregards? It will be manifestly unfair if we increase these rates of benefit but do not change the disregards, especially those concerning injured workmen. I know that there are not very many, but whether there be one or one million, the injured workmen and the poor people should be treated with justice, humanity and honesty. I hope that the Minister will ask the National Assistance Board to apply its mind to the question of raising these disregards.
A great deal of play has been made about lifting this subject out of the realm of politics, but every time we talk about lifting a great human problem out of the realm of politics we seem to go further into it. The hon. Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Fort), who is always sympathetically inclined towards the old people, said that he wished he could keep politics out of it. I wonder whether he read or heard the speech the Minister made on the wireless on Saturday night. The Minister did not attempt to lift the subject out of politics. He thrust it further into the political arena. This always was and always will be a great human problem, and it ought to be approached with sympathy, understanding and generosity.
These Regulations are not adequate for the section of the community they are designed to help. I do not know why on this occasion the increases are 2s. 6d. or 5s. less than they were before. Previously, the increases went beyond the basic rate. On this occasion they are below it. There must be some reason for that.
The question of timing is also a very disturbing one. The Government are increasing the supplementary pensions or allowances on 7th February, and the basic Pension rates on 25th April. Everybody who goes to the National Assistance Board has to prove that he is in dire need before he gets the brass, as they say in Lancashire. I wonder if the Minister appreciates what will be the psychological effect upon these people when they get 2512 the increase of 4s. and 2s. 6d. on 7th February and then, when the basic pension is increased On 25th April, the allowance which they have already cherished for a few weeks is reduced? Is that fair, honest or straight-forward to the poorest of the poor?
There should be an entirely different conception of the needs of the poor. Hitherto they have been denied elementary justice; they have been satisfied with the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table. We are now told that everything is flourishing and prospering; that the standard of living has gone up, and that everybody is able to buy what he needs and put away a bit for a rainy day. But these poor people are denied the ordinary amenities and comforts of life.
If the Minister were to examine a recent survey which was made by a very eminent society connected with Oxford University he would find that the rates now before the House, generous and magnificent as he and the Government think they are, fall at least 7d. below what the survey has decided is sufficient to keep body and soul together. Have we reached that stage in this country when we are advancing the argument that these people have sufficient to keep body and soul together? Surely we have travelled a long way from that? Surely these people ought to enjoy a few amenities of life, and who is the Minister that he should deny them? I am reminded of the quotation from the old Book, which is not as often quoted here as it should be—Woe unto them that lay field unto field, till there be no place,and I would add—Woe unto them that grind the faces of the poor for the yellow dust they called gold.That is what the Government are putting forward in order to save something. At whose expense? At the expense of those people who have given their best to industry, commerce and in the vocations in Which their lot had fallen. I repeat with emphasis what I have said before. To me, life is a wonderful thing. It is wonderful to live, to stand on this fair earth beneath the radiant heaven, possessed of life, with its great possibilities and with its lofty ideals. Every man who has served his day and generation, whatever his calling may be, should have an opportunity of attaining the best attainable life—both for the human body 2513 and the human spirit—but men and women cannot attain that life to which they are entitled on the miserable amount contained in these regulations.
§ 7.42 p.m.
§ Mr. Will Owen (Morpeth)
The issue before the House was clearly set out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards), and the House should, at this stage, note the emphasis which he placed upon the change in the Regulations that are now being debated. It has been repeated several times in the course of this debate that these Regulations impose an additional burden upon the poorest of the poor.
We want to draw the attention of the Minister to the nature of these Regulations, not wholly upon humanitarian grounds, but on the basis of the contrast between the general prevailing economic circumstances in Britain today and the position of this section of the community, numbering about 2¼ million people, who are unable to share this assumed prosperity with other members of the community. The question repeatedly arises as to why it is that, in the second half of the 20th Century, we have to make this appeal to those who have power to use the power they possess in order that they may share the affluence of a prosperous age with a section of the community unable to assist themselves.
I know that some hon. Members can recall the appeals made in this House in days gone by, when the urge was to challenge the limitations of the old Poor Law, and when we were asking that these limitations should be removed and that humanity should be permitted to share in the general march of social progress. Happily the harshness of the old Poor Law is gone, and the contribution made by the Labour Party, when in power, was mainly responsible for the changes that have been brought about.
It seems to me that the Regulations now before us well justify the appeal made by hon. Members from this side of the House to the Minister concerned to reconsider the proposals he has made, in the interests of the people concerned. The evidence submitted by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) can be supplemented, I suggest, almost indefinitely from the experience of hon. Members 2514 representing other constituencies throughout the land. In my own humble experience, I have learned that, in contact with people in my own constituency, one is faced with a challenging appeal made in simple terms, suggesting that these people are not able to meet the requirements of the means of life in these days because of the limitation of their income in relation to prevailing prices.
Is it wrong that we should ask that, in the light of the prosperity prevailing throughout Britain today, these people should be given a little more consideration? Is it wrong that we should ask that, in the light of the increased cost of living, these people should receive some further consideration? Surely no one today honestly contends that a Measure which increases assistance payment by between 2s. 6d. and 4s. can be claimed to be adequate to meet the requirements of these days, especially—and I hope hon. Members opposite will bear this in mind—as we are discussing this matter almost on Christmas Eve, with the knowledge at the hack of our minds of the message which that festive occasion recalls.
I want to remind the House of the appeal which I made in my maiden speech a few weeks ago—an appeal that the Minister would apply some degree of humanitarianism in the framing of this Measure so that some additional encouragement and hope could be given to these people before Christmas Day this year. I am sadly disappointed, and I know that many people in my constituency will be disappointed. I know that there are 2¼ million people in receipt of assistance who will be disappointed. This is a matter which should at least have melted the heart of the Minister and caused him to do something of substance, something much more effective than what he has now submitted to the House.
One further point. We find that the Regulations now submitted are to be applied initially in February next year. The increase then granted will create a degree of pleasure in the homes of those receiving it, but when April comes, and the consequent reduction in the National Assistance contribution is made, these people will feel very aggrieved and hurt.
I believe that in the not too distant future the House will have to review the 2515 whole question of assistance, grants and pension rates. I am firmly of the opinion that it is only by the application of the broad humanitarian principle of meeting the needs of those unable to help themselves in a manner that places the basic rate at a figure that will meet the requirements of life, that we shall avoid this constant machinery of supplementation, with all its anxiety and potential hardship.
I do not complain about those who administer the law. The officers in the various localities who carry out the statutes determined by Parliament do so, I believe, with the maximum of humanitarian motive and interest. Unfortunately, they all too frequently come up against the harsh limitations of the law. The purpose of our appeal tonight is the removal of the harshness of that administration by ensuring a degree of flexibility in the law itself.
I hope that the appeal made by my right hon. Friend, an appeal which must have aroused some degree of emotion and interest among those concerned with this problem, will be taken to heart. While recognising the limitations of the Regulations now before us, is it too late to improve what is now proposed in order that between this date and February, the most harsh and difficult part of the year, the needs of the people affected can to some extent be met?
§ 7.53 p.m.
§ Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)
One of my most outstanding impressions of the debate so far has been the suggestion of lightheartedness and offhandedness on the part of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary in submitting these Regulations to the House. I should have thought that in dealing with a matter of such importance to so many people there might have been an attempt to justify the actual scales.
Having regard to the fact that everyone in the country is concerned about the cost of living—and particularly at this time of the year—one would have thought that in announcing that among the poorest section of the community a single person was to receive 37s. 6d. a week, and a married couple 63s. a week, the Minister would have tried to relate those figures to actuality. But never a word did we 2516 hear from him regarding the basis of those scales.
However, it has been a grand debate. We have had two beautiful speeches from two diehard Tories. The hon. and gallant Member for Ilford, South (Squadron Leader Cooper) told us that we on this side of the House were only interested in this matter because we were electioneering and because Christmas was the time of sentimentality. Some people used to think that we in Scotland did not look forward with any great seriousness to Christmas, but I should be very surprised if one Englishman in a hundred would agree with the hon. and gallant Gentleman's definition of Christmas. I should have thought that there ought to be some element of Christianity towards both Christmas and this problem.
Let us leave the Englishman and go to the pseudo-Englishman, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. J. N. Browne). It is enough to make the shades of old Neil Maclean haunt this House to be told that it was only right that these people should be kept down to just enough to keep body and soul together Those were the hon. Gentleman's own words.
When, last week, we increased the National Insurance retirement pensions, we gave to the people concerned a share of the increased national prosperity. We are not doing that in this case. What we are giving them is just enough to keep body and soul together. I wonder what kind of a body and what kind of a soul they are going to have on these rates.
