§ 12 noon
§ Mr. Alec Jones (Rhondda, West)
I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 15, line 28, at end insert:'3. After paragraph 5 of the Schedule there shall be inserted the following:5A. In determining whether benefit shall be paid under section 7 of this Act to meet the whole or part of the cost of a funeral, no regard shall be had to the duties of local authorties under section 50(1) of the National Assistance Act 1948.".'I prefer the Under-Secretary in his more conciliatory mood when he is in Committee to his more public mood on the Floor of the House.
This amendment relates to the death grant—a subject that many people find distasteful, but that nevertheless is of great importance to so many people. The death grant is one of the two lump sum benefits paid under our National Insurance Scheme. The background to this amendment is that the lump sum payments, the death grant and the maternity grant have not retained the value that they had when they were introduced in 1948. The Minister is aware that he, I 1021 and many other hon. Members participated in a series of debates in Committee dealing with this problem of the death grant. In our deliberations in Committee two issues seem to have arisen concerning the death grant—first, the completely inadequate level of the grant at the moment and, secondly, the diverse powers of local authorities and the Supplementary Benefits Commission in meeting or helping to meet funeral expenses.
In this amendment, which is a modest one, we are not seeking to increase the level of the grant. The purpose of the amendment is to allow the Supplementary Benefits Commission to make payments to cover funeral expenses without having regard to the powers of local authorities, so that the commission will not be inhibited by the fact that local authorities have certain powers concerning the disposal of bodies.
A death in the family or, indeed, in a close circle of friends is usually a time of considerable grief and distress, but for many of our fellow citizens, especially the poorer members of society, to this grief we add considerable financial hardship, because for many of these people the cost of a funeral is more than they can bear. We have to accept that many such people find difficulty in meeting funeral expenses. The exact numbers are not known, but in trying to estimate numbers we should have some regard to the fact that there are about 3 million people on supplementary benefit and about 2 million marginally above the supplementary benefit level
In Committee hon. Members on both sides gave examples of cases, from their own constituencies, of people having to make a choice. Either they were trying to meet excessive funeral costs, which were running them into considerable debt with undertakers, or they were forced to accept the pauper's funeral which hon. Members on both sides of the Committee agreed was more in keeping with Dickensian times than with 1973.
The fact that clearly emerged—the Minister conceded this point in Committee—was that the present death grant just will not meet the cost even of a minimum standard funeral. The grant was £20 in 1949; it rose to £25 in 1958 and £30 in 1967, and there it has re- 1022 mained frozen. Whilst the grant has remained at the ridiculously low level of £30, the agreed maximum charge for funerals of a minimum standard—the figure was given by the Minister—has risen, in 1972–73, to £69.75, which means that the present level of grant is less than half the cost of a minimum standard funeral. This example is used to illustrate the considerable hardship that such a situation imposes on many people.
In Committee the Minister said that in cases of death the family and friends are often willing to help pay such funeral expenses. That is true in many cases—probably in the vast majority of cases—but, nevertheless, I believe it is the responsibility of this House to cater for those cases where the family or friends with the best will in the world, cannot meet the normal funeral expenses. It is that group on whom we are concentrating our attention this morning—the small group who genuinely cannot meet normal funeral expenses.
If relatives of the deceased do nothing about arranging the funeral, they can rely on Section 50 of the National Assistance Act 1948, which empowers local authorities in such cases to arrange funerals and meet the costs. If the death occurs in a hospital, similar powers can be exercised by hospital management committees. But I think we should take into account the fact that such a procedure ignores the natural reluctance of relatives or friends to accept such a burial or cremation, for it means a pauper-type funeral.
In Committee my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Ernest G. Perry) told us that from his knowledge, paupers' funerals in London still meant that 10 or 12 bodies were buried in the same grave and that there was no provision for a memorial stone. Such a means of disposing of a body is completely insensitive to the feelings of relatives, and it lacks any dignity and respect for the deceased.
If relatives make a claim for supplementary benefit they are advised to go to the local authority. In fact, paragraph 108 of the Supplementary Benefits handbook, Administrative Paper No. 2, clearly states:If therefore the Commission are approached for help before a funeral is arranged the person concerned will be told of the responsibility1023placed upon local authorities and hospital management committees so that he can consider making an approach to the appropriate authority.In other words, if such relatives, feeling that they cannot meet funeral expenses, make a claim for supplementary benefit, if they make it before the funeral is arranged they are immediately back to the pauper-type funeral, which lies within the jurisdiction of local authorities.
This amendment is a modest one. It does not seek to increase the death grant, much as we on this side of the House would like it increased. It does not seek to alter the criteria for judging a claim for exceptional needs payments by the Supplementary Benefits Commission. It would merely enable the commission to entertain a claim for exceptional needs payments for funeral expenses without taking into account the powers of local authorities or hospital management committees.
We are trying to make clear that the power of the commission to assist in the payment of funeral expenses should take precedence over the duty of the local authority to arrange a pauper's funeral. Our amendment would leave the commission entirely free to decide whether to help in a particular case, but it would, we hope, prevent the commission from refusing help on the grounds that the local authority has the duty to bury the person.
I recall that in Committee the Under-Secretary indicated that he felt that it was more important to give extra cash and a greater degree of priority to making provision for the elderly during their life. I accept that that is true to some extent, but it ignores the great importance that old people attach to having what they describe as a decent funeral. I know from my own family experience how the thought of having a decent funeral looms large in the minds of elederly people. Moreveover, I remind the Under-Secretary that the provision that we propose would make extra financial help available to people who are living at the moment—the relatives of the deceased, who are forced to bear an unreasonable burden.
It is not an earth-shattering amendment, but it would remove some of the heavy pressure upon our poorest people at the time of a death in the family and 1024 would introduce more humanity and compassion not only for the dying but for the relatives who are left.
§ Mr. Ernest G. Perry (Battersea, South)
I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State realises that there is a good case for this proposal. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, West (Mr. Alec Jones) said, there is a long tradition in ordinary working-class families that when someone dies it is the family's duty to provide a decent funeral, and everyone clubs in, so to speak, to provide it. But I have in mind the position of the elderly childless couple who are over 75 years of age. They may have taken out small insurance policies many years ago—now paid-up policies, which will give the widow or widower a strictly limited sum in the event of the partners's death.
In such cases, the amount available from that source may be as low as £10, £20 or £30, which, together with what comes from national insurance, will not be enough to meet the cost of a funeral. I urge the Under-Secretary of State to pay particular attention to the position of elderly people with no children and to make an exception so that the Supplementary Benefits Commission may take such circumstances into account, without reference to what the local authority may do.
The Government have introduced a pension scheme for the over-80s. I am asking them to give special consideration now to elderly poor people in the circumstances that I have described, so that the Supplementary Benefits Commission will have power to provide the extra money that will enable people to avoid having to "go to the parish", as we used to call it, for a funeral. This still happens today, and it is not unusual for the body to be buried with several others in what is called a common grave when the widow or widower cannot afford a decent funeral. This may happen only where people are childless, but it is nevertheless a serious problem. I appeal to the Under-Secretary of State to ameliorate the sense of inferiority that is felt by the surviving partner in these circumstances.
§ Mr. Dean
When death occurs in a family, it not only casts a shadow of 1025 sorrow but entails extra expense. We all understand that. In moving the amendment, in his usual responsible and moderate way, the hon. Member for Rhondda, West (Mr. Alec Jones) emphasised that factor, and added that his present proposal was far more modest than was the amendment moved in Committee. All he wishes to do today is to concentrate on the powers of the Supplementary Benefits Commission and local authorities.
In the circumstances, therefore, it is not necessary for me to say much about the wider issues, save to remind the House of the resources—including insurance of one form or another—that in many cases, though not all, are available within a family to ensure a decent burial.
I fully accept the point made by the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Ernest G. Perry), that every family attaches enormous importance to ensuring that the burial and the associated arrangements are done in a decent and dignified manner. In most cases, fortunately, there are resources within the family. There are savings. There are insurances of various kinds, though admittedly at different levels. Here is one figure to illustrate what I mean. In 1971, no less than £245 million was paid out on insurance policies as a result of death. Over and above that, in many cases the younger members of families, especially when one of their parents dies, not only are able but positively wish to make a contribution towards the funeral expenses.
There is also the death grant through the National Insurance Scheme, to which the large majority of people in the scheme are eligible. As the hon. Member for Rhondda, West said, it has been the practice of Governments of all political colours to improve the death grant only at irregular intervals. One of the reasons why they have done that is that they have felt that, certainly on a regular basis, while people are alive it is better to improve the level of pension than of the lump-sum death grant.
This clash of priorities has considerable relevance, since the large majority of deaths occur among people over pension age. Inevitably, therefore, we have to 1026 face the problem of priorities in this respect.
I turn now to the amendment itself, and I hope that what I have to say will assure the hon. Member for Rhondda, West that the purpose lying behind it can be met under existing arrangements. The intention of the amendment is that the Supplementary Benefits Commission should be required to ignore the duty laid upon local authorities and should consider making an exceptional needs payment in every case where help is sought, whether before or after funeral arrangements have been made.
The amendment is not necessary to achieve that result, since the terms of Section 7 of the Ministry of Social Security Act 1966 are very wide. The Act does not refer to the types of payment that may be made or to the circumstances in which they may be made. It gives the Supplementary Benefits Commission a general power to meet an exceptional need where it seems reasonable to do so. Thus, the Act does not refer specifically to funeral expenses, nor does it require the commission to have regard to Section 50(1) of the National Assistance Act 1948. It may well be that the hon. Gentleman had not appreciated quite how wide are the powers of the commission.
What is needed is a system that ensures that, in comparatively few cases where there is inability to meet funeral expenses, there should nevertheless be decent, humane and acceptable arrangements for the funeral. One way to achieve this is through local authorities. The hon. Member for Battersea, South pointed out the disadvantage of those arrangements. In few cases today does this happen; they are very much the exception rather than the rule.
