HC Deb 13 July 1937 vol 326 cc1206-20

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Sir G. Davies.]

10.36 p.m.

Mr. Batey

I want to raise one of the most important questions that this House could consider. In 1925 the House of Commons passed the Widows', Orphans' and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act. At that time the House believed that it had made provision for widows where the husband had been engaged in industry. The House believed that it had made provision for the widow to have a pension. Since 1925, however, we have found serious defects in that Act. One of the most serious defects is that 104 payments have to be made by the husband during his lifetime before his widow can claim a pension. I brought this matter before the House about a fortnight ago in regard to a case in my division. A certain man joined the National Health Insurance scheme in July, 1912, when the National Health Insurance Fund started. Before he had completed his two years payments, making a total of 104 stamps, he was injured in the pit. There was a fall of stone and he was so injured in the spine that he was incapacitated from work until January of this year, when he died. The man thought that in the event of his death his widow would be entitled to a widow's pension, and the widow thought so, too. On his death it was found that 104 payments had not been made because of the injury to the man, and the widow was not entitled to a pension. We believe that that is a defect in the Act that ought to be remedied as quickly as possible. This is not an isolated case. Case after case occurs where 104 payments have not been made for some reason or another, and that prevents the widow from drawing a widow's pension. When the House passed the Act in 1925 it was not its intention to insert provisions to prevent a widow from getting a pension. The intention was that if a man in industry died his widow should be entitled to a pension. I have here the Act of 1925, but I do not propose to read the parts of the Act that have impressed me, because the hour is late and I had expected that we should have reached the Motion for the Adjournment earlier. It will suffice if I say that in the Act of 1925 a difference was made between a claimant for a Widow's and Orphan's pension and a claimant for the old age pension at 65 years of age. The widows and orphans have a different claim from those who claim a pension under the 65 years rule. In reading the 1929 Act it seems clear that if an insured man is receiving medical benefit the fact that he is receiving medical benefit entitles him to remain as an insured member and, therefore, in spite of the 104 stamp qualification this particular widow is entitled to claim widow's pension.

Another important section in the 1929 Act, provides that where a case has gone to arbitration, and most cases go to arbitration, the Minister has power to deal with the case and grant a pension. In the case I have quoted, and in all similar cases, the Minister in my opinion should use this power and see that widows get the pension. There are hundreds of cases in which the 104 stamps have not been obtained, and the widows are not receiving pensions. We are therefore quite justified in saying that the time has come when this qualification ought to be removed. It must also be remember that under the 1925 Act if a widow's husband died prior to the passing of the Act, although he may never have made one payment to the insurance fund, his widow is entitled to draw a pension simply because he belonged to an insurable trade. We have hundreds of widows drawing the widow's pension whose husbands never made one payment to the insurance fund. They draw their pensions because their husbands belonged to an insurable trade. I know that if we reduced the number of stamps to 100 or to 90 or to 70, there would still be hard cases. Therefore it seems to us that the Minister should remove this 104 stamps qualification completely and allow it to remain that so long as the man was in an insurable trade his widow shall be entitled to a pension.

This may mean legislation, but I think there is something needed even before legislation. There should be an inquiry into all these matters. I cannot imagine the Minister agreeing to remove the qualification of 104 stamps until an inquiry has taken place. I ask the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to-day to have such an inquiry. This defect, and also the very serious defect that a woman whose husband has reached 65 years but who is not 65 years of age herself cannot get the 10s. pension, justify us in utilising the time of the House to bring these matters before the Government and in this way to bring pressure on the Minister and the Treasury to institute an inquiry as quickly as they can, so that steps can be taken to remove these two injustices.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. Whiteley