I wonder whether the hon. Member for Govan—I gather that he is not a Scotsman, although he represents a Scottish constituency—will be attending some Burns' suppers around 25th January. If he does, I hope that he will address himself to some words that Robert Burns put into the mouth of Beelzebub when he wrote of the treatment given to certain Highlanders by a Highland marquess, words very much in line with the old Tory Party attitude towards the poor. They were:They an' be d—d! what right hae theyTo meat or sleep, or light o' day!Far less to riches, pow'r, or freedom,But what your lordship likes to gie them?What is the justification for these scales? I think it is to be found in the past speeches of the Minister himself. Throughout the past year the right hon. 2517 Gentleman has shown concern about the growing number of people on National Assistance. He told us on Saturday night how their numbers had doubled during certain selected years, and he spoke about the failure of the Labour Government to cope with the situation. Let us look at what has happened since 1951 to the number of people on National Assistance. In June, 1951, there were 1,390,000 in receipt of National Assistance. By June, 1953, the number had gone up to 1,698,000, an increase of over 300,000, and by June, 1954, there were 1,768,000 cases, a further increase of 69,000. The figure has changed little since then.
Since this Government have been in power, the number of actual cases of people on National Assistance—not the actual number of people dependent on it—has risen by over 370,000. More than a third of a million more people in this country are so poor in these days of wonderful Tory prosperity that they have to go on to National Assistance in order to keep body and soul together.
Now and again we hear about the proud achievements of the great geniuses that line the benches opposite. The criterion of poverty in the country is National Assistance. The number of people getting National Assistance is now more than it has ever been in the history of that institution.
§ Mr. Ross
I am not talking about the rate of increase but about the actual number of people on Assistance.
The hon. Member and his party were going to stop all this. When climbing a mountain one does not climb the last bit at the same rate as the first bit. This is one of the great achievements of the Tory Party; they have managed to keep on going up and up. There is a greater number of people on National Assistance. This fact has been vexing the Minister. We are told that the scales have nothing to do with the Minister but are the concern of the National Assistance Board. Has the Treasury no interest in the millions of pounds that are being spent in this way?
2518 What is happening about these Regulations is not unrelated to what has happened over the National Insurance rate of benefit. The Treasury was prepared to accept the pensions proposal, which looked so generous, but which comes from the contributions of the workers and employers, provided that the National Assistance scales were below those of National Insurance. Remember that the present Minister lifted the assistance scales above the insurance scales. He put them 2s. 6d. above; now they are 2s. 6d. below. The result will eventually be a considerable saving on National Assistance.
Taking National Insurance with National Assistance, as one of my hon. Friends has so admirably demonstrated, we see that the Government's great contribution to what was hailed by the Minister as a great measure of social reform is £9 million. I cannot see any change at all; indeed, we were told that there was no change. These scales are in no way related to the cost of living, to subsistence or to anything other than the cost to the Treasury. The inadequate assistance scales have to be below the insurance scales, so that inevitably a number of people will find themselves without supplementary pensions, and the number of people on National Assistance will fall.
We are wrong in talking about a pensions scale. I have taken the figures for 30th September. They show that the total number of cases on National Assistance is 1,764,000. It is broken up in this way: supplements to retirement pensions, 983,000—in Scotland the figure is about 78,000 pensioners out of 480,000 pensioners—and about one in five old-age pensioners getting a supplement to sickness benefit—113,000.
The people on National Assistance are not all old. There are some whose sickness benefit is inadequate. They are generally young, and are sometimes men with families. They are expected to live on rates like 37s. 6d. for a single man and £3 3s. for a couple. At a time of sickness, a man needs more and not less than he gets when employed. The whole thing is crazy. There are 93,000 widows, many of them the 10s. widows for whom we pleaded last week. There are 24,000 unemployed, 321,000 non-contributory old-age pensioners, and supplements numbering 158,000. Included in the people dependent upon these scales in Britain 2519 are 46,000 blind people. They are getting another 1s. on the differential. Their increase will be 4s. 6d.
Relating them to all that has happened since 1952, it is little wonder that the right hon. Gentleman has never sought to justify these scales in any comparison with reality. The cost of living has gone up since January, 1952, by more than 8 per cent. Why should we take the cost-of-living index, which relates to about 250 different items? The people living at the National Assistance level, and who are keeping body and soul together, are not buying those 250 items.
About 70 per cent. of what they spend goes on food. Take sugar, margarine, butter, and tea. The price of food has risen nearly 18 per cent., but tea and sugar prices alone have risen by nearer 50 per cent. than 40 per cent. These are the actual things to which we ought to relate the question of National Assistance.
I do not think the Minister will get as many people off National Assistance by these scales as he hopes to do. A pensioner who came to see me recently, and who does not draw a supplementary pension, showed me his rent book to prove that his rent is going up by £6 8s. a year as the result of the Repairs and Rent (Scotland) Act. The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland knows something about that. That is a very pleasant gift for old-age pensioners living in tenements in Kilmarnock.
This man will pay an extra £6 8s. for two rooms and a kitchen without bathroom. It means that old-age pensioners and other people who are similarly placed will be forced to apply for National Assistance. That is a considerable achievement by this Government. I am surprised that at this time of the year the Government have proclaimed this achievement as a triumph of generosity. There is no generosity in it at all. Fundamentally, it is one of the meanest things the Government have ever done. The hon. Member for Govan was down on his knees on behalf of the poor people in the Govan tenements who were particularly hard hit.
I trust that on this side of the House we have a better appreciation of the hopes, aspirations, needs, and just rights of the ordinary people in our country. We know about these matters because 2520 we were brought up among the ordinary people. I can remember 1918–20, when my father was on a parish council, and when it was the victory to get 6d. for a man. It was as grudgingly given as is this 2s. 6d. today.
We have to accept this slight increase. It is not enough. I hope that the day will not be far distant when we shall be able to give decent social justice. It will be real social reform and not piece-by-piece amelioration. It will be real social reform for the people of this country.
§ 8.9 p.m.
§ Mr. Raymond Gower (Barry)
The hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) was less than fair in many parts of his speech, though with some parts of it I think hon. Members on both sides of the House will be in agreement. The hon. Member tended to over-simplify what is now before the House.
I welcome these Regulations because they are in the right direction, but I cannot on the face of it—and here I agree with the hon. Member for Kilmarnock—quite understand how these particular amounts were assessed. It is very strange for the hon. Member to slate the Minister when he himself now refers to things like increased expenses at Christmas time. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock referred also to increased rents. I can well recall—and it is quite as legitimate for me to refer to this as it is for him to refer to that—that three or four years ago the cost of living was certainly not stationary. I can recall that it was common at that time to read in the daily Press of a certain council putting up its rent. Indeed, it happened quite often and regularly in South Wales.
§ Mr. Gower
Quite often and regularly in different areas.
I can recall no special grant being made at that time to those particular people who did not qualify for a rent allowance. Similarly, I recall many times when no particular concession by the way of a lump sum payment was made to enable people to live more generously at Christmas.
§ Mr. Gower
If rents were put up by a local council, I assume that it was done under the authority of an Act of Parliament. Rent increases have been applied to council houses just as they have been to private dwellings. A lot of these people with whom we are now concerned live in council houses and were repeatedy affected by such increases after the war. To make a political point of this character is quite unjustified.
The hon. Member for Kilmarnock attacks my hon. Friend, but, whether the hon. Member likes it or not, these increases—and, like him, I cannot understand how they are assessed—have been assessed by an independent body which was instituted in its present form by the hon. Member's own Government. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) said that he was not attacking the National Assistance Board administration. He gave several examples by way of tribute to its work, but he was attacking the recommendations of the Board, and so was the hon. Member.
Hon. Members opposite do not attack the bodies, they do not attack the Boundary Commissioners or the National Assistance Board, but in each case attack the recommendations of the independent bodies which they, themselves, set up. One party sets up a body—whether the Boundary Commission or a National Assistance Board. The other party then takes office, and, having taken office, honourably prepares to observe the conditions laid down and to abide by the recommendations of these impartial bodies. Then, for some reason, the Opposition—
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
I wonder if the hon. Member does not realise that the recommendations have to come here in the form of draft Regulations to receive consideration by the House. We are not committed to accepting them. But the main criticism is that the Government did not disclose to the Assistance Board the increases taking place in insurance benefits. Had the Assistance Board realised that that was the Government's assessment of the share of the increased 2522 productivity that should go to the old people, it is quite likely that the Assistance Board would have put forward entirely different recommendations.
§ Mr. Gower
That is a legitimate statement, and rather different from what we heard at the beginning of this debate. It is, at least in this case, the recommendation of this particular body.
I am not sure how these particular scales are arrived at. I should like to know more about it because, on the face of it, it does seem that now there is a case for a rather larger increase. [Interruption.] I said "on the face of it"—but it is not for hon. Gentlemen opposite to attack my hon. Friend violently—
§ Mr. Gower
It is not for hon. Members opposite to attack him violently, because he has tendered the considered recommendations of a body which should know more about the matter than we do. We must remember that, whether we like it or not, just as the Boundary Commissioners know more about the actual state of the constituencies than we do, having made a special study of the problem, so, similarly, I would assume that the Chairman and officers of the National Assistance Board really know more about the detailed needs of the people than we do. [Interruption.] But I admit that their recommendations are somewhat at conflict with what the hon. Member feels and what I myself feel. I should like to know more about how these scales are assessed.
