HC Deb 15 December 1938 vol 342 cc2320-44

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Furness.]

10.5 p.m.

Mr. George Hall

To-day we have been considering the important question of foreign trade. The matter which I propose taking a little of the time of the House to deal with may not be regarded as being so important as the question which the House has been discussing, but to many persons in the country it is of very great importance. On Tuesday, 6th December, I put a question to the Minister of Labour, dealing with one of the anomalies which arise out of the operation of the means test and the regulations. The right hon. Gentleman, in the course of his reply, treated the matter as though it were just a specific case, but I used this case as en illustration of the difficulties with which a number of the persons in receipt of unemployment assistance are faced day after day. The unemployment regulations are very complicated and rather difficult to understand, and I trust the House will bear with me while I attempt to explain some of the difficulties with which those who are receiving these allowances have to contend, and the difficulty which those who are endeavouring to assist them have in understanding these regulations.

The Minister himself did not disagree with the facts as stated in the Question on the Order Paper, and, briefly, the position was this: A husband and wife, the husband being an applicant for assistance under the Unemployment Assistance Board's regulations, with no resources, are entitled to 26s. a week. The basic rent for the 26s. is 6s. 6d., but where the actual rent paid exceeds the basic rent the allowance paid to the applicant for himself and his wife is 24s. plus the extra rent to which he is entitled in accordance with the recommendation of the advisory committees in some of the districts, which has been approved by the Minister of Labour. The case I put is this: A husband and wife with no resources and no dependants, living in a house with a rental of 9s., have a total income—the amount of the allowance received by the man for himself and his wife, including extra rent—of 27s; but in the event of an unemployed son in receipt of statutory benefit living at home, the amount of the allowance which the householder receives for himself and his wife is reduced from 27s. to 20S. 6d. That was the statement I made in the Question. That was corrected by the Minister of Labour, who stated that the householder would receive 21s.

Even accepting the Minister's statement, there is a reduction in the allowance of the householder by no less than 6s. a week, simply because he has a son over 21 years of age in receipt of statutory benefit living at home. When hon. Members realise that statutory benefit for a single man over 21 years of age living at home is 17s. a week, they will see the difficulties which are likely to arise in the household. The Minister went so far as to say that in a case of that kind the persons resident in the home were better off, because there was this extra money being received. The Minister did not take into account that there was an extra person over 21 years of age to be maintained. That is the difficulty which arises out of the operation of the administration of the means test and the regulations. Such conditions are not confined to cases of persons in receipt of statutory benefit. I am satisfied that hon. Members who assisted in the passing of the Unemployment Act, 1934, and those who are now hon. Members of this House who are satisfied with the administration of the means test, do not fully realise its implications.

In one of the Schedules there is provision for taking into account certain income of other members of the household than the applicant for benefit. Of the resources in the form of capital the first £25 is disregarded. Where there is a member of the household in receipt of friendly society benefit the first 5s. of that benefit is disregarded. If there is a member in receipt of National Health Insurance benefit the first 7s. 6d. of that is disregarded. If there is a person in receipt of disability pension the first 20s. of that is disregarded. If there is a person in receipt of workmen's compensation half the amount of the compensation is disregarded. There are other items of income that might be coming into the household that are not referred to in the Schedule, but which the Minister, under one of the Schedules or under the regulations, has the right to take into consideration as resources of the household. I think the House would be rather startled to hear some of them.

How many hon. Members realise that certain income from old age pensions can be taken into consideration as resources of the household, that blind persons' pensions, widows' pensions, orphans' pensions, workmen's compensation, Reserve pay, disability pensions, and even public assistance allowances, through the public assistance committees, or portions of them, can be taken into consideration; and, worst of all, maintenance allowance orders made by the courts, or a portion of them, and affiliation orders, can be taken into consideration as a result of the operation of the household means test? Indeed, the report of the Unemployment Assistance Board for last year indicated that statutory unemployment benefit, old age pensions, widows' and orphans' pensions, disability pensions, outdoor relief, workmen's compensation, National Health Insurance, maintenance and affiliation orders and Reserve pay, amounting in all to no less than £6,000,000, which had been paid to people who are in receipt of these allowances, was taken into consideration.

No one will say that the amount of old age pensions is very high, and that the pensioner can live upon the amount he receives, let alone having a portion of it taken into consideration to assist in the maintenance of persons who have applied for allowances under the Board. Six million pounds of that amount was taken into consideration during the course of last year from persons in the different ways to which I have referred. No less than £1,500,000 was actually taken from these allowances to relieve the Treasury from the payment of allowances to persons in receipt of allowances under the Unemployment Assistance Board through the operation of the means test. I do not think there is a Member of the House, apart from the Minister, who, knowing the facts, could justify sums of this kind being taken into consideration for the purpose of relieving the Unemployment Assistance Board of the payment of a sum which really ought to be paid.

