HC Deb 25 June 1924 vol 175 cc523-37

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

The House will be aware that we have already had two Debates on this subject— on the original Financial Resolution and on the Amended Resolution, and, in view of that, I do not propose to say more than a few words in moving the Second Reading of this Bill. It provides for raising the percentages by which certain pensions were to be increased under the Pensions (Increase) Act, 1920. It applies to rather less than 100,000 pre-War pensioners in this country, and the approximate cost. of the increase will be £300,000 in a full year, but the House will remember that the pensions are to be increased retrospectively as from the 1st July, 1923. Further, we also include in the Bill a provision which removes the disqualification of pre-War pensioners residing outside the British Isles, and that involves an extra cost, in a full financial year, of approximately £60,000. Further, we have now made it definitely obligatory on the local authorities of this country to increase pensions granted by them up to the maximum authorised by the Act. May I make it clear that on that point there is not much to be said from the financial side, because in the financial year 1923 it was plain that the local authorities did give effect to the proposals to the extent of £238,000, whereas if the proposals had been given full effect to the total amount involved would only have been £256,000, so that in actual figures a difference of about £18,000 represents the extent to which the local authorities failed to apply the Measure. This is now made obligatory on the local authorities, and it is to take retrospective effect as from July, 1923.

That embodies most of the proposals of the Bill. There is, however, one other point to which I would like to draw attention. We have incorporated in this Measure a Clause which provides for an overriding maximum in the case of people who retired before July, 1923, to secure that their pension or allowance shall not be more than would be accorded to anyone who retired after that date with a similar length of service. I am sure the House will agree that it would be wrong that anyone should get a larger sum under the new arrangement than if he retired after July, 1923, as it would lead to all kinds of administrative and other difficulties. That is a summary of the Bill to which I venture to ask the House to give a Second Reading.


I should like to make a few remarks on the Second Reading of this Bill with a view to getting a little fuller explanation from the hon. Gentleman on some of the points which, to my mind at any rate, are rather obscure at present. The Bill, so far as it goes, like the Resolution we have just passed, is a step in the right direction. It does not go anything like so far as we could wish it to, but still we are thankful for this step forward. The hon. Gentleman in moving the Second Reading referred to the pensions existing before the passing of the principal Act. I would ask him what is to happen in the case of those authorities who have refused to give any increase at all. As far as I read the Bill, these authorities will now be compelled, and will have no discretion in the matter, but to give the increases as from the 1st July, 1923—the increases provided for under the Act of 1920. The House will certainly adopt that provision of the Bill. Now that the Government have decided that there shall be no discretionary power on the part of the local authorities, but that they shall be compelled to give the increases which the Government thought it right they should give, I wish to ask whether this Bill, if and when it becomes an Act, will give the increased pensions as and from the date fixed by the 1920 Act. I think it is only fair that that should be done, and I appeal to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to see that it is done, in view of the fact that the House clearly decided that, in their opinion, "May" meant "shall." An Amendment to that effect was moved by me in the Committee upstairs, and the Committee would have insisted on the substitution of the word "shall" had not the then Solicitor-General got up and, in so many words, begged the Committee not to accept the Amendment because it was fully recognised not only by the present Government, but by all Governments, that the two words were equivalent in meaning and that there was no fear that the increases would not be given by all the authorities. We know how wrong that declaration by the Solicitor-General of that day has proved to be. Still the Government are determined and the House is determined there shall no longer be any question that the increases authorised under the Act of 1920 shall be given.

Only a few authorities have been so niggardly as to refuse to give them. What I want to ask the Government is, Will they allow words to be introduced into the Bill when it reaches Committee to make it clear once and for all, above any argument whatever, that as from the date fixed by the 1920 Act these poor old pensioners shall have the increase intended for them? There is another point. Some of these authorities—a great many more than those who refused any advance at all—have given only reduced increases. Are they now to be compelled to increase the pensions to the maximum provided for under the Act? They have given a smaller increase than the House of Commons intended should be given, and I hope it will be made clear that it is the desire of the House that the provisions of this new Bill shall be extended to the pensioners as and from the date of the 1920 Act. It cannot amount to very much. I see the Chancellor of the Exchequer smiles, but whatever the sum may be, I would like these defaulting authorities to be penalised for their improper treatment of this very important subject, so far as the few people who happen to be within their jurisdiction are concerned. If the Government will introduce such a provision into this Bill I am sure that it will have the unanimous support of the House of Commons.

