HC Deb 07 March 1900 vol 80 cc312-28

Order for the Second Reading read.


This question of old age pensions is one which should be placed above and beyond party politics. In the general election of 1895 prominence was given to subjects of a social character, including the question of old age pensions. My right hon. friend the Colonial Secretary has spoken on this subject with all his lucidity and vigour, and Lord Salisbury, speaking upon the same subject, invented the phrase of "social amelioration," which has become historical. That phrase was echoed and re-echoed throughout the country, and I have no hesitation in saying that the promise of social amelioration in their programme had very much to do with the return of the Unionist party at the general election of 1895. [Opposition cries of "Hear, hear!"] I am glad to hear those cheers from hon. gentlemen opposite, because I should like to add that the great majority of those promises have been fulfilled. There is no part of the social programme which received more general attention than the proposal for old age pensions. I have had the honour of serving on a Select Committee under the chairmanship of my right hon. friend upon this question. I think we may start with the proposition that it is as much the duty of the community to succour the helpless as to punish the idle and the evildoer, and to distinguish between idleness on the one hand and deserving helplessness on the other. That differentiation at present solely consists of the distinction between giving poor law relief inside the workhouse and giving outdoor relief outside the workhouse. Guardians may give relief absolutely at their discretion, and outside the workhouse they use that discretion with great benevolence. Guardians may make allowance in money or provisions outside the workhouse, or they may compel the applicant to enter the workhouse, with all its discipline and degradation. But whether relief is given inside or outside of the workhouse it is accepted as a badge of disgrace, and with indifference and with a sense of shame and humiliation, by the deserving and the thrifty who have fallen by misfortune. The workhouse test was begun early in the century for the purpose of stopping the shameful corruption and abuse of outdoor relief by the able bodied. I have spoken of the discipline and degradation of the interior of the workhouse. I do not blame poor law guardians, because there must be discipline, and the circumstances of the case involve the degradation. The unavoidable herding together night and day of the idle with the indus- trious the religions with the obscene, of the virtuous with the profligate, the respectable with the dissolute, of the drunkard and the unreformed criminal side by side with the moral and industrious, is a scandal which it is the duty of this House to ameliorate as quickly as possible. In a few workhouses a system of classification has been established, but the cost and want of accommodation would make it impossible to have that system extended as people would like to see it extended. There is one remarkable circumstance upon this question of expense which I have no doubt is the reason why it is not pursued by the Government this session. The question of expense shows a remarkable contrast between the decreasing number of paupers and the increasing cost of maintaining them. In 1874 there were 820,446paupers in England and Wales, and in 1897 there were 814,887;so that in 1897 there were 12,559 fewer receiving relief in England and Wales than there were in 1874, and yet the cost increased from £7,664,959 to £10,432,189. The cost of relieving each pauper in 1874 was £9 5s. per head, but in 1897 it increased to £12 16s per head, and I believe I am justified in saying that since 1897 the cost has still further increased. This herding together of the deserving and undeserving is a scandal which cannot be remedied by an extension of outdoor relief. A suggestion was made that all old persons above sixty-five years of age should receive outdoor relief as a matter of course, and it was suggested that that would largely settle the question. I respectfully suggest that it is not possible to look to the poor law system for the settlement of this question. To fulfil the suggestions to which I have referred there must be something in the nature of an independent pension for the aged, dissociated from the poor law, and something in the nature of an honourable provision, for the people of this country would not feel that this question has been thoroughly dealt with unless something of this nature is provided In the case of the poor law, if an applicant has by thrift accumulated some small saving that is a barrier to his receipt of help; but to the old age pension administrator, as distinguished from the poor law administrator, the small savings are marks of sincerity, test, and guarantees of fitness for an honourable old age pension. The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Colonies, who