The feeling in the country on this important matter is so strong that we felt that there was need to put down a vote of censure on the Government with regard to it. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Spennymoor (Mr. Batey) has raised the subject to-night. We are very anxious that the Minister of Health should take into consideration the very important points raised by my hon. Friend, who has referred particularly to two real anomalies under the Act which have caused very great hardships to our people. If a man dies before 104 payments have been made, his widow is disqualified from receiving a pension. That is a real anomaly when one takes into account the fact that the 1925 Act laid down definitely that a widow would be entitled to a pension if she could prove that her husband, although never having made a payment, had been connected with or would have been connected with an insurable employment. I think this is something into which the Minister could very well make a full inquiry in order to relieve a difficult situation which is created among our people at the present time. Another case that we wish to emphasise is that of a man who receives his pension at 65, but whose wife is younger and consequently is not entitled to a pension. All of us know the difficulties which such a couple have with only 10s. a week going into the home. We feel that when a man who is an insured person becomes entitled to a pension, that should also apply to his wife. The feeling in the country on these two matters is exceedingly strong. Hon. Members will perhaps remember that I raised this question in a recent Debate, and showed how the public assistance committees are being burdened with a very unfair charge because of these anomalies, and also because of the fact that the pensions are too low. That burden on the public assistance committees is very much heavier in the distressed areas and the Special Areas owing to the large number of cases of this sort with which they have to deal. We on this side are very anxious that the Minister of Health should not put this aside as a mere complaint raised on the Adjournment, but that he should make very full inquiries and see that at least these two anomalies are removed at the earliest possible moment and that the pensions are increased as soon as possible.

10.49 p.m.

Mr. Vyvyan Adams

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Spennymoor (Mr. Batey) for raising this matter. It so happens that I have knowledge of an even harder case than the one he mentioned, a case which was, indeed, described as a particularly hard one by the Minister of Health in answer to a question which I put to him on 1st July. In that case the husband of one of my constituents, a widow, had entered into insurance on 15th October, 1934, and unfortunately died on 9th October, 1936. That lady was disallowed the pension not on the ground that the necessary 104 contributions had not been paid, but because the full period of 104 weeks had not elapsed. This seems to me to be an almost fantastic case. If only 103 weeks' contributions had been paid the case of the Ministry might have been stronger than it is, but every necessary contribution, amounting to the minimum total of 104, was paid on the due and proper dates by the deceased man, and it is not suggested by anybody that there was any attempt dishonestly to pay the last few contributions in a lump sum.

The widow is most unfortunately deprived of a pension merely because the Ministry say that the full 104 weeks did not elapse. I suggest that this technicality is making an absurdity of the law. This is a supremely hard case and if technicalities obstruct the humane operation of our laws, where they are intended to be humane, surely these technicalities should be swept away. I support the hon. Member for Spennymoor in his suggestion that the Ministry ought to make proper inquiries and so be seized fully of the hardships which prevail.

10.52 p.m.

Mr. Magnay

I apologise for coming in so late from another function downstairs, but I know something of the facts which the hon. Member for Spennymoor (Mr. Batey) has put before the notice of the House. I too had one or two very hard cases in my constituency, friends of mine who have died and their widows are left without any pension. One man paid 104 contributions. If he had lived to the 31st December he would have fulfilled the other requisite of paying 104 weeks alive, but he died on 28th December, three days short, and his widow could not get a penny. I did my utmost—it must be 104 contributions and 104 full weeks—to get the pension. I saw the polite and kindly disposed officials not only in Newcastle but in Sunderland, to do what I could to get this pension for this friend of mine, but I was unable to because of that technicality, which ought to be swept away.

The other was a more curious case, that of a man, again a great friend of mine, whose salary was over the limit. He was in a big store at Newcastle, and had been for many years receiving a salary which, with his commission on sales, kept him outside the scope of the Act. They had a bad time, as most businesses did in the distressed areas, and his commission two years before his death was such that he came within the scope of the Act. But he had not been insured because he had for years had more than £250 a year. When he found that he came within the scope of the Act on 1st January he took out his insurance stamps. He died 15 months afterwards. I tried to get the officials to consider this in an ex gratia way if possible, as this had been no fault of the man himself. Two days ago I got a letter from the widow—it is a very pathetic letter—saying that I tried two years ago to get this pension for her but found it impossible, but that she understood that there was more money about and that the Government were inclined to be more gracious and would I try again? What can I do?