It is not only a question of reducing the actual allowances of the recipients. When a person is in a household of this kind and a portion of the income is taken into consideration, the rent scale or the basic rent is increased. I will give the House an illustration. Assume that I am an unemployed person in receipt of the allowance and that I have an unemployed son living at home. My allowance for myself and my wife would amount to 24s. per week, and the basic rent which I would be expected to pay would be 6s. per week. If I had a son over 21 years of age living at home in receipt either of unemployment assistance or statutory benefit the scale of payment of 10s. a week would be added to my 24s., making the scale for the household 34s. a week, and at once the basic rent would be increased to one-quarter of 34s., making it 8s. 6d. The result is that all that would be allowed for the maintenance of the son over 21 years of age would not be 10s., as laid down in the scale, but 7s. 6d. It will be seen, therefore, that the case to which I called attention in the question which I placed upon the Order Paper was not the isolated or specific case which the Minister of Labour attempted to describe.

Of the 580,000 persons in this country who are the recipients of allowances under the Unemployment Assistance Board, there must be a very large proportion affected as a result of cases similar to that which I have cited. It is not generally known that the persons who suffer as the result of the operation of the means test are not the same persons. The persons who suffer as a result of the operation of the difficulties or anomalies to which I have referred are invariably married people where sons and daughters are grown-up members of the household. Of the 164,000 persons who suffered reductions as a result of the operation of the means test, only 5,000 of them are living in other than households of their own. One hundred and fifty-eight thousand of them are married persons, and it is these married persons who really are suffering as a result of these anomalies.

I cannot see how the Ministry of Labour or the Board can justify the regulation which has been issued in connection with matters of this kind. It is so easy for the Ministry of Labour and the Board to put this anomaly right. The instructions which have reference to the resources other than those which are specifically mentioned in the Act or in the Schedule are left to the discretion of the Board to recommend to the Ministry of Labour for approval when dealing with matters of this kind. I cannot see any difference as between the first £1 of earnings in a household, and why that is disregarded, whereas you take into consideration 3s. 6d. out of the statutory benefit which is paid to an unemployed son, who was paid for that benefit as the result of his insurance, while in the case that I cited earlier no less than 6s. is taken from the allowance of the householder, simply because this son or member of the household is unfortunate enough to be unemployed.

I beg the Parliamentary Secretary to take this matter up with his right hon. Friend, and I would ask that the Minister of Labour should take the matter up with the Unemployment Assistance Board. We have £1,500,000 saved as the result of nothing but sheer robbery of old age pensioners, blind persons in receipt of pensions, persons in receipt of public assistance relief, persons in receipt of workmen's compensation, persons receiving money under a maintenance order or an affiliation order, Reservists and others. I feel that the Ministry of Labour and the Board ought to be ashamed of themselves that they are doing this out of the resources of the poorest of the poor. I beg the Parliamentary Secretary, with-the Minister of Labour, to take up this matter with the Unemployment Assistance Board.

10.22 p.m.

Mr. Buchanan

The hon. Member need not apologise for having raised this question, even at a late hour. He is to be congratulated for again focusing the attention of Parliament on one of its most urgent human problems. He has rendered not only his division but his party and the general community a service. The difficulty is not only in Parliament. If we could get the general mass of the community to understand how our poor people are living, I am certain that in our better-off districts the people would never tolerate some of the conditions that are applicable at the present time. I will not go over the cases to which the hon. Member has referred. I could add to them, and no doubt he could add to them. Let we give one or two cases. There is the man who is serving his country abroad in the Army. This case is particularly relevant, because we are asked to appeal for recruits for national service and for the Army. This man goes to India, and makes an allotment to his father and mother, and the allotment that he makes is counted in unemployment assistance allowance.

Take the case of a father, a mother and son, a very ordinary household. The father may be working and earning £2 a week, which is a miserably shocking wage. What happens? His son is unemployed and applies for an allowance. The first 8s. is exempted. Thirty-two shilling is counted for a father, mother and son, but their allowance is only 24s., because they have resources. The son is given 8s. a week. Take the reverse, where the son is in work, the father unemployed, and the son earns £2. The son would have exemption for the first 16s., plus 50 per cent. of the difference between 16s. and 40s., which makes 16s. plus 12s., amounting in all to 28s. Will hon. Members note that this is in the case of three people living in a family. If the father is working the amount is 8s., if the son is working—28s—a whole £1 difference and yet they live as one family. A mere accident of work which sets the old man working lowers the income by £1 per week.