has studied this matter very closely, stated in a speech some little time ago that five-sixths of the aged paupers supported themselves without any help at all until they reached the age of sixty-four, and that their pauperism was not due to drink or idleness, but it arose from the decay of nature and senile unfitness. The elementary principle of honourable pensions for the deserving in their old age has been recognised by the community just as clearly as it has recognised the necessity for the education of our children. The dockyard workmen, the civil servants, the officers of the Army and Navy, have all made honourable provision for old age, and I claim even this afternoon, in this comparatively attenuated House, notwithstanding the importance of this great subject, that the worker who has done his best to sustain his wife and children in decent independence during the years of his labour deserves something better than is now provided for him; he deserves something better than the degradation of a pauper's livery, and the unclassified association of the workhouse. Take two aged workers. One goes to the workhouse and the other keeps out of it. The reasonableness of the principle has been universally admitted, with the exception of a certain limited number who object to the system on various grounds. There is the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Dublin University. Upon the Select Committee last year I had the honour of associating with him during its labours, and the arguments he brought forward upon that occasion were that a system of old age pensions would pauperise the workers from their youth upwards, would destroy filial relations, and that the assistance which those in the vigour of their youth and the full power of their earnings give to their parents would be withdrawn; that it would destroy friendly societies and other organisations for thrift; and also that such a system would lower the standard of wages and create a large number of aged pensioned electors who would press upon their Members of Parliament earlier and larger pensions. But the impossibility of making any provision for old age out of their earnings paralyses thrift. There are many men in the full vigour of life who would willingly endeavour to save if they thought it was possible that they could save effectively, but who give up in despair the attempt to save because they know that they cannot possibly save what would secure anything like comfort in their old age. Notwithstanding the boasted civilisation of this country, it is far behind other countries in regard to this question. In Germany there is an established system which has been in operation for some ten years, by which this question of succour to the aged and deserving poor is more or less completely solved. The system consists of a part contribution by the workers, part by the employers, and a part by the State. That system is not working with entire success, but there is a very great deal in it that is satisfactory. In France and Belgium old age pensions are given by the State to members of friendly societies after they reach the age of sixty-five, and in Denmark by a law passed in 1896 there is a system of old age pensions distinct from the poor law system, which very much resembles our own. In our own colony of New Zealand there is a system fully established of old age pensions by which persons reaching the age of sixty-five with incomes not over £1 per week receive a pension amounting to £18 a year. The words in the Act of Parliament which established this system in New Zealand are extremely interesting, and I will read them to the House. The Act declares— Whereas it is equitable that deserving colonists who during the prime of life have helped to bear the public burdens of the colony by the payment of taxes, and to open up its resources by their labour and skill, should look to the colony for a pension in their old age. There is the essence of the argument and the raison ďêtre of the whole question. What have we done in the mother country? We have had Royal Commissions upon this question. A Royal Commission was appointed in 1893 and it reported in 1895. The Old Age Tensions Committee, presided over by Lord Rothschild, sat for two years, and carefully sheltered itself behind the limited terms of its reference, and gave up all attempts at the solution of the subject. It said that "None of the schemes presented were free from grave inherent disadvantages." Was there ever a scheme of reform propounded which was free from grave inherent disadvantages, and was there any reason for giving up the attempt to solve the problem? Under the chairmanship of my right hon. friend the President of the Local Government Board last session the Committee arrived at a definite conclusion almost unanimously that this question could be easily put into legislation subject to the difficulties of a financial kind being overcome. That Committee brought