HC Deb 25 November 1931 vol 260 cc445-54

Order for Second Reading read.

The MINISTER of HEALTH (Sir Hilton Young)

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

6.0 p.m.

The Bill is, unfortunately, in a form familiar to the House, because it repeats the Measure of a year ago. Its general purpose is to prolong in health insurance those who would otherwise be put out of insurance by reason of unemployment. The class actually affected by the Bill is the class of those who would cease to be in health insurance at the end of 1931 and in 1932 by reason of prolonged unemployment and, of course, the House will appreciate that that is a class which, by the very fact that it has been long unemployed, is particularly susceptible to ill-health, and particularly requires the benefits that are obtained under health insurance. The Bill will preserve medical and cash benefits and all contributory pension rights, which are rights of an important nature to this class. The House, of course, appreciates that, under the present form of the Act, the cash benefits are only half benefits. The duration of the Bill is the same as that of the last Measure, and it is to prolong matters for another year to 31st December, 1932. The form of the Bill might, perhaps, excite some criticism. It is undoubtedly a complicated Measure in its working. I have kept it in that form on this occasion in order that it may be perfectly clear that we are simply repeating what we did a year ago, and are introducing no new terms.


Is it absolutely the same?


It is absolutely the same. The finance of the Bill deserves a word. As the House will remember, on the previous occasion it was thought unreasonable, and indeed impossible, to cast the additional financial burden of the prolongation of these people in insurance on to the approved societies, if for no other reason, because the reserves of those societies are depleted by the very unemployment which makes this Bill a necessity, and for that reason the burden of the prolongation is borne by the Exchequer. It is borne in this form, that the Exchequer will make 36 contributions in respect of each person prolonged in insurance, and it will also pay its proportion of the benefits. The Exchequer contribution, therefore, takes the double form of a contribution per person and a proportion of the grant.

As to what that will cost, we are fortunately on this occasion able to make a more reliable estimate than was possible on the occasion of the previous Measure, because we have longer experience, and on this occasion we can say with more certainty that, assuming the basis of 70,000 persons prolonged—that is the figure that is indicated by experience—the loss to the Exchequer will be £95,000 in respect of the contribution, and £15,000 in respect of the proportion of the grant. The House will have observed from the White Paper that no contribution will be made to the fund in respect of the pension rights. That is for the simple and fortunate reason that the finance of that fund is adequate to bear this burden without further contribution. Under the Act of 1929 the fund should, it is estimated on an actuarial basis, be sufficient to bear this burden and its other burdens for at least 10 years to come.

Lest the House should be disposed to make any criticism of the urgency with which this Measure is being proposed—it is proposed as a matter of urgency and we hope the House will pass it rapidly through all its stages in the next few days—there is a very good cause for that urgency, because it is necessary that we should give notice to the approved societies that these benefits will be payable well before the end of the year. I do not pretend for a moment that it is anything but an unfortunate thing that we should have to propose temporary legislation to deal with this matter. This is not looked upon as in any way a satisfactory permanent settlement. It is only looked upon as a necessary Measure for saving the situation pending that permanent settlement in which we hope we shall be guided by the coming general report of the Royal Commission on Unemployment Insurance. I commend the Second Reading, to the House.


We regard this Bill as being entirely a non-party, and, in fact, a non-contentious Measure. We have looked at its provisions on their merits and have decided to support its passage into law through all its stages. It will, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, rescue a considerable section of our people from the spectre of illness without benefit payments and old age without a pension. Were it not for the effects of the Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1926, the approved societies themselves perhaps might have been able to shoulder this financial burden, but the liability at the moment is far too heavy for their depleted funds to bear. A considerable number of persons affected by this Bill are not only totally unemployed, but are practically unemployable because of their age. I can assure the House from my knowledge of this problem that these men from 60 to 63 years of age will rejoice in the fact that Par- liament is not letting them down in their adversity. As the right hon. Gentleman said, this may not be the best way of dealing with this very difficult problem, but everyone concerned with Health Insurance, will, I take it, admit that at this late hour it is the only practical method which can possibly be continued. I have the very greatest pleasure, as one who administers Health Insurance business, in supporting the Bill.