I wonder whether hon. Members could get away for one day from Munich—I am not sneering at Munich—and consider this question. If we could get the conscience of hon. Members aroused I do not think this state of things would last for 48 hours. I expect that the Parliamentary Secretary will say that they are to some extent bound by regulations which were passed by Parliament. These regulations have now been running for about two years. I think they were passed in July, 1936. Is it not time they were recast? After all, we are dealing with human beings whose mode of life does not remain stationary and, surely, after two years' experience we should endeavour to see where hardship arises and try to mitigate it. This problem is bound to be intensified. I do not know how hon. Members are feeling, but I feel more and more that this type of legislation is having a terrible effect on family life. I do not know that my constituents are different from others or that the poor in my division are different from other poor, but I am constantly finding families being broken up, the sons and daughters leaving. It may be said that they lack paternal feeling, but we must remember that we are dealing with ordinary human beings. We all fill up our Income Tax forms, and every hon. Member tries by ordinary methods under the law to see that he gets every rebate possible. Can anyone blame these poor people living under shocking conditions if they feel compelled to leave their homes in order to add 1s. a week to the family income?

I am not going over the political career of the Parliamentary Secretary. It would serve no useful purpose. But I would ask him, a comparatively newcomer to the Ministry, a young man coming from an area which is not affected by these regulations, to bring his mind really to the problem and not give us the smug answer that the regulations are there and that Parliament has approved of them. I would ask him to turn his mind to the other side, to the hardships and the cruelty, and see whether he cannot arrive at a decision to make some improvement in these conditions. The party opposite are appealing in the New Year for a great new effort of national service. I wonder what kind of national effort they can get if they have to appeal to people who are faced with the conditions pictured by the hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. G. Hall). If the Government are really sincere, let the first proof of their sincerity be to show us how decent they can be to those of our people who are most unfortunate. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will reply at least in a human fashion, and if he does not do so, then we must take every opportunity of raising the matter in the House until we secure some justice for our poor people.

10.31 p.m.

Mr. Tinker

I wish to emphasise the points that have been made by my hon. Friends. My constituency is not as hard hit as some other constituencies, but I have had a number of cases brought to my notice. There is a case with which I am dealing now of a young man who has been to a training centre, but who cannot get work; and owing to his father being at work, he is not able to obtain any assistance from the unemployment assistance committee. This young man is in such a position now that he has almost lost his sanity. He wants work, but cannot get it; he is dependent upon the household, and he feels that he is taking bread out of the mouths of his parents. He has urged me to do all that I can to get the Minister of Labour to recognise the position. I realise how difficult it is for the Minister of Labour to use his influence to get work for this young man, for there are so many unemployed people. The young man is doing all that he can. He has appeared before the unemployment committee and he has been before the manager of the Employment Exchange, but there has been no opportunity of getting him a job. Yet he receives no assistance because of the peculiar circumstances of his father. This sort of thing means the breaking up of family life. I have had other cases of this sort. I always urge the young men not to leave their homes; I tell them to face their responsibilities, not to talk about leaving home for that purpose, but to try to do something if possible. It is for us here to do all that we can to prevent this breaking up of family life.

Hon. Members on these benches claimed, when the 1934 Act was passing through the House, that it would mean the breaking up of family life. We urged the Minister of Labour to try to do what he could to prevent that. One example after another has proved that in fact that is what has happened. I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised this matter for consideration, because even if the Parliamentary Secretary cannot do anything, it may be the means of causing public opinion to determine that there shall be some change in the present regulations. The time has come when that must happen, because one case after another proves that the position which now obtains is very unfair to our people. We are here to plead on their behalf, and I claim that when we can show that an Act of Parliament is working to the detriment of the interests of the community, something must be done to change it. I urge the Parliamentary Secretary, even if he cannot to-night alter the regulations, to take our opinions in the spirit in which they are given, and to agree that some change is required to make the regulations work better than they do. I trust that when the hon. Gentleman has spoken tonight, there will be a little more hope for our people than they have at the present time.

10.35 p.m.