§ Mr. Manuel
The hon. Gentleman is bringing forward the most curious argument that, because these recommendations have been submitted, it is the duty of the Government to sponsor them. That is quite wrong. He will realise that that is so immediately I say that if the Royal Commission on Wales had recommended home rule for Wales he would have voted against it, and so would his own Front Bench.
§ Mr. Gower
I merely submit that we should not lightly turn aside the recommendations of a body which should have more detailed knowledge than we have.
I am trying to be fair about this. There is a case in the near future for some special index for these old people. While we can obtain very valuable information 2523 about the general standard of living and the cost of living, there may be a case for collating information in greater detail than we possess at present about the peculiar needs of people in advanced age, and people who are in receipt of assistance in supplementation of their pensions.
I should like my right hon. Friend, when he replies, to address himself to the problem of how special nourishment allowances and allowances of that sort are assessed. There is a case for a more generous assessment in regard to some of these special allowances. In some cases I have found that the Board has been very good, but I have had other cases where the assessment has been less than generous.
Another thing which I have not been quite able to solve is how it is that, in some cases, the Board has been prepared to pay for, say, a pair of shoes or some necessary clothing, yet in other cases have merely referred the applicant to an organisation such as the W.V.S. Why is there this difference between two applicants?
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
Can the hon. Gentleman tell us from his own experience whether the Assistance Board in his own constituency has really done this?
§ Mr. Gower
At the time the payment was authorised there was no such condition that the shoes were expected to last for any specified time. My constituent merely established his need for a pair of shoes and the payment was then authorised. In answer to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Caerphilly, I believe that I have had in my own constituency one case where a person has been referred to a voluntary organisation for some clothing; and there have been references in the debate to that sort of thing happening in Scotland.
§ Mr. James McInnes (Glasgow, Central)
Not in Scotland but in Acton. I should like the hon. Gentleman to be a 2524 little more specific on the point which he is making with regard to the Assistance Board directing people to other charitable organisations. I rather imagined from his observations that this sort of thing existed on a wholesale scale. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the W.V.S. in particular, and I gathered that other organisations were involved as well.
§ Mr. Gower
No. I think I recall how that arose. It was said by an hon. Member today that a person had been referred to the W.V.S. That was expressly stated. I personally have only had cases in which payments have been authorised for the purchase of clothing. Reference was made to that particular point earlier in the debate.
§ Mr. McInnes
I must pursue this point. I think the House will agree that the hon. Member indicated specifically that he had an example in his own division.
§ Mr. Gower
Yes, I believe I have had one in my own division, but I am certain, too, that the matter has been referred to here today. Generally, the cases in my own constituency had been cases of payments.
Be that as it may, I should like my hon. Friend to consider whether in many cases this question of these special allowances could be approached more generously. I have referred to payments for shoes, and sometimes there are payments to meet outstanding bills. Some of these cases are the most hard of all. These are the people in the most desperate need; otherwise these payments would not be authorised. There is scope here for a full debate in the near future on the administration of the work of the Board.
§ Mr. Gower
I am certainly not attacking it, but it would be better perhaps if in future we could confer greater powers on the Board, because at present it is obviously limited in what it can do. I am certainly not attacking it. I think it does all that it is able to do, but we should consider whether we can increase its powers.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris)
I do not think the powers of the Board arise on these Regulations.
§ Mr. Gower
Generally, I am somewhat in sympathy with some more moderate criticisms of these amounts; I should like to know more about how these figures are arrived at. But it is not for hon. Members opposite to try to combine this matter with pensions, and attack the policy of the Government for that reason.
§ Mr. Gower
For this reason. Assume that the National Assistance Board had authorised an increase in payments of 6s. for a married couple and 4s. for a single person. The right hon. Gentleman would still say that this is bogus because at a certain date these people will find that the increase will be revoked in April.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
The hon. Gentleman is surely making a bad point here. All that would happen would be that if the 6s. increase were given in the scale, any subsequent increase in the benefit would have no value.
§ Mr. Gower
Precisely. Even if this increase were exactly equal to the amount of increase in the National Insurance pension, the person in receipt of National Assistance would still feel aggrieved on a certain date in April, because he would find that his pension would be reduced by the amount by which his National Assistance had been increased in February. He would wonder why he had been placed in this position, while the man next door who was not in receipt of National Assistance had received a flat increase in pension. That is the inevitable result of these two schemes.
§ Rev. Llywelyn Williams (Abertillery)
Is not the hon. Gentleman aware that the present National Assistance scales are higher than the basic retirement pension?
§ Mr. Gower
The position will still arise, as it did when the last increases took place, whereby a person in receipt of the pension and not of National Assistance will receive the full benefit of any increase in the National Insurance pension, while the person already on National Assistance will find that that increase in the pension rate is reduced by the amount he receives from National Assistance. As my hon. Friend the Member for Govan (Mr. J. N. Browne) said, that position has to be explained.
§ Mr. Gower
I think I am entitled to refer to a remark that he made which was appropriate to the matter under discussion. A person on National Assistance cannot expect to benefit to the full extent of the pension as his neighbour who is merely in receipt of the pension. That is the result of these two forms of benefit, and it is unworthy to attack any Administration merely because that happens to be an inevitable result of what was set up when the relevant Act was passed under the last Government.
§ Mr. Gower
Yes, but the National Insurance Acts were passed and the National Assistance Board was re-established in its present form by the party opposite. Indeed, I think they are entitled to a lot of credit for that fact. But to blame hon. Members on this side for some of the results of the form in which that legislation was passed and the form in which the Board was re-organised is somewhat unworthy.
As soon as legislation for introducing pensions was announced, I knew that a number of people would be disappointed. I well remember saying at a meeting before this legislation was announced that some people would necessarily be disappointed. That has always been the case. I forecast that those who were in receipt of National Assistance would be in this category.
As we are all aware, the National Assistance increases which took place in 1952 were on a far more generous scale—I think the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) will agree—than the increase in National Insurance pensions at that time. I believe that to some extent the query which has been in the minds of hon. Members opposite and which has been echoed by me is explained by the fact that the increases in the National Assistance rates were so much more generous, and this fact has modified the increases which have been recommended on this occasion. That is the only conclusion I can reach.
We can regard this increase not, as hon. Members opposite suggest, as something bad but as something essentially good. It is an increase; it is a step in 2527 the right direction. We must remember that it is within the power of the National Assistance Board to recomemnd further increases at any time. I am open to correction on that, but I believe that the Board can recommend such increases at any time.
If it is true, as the right hon. Member for Caerphilly suggested, that the Board recommended these scales in ignorance of the amounts by which the pensions were to be increased, we can only infer that very shortly it may re-examine its scales in the light of the new pensions. The right hon. Gentleman said that the Board had erroneously set these scales because it was ignorant of the amount by which the Government were likely to increase the pensions. Now the Board is not ignorant and it is within its power to make a further increase in recommended grants. If the right hon. Gentleman's argument is correct, the Board will now reconsider these scales in the light of the pension rates.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
Is the hon. Member not aware that in its own memorandum the National Assistance Board disclaimed any knowledge of the increased pensions?
§ Mr. Gower
The right hon. Gentleman made a statement on those lines and accused the Government of not divulging the information to the Board. If all this argument be true—and he appears to have great faith in it—it is obvious that the National Assistance Board may very soon come forward with a reassessment based upon the general increase in the pensions. To that extent we may be able sooner rather than later to pass other regulations in the present form. I sincerely hope so, because I believe that these are among the most deserving of our people.
§ 8.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)
The hon. Member for Barry (Mr. Gower) is the only Member who has so far spoken from the benches opposite to show any signs of having a heart. Generally speaking, I think his heart is in the right place, and I have wondered for some time why he does not cross the Floor of the House—
§ Mr. Houghton
—and let us rationalise his emotions and try to get his social policy straight. He certainly will not do so as long as he remains where he is.
The hon. Member says that this is not bad but is good. Anything better is good, even if it is not good enough, and the main complaint from these benches is that the improvement in the National Assistance scales does not go far enough. That is the substance of our complaint. There is no doubt that this is a great human problem, and I believe, indeed I hope, that it will trouble the conscience of the nation more as time goes on, because I believe that very soon it will be necessary to resolve a fundamental dilemma in our social policy; and it is about that subject that I wish to detain the House for a few moments.
Some people say that National Assistance should play a larger part in our general scheme of social security and some say that it should play a smaller part; and that, I submit to the House, is the question upon which it will be necessary for both political parties in the near future to declare their policy. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) quoted from the "Economist," but, with great respect, he did not reveal to the House where the "Economist" wanted to take him.
What the "Economist" said, in its issue of 11th December, was this:The extravagance of the Government's present proposals does not lie in the rates of benefit themselves, but in the fact that they are to be given to so many millions of people who do not need them.That was the comment of the "Economist" on the improved benefits under the National Insurance Bill. It went on to say—and here I hope I have the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South:If so many millions of money were not to be handed to people in much less need, it would be easily possible to raise these rates to, say, £2 10s. and £4 a week plus rent …which were the figures mentioned by my hon. Friend.