§ Mr. Alec Jones
If the Minister is saying that Section 7 of the 1966 Act is sufficient for this purpose—and reading this on its own would tend to support what the Minister says—will he say why it is necessary to have, in paragraph 108 of the handbook—which is an interpretation—that before approaching the commission for help in respect of a funeral the relatives should go to the local authority? If that instruction could be deleted I should have more confidence in the ability of Section 7 to meet the point.
§ Mr. Dean
I shall come to the hon. Member's point when I describe the changes that are envisaged. One course of action is through the local authority, but the commission has very wide powers to help where it considers it appropriate to do so. Therefore, where local authorities do not in practice help, the commission is certainly prepared to step in.
The hon. Member has asked whether the relationship between what the local authority does and what the commission does is right and, above all, sufficiently clear to the people concerned. I take his point on this. I shall draw the attention of the commission to it. However, the commission has been considering its arrangements, partly in the light of debates that we have had on earlier occasions, and, as a result, has recently reviewed the arrangements under which it helps in the unfortunate circumstances where this type of help is required. It has made a number of improvements.
For example, the commission will no longer expect relatives to help where one partner of a married couple dies. Nor will it expect the surviving spouse to seek the help of voluntary or charitable organisations before approaching the commission. So the commission has responded with these new arrangements. It is too early to say how they are working in practice, but I hope—and I can express a fairly confident hope—that they will go a long way towards dealing with the understandable anxieties that have been expressed about these difficult matters. I repeat, however, that I shall draw specifically to the attention of the commission the valuable points that have come out today as to the means of getting the right relationship between what the local authorities should do and what the commission should do, and also of trying to ensure that those people who might require the help of one or the other have information available to them when the critical moment comes.
§ Mr. Bidwell
I think I can sum up the feelings of myself and my hon. Friends by saying that what we have heard from the Minister provides a little ray of light and goes some way towards breaking the ice. We are grateful for even the smallest of mercies. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, West (Mr. Alec Jones) spoke about the mood of the Minister 1028 in the last debate, but on this occasion I found him at his cooing best. But if what he has told us about a re-think in the discretionary action of the Supplementary Benefits Commission were to lead to a re-wording of the hand-out booklet—which is the interpretation of the enactments and the powers of the commission—we should express our thanks.
§ Mr. Dean
The handbook to which the hon. Member refers is revised regularly because the scheme is changing and, we hope, being improved all the time. I have little doubt that when the handbook is revised the commission will wish to reflect in it the improved arrangements to which we have just referred.
§ Mr. Bidwell
I am grateful for that, but I underscore what I consider to be the weakness of the existing situation. The commission virtually requires an indication of moneys actually spent. I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Ernest G. Perry) said about the aged couple. It is also often the case that a long-lost relative who has not had contact with the family circle for many years—perhaps because the family is scattered, for example, in New Zealand or Canada— may have lived a life apart, yet may have a circle of friends who are anxious about the situation. It might be well-nigh impossible immediately to make contact with the remaining members of the family. In such a case, if the friends were in poor circumstances, what would happen about making provision for a decent funeral?
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, West spoke clearly and pleadingly and alluded to the current rate of benefits for the death grant. I fear, however, that he did not show sufficiently clearly that in many cases the grant does not amount to £30, but varies considerably. For a child under the age of three it is about £9; for a child of three to five years, inclusive, it is £15; and for six to seven years, inclusive, £22.50—until one reaches the position of a man aged 18 or over, born on or after July 1893, who gets £30.
I accept that there may be criticism of both Governments that they have not kept pace with the Beveridge principle, which is that the rate of benefit should equal the basic rate for the minimum standard of funeral, which has been 1029 accepted to be the cost laid down by the Funeral Furnishers Association. Certainly the figures quoted by my hon. Friend are very much out of date. I do not know what the funeral furnishers are currently charging, but certainly the figure he gave—£69.75—is not the current cost.
That is not the rate that has been charged to people of very slender means. The two things go together. The grant has not kept up with the Beveridge principle or with the cost of living. Anxieties have increased because, in the old monetary terms, the pound is now worth 15s. 10d. compared with its value three years ago. For this reason the Government must be prepared to provide help, in the matter of both the death grant and ensuring that the numbers of paupers' funerals do not increase.
The Minister has quoted a global figure of about £240 million paid in insurance death benefits under private insurance schemes. But an extraordinarily large number of people have turned in life insurance because they cannot afford to keep up the premiums. Bearing in mind the rate of inflation, I imagine that this is now happening on a growing scale.
I am glad to hear what the Minister has said. I hope that this debate will lead to a wider interpretation, and a virtual instruction to the Supplementary Benefits Commission.
§ Mr. Alec Jones
In view of the conciliatory mood and words of the Under-Secretary, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Mr. Meacher
I beg to move Amendment No. 2, in page 16, leave out lines 22 to 42.
The amendment is concerned with the anomalous and unfair position whereby, until early this year, it was normal practice for the special allowances granted by the Supplementary Benefits Commission to be offset against the long-term addition. A scandalous situation had prevailed for too long, in which a penson—often a pensioner—was told that he was entitled to, and in need of, extra allowance, whether for heating, diet, 1030 laundry or some other purpose, and then told that if this was less than 50p—or 60p as it now is—it was already being received by him through the long-term addition.
This was changed as a result of the Simper case, which came before the High Court. Part of the judge's judgment in that case was:My interpretation of these regulations is that paragraph 4(2)(a)"—that is, of Schedule 2 of the Ministry of Social Security Act 1966—means that a discretion is to be exercised; that is to say it is intended that the person making a determination of the sum of money due should exercise a broad judgment to ensure that in fact there is no overlapping, but that he ought not to proceed simply on a rule of thumb that exact deductions should be made.Despite that case, that has not so far happened. The Bill abolishes the long-term addition and creates three new rates in the schedule. So to include the long-term addition, paragraph 4(2) provides for the automatic offset of any exceptional circumstances addition against these two rates except in three cases.
I understand that this is entirely in line with the circular which the commission had previouly sent out to staff. The first is in regard to heating allowances; the second is in respect of non-householders who contribute more, in rent, than the 80p allowed in benefit; and the third is in respect of children who are awarded the exceptional circumstances addition. It certainly appears that once again the commission is operating a rule-of-thumb method, even though the High Court judge explicity recommended that that method should not be adopted.
By deleting paragraph 4(2) and (3) we seek to ensure that any award of an exceptional circumstances addition will increase benefit for the claimant, that diet allowances, laundry allowances and other special allowances, as well as heating allowances, will not be offset. I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that that is a very reasonable request.
The Government have been somewhat maladroit in their handling of the situation following the High Court case. First, they were pushed; they did not initiate this change. Schedule 4 is a reaction to external pressure. Secondly, they have done the absolute minimum that they 1031 were virtually bound to do as a result of that case.
Will the Under-Secretary confirm information that has been given to me that the current practice of the commission following the High Court decision is to continue to offset even heating allowances against the long-term addition up to October this year? For reasons that need explanation and justification, it seems that even the decision of the High Court has been set on one side, at least till October.
Whatever the explanation, the Government have done no more than an absolute minimum. By making the change, with which we agree, they have opened up a glaring anomaly. Those that are awarded special heating allowances are in effect given preference over those awarded special allowances because of dietary needs, laundry costs due to incontinence, immobility, or anything else. There seems no clear argument in equity for the special heating needs being given that kind of priority.
That is the first argument for the amendment—that the Government are trying in the schedule to make a division where in equity no reasonable division can be made.
The second argument is that the freeing of the special allowance is limited to heating, and therefore only supplementary benefit claimants with extra heating costs alone will gain as a result of the Bill. Yet it is well understood by all persons who deal with the kind of claimants who repeatedly come before the commission that their needs are not so neatly compartmentalised as the change which the Government are making appears to indicate. They often interlock.
There is often a division of needs, especially among elderly pensioners, such as those suffering from incontinenece and a digestive disorder. Such people, who are in the greatest need, will gain nothing from the Bill, because the removal of the offset is limited to heating allowances.
To make the point forcefully it is worth giving a particular example. It is one that Members who served on the Committee will recognise, but I give it again because it illustrates the point very well. Mr. Clark, who is 78, and his 1032 wife, aged 68, have been receiving supplementary pension since 1965 in addition to their retirement pension. Mr. Clark suffers from bronchitis, and also has a fractured spine. It was considered that the extra cost of a special diet was 40p a week, and that amount was regarded as a special expense. His wife suffers from bronchitis, asthma, emphysema and arthritis. In 1971 she suffered a coronary thrombosis. It was accepted that she should have a more expensive diet, the cost being 92p a week. This amount has been regarded as a special expense.
Secondly, Mr. and Mrs. Clarke are unable to do their own laundry, and they send it out at a cost of 40p per week. The normal requirements figure is intended to cover the first 10p of such a charge as all claimants have minor laundry expenses and only the balance of 30p has been regarded as a special expense. Mr. and Mrs. Clark are in poor health and need constant room temperature to be maintained day and night and the 90p extra heating allowance is regarded as a special expense. Their exceptional circumstances addition totals no less than £2.62 a week of which 50p is now offset. Mr. Clark has said,I would appreciate a visit so that you could see for yourself the fix I am in".He is particularly worried that he is unable to afford the fresh fruit and vegetables that his wife is meant to have.
The Bill as drafted gives Mr. and Mrs. Clark no relief. As the offset remains on their special diet and laundry expenses, the so-called freeing of their heating allowance is illusory. That is the powerful argument in favour of the argument.
