HC Deb 19 June 1903 vol 123 cc1453-60

Order read, for resuming adjourned debate on Question [12th June], "That the Bill be now read the third time."

Question again proposed. Debate resumed.

MR. CALDWELL (Lanarkshire, Mid)

said that this was a Bill to enable boards of guardians not to take into consideration, in connection with an application for outdoor relief, the amount of a pension given to a pensioner from the Army or the Navy where the amount was under 5s. a week. It was the result of the Friendly Societies Bill which the House had previously passed. That Bill provided that boards of guardians, in granting outdoor relief to members of friendly societies, should not take into consideration any sum received from such societies as sick-pay except where it exceeded 5s. a week. To his mind that was an invidious measure. It dealt entirely with one class of the community; but it had the support of the Government, and when it went through the House no hon. Member appeared inclined to embark on a discussion on it. If the House empowered boards of guardians not to take into consideration sick pay received from friendly societies where it did not exceed 5s. a week, how could it refuse to grant a similar exemption in the case of pensioners where, although the pension was not due to thrift, it was, at any rate, due to a better cause—namely, service to the country. He himself did not see why thrift which had taken the form of purchasing an annuity or income from investments should not be taken into consideration by boards of guardians also. He thought it was a great mistake on the part of the Government not to have dealt with the subject as a whole, in order to provide that thrift, no matter in what form it might develop itself, should be entitled to recognition. The Government having assented to the Friendly Societies Bill, it seemed to him reasonable and proper that this Bill should have been brought in. He did not object to it; on the contrary, he was friendly to its being passed through the House. But the Friendly Societies Bill having been thrown out in another place altered the position of matters a great deal. That put this Bill in a rather peculiar position.

He had received a statement from which it appeared that the position of Army pensioners had been so improved under the present Secretary of State for War and some of his predecessors, that it would be only in very rare instances that the Bill would apply to Army pensioners. He wished to point out that the House was now dealing with this matter on its own merits and without precedent. There were three objections to the measure. The effect of the Bill would be to almost invite a pensioner with a pension of 5s. a week to claim relief from a board of guardians. Again, in the case of the Friendly Societies Bill there was this difference. The amount that was not to be taken into consideration was sick-pay; but in the present Bill there was no reference to sick-pay, and the pensioner might be an able-bodied man. That was a very material difference. He quite agreed that every man who had served in the Army or the Navy, and who had received a pension, however small, which showed that he had given service to his country, ought not to be put in the invidious position of being offered the workhouse. If there were any legislation whereby the offer of the workhouse should not be given in such cases, he would personally support it. But there ought to be other provision by the State for such pensioners as might have been disabled either by wounds or ill health. There ought to be a fund, whether under the management of the Government or not, to provide minimum pensions for keeping pensioners out of the workhouse or from the necessity of applying to boards of guardians for relief. He would not move the rejection of the Bill. He would, however, suggest that it should not be passed this session, but should await the fate of the other Bill. He thought that some measures might be taken whereby pensioners with small pensions might be dealt with in such a way as would obviate the necessity of their applying to boards of guardians at all. He was entirely sympathetic with the case of pensioners, and he did not want to see them applying for relief or for admission to a workhouse. They had given their best service to the country as a whole, and no particular locality should be I asked to provide for them. It was a matter which should be provided out of Imperial funds. While not expressing any opposition to the object in view, he thought that there would be no harm in delaying the Bill in order to see what would be the fate of the other measure. If the other measure were eventually passed, he would be quite prepared to support the present Bill. He thought he had suggested a way whereby pensioners with small pensions might not find it necessary to apply to boards of guardians at all; and he certainly would not have intervened on the present occasion had it not been that the Friendly Societies Bill had been rejected in another place.