I do not want to recall to the recollection of the Chancellor of the Exchequer more often than is necessary the fact that there are 523 Members of this House definitely pledged not only to support the small concession I am asking for, but also to do away with the age limit and the means limit. The Government have definitely said that they cannot agree to withdraw either the age limit or the means limit. I think one of the attractions of this Bill is that they make it retrospective as from the 1st July, 1923. In other words, the present increase will be doubled by a bonus payment which will help these people very much during the ensuing year, and within that time I hope the Chancellor of the Exchequer will find some opportunity of going a step further than he is doing to-day. There is another point which I am sure many Members would agree should be introduced into this Bill. I am not certain whether it can be dealt with now, but at any rate I want the Chancellor of the Exchequer to keep it in mind. It is a point which only affects a really small number of men—the men in the police force who, having earned their pension, were due to retire when the Police Emergency Act was passed, and who, in consequence, were retained at their work. These men were not treated like other members of the force. They were not allowed to retire, and they were not so physically capable of performing their duties as the younger men, who had not yet earned their pensions. Consequently the strain of the War, of the air-raids, and of the other work imposed on them was more likely to affect their health than it did the health of the younger and stronger men, with the result that a large number of these men broke down after continuing work for three or four more years. These men have not attained the age of 60. Many of them are 57, 58 or 59 years of age. I feel sure that the House would willingly give them the benefits which were intended for them under the 1920 Act. They ought to be treated under the new scale. If the Government cannot do that, the least it can do is to allow them to get the increase of pensions where it can be proved that they broke down by being retained under the Emergency Act.

The question has often been asked whether the pensioners of the Dublin Metropolitan Police Force are included. The Royal Irish Constabulary are included. The Dublin Metropolitan Police have pre-War pensions which are obviously a charge on the British Treasury. Are they handed over under the Treaty with the Free State, and, if so, was any provision made between the two Governments that any increase granted to the police force of this country would be extended to the Dublin Metropolitan Police? Obviously there was a contract between the Government and the Dublin Metropolitan Police so far as pensions were concerned. It was not within the power of the Government to alter that contract without the consent of the pensioners themselves. That consent has never been obtained. I hear many complaints that the Government of the Free State are none too friendly to the Royal Trish Constabulary and the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Unless some provision has been made by the British Government to safeguard their interest the chances are—I hope that they will not materialize—that these men will not be as well treated as we would like them to be.


I had intended to make some observations on the Second Reading of this Bill, but obviously it is the intention that the Bill should get a Second Reading as soon as possible. Consequently, while I agree with the statement made by the last speaker, I am willing that the Bill should get a Second Reading now. On behalf of my friends I would say, however, that we reserve the light to move Amendments on the lines which the hon. Gentleman has adumbrated, and on other lines when the Bill is dealt with in Committee.


"Agreed, agreed!"


Although it may be agreed by members of the Socialist party that this Bill should go through, yet., as it does not embody the chief pledge given to those to whom it represents itself as doing justice, it is only right that I should utter a word of protest on this occasion and on every occasion on which I have an opportunity of so doing.


You have done it twice already.


Yes, I have done it twice, and I shall do it 50 times as long as I have an opportunity of protesting in this House against conduct which I conceive to be wrong and immoral. This Bill embodies a thoroughly wrong and harmful principle. It embodies the principle that a pension is not retired pay. My hon. Friends on the Labour Benches have continually fought for the principle that pension is retired pay for services rendered. That being the case, there is no possible justification for inquiring into the means of the person to whom that retired pay becomes payable. The object of this Bill should be to put the pre-War pensioners upon a footing of equality with those who have done identical service, although they may have retired after the War. These repeated debates upon pensions show conclusively that the whole of the pension system in this country needs overhauling. From the point of view of sound Government administration nothing could be more harmful than to have these continual discussions seriatim over particular pensions grievances. We have had the case of the ex-ranker officers, the case of the retired naval officers, the case of the policemen, the case of the ex-naval men and ex-civil servants, and the case of the widows. Every possible category of pensioners comes under a different scheme and is paid a pension at a different rate for identically the same service.