But look at the price which the "Economist" was asking my hon. Friend to pay for this increase to £2 10s. for a single person and to £4 for a married couple. I am sure that my hon. Friend, 2529 and certainly none of my other hon. Friends, will associate themselves with the approach of the "Economist" to this problem of increasing National Assistance scales at the expense of adequate National Insurance benefits.
That again brings us to the fundamental problem. The part which National Assistance has been playing in our general scheme of social security has steadily increased from the beginning. Yet Beveridge hoped and expected that National Assistance would play a diminishing part in social security; it would be the net which would catch those who fell through the floor of National Insurance benefits and had to be given special succour to prevent destitution or hardship.
In October, 1946, only 15½ per cent. of retirement pensioners received assistance from the National Assistance Board. That rose in 1950 and 1951. By the time the Labour Government left office the percentage increase in the number of retirement pensioners in receipt of National Assistance had risen by nearly 2½ per cent., a total of 18 per cent., which was an increase of approximately 2½ per cent. over the figure for October, 1946. The present Government came to office in 1951, and since then the proportion on National Assistance has continued to rise.
During the period of office of the present Government the percentage of retirement pensioners on National Assistance has risen by double the increase during the period of the Labour Government. In September, 1954, the percentage was getting on for 22½. During the Second Reading of the National Insurance Bill the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance said that he was pleased to report a slight recession in the numbers having to seek National Assistance. But there is certainly little sign as yet that the large part which National Assistance now plays in our social security system is going to diminish.
I was disappointed that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary did not say something more about this problem and the attitude of the Government towards it. It can be argued that the increase in National Insurance benefits by more than the proposed increase in National Assistance scales will reduce the amount of National Assistance which the National Insurance beneficiaries will need. That 2530 is true, although it is unlikely to reduce the numbers of those who will have to seek National Assistance by anything more than a small fraction of those now getting it.
I declare my faith in this matter. I believe that the Socialist conception of social security is to move towards more adequate benefits as of right. Whether they are financed by contributions, whether by a social security tax of a graduated character, whether wholly and exclusively out of the Exchequer, I am not at the moment disposed to argue. My faith is in the object of social security, which surely must be for bigger and better benefits as of right.
The reason why we stand for adequate benefits as of right is that it is not enough to relieve poverty; we wish to eliminate poverty, and at the same time obviate the humiliations of being poor. If they do not understand that, hon. and right hon. Members opposite will not appreciate what we want to achieve. Whether the means test is under the National Assistance Board or under a public assistance committee, it is still a means test. It is regarded by other beneficiaries as a penalty on their thrift.
Those who have to seek National Assistance are made to feel poor. There cannot be a healthy society if a large section of it, although it can get relief for its poverty, is made to go through the humiliations of being poor. If that is our purpose, of course it follows that we wish to move further towards an adequate subsistence National Insurance benefit which will reduce substantially the need to go through the National Assistance Board.
We cannot, perhaps, hope to eliminate entirely the exceptional need which arises in particular cases. It would be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible economically, to raise the level of the National Insurance benefits so high that none would ever need to go to the National Assistance Board; but we certainly want to get much further along that road than we appear to be getting so far.
Another thing that needs to be said is that both political parties will surely soon have to say where they go from here. Up to now, I think it is right to say, both political parties have contented themselves by giving pledges to restore 1946 values. I say that that is 2531 not enough. After all, many people who are falling back on National Insurance benefits in adversity at the present time have been accustomed to standards which have been built up on the higher wages of recent years.
If the wage earner and the salary earner are to have an increasing share in the national cake, if the Chancellor of the Exchequer's hopeful forecast that our standard of life can be doubled in the next 25 years proves to be true, the question is, Whose standard of life is to be doubled, and whose is not? Surely, in all these things, all sections of the community should move in harmony. Increases should be given in the standard of life of those who are on social security payments, as well as to those who are still in employment.
As I asked in the Second Reading debate on the National Insurance Bill, what improvements in 1946 standards do we contemplate in regard both to National Insurance benefits and National Assistance scales? Are we referring back for our base-line to 1938 or 1912, when people did not have even wireless licences? Is no wireless licence to be included in a subsistence payment now? Is there not, indeed, to be a continuation of the enjoyment of television for those who in their wage-earning days are able to afford television and who wish to continue to enjoy it as part of the amenities of life when they retire? Certainly, some new thinking on standards will have to be undertaken.
The hon. Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Fort) posed the old question, what is poverty? I suppose poverty is like pain—it is hard to define, but one knows when one feels it. Poverty is not an abstract and standard thing; it is a relative thing. Those who retire, those who go on sickness benefit, or are unemployed, are entitled to see some reflection in their social security payments of contemporary standards of life around them, and which they themselves enjoy when in full employment. Nothing has been said about this. The Minister has not yet spoken, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has done so. I hope that we shall hear something more about the policy of the Government towards National Assistance in the scheme of social security.
2532 One can understand how foxed people become about National Insurance benefits on the one hand and National Assistance scales on the other when they are subject to a varying relationship. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Walton (Mr. K. Thompson) said that National Assistance is quite different from National Insurance. So it is in theory, and it may be, for all I know, that the National Assistance Board does not disclose a single figure of what is in its mind before it makes recommendations to the Minister.
However, I should be very surprised if it is done that way. We all know of the informalities of Government administration, and it would surprise me greatly if the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing when it comes to relate, as it must for the purpose of discussion in this House, what is proposed about National Insurance benefits and what is proposed at the same time about National Assistance scales.
The hon. Member for Barry drew attention to the fluctuating relationship between National Insurance and National Assistance benefits. There is no doubt that this causes a good deal of misunderstanding. Moreover, it increases our doubt as to where the Government are going. In 1951, the National Assistance scale, exclusive of rent, and the National Insurance benefit, were the same. In 1952, the present Government pushed the National Assistance scale 2s. 6d. above the National Insurance benefit—35s. was the National Assistance scale, exclusive of rent, for a single person householder, and 32s. 6d. was the National Insurance benefit for the single person.
Now the Minister has reversed that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) pointed out. Instead of the National Assistance scale being 2s. 6d. above the National Insurance benefit, it is 2s. 6d. below—37s. 6d. is the National Assistance scale, exclusive of rent, and 40s. is the new National Insurance benefit for a single person. There is bound to be dissatisfaction. On one occasion the National Assistance beneficiaries receive a proportionately higher benefit than they do on another, and it is becoming urgently necessary, while the great issues on future insurance policy are under discussion, to establish some kind of standing relationship between the 2533 National Assistance scales and the National Insurance benefits. I will explain why.
For this purpose the National Assistance Board is the rate-fixer. That is the body charged with the responsibility of recommending scales of National Assistance suitable to meet the requirements of those who go to it, either without resources or with inadequate resources, for a reasonable maintenance standard. So the National Assistance Board is the body which, in its recommendations to the Government, should say what the National Assistance scale should be, and should explain fully what is proposed.
Then it is imperative that the National Insurance benefit should be related to it so that we no longer have a varying relationship between National Insurance and National Assistance. For instance, it would have been better understood if the National Assistance scale were to be 40s. for a single person, tallying with the National Insurance benefit, rent being excluded in the case of National Assistance. I do not say that that would have met all the requirements of those who seek National Assistance, but if the National Insurance benefit were put high enough to provide reasonable subsistence, exclusive of rent and special requirements, we should find that the part which National Assistance would have to play in social security payments would begin to go down.
At all events, that seems to be a practical suggestion to overcome what has happened in the past when the National Assistance and National Insurance scales have not moved in harmony. I am sure that until that is done we shall have recurring complaints because those receiving National Assistance believe that they are unfairly treated in relation to those who receive improvements in National Insurance benefits.
Some declaration of policy by the Government is badly needed. The trouble about the Conservative Party is that it works on a purely empirical basis. It is content just to titivate the principles and benefits provided in a social security scheme which was a grand conception when first devised. However, the right hon. Gentleman said nothing of these things in his broadcast on Saturday. He was content just to explain to his listeners that he had not wasted any time 2534 since 15th November, and he was anxious to show that he really stood for benefits as of right.
He gave the impression that he hated to think that worthy citizens were having to seek National Assistance when the intentions of the National Insurance scheme were that they should have adequate benefits as of right. The right hon. Gentleman has not done anything about it; he has merely said that that is what he believes. There is no declaration of policy here which will enable us to see where the right hon. Gentleman and the Government are going.
I conclude by pleading once more for some really deep thinking on the problem of where our social security scheme is going from here. It will not be enough merely to continue talking of restoring the 1946 standards in a period of expanding prosperity and production, and in the face of the dividends which are now being yielded as the result of the foresight and planning of the Labour Government from 1946 to 1951. In those conditions, surely the nation will expect some greater conception of social security than a return to 1946 standards, which were, in turn, 1938 standards polished up to meet the new conditions after the war.