The third argument for the amendment is that the Bill worsens the situation for those with special needs because the High Court ruling gives the Supplementary Benefits Commission and the tribunals discretion to ignore the long-term addition when awarding the extra weekly allowance, but the Bill places a duty on the commission to deduct the equivalent of the long-term addition. Now the commission will acknowledge, even more than before, that there is a special need to be met and then compel denial of full special relief.
I quote briefly a further case to show how extremely limited is the concession 1033 made in the Bill and how those in considerable need will get no relief. Mrs. Lamb is a house-bound widow of 77. She used to receive heating allowance of 40p a week, but this was withdrawn after a home visit by an officer of the commission. She suffers from a bad heart and arthritis. She has had 12 pacemakers inserted in her heart in the past eight years and has to have a high protein diet—eggs, cheese, meat, fish and so on. When she was visited last year her legs were swollen. Since the commission does not state how much of the basic living allowance is allowed for food costs, it is normally difficult to argue about the adquacy of the diet allowance. I stress that problem. We should know much more about how much of the basic allowance is allotted for particular conditions so that we may know how much extra people are getting.
Mrs. Lamb receives only 40p a week extra for an expensive diet and another lop for laundry. The long-term addition is offset against the exceptional circumstances addition, and that situation will continue under the Bill. The result is that in comparison with a healthy pensioner of the same age who does not suffer from the severe afflictions of Mrs. Lamb her extra needs are not catered for.
Those are powerful arguments for the amendment. I put forward one more argument, which the Government have sought to make their own in their handling of social security matters in the last three years, namely, the concentration of the greatest help on those in greatest need. It is difficult to think of people in greater need than the people in the cases that I have quoted. Yet, in many cases, if they have diet or laundry needs which are no greater than those allowed for in the 50p allowance per week, they gain nothing. The freeing of the heating allowance under the Bill aids them not at all, as there continues to be an offset against other exceptional circumstances additions.
In view of the Under-Secretary's ideological position and the argument which he has tried to make his own, but which he puts forward sincerely, I hope that he will agree that to allow the Bill to go through in its present form will 1034 deeply contravene the principle that those in greatest need should receive the most help.
I turn to the arguments put forward in Committee, designed to show why an amendment of this type is not acceptable. The first was that in allowing the removal of the offset for heating allowances the Government are going for priority needs. I hope that I have said enough to make it clear that, because needs are interwoven and are not compartmentalised in the way that the Under-Secretary may like to make out, the assertion that the Government are giving priority to those in greatest need does not apply, as many people with heating needs will also have other needs and other exceptional circumstances additions and, as a result, will gain nothing. Therefore, the priority argument is entirely inapplicable because of the interlocking of needs, as is often the case among those in greatest need and the most elderly pensioners.
The second argument put forward was that the initial concession would provide leverage for further changes in later years. This is only the second social security Bill since the main 1966 Act. If we continue at the present rate without a precise commitment to make a change of this kind next year—and, if there is such a commitment, why not make it now?—many of the people who are the object of the amendment will no longer be with us. Therefore, the argument that a certain leverage is provided is unsatisfactory when we are dealing with those in greatest need who have not many years of life left.
The third argument concerns the issue of priorities. The Under-Secretary of State said in Committee that the cost of accepting an amendment similar to this would be about £10 million. For those with the degree of need about which I have been speaking, £10 million is a small sum. In case the hon. Gentleman seeks refuge behind that figure, I should like to spell out the priorities that the Government have adopted in other respects.
On the disaggregation of children's investment income—and it is only the children of the very rich who have investment income—the Government have made a concession costing £12 million a year. Giving the option of separate 1035 taxation for women, which is not of value to a married couple whose joint income is less than £5,600 a year, the Government's concession costs £15 million a year. The Government have removed at a cost of £38 million a year the ceiling on earned income relief which goes exclusively to those with incomes of over £9,945 a year. They have removed the notional capital gains tax on disposals at death at a cost of £15 million. They have raised the limits at which estate duty is paid at a cost of £20 million.
In the current year the Government propose to give £300 million each year in reduced tax on unearned income, more than a third of which will go exclusively to those with incomes of over £5,000. The Government are giving £15 million to the building societies to reduce the increase in mortgage rates, the benefit of much of which will go to those on a reasonably high level of income and certainly will go to those with vastly higher levels of income than the people who are the object of this amendment. Therefore, I submit that this is a very reasonable amendment. We are concerned with some of the poorest and most helpless people in our society. All that we seek is the ending of a patent anomaly, which I am sure all hon. Members will agree exists. If we merely remove the offset for heating and not for diet, laundry, and other expenses, it will cost only £10 million.
I hope very much that the Under-Secretary will look favourably at this proposal.
§ Mr. Joseph Harper (Pontefract)
If the Minister has not already done so, I urge him to read page 12 of this morning's Guardian. There, he will see an article headed "Poor Law", and there is a very apt photograph accompanying it.
For the information of hon. Members who are too young to remember, the Poor Law was the forerunner of supplementary benefit. We moved from the Poor Law to local assistance on the rates, to national assistance, and now to supplementary benefit.
Anyone wanting to understand the distress caused to a person on the Poor Law, who is among the poorest in the community, could not do much better than to look at the new television series 1036 entitled "Sam". This week's programme was dedicated to the Poor Law as it affected people in the North West, the Midlands, and Yorkshire.
We have travelled a long way since the days when, if anyone wanted to apply for Poor Law and went along to the local office where it was paid out, he rapidly discovered that the faster people went in, the faster they were thrown out. For 90 per cent. of those who went in there was no Poor Law.
To a great many people it was known not as "the Poor Law" but by the name of the Gentleman doling out the pittance. I could give the name of the person who operated in my own area, where the Poor Law is still known by that name——
§ Mr. Harper
No. His name was not Scrooge, although he epitomised Scrooge in all that he did. I do not intend to embarrass his family by naming him, but he is remembered well in my part of the world.
Perhaps quite unintentionally, this part of the Bill overrides the recent High Court decision which has been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher). What happened was that a young single mother in charge of two children and therefore not required to register for work drew an exceptional circumstances addition allowance. Her entitlement was 35p a week, or seven shillings in old currency. When she had been in these distressed circumstances for two years she became entitled to the long-term addition of 50p a week, which has now risen to 60p. However, immediately her 35p was taken away, leaving her with an additional 15p. She was not over-enamoured with this arrangement, so she appealed and eventually her case went before the High Court.
I have always thought, rightly or wrongly, that whenever the High Court gives a decision everyone has to obey it. Apparently, that does not apply to this Government, or to the Supplementary Benefits Commission. The High Court decision said that the commission should not apply the rule of thumb that where a person was given one amount and then 1037 got a larger amount, one should be subtracted from the other. In the face of that decision, apparently what the Supplementary Benefits Commission did was to circulate all its local offices telling them that they must not follow the High Court decision too closely and that apart from what the High Court specifically laid down—for children and help with heating——
§ Mr. Dean
The hon. Gentleman is being very unfair to the Suplementary Benefits Commission. I shall explain the point when I reply to the debate but let me say straight away that the Supplementary Benefits Commission will observe the law of the land like anyone else. It is doing just that. I shall explain the significance of the Bill in a moment. But it is quite unfair to say that the commission is not observing the law of the land.
§ Mr. Harper
In that event The Guardian should be submitting an apology, although The Guardian is a reputable newspaper which does not lightly print incorrect information.
§ Mr. O'Malley
It is the considered opinion of some people who are legally qualified that the Government and the Supplementary Benefits Commission are manifestly not obeying the law of the land and are completely ignoring the Simper decision in current instructions to officers of the commission to offset heating allowances against 50p of the long-term addition until October of this year.
§ Mr. Harper
I quite agree with my hon. Friend. The High Court made a clear decision. Immediately the Supplementary Benefits Commission found a way round it and decided not to abide by the spirit of that decision.
I have the feeling that this will not be the last decision of this kind. As soon as the Child Poverty Action Group finds a suitably aggrieved person there will be another High Court case, and it may be that this decision will be the better for it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West quoted the case of a housebound widow of 77 who was in receipt of a heating allowance. I do not want to go into the details. My hon. Friend has explained the position fully. But there 1038 are countless other cases, and to support what I say I draw attention again to today's article in The Guardian:Hundreds of thousands of other claimants will find themselves in the same position as the Bradshaws, Mr. Bradshaw, who is 78, suffers from a prolonged intervertical disc and is registered disabled.It is easier to find out what is right with him than what is wrong.He has to wear a corset and is also recovering from pleurisy for which he receives an ECA for diet of 40p a week. His wife, who is 60, is suffering from terminal cancer.The article goes on to list her other ailments. It is cases like that where people need all the help that we can give them. They are not receiving that help.
We seek to get the Minister to act in the spirit of what The Guardian describes as the "Poor Law" and what today is known as supplementary benefit to help unfortunate people who fall within this category. They should be helped with laundry, diet and heating costs. If it had not been for the recent High Court case, we should still have been in the same position. How many more High Court cases will there have to be before something is done for people in this category?
§ 1.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Dean
In this debate we are dealing with people who have special needs and who require special help to meet them.
The Bill improves the arrangements in a number of respects which I shall describe. Understandably, the Opposition say that it does not improve them enough and that we ought to go still further. But there is no doubt that the arrangements are being improved in this Bill, as they have been on earlier occasions.
One of the earlier improvements which helped substantially in this area was the introduction of an annual review of both national insurance benefits and supplementary benefits. As a result, we got rid of the ups and down which used to occur in years when benefits were improved. It was quite impossible to explain to anyone on supplementary benefit how it was right that when his national insurance pension was increased his supplementary benefit was reduced. This change, introduced a year or two ago, has been a substantial improvement 1039 for a number of people, including those about whom we are now talking.
The Bill also includes provision for the higher increase for those on long-term benefits—pensioners and others who have been on supplementary benefit for two years or more. The increases of £1 for a single person and £1.60 for a married couple bring the rates respectively to £7.75 and £12.50. When I quoted the rates earlier I underestimated. In fact, I quoted the lower rate of increase for the short-term beneficiaries, whereas I should have quoted the figures that I have just given of £7.75 and £.12.50. Those are the improvements which are made earlier on in the Bill.