It is the primary duty of any Government which professes to administer pensions to inquire into the system as a whole. I do not for a moment desire to delay any benefit which should be forthcoming to pensioners, but I do say that it is thoroughly bad administration to be coming to this House almost every day and to be wasting time by putting forward proposals which are not finite and must be revised. It is all very well to complain of the length of time spent on the subject. The question is that the thing is being dealt with piecemeal and that no comprehensive policy is pit forward. As long as the thing is continued upon the basis of doing things by halves instead of wholes, the time of the House will be occupied in discussing pensions. In the first place, therefore, I protest most sincerely and energetically against the principle embodied in this Bill, that the State has a right, to inquire into the savings of those to whom it seeks to make payments to which they are justly entitled. Further, I protest against the age limit of 60. If a man has done his service, for heaven's sake let him have the pension to which he is entitled instead of exercising ingenuity to discover how you can possibly cheat him out of it. I protest also against the fact that the means limit, has not been removed. Now that we have this legislation proposed giving increased benefits to old age pensioners, and now that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has claimed that the pre-War pensioner will derive the benefit of any concession, he should at any rate put these men on exactly a similar basis.

On the question of the anomaly of these pensions, I do not know whether the Financial Secretary to the Treasury has considered that this Bill is actually going to penalise civil servants who are retiring to-day. They are going to get actually smaller pensions than the pensions received by those who get the benefit of this Bill. The hon. Gentleman should consider what possible effect the Bill may have on those who are retiring now I have made my protest, and those are the chief headings of it. I know that the Government are not prepared to make any concessions in the matter, but in view of the consistent and repeated pledges which they have made to these men, it is only right that someone should stand up in this House and let them know what he, at any rate, thinks of them.


I want to join with the last speaker in his protest. I do not quite understand to what the hon. Member above the Gangway who interrupted (Mr. Climie) was objecting when my hon. Friend got up to state his protest. The Labour party all along have contended how much they intended to do for the old age pensioner, for the police pensioner, and for every other kind of pensioner. Yet, apparently, when we get a Bill that goes only a very small way towards dealing with the problem, the minute my hon. Friend gets up to say something, an hon. Member above the Gangway seeks to interrupt him and, apparently, says, "Oh, there should be a Second Reading without any question being raised." Other parties beside the Labour party have something to say on the question of pensions. The old, old story is still being told in the country on this question. I was addressing a meeting only on Friday, and the old story was trotted out, that if only the Labour party had a majority, how much they would do! One has to keep pointing out to the electors that, if only the Labour party would bring their proposals before the House and give us a chance of supporting them, it would not be a question of a majority. Instead of that, they keep up the old, old story. It will not do. It is time that it ceased.

Here the Government have an opportunity of doing something, so far as the police pensioners are concerned, just as earlier in the day the Government had an opportunity of doing something for the old age pensioner—something, and a mighty small something it is! It is all very well to say that we should be thankful for small mercies. But this Bill is not the redeeming of pledges. Exactly as the old age pensioner will be dissatisfied to-night, when he reads what is proposed for him, so the unfortunate police pensioner will be very dissatisfied.


I wish everyone was as well off as the police.


I do not think that there is a better fellow in the country than the British policeman. He is necessary to keep order sometimes—at some of the meetings which hon. Members above the Gangway try to break up in the country. We have to be thankful to the British policeman for a lot, and we are not treating him fairly. I hope that we shall have no more legislation introduced in moving which a Minister of the Crown will say that "may" means "shall" and "shall" means "may." I do not say that hon. Members have not considered it, but I hone that all hon. Members of the House have carefully considered the position of the police pensioner. The hon. Baronet the Member for Holborn (Sir J. Remnant) and others, relied upon the Minister's statement that "may" meant "shall" and I think I am correct in saying that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham (Mr. A. Chamberlain) said that was so. But when it was a question of the Act being interpreted in the country we found one interpretation being given in the Midlands and another elsewhere. It entirely depends on the chairman, who may say he does not read "may" as meaning "shall" and interprets the Act accordingly. The result is that the unfortunate policemen in that district receive treatment different from the treatment given to the police in another district where the word "may" has been interpreted as meaning "shall." I desire to support the protest of the hon. Member for Holborn and I hope something will be done for those unfortunate police pensioners who have suffered because of the word being accepted as "may" instead of "shall." I hope they are to be treated properly and that such words will be put in this Bill as will make its provisions compulsory on counties and departments who have avoided payments to the police pensioners by this miserable subterfuge and also that these shall now be called upon to pay as from the date on which they failed to do what they should have done under the previous legislation. I have a case in mind in which a chairman, although his attention had been directed to the statements made on behalf of the Government, acted contrary to those statements I trust the Government will take care that nothing of that kind will occur again and the wrong done to these policemen will be put right.