Mr. Lawson

Those hon. Members who have been present during the Debates which have taken place since the means test was started will not have been sur- prised at the statement that has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare (Mr. G. Hall) to-night. It is a pity that that statement could not have been made before a full House. Although I do not want to put any extra burden upon you, Mr. Speaker, I think one of the strong reasons for having a good all-night Debate on a subject like this is that on those occasions at any rate we do sometimes get a full House. I remember that when these regulations went through, we had a very long sitting and for many hours the House was packed. We warned the House then of what the effect of the regulations would be. I wish we could have had on that occasion just a simple statement of fact such as my hon. Friend gave to-night showing how they actually worked. When the means test was introduced, what was the argument in favour of it? On platforms all over the country we heard "Do you believe in a man getting £3 or £4 a week while he is still drawing benefit?" That was the central argument. But nobody in this country dreamt that the effect of the regulations was going to be such as my hon. Friend has shown it to be except those of us who knew how these things worked out in practice.

I agree with the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) that my hon. Friend has stated the details with such force that there is nothing to be gained by going over them again and I do not want to deal with the Regulations as affecting other sections of the community. But I ask hon. Members to consider the one case of the young man who is entitled to 17s. a week. He has contributed to that, he has paid for it, he has met all the obligations which hon. Members opposite used to claim ought to be fulfilled before a man could get benefit. At the best, what is 17s. a week to keep a young man? I would remind hon. Members however that three out of four of these young men who are unemployed have been unemployed for six weeks or more. They are classified as "wholly unemployed." On the average they have been out for more than six weeks and during that time their savings have all gone and the resources of the household have in many cases been exhausted. A young man in that position is penalised and receives only 11s. instead of 17s. We are approaching Christmas and I ask hon. Members to consider that strong and sturdy young men, good workmen, will be at the loss of 6s. out of every 17s. that they are supposed to receive in the ordinary way as unemployment insurance. I would like to see the Minister who could justify that state of affairs.

These young men are supposed to get 17s. a week to keep them in something like a state of physical repair while they are unemployed, in order that they shall be ready for the next job that turns up. What is happening at the present time? If the number of hands in a factory is reduced the employer says, "We may want you again in a month or two." When a seam in the coalfield is closed the men who are turned off are told, "Probably this seam will be opened again later, and we will want you then." I have such a case in my own division. The men are urged to stay in the district because they may be wanted later on. It is in the interest of that industry that a young man should stay in that district but he is penalised not only by being kept unemployed but by having 6s. a week taken from his income.

What was the argument that was used when the original means test was put before the House? The Minister at that time, who is now the chief of the Unemployment Assistance Board, in that very winning, wooing style of his, persuaded the House that after all what would happen would be this: "We will see that nobody suffers. We will have understanding officers with wide discretionary powers." We thought he was visualising a kind of archangel who would be the investigating officer, but now, in the face of that promise of discretion, an instruction is sent out which considerably limits his discretion. I think that this situation is not only evil as far as the particular case which my hon. Friend has mentioned Is concerned, but sometimes it is evil also in its increasingly devastating effects upon the other classes that he mentioned, when dealing with pensions and other things. It sheds a very strong light not only on the working of this particular case, but on the working of the means test itself.

It was argued that a certain amount of money would be saved, but it has not saved any money. It would be easy for a good accountant to demonstrate that the means test has cost the State several pounds for every pound that it has saved. Its administrative costs are extraordinary, nil the cost of taking the administration out of the hands of the unemployment insurance committees and of the Ministry of Labour and putting it on to another organisation is simply scandalous. It has not saved the State anything. It has worked out that the statement that it would deal only with men who would be receiving £3 or £4 a week was misleading to the community. There is not a Member of this House who honestly dare face up to the logical effects of the means test.

We are always pleased to see the Parliamentary Secretary at that Box—he can be very persuasive when he stands there—but I think it is ominous that he is here instead of the Minister. The right hon. Gentleman probably cannot be here. We know that he is a regular attendant when he can be, and I make no complaint on that score, but I think this is a matter for weighty consideration on the part of the Minister of Labour himself. I think he ought to have taken this matter back again and given satisfaction upon this type of case, and not only upon this individual case. I do not want to make any threats, but I must say that there is nothing that angers me more than the logic of this kind of thing as I see its effects upon the lives of men who live round about one's door. I do not think the Minister of Labour or the Unemployment Assistance Board could for a moment defend it if they had to live beside the people who feel the effects of this kind of administration.

10.44 p.m.

Mr. George Griffiths

I was in the House on 17th and 18th December, 1934, when the Minister of Labour of that day, who is the Minister who made a long speech to-night about the Export Guarantees Bill, came in and introduced this means test proposal. He stated that the unemployed under the means test would get £3,000,000 more in 12 months than they were getting at that time, and we on this side said they would not get £3,000,000 more. Members opposite backed the then Minister of Labour and said it was a fine thing. I remember hon. Members on the other side praising the Minister of Labour for having brought in this legislation. When we came back in the first week of February, 1935, there were some Members on the other side who had tears on their cheeks as big as snowballs. They said they never thought these regulations would mean what they had meant, and the hon. Member for Kilmarnock {Mr. Lindsay), who is now Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education got up and said that the rent scale had put about 50 per cent. of his people on reduced benefit. I remember shouting across the House, "Didn't you know what rent your people are paying?" and he said, "No, I did not." We told the Government then that the scales were no good. It has been proved by the hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. G. Hall), by the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) and the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Lawson) that they are not satisfactory, and we have constantly represented that to the Government.

