§ Mr. BONAR LAW (Leader of the House)
I beg to moveThat the Resolution of the Committee on Old Age Pensions may be considered this day us soon as it is reported from the Committee, and that the several stages of any Bill ordered to be brought in upon such Resolution may he proceeded with this day notwithstanding the practice of the House relating to the interval between the Report and Consideration of such a Re-solution and between the various stages of a Bill relating to Finance.Those who were present at Question Time yesterday, when this subject was raised in the presence of the Prime Minister and myself, will, of course, understand the position. But for those who were not present I will try in a few sentences to point out what exactly is the position. As the House knows, there has been a good deal of interest taken both in this Parliament and the last in regard to the position of the old age pensioners, in view of the increased cost of living, with the result that a Departmental Committee was appointed which went fully into the question. It reported, and its Report was only published on the 12th of November. Immediately on receiving the Report, it was submitted to the Treasury for examination, and then, shortly afterwards, the Chancellor of the Exchequer submitted to the Cabinet proposals based upon this Report. They were examined by the Cabinet, examined I may say sympathetically from the point of view of the old age pensioners, but with regard also to the state of the finances of the country. While the Cabinet came quite unhesitatingly to the decision that they could not adopt the recommendations of the Committee in full, on the other hand we came with equal decision to the view that some change must be made in the provision for these old age pensioners, and that in one way or another the scale must be increased from 5s., at which it. legally stood, or 7s. 6d., at which it stood by administrative act, to 10s. The object of this Bill is to carry out that decision. In order to have the matter thoroughly examined, and after the Cabinet had come to its decision on the general principle, a Committee was appointed to go into it, work out the details and draw up the Bill. It was only possible to produce that Bill 866 two days ago. I think the House will realise that on a subject of this importance and in the present state of the national finances, with all the pressure that exists on Government Departments, a delay of less than five weeks was not an undue delay, and therefore it was not the fault of the Government that we were not able to lay this proposal before tile House earlier.
Two days ago we had to decide whether or not we should ask the House of Commons to carry it before the close of this Session. The Cabinet Were unanimously of opinion that if that could be done it would be very desirable. We realised, however, the objections to taking such a step, and, finally, the Cabinet left it to me, as Leader of the House and responsible for its business for the time being, to decide whether or not we should be justified in asking the House to pass a Bill at this stage of the Session. With much hesitation, I confess, I came to the conclusion that I should not he justified in asking the House to do that I am going to speak quite frankly to the House. It is not merely a case of breaking down the Rules which are provided for ensuring reasonable care in regard to our ordinary legislation. It is not even a case of breaking down Rules to which the House of Commons has always attached particular importance in regard to money expenditure with a view of making certain that no expenditure of any kind should be incurred without proper consideration by the House of Commons. It was not merely these considerations which influenced me in coming to this decision; it was another feeling. The present state of our finances made it a matter of special importance. We all know, and every Member of the House of Commons feels, that the financial position of this country is one of the most vital subjects which can be dealt with either by the Government or by the House. We have therefore felt, unless the Chancellor of the Exchequer took a specially strong view, that in any case of increased expenditure it should never be the action of the Government alone, but we wished the co-operation of the House of Commons all through in these financial proposals. It therefore seemed to me, on the whole, that I should not be justified in asking the House of Commons to pass a Bill which we thought was going to depart from the Rules on this subject. But, as I have said, the position is slightly changed when I find, as I thought I did yesterday 867 —so far as indications of that kind be gathered at Question Time—that there was the same feeling in the House of Commons as there was in the Government, that it was very desirable that this thing should be done, if it could be done.
That is the position. I agree that it is asking a great deal of the House of Commons. It will only be justified if the House of Commons thinks it right. We thought, in the first place, and I think we represent the view of the whole House, that this change has got to be made. It is only a question of whether it is to be made now or in the early part of next Session. If that be agreed, if that is the only question, I am sure the House will be practically unanimous. If the House of Commons takes the view of the Cabinet that since it has to be done, anyhow, however important it is to the country, and no one feels more strongly than I do that the expenditure of an additional £10,000,000 is an important matter—although I would ask my hon. Friends who are interested in it from that point of view to remember that it is more than 26,000,000 less than was recommended by the Committee—if it is so very objectionable that expenditure of that kind, not merely expenditure once for all, but permanent expenditure, Should be carried without adequate discussion, yet if the Hose of Commons takes, as I think it will, the view that we are bound to do this, then I think we are justified in considering the position of those to whom the pensions are to be given. It is a very important thing for the country, but it is almost a vital thing to many of these pensioners. If we do not carry it now there will be an inevitable delay, owing to necessary financial business next Session. The difference to these people of getting a certain amount now and waiting is so great that I do not think anyone who is in touch with his constituents does not feel that if it can be done the House of Commons would be justified in doing it.