I know the obvious answer. My hon. Friend will say that hard cases make bad law. But I am sure it was never the intention of Parliament in 1925 that these technicalities should operate against widows and their dependants. Why should these decent folk suffer the humiliation of being on public assistance when they should be able to retain their self-respect by receiving this pension on an insurance basis. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Whiteley). I do not see how the House could support the proposition that a young widow who may be 20 years younger than the deceased spouse should get a pension. There ought to be some limit in such cases. But I urge my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to give this matter his most kindly and favourable consideration and to see that these technicalities, which were never contemplated when this legislation was passed, are swept away to the benefit of some of the most deserving of our people.

10.56 p.m.

Mr. Malcolm MacMillan

I have drawn the attention of the Government previously to the impossibility of working either the Unemployment Insurance system or the Contributory Pensions system as they stand now, justly and fairly. In the Western Isles and in many parts of the Highlands of the conditions in which the Western Isles are typical, it is almost impossible for people to secure regular work and to make the regular payment of contributions which is necessary to qualify for these pensions. It is almost impossible to do so within the period laid down in the Act. That applies equally to unemployment insurance. At the very best the people in those areas can only get seasonal employment and the demand for it is generally greater than the supply. It varies from season to season and is a very uncertain quantity. In those conditions the regulations which are applied under the Contributory Pensions Act work un- fairly and unjustly against people who seek to qualify.

In numerous cases testimonials are sent to me to the effect that such-and-such a person has died and that his widow has failed to qualify for pension although the man during his lifetime did his best to secure insurable employment but was prevented from doing so by local conditions. Clearly where conditions such as are contemplated under these Acts do not exist these regulations should not apply. As I say, I have already drawn attention to this matter on more than one occasion. I have drawn the attention of the Minister of Labour to those cases which come under his jurisdiction and I have drawn the attention of the Secretary of State for Scotland to the conditions relating to contributory pensions in the Highlands, and the impossibility of satisfying the conditions. Surely it is time that some sort of investigation was made into these conditions, and although I cannot propose legislation or even a modification—

It being Eleven of the Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Question again proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Sir G. Davies.]

11.0 p.m.

Mr. MacMillan

I have given examples to the Minister which in themselves are proof that injustice is rampant in these parts of the Western Isles of Scotland, and surely it is time that some action was taken by the Ministers responsible to end that injustice. At least we should expect some sort of inquiry into the working of the regulations and of the Act in these parts, where the conditions laid down in the Act do not apply and, therefore, the Act cannot possibly be operated.

11.2 p.m.

Mr. Ellis Smith

I hope that the Government will recognise that the time has arrived when an investigation should be made into these anomalies. In 1929 an amending Act was passed which dealt with certain anomalies and sought to improve the position of pensioners. Since then this country, particularly in the industrial parts of it, has passed through an experience that was never known before. Up to then thousands of men had been in regular employment and had been contributing to National Health Insurance since 1912. In 1930 many of them found themselves unemployed, and many of them had never been accustomed either to short time or to unemployment, and did not like the idea of signing on at the Employment Exchanges. The result was that hundreds of them, rather than sign on at the Exchanges or go on to public assistance, put their life savings into businesses in order to try and manage in that way. They were hoping against hope. It was impossible to build up a business during that period, and owing to their having their whole attention concentrated on their economic difficulties, many of them did not pay attention to becoming voluntary contributors so as to enable them to maintain their pension rights, which they would have done had they not been overwhelmed with their economic difficulties. Many of these men have since passed away, and their widows now find themselves, owing to not having 104 stamps on their cards in the two years prior to the death of their husbands, not qualified for the widow's pension despite the fact that hundreds of them have been paying into National Health Insurance since 1912.