forward a practical suggestion, and it was understood that those suggestions would form the subject of legislation by the Government during the present session. [Opposition cries of "Hear, hear!"] I welcome those cheers, and if hon. Members opposite are prepared to vote the necessary £10,000,000, rising to £15,000,000, I am quite ready to support them. After the Select Committee of1899 had made its Report investigations were made, and within the last few days a Return has been printed which sets forth the result. Certain districts throughout the country were taken, and inquiries made as to the number of persons between sixty-five and seventy-five years of age who would, in all probability, come under the scheme of old age pensions. The result was that the cost was put down at something like £10,000,000 per annum, rising afterwards to £15,000,000. If that has been the reason why the Government have not proceeded this session with that measure, I say it is not a sufficient reason, because a very considerably modified scheme might have been set up. Every year this problem is increasing in its pressure, and the drain of the workers' vitality increases, while the range of working years of a man's life becomes more limited every year, and retirement by reason of old age becomes necessary at an earlier period of life. It has been estimated that there are 2,000,000 persons over the age of sixty-five, and consequently a pension scheme would cost £30,000,000 per annum. No one would suggest that £30,000,000 could possibly be added to the fiscal burdens of this country permanently without dislocating the whole of our fiscal system, but what I ask is that a beginning shall be made. If £10,000,000 per annum is too much, let us make a beginning upon a smaller scale and do something to show that we are in earnest. Let us experiment practically by some legislation, and extend the application of the system afterwards. With regard to the Bill which I have the honour to introduce, I may say that in the session before last 120 Members of this House drew up a memorial to the Government on this question and a Select Committee was formed. This Bill was introduced last session, and it is the outcome of the labours of the members of that Committee. This Bill is to place the members of friendly societies who have reached the age of sixty-five in the position of being able to receive assistance from county councils provided they do not suffer certain disabilities, such as having received poor law relief or having been in prison within a certain period. I doubt very much if there are many hon. Members of this House who appreciate the importance of the extensive work of friendly societies in this country. There are 8,000,000 of the wealth-producing sections of the community banded together for the purpose of mutual help in times of sickness and for the purpose of preserving the self-respect of the individual, and over £30,000,000 of savings have been invested by them. They disburse every day £14,000 in sick and funeral pay, and they save to the poor rates a sum estimated at not less than £4,000,000 annually. They are a magnificent guarantee of the thrift and the strength and stability of the people of this country. The persons eligible for pensions under this Bill are those who have shown thrift as members of any friendly society who have been clear of poor law relief for five years, who do not earn more than 5s. per week, and who have not an income of more than 16s. per week. That is a proposal which would avoid the danger of lowering wages. As to the cost, two-thirds would be provided by Parliament, and one-third by the County Council out of the rates. The procedure would be extremely simple; the applicant, being a member of the friendly society, obtains from the officers of the lodge to which he belongs papers for the purpose of making his application on reaching the age of sixty-five. They would be sent to the clerk to the county council, and afterwards placed in the hands of the friendly society, who would distribute the pension. There would be no extra cost of administration, and no army of officials would be established. The existing machinery of the friendly societies would be utilised, and there would be no leakage from that cause. The cost of the system that would be established by this Bill would be considerably less than £3,000,000 per annum, to make a beginning. What I ask the House to do is this. If it cannot give a universal pension involving an expenditure of £30,000,000 per annum, if it cannot act upon the recommendation of the Select Committee of 1899, which will take £15,000,000 a year at least to begin with, I ask the House to make a beginning upon the humble scale that I am suggesting, which would show the country that this House is in earnest, and which would be doing something to bring justice to the humbler workers, and remove what has been rightly described as one of the greatest scandals of the nineteenth century.