The Bill will propose to make it begin on the 1st January, but of course it is obvious, for administrative reasons, that the pension cannot be paid so promptly as that. Anyone who is in touch with the poorer classes of his constituents knows that, first of all, the knowledge that they will definitely get it, and, secondly, the knowledge that it is going to be given at a specific time, will enable the friends of these old people to finance them during 868 the interval. I think I am justified in saying also that it is not entirely lost money from the point of view of the State. I am told that in my own Constituency there are very many of these old age pensioners who are driven, by simple inability to live on this pension, to the poorhouse. That means a large expenditure. I ask the House to realise that it is one of the best characteristics of our people that, even though this addition will still give them less than they would get from the Poor Law, the fact that they can live on it will prevent a good many people from seeking relief from the Poor Law. On the whole, bad as the precedent is in every way, undesirable as it is that Bills of this kind should be passed without adequate discussion, and still more undesirable as it is that we should not break our Rules—which are not merely vain show, but are really the result of many centuries of work in the House of Commons, and which are very important. not only now, but for the future—in spite of all these considerations, now that it has gone so far, and taking into account the great disappointment that will be felt if the Bill does not go through. I think the House will come to the conclusion that it is justified. I am informed by the Minister of Labour, and it is reasonable to believe it, that, if we succeed in passing this Bill, it will have a quieting effect on the general unrest which exists in the country. Taking all these considerations into account, I should be glad if the House could see its way to pass the Bill into law before the Session ends. I have only one more thing to say. It is obvious that it cannot be done if there is any serious opposition. I do not think I am asking too much of the House in making this request that we should regard the decision on this Motion as final, and that if it is found that there is an overwhelming feeling in favour of doing this, those who dislike it will waive their privilege of throwing obstacles in the way of getting it done. I wish it to be done, if it is done at all, as the act of the House of Commons as a whole. We shall not put on the Government Whips. We shall leave the House, if there is a Division, free to take its own course. I hope in all the circumstances this measure will be allowed to go through.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
I regret very much that the Leader of the House did not adhere to the determination which he apparently came to on Wednesday that it 869 was such a. gross breach of the custom and procedure of this House to ask it to pass the Resolution which he has now proposed that he did not intend to do it. This is not a question as to whether or not you are in favour of increasing old age pensions. This is a question whether you should alter the Rules of Procedure. They are the outcome of the wisdom of centuries, and it is proposed to alter them at a moment when the financial position of the country is very serious, and when any question involving increased expenditure should be carefuly considered both by the country and by the House. Supposing the Resolution is not carried, and I understand it was stated yesterday at Question Time that if the opinion of the House was not unanimous—not that it should be a bare majority—
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I am sure my right hon. Friend would be the last to say that the opposition of two or three people should stand against the obvious wish of the House.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
The question is whether or not we shall alter these Rules. What would be the result of the Motion not being carried? The Government has a Bill, which I believe is not yet printed.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
The Bill is in the Vote Office, but by the Rules of the House we are not allowed to see it until this Resolution is carried.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
No one has had an opportunity of knowing what is in the Bill. Supposing we refuse to grant this alteration in our procedure what will ensue? The next Session will begin in five or six weeks. It will then be possible to have the Bill printed and circulated after the Resolution has been agreed upon and after we know what is going to be done, and the proper procedure can be gone through and the proper stages of the Bill taken. Therefore, all that happens is that you are deferring it for five or six weeks. There may be some Members who attach so little importance to the Rules and Regulations of the House, of which they know so little, that they are prepared to sacrifice them in order to ensure spending public money five or six weeks earlier. The Leader of the House said since it has got to be done it was advisable to do this. What a 870 Precedent! There are any quantity of things which are good which even a large section of the House may think ought to be done. Are we to consider that when a section of the House says something ought to be done, that is sufficient that ordinary discussion is to be done away with, and that the whole of the stages not only of the Bill but of the Financial Resolution, are to be taken on one day? We are now at the end of a very long Session. We are only four or five days before Christmas. This is a Friday. The Third Reading of the Appropriation Bill was passed yesterday. It was not until Question time yesterday that any Member of the House knew this proposal was going to be made. Those Members who, knowing that the Appropriation Bill was to be passed yesterday, and that the Prorogation would take place on Monday or Tuesday, have gone away, have not read what took place at Questions, and may easily have missed in the newspapers what took place about this proposal, and do not know anything whatever about it. They have not seen any Bill, they did not know that a Bill was going to be produced, and even if they read it they are such a distance from London that it is impossible for them to come back and take part in the proceedings. Under these circumstances, it would be absolutely fatal if the Government persists in pressing this measure. What is the actual position of old age pensioners at present? The Budget Estimates for this year contain these items: Old age pensions, 1918–19, £12,085,000; for 1919–20, £17,892,000. That is to say there has already this year been a 50 per cent. increase over last year, and living was just as high last year as it is this.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