I turn to the more detailed provisions. The first concerns paragraph 4(2) of the Schedule. This reflects the decision to incorporate the long-term addition into the new higher scale rates being introduced for long-term beneficiaries. This change enables the differential increases in long-term cases to be reflected fully and effectively in the supplementary benefit scheme. It is intended to remove the confusion and misunderstanding to which the long-term addition, as a separate element, has given rise and of which hon. Members are aware. In other words, what was thought to be an improvement in the arrangements in 1966 has in practice turned out to be a source of confusion, difficulty and misunderstanding. As a result, we are merging the long-term addition into the long-term scale rates and improving the 1966 arrangements.
The first result of the amendment would be to put us back to the disadvantages of the system that the 1966 arrangement was thought to be removing. It would result in a proliferation of small discretionary additions to benefit of the kind that existed before 1966 with all the detailed examination of individual circumstances which that would entail. The intention in 1966 was to get away from that, and the intention in the new arrangements is to keep away from that, but with the improvements that I have outlined.
The main change concerns heating. First, I should like to deal with the legal position. I repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Pontefract (Mr. Harper). It is most unfair to suggest 1040 that the Supplementary Benefits Commission has not been observing the law or has been trying to get round High Court judgments. That is not so. The position is that until October—that is the date when the Bill comes into operation if it receives the approval of Parliament—heating additions will be offset. The Supplementary Benefits Commission has decided to do this as a matter of discretion following the Simper case in which it was decided that the commission should exercise its discretion. If a tribunal has decided that there should be no offsetting, the commission will implement the decision of that tribunal as required by law. From October there will be no offsetting. In other words, the present uncertainty will be clarified.
§ Mr. O'Malley
It is true that in the Simper case Mr. Justice Cusack decided that discretion was to be exercised. He said:My interpretation of these regulations is that Paragraph 4(2)(a) means that a discretion is to be exercised—and he went on to define the discretion—that is to say, it is intended that the person making a determination of the sum of money due should exercise a broad judgment to ensure that in fact there is no overlapping, but that he ought not to proceed simply on a rule of thumb that exact deductions should be made.The commission, presumably at the wish of the Government, is to exercise not an individual discretion on the lines of Mr. Justice Cusack's decision but a blanket discretion or decision that it will continue with the old method of offsetting where the whole of the first 50p of any heating allowance is set against the long term addition.
§ Mr. Dean
The commission, following this judgment, is to exercise its discretion. That is the position which now obtains and will continue to do so until October when the Bill clarifies the position in law. 'The quotation made by the hon. Gentleman supports that position. It is said that the commission must exercise its discretion. It is true that in the exercise of its discretion the commission lays down broad guidelines for its officers to follow, and so on. Surely this is in the interests of claimants, because they have an indication of the way that the commission will exercise its discretion in certain cases. 1041 Were this not so, not only would it be intensely difficult for the scheme to be administered by local offices, but people would have no indication before they went to the commission about the type of help available and the circumstances in which they would get it.
§ Mr. O'Malley
The Minister has not answered my point at all. It is our view that the Supplementary Benefits Commission's current instructions to its local officers does not meet the requirements of the law as a result of the Simper case. May we get away from legal niceties? If it is morally right not to offset heating allowances against the long-term addition in October this year, and since it is possible for the Government and the commission to give instructions at the moment that the discretion is to be used and the result is that there is to be a complete offsetting, why are the Government and the commission persisting in maintaining their old attitudes, which have been knocked down by the decision of the court, when it is felt necessary to change the law in October? Why are they not meeting the just case of this poor group of people receiving these benefits before October? They have the power to do it. Why are they not doing it?
§ Mr. Dean
I shall be coming to the improvements in the heating arrangements provided in the Bill. Perhaps I may deal with the legal niceties. I am not a lawyer, but I am advised—I accept the advice—that the commission is acting within the law. It is acting entirely appropriately. Furthermore, where decisions have been made by tribunals that there should be no offsetting, the commission will abide by such decisions and carry them out until such time as the law is clarified in the way set out in the Bill.
§ Mr. Skinner
I should not like to accuse the Government of double standards—anyway, not on a Friday. Has the Minister considered that recently a matter which will be debated on Tuesday next—the question of illegal immigrants—has been brought before the courts and that the net result of that legal tangle is that the law will be used retrospectively? All that my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. O'Malley) is saying is that, as this decision has been made, and taking into account that the Bill becomes 1042 law in October, if the Government find it necessary to use the law retrospectively against these so-called illegal immigrants, why can they not use it retrospectively for old-age pensioners?
§ Mr. Dean
I had better not get involved with debates which may take place next week. It is sufficient to concentrate on the present debate.
I come to the improvements which the Bill will bring about in the heating arrangements. The new arrangements will mean that from October additions for the exceptional heating expenses of long-term beneficiaries will always be met without regard to the special expenses margin in the long-term rate. We expect that over 400,000 people will receive some increase in benefit on this account alone. It is because of the concern expressed on both sides of the House and by people outside who are concerned about the welfare of the elderly and chronic sick that the Government have decided that this special measure should be taken so as to improve speedily the provision for heating expenses made in the supplementary benefits scheme.
When the Government are introducing an advance of this kind about which concern has been expressed on all sides I should have thought that there might have been just a little word of praise for them. For the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) to suggest that the Government have been shoved into this by legal action is totally untrue. It is typical of the hon. Gentleman never to give credit where it is due.
In Committee the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. O'Malley) accepted that there must be priorities. He said that his order of priorities would be heating, diet, laundry. I accept that he went on to say that the Government ought to do more than they are doing but we are all agreed that there have to be priorities. If we were to go beyond the £6 million or so which the improved heating arrangements involve and on to what is proposed by the Opposition we would need about £12 million. This has to be considered in the light of priorities.
§ Mr. O'Malley
I know that the hon. Gentleman would not wish to misquote me. When I laid down an order of 1043 priorities I did not say that the first should be heating, the second special diet and the third laundry. I said that these three types of expenses were part of an integrated problem and should be considered together.
§ Mr. Dean
I am in no sense seeking to misrepresent the hon. Gentleman but he must face the issue. He knows as well as anyone that there is a tremendous demand upon resources in the social services. A good case can be made out for improving any of them and therefore priorities have to be allocated. I accept that it is right to put the improvement of heating arrangements at the top of the list. It is what the Government have done.
Coming to the point about diet I would point out that any special need costing over 50p is usually met up to a standard amount. The Supplementary Benefits Commission has a discretionary power which is used to pay more where necessary. When an expensive diet must be followed because of kidney failure, for example, the commission will, on medical advice, pay the full cost however high. It is important to stress how wide the powers of the commission are and the way in which it exercises them over and above the normal amounts laid down.
We accept that there are people with multiple needs. They will benefit from the improvement in the rates of benefit. The hon. Member for Oldham, West is wrong to say that they will not. They will get the benefit of the improvements in the basic rates. If their special needs are more than 50p they will get the benefit of anything over and above that and there is the discretionary power of the commission where additional help is required. I am sure that these improvements will be welcomed by the House. The Government and the commission will watch the way in which they work out with care. I hope the House will feel that we have made an advance in this matter.
§ Mr. Alec Jones
Those of us who have served in Committee with the Under-Secretary know that he is always using his weakest argument when he turns to personal attack. When he attacks my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) I suspect that his 1044 argument is very weak. He told us that the Bill dealt with the special needs of people and the special help given to them. This is not how I see it. As I see it the Government are proposing to use the long-term addition, specially designed to meet the needs associated with a long period of supplementary benefit, for special needs such as diet and laundry.
When the Minister talked about the need to lay down broad general guidelines he was not answering the point that in practice the Supplementary Benefits Commission is continuing to offset the heating allowance against the long-term addition. We can find no justification for continuing with this after the High Court decision. The commission and the Government should be more concerned with the principle of social justice and fair play for these people rather than sticking to the strict letter of the law.
The hon. Gentleman talked of the benefits that would be going to these people. He mentioned the annual up-rating. Such items as long-term additions, disregards and aggregations are seldom included in the annual uprating. The Minister said that 400,000 people would benefit as from October from the new arrangements for the heating allowance. Of course we are all pleased at this, but it is stretching imagination too far to suggest that this improvement was brought about solely by the Government's kindness and had nothing to do with the High Court judgment and the activities of the Child Poverty Action Group.
The Minister did not deal fairly with the question of priority or answer the forceful point about those with a combination of need, for special diet and special laundry facilities as well as for heating. Payment for laundry or diet may be more important to some than a heating allowance. Each case should be judged on its merits. If we suggest that the next priority is diet, we are forgetting those with different needs or combinations of need.
We have ignored the strong feeling among the experts who deal with these cases all the time. Hon. Members on this side have had considerable correspondence from the CPAG, giving details of many cases which will not be materially affected by the Bill. The Minister said that there will be an improvement in 1045 cases of multiple need. Of course there will, if that need includes heating, but if the multiple need is laundry and diet, there will be no improvement. Anyway, the improvement will be marginal and is not worth much praise to any Government.
The British Association of Social Workers has written to Members:…the time to legislate is now in order to bring a little immediate relief to some of the poorest and most handicapped in the country.Task Force has written:It is unfair and illogical to ignore exceptional circumstances additions for heating when assessing a claimant's benefit and not to ignore them for special diets, laundry and most other exceptional costs. The vast majority of the 16,000 pensioners in regular contact with Task Force volunteers have interlockng needs of which heating is one.I have also had a letter from the Social Services Department of the East Sussex County Council, in which the Director of Social Services says:Great anxiety has been expressed about the hardship that this—the provisions of the Bill and the failure to improve the situation—will cause to our clients, especially those with exceptional needs regarding diet and laundry.So far as the Bill deals specifically with exceptional needs, we have missed the boat and failed to satisfy the needs of the most deserving and poorest sections of the community.