Mr. FLOWER (Bradford, W.)

I beg leave to second the motion.

Motion made and Question proposed—"That the Bill be now read a second time."

MR. CRIPPS (Gloucestershire, Stroud)

As one of the Members who sat on the Committee last year I desire to say a few words upon this subject. I am bound to state to the House at the outset that I do not agree with a great many of the premisses of the hon. Member who has proposed this Bill this afternoon. To begin with, I do not think it has yet been shown that any scheme of old age pensions which has been proposed up to the present day would be of any advantage to the very classes whom it is proposed to benefit. In other words, like many other schemes which have been brought forward, it is nothing more, in my mind, than an extension of the principle of outdoor relief. It is one of the features of the various proposals brought forward by hon. Members in dealing with this question that no distinction has yet been drawn between what is properly a pension scheme and what is an outside extension of our poor law system of outdoor relief. Let me say at the outset that I am one of those who believe that the present system of our poor law could, in many directions, be improved with the greatest advantage, and I believe that is the direction in which we have to look for a solution of the old age problem. I am more drawn to that conclusion when I find that the scheme which is proposed in this Bill and adopted by the Committee of 1899 is not really a pension scheme at all. It is merely a creation of some new authority or some vested authority which is to apply our poor law system in a complicated manner. As regards the premisses with which my hon. friend brought forward these proposals, he seems to think it sufficient to say, "Let us have legislation of some kind or other." That is the argument I understand he has brought forward. But let me put this to him in reply. The issue that has to be dealt with by every man who brings forward an old age pension scheme is not these general principles, but he has to put them into a practical form so as to carry out those ideas, and also allow them to be carried out at a cost and expense which is practicable and worth discussing. When you get beyond the cost or expense that can be seriously discussed in any practical form, you are holding out a sort of will-o'-the-wisp, and you are only divert- ing attention from practical reforms which cannot be carried out under such conditions. What was the next point made by him? He talked about a, prime evil which had a tendency to increase. Now that contention is quite out of accord with the evidence. That there is an evil no one denies, but I think it ought to be dealt with by the reform and improvement of our poor law system. The Committee and many hon. Members have come to the conclusion that, at the present time, even the evil which it is admitted exists is a decreasing evil, and no Committee inquired into this question more carefully than Lord Rothschild's Committee. No one who reads the Report of that Committee, and carefully considers the facts brought before it, can say that this crying evil is an increasing one at the present time. What does Lord Rothschild's Committee point out? It says that so much is this a decreasing evil that, in the opinion of that Committee, if you give time, it will be remedied by the ordinary natural increase or improvement in the condition of the working classes of this country. That is what Lord Rothschild's Commission states. It is not for me to state whether I agree with that theory or not. I do not think it can be remedied alone by the energy of the working classes, but I do agree that this old age pensions chimera is not the way to approach the true solution, but it is really diverting attention from what I may call the true reform and the true solution of this difficult question. Let me deal for a moment with the Bill of the hon. Member which he proposes this afternoon. Let me show the inconsistency with which this measure is brought forward. This Bill is precisely in the same form as that brought forward by the hon. Member last year, and it was in consequence of this Bill and others being brought forward that the Select Committee was appointed. They had to consider the whole of this question, and the result of their consideration was not to approve of this Bill but to differ from it. The hon. Member himself was a member of that Committee and approved of the Report of the majority. Therefore, in bringing forward this Bill he is out of accord with the principle and proposals adopted by that Select Committee; and why does he do this? When the scheme of the Select Committee came to be considered I was not prepared to support it, and I was always in a minority. I never did think that the scheme was a practical one. When it came to be considered it was found by the best expert evidence that the cost was £10,000,000, growing up to £15,000,000 a year, and, so far as the Select Committee are concerned, they gave the go-by to the question of cost. Speaking for myself, I could not assent to any Report upon this topic in which the question of the cost had not been thoroughly considered. It is one of the great cruxes of this great question, and to put it on one side is attempting to solve one of our great social problems without taking into consideration the most important factor. The result is that, as soon as ever you come to apply the test of the cost, no one will get up in this House and say that we are within a measurable distance of the time when we can find £15,000,000 a year for a matter of this kind. No one will get up and make that assertion. If they do not, then the whole scheme brought forward last year by the Select Committee falls to the ground. Even if the scheme was good, it is wholly condemned when the cost is considered, for that makes it an impossible scheme. As regards the scheme which was adopted by the majority of the Committee last year, I think it clearly showed what the true direction of reform was. The proposal of the Select Committee was, in substance, this: you constituted a new authority, partly of poor law guardians and partly of representatives of other local authorities; you constituted a new authority to administer your pension scheme, and you laid down certain provisions. The result was that you gave us a second poor law authority interfering with the one already existing, and to a great extent working inconsistently with it, and wasting money by having this duplicate authority. At the present time there are poor law authorities in this country which are giving far better terms than would be possible under the old age pension scheme of last year. In the West Derby Union as much as 15s. per week is given to old people under the head of outdoor relief, whereas under last year's Bill the grant was to be only 5s. or 7s. a week, and the system was much more complicated. In fact, every single thing proposed under a scheme of this kind could be given—and given in a greater degree under our existing poor law system, I think, than the original settlement of 1832 was a great statesmanlike settlement. I do not deny that there are weak spots in our poor law system, but do not let us shut our eyes to the fact that the cause of reform would certainly be retarded by these will-o'-the-wisp schemes of old age pensions, which, after all, are nothing but outdoor poor law relief administered by worse bodies under worse conditions. I believe no practicable scheme of old age pensions, either with regard to the methods of distribution or the amount of cost, has been devised up to the present moment. All of them up to now have gone in a quite wrong direction. In the case of such a scheme there must be hard-and-fast conditions, and Parliament must provide the money and fix the scale of the pensions. This Bill is entirely inconsistent even with the Report of the majority of the Committee which sat last year, and it ought not to be accepted on the suggestion that it is better to have bad legislation than none at all. I hope, therefore, the House will not give the Bill a Second Reading.