I should like to congratulate the Minister upon having announced that this is, at any rate, not the final solution of a very big problem. We realise that this Measure must be passed with all possible speed. We appreciate that he is doing his best to help a very unfortunate section of our people, but I do not think that we should let this Measure go through without a few words of caution. The llouse has been returned by a large majority in favour of economy, and, I think, in favour of restoring and maintaining the insurance principle in the Health Insurance Act. When the Bill was brought in last year it was very gently criticised from the point of view that it was a departure from the insurance principle, and we are still apprehensive of the effect of the Bill by continuing the Measure for another year. It is true that Mr. Greenwood at that time said that what they were doing was to maintain the insurance principle; instead of a person paying insurance contribution himself, they must pay it for him. That was an economic doctrine which could only be advanced by the late Minister of Health, but the present Parliamentary Secretary pointed out at the time that we were departing from the insurance principle. I believe that we have departed from the insurance principle in this Measure, and in the National Health Insurance Act, owing to the difficulty of what one might call hard cases. We all know that hard eases make bad law. If the House will examine the practice of the trade unions or the friendly societies who administer their funds in a most sympathetic way, they will find that they always eventually come up against a decision as to whether they are going to continue benefit to one of their subscribers or not. The time has to come in all private affairs and in managed societies when very often an adverse decision has to be given in respect of a man who hopes to draw the benefit.

With regard to national affairs, we have during the last few years, when in difficulty, always expected the public to pay. I think that the last Government possessed what one might call the champion-of-lost-causes complex. I remember Mr. Greenwood saying in the famous economic doctrine of his that whether a country could afford a thing or not depended upon how much it wanted it. The country has turned its back on that sort of economics. We have a mandate, at any rate, which demands, with regard to these social measures, that they should be maintained on the insurance principle. When you remedy a grievance for one class, you create an enormous number of grievances among other classes which are left out. For instance, there is the case of the voluntary contributor. He has contributed, and then has not been able to maintain his contributions because he has fallen out of insurance. He will not be affected by this Measure, so that you are not really remedying his grievance. If the House would read the report of the Royal Commission on Unemployment Insurance, they would find that the Royal Commission say: There has been a progressive tendency amounting practically to the abandonment of the principles on which the original insurance scheme was framed. There is great anxiety in the country that in regard to Health Insurance we are going to abandon those principles. We made a little hole in the dyke last year. We have kept it open this year, and I think we must be watchful to see that the dyke does not become a sluice, and the whole principle of insurance depart from this Measure. I suggest that when the Minister examines the whole of this problem, he ought to divide the people who are to benefit under this Measure into two classes. I cannot see that really you have a great case for maintaining them in health benefit. After all, they are only to get very small benefits, and a man is really not going to be very much better off if he gets 3s. 6d. under this Measure or gets it from the local assistance committee. The case which you must examine most sympathetically is the case of the people who are maintained in insurance from the point of view of their pensions.

Though it is true that you are departing from the principle of insurance in regard to health benefit, you have already departed from the principle of insurance in regard to old age pensions. The Greenwood Act gave old age pensions to widows over 55 who could prove that their husbands might have been insured if the Insurance Act had been in force when they were alive, and we all know that that led to a lot of anomalies. It would be impossible with justice to say to the widows "You cannot have your old age pension, because your husband died while he was temporarily out of insurance." Therefore, the Minister when he considers this big problem will have to maintain that class in insurance. He has now plenty of time until next year to reconsider the whole matter. It will be rather ludicrous, now that we have taken a lot of classes out of unemployment insurance benefit, if under this Measure we are going to continue people in benefit who are no more entitled to it than people who have been taken out of benefit under the Anomalies Act. I hope that the Minister will give the House a full assurance that the whole question is to be considered, and that he will not forget that the most important principle of insurance must be maintained in the Health Insurance Act.