If there has been that enormous increase in time old age pensions this year, and, when the Leader of the House informs us that he himself has regarded this proposal with very great suspicion, and that he has been very reluctant to do it, is it advisable that we should not wait for another five or six weeks and proceed in the ordinary way of business sooner than do what is being done now, which will be taken as a prece- 871 dent by the next Government or any other Government which may succeed them. Such a Government may perhaps not be very careful of the public purse, and may be desirous of doing something which we might perhaps all wish to do if we had the money. Such a Government might come down at the end of the Session, when the majority of Members are away, and pass a Bill, or do something which would have a very serious and detrimental effect upon the finances of the country. They might come down on a Friday and pass such a measure through all its stages, when there are not more than 200 out of the 700 Members present. It is a very grave and serious matter. It has nothing to do with our desire to assist people who are, unfortunately, not well off. The question is this: are we going to disregard all the safeguards which our ancestors have put into the Standing Orders in order to safeguard the expenditure of money? Are we going to do that for no sufficient reason at a time when the finances of the country are in a very serious state, and in view of the fact that only two or three months ago we were told that the prime necessity was economy, and the pressure was so great that a date was actually set aside for a debate on economy? I remember the Chancellor of the Exchequer saying that to secure economy, Members should carry out economy. Nevertheless we find that old age pensions, which we were told in 1911 would cost £6,000,000, will, if this is carried, cost £28,000,000, and in order to gain five or six weeks time all our rules and safeguards are to be swept away. I only wish I was able to express my feelings more eloquently. I am quite certain that if I had the gifts of the Prime Minister and could put what I feel to be absolutely right, and what I feel the House one day will regret—and in this I include the members of the Labour party.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
If this Resolution he passed I am sure the House will live to regret it, as certain as I am standing here. I hope the Leader of the Opposition will pause before he gives his sanction to anything which reverses and overturns all our old-established and considered procedure.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
I agree, as I must, with a very large part of what has fallen 872 from my right hon. Friend. The precedent is a grave one, and I am not at all disagreeing with him when he says that it may easily be a dangerous one. In a very difficult situation he has rendered a public service in drawing the attention of the House, with all his authority, to the really salient facts of the situation in regard to the procedure of the House on money questions. I am sure that I express the opinion of the House when I say that no one can doubt my right hon. Friend's kindness of heart. He has shown it on many occasions. [HON. MEMBERS: "On dogs!"] I entirely disagree with my hon. Friends, and I say that they do not know him. He has shown a great deal of courage in many ways in supporting unpopular causes. He has fought for the prevention of cruelty to animals in this House with a persistency we all admired. No one can doubt my right hon. Friend's kindness of heart. I am sure that, feeling as strongly as he does, he will feel bound to go to a Division, but, having expressed his views, I appeal to him that if it is shown that the overwhelming majority of the House are in favour of this measure, that in the later stages of the measure he will not exercise his undoubted talents, and they are very great, in stopping the progress of a measure which the House may come to the conclusion that it desires to pass.
What I said yesterday I repeat to-day. I do not want to add anything by way of discussion. I agree with every word said by the Leader of the House. But perhaps as palliative, and as relieving the tension of the situation and the question of procedure which the right hon. Baronet has so ably put before us, may I say that we are in a very abnormal situation. The winter is on us, the intensity of which will be realised later. These old people will unquestionably suffer acutely, and I ask my right hon. Friend to agree with me under the circumstances. He said that it is a matter of only five or six weeks. I do not agree with him. We shall not meet until the 10th February. It is quite certain there will be a pretty long Debate on the Address, unless the Government cut it down. That will carry us well on, and we shall not be in anything like the stride of legislation until the 20th February. If this measure comes up in the proper Parliamentary way it will be properly discussed, and, undoubtedly, the question would be very 873 much widened by that time. So far as my knowledge of Parliamentary procedure goes, I do not see any likelihood of this coming into operation at the very earliest before the middle of March.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
My right hon. Friend points out that financial business makes that impossible. Therefore, the winter will have very largely gone. I do appeal to the right hon. Baronet not to press this matter, and I assure him that this House does not deny him in full measure, kindness of heart, and sympathy with those who are suffering.
