HC Deb 15 July 1915 vol 73 cc1027-33

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That a sum, not exceeding £7,889,000, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1916, for the payment of Old Age Pensions in the United Kingdom, and for certain Administrative Expenses in connection therewith." [NOTE.—£5,200,000 has been voted on account.]


I wish to call the attention of the Treasury to the administration of the Old Age Pensions Act, especially in the county of Durham. When the Act was introduced pensions were regarded, not as a sole source of maintenance, but as an assistance, and that fact has led to their being supplemented in many ways. In the county of Durham it has led to various benevolent courses, one of which has been the building of cottage homes for aged miners. It is very well known that a late respected Member of this House, Mr. John Wilson, was very much interested in this great movement, and only last year had the honour of taking Her Majesty the Queen round to see some of these homes. A difficulty has arisen, and instead of the old age pension being regarded as a supplementary aid, as it was intended it should be, it has become the means of reducing the value of philanthropic effort. Men out of their contributions, together with the contributions of philanthropically-minded people, have built houses, the colliery proprietors in most instances having very generously given the land. We have hundreds of these cottages building in Durham at the present moment. There is no movement comparable with it in the world for number and extent.

4.0 P.M.

It was thought, in the first instance, that it would be a nice thing for a couple having the old age pension to have a house rent free and their coal free from the colliery proprietor. It was thought that it would make the last days of these old people pleasant. When the pension officer, however, goes round—and my point is that the administration is not equal throughout the country, it all depending upon the attitude of mind of the pension officer—he says, "Well, now, there is the rent of the house." He examines the house. I may say that the miners have tried to introduce what may be called model houses in Durham and other mining counties, and the officer fixes the rent of these at from 5s. to 7s. per week. Then he ascertains what coal is given, and he puts that down at 2s. per week. The applicant may also have arranged—being thrifty-minded—to get a grant from the permanent relief fund of, it may be, 3s. or 5s. per week. Thus by the time the pension officer has completed his calculations the old folks find that they have lost the pension, and the miner also discovers that instead of having supplemented his pension by his thriftiness his savings have actually gone to the Treasury, which is relieved of the duty of paying him the 5s. pension or, at any rate, has reduced that pension to 1s. or 2s. At the same time the colliery proprietor finds that his generosity towards his own servant has also gone to the relief of the Treasury.

I want the right hon. Gentleman to be-good enough to see that the administration of the Old Age Pensions Act is made more even and equitable, and that the pension officers have instructions to do all they can to encourage rather than discourage this great movement. I would also like to call the attention of the Committee to the fact that a very great benevolent object has been very largely destroyed by the action of the pension officers, who have used the thrift of the miner, the generosity of his fellows, and the generosity of the coal owner to relieve eventually the Treasury. I trust the right hon. Gentleman will give us some satisfactory assurance that this matter will have his attention, and that these calculations shall in future be made on as low a basis as possible, and as equally as possible, in order that the great benefits which this Act was intended to confer may be reaped by those in whose interest it was passed.


I should like to associate myself with the hon. Member in this matter. This is a real grievance in the county of Durham. The miner in his youth tries, and the owner generously helps him, to build a suitable home. But when he comes to the pension age, entitling him to a free house, the pension officer, in many cases without uniformity, values a cottage at too high a rent, and thereby so increases the amount of the man's income that his pension is seriously reduced. It would be well for something to be done to secure a more humane line of action on the part of pension officers. In my own area the pensions committee, of which I am chairman, have found that many old men, worn out and broken down, have, owing to the application of too high a value to these cottages, had their pensions reduced from 5s. to 4s., 3s., and 2s., and in some cases the pensions have gone altogether. If something could be done to remove this grievance, I feel it would be a gracious act that would redound to the credit of all.


I wish to support what has been said by the last two speakers. This is a very real grievance in the county of Durham, and, no doubt, in other parts of the country. But in Durham particularly this system of aged miners' homes has been developed to an extent of which the whole county is proud, and to use it as a means for reducing the old age pensions of these people is contrary to public policy and inflicts a great hardship upon them. It amounts to this: It penalises altogether the attempt of the miners and their friends to help the aged, and the net result is that the money subscribed in order to assist these old people really goes in relief of the Treasury and the taxpayer. I hope that this will be taken into very serious consideration and a remedy found.


I have every sympathy with the speeches which have just been delivered by hon. Members from Durham, but I do not think the case is as simple as they have represented it to be. Parliament has enacted that, in the allocation of pensions, it is necessary to estimate the means of the recipient, and the rent of their houses has to be taken into account. If those means exceed a certain sum they are debarred by Statute from obtaining the full pension, and in certain cases they cannot have a pension at all. That may, in the mind of my hon. Friends and in the mind of many Members of this House, be a wrong method. But we, in administering this Act, cannot get away from it, and if the old age pensioner, either by his own act or as a result of the philanthropic efforts of somebody interested in him, has his means increased, according to the definition of means laid down in the Statute, and with the best intentions in the world, neither the Government nor the pension officer can interfere and give him a bigger pension. But there is a second point in my hon. Friends' case, and that is that these cottages are estimated by the pension officers at too high a rental value, and that there are inequalities in different counties. Under the provisions of the Old Age Pensions Act there is an appeal from the decision of the pension officer to the Local Government Board; and in regard to the suggestions of inequalities in administration which have been made in the course of this Debate, I will, with my hon. Friends' permission, convey their complaints to the Local Government Board, and endeavour, with the assistance of the President of that Board, to ascertain if complaints have been received from Durham, and if there is any ground for believing that there are inequalities in this matter which can be remedied.


Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will undertake not to inquire whether complaints have been received, but to investigate into any complaints which may now be forwarded.


I shall be very glad if the hon. Gentleman will give me details of any such cases, and I will undertake to forward them to the Department concerned.


I do not think that this matter is disposed of by the speech and attitude of the right hon. Gentleman. There are many cases, not only in Durham but in other parts of the country, of considerable individual hardship, owing to the capricious action of pension officers. It is true that the applicant for a pension is entitled to appeal to the Local Government Board. But in how many cases could an old man or an old woman—seventy years of age—make such an appeal, and how often are they qualified to state their case as against that put forward by the pension officer? A great deal might be done by way of instruction to these officers that, instead of taking a narrow and ungenerous interpretation of the Old Age Pensions Act, they should interpret it generously and in a fair spirit towards those in the position described by my hon. Friends, Members for the various Divisions of Durham. It applies not only to the cases of those who hold houses, but also to cases where pensioners are receiving contributions from relatives, because the effect of receiving such contributions is that in many cases they are calculated in the income to the detriment of the aged person and result in reducing the pension.

In both of these respects the pension officer should be instructed to give encouragement to aged persons who have been thrifty in their earlier days rather than to cast discouragement in their path. One effect of this harsh policy on the part of pension officers has been to create evasions of the law. I have heard of many cases in various parts of the country where parents who owned houses have, on nearing the pension age, transferred them to their children, whilst still remaining in occupation and paying no rent, because they know that if the house is not in their name, although they are really in beneficial occupation, they will get a pension, whereas others, who are perfectly honest and do not make the transfer, lose the pension. The administration of the Act in that way puts a premium upon dishonesty. It discourages thrift, and such administration consequently should not be permitted. As far as possible, in the terms of the Act, the pension officer should be instructed by the Treasury or by the Local Government Board to interpret and administer the Act favourably towards those who have been well conducted and thrifty members of society during their working days


I hope the right hon. Gentleman will do nothing of the kind. Pensions already cost us £13,000,000 a year, money which it is very difficult to find, and it is quite wrong that an Act of Parliament should be interpreted in any dif- ferent sense to that in which it is couched. The Act says, rightly or wrongly, that certain things shall be taken into account in estimating a man's income. If it is wrong, then the proper course is to come here and get an amendment of the Act. It is not the proper course to give instructions to the pension officers not to interpret the Act in a proper way, but rather to interpret it in some way which may be favourable to certain people who are constituents or friends of the hon. Gentleman opposite. We were told only yesterday by the Prime Minister that Debates in Supply instead of leading to economy led to extravagance. Here at once we have an example of that in connection with one of the most wasteful Departments, which already spends £13,000,000 on pensions. I am happy to say I voted against the Old Age Pensions Act


The hon. Baronet is not following his own rule. He is criticising an Act of Parliament.


I was led into doing so by the interruptions of hon. Gentlemen opposite. But I will confine myself to criticising the speech of the hon. Member who said that certain people had committed a fraud in assigning their houses to their sons, so as to defraud the revenue by obtaining an old age pension to which otherwise they were not entitled. He said that because certain people had committed a fraud of that description—and I am sorry to say that it is a very common thing all over the country, and ought to be stopped—other people who did not commit the fraud should be paid something in excess of what they are legally entitled to under the Act. I hope, sincerely, the right hon. Gentleman will not assent to that, and I must say that if anything of the kind ever comes under my notice I shall bring it up in this House as a gross breach of the powers of the right hon. Gentleman, and an evasion of an Act of Parliament which ought not to be permitted.


I want to know what evidence is demanded by the Department in cases where an applicant for a pension cannot produce his birth certificate. I know several instances of old men, and everyone who knows anything of them knows that they have reached the old age pension age, who are unable to procure their pensions. That occurs in some of the country parts of Scotland. The records of their birth are by no means clear, and it is very difficult to get the necessary evidence to bring before the right hon. Gentleman's Department. If he would press the people who administer the Act to assist these claimants to trace the date of their birth, and to be more lenient than they are at present towards these men, it would be an advantage to the community. I have not the slightest doubt that he will admit it is a great hardship that men and women who are over seventy years of age, and who cannot make clear to this Department that they are so old, should not be entitled to receive the pension. I hope he will elucidate the point as to what is the kind of evidence that is required.


As to the duty of watching the administration the hon. Baronet (Sir F. Banbury) is perfectly right in saying that I, of all men, have least right to evade it. I would shrink from doing it if I had the right, and the threat the hon. Baronet has just delivered would keep me straight even if I thought of doing it. With regard to the point raised by my hon. Friend (Mr. Watt), I will point out to him that it is not a question for my Department; it is a question for the Local Government Board. My impression is that where an applicant has difficulty in proving the date of his birth by the ordinary methods, he is always given the benefit of the doubt. [An HON. MEMBER: "NO, no!"] That is my impression. Every effort is made to make the rules as elastic as possible, and the presumption is always taken in default of evidence. I will send a copy of the regulations in force in such cases to my hon. Friend.

Question put, and agreed to.