HC Deb 29 April 1909 vol 4 cc482-4

During the discussion on the Old Age Pensions Bill in the House of Commons, several Amendments were moved with a view to extending the benefits of the Act to the septuagenarian pauper, and I think it was generally felt in all quarters of the House that it was rather hard upon those who had managed up to a ripe old age by a life of hard work to keep off the poor law, and who only finally resorted to parochial relief when their physical powers utterly failed them, it was rather hard they should be still kept to their miserable and pauper-tainted allowance of 2s. 6d. a week, while their more fortunate, but not more deserving, neighbours were in receipt of an honourable State pension of 5s. a week, and often of 10s. a week. That cannot possibly stand. It was condemned by all, and could only be defended by the Government on the ground of stern financial necessity. With the unanimous assent of the House of Commons a purely provisional character was given to the pauper disqualification, and unless something is done, it automatically comes to an end on the 1st January, 1911, and all these poor old people, numbering between 200,000 and 300,000, will become chargeable to the Pension Fund. I cannot recommend Parliament to undertake the whole financial burden of putting such a transaction through. It would put too heavy a charge upon the Exchequer, and there is no reason why it should fall entirely upon Imperial funds. At the present moment these paupers cost something like £2,000,000 to the local rates of the country. If we received a contribution from local funds which would be substantially equivalent to the relief which would be afforded by withdrawing such a large number of paupers from the rates, then something can be done to remove this crying hardship. My right hon. Friend the President of the Local Government Board and I have entered into negotiations with some representatives of local authorities with a view to effecting an arrangement on this basis, and although we have not yet arrived at any decision as to the amount of the national contribution, we are very hopeful of being able to enter into a bargain which will be satisfactory to all parties concerned. I do not think it would be desirable for me at this stage to give any figures—otherwise it might embarrass us in the negotiations—but it is my intention in the financial proposals which I shall submit to the House, I am afraid not this year, but probably next year, to make provision which will enable us with the assistance of the local authorities to raise over 200,000 old people from the slough of pauperism to the dignity and the comparative comfort of State pensioners. That is a contingent liability which I am bound to take full note of in arranging for my finance, because it is perfectly clear we cannot impose taxation this year and next year impose new taxation for proposals of which at the present moment we have full cognisance.

But still, all those who have given any thought and study to this question must realise that the inclusion of the septuagenarian pauper is but a very small part of the problem which awaits solution—a problem of human suffering which does not become any easier of solution by postponement. On the contrary, the longer we defer the task of grappling with it the more tangled and the more desperate it becomes. We are pledged, definitely pledged, by speeches from the Prime Minister given both in the House and outside, to supplementing our old age pensions proposals. How is that to be done? It has been suggested that we should reduce the age limit. I am emphatically of opinion that that is the most improvident and ineffective method of approaching the question, and that it would be the line upon which advance would be slowest and most difficult, and which would achieve the least hopeful results. For the moment it is financially impracticable.