Lieut. - Colonel W. GUINNESS
Although I do not quite agree with the whole of my right hon. Friend's views as to the merits of this question, I do wish to reinforce this protest against the action of the Government in completely breaking down our immemorial rights of procedure. The dissent of the Leader of the House seems to me extraordinarily unsatisfactory in his explanation why the Government have brought on this matter at such short notice. The Leader of the House said that this matter was of vital importance. Most of us agree. Surely that very fact ought to have prevented the Government from allowing the House to drift into its present position. We could not bring it forward. Private Members cannot put any charge on to taxation. It is a matter which could only be dealt with on the initiative of the Government. I wish to draw a contrast between the dilatoriness of the Government on this question throughout the Session and their astonishing precipitancy during the last few hours when we can have no opportunity of discussing it. Everyone knew that this matter was urgent. We all, I suppose, have had countless letters from our constituents. Everyone knew that the winter was coming, and it is entirely the mismanagement of the Government that has allowed us to get into this position. Last April they appointed a Committee to inquire into this matter. The Committee took seven months to get the necessary information for its Report. The Cabinet since then has taken a month to make up its mind. That is, there have been eight months lost in the matter. After the eight months, they have riot adopted the conclusions of the Committee in any respect. Therefore, one is forced to the conclusion that the 874 Government might quite well have decided time matter right away for themselves without any Committee.
In that way we should have had proper Parliamentary control over the decision to throw at our heads at this stage of the Session an Estimate of this kind involving not one payment of £10,000,000, but a permanent charge of £10,000,000 on the revenue. It is nothing short of an insult to us. In the War we submitted to many revolutionary changes in our procedure, but it will be disastrous if the Government are going to take advantage of the breakdown of our immemorial safeguards, but continue them in time of peace. We have had within the last few days the new practice growing up of taking Bills through all their stages at one sitting. We pointed that out last week, arid were told, I think, without any real foundation, that there was precedent for this before the War. I am advised by hon. Friends who have looked into it that there was no precedent before the War. The Government are going quickly down the dangerous slope of destroying Parliamentary control. Though I do not agree with the right hon. Member for the City that this matter can be left over indefinitely, I do wish to protest against the Government having forced us into this position, because it is an insult to the House to ask it to abrogate its control over finance and to destroy its immemorial check on hasty legislation.
§ Sir F. FLANNERY
The statement of the hon. and gallant Member (Lieut.-Colonel Guinness) that the eight months occupied by the Committee appointed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and by the Cabinet afterwards in considering this question is wasted time is quite inconsistent with his plea that the House should give more time now for the reconsideration of this subject, which has already been dealt with by two Committees. It may assist the House if I. state the genesis of this question during the last twelve months, because there are certain points which nobody so far has stated to the House which have led up to the present position. About twelve months ago there was held in Newcastle a conference representative of the whole country on the subject of old age pensions. It was attended by an enormous number of persons of all classes of society and all shades of political opinion, including a large number of Members of this House. It came to the conclusion that it was its duty to press this 875 matter upon Parliament and the Government. A deputation was appointed by the conference to wait upon Members of Parliament in this House, and there was a meeting in one of the Committee Rooms upstairs, attended by Members of all sections of the House, over which I had the honour to preside. In the result, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was approached by a deputation selected to represent all sections of the House, asking him to deal with this matter as promptly as possible. That was in the very early stages of the present Session. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton (Mr. G. Thorne) represented the party on the Front Bench. The right hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Thomas) represented Labour. I also was a member of the deputation, and I think that there were some six or eight others. In the result the Chancellor of the Exchequer appointed a Departmental Committee. That Committee reported unanimously in favour of the principle that underlies the measure now proposed to be put before the House. The Cabinet have considered it not merely in the ordinary way, but by appointing a Committee themselves specially for the purpose. That is the proposal which comes now before the House which is opposed by the right hon. Member for the City of London on the ground that the Rules and Regulations of this House are going to be violated, and that the violation of those Rules and Regulations is sufficient justification for leaving in semi-starvation—
§ Sir F. FLANNERY
—thousands of old people who at present are struggling against privation due to the tremendously increased cost of living. Such an argument is not worthy of the House of Commons, and not likely to have effect. There has been recently a withdrawal, rightly as I believe—I am not sure if hon. Members behind me will agree—of the unemployment dole from the large number who were receiving it. This will go to a large extent towards compensating the old people who were assisted by the unemployment dole given to some of their relatives. It is not perhaps a strong argument because the argument on which this question will be founded is one of mere justice to the old people who have had the cost of living put up against them without any compensating advantage of any means 876 enabling them to keep body and soul together. I believe that practically the whole House will support the action of the Government in this matter. The House will not go back to the country and say to the people on the eve of Christmas that they are to be given a stone when they have asked for bread. We shall give them what. is fair and reasonable, and, in proportion to the circumstances of the day, what was intended to be given to them when the principle of old age pensions was established. That is a reasonable measure of sufficiency to keep body and soul together in their old age.