We embark on a new epoch in our social system. We must have new horizons, and fresh standards, in what we seek to provide for our people. If we claim to be the most civilised country in the world and boast that we have a social security scheme unparalleled elsewhere, surely we must eliminate poverty and at the same time remove all the conditions of being poor, which arouse bitter memories and give rise to strong criticism of the inadequacy of the proposals before the House.
§ 8.50 p.m.
§ Mr. C. J. M. Alport (Colchester)
The House always listens with great interest and respect to the contributions of the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) on the subject of social policy generally. There was a great deal in his speech with which I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree. There were, however, some parts of his speech with which I—and I think other hon. Members on this side of the House—could not agree. He produced the old canard that the Conservative Party works only on an empirical basis, 2535 that its attitude to social affairs and social policy is to adjust the machinery of social security to meet the immediate problems. Up to a point, that is inevitably the task of any Government, Conservative or Socialist.
But behind the whole of our approach to social policy is surely as much logic and careful thought as lie behind that of the party opposite. After all—and it would have been generous if the hon. Member for Sowerby had admitted the fact—we shared, during the time of the Coalition Government in the blueprinting of the whole structure of social security as it exists today. Whatever defects and whatever successes there may be for the existing scheme, it is—and I think it right so to regard it—a social security structure created not only by the two great parties, but by the Liberal Party, which in its time also made a great contribution to it. I do not think that the hon. Member is right in saying that we approach this matter in a purely empirical fashion.
He said that his own party were determined to hold out new horizons to the people of this country. Are those the rather shadowy and cloudy horizons contained in "Challenge to Britain," or is this some new policy about which we heard yesterday in a speech from the right hon. Gentleman who was Attorney-General and President of the Board of Trade in the last Government? If that be the sort of horizons held out, I think that there may be new horizons before the party opposite; but at present they seem shadowy indeed.
I do not think that hon. Members on this side would disagree that the National Insurance element in social security should play a far bigger part than National Assistance in the maintenance of the standard of living in this country. We have, in fact, done a great deal during the past three years to ensure that that principle accepted by this side of the House is carried out.
As I understand it, the main reason for ensuring that National Insurance rates are higher than National Assistance rates, with a small margin of difference, is precisely to ensure that the National Insurance field is a far greater one than that which must necessarily be covered by the National Assistance machinery. I should 2536 have thought that that is what we have in fact done. The Government have put into practice precisely the principle which was neglected by the Socialist Party during the formative years of National Insurance and the National Assistance scheme.
I would go further and say that I am quite certain that it is unrealistic for the hon. Member for Sowerby, and other hon. Gentlemen opposite, to suppose that it would ever be possible to eliminate the National Assistance element completely from social security. After all, with what are we faced?
§ Mr. Alport
I understood the hon. Member for Sowerby to be suggesting that. At any rate, that was the end for which he wished to work—to try to make National Insurance so comprehensive that the need for National Assistance would gradually disappear.
§ Mr. Houghton
I think that the hon. Gentleman misunderstood me. I made it clear that the abolition of the need for National Assistance was too much to hope for, too much to write into a National Insurance scheme.
§ Mr. Alport
I would fully agree with the hon. Member, and I think that generally the House would agree. His aim, apparently, is to reduce the necessity for National Assistance to the minimum compatible with our general policy of social security.
We must be quite clear that the minimum can never be as small as we should wish, provided that, at the same time, we wish to see a gradually rising standard of living and wages for the working population. It is clear that this form of operation—which we are undertaking for the second time during the lifetime of this Government and which was undertaken on two occasions during the lifetime of the previous Government—of raising the floor of social security a little higher in order to compensate for the increase in the standard of living enjoyed by the working population, will always take place at intervals of two, three, four or five years, provided that the standard of living of the working population rises, as we hope it will continue to do for the next 25 years.
2537 That means that unless there is some means of tying National Assistance and National Insurance to a standard of living index there will aways be a period in which the relative standard of living of those who are dependent directly upon National Assistance will lag a little behind that of the working population. It is therefore essential that we should not decry National Assistance—as the hon. Member for Sowerby was inclined to do—because it performs an essential function in pushing up the standard of living for those at the minimum level, in order to enable them to keep up with the rising standard of living of the rest of the population until some action by this House raises the level of all those concerned.
§ Mr. T. Brown
Would not the hon. Member agree that the gap between the highest and the lowest level is far too great, having regard to the prosperity of the country?
§ Mr. Alport
I am always grateful to the hon. Member for his tributes to the work of the Conservative Government during the last three years. It may well be that there are arguments in favour of increasing the height at which the safety net is put, but we should be careful to make certain that we have our feet firmly upon the present ground of economic prosperity before we ask too much, of hope for too much, from the future. Any person who was judicious and prudent would take that view, as the Government clearly have upon this occasion.
It is a great pity that hon. Members opposite are inclined to decry the contribution made to the whole system of social security by voluntary societies of various sorts. It has been my experience—and I do not claim that it is greater than any other private Member of Parliament—that with the best will in the world a State system of National Assistance cannot be made sufficiently flexible to meet all the intimate needs of those who fall upon hard times. Time and time again I have found that it is necessary to appeal to a certain voluntary society which has greater freedom of action in the disposal of its funds—I do not say greater imagination because I do not think it is true—than the National Assistance Board can ever give to any of its officers.
2538 I believe that there is now an increasing rather than diminishing need for voluntary organisations to supplement the social security system in its National Assistance guise. I was therefore greatly concerned with the attitude of the hon. Member for Sowerby, who gave the impression that he wished to see—and that it was Socialist policy to see—all the functions relative to maintaining and improving the standard of living of those at the lowest levels concentrated in the hands of the State. I hope that I am not misinterpreting his remarks. My view is that there is still a very definite place, and a very important place, in the whole of this sphere for various voluntary societies which can help the individual case which falls outside of the scope of National Assistance.
§ Mr. Ellis Smith
It was my privilege to serve for a long time on Committees which prepared evidence to put before the Beveridge Commission, and one of the important aims of the Beveridge Report was to eliminate the need for charities, and that was the reason why so much stress was put upon National Assistance in the case of those people who have exhausted their insurance rights.
§ Mr. Alport
I quite agree, and I know that that is a point of view which is perfectly properly held by hon. Members opposite. I am merely stating my own view that that principle of the Beveridge Report, which was to attempt to eliminate what is called private charity, was in fact a step in the wrong direction. It is my view that it is an admirable thing for community life that there should be organisations for providing help from private people for those in need, and I also think that the machinery of Government of a great national organisation is not sufficiently sensitive and flexible to meet the very intimate and varying needs of all individuals who fall into want.
Many tributes have been paid by hon. Members in this House to the National Assistance officers in their constituencies. Despite that, and I know perfectly well that the greatest care is taken by these officers in all parts of the country in trying to render the pattern and policy of the National Assistance Board sufficiently flexible for the purpose of meeting these needs, they are not entirely sufficient.
2539 Although I know that this point of view is not popular on either side of the House, I think it has some merit in it. It strikes me that, in many of the cases which I come across, the need is not for money so much as for assistance in the special basic requirements of a household. I am thinking particularly of the case of coal. I have always thought that our forefathers, when they arranged their form of National Assistance and social security in the various almshouse trusts all over the country, were extraordinarily wise and humane in giving each person a house, a small money allowance, and fuel, thus providing that old people particularly, whatever else they might not have had, knew that during a cold winter they would at least have a ton of coal.
Although it may not be easier from an administrative point of view, and although in many ways there may be objections to giving assistance in kind, it is my feeling that many of the old people, facing a winter with the knowledge that their money allowance may not be quite so much, but with the certainty that there would be in their cellars half-a-ton of coal, or a hundredweight of coal per week or something of that sort, would face that winter with a great deal better heart than they can at the present time.
I think there may be other forms of assistance in kind of that sort which could be rendered through the Assistance Board to those in need, and in lieu of money payments, because it would be in accordance with tradition, and, What is more, it would be a great consolation and help, particularly to old people.
I am quite certain that, although it is the job and the duty of the Opposition to make additional demands on the Government on behalf of the particular section of the community concerned, at the same time, no one in this House or in this country would deny that, during this last period of debate on legislation which we are considering, this Government has not only shown a wise head in dealing with these social problems but also a sensitive and generous heart. I feel that hon. Members opposite, had they been on this side, at this time and been able to introduce and support regulations of this sort, would have been very contented indeed to have that opportunity.
§ 9.10 p.m.
§ Mr. G. M. Thomson (Dundee, East)
I have listened with close attention to the very honest speech of the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Alport), and, before I go on to mention one or two of the points on which I profoundly disagree with him, may I begin by mentioning one point on which I think we are both agreed? It has been very noticeable that in the only two speeches which we have had from the benches opposite for many hours, the hon. Members concerned have indicated their belief that the 2s. 6d. increase in the present scales is inadequate. In fact, they have supported the point of view that has been expressed from this side of the House.