I had a letter on Friday morning, brought to our house from a well-known supporter of the Government, a man whose life is now a tragedy because of the position in which he finds himself. This reminds me of the time in 1929 when the Labour Government much against the desires of thousands of us, introduced the Anomalies Act. Those of us who were familiar with the conditions in industrial centres at that time were bound to be indignant about that Act and the way in which it has been administered since. If it was right for the Labour Government, under pressure from the other side, to introduce that Anomalies Act to deal with the situation that was prevailing then, it is reasonable to suggest that, after the period through which we have passed, the Government should investigate the question so that they also can consider introducing an anomalies Act to deal with the many anomalies that have arisen out of our experience since 1929. I want to read an extract from a letter which has been sent to me from an old friend of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Colonel Wedgwood). It was sent to me because the writer knew I have been taking an interest in this question. The writer says: I should like you to take my case and also on behalf of a few more in these homes. I am 60 years of age. I have been a worker all my life until six months ago when I had to give it up. On the 24th June I came to these homes which are supported by voluntary contributors. I was told I must give up my pension book as it had to go to the Pensions Ministry. When it came back to me, instead of 10s. a week, it was an order for 4s. a week. When I went into this home I wanted to try and help my wife. She does not get any old age pension as she is only 63. She has only 7s. 2d. a week to keep the home, which she has to do as my eldest son was killed in France in 1917. That is typical of the tragedies in life of thousands of people in this country. One could go on and deal with one's experience of many of these old men and women who are similarly placed, but one has only time to mention them on the Adjournment. We must be satisfied with mentioning the cases to the Under-Secretary in the hope that he will draw the attention of his right hon. Friend to them, so that he can consider the advisability of investigating the anomalies.

11.8 p.m.

Lieut.-Commander Fletcher

My hon. Friend the Member for Spennymoor (Mr. Batey) has raised a case, which I have no doubt will be referred to as a hard case such as must arise and which the Ministry has no power to redress under the rules and regulations. May I call attention to the way in which a hard case in another walk of life is dealt with in regard to widows? This case happens frequently. The son of a peer dies, and his death is followed shortly afterwards by that of his father. In a certain circle it is felt to be an extremely hard case and bad luck to the son's widow and his sons and daughters that he did not live long enough for her to be able to enjoy the tremendous privilege of being called Lady So-and-so and the sons and daughters being called the Honourable So-and-so. It is of course very hard luck indeed that they should be deprived of such a great privilege and such a great pride and pleasure; and subsequently, one notices in the "London Gazette" that the Sovereign has been pleased to decree that the widow and sons and daughters of this son shall be entitled to the same style and privileges as if the son had lived to enjoy the great privilege of being raised to the peerage.

That is a hard case and that is how it is dealt with in one walk of life, because we know that such is the foolishness and gullibility of mankind in certain walks of life that these titles are social assets which enable the widow, and the sons and daughters to make far better marriages than they would otherwise have been able to do.

In the case raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Spennymoor, if a working man, through receiving an injury in the course of his work, fails by seven stamps to complete the necessary 104 stamps, that is a reason for depriving his widow of a pension, and that is referred to by the Ministry of Health as a hard case which the rules and regulations prevent the Ministry from meeting, although they admit that it is a hard case. I hope that the Under-Secretary when he replies will take note of the differing manner in which hard cases in two differing walks of life are met, and that that will induce him to agree to the request of my hon. Friend that this matter shall be made the subject of an inquiry.

11.12 p.m.