The Minister's reply was disappointing to us; it will disappoint the social workers and distress those whom we are trying to help. The Under-Secretary is usually far more generous than his words today suggested. I should like to think that his words came not from his own heart but from the restrictions imposed by the Treasury. I hope that he and the Secretary of State will stand up for these needy people.
We accept that there must be priorities in every service, but there are priorities among all aspects of Government policy and we want to be sure that the Government get their priorities right. How can we say that this is a reasonable order of priorities when we know the vast sums of money that have been handed over to surtax payers and the building societies? This debate has shown that we need a complete redefinition of the exceptional needs and the 1046 Long-term additions. Our next debate will show that we need a similar review of disregards for supplementary benefits.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Mr. O'Malley
I beg to move Amendment No. 3, in page 17, line 43, at end insert:`8. In paragraphs 24 and 25 of the Schedule there shall be substituted—I understand that it will be convenient also to discuss at the same time the following amendments: No. 4, in page 17, line 43, at end insert:
- (a) for each reference to £1.00, a reference to £1.75.
- (b) for each reference to £2.00, a reference to £3.50.''8. In paragraph 25(i) of the Schedule there shall be added:(g) any retirement benefit arising from the payment of graduated contributions under the National Insurance Acts".'.Amendment No. 5, in page 17, line 43, at end insert:'8. In paragraph 24 of the Schedule:(a) in sub-paragraph (1) (f), for"£0.38"there shall be substituted £1.50;(b) in sub-paragraph (1) (g), for"£0.28"there shall be substituted £1.50;(c)in sub—paragraph (2) (a), for the words "widow's allowance or widowed mother's allowance" there shall be substituted the words "benefit at the weekly rate of £3.80 or £2.90"; and(d)in sub-paragraph (3)(a), for the words "Widow's allowance, widowed mother's allowance or child's special allowance" there shall be substituted the word "benefit at the weekly rate of £2.80".'.The simple purpose of these amendments is to raise the level of special disregards for a wide range of categories of income received by recipients of supplementary benefit. One amendment seeks to include benefits from graduated contributions for disregard purposes.
A good example to illustrate this point is the position of retired miners and their widows as a result of the increased pensions that have been negotiated by the National Union of Mineworkers from the NCB. There is deep anger and resentment in the coalfields at the way in which retired miners and miners' widows are being treated by this Government.
Earlier this year, with the Government's consent, the NUM and the NCB negotiated an improved miner's pension, 1047 increasing it from £1.50 to £3 for retired miners and from 75p to £1.50 for widows. Immediately, many of these people lost all, and all of them lost most, of their increase if they were dependent on supplementary benefit. The amount of benefit was knocked down in the very week that they received their increased pension.
So the NUM negotiated an increase of 75p for the widows of men who had worked down the mines, not the most pleasant job in Britain, all their lives, and the maximum that such a widow can receive of that increase is 25p because the present disregard for supplementary benefit is £1. Many of the men whose pension was raised from £1.50 to £3 got nothing at all.
What is so sad about the situation, apart from the change in the value of money, is that, both in Committee and at Question Time, when the Minister answered a pointed question from my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract (Mr. Harper), he showed that he did not even understand the position or know what is happening in the coalfields.
I come from a mining village and my hon. Friends are from such areas, too. We can tell the hon. Gentleman what is happening because every week we have cases by the dozen concerning old ladies and elderly retired miners who simply do not understand what is going on and who lose virtually all their benefit. They resent it bitterly.
§ Mr. Harper
Does my hon. Friend realise that the Under-Secretary of State contested the by-election at Pontefract in 1962, when we tried hard to educate him in such matters?
§ 1.30 p.m.
§ Mr. O'Malley
All I can say is that places like Pontefract understand the hon. Gentleman. That is why they never sent him here.
§ Mr. O'Malley
The hon. Gentleman may have coal miners in his constituency 1048 but I am sure that none of them votes for him. I never assume that the Opposition has a monopoly of wisdom or virtue, although there is precious little sign of wisdom, virtue, humility or any other better qualities in the conduct of the present administration. If it were not for what the hon. Gentleman has on the record I would not have made a claim like that. But in Committee the Under-Secretary said:Many of the retired miners concerned will, in fact, be better off financially in the future, unless their rent is high, by forgoing supplementary benefit and claiming a rent rebate or allowance instead.That is not true, and I will tell the hon. Gentleman why. First, the assumption he makes is that unless the rent is high there will be circumstances in which the Supplementary Benefits Commission can refuse to pay the full rent because it only expected to pay a reasonable rent. But it is in only 1 per cent of cases throughout the country that the commission exercises its powers, and that 1 per cent is largely centred in London, particularly central London. But we are not talking about S.W.1 when we get to Pontefract, Rotherham, and Mansfield, and the towns and valleys of South Wales.
The hon. Gentleman also said, in Committee:This is because recent increases in the needs allowances in the rent rebate allowance scheme have altered the relationship with the comparative supplementary benefit scale rates so that people with small amounts of occupational pension are better off financially after paying rebate and housing costs than they would be on supplementary benefit.That is not true either in cases where rents are low, or comparatively low. The situation is the opposite of what the hon. Gentleman said. In the mining areas many retired miners and their wives and miners' widows are living in low-rent houses, because in such areas rents are traditionally nothing like they are in the south of England. They are also often in older-type properties—smaller, cottage-type properties, as they were called by 19th century rate officers. They do not stand to benefit by asking for supplementary benefit in addition to rent rebate. Large numbers of retired miners and widows, taking into account any rent rebate arrangements that may exist, will, if they have a pension increase of £1.50, lose the lot. Others will not lose the 1049 lot, as there will be some kind of benefit accruing from rent rebates.
But when the Government introduced the Housing Finance Act they never said that they were introducing rent rebates because they would have to do something about disregards. That is a post facto argument. The hon. Gentleman has already given the game away in Committee. I cannot quote him because the proceedings are not available, but he said that he accepted the case for improvement of the disregards.
Let us be clear that the only valid argument from the Government's point of view, although I do not accept it, is the cost. It is against the background outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) that our belief in this amendment follows the money being doled out by the barrel load to the wealthier sections of the community while the mining areas get nothing in terms of disregard changes.
Yet the Government's attitude towards disregards and their refusal to raise them are in clear opposition to their stated pension policy. What is the point of unions and employers discussing occupational pensions—particularly when they are very small—if the only result is that the men and women receiving such small pensions are no better off? That is the difference between half pay on retirement, for example, for executives and the very tiny occupational pensions, even at the level of £3.
The case of the miners illustrates the general argument for increasing the disregards. They have not been put up since 1966. The disregard was set at £2 a week for supplementary benefit purposes—for example, for the disablement pension, for compensation under any enactment relating to workmen's compensation, and for disablement benefit under the National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act 1965.
We are talking largely about a group of people which includes pneumoconiosis victims. They are not all recognised as such, but when they are it is this type of category that we are dealing with when we consider the increase. The £1 disregard is for other categories of income. The £2 disregard, set in 1966, in today's terms is worth about £1.20. The £1 dis- 1050 regard in 1966 has fallen in value to about 60p. The value has fallen steadily over the years, dramatically so as a result of the inflation produced by the policies of the Government. I examined the movement since 1966 in basic scale rates, including the present up-ratings of 76.5 per cent. for the single person and 75.2 per cent. for married persons and concluded that it was reasonable therefore to increase disregards by 75 per cent. Therefore, our first amendment would increase the disregard of £1 to £1.75 and the £2 disregard to £3.50. This movement would bring some benefit to the mineworking community, which many Opposition Members represent.
I wish to refer to the case which my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West brought to the Under-Secretary's attention in Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Buchanan) told me in a letter that the National Union of Railwaymen had negotiated ex-gratia payments for a number of elderly railwaymen who were too old to enter the pension scheme. In the case quoted to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Springburn no disregard was being given.
I am grateful for the information the Under-Secretary gave me in a letter that I received this week. Will he confirm that the general situation is that, when applications for supplementary benefit are made to local officers, if there are such ex-gratia payments the applicants are entitled under the general rules of the scheme to the disregard in just the same way as any other income.
In Amendment No. 4, my hon. Friends and I raise the question of the treatment ofretirement benefit arising from the payment of graduated contributions under the National Insurance Acts.At present, any income accruing from graduated contributions is not disregarded for supplementary benefit purposes. The reason the Government, despite representations made to them, have refused to amend this situation is that they say that graduated benefits are an integrated part of the national insurance system.
There is one group of recipients of graduated pensions who must be given special consideration. For workers whose firms decide not to opt out of graduated contributions between £9 and £18 there 1051 is no alternative open to people paying contributions within that earnings band but to be in the graduated system. At present, those who are contracted out pay only 0.5 per cent. contributions between £9 and £18, whereas those who are not contracted out pay 4.75 per cent.
The graduated pension for that group of people is as much an occupational pension, albeit a State occupational pension, as that of their workmates down the road who are in a private occupational scheme. There could be two brothers, one working at one factory, the other at another factory down the road, on identical incomes, but with one brother paying his contribution, between £9 and £18 and 4.75 per cent., into the State scheme. When he retires he cannot get any of that disregarded for supplementary benefit purposes. The other man is with an employer who says "We will provide an occupational pension in that range of £9 to £15. We will stop the same percentage—4.75 per cent.—from the employee." The difference is that when he gets the pension that income can be disregarded. The man in the State scheme is not in the same position.
Unless the Government are prepared to do something about this, it is another clear indication that they always put the interests of the private occupational schemes first. It is another piece in the saga we saw enacted when the Secretary of State survived by only four votes after saying, "We will give tax relief if you are a member of an occupational pension scheme, but a member of the State reserve scheme cannot have such treatment."