Lieut.-Commander HILTON YOUNG
I would say in reply to some of the observations of the hon. Baronet who spoke last, that there is not a single Rule or Regulation in the House which might not be made the subject of attack on such emotional grounds as he has advanced, and it is precisely in order to protect the House against the effect of such emotional fluctuations in the important matter of finance that these Regulations have been devised. I rise to make only two very brief observations. One is not tempted to be discursive when one is speaking in direct opposition to the strong opinion of the House. I have to advance the opinion that although there is no disagreement whatever upon the great desirability of an increase of old age pensions, yet an important point remains to be discussed, and that is whether it is desirable to do so before we can afford it. While that point remains outstanding it is most undesirable that the matter should be hurried through on a Friday, at the end of the Session, at short notice and with the derogation of aft those forms and methods of procedure which have been devised for securing adequate considerations of financial questions. My principal reason for rising is that I remember a pronouncement made in file Economy Debate at the beginning of the Session by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a pronouncement which was made with every circumstance of gravity, made ex cathedra, as it were. Let me remind the House of what the right hon. Gentleman said. He was referring to the finance of next year, and he said:Additional taxation will not be necessary unless the House desires one of two things, the first of which is, unless the House embarks on new expenditure not now provided for. For instance, a Committee is sitting on old age pen- 877 sions. I do not know what their recommendations will be, but I have made provision for the payment only of existing old age pensions, and if the House decides that they are insufficient I have not made provision for a larger sum. The House decides, and the House must decide, when they have the Report before them, whether they will impose additional taxation in order to increase the amount available for old age pension. Additional taxation is not necessary unless the House imposes additional charges on the Exchequer.Again, later, the. right hon. Gentleman said:But as I have said, the House may wish to incur charges for which we have made no provision, and my object is that they should not do so without knowing what they are doing. If they will read these papers and will be good enough to mark the commentary I have made upon them, it cannot happen. Then will know what they are doing and will know the consequences which arc to follow.1.0 P.M.
I have ventured to read that passage in order to remind the House, in regard to next year's finance, that we are deciding whether or not upon the shoulders of the taxpayer there is to be cast 1.0 P.M. a burden of fresh taxation. I have listened with care to what has been said upon this subject. It appears to me that the only reason advanced for introducing this matter with such rapidity at the close of the Session was an appeal to sentiment. It was to make the old people's Christmas happy. I refer to that certainly in no sense of derision. We are fully conversant with the anxiety and actual misery which are cast upon the old age pensioners by the inadequacy of their pensions, but venture to suggest that this House has a wider responsibility. It has to consider not only the miseries of the Christmas of the old age pensioners, but the miseries of the Christmas of the taxpayer. All over the country there arc working-class households, there are middle-class households, dependent upon fixed incomes, which are contemplating the future with grave apprehension and with positive misery, because of their inability to make both ends meet. What we are doing to-day is to cast a fresh burden on those households. If an appeal is to be made to our sentiment, let us consider the wider area of sentiment as well as that which is more narrow. If this were only a question of the abrogation of the forms and procedure of the House, valuable as those forms are and important as it is to prevent hurried action on finance, the matter might not be worth laying so much stress upon, but it is worth laying stress upon because there is a great financial issue 878 upon the merits involved. I will put this proposition as one that is, at any rate, worth the most careful and anxious and calm consideration. Is, at any good at all, is it anything but base and idle extravagance to undertake expenditure on measures of social improvement out of borrowed money? I do not wish to argue the point; it may he so or it may not. In connection with this old age pension question it has never been considered, but it is worth considering. The argument is well known; the argument that it is not worth while is well known.