§ Mr. Alport
I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman reads the OFFICIAL REPORT tomorrow he will not find that I said that it is inadequate. All I said was that the time may come when we can do better than we are doing at the moment, but that at the moment the increase seems to be a very generous one.
§ Mr. Thomson
The hon. Gentleman was more cautious than his hon. Friend the Member for Barry (Mr. Gower), although I think that I detected in both speeches a certain dissatisfaction with the proposals before us. However, I am sorry if I am to be deprived of the single point of agreement which I thought I had with the hon. Gentleman opposite, because, when he pleads for the encouragement of charitable voluntary organisations for dealing with this matter of National Assistance, that is where I must part company with him.
We on this side of the House do not deprecate the role of the voluntary spirit, but the whole experience of the past 150 years has shown that in many ways the charitable organisations' method of dealing with people in need has been unsatisfactory, and sometimes even objectionable. I think that the hon. Gentleman is quite wrong when he bases his case on the belief that these voluntary charitable organisations have a flexibility and an imagination that is lacking in State National Assistance.
All it amounts to is that in present circumstances these voluntary charitable organisations have surplus funds over and above the statutory scales laid down for the National Assistance Board. If we 2541 were able to be more generous with our National Assistance scales, and with other social provisions, then there would be more scope for the officers of the National Assistance Board to show even greater imagination and willingness than they do at present. I join with the hon. Gentleman and with other hon. Members in paying tribute to our local National Assistance Board officers, who, I have always found, do their best to meet the human needs presented to them.
The other point on which I wish to join issue with the hon. Gentleman is his reference to the contribution which the Conservative Party has made to the policy of social security and the development of these National Assistance provisions. I do not for a moment deny the genuineness of the hon. Gentleman's interest in these matters, but I really get tired of the suggestion that the Conservative Party, as a political body, has over a long period shown a great interest in the social security of the nation.
We have, perhaps, had one of the best illustrations of that this evening. While Member after Member has got up from this side of the House, only two have got up from the benches opposite. Indeed, there are now more hon. Members opposite present than at any time this evening. Yet this is the final chapter of what the Minister called a matter of major social importance. The first was the increase in pensions.
I have always regarded the policy of the Conservative Party in this way: many of its members have a genuine interest in increasing social provision, but as a party they have not been very active.
My party, during its period of office in the Government, forcibly converted the Conservatives to an active interest in these matters, but during the lifetime of the present Government the Conservative Party has gone about these things in such a way as to perpetuate and accentuate the inequalities and privileges that exist in our present society, in so far as it can do it without running into serious political danger. The Conservatives are a party of privilege and unfair shares. I would not have believed it possible for a Conservative Government to carry on this policy of inequality within the narrow economic limits of the old-age pensions, but that is exactly what they have done.
2542 I am not asking hon. Gentlemen to take the word of a perjudiced individual like myself. Some mention has been made in this debate of an article in the "Economist" last week about pensions and National Assistance but I do not think the words used in that article have yet been quoted. The "Economist" said:How much politics has weighed in the decision, and how little human compassion, is demonstrated by the fact that the better off pensioners get an increase of 7s. 6d. a week, while the poorest of them, those who are in real need, get an increase of only 2s. 6d. a week. There are three times as many voters in the former class as in the latter.The "Economist" went on to say:It is precisely those cases of hardship that the new Pensions Bill will do least to relieve.For the pensioners who have nothing but the pension to live on, the amount was described asmean enough, in all conscience.That is the kind of proposition that has been put before us.
Under the proposed National Assistance scale the poorest of the poor, the pensioner who is hardest hit, will be treated worst. Goodness knows, 7s. 6d. is little enough to give the ordinary old-age pensioner for any sort of decent existence, but even within these narrow proposals the Government are creating iniquitous inequalities.
§ Mr. Alport
If the hon. Gentleman accepts one half of the "Economist" article he must also accept the other part. Therefore, I assume that he agrees with the whole thing.
§ Mr. Thomson
I have drawn attention to the article, and I am not concealing any of it, but it has already been pretty thoroughly discussed and I do not want to duplicate what has been said. I thought that if I referred to this argument as coming from the "Economist" it would carry more force than from a person like myself.
One of the best speeches has come from my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton), who drew attention to the dilemma that both sides of the House face in the sphere of social policy on the whole question of the relationship between National Assistance and National Insurance.
§ Mr. Ellis Smith
It is not a dilemma. If hon. Members will read the report of the Inter-Departmental Committee which investigated the matter they will see evidence from the Trades Union Congress and other experienced organisations, and will find that the Beveridge Report fully worked out all that my hon. Friend has mentioned.
§ Mr. Thomson
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his assistance. I was, myself, about to remind the House that the hon. Member for Sowerby pointed out that this is a matter not incapable of solution. A number of hon. Members opposite have also drawn attention to the conflict that exists between National Assistance and insurance.
The dilemma can only be resolved by a decent level of benefit. One hon. Member opposite earlier quoted what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunbartonshire, West (Mr. Steele) when, as a member of the Government dealing with social insurance, he expressed the hope that we would be able greatly to reduce the incidence of National Assistance. The hon. Member opposite seemed to think that because we, on this side, ask for an increase of the scales, we are contradicting what my hon. Friend said. We are doing nothing of the sort.
We want to see National Assistance relegated to its proper rôle, which is to deal with these people who, for one reason or another do not get adequate benefits as of right. Meanwhile, it is important that National Assistance scales should be of an adequate level of subsistence. It is disgraceful for the hon. Member for Govan (Mr. J. N. Browne) to suggest that the proposed National Assistance scales are sufficient to keep body and soul together.
I hope that the Minister will explain, when he winds up the debate tomorrow, exactly how this 2s. 6d. was arrived at. Is it based on cost of living figures at arrived at in consultation with the Government? It is very important to know that. On this side of the House there are very deep suspicions that there has been a change in atmosphere and outlook at the National Assistance Board. I do not, myself, make any sort of charge against, or attack on, the new Chairman of the Board. In my personal dealings with him on behalf of constituents I have always found him courteous 2544 and considerate. But in spite of platitudes from the opposite side of the House this is, of course, a matter of polities.
It is a matter of politics when a Labour Chairman is taken from the chair of the Assistance Board and a Conservative Chairman is put in his place. It is significant that in the first Report under the new chairmanship, four out of 28 pages are devoted to what is called the problem of… the shirker as well as the weedy type of man who wants work but cannot be persuaded that a course of re-establishment would help him to get it.That phraseology awakens echoes in our minds. In some way it is the phraseology of the thirties.
The Report goes on:Some men seem willing to undergo repeated imprisonment rather than relinquish a life of idleness; of the prosecutions in 1953, three were second prosecutions of the same man during the year, and one was a third prosecution. Nevertheless, repeated prosecution does sometimes succeed.The Report adds:The increase compared with 1952 in the number of successful prosecutions for persistent idling is not an indication that idling is more rife but reflects the greater amount of time which officers have been able to give to the laborious task of building up evidence to establish that an offence has been committed.Let me say at once that I am completely against the workshy person, the person who is willing to consume in the community but is unwilling to produce. I am against him, whether he is at one end of the social scale or the other; whether standing on a street corner in Dundee passing betting slips, or standing in a more exalted fashion in a grey top hat at Ascot doing his betting in the paddock.
It is instructive to compare the present Report with that of the former Chairman. In that Report this problem is properly dealt with, and it points out the real proportions of the problem. It is pointed out that in a community of about 140,000 there might be about 20 who have it in their power to get back to work but are unwilling to do so. I adduce that evidence to confirm our suspicions that there has been a change in the atmosphere in the National Assistance Board, and that we now have a Conservative rather than a Socialist atmosphere. If the Minister can disprove this, nobody will be more 2545 glad than my hon. Friends and I, but we should like to know exactly where this 2s. 6d. increase comes from.
I spent a short time this morning doing a little Christmas shopping, and hon. Members opposite will be interested to know that in the shops in London there was a great air of prosperity. There was a great deal of evidence that many people are doing very well. We are all glad about national prosperity, though we pay due tribute to the fact that it is caused by world conditions rather than by any of the policies of hon. Members opposite.
Returning, in the tube, I found myself, I think at South Kensington Underground Station, standing beside a poster which said that a poodle could be given a full shampoo and beauty treatment for only 12s. 6d. The sum of 12s. 6d. is about one-third of the total weekly benefit under these National Assistance scales. It represents five weeks' value of the increase that has been offered, in a community which is so prosperous. But the prosperity is unequally shared.
We are living in a society where people own shares the value of which have risen by 80 per cent. in the lifetime of the present Government. I do not know whether any hon. Members present own tea shares. The price of tea is getting more and more out of the reach of the very kind of people who will be given these rates which we are asked tonight to pass.
The hon. Member for Barry said that while he did not think the scales were sufficient, he was prepared to accept them because they went in the right direction. He rather reminded me of a person who is swimming a river for his life. When the rope is thrown to him, he is pulled along for a little in the right direction, and then the rope is taken away. It is all very well to go in the right direction, but what is important is to go far enough in the right direction.