I recognise that the amendment as it stands is probably defective, but the Under-Secretary must recognise the justice of the claims of this section of non-contracted out workers within the Boyd-Carpenter scheme. There is no reason why the Government, if they were prepared to do so, should not introduce an amendment in another place to meet the point.
As for the third amendment, it will be seen that disregards in respect of widows are being increased substantially up to the level of £1.50. The present disregards of 38p and 28p per child for widows goes back to 1964 when the pre- 1052 ferential national insurance rate for widows' children which had been 10s. above the normal children's rates was increased by another 7s. 6d. each for the first two children and 5s. 6d. each for the third and subsequent children. This increase was disregarded for national insurance purposes and the same disregards were carried over in the Ministry of Social Security Act 1966.
However, since 1966 there have been further increases in the gap between allowances for widows and for children. In 1971 the preferential rates were extended to retirement and invalidity pensioners. Since 1968 the gap has been the same for the third and subsequent children as for the first two. The gap, which was 17s. 6d. in 1968 and 18s. in 1969, went up to £1.10 in 1971 and £1.50 in 1973. The effect of our amendment would be to disregard the whole of that £1.50, not only for widows, but also for retirement and invalidity pensioners.
It is inconceivable, when the Government have been able to give the massive financial hand-out that they have been doing to wealthy sections of the community, that they should not be able to afford to bring up to date levels of disregards which were set almost in another world nearly eight years ago in 1966.
I therefore hope that the Under-Secretary will have the example of retired mineworkers in the forefront of his mind and will realise the general implications throughout the country for many poor people. They would have to be poor to fall within the range of supplementary benefit. It would be intolerably unjust in a time of unprecedented inflation such as this not to increase these disregards as we suggest. Our suggestions are modest. They would bring the disregards only up to what they were in 1966. I hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to accept them.
§ Mr. Concannon
On Amendment No. 3, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. O'Malley) for putting the case so well on behalf of the miners whom he represents to a great extent around the Rotherham area in the South Yorkshire coalfields.
When the National Union of Mineworkers was negotiating early this year 1053 for a wage increase, it was tied to the norm of £1 plus 4 per cent. To a great extent the union and those working in the industry were bought off by the addition of certain fringe benefits, one of which was the offer to increase pensions by 100 per cent. from £1.50 to £3 a week.
It has always been very difficult to discuss pensions in the mining industry, and there is a reason for this. When one enters the mining industry, usually not through choice but because of economic necessity, there is little point in talking about pensions because many miners never expect to live long enough to draw one. I am thankful for the fact that the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Coal Board decided to sort me out at an early age. That fact, which is to their great credit, will put another 10 or 15 years on my life. I imagine that my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract (Mr. Harper) is now approaching the age when he is living on borrowed time.
In such debates it is as well to reflect on one's own family. My father never made it; he died at the age of 57. My father-in-law packed up work at 60 and died when he was 65 years. For his last five years he could hardly walk, let alone work. I now have two miners' widows in the family. So we know the problems involved, and if the subject of pensions is ever raised in the mining industry one is always up against the problems of which I have spoken.
That is why pensions in the mining industry are disgraceful. They are still disgraceful, even though the weekly pension is now £3. To compare it with the old age pension of 30s. is really shameful. At the time of the l00 per cent. pension increase offer, some of us stood our corner and said that we should accept the increase. We had to argue against people who said that if it were increased in the same way as it was increased the last time, many of our members would lose on it, and the only thing we would be doing would be to subsidise the Government. That is the kind of attitude that some of us had to talk down.
At the end of the day, after the miners discussed whether to take strike action or 1054 accept the offer, it was felt that to a great extent many retired mineworkers and their widows would be helped if the offer were accepted. Now they are bitterly resentful at what has happened. Morally we have got to increase the pension, but I expected, and I still expect, the Government to look at these disregards so that some benefit can be obtained.
I am more fortunate than my hon. Friends the Members for Pontefract, for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Rhondda, West (Mr. Alec Jones). The Nottinghamshire coalfield is the only one in which an extra pension is paid. A Nottinghamshire miner of any standing gets two pensions. I do not know about the mail bags of my hon. Friends, but I am inundated with letters. The percentage of people in my area who are caught in this trap must be only a half or a quarter of those caught in other coalfields.
I received a letter this morning, not from an ordinary mineworker but from one of the top mining engineers in my area. He was talking about his widowed mother. This is the kind of thing that is happening in the coalfields at the moment:To hear the Tory Government speakers these days, shouting about how much they have given to pensioners, you would think that they have given them the whole world. It may be that they have lifted the basic pension, but it appears that when some organisation such as the N.U.M. lift their pension to help the elderly, then the Tory Government, far from being so benevolent, as they seem to wish their image to be, promptly grab anything which is given to help".He adds a postscript, as follows:Since I wrote the letter, a man from the Social Security office has been to see my mother to tell her that it is the Government's policy to reduce supplementary benefits, if any other income is increased.The social security office in Mansfield is staffed to a great extent by people with whom I am proud to associate myself. They do a great deal of social work and they have a social conscience. The manager of the establishment is absolutely first class, and most of the people working under him are like that. They are bound to be, when they have to deal with injured mineworkers and such people. I only hope that my reference to this manager does not have any detrimental effect 1055 on him. I should hate to see him hammered.
Let us take the case of this widowed mother. Her pension was increased by 75p a week. On the very day when the pension was increased, the National Coal Board increased the rent of her property. The two days are the same—2nd April 1973. She was receiving £8.60 per week from the Department of Health and Social Security. After the 75p. increase her pension was reduced to £8.10, so straight away she lost 50p of the 75p. She then lost 20p of her rent allowance supplement. So this widowed pensioner has 5p left from the 75p increase.
The man who wrote to me also wrote to the Department of Health and Social Security about this case stating that it is grossly unfair for widows to be treated in this fashion, in this day and age when we have the scandals of Lonrho, Ferranti, Slater-Walker and John Bloom. I completely agree. We do not want to go back to our people and be asked "What kind of society are we living in at the moment?" But while the Government are getting up to tricks like this it is very hard for us who represent these areas to talk rationally about these problems.
If the Minister wants to get these pension schemes going in certain industries, the very way to kill them is to continue with tricks like this. The people whom we hit the hardest are the people who can least afford to be hit hard. Those who are not well off by any standards, who are not drawing supplementary benefits and who are right on the breadline, expect some kind of increase, and then when they get the increase their order books are taken away, a mathematical shuffle goes on, and they get nothing. There is great bitterness and resentment, and I give full backing to my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. O'Malley) on his admendment.
Knowing where my hon. Friend comes from, I have every confidence that, had he been the Under-Secretary of State in a Labour Government, this improvement would have been made, though I can tell him—he will understand this—that we should not have let him out of Rotherham if nothing had been done. If nothing had happened we should probably have tied him on the end of the string with which we measured pit shafts. However, 1056 as I say, I have all the confidence in the world that this matter would have been properly dealt with by a Labour Government, and I only hope that it is not too late to persuade a Tory Minister to sort something out so that the disregards are raised.
§ 2.0. p.m.
§ Mr. Skinner
The argument has been well put, but a few points need embellishing so that the Minister may fully understand what is in issue and, in his wisdom, sympathy and compassion tell us that he will accede to our request for an increase in the disregards. I am sure that he will.
It is worth remembering that the loss of supplementary benefits, distasteful though these benefits are in themselves, may mean the loss of a passport to a good many other forms of social assistance. For example, if a miner has been retired disabled before the age of 65, with his miner's pension, previously £1.50 and now increased, the result of his increase in miner's pension whereby he loses £1.50 from supplementary benefit is that he loses free prescriptions as well. Also, it may affect him in a good many other services administered by the local authority.
I do not think that the Minister fully understood this the other day when my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract (Mr. Harper) put it to him. It is not a matter of transferring £1.50 in the case of the retired miner, and 75p in the case of a miner's widow, from one pocket to the other. There is far more in it than that, though that is bad enough. We expected that anyway. I forecast it in the coal industry debate on 21st December last year, when the Minister for Industry, waving his arms about and acting as though he thought he was Santa Claus, told us that he would assist retired miners. We knew then what would happen, that there would be a transfer of money from one Department to another, but, as I say, the matter is worse than that.
The Minister and his right hon. and hon. Friends constantly talk about the underprivileged, the poor old ladies in the supermarket looking about for two slices of meat loaf. They may well be the widows of retired miners, and they know what happens. When the books are returned to the social security or 1057 supplementary benefit offices, along comes an official—he has got his job to do—to examine what people have been getting. He finds that there has been £1.50 or 75p extra in the form of the miner's pension, and he may find other discrepanies. There may have been a rent rebate by the local authority. The sort of rebate I am thinking of would not happen where I live, because the Housing Finance Act has not yet been implemented; though that will, no doubt. be sorted out shortly in the courts.
Where this diligent official finds that 20p too much has been paid out by the local authority in rent rebate and 20p has been paid out by the Supplementary Benefits Commission, that sum is lost as well. The net result is that, not just on the basis of technicalities which come to light but as a result of the system itself, miners and the widows of retired miners end up worse off than they were before, and in some cases, as I say, they lose the passport to various other services which go with the payment of supplementary benefit. We are talking here of sums as large as £2 a week. That is the immensity of it. I do not say that that is so in every case, but that is the way things go.
In the coal industry debate in December last year, we forecast what would happen, and then, when it happened, we had the appalling experience of having the miners' wages negotiation mixed up with it.