As long as you are making unproductive expenditure out of money which you have to borrow, in order to meet the cost of the expenditure, you are simply turning the wheel of rising prices in the vicious circle that never ends. I know that opinion is widely held in this House, and more widely held in the country. It is the sort of question which undoubtedly needs consideration, and I fear that on this occasion the House is being hurried to support a form of expenditure which will cast an additional heavy burden on the taxpayer and which will not in the long run achieve any true benefit for the old age pensioners themselves. In order to make my position quite clear and to avoid the opinions I have advanced being involved in any form of reproach to which they are not properly liable, let me add this: It is not because of any lack of realisation of the grave necessities of the old age pensioners that these opinions are maintained. It is because, in the first place, there are doubts as to whether this particular form of expenditure will truly benefit them, and because I believe it true that the House gains nothing, as regards the advantages of administration, by recklessly abolishing the forms it has established for its own protection.
§ Sir RYLAND ADKINS
I hope the House will forgive me if I make some remarks on this subject as I happened to be Chairman of the Departmental Committee which has been referred to. Whatever may have been the expenditure of time by that Committee the House may take it that it did its best to grapple with the very large question referred to it. It had before it week after week and month after month, by witness after witness, the evidence and the facts and the reasonings which have been brought before all of us, and the different points of view which have found such trenchant expression in this Debate. I am quite sure that all the 879 members of that Committee, and certainly those whom I had the opportunity of consulting, are very grateful to the Government for making this proposal, unusual though it be in form and open to criticism from certain points of view. We are grateful to the Government because we were all persuaded from an early stage of our inquiry—and that persuasion became, if possible, more complete the longer it went on—that some increase in the amount of old age pensions was necessary, and necessary at the earliest possible moment if the problem of the aged poor were not to become more serious instead of less. Our proposals, which, of course, I am not going to discuss now in detail, go much further than any proposal of the Government. I hope I may be allowed to suggest, and that my right hon. Friend will treat my suggestion with sympathy, that next Session some day will be set apart for debating the whole of our Report and the whole of the problem of old age pensions with its repercussions both as to Poor Law and National Insurance. I do not think that our long and detailed inquiry is going to be of that value to the country which we would like it to be unless there is some such thorough Parliamentary discussion before the Report is adopted.
While, therefore, we ought to look forward to an early opportunity being given to Parliament to express its opinions on the scope of our Report, and it may be to incur expenditure of a kind which will not be open to economic objection, it is, I am confident, equally the desire of all that something should be done at once to meet the most pressing aspects of the matter. If that be so, then I believe the Government are well warranted in the proposal they make to-day, and I hope that the House Will, by an overwhelming majority, endorse that proposal. Do hon. and right hon. Members who have criticised the proposal to-day realise how very little from one point of view will he effected by the Government Bill. You raise old age pensions from 7s. 6d. to 10s., the purchasing power of which is less rather than more of what the original old age pension of ten years ago was. If that be the fact, and if you give them even less than you gave them after solemn debate ten years ago your precedent is not so dangerous as it is when described in general terms. If it be true, as it is, that the finances of our country are in a grave state, and if it be true that the economic side of the War 880 is with us still, can England even now not afford that those who are too old to help her shall not suffer in proportion as the rest of us may have to do in consequence of the War. That is the sentiment of which I think none of us need feel ashamed even on the actual facts and on the application of reason to those facts. More than that, the sum which my right hon. Friend has suggested is obviously not more than enough, and I doubt whether it be enough considering the lower purchasing power of money, to bring within the purview of the old age pensions as many persons as were within the purview of them when they were originally established. In other words, the amount fixed ten years ago has been so much lowered by depreciation in money without any raising of the limit which can be contemplated within the financial scope of this Resolution, that it will not be enough to bring the old age pension within reach of all the persons within whose reach they were brought by the original Old Age Pensions Act.