Those for whom I speak welcome the Measure in so far as it represents some form of justice for the workers. We also welcome it because the Government have acted with more speed than did their predecessors. Last year when the Bill was introduced large approved societies had already sent out notices to large numbers of their members saying that their rights under the Act had expired. Large numbers of poor people received notices terminating their Health Insurance. The reason for the notices being sent out was because the Act was not passed until at least three weeks later than the corresponding date of the introduction of the present Bill. In consequence, these poor people had to go through the torture and agony of being notified that their Health Insurance and pension rights had expired because the Act had not then been passed. In addition, the approved societies had to bear the expense of notifying these people. On this occasion I am glad to say that the Government have saved the anxiety of persons who come under the Measure, they have saved the approved societies expense similar to that incurred last year in large numbers of cases in notifying persons that their insurance had expired, and they at least safeguard for 12 months the rights of those particular classes of people.

May I say to the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Thornbury (Captain Gunston), who is so anxious to preserve the insurance principle, that, after all, it is very questionable as to what is the insurance principle. I could argue to-night, if I desired to do so, in favour of large batches of cases being refused pensions and Health Insurance which, in my view, come well within the insurance category. It is very doubtful when you are dealing with large numbers of poor people, as in this case, if you can ever work out the matter accurately on an insurance basis. May I also say to him that there is no analogy between friendly society funds and State funds? At the moment trades unionists are paying 2s. 9d. a week in order to preserve their small benefits, owing to the fact that unemployment is as high as 25 per cent., whereas when you spread the cost over the community the percentage is much lower. We do not accept that analogy at all.

6.30 p.m.

I and my colleagues welcome the Measure, and, may I say to the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies), we welcome his speech, which is as different as night is from day from the speech he delivered at Scarborough at the Trades Union Approved Societies Conference where he did not take anything like the line he has taken to-night. I hope that the benevolent line he has taken to-night shows a return to grace after the shocking speech he made at Scarborough, which was not only reactionary but cruel in the extreme, both in its nature and its purpose. We welcome the Measure because we think that, as far as it goes, it is a contribution towards helping very poor people in this country. May I say to the right hon. Gentleman that with regard to the future that he will have the next 12 months for inquiry. While we welcome the Measure, we hope that any inquiry that may be p.m. made in the future will not result in any of the people who are being dealt with under it being taken off, but that the inquiry will result in large numbers who ought to be getting the benefit, and who are not getting the benefit, receiving it. The hon. Member for Westhoughton made a mistake—he is usually so well informed—when he said that a large number of the people dealt with were unemployable. He knows as well as I do, the Minister of Health knows, and the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Under-Secretary of State know, that before a person can get benefit, the approved society must show that he is genuinely seeking work and capable of taking work. Therefore, the hon. Member has no right to label these poor people as unemployable, when they are not.


I think that the hon. Member is wrong. All that the approved society has to prove is that a fit person is unemployed. In the use of the word "unemployable," I meant that a considerable number are unemployable because they are over 60 years of age, and people will not employ them.


I think that the hon. Member is wrong. The approved society has to prove that they are genuinely seeking work. The approved society can disqualify a person of it finds that that person is not remaining in the ranks of the insured workers, and is not seeking work.


He must be available for work.


Yes, he must be available for work, but there are instances of approved societies saying that men are not available for work, although they have had their card stamped regularly at the Employment Exchange. It is not fair that men should be labelled as unemployable even if they are over 60 years of age. If they were decently fed, housed and clothed they are men who would be fit for employment. I hope that when this Measure comes forward next year it will be extended to bring in large categories of people who are now refused benefit.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for To-morrow.—[Sir H. Young.]