Mr. Sexton

This is an insurance scheme. In ordinary circumstances a man who has paid the first premium on his insurance policy comes at once into benefit. We on this side of the House believe that no insurance scheme will be a proper one until it provides for payments after the first premium has been paid. The hon. Member for Spennymoor (Mr. Batey) referred to those widows whose husbands died before 1926, when no premiums had been paid. The husband need have been in an insurable occupation for only a few weeks—not 104 weeks— and need have no stamps on, and yet the widow was entitled to a pension. We do not object to that, but are glad that those widows are well cared for. Then there is the case of the wife who is not 65. We find an old man of 64 drawing unemployment benefit of 26s. a week for himself and his wife. At the age of 65 the unemployment benefit stops, and if his wife is not 65 they have only 10s. a week to keep the pair of them. They have to go to the public assistance authorities to get the money supplemented, so that they can live at all. They are the worthiest people in the nation, who have spent a lifetime in industry, and they are worthy of something better. Members on all sides of the House receive letters pointing out these anomalies and hardships. Some of the letters are heart-rending, and some of them point out justifiably that the House has recently passed a measure to increase Ministers' salaries and passed a resolution to increase the salaries of Members. We are told in these letters, and also in the Press, that Members are looking after themselves but that the widows and orphans are being sadly neglected, and that it would have been far better had we attended to the widows first and left the Members' salaries alone. I should be glad to hear from the Government that they will take this matter into consideration. It is crying out for reform. There are not only one or two cases, they are nation-wide, and I believe the nation would be behind anything that was done to increase these pensions for widows.

11.15 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Bernays)

I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health will be very sorry that he was unable to be present to-night but he had a long-standing engagement in Birmingham. Many questions have been raised that would require legislation and with which I am not permitted by the Rules of the House to deal. Individual cases have also been raised, and I know that the House realises that I could not reply on those specific cases on the spur of the moment; I should want to know all the facts of the case. A strong plea has been made for an inquiry into the working of the Acts concerned; I can say at the present moment only that the attention of my right hon. Friend will be drawn to the very strong plea that has been made.

The matter that was the subject of the Adjournment Motion was a comparatively narrow one, and with that I will now deal. The question raised by the hon. Member for Spennymoor (Mr. Batey) had reference to the rejection of the appeal made by one of his constituents, a Mrs. Winter, against the decision of my right hon. Friend that she was not entitled to a widow's pension. My right hon. Friend was acting only within the provisions of the Acts, and I think the hon. Gentleman was under a misapprehension when he seemed to suggest that my right hon. Friend could make a decision contrary to the provisions of those Acts. He can of course alter a decision which has been come to by the referee only in the light of new facts. The contributory conditions for the award of a widow's pension were not satisfied in the case of Mrs. Winter; they relate, as hon. Gentlemen opposite know, to the payment of 104 contributions. At the time of the death of Mr. Winter, only 84 contributions had been paid. I recognise that there were peculiar difficulties in this case. The husband was incapacitated by an injury to his spine, caused, I think, in a mine, and this House is always sympathetic to the victims of mining accidents.

It is specifically laid down in such cases that while there is no liability for the payment of contributions during incapacity, it is always open to the insured person to pay up the contributions. Mr. Winter could have made the necessary payments, right up to the day of his death.

Mr. Batey

He did not know.

Mr. Bernays

I realise that he did not know, but it is the onus of the insured person to know these things. I think he was constantly visited by an official under the Workmen's Compensation Act, and Mr. Winter had only to ask him and he would have informed him either of the position or would have told him to write to the Ministry of Health. In the Ministry of Health we have frequently asked the approved societies to make known to contributors the conditions to which they have to conform. Of course, if he had paid up these back contributions, Mrs. Winter would have been entitled to a widow's pension, but in fact he did not.

Sir Hugh Seely

It is said that he could have asked, but was it pointed out to him?

Mr. Bernays

There was no statutory obligation that it should be pointed out, and my right hon. Friend, under the terms of the Act which it is his duty to administer, could only decide that Mrs. Winter is not entitled to a widow's pension. This decision was upheld by the referees, and is by law final and conclusive. Several interesting points have been raised in connection with the Minister's decision. The hon. Member for Spennymoor asked whether the case ought not to have been decided, not under the Act of 1925, but under the Act of 1929, under which, he says, widows whose husbands made no payment at all were awarded pensions. I think that in saying that he is under a misapprehension of the provisions of the Act of 1929. That Act could only have applied if the husband had died or had attained the age of 70 before 4th January, 1926.