It is no good the Minister saying that what the Government are doing now is like what the Labour Government did in 1969. It is not. In 1969, when pensions were increased, it was a joint exercise by the NUM and the NCB. This occasion is quite different. The Government in the form of the Department of Trade and Industry, transferred a certain sum of money—£25 million up to 1976, rising to £40 million by 1978—to the NUM and the NCM and said, "Here is something to provide a pension increase for all your retired miners and miners' widows". Therefore, this is not like the last exercise in 1969, although the Minister pretended that it was at Question Time on Tuesday. This is money from one Government Department taken back by another, the Department of Health and Social Security, through the supplementary benefit offices. That is the scan- 1058 dal of the situation, and that is why I have a Question down to the master himself, the Prime Minister, for Tuesday next on the lack of co-ordination between these two Departments. Unfortunately, the Table Office has not been able to give me No. 1 on that occasion, so a Written Answer may have to suffice. However, as I say, the situation here is entirely different from that in 1969 when the Labour Government were in power.
By the way, where are the Liberals? This is an important issue affecting the whole question of pensions and supplementary benefits, not just the disregards, yet not a single Liberal Member has been here all day to represent his party. But I suppose that no Liberal could represent his party, because it has so many different policies. What is its policy on pensions? Not one Liberal Member has been here to tell us.
What about the Press, too? The Press often talks about the way Members attend for various debates. I remember the debate on pensions not long ago when the man from the Daily Mirror was running about up there taking a count every 20 minutes because, he said, there were not enough Members in the Chamber. Where is the Press today? There is not one. They have left it all to the Press Association fellow. He will have to write it for them all because there is not one representative of the Press or the Lobby——
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu)
Order. It is not in order to take note of persons in the Gallery.
§ Mr. Skinner
I am not supposed to notice a lot that takes place here, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am not supposed to notice, but in fact I do, and what I am saying is of importance in relation to debates in the House. At some time, somebody ought to say it.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot have understood what was said from the Chair. The Chair will have to take other measures in due course if he does not get back to his speech on the amendment.
§ Mr. Skinner
We fully expected that the Chair would have to take measures but it must be said nevertheless. Perhaps on some other occasion it will be gone into in much greater detail when perhaps it will be explained why the Leader of 1059 the Liberal Party can introduce a Bill providing for an employees' charter on one day yet not be here to discuss the very important question of old-age pensions the next, and when others can talk about inquiries into the Poulson affair, putting down Questions for Written Answer day after day when they are not even in the place, and are not even prepared to express concern for the old-age pensioners who are reduced to shameful circumstances as a result of the Tory Government's actions.
Perhaps I should pass on to more important people. It is a shameful situation where the Prime Minister can have an increase in pension of £3,500 without paying a penny, a non-contributory increase which brings his pension up to £7,500, and yet thousands of miners and others, including, it seems, the railway-men, having been given a paltry pension increase in order to buy a few scraps at the supermarket, are now having it taken away from them by another Government Department. This is the scandal of the situation and that is why it is important for some of us to be here today to make the point—not that the Minister is here to listen to it anyway.
But the case is an important one. It is different from those we have had on previous occasions. It is not merely one is which a pension scheme has been devolved by the employer and the employee, and in which the supplementary benefits have been taken away. It is more than that. It means that on this occasion the Government have granted a sum of money to the Coal Board and the NUM to provide a pension increase, paltry though it is, and another Government Department has taken it away. That is why we feel that it is high time that the Minister should introduce very quickly, if he cannot accept the amendment, an increase in the present level of disregards of £1 and £2 in order that some or perhaps all of the benefits can be felt by the people who have suffered from them. I hope that the matter has been put into perspective and I hope that my hon. Friends will say a few more words on the matter.
§ Mr. Alec Jones
I rise to support the amendments, particularly Amendment No. 3. I suppose that after the speeches 1060 by my hon. Friends the Members for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) and Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), and now by myself representing Rhondda West—all mining areas —the debate might appear to be turning completely into a case of special pleading on behalf of the miners. If that were so it would be justified because, irrespective of the general problem contained in the Bill and the proposals in the amendments, the specific case of the mine-workers and the way in which their recent pension increase has been affected deserves special consideration by the Government.
We are here concerned with more than just a specific case, however. There is a general problem. I am sure that my hon. Friends have no greater difficulty than trying to explain to constituents who come to their surgeries what on earth the disregards are all about. I find it impossible to justify to people many of the problems they incur over the disregards. The pamphlet SBI issued by the Department explains their rights to supplementary benefit. It includes the calculation of resources and it explains how to treat different income in different ways dependent upon how it was earned. A sum of £2 is disregarded for part-time earnings; £2 of any earnings of the wife are not counted; however, if it is other income, such as the income of an ex-miner, only £1 is disregarded. People generally find it extremely difficult to understand the justification for the different treatment of the different incomes. If we are to have disregards we should disregard sums of money, not apply a different type of disregard to suit the way in which money was earned.
The other problem is that the disregard has lost its 1966 value. The Library of the House has given us valuable information showing how unemployment benefits, retirement pensions, and supplementary benefits have risen since 1948. The supplementary benefit, or national assistance as it was then, was £6.65 in 1966 for husband and wife. It is now £11.65, which is a substantial increase. Yet, the disregard, which was an integral part of the 1966 Social Security Act and which was put into it for a specific purpose to meet a specific need, has remained exactly where it was. The pound in 1966 is a pound in 1973. The £2 is still the same.
1061 2.15 p.m.
I would have thought that the Government would have to consider seriously whether the disregard was necessary in 1973. If they conclude that it is, as I believe it to be, then it is vital that it should be uprated. To leave it at its present level is dishonest. It means not only that it has lost its value but that we are merely playing with the idea of disregarding. The purpose of the disregard was to provide that supplementary benefit claimants should derive some benefit from any small outside income. We are not here concerned with people in the middle or higher bracket. We are dealing with the poorer sections of the community, the people who by the very nature of things are forced on to supplementary benefit, and the present level of the disregard is certainly not sufficient to meet its original intention.
My hon. Friends are right to emphasise the effect which the disregard has at its present level on the mineworkers' pension. Certainly, the miners and many of their union officials cheered and applauded when the pension was announced to be increased from 30s. to £3. They expected to derive some benefit from it, but now find that they are denied any benefit because the pension increase has been deducted from the supplementary benefit payment. That is no way to treat a poor and deserving section of the community and it is no way to encourage good industrial relations in the mining industry.
If I were a miner and I were offered a similar deal by the Government on the next occasion I know exactly what I would tell them to do with it. To pretend that they are giving a pension increase of 30s. when all they are doing is giving it with the right hand and taking it with the left is the height of dishonesty. The least the Government should do today is to accept that the disregard is as necessary now as it was in 1966 and accept that it should be given equivalent value. I hope that the Minister will have the decency and commonsense to accept our amendment.
§ Mr. Harper
When the Minister sits on the Treasury Bench, looks over at this side of the House and sees a few miners he can no doubt guess that we are going to talk about the mining industry and the 1062 people who work in it. As I have already explained, he contested Pontefract 11 years ago and no doubt he learned a lot from his three-week sojourn in that town.
§ Mr. Harper
He was not there for much longer. I know that basically he is a compassionate man. In pressing these amendments, we are trying to say that the disregards should be increased. I shall not be able to contribute much more to what my hon. Friends the Members for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) and Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said. I disagree with one point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield. I always thought that he was a friend of mine. I object to his initial remarks, but on the rest I agreed with him 100 per cent. I do not feel as if I am creeping up to retirement age. No retirement age is laid down. We lay it down only for the heavy industries.
But we take my hon. Friend's point. Many people do not live to the retiring age of 65 and so do not receive any benefit. What is the use of the best benefits in the world if people do not live to enjoy them? I am reminded of a visit I paid to the Soviet Union in 1956. During our three weeks there we had the splendid benefits pointed out to us, but I asked the naive and simple question "Does anybody ever draw them?"
I should like to trump the ace that I am sure the Minister will play. He will say that when the miners' pension, which had been £1 a week for years, was raised to £1.50, the then Labour Government did not raise the disregards, although we asked them to, and the 50p was taken off. But times have changed since then. We were then passing through an economic crisis, and for the present the political scene seems calmer. We seem to be in the midst of a boom. Perhaps the slump is to come in a few years' time, though I sincerely hope that it never will.
The disregards affect people who have worked in the mining industry for 51 years, and in some cases 52. They used to leave school at 13 years. Then the school leaving age was raised to 14. I left at 14, and I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield left at 15. Now the school leaving age is 16. 1063 No doubt one day somebody will have the good idea of making it 18.
After 52 years' service, 51 years of them underground, the miners are subjected to the sort of treatment we are complaining about. Money is given with one hand and taken back with the other. My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. O'Malley) said that they were very angry about it. I believe that they are not only angry but bewildered. When they come to my surgery and my home I get out all the literature that the Department sends me, and I have the devil of a job trying to explain what it is all about.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham said that the amendments, particularly Amendment No. 3, should be accepted for the simple reason that we are asking not for a rise but just for the reinstatement of the value of the pound as it was in 1966. Apparently, it needs to be raised to £1.75 to have the same value as it had in 1966. We on this side believe that in justice and fairness that should be done.
What is being done in the Bill, and has been done ever since the Tory Government came to office in June 1970, is to transfer the responsibility which has always been the State's to the local authority. My constituents write to me saying, "I have had a £1.50 increase in pension, and they take £1.50 back." Others have had £1 taken back. Some have lost the whole and some have lost part. I have to tell them that they must apply for rent and rate rebates. They do that, which is transferring the burden from the State to the local authority. For authorities such as mine, with many retired and redundant miners, those under the age of 65, even the increased help under the rate support grant does not cover the situation. That is unfair.
Another point concerns those miners under the age of 65 who have had an increase in what is known as the incapacitated pension. In future they will have to pay for prescriptions, and that should not happen.
The Minister will reply that all these benefits cost money—I know that that is so—and that it is easy to say in opposition what we cannot say in government. Having been a member of the previous Government, I understand that. But the 1064 present Government have given tax reliefs to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds. Members of Parliament have benefited a little from that as well, but we could do without it. The money should go where it really belongs, to the people in need.