*SIR WALTER FOSTER (Derbyshire, Ilkeston)

I cannot altogether agree with the observations of the hon. Member for Stroud, because I think the House should have an opportunity of discussing this question this session, although I think that events so far have thrown a somewhat lurid light on the prospects of any legislation this year for the benefit of the working classes. I had the privilege of being a member of the Select Committee to which the hon. Member has referred, and I voted in a minority against the adoption of the Report, mainly on the ground that the Committee had refused to go into the question of cost. Since then the question of cost has been placed before the House, and I am rather gratified to find that the figures have confirmed to a large extent the estimate I myself had made of the cost of a scheme of old age pensions more or less on the lines recommended by the Committee. There was another reason why I dissented from the Report. I am perfectly sure that it would not do to have any scheme of old age pensions in which the possibility of patronage is placed in the hands of a local authority. We must have hard-and-fast rules framed, under which a pension could be claimed as a right. I am disappointed that so far we have been unable to elicit any opinion from the Government as to what they intend to do for the aged and deserved poor this session, either in regard to the Report on Old Age Pensions or in regard to the Report of the Cottage Homes Committee. The latter Committee has recommended a good deal that could be done without any very large expenditure of public funds. It recommended that a proper classification of the inmates of workhouses should be made that the aged deserving poor outside should receive adequate outdoor relief, and that those in the workhouses should constitute a special class and receive special treatment. I hope that before this debate concludes we shall get some assurance that something will be done in this direction, for much of this would not require any legislation in this House. What is wanted is a system of old age pensions to take away from the deserving poor the stigma of pauperism. A further suggestion of the Cottage Homes Committee is that for the aged and deserving there should be cottage homes apart from workhouse surroundings. These questions have cropped up incidentally in the discussion. The Bill before the House proposes a scheme which was not accepted by the Committee last year. It is, nevertheless, a happy accident that this Bill has been brought forward, because it affords an opportunity for eliciting opinions from the Government bench and from the House. Looking back on the question, and recalling the words in the Queen's Speech that the time is not opportune for such expenditure, I cannot but regret that during the years when the revenue showed a substantial surplus the Report of the previous Committee received no consideration, and the claims of the poorest classes of the community were passed over. I think that charge can be thoroughly substantiated, for over a series of years the annual surplus has been from three and a half to five and a half millions, and, according to the Report of the last Committee, the amount required for old age pensions for people over sixty-five years of age would be ten millions, and making the age severity, about £5,900,000. Here has been an opportunity neglected, to the discredit of the Government. The surplus of any year could not have been spent in a manner more likely to do good than in giving pensions of 5s. a week under certain conditions to the aged and deserving poor. But an unequalled opportunity has been neglected, and now social questions must be put aside because every available million is required for war expenditure. I hope that in a few years, when we have got over the strain caused by our excessive military expenditure, the Government will again take up this question, and will arrange that aged people on arriving at a certain age shall, supposing they are not disqualified by crime or by having received out-door relief, be entitled to a pension. During our recent years of prosperity a beginning might have been made with the age of seventy, and from that we could have judged how much would be saved from poor law administration. The saving will, I believe, be a progressive amount, because more and more people will be encouraged year by year to avoid poor law relief by the prospect of a pension. In conclusion, may I again express the hope that before this debate closes, we shall have some statement of policy from the Government as to old age pensions and the Cottage Homes Bill.