I do not propose to follow my hon. Friend into the discussion which he has initiated on the merits of the Bill or the pledges enunciated by respective Members of the Government. I think the Debate on the Money Resolution afforded ample opportunities for that discussion, and for the protests which were then made in connection with this Bill. I rise to obtain further information from the Financial Secretary regarding the Orders which the Treasury was empowered to issue under Section 3 of the original Act. I understand that Section is still operative, and that it now becomes compulsory because of the word "shall" being included in the present Bill. Under the Act of 1920 it was possible for the Treasury to issue an Order and for a particular authority to take no notice whatever of that Order. It was possible for payments of pensions continue without any increase being made in accordance with the Act. I understand from the Financial Secretary that this cannot happen under the provisions of the present Measure. May I call attention to the attitude of what is in my opinion to be regarded as a local authority, namely, the Port of London Authority. In October, 1920, the Treasury issued an Order which brought the Superannuation (Metropolis) Act, 1860, within the provisions of the Act of 1920, and certain pensioners of the Port of London Authority, dealt with under the former Act, were presumably covered by that Order. As far as I know the authority never paid any increase to those pensioners, and up to now have not done so. I understand under the present. 13–11 it will not be possible for the Port of London Authority to evade its obligations and responsibilities in this matter. The London County Council, the Metropolitan Water Board and other local authorities in this great city have respected their obligations and put the Act of 1920 into operation. I want to know whether the Port of London Authority will be regarded as a local authority in accordance with the provisions of Section 3 of the Act of 1920. I want to go a step further. There are other pensioners deriving pensions from the Port of London Authority under various pensions schemes other than that of the Superannuation (Metropolis) Act, 1866. There are pensioners who derive their pensions under, for instance, the London and East India pensions scheme.


The Bill says "all pensions granted by a police, local or other public authority."


I accept that, but I desired to know definitely.


On a point of Order. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said something which was quite inaudible, and then my hon. Friend said he accepted that statement. I think the House should know what it is the hon. Member accepts. We could not understand what was transpiring, and I think we are entitled to know.


I cannot take responsibility for hon. Members' understanding.


One would like to know what secret arrangements are arrived at between the hon. Member who was in possession of the House and His Majesty's Government in the course of the speeches. Surely there is some machinery for ascertaining the views which have been expressed sotto voce by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.


All I say is that the Chair is not the machinery.


I am quite satisfied. All the Chancellor of the Exchequer called my attention to were the exact words included in the provisions of the Bill. I said I accepted the statement of the Chancellor as being correct, and that is all. I was saying that there are other pensioners governed by other schemes, notably the London and East India pension scheme, the Surrey Commercial Docks pensions scheme, and the Port of London Authority pensions scheme, whereas the Order issued would presumably refer to pensioners governed by the Superannuation (Metropolis) Act, 1866. I want to know if the Treasury will issue a similar Order bringing the pensioners under these various other schemes which I have mentioned within the provisions of this Bill and of the Act of 1920. In the past Orders issued by the Treasury have been evaded, and I want to know if the Port of London Authority is to be treated as a local authority or other public authority and if the benefits described by the Financial Secretary in connection with this Bill will be available to the pensioners I have mentioned.


I rather think I have got at the secret of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He has suggested to the hon. Member who spoke last that the words "public authority" contained in this Bill cover the cases which have been raised. I assume that is so, although I would like to know definitely. I am aware that we are at the mercy of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in this matter. We are bound hand and foot and must take this Bill or take nothing, and therefore I am taking this Bill. But I appeal to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to remove one part of the Bill, namely, the proviso. The whole complaint of the House both in regard to the first Resolution and the second Resolution, was that the increases of pensions were too small. As I read the proviso—and in this I do not agree with the hon. and gallant Member for Devonport (Major Hore-Belisha)—I think the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been careful to prevent any pension existing in 1920 being increased above pensions which have since been granted. Is not that very unfair? It was no part of the Government's original proposal and, indeed, I am not at all sure that it is not due to the fact of the Financial Secretary's attention being called to this matter that these increases are so small. The Government are actually by this proviso cutting down the increases, but I ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to hold out some hope that this will be made right. I know his responsibilities in regard to money matters, but I think, when the whole House joins in asking him not to cut down these increases, he might give way on the point in Committee and might not insist upon this proviso. Some of these men are over 60 and will not live to attain 70, and I beg of the Chancellor to hold out some hope in this respect. I think the right hon. Gentleman will feel in his own heart that he ought to do so, because the feeling of the House is that the increases are small. If the Government are not prepared to give pensions now, less than those which men are to receive under the Bill, why should they not increase the new pensions which have been given, or which will be given? That is, surely, the right way to meet the case instead of cutting down these pensions, and it can be done within the Resolution. Apart from that I welcome the Bill. It has been too long delayed and, although the increases may be small, they are welcome, but I again appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to get rid of the proviso which is neither just nor fair.

