HC Deb 28 April 1910 vol 17 cc720-8

I wish to make a few remarks on a matter of considerable interest, namely, the administration of old age pensions in Ireland. We have often heard from British Members their surprise at the number of questions put on the Paper in regard to the administration of the Old Age Pensions Act in Ireland, and they say that measure applies equally to England and Scotland and Wales, yet the Notice Paper is free from questions on the subject in regard to those countries.


That is true, no doubt, but the explanation is perfectly simple. Seventy years ago the registration law applied to England, but not to Ireland until several years afterwards. Consequently there is a doubt as to the age of the old people, and the Census in years gone by was filled up without much exactitude, at any rate with regard to age, because old age pensions were not thought of in those days. The papers were filled up merely as an enumeration of the people of the country, and they were very careless about it. It is only human nature that the ages were understated. Most people, men and women, and particularly women, would very much prefer to have their ages understated than overstated. Consequently we say that the information given by the Census Returns is generally misleading.

With regard to the present administration of the Act I would like to know by what method of calculation most of the pension officers make out £10 per acre net profit can be made in farming. Farmers would be very pleased to hear of such a profit. I think it is a very exorbitant figure, and by that calculation the pension officers have cut off a number of people who are certainly entitled to a pension. Two or three people in my district, in receipt of pensions for some months, have had them cut off because, according to the Census Returns, they are only sixty-nine years. According to a reply given by the right hon. Gentleman to-day, apparently It is the intention of the Government, when those people reach the age of seventy, to impound their pensions to repay what they have got, and not to give them the pensions to which I maintain they are entitled. I quite admit, if you had absolute proof of their age, that would be justifiable, but, as I have pointed out, it is largely conjectural. I know personally some of those people, and I was very much surprised in one case to hear of a man being cut off on the ground that the Census made out that he was not seventy. I thought he was well over seventy. This is not the time to go into a discussion of the general administration of the Act. We in Ireland are grateful for the Act, and it has done an amount of good to our people that few people can understand. It has brought hope and cheerfulness to many a home that was despondent. Officials may not be satisfied with the result, and it may have cost a great deal more in Ireland than they anticipated; but to those of us who live in the country, who know the condition of the people, their homes and almost all their affairs, it is no surprise. If hon. Members on the Conservative side will look back to the last Administration under Mr. Gerald Balfour they will find that he established relief works in the West of Ireland, and had thousands of men working ten hours a day for wages varying from 3s. to 6s. a week, without any food whatever, and for this beggarly wage the men had to walk long distances to and from their work. I have been in Parliament a good many years, and the policy of old age pensions has been dangled before the electorate for a long time. I never thought to see it in force; but having seen it in force we appreciate it, and we do not approach the consideration of the question in any captious mood. We are simply anxious that those who we believe are entitled to pensions should have them, and we say that if there is any doubt at all with regard to the ages of the people, considering that we have not registration laws which enable us to say definitely what their ages may be, in all justice the benefit of the doubt should be given to the applicants.


I must bear out my hon. Friend's remarks as to the way in which the granting of old age pensions has been received in Ireland. The old people are grateful for the passage of the Act, and in general we have no complaint to make of its administration. Although we may disagree with Treasury policy and Local Government Board policy, we set down the mistakes which are made and the hard cases which arise rather to the incompetence of a foreign tribunal like the Local Government Board or the Treasury to deal with our affairs than to a desire on the part of the right hon. Gentleman unfairly to strain the Act and deprive old people of the pensions to which they are entitled. It must be evident to those who have listened to his answers to questions put by representatives from Ireland that the Secretary to the Treasury is under a misconception with regard to the interpretation of the Act, and that through this misconception a certain amount of suffering is entailed on a large number of people in Ireland. A short time ago there was a discussion of considerable length with regard to the general question of the administration of the Old Age Pensions Act in Ireland. I must say that, apart from the length of the speeches to which we have been treated from the Treasury Bench, and the detail which was necessary to make up the length of those speeches, the argument presented from the Treasury Bench—in so far as any argument was presented—was one that could scarcely be called an argument. We were told in relation to complaints that came from Ireland: "We know what the population of Ireland is; you are getting over £2,000,000 of money." My contention is that the Old Age Pensions Act was not granted in favour of Ireland, but was an Act granted in favour of every individual over the age of seventy years who was entitled to a pension. It is no fair answer to an old man of seventy to say, "Well, if the Treasury are making a mistake in your case you must remember that a great number of your fellow countrymen over the age of seventy years are getting a pension." It does not redress the grievance of such a man, and I think we are justified in bringing up this grievance in the House now or at any other time. It has struck a number of our colleagues in this House, Liberals, Conservatives, and Unionists, that a great number of questions are always down on the Paper from the representatives of Ireland to the Treasury and to the Local Government Board in respect of the administration of the Pensions Act, and in regard to the ventilation of grievances of old people in Ireland. The very fact that those questions are so frequent must indicate to the Treasury, if they open their eyes to the facts disclosed, and to all the Members of this House, that great evils exist in the administration of this Act in Ireland. When a discussion took place in March in reference to old age pensions it was admitted by the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary for Ireland that since the Act came into force the Irish Local Government Board, which is the supreme court of appeal in the administration of the Act, had made between 8,000 and 10,000 mistakes in regard to the granting of pensions. When you have such a state of affairs existing in Ireland it must be evident that there is a screw loose, and, indeed, we say that there are great mistakes made, not only by the Local Government Board in giving too narrow an interpretation to the Act, but that the Treasury, through the instructions given to the pension officers, is decidedly unfair. The instruction the Treasury give to the pension officers in regard to their duty to appeals is such that between the Treasury, the Board of Customs and Inland Revenue, and the Irish Local Government Board, there is—I will not say a conspiracy, but something like it. Their action jointly in giving instructions to the pension officers as to settling questions of age and of means is unfair to the pension officers themselves, is in effect a conspiracy to deprive a large number of the old people in Ireland of the pensions to which they are justly entitled.