As I understand the matter, and I speak after many opportunities of considering the question, the proposals of the Government are not really to extend old age pensions substantially, although I hope and trust that the House will do so before many Sessions have passed. Those recommendations are to prevent and stop automatic- restrictions on old age pensions both in scope and value which have come about through the devaluation of money. If that be so, surely the arguments against this proposal are far weaker than if there were an attempt to extend old age pensions to people who were not contemplated at all ten years ago. If the whole question were to be dealt with thoroughly now the objections of some hon. Members would be stronger than they are to a proposal which is merely to prevent the aged poor from bearing the full amount of extra suffering which the devaluation of money has brought about. Surely that is a matter in which Members of the House in all parts are free to help. I hope that the House will support the Government, bearing in mind, no doubt, the criticisms which have been urged, and knowing that the real balance of value and of public benefit is on the side of this prompt dealing with the most urgent aspect of a great question.
§ Sir HENRY CRAIK
With a great deal of what my hon. and learned Friend has just said I certainly, and I think a great many of those who have doubts with re- 881 gard to this proposal, will find themselves in agreement. The plea, of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was a very powerful one. He appealed to a sympathy which I think we feel on all the benches of this House for those who are concerned in the necessities of the old age pensions I am quite ready to go further, and to say that I believe there is general agreement that the old age pensions must be increased. I admit the strength of my hon. and gallant Friend's argument, and I feel it myself, but surely there has not been a word spoken in this Debate from my hon. and right hon. Friends, with the exception of the most unfortunate speech made by the hon. Baronet (Sir F. Flannery), which implied any lack of sympathy with these poor people. We are discussing not that point, but a great constitutional question as to the position in which this House is placed by the proposal made by my right hon. Friend. Three tribunals sat on this question. There has been a Departmental Committee presided over by my hon. and learned Friend (Sir R. Adkins), and that Committee took seven months to discuss the matter. Suppose at one of the sittings of that Committee that my hon. Friend came down and said, "I am informed by the Government and it is absolutely necessary that this must be done at once and legislation would be impossible, unless you close the inquiry now. I must insist that somehow or other this Departmental Committee comes to an instant decision and inquires no further into the details." It next comes to the Cabinet. We are told a Committee of the Cabinet met, and that that Committee has taken nearly five weeks to come to a conclusion. Why? It had all the evidence and all the conclusions before it, and it had abundant time. If one member of that Cabinet Committee had come dawn and said to his colleagues, "Really, Gentlemen, it is quite impossible to put off this decision and you must at once come to a settlement; I have got one here for you," what would the Cabinet have said? But for which of the three tribunals is this summary and curt procedure demanded? For the house of Commons, on which financial responsibility presumably rests.
We are told that we must pass this Resolution hero and now and finish the decision of the question. I am quite ready to agree with my right hon. Friend that we must accept the spirit of this Resolution and that it would be wrong in any sense 882 to continue obstruction, but I would ask the House to remember that in this single decision taken after an hour's debate we are to decide once and for all the question of allotting a sum the capital value of which is at least £200,000,000—that is to say, the whole amount of the annual revenue of this nation before the War. Is it a decree of the Medes, and Persians that this House must be Prorogued on the 23rd of this month? Are our holidays of such imperious importance that, for the sake of them, we must, set aside a. fundamental principle of finance? Why cannot the Leader of the house ask us to continue for a week longer after Christmas and finish this business? Surely what we have to do here is to devote ourselves to the work of representing our constituents, and I do not think we do so when we set aside altogether those ancient and most important and fundamentally constitutional of our functions, that is of examining carefully the enormous sums of expenditure. I am not disposed to grudge these old age pensions, but there is one peculiarity about this which makes it differ from other taxation. You are not now making a proposal to tax our fellow citizens to provide the sum necessary for public expenditure; you are really proposing by this Resolution to transfer £200,000,000 from one body of citizens to another body of citizens. I do not grudge it, and I do not say it is wrong, but I do say it requires, instead' of less, increased opportunities of due consideration, and I do not think the Government have exhausted the possibilities before coming down and proposing this most undesirable abrogation of cur financial functions.