8.0 P.M.

Major-General Sir JOHN DAVIDSON

I fully realise that it is impossible to get by amendment anything more out of this Bill than the Bill actually gives, because it is governed by the Money Resolution, and I merely rise to make this statement to let the Chancellor of the Exchequer know, and, indeed, any future Chancellor of the Exchequer, to whatever party he may belong, that I and my hon. Friends who think with me in this House—and there are a good many—are going to press very strongly, and take the earliest opportunity to get discussion of, a Resolution which shall provide for the abolition of the age limit, and for the abolition of the means limit on all State pensions up to £100 a year. It is no use saying that that is going to cost the country much. It is going to cost practically nothing, or very little. I believe it would cost not more than £50,000 or £60,000 in the first year. I see the Chancellor of the Exchequer smiling at that, but I believe I am correct, and that it will disappear in five years to nothing at all, because the average age of these people is somewhere round about 70 at the present moment, and their expectation of life is not more than four or five years. I want to make it perfectly clear to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or any future, Chancellor of the Exchequer, that we shall press for this, and I believe we shall get a large majority in this House in favour of it. I shall also press for it all over the country at the next Election. I repeat that I am utterly dissatisfied with this Bill. It does not go any distance or only a short way, to meet the case, but one does not want delay, and it is better to get it through at the present moment.


Perhaps, in not more than a few sentences, I ought to take up two or three points that hon. Members have put, subject to this proviso, to which the House will agree, that they are practically Committee points. In reply to the hon. and learned Member, may I say that I think he raised a question far greater and tar more important than he himself appreciated in the speech that he made. The truth is that the absence of an overriding maximum in the Act of 1920 led to very serious anomalies, and as this is a Measure designed to give an increase of pensions to pre-1920 pensioners who have suffered because of the rise in the cost of living, it would be wrong to put these anomalies right by increasing the pensions and allowances of anyone retiring on and after 1st July, 1923, with corresponding length of service. What the hon. and learned Gentleman suggests would cost millions and millions of money and would alter the whole basis of the scheme.


My recollection is that in March, 1921, there was a Treasury Minute in regard to civil servants—I have in mind the dockyards. Instead of giving them an increased pension on their bonus on the cost of living, their bonus for the purpose of pension end the sliding scale of their pension were made to depend, not on the cost of living but on the rise and fall in the trade—the engineering trade, for instance.


I see now to what the hon. and learned Member is referring. He is on a totally different subject, namely, the industrial bonus, and not the increase we are giving in this case, based on the increase in the cost of living. I have already replied to correspondents on that point, and to hon. Members, and, in any case, I do discuss it now, because I do not think it is relevant to this Bill. The hon. Member for Holborn (Sir J. Remnant) raised the question of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. That, as I indicated on the last occasion, has been very carefully considered, but there is no doubt that it is a transferred service, and it is not within our power to deal with that in this Measure. We have no right or power or opportunity of doing so, and I am afraid that chapter must be regarded as closed.


Did the Free State undertake to give the advantages of the increase we have given?


That is a point which would need inquiry. The hon. Member knows that, at the present time, negotiations are proceeding between the Free State and this Government with regard to various matters. Those are two of the points that have been raised. There were other questions referred to, of which the most important is that relating to the retrospective portion of the local authorities. I entirely agree that when the 1920 Act was passed it was understood in this House that "may" meant "shall," and that the Clause was regarded as obligatory in character. It turned out afterwards that was not so, but the fact is that the overwhelming majority of local authorities did give the increase, a small number gave nothing at all, and a number of them gave a certain amount of increase. The question has been raised as to whether the retrospective proposal in this Bill can with safety go beyond the 1st July, 1923, in order to compel those local authorities to come up to the full scale of increase as between 1920 and 1923. I am perfectly willing to consider proposals made in this connection between now and the Committee stage, but it was only with very great hesitation that we agreed to try compulsion of a retrospective character on local authorities, and to go back to 1920 would compel the provision of money, and gives rise to other difficulties, especially in regard to accounts which must be regarded as closed. I think there is very great difficulty in going beyond the 1st July, 1923, and, accordingly, I can hold out little or no hope of extending the compulsory element beyond that date. Hon. Members will have an opportunity of raising the point in Committee, when I shall try to give any information. I have. I trust that that brief reply will enable us to get the Second Reading of the Bill.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for To-morrow.—[Mr. W. Graham.]