I ask the Minister once again to give serious consideration to the raising of the disregards, to give them the value that they had in 1966. We are not asking for an increase.
§ Mr. Dean
I have listened with understanding to what has been said in the debate. Much of it I would not wish to contest, particularly when one considers it as a case in isolation. The hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. O'Malley) well knows, because he has been through it himself, that in the now annual up-ratings every Government must make the difficult and often agonising choice of what should be in and what should be left out.
Under the Bill and associated measures we have increases in benefits amounting in a full year to £570 million. There is for pensioners, both those on national insurance pensions and those on supplementary pensions, the biggest increase in pension in any 12 months period. The disregards, as the hon. Member for Pontefract (Mr. Harper) has just recognised, are a call on resources. The hon. Gentleman has also recognised, from his own experience in government, that this factor has to be taken into account. The Opposition's proposal in the amendments would involve an additional cost of about £16 million a year. That is the extent of the additional call on resources over and above what is provided in the Bill.
An improvement in the disregards helps only those who have additional resources to be disregarded, whereas an increase in the basic rate helps everyone. A general increase in the benefit levels, such as we are making this year, helps all beneficiaries, whether or not they have disregarded resources. This is one of the factors which Governments have to bear in mind when deciding whether all the resources, as in this year's Bill, should go to all beneficiaries who can benefit through an improvement in the basic rates, or whether some 1065 should go to those people who have additional resources and therefore in respect of whom the disregard operates. That is one side of the equation which has to be considered.
On the other hand the Government fully accept that there is a case for improving the disregards. The Government have frequently said this. The case gets stronger each year, because the disregards have not been improved since 1966.
We are anxious to encourage savings and to see that those people who have put something aside for a rainy day are not penalised for doing so. We recognise what the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) put so forcefully, that it would be exceedingly difficult to persuade people to join occupational schemes, and to persuade those who run the schemes to improve the level of the pensions, if the effect will be that there will be no additional improvement for the people concerned. I recognise the strength of that argument and therefore that there is a case for an improvement in the disregards and that the time will come when rightly it appears at the top of the list.
I turn to the argument about the mineworkers' pension which was put so strongly and understandably by the hon. Members for Rotherham, Mansfield, Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), Rhondda, West (Mr. Alec Jones) and Pontefract. Miners who are not on supplementary benefit will gain the full increase. We are talking only about some people who are on supplementary benefit. This applies not only to miners but to any occupational pensioner who receives an increase.
But—and this is particularly relevant to the point mentioned by the hon. Member for Mansfield—I hope that hon. Gentlemen, in understandably advancing a powerful case, will recognise that this is not a new problem which has suddenly arisen. The same situation arose when the Labour Government were in office. When the mineworkers' pension was increased from £1 to £1.50 in 1969 there were no offsetting factors, such as the rent rebate arrangements. As now £1 was the limit of the disregard which was allowed for the occupational pension. 1066 Therefore, on that occasion the increase of 50p was of no benefit to the miners who were on full supplementary benefit.
§ Mr. O'Malley
In addition to the differences mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), it was accepted, and I think that it remains accepted, by both sides of the House that the disregards would not be improved every time that the scale rates were improved. In 1969 the disregards of £1 and £2 were far higher in real terms than they are now. We are four years of rapid inflation on, and, to that extent, the argument is stronger, as the Minister will recognise.
§ Mr. Dean
I am not arguing that. I am reminding the House, I hope fairly, that this is not a new situation but one which arose under the Labour Government in 1969, when the mineworkers' pension was last increased. The Labour Government then took no action to alleviate the situation.
Now the situation is not so difficult. Many of the retired miners concerned will be better off financially, unless their rent is high, by forgoing supplementary benefit and claiming a rent rebate or allowance instead, because the recent increases in the needs allowances in the rent rebate and allowance scheme have altered the relationship with the comparable supplementary benefit scale rates so that people with small amounts of occupational pension are better off financially after paying rebated housing costs than they would be on supplementary benefit. In effect, they are taken above the supplementary benefit level but none the less qualify for a rent rebate or allowance.
The Supplementary Benefits Commission is in touch with the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers about the best way of informing the people concerned of the new situation. We are anxious that each individual—we are not talking only about miners—should know the position so that the right choice can be made for him. The hon. Member for Rotherham, in spite of the hard words he used, cannot deny that many of the miners concerned will benefit, either fully or partially, from the increase in the miners' pension as a result of the rent rebate and rent allowance arrangement.
To save the Department and the National Coal Board time, may I point out that I come from one of the better areas of the mining industry and I do not know of one case where what the Under-Secretary said will apply. I am sure that Members representing more distressed areas and which are not so affluent would be hard put to find cases which meet what the hon. Gentleman is saying.
§ Mr. Dean
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have gone into this matter and have taken advice on it. It is not an easy matter to decide. A decision must be made in each case. But the Supplementary Benefits Commission is in close touch with the NCB and the NUM about the best way of informing people how they can benefit from the improvements. An article will be published in the NCB journal "Coal News" which will help to convey the information to the miners concerned. I make this plea to hon. Members opposite: in view of their knowledge of individual circumstances, will they please help us, because we are as anxious as they are to ensure that the many people who can benefit from the improvement in the miners' pension by readjustment under the housing finance arangements should benefit.
The hon. Member for Rotherham asked about the ex gratia payments on which we have been in correspondence. I glady confirm that an ex gratia pension is treated in the same way as an ordinary occupational pension—in other words, the recipient will have the £1 disregarded.
Turning to Amendment No. 4, this proposal has been made before, but it has always been resisted by successive Governments. The increments relating to graduated contributions are an integral part of the national insurance retirement pension, and the supplementary benefit scheme has always been regarded as essentially complementary to the national insurance scheme. It follows that retirement pensions, including graduated pensions, should be taken into account in full and attract no disregard. To disregard any part of retirement pension in determining entitlement to supplementary pension would result in providing twice over through different 1068 parts of the state social security scheme for the same contingency, namely, income maintenance in retirement
The arguments which I would use against Amendment No. 5 are similar, although there is a special additional point. The existing disregards were carried over into the supplementary benefit scheme from the national assistance scheme into which they had been introduced in special circumstances in 1964. The circumstances were that an increase in the benefit paid for the children of widows was being made at a time when there was no uprating of national assistance scale rates, and the Government were unwilling to countenance the fact that many of the widows on national assistance would receive no benefit from the increase if it were to be taken into account as would have been normal.
They therefore decided that the amount of the increase then being made should be specially disregarded for national assistance purposes, although it was realised that this would create an anomaly. The present disregards of 38p and 28p are the same amount decimalised and rounded. These amounts have, however, no rational place in the present scheme of disregards, since they conflict with the principle that supplementary benefit should be complementary to national insurance benefit. As improvements in national insurance benefit result in its meeting more of a person's maintenance requirements, it is right—and generally accepted—that the rôle of supplementary benefit should correspondingly diminish rather than be maintained by the device of disregarding some of the national insurance benefit.
I draw the arguments together by saying that the Government recognise that there is a case, which becomes stronger with each year that passes, for an improvement in the disregards. We understand the case which has been put on behalf of one group of occupational pensioners today, namely, the miners. I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members of the Opposition to do all that they can to help us to ensure that each individual miner has the situation which is most advantageous to him in the present circumstances. However, an increase in the disregards is a call on resources. The Government will consider it along with other claims on the resources available.
§ Mr. Bidwell
I have been asked collectively to reply briefly to the Minister's remarks.
What the hon. Gentleman said hinged mainly on the miners and what might he called "the Irishman's rise". But the principles go much wider. I ask the Minister not to disregard the fact that they would apply equally if there should be similar movements in occupational schemes affecting railwaymen in general and the Transport and General Workers Union catering for the ex-employees of nationalised undertakings. The miners' rate of pension which has applied since nationalisation is a rate which applies over a wide front of nationalised industry. In this connection the Minister's reply was totally inadequate, although it was not altogether surprising. But he cannot disregard what will be a continuing situation for his Department.
When this Irishman's rise situation occurs, as it has in the past in the case of supplementary benefits versus standard rates of pension benefits by means of either a private scheme or the State retirement pension scheme, it always gives rise to a certain amount of disquiet. I understand that the majority of mineworkers are affected, which means that stories about how it does not affect some miners do not cut very much ice.
As the House will know, I speak against a background of considerable experience as a railway worker. The Minister said that he was pleased to announce that the ex gratia addition for many railway workers would achieve the £1 disregard. However it has not been uprated as much as we would have liked. In a sense, it makes matters worse.
If we accept the principle of such a payment for one section of nationalised industry to its old servants, as railwaymen used to be called, and this kind of situation arises where a contributory pension scheme is put up in more modern living circumstances, we do not ease the situation. On the contrary, we cause a great deal of disquiet because it does not apply universally. That is the difficulty.
I need not emphasise to the Minister that I have devoted a lot of my time to pensions both in Committee and in introducing two Ten-Minute Bills in this House. This problem could be overcome by putting into effect what is cur- 1070 rently demanded by the Labour Party, which is a national retirement pension of £10 for a single person and £16 for a married couple. That would be a real advance when taken together with the new kind of nationalised industry payments which are emerging. What has happened in the mining industry will probably happen elsewhere, although it will not doubt require trade union negotiations. If that were to happen we should at last begin to get near a respectable sum for millions of our old people.
This debate has simply underscored the strength of the argument of the Labour Party. Only the other day at Watford my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition committed himself to a considerable volume of shifting resources that the State retirement pension fund will require if it is to pay out sums of the kind that we propose. We are pledged to do that, and there will be no hanky-panky about it when we get another Labour Government, which will be soon.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Bill read the Third time and passed.