§ Mr. S. WALSH
I wish to say, speaking on behalf of the Labour party, that I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House most heartily for having at this late hour introduced this Motion. It probably was the most ho could do, having regard to all the circumstances, but there never could be a more gracious time in which to carry a Resolution such as this. As he himself said, if it had to be done, "'twere well it were done quickly," and I am quite sure it will carry a message of real hope into the homes of thousands of people who otherwise might pass a very penurious Christmas and New Year. I am glad to know that he is proposing very materially to raise the income limit. That indeed will bring a great many people into the enjoyment of old age pensions who 883 hitherto were debarred, although they have lived very frugal lives, and although they were very largely dependent upon the charity of others. That is a very material benefit indeed, to raise the income limit by about £18, and it will bring in a great many people who were really entitled to be tile recipients of the old age pension but who could not get it. Of course, it does not meet what we believe to be the real necessities of the case. Everybody is agreed that the old people need a pension more commensurate with the increased cost of living, and upon the necessities of the old age pensions we are all agreed. Listening to the speeches that have been delivered here, I really was surprised at the change of tone which takes place when you are dealing with people who cannot press their claims, who can bring no great force to bear upon Parliament as distinct from the tone when you are dealing with vast bodies of men who have great powers of compulsion. Here, where the need is admitted, where there can be no more Christian or noble act for this House to perform, we are wasting time discussing the wisdom of our ancestors, the immemorial wisdom of our ancestors. The idea seems to be in the minds of many hon. Members that not only are these Rules and Regulations immemorial, but that they are to be eternal and unchangeable, and that some awful disaster is going to befall the House of Commons and tee country because we are taking a Resolution such as this to meet the urgent and pressing needs of the poorest of our people. On behalf of the party for which I speak, we do thank the right hon. Gentleman and the Government for this concession, late as it is and small in amount as it is. At the same time, it will relieve a good deal of distress, and it will bring a message of hope into thousands of homes, and for that we thank him.
§ Mr. ARCHDALE
I intervene for only a few moments, as this is a matter which means more to an Irish Member than to other hon. Members. Owing to healthy and quiet lives, we live in Ireland, unless we happen to offend a Sinn Fein magnate, to a much greater age than in any other part of the Kingdom. I am in entire sympathy with the Government in regard to the necessity for this proposal, and I heartily congratulate the right hon. Gentleman upon bringing it forward. He did not say exactly what was to be done, ex- 884 cept that it is proposed to raise the old age pension from 7s. 6d. to 10s. a week, but I am also in entire agreement with his reasons. I have been chairman of our local old age pensions committee since it was started, and I am certain that it will make a tremendous difference in the unrest that is going about the country. At meetings I have been at lately, men have been giving up their pensions and going into the workhouse, which costs very much more to the country. Certainly one of the best things that can be done this Christmas is to put aside hide-bound rules and give a Christmas box to the deserving old age pensioners throughout the country.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
May I make an appeal to the House to come to a decision? And perhaps I may be allowed to say a few words on what has been said in the Debate. Let me say, at the outset, that I do not undervalue or deprecate the criticism which has been made with regard to our proceedings. I regard it as very serious. I regard it as a great disadvantage that we should be compelled to take this course, but I should like to say a word in justification of the Blil. I do not think we could have done better. The Report was only published on the 12th November. We could not have put compulsion on the Committee to report earlier, and it had to be considered in detail by the Cabinet. I think the House will agree that there has not been any undue delay in submitting the matter to the House of Commons. I say, further, it is not a question of a few weeks' delay. With the financial business before -us, if we are to meet on the 10th February, I do not think it is possible that this Bill could have been in any circumstances carried before Easter, unless it is carried now. There was one other subject raised by my right hon. Friend (Sir H. Craik), who said, "Why cannot we ask the House to sit longer?" So far as the Government are concerned we would do it, but it would be a great disadvantage to the Government and the Government Departments. I can assure the House that, as they know, in no Parliament in the experience of any of us have Members been put to such a strain, and the result is that unless they do get some rest, I do not think it would be possible to begin work again with that zeal which is required. Further, there is this to be remembered, that, although the War is over, we are really dealing with war conditions, and I 885 hope the House will keep that in view as well as the other arguments. We are breaking down rules, and this precedent is a great disadvantage, but it could not be avoided.
As to the general question, it really comes to this. If the view is correct that we ought to reconsider the whole subject and not a, it till the next Session, then we ought to do it now. The Government have only suggested this proposal because we think, not only in our own view, but in the view of the whole House of Commons, this ought to be done, and therefore it is only a question of whether we do it now, or do it later. All I say is we are leaving it. to a free vote, and let us go to a Division and judge by the voting how much opposition there is, not on the ground of principle, but to our doing this in all the circumstances of the case. That is the point, and I should like to say this in reference to what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. S. Walsh). I have had experience in this House that Members are not frightened, as we are supposed to be, by our constituents. We found, in regard to the unemployment benefit, that they had the courage of their convictions. But I do not ask any Member to vote for this unless he thinks, on all its merits, it is the right course. If the Division shows that the house is overwhelmingly in favour of it, then I do not think it would be wise to carry it into the next Session.
Question put, and agreed to.