If there were a Parliamentary means of extending the scope of these scales and increasing their value, we on this side of the House would use it. As there are no Parliamentary means to do so, we must accept this proposal without a division, but not without a protest.
§ 9.28 p.m.
§ Miss Irene Ward (Tynemouth)
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. G. M. Thomson) should have 2546 said what he did about the Chairman of the National Assistance Board. I am not going to retaliate by making an attack on the former Chairman of the Assistance Board. In fact, I am going to say some thing rather nice about him. I think I am right in saying that his period of office had come to an end and that therefore he retired on that basis. It was not a case of a Socialist chairman being dismissed and a Conservative chairman being substituted.
§ Miss Ward
I have listened to practically every speech that has been made tonight, and I remember one hon. Member pointing out that the former Chairman of the Board is still a member of it. I happen to have been in the House with him and I know that Mr. Buchanan was a very popular Member of this House. Everybody respected him because he had a great knowledge of the subject on which he spoke. I lost my seat in the House in the 1945 Election, but that did not prevent me from feeling very pleased that a man of such wide experience had been chosen as Chairman of the National Assistance Board.
My recollection is that at the time—and right hon. Gentlemen opposite can correct me if I am wrong—Mr. Buchanan was asked whether he would like to be Minister of National Insurance. He immediately inquired of the Labour Government whether they intended at once to raise old-age pensions, and when he was told that they did not, he said he did not wish to be Minister. [Laughter.] That is a great tribute to him, because he supported his beliefs. Hon. Members opposite may laugh, but I like sincerity, from whichever side of the House it comes. [An HON. MEMBER: "The hon. Lady is telling a story."] It is not a story; it happens to be true.
If I may go one stage further—
§ Mr. G. M. Thomson
I made no imputations against the Chairman of the National Assistance Board. I paid personal tribute to his courtesy and consideration. What I said was that the National Assistance Board was affected by the political complexion of the Government of the day and that it was of political significance that a Socialist Chairman had been removed and a Conservative Chairman put in his place. That was all I said, and I should like to put it on record that I made no personal attack upon the Chairman of the National Assistance Board. I willingly pay tribute to his experience and his humanity.
§ Miss Ward
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. He has repeated exactly what I said he said.
The hon. Member followed up his argument by attacking the Conservative Party for what he considered to be its lack of interest in the social well-being and welfare of the people of this country. I do not intend to answer him because our record stands for the world to see, and it has been a first-class record. We have done a great deal for the welfare of the people. We have not only made our plans and talked about our plans, but, when we have been in power, we have been able to find the money with which to finance our plans, and that is one of the greatest contributions to the well-being and welfare of the people.
I have listened with very great interest to what right hon. and hon. Members have said about the National Assistance Board. I intend now to turn to my pet hobby-horse. Many Members on both sides of the House talk in general terms about those who have to seek National Assistance, but there are some people who do not have as many champions in the House, and they are the people in receipt of non-contributory pensions who have to seek the help of the National Assistance Board. I was interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Fort) said about these people, and I fully concur in the views which he expressed. These people on non-contributory pensions have to seek National Assistance to supplement the small sums on which they have to live, and I observe that their pensions have not been increased since 1946.
I see a great deal of the more unfortunate sections of the community, for I 2548 go about a great deal and many of them come to consult me on personal problems. Non-contributory pensioners seeking the assistance of the National Assistance Board are also entitled to consideration both from a Conservative Government and from hon. Members opposite. The pension was increased in 1946 with the introduction of the National Insurance Act. Although the Socialist Government were in power until the General Election in 1951, nothing further was done to help these people. I think I am entitled to say that, although a great number of speeches have been made today, no attention was paid to this very deserving section of the community, and it is about them that I want to say a word or two.
First, I wish to join with hon. Members on both sides of the House who have commented on the good work done by the National Assistance Board through its officials. We all know that a considerable number of people hesitate to go to the Board for assistance when, in fact, they are entitled to it. I have been very pleased to find that if one writes to Sir Geoffrey Hutchison and, through him, to the regional offices of the Board suggesting that welfare officers should go to the homes of individuals who are nervous about seeking assistance, very often a friendly chat and explanation of the policy behind National Assistance may result. That policy is that if people are in need assistance is theirs by right.
I do not see why it should not be considered theirs by right because it does not come within a National Insurance scheme. It is fit and proper that we should do what we can for those in need. When National Assistance Board officers call at the homes of some of these people and have a friendly chat with them, it is encouraging to them. It makes all the difference to their views about the Board. Officers who have visited people about whom I have written have been very successful. That has been a real benefit to those who subsequently have drawn assistance from the Board.
I am extremely disappointed that nothing has been done for the very deserving section of the community, the non-contributory pensioner. I am coming to the conclusion—I say this with great hesitancy—that it is better to have nothing, for then one may get more pension, than it is to have been thrifty in a 2549 small way because circumstances have enabled one to save, when one is considered "nobody's child." I am sorry to put this on the record again, but after long experience in the House of Commons I find that we have to repeat things about 20 times before they register.
I am a firm believer in continuing a battle because, in the long run, justice always triumphs. In a large number of small battles I have engaged, or have watched other people engage, they have all been won in the long run. So I shall put this on record again, although I have no doubt that the Minister will not be very pleased with me. That does not worry me one little bit.
Two years ago—[Interruption]. I see that my right hon. Friend is leaving his place. If he were to leave at this moment, I should simply have to put it in writing; but I am glad that he appears to be remaining. Last year, at Margate, my constituency of Tynemouth, supported by the whole of the Conservative Party in the northern area, sent up a resolution asking for the appointment of a committee to inquire what could be done for the small income groups. When I speak of the small income groups, I talk about those in receipt of non-contributory pensions. That section of the community did valiant and noble work for the country before we were faced with the devastating Second World War.
In reply to the resolution, the Conservative Party put up my right hon. Friend the Minister, with his charming manner. Everybody thinks that he is very charming and approachable, and has a great understanding of the problem, so he was asked to speak and to turn down my constituency's resolution. Of course, he did it in such a way as to indicate that there was no need to set up a committee and that he could do everything that was necessary without one. That was over 12 months ago, and I am still waiting for action. There is not the slightest doubt that action was promised.
At the annual meeting of the Northern Regional Conservative Party last May—and this confounds the argument of hon. Members opposite, who say that the Conservative Party never interests itself in social welfare—we drew attention to my right hon. Friend's promise at Margate, sent it up to the Chairman of the Conservative Party, and asked for a progress 2550 report. When we came to discuss the National Insurance Bill last week, I expected to find that something had been done to assist the non-contributory pensioner.
I understood—and I supported it fully—that one of the ideas in increasing the pensions from the National Insurance Fund was to take people off National Assistance and to put them on to the Fund, so that they were entitled to a pension through the Fund and not through the Assistance Board. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and if it is desired to take people off National Assistance and to put them into a scheme which provides them with an income on which to live, we ought to be able to do something for the noncontributory pensioners on exactly the same basis.
That is why I am still waiting for action, and I hope I shall not have to wait very much longer. It is not quite the close season for the Budget, and so I can make my argument now. My right hon. Friend will not be able to say tomorrow that he cannot give an answer because we have approached the close season. I am hoping that he will have a word with his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to see what can be done for these small income groups.
I hope that hon. Members opposite will support me when I say that we are engaged in a fairly stiff battle with some of the Communists in this country. It is most important that people who help at all levels to suppress Communism and support democracy should have a place in the democratic system. I am thinking of some of the railway annuitants who are in the non-contributory pensions group.
§ Mr. Speaker
I have been in some doubt about the speech of the hon. Lady for some time, especially when she talked about non-contributory pensions. I thought she was arguing that, if their lot were improved, the call on National Assistance would be lessened. However, it is a very tenuous connection, but when she goes as far as railway annuitants she is outside the scope of the Regulations.
§ Miss Ward
Naturally I bow to your Ruling, Mr. Speaker. If, however, you were to ask my right hon. Friend 2551 to supply you with a list of people drawing non-contributory pensions who are covered by these regulations because they are mentioned in the National Assistance Regulations; if you asked him to submit a list of those people who have to go to the Board, I think you would find that among them would be a large number of annuitants from the old railway companies.
I have gone into this matter carefully, Mr. Speaker, because it is close to my heart, and I think you would find that I would be in order. However, I promise not to go much further except to say to my right hon. Friend that it is in the interests of the democratic system that these people should be fairly done by. I ask him to look at these cases from the point of view that first-class men and women working in industry and putting forth their best for the community, should be fairly done by. I do not think that this non-contributory group have been fairly done by up to date. They certainly were not fairly done by by hon. Gentlemen opposite, but they can be if my right hon. Friend will spend a little more time looking at their case.
I hope I have persuaded my right hon. Friend that there is a case for these noncontributory pensioners. By 1961 there will not be any pensions of this kind granted. These people come strictly within the definition of the small income groups, and therefore I hope that before long some action will be taken on their behalf.
§ 9.48 p.m.
§ Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Test)
I share the sympathy expressed by the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Miss Ward), not only in this debate but in many others, for all kinds of people on low incomes who have not yet been aided by the various patterns of State help. It would not be right to follow her into detailed arguments in this debate, except to say that the virtue of these Regulations, and indeed of National Assistance itself, is that it picks up hard cases of the kind which she has mentioned, and saves them from the poverty that would exist but for its establishment.
I hope that on some other occasion we shall be able to discuss the cause which is so dear to the heart of the hon. Lady; but, as she never hesitates to wave a 2552 loyal party flag, and since one could detect from time to time minor party asperities in her speech, it is only fair that anyone from this side should follow the waving of the blue flag by waving the red flag for a moment.
§ Dr. King
This is a delightful example of what a crazy, muddling country ours is. When I say "red flag" I mean the Socialist flag.
It is only fair to point out to those who have hugged to themselves the record of the Tory Party in respect of pensions and National Assistance during the last three years that the first time in British history that comparatively decent rates of National Assistance were paid to our poorest people was when the Labour Government took office after the war.
Unlike many of my hon. Friends, I agree to some extent with one thing, that was said by the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Alport). He spoke of the need, on top of all that we do in the form of National Assistance, for voluntary aid. He said, rightly, there was no need, because we were building up a great State service, for everyone to let the wellsprings of charity in their hearts dry up. What many of us object to is professional charity and charity-mongering; but whatever we do, either by the National Assistance scales or by any other part of our Welfare State, there is still plenty of room for help to old people, blind people, and crippled people, and for extra voluntary service in our hospitals, and that is help which kindly individuals are glad to give.
I am very glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) has taken part in the debate. I regard him as a kind of perpetual unofficial Minister of Pensions and National Insurance. I doubt whether any back bencher on either side of the House has served more constantly and ably the cause of the underdog. My hon. Friend pinpointed the heart of the issue, as he usually does when he contributes to a debate. We have yet to decide the final relationship between National Insurance on the one hand and National Assistance on the 2553 other. I hope the day will come when the purpose of National Assistance will be merely to provide help for those who slip through the meshes of the protecting net of National Insurance, no matter how carefully we spread it.
The Government are singularly unfortunate in the support which they have had from their side of the House during the debate. The hon. Member for Barry (Mr. Gower) practically gave us the case that we are trying to make. He began by almost saying that we should automatically accept everything that the National Assistance Board says to us about rates. That is an alarming attitude. We set up professional boards—the hon. Member mentioned the Boundary Commission and the National Assistance Board—but we set them up merely to do a piece of research work, and the final examination and the final decision rest upon this House.
Parliament is supreme, and the Government—not the Chairman of the Board—are responsible for the National Assistance rates. One would only add to the assurances already given to the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth that any references to the Chairman of the Board from this side of the House have by no means been personal, and that any criticism of the Board has been political and certainly not personal.
But the hon. Member for Barry then confessed that he was troubled about the new scale proposed by the Board. He wanted to know how the figure had been arrived at. He praised only faintly the Government's proposals, and showed some of the anxiety that is in the minds of most of my hon. Friends.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) troubled me somewhat by his references to the behaviour of National Assistance officials. I hope it is not true that there is a hardening of the attitude of any of the National Assistance officers or offices throughout the country. It is certainly not true in Southampton. There we have built up a generous and humane pattern of assistance, doing everything possible for people in distress, and sometimes achieving what is almost the impossible.
If there should be anything in the charge which has been hinted al by hon. Members on this side of the House, that there is a hardening of attitude or a re- 2554 turn to the kind of spirit of the old Public Assistance and Poor Law days, which we abolished, it is the duty of the Minister to examine such criticism, and, if he finds it to be true, to put matters right. Or, if he refuses to do that, to admit that there has been some change in direction from the Government. I do not believe that it is true, and I do not believe that there is any change. From my own experience, I can say that at any rate in my part of the country there is no change on the part of National Assistance officers, to whom most hon. Members would wish to pay tribute.
When we debated this issue in March, during the time when the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance and the Chancellor were in purdah—which they managed to make last far longer than the Budget and from which they managed to escape last November—the only points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby were discussed at length. These were, alarm that the level of subsistence of the poorest people in the country was getting lower and lower; that it had fallen below what it ought to be; that we were increasing production, and that we agreed that the whole of the increased wealth of this country resulting from such increased production should not go in the workers' wages on the one hand and the owners' profits on the other, but that there must be a third sharer in any advance in the standard of living in this country; and that the third sharer ought to be the poorest people of the country, who themselves have no means of adding to their means except by what the State gives.
We also expressed alarm in March that the rise in the cost of living was bearing most heavily on the poorest people in the country. We have abundantly proved, month after month, that any of the national indices by which we measure rises in the cost of living are by no means accurate when related to the poorest people in the country; that the burden of the rise in the cost of living weighs heaviest on the poorest people, because the greatest increases are in the vital essentials on which they must spend their money.
Incidentally, I am sorry that the Minister seemed to treat the question of the budgets of old-age pensioners rather flippantly. I know that the Old-Age Pensioners' Federation has been very 2555 persistent. I know that it presses its claims with perhaps more vigour than moderation. I can understand that from time to time it makes hon. Members cross. But the Minister should treat the Federation in a statesman-like way, and should remember that its anger and its demands, and the amounts for which it asks, always spring from the poverty of the people which it represents.
The Minister frequently has complained that the Federation had promised to send a number of such budgets but had sent only a handful. I can assure him that most of the old-age pensioners that I know are too proud to show their budgets to anybody, Minister or otherwise. One would not expect the proud people whom we are now discussing to flaunt or advertise their misery in the hope of deriving some extra benefits from this House. On the other hand, those of us who know them know how bitter is their hardship.
On the one hand, then, there is the poverty of the poor. But, on the other hand, there was the need to increase the basic pension as of right. It must also be remembered that some people are unwilling to go to the National Assistance Board, and it is held not to be a good sign if more and more people go to it. Somehow or other the Minister has to deal with these two rival claims—the need to raise the subsistence level on the one hand, and to lift the basic pension as of right on the other—and, in so doing, to remove some people from National Assistance.
Of the two claims I should say that the claim of those on National Assistance is the more weighty. If the Government could afford to spend a certain sum of money, more of it should have gone to those living at the poverty level than to increasing the basic pension. It is right to try to lift people off National Assistance, but the extent to which that is done in one moment is certainly a matter for debate and is certainly one in which the Government have gone much too far. If we want to measure the extent we can do so by considering the £15 million which the Minister hopes to save on National Assistance after paying the new rates of benefit.
The amount by which the Minister proposes to raise the basic living standard 2556 of our people is not enough to lift the poor out of their poverty, although everyone will admt that the grinding, bitter poverty that we knew in the past has disappeared. The figure which we are discussion tonight is the yardstick by which we shall measure the claims of the poor, the old people, the widows, the sick, the injured, and everybody who goes to the National Assistance Board.
When the Government were shaping their plans for next year I should have thought that they would have remembered that the height of a civilisation is measured by the standard of living of its poor people, and that they should have raised the National Assistance minimum by more than 2s. 6d. I emphasise, as I tried to do in another debate, the fact that in the spring of next year, when the first payment of the new benefits is made, thousands of old-age pensioners will go to their Members of Parliament, and say, "We have been robbed by the National Assistance Board of 5s. of the 7s. 6d. which the Minister gave us upon our basic pension."
They will receive a rise of 7s. 6d. automatically on their Post Office books, but as the rise in their National Assistance will be only 2s. 6d. they will, in their simple way, think that the National Assistance Board has taken away 5s. of the increase. It will be no use hon. Members arguing with them and putting forward the perfectly correct theory that of the money they will then get—including the extra 2s. 6d.—7s. 6d. more is theirs as basic rate of pension; and of right, than it used to be. I can only say, from experience in the past that every time the basic rate is stepped up above the extent of the increase in National Assistance, the old-age pensioner regards himself as having been robbed.
I think much of the hurt that is to come—and it will be a real hurt and will arouse real anger on the part of the old people—could have been avoided if there were not such a discrepancy between the 7s. 6d. rise in the basic pension and the 2s. 6d. rise in National Assistance. If the Minister will change his mind even now, and increases the 2s. 6d. every penny by which he increases it will, first, remove some elemental poverty, and, second, will prevent some of the disappointment and sense of injustice which 2557 old-age pensioners will feel when they get their new benefits.
In all this, we are speaking of about 1¾ million of our population, and with their dependants, possibly even more than that. We have said in debates in this House before that these are largely the people, because the bulk of them are old folk, who had the thinnest and hardest times in the years between the wars, and I therefore appeal to the Minister to think over the things that have been said in this debate, not to accept this 2s. 6d. as a final figure but to raise it towards the 7s. 6d.
§ Mr. Richard Thompson (Lord Commissioner of the Treasury)
I beg to move, That the debate be now adjourned.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Charles MacAndrew)
Certainly it is exempted business, but the Government have now moved the adjournment of the debate, and I must accept the Motion.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Debate to be resumed To-morrow.