I wish to call attention especially to the impounding of pensions by the Treasury. I think this point is worthy of attention. When the Secretary of the Treasury was asked to-day, he stated, in answer to a question, "That the Treasury is entitled to retain from a pension granted to a person whose age is admitted payments which may have been made in mistake by the Treasury of such old age pensions before he became entitled to a pension." When pressed upon this point, the Secretary to the Treasury stated that he did not find any authority for his contention in the Statute itself, but that he depended upon the general law of the country. The meaning of the Statute, I think, is quite clear. It says:— Every assignment of, or charge on … an old age pension under this Act, shall be void on any person, entitled to an old age pension. The pension shall not pass to any trustee, or any other person acting on behalf of creditors. Yet the Secretary to the Treasury contended in this House that, acting under the general law of the country, he is entitled—not to go to court to obtain judgment—but, at his own hand, in a most arbitrary way, is entitled to retain the money payable week by week, and payable in advance, as prescribed by the Act, until the debt due to the Treasury is satisfied. Under the Statute he has no authority for that, and I deny that either the general law of this country or the general law of Ireland gives him any authority whatever for his contention. Indeed I think it is quite clear that the Crown debts in respect to which the preference is given the Crown in case of bankruptcy are excluded by the Statute itself. I do not wish to go into questions of law. Our point is that when such a debt is incurred by the carelessness or mistake of the Treasury in granting a pension where it is not due, to take repayment of the money by way of the old age pension, when once that pension is due, is not right. I do respectfully maintain that the retention by the Treasury of sums payable to old persons after the age is admitted, and when no question was raised by the pension officer or any other person as to age or means—that the failure of the Treasury to pay that money over is something to which regard should be paid.

On the occasion of a recent discussion in this House the Secretary to the Treasury stated that in order to meet the grievances which had arisen in Ireland, to give satisfaction to the county councils who are interested in this matter, and the Treasury, being actuated by a desire to fairly carry out the law, the Treasury would defray the cost of an appeal to the highest tribunal in the land in order to make it clear as to whether the Treasury was right, or the Local Government Board was justified, in their rulings on certain questions that had been raised in Ireland. I wish to put this to the Secretary for the Treasury. Is he willing out of Treasury funds to provide the cost of an appeal to the Supreme Court in order to decide whether or not, at their own hands, without a decision of any court to support them, the Treasury have the right to retain from a pensioner the amount which is granted to him, when they have not challenged either in respect of age or means?

There is another point which I have to bring to the notice of the House. My hon. Friend has drawn attention to the fact that in Ireland registers of births, deaths and marriages were not kept till quite recently, so that it is impossible, by the production of baptismal certificates in the great majority of instances, to establish the age of a person claiming a pension. If there is to be any freedom in the matter as to what evidence will be acceptable in proof of age, I think a little latitude should be given to Ireland where registers have not existed as in England or Scotland. For a long time to my certain knowledge it has been the practice in Scotland and in England that the pension committees do not require documentary evidence of age. I was more than amazed to hear the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Treasury state, in answer to a question the other day, that it is necessary, in compliance with the very terms of the Old Age Pensions Act, that the person applying for a pension should in every case give documentary evidence of age. I do not think a more absurd contention could be maintained from the Treasury Bench or from any quarter of the House.