*COLONEL BLUNDELL (Lancashire, Ince)

said he was glad the hon. Gentleman had spoken with reference to insufficient pensions. Small pensions of from 6d. to 8d. a day could not, in his opinion, be dealt with in any other way than by such a measure, because when a man is discharged for "disability" arising from wounds or sickness and is partially able to earn his living, it is not fair to call upon the State to give him a full pension. The Bill was brought forward with the general intention that a pensioner should receive the benefit of the thrift which was exercised for him and at his expense by the State during his service. Therefore a pensioner was in precisely the same position as a member of a friendly society. He also wished to support the measure in the interests of the State. He felt certain it was a very serious thing indeed for the State to have pensioners in the workhouse of the country. One man there deterred ten men from entering the service. He had received a letter from a pensioner, who was now an inmate of St. George's Union in the Fulham Road. He wrote— I have only got 8d. per day for one year and six months; and not being able to do any work through having contracted disease in South Africa, and my pension being so small, I made application for admission to the above workhouse, and because I did not tell the relieving officer that I was in possession or receipt of 8d. per day I was charged at the Rochester Row Police Court and got fourteen days imprisonment. Not only that, but the guardians want me to forfeit all my pension for every day I am in the house; which means that, they will take all I have and leave me without the price of a smoke of tobacco. As I am not sixty years of age I have to put up with the same food as the younger men; one pint of gruel night and morning, dry bread, and four pounds of oakum to pick every day, and to pay 8d. a day to be allowed to do it. That was a sort of thing which was very prejudical; and he certainly hoped that the House of Commons would take steps to prevent it as far as possible. He would urge hon. Members, whatever their views on thrift might be, that, it was desirable for the sake of the State that pensioners should be kept out of the workhouse.


said everyone sympathised with the object of the Bill, so far as it proposed to relieve the lot of those who were in distress after having served their country. Indeed, had it been relevant to the present issue he should have said with great emphasis that he thought the terms which the Government now gave to those who fought their battles abroad were unduly restricted. A man who was wounded in the service of his country ought to receive a pension sufficiently large to place him in the same position as he would have been had he not been wounded. Therefore, he was full of sympathy with the hon. and gallant Gentleman in the purpose he had in view in introducing the Bill. It was largely on that score that he did not propose to oppose it. But he could not help calling attention to the very important principle which was embodied in the Bill. As the hon. Gentleman opposite said very truly, the main objection to the Bill was that it would throw on a locality the duty of supporting those pensioners. There was no doubt that those who had served in the Army and Navy had great claims on the Imperial Exchequer; but they had no special or peculiar claim on local rates. There was a very serious objection to increasing the burden on the rates as distinct from the Exchequer. One of the most notable features of the present system was that whereas they had the most elaborate apparatus for checking extravagance in connection with the Exchequer, there was practically no check whatever on the local bodies which spent the rates. Under this Bill expense would be thrown on the ratepayers, many of them persons of great poverty themselves, and struggling against difficulties. The equitable claim of his hon. and learned friend was not against the local authorities, but against the State. There was another graver objection to this Bill. It recognised, as did the other Outdoor Belief (Friendly Societies) Bill, that the people had a right to outdoor relief independently of their circumstances. The right the people now had to outdoor relief was their poverty and misery, but it was said in this case they were not in granting outdoor relief to have regard to the position of the pensioner at all, they were to look on the relief they gave not as relief given to save from acute distress, but relief to which in some degree the recipient had a right. Once that principle was admitted it would be a logical impossibility to deny that they ought to give the same right of relief to every person in a locality who had been thrifty, and who could establish the fact that it was not through his own fault that he was in distress. That was a principle with which he agreed. It was the principle of old-age pensions. It was a principle of the greatest possible importance, and was in exact opposition to the principle of the Poor Law of 1834, which was that everybody was to have a right to relief if they were in poverty and misery. He, however, thought it was an illogical and slipshod method of dealing with a great question that we should have a lot of little bills dealing with different classes of people and making exceptions of this kind. It would be a far more reasonable way of dealing with this great question if it were laid down once and for all that those who could show that it was not through want of character or thrift that they were in the position they were, had a right to claim relief from the people at large. If that were laid down as a definite proposition, and one which might be made to work, it would claim the support of the whole House. It was a matter for regret that they dealt with this great question of relief by piecemeal measures and upon particular grounds which excited their strong sympathy, but that did not alter the fact that the house in agreeing to this Bill was agreeing to a principle of far-reaching importance; a principle which ought to be extended to a very large class. Though the Bill might not be passed when sent to another place these debates were not without value, because they tended to make the House recognise the nature of the act they were undertaking. It was not desirable to make exceptions of this kind, and less desirable to do so without knowing what they were doing.