Mr. Batey

The man was dead, so far as regards being able to walk and get stamps, in 1914.

Mr. Bernays

I am afraid he was not dead within the terms of the Act. Neither. of these requirements was fulfilled in the case of the late Mr. Winter. I was further asked, why cannot contributions be accepted after the death of the insured person? That at first sight seems plausible, but it is laid down specifically in Section 5 (2) of the Widows', Orphans' and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act, 1936, that, in determining whether the statutory conditions have been complied with, no account shall be taken of contributions paid after the date of the death of the person in respect of whose insurance a pension is claimed. The Act is very clear on that point, and so is the reason for it. There is no technicality of the kind alleged by my hon. Friend the hon. Member for West Leeds (Mr. V. Adams). The reason is really perfectly simple. If the acceptance of stamp contributions after death were allowed, they would only be made where the payment was necessary to establish a title to pension.

Mr. V. Adams

The Minister completely misapprehends this case; 104 contributions paid during the lifetime of the deceased man.

Mr. Bernays

I am not discussing the particular case which the hon. Member put before me; I am discussing his general charge that it is only some unimportant technicalities that stand in the way of granting a pension in this case.

Mr. J. Griffiths

As I understand the law, it is an obligation upon an employer who employs a workman to pay the contributions and deduct them from his wages. When a man meets with an accident, it does not terminate his employ- ment. A legal decision has been given on that point. When a man receives an accident, he is still in the employ of his employers until they give notice to terminate the employment in accordance with the agreement that he works under. In the South Wales coalfield the companies, in order to make arrangements to avoid the consequences of another decision, follow the practice of sending a 14-days notice to the house of the man after the accident. If a colliery company, after an accident, did not give notice to terminate the employment, he is still their employé.

Mr. Bernays

I will certainly look into the point, but I think as I develop my argument the hon. Member will see that I shall deal with it. I was arguing that if cash contributions could be allowed after the death of a man it would mean that payment would only be made when there was an attempt to establish a title to pension. Supposing a fire insurance premium had not been paid for 12 years, I do not think hon. Members would suggest that at the end of that time, if the house was burned down they should be able to claim the fire insurance merely by paying up the back premiums. An exception to that rule has already been made where the failure to pay contributions has been on the part of an employer who was under a legal liability to pay them. In such a case the contributions can be collected after the death of the insured person and such of them as were due within a limited period before death, rank as though they had been paid at the proper time.

Mr. Kelly

What is that limited period?

Mr. Bernays

I do not know. This exception, however, does not extend to contributions which were not compulsorily payable but which the insured person had a right to pay. The hon. Member then demanded that there should be a removal from the contributory scheme of the 104 stamps qualification and that we should substitute that the husband had been engaged in an insurable trade. But in fact it is difficult to see how the test suggested by the hon. Member would not itself prove to be a contribution test. Obviously the benefits under the insurance scheme must be dependent on the participation of the insured person in insurance. It would scarcely be possible to accept the normally uninsured person as insured merely because he occasionally went into an insured trade. Some sort of definition would have to be laid down and insurance tested by reference to it. It is almost inevitable that some formula would result, and the only measurable factor seems to be the number of contributions paid.

Mr. S. O. Davies

You have the definition under unemployment insurance.

Mr. Bernays

I am dealing as far as time permits with the particular case raised by the hon. Member. I admit that it is part of the provision in the act that the contributor's right to pay contributions belongs only to him and dies with him, but this is after all applied in every similar scheme. For these reasons my right hon. Friend finds that he has no power under the existing acts to alter the decision he has made.

Mr. J. Griffiths

Will the Minister look at the point I have raised?

Mr. Bernays

I shall certainly do so.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine minutes after Eleven o'clock.