There is absolutely nothing in the Act on which the right hon. Gentleman can found his contention that documentary evidence is necessary. Is he going to contend that where documentary evidence is not available, although it may be that probably a person has reached the age of seventy, that that person is not to get a pension? Is he going to contend that it was not meant to apply to all old people over the age of seventy, and only to those who lived in such times and in such parts of the country where registers were kept and where documentary evidence could be ob- tained? That is utterly impossible in Ireland. The Act makes no requirements with regard to documentary evidence, and it is a grave reflection on the fairness and honesty of the local pension committees and the members of county councils and other most respectable members of the community that in almost every case the decision given by these people, deliberately arrived at, should be overruled. I have known cases where the ministers of religion of all denominations within a parish and other public men have met together, heard the evidence, and have come to a decision, not upon documentary evidence, but in regard to people known to be over the age of seventy, and where it was known that the particular applicant was entitled to a pension, and yet, because documentary evidence was not available, the pension was withheld by the Local Government Board, not on the merits of the case, but by virtue of an instruction which the right hon. Gentleman denies has been issued. I think I can convince him that such instructions have been issued. The pension officers have been instructed that in every case they must appeal against the decision of a pension committee unless documentary evidence is forthcoming. I do not think the Financial Secretary to the Treasury can deny that the Department with which he is connected has issued such instructions. The Board of Customs and Inland Revenue have issued to pension officers instructions that they are to appeal against any decision unless a certificate of birth is produced. This is a scandal and it is illegal to issue such instructions. I assert that the right hon. Gentleman who is responsible for giving such instructions has no legal warrant for them, and he should withdraw them. If he would do that there would be much more confidence in regard to the fair and reasonable administration of this Act.


I have told the House before that the imaginary instructions to which the hon. Member refers have never been issued. I can only repeat that statement again. With regard to the question of documentary evidence, if the hon. Gentleman will turn to the 10th Section and 1st Sub-section of the Act he will see that it rests with the Treasury to make regulations under which pensions are obtainable, and it is under those instructions authorising the issue of such regulations that we require documentary evidence. I dwelt at very great length upon this point a fortnight ago, when the whole of this subject was dealt with. I believe we spent the whole of Friday discussing the subject, and we went deeply into the administration of this Act. I do not propose to repeat all those details to the House. A very important point was raised by the hon. Member for Waterford, with which I should like to deal. Incidentally, it was dealt with by the hon. Member for Sligo. It was; the case in which an applicant, having been granted a pension, that pension had been revoked and subsequently a new pension was granted; and in the second instance the withholding of the payment of the pension until the money paid on the original grant had been wiped out. I think that was the point raised by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Waterford, and it is a very important point. I cannot profess to be a lawyer, and any original pronouncement, therefore, of my own upon a question of law would be worthless, but I had had a previous opportunity when this question was raised of consulting my legal advisers. Notice was given to me very courteously by the hon. Gentleman opposite, and I have had an opportunity of refreshing my memory as to their advice. They were quite clear, and I have no reason to doubt their accuracy, that it is within the capacity of the Crown to retain the pension until the arrears have been wiped out. The Crown has a right to retain the pension as an off-set against a debt due to it.

With regard to the other point, which is a larger point, I am very glad to be able to be in a position this afternoon to deal in a very few words with it. The question of the recovery of pension money paid to disqualified pensioners has been before the Public Accounts Committee. That Committee took the line that the Crown should lose no opportunity of recovering any debt due to it. It is unquestionable that in some circumstances that has entailed a considerable amount of hardship upon individuals, and I propose hereafter that unless in our opinion the action of the applicant was of such a character that he deliberately used means which were deceptive or dishonest to obtain the grant of a pension we should not, in cases where there had been an honest mistake on the part of the pensioner as to the age at which he applied for his pension, proceed against him for the recovery of the sum due from him. The sums in themselves are very small compared with the great amount paid in pensions, and I am very glad to be able to relieve of the payment of the sums perfectly honest people who, as I stated in Debate the other day, are on the border line of seventy, whose exact age, whether they are sixty-eight or seventy-one, is not known to themselves, and almost certainly is not known to anybody else, and who have reasonably got the benefit of the doubt of a mistake, but we cannot allow the pension unless we have evidence to show that no mistake is present.


You would not impound the future pension of that person?


No, I do not think so.


I should like to be very clear about what the right hon. Gentleman has said. Does he say where a pension has been granted, and it is subsequently discovered that the person is not seventy years of age or is disqualified in some other way, and where a bonâ fide mistake has been made by the applicant, that when that person afterwards reaches the age of seventy and becomes entitled to a pension, no deduction will be made from his pension in respect of the money paid previously?


Not unless in our opinion there is some deliberate deception or dishonest method adopted.


I think that is very satisfactory. We ourselves would not claim on behalf of a pensioner where he has deliberately or knowingly deceived the Pension Committee and obtained a pension practically by false representations that there should not be a stoppage or any attempt to recover the amount of the cash payment. We quite see it is reasonable in such a case that it should be done. Therefore I think that the announcement of the right hon. Gentleman will give great satisfaction in Ireland as to the course it is intended to pursue in all cases where pensions have been granted in the bonâ fide, belief of the applicant that he or she was entitled at the time of application to the pension.