I hope that my right hon. friend the President of the Local Government Board, who has been called away to receive an important deputation, will return before the debate closes. I rise merely to reply to questions that have been addressed to me as to what the Government intend to do in regard to the Report of the Cottage Homes Committee. My right hon. friend and myself have given most sympathetic consideration to the Report. Difficulties have arisen in regard to classification in workhouse from want of space. My hon. friend opposite called upon the Local Government Board to issue regulations with regard to classification, but before such regulations could be effective, space must be found, and, as he is aware, the Committee contemplated that such would be found by the exclusion of certain classes from workhouses. For the settlement of an arrangement a good deal of consultation was required between county councils and the Local Government Board, and I can assure my hon. friend that most active and anxious consideration has been given to the subject by the Department with a view to carrying out the reforms sketched in the Report. It can scarcely be called a happy accident that brings this Bill under discussion for an hour and a half at the close of a Wednesday sitting, dealing as it does with a subject that has occupied the consideration of Royal Commissions and committees without any very satisfactory result. An accident it is, but the House will agree the time is not auspicious for legislation involving large expenditure of public money, and will not expect that such a question can be settled in an hour and a half on a Wednesday afternoon.

MR. STEADMAN (Tower Hamlets, Stepney)

This is a social problem which was put very much in the front at the last General Election, and it secured many votes for hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House. As might have been expected, the Secretary to the Local Government Board has said that the Government are not prepared to deal with this question in a serious manner at the fag end of a Wednesday afternoon sitting, But may I point out that the Government have been in office for nearly five years, and during that period have not only voted large sums of money to the landlords, but have also found time and opportunity to assist and protect the interests of other classes than the poorer workmen. While the Government through the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Monday admitted the continued prosperity of the country on the one hand, they absolutely refused to allow the men who by their labour have realised that wealth to participate in it. Mr. Charles Booth tells us that in the city of London alone to-day there are no fewer than half a million workmen whose average earnings do not exceed 10s. or 15s. a week. I ask how can these men, with wives and children to maintain, make any provision for old age? It is not possible for them to pay 6d. or a 1s. a week into a friendly society. As to where the funds to provide old age pensions are to come from, I can only say that a Government which can find funds to give doles to their friends, and raise sixty millions to go to war with another country, can easily, if it has the will, tap another source of income—the taxation of ground values—and find pensions for the aged and deserving poor. Is it not disgraceful that in this Christian country men and women who have worked hard all their lives and have never committed a crime should have the stigma of pauperism fastened on them in their declining years, and eventually find a resting place in a pauper's grave?


The Bill which it is asked should be read a second time this afternoon was only circulated this morning, and I confess that I have not yet had the opportunity of examining its provisions. Everyone must perceive therefore that this debate must be of a purely academic character. My hon. friend, before I left the House to fulfil another engagement, said that the position of the question remains the same as in last session. But there is this very important change: those who signed the Report of the Select Committee which dealt with the question last session did so subject to one condition—that there should be a further examination of the question with regard to the cost of the proposal. That examination has been made, and, as the House has been informed, the cost is estimated to be (for the scheme of the Select Committee) a sum of ten millions a year at the present time, and fifteen millions a year twenty years hence. I recognise, as regards the Government, that this is a matter of the greatest consideration. I am disposed myself to think it would, at all events, involve the consideration of some other scheme, not perhaps so complete or elaborate.


It will, I think, be admitted that this Bill deals with one of the most complicated of political subjects, and seeing that two Royal Commissions have been unable to solve the problem of old age pensions, how can it be expected that, after a brief debate on a Wednesday afternoon, the House of Commons will be able to do so? The hon. Member for Stepney said that many Members of this House gained votes at the last General Election by promising a scheme of old age pensions. Now, I was very careful to give no pledge or promise in regard to such a scheme, as—

It being half-past Five of the clock, the Debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Tuesday next.