I was at the Employment Exchange in my township a week last Friday when the unemployed men there were sending the hat round because they wanted their youngsters to have some toys and a bit of a "do" at Christmas because, they said, they could not find any Father Christmas for them out of what they were getting at the exchange. The "Daily Telegraph" is sending Father Christmas round so that these boys and girls can have some bit of joy. Can hon. Members imagine the feeling of the father and mother who cannot get anything for their children at Christmas? I would ask hon. Members to put themselves in their place. If they would only do that, the Members of the Government and the Members who backed this means test and fought for it tooth and nail would understand the position of these people. I am satisfied that when we are speaking about this matter they are foreign to a lot of Members on the other side. They do not understand it and the reason is that they have never gone through it. I have. I drew 110 days' benefit at 3s. 10½d. a day for the 10 months before I became a Member of this House. I am not speaking from any theory. I am speaking from practical experience, and I know the meaning of these conditions.

I dread the thought at this Christmas time of these people having nothing in their homes, and of men and women with children having nothing to put in their stockings. They have not, indeed, enough to clothe their children. We hope that the Minister and the Government will re- view these scales. The hon. Member for Gorbals mentioned allotments. I have a man in my division who, when the means test was put into operation, had 20 pullets. They started to lay and his allowance was reduced by 2s. 6d. because he was selling the eggs in order to make a little living. I have also a case of a man who has to keep a brother-in-law and because he was earning a certain figure his brother-in-law's 17s. was knocked off entirely. This kind of thing should not happen in this country. I hope the Minister will give us a better reply than we have had in the past.

10.51 p.m.

Mr. Bevan

I think we ought to be grateful that my hon. Friend has raised this matter because we have all too few opportunites of discussing this. The Unemployment Insurance Act of 1934 was supported by Members opposite on the jesuitical ground that it would take the unemployed out of politics. The tragedy is that they are largely correct. As a consequence of that Act this House very rarely discusses the condition of the unemployed, or unemployment itself, because the leverage upon the attention of the House that so large a number of unemployed persons could exercise has been removed. When the last Labour Government was in office we used to have unemployment discussed almost every fortnight and the House was able to give its attention to what is, after all, the most central feature of domestic life in this country. What has happened? The first half of the unemployed, those on insurance benefit, are in the charge of an advisory committee and their conditions, and the fact of their existence, never come before the House at all unless there is a report from the advisory committee itself. The second half of the unemployed are in the charge of the Unemployment Assistance Board, a statutory body which obtains from the Treasury all the money that it needs or demands, and we do not discuss the conditions of these people, or their existence, except inadequately on one day a year when we discuss the report of the Unemployment Assistance Board.

The objective of the 1934 Act has been realised and unemployment has been taken out of politics. That is a very bad thing indeed. We are all in these days deeply jealous of the reputation of Parliamentary institutions. Although many people may yearn for the docility of the population in totalitarian States, there are so many unpleasant features accompanying totalitarian that even those who have wistful longings of that sort would rather have Parliamentary democracy than have those particular features, but is a very bad thing for Parliament that a body of citizens of this number, 2,000,000–4,000,000 or 5,000,000 with their dependents—should never have their condition of life discussed in the House except inadequately once a year. That is a very serious matter. Parliament was called into existence in the first place in order that the conditions of the people might be discussed on the Floor of the House. It is a bad thing for Parliamentary democracy that so large a body of citizens should be rendered politically inarticulate. Therefore, I welcome the action of my hon. Friend in raising this subject this evening.

There is another aspect of the matter which hon. Members opposite who may not see some features of it in the same way as we do which may cause them to have some regard to it, and that is that we have lost one other leverage which the unemployed might use to cause us to give them our attention. We no longer have a balanced Budget. If we were in the habit of balancing our Budget we should have to consider the sums paid out every year to the unemployed, but because we no longer balance it there is no need for the Minister to present Supplementary Estimates and so we do not discuss it then, and there is no need to discuss the items in the Budget, because they are simply added to the rest of the deficit which has accumulated. Therefore, the absence of a balanced Budget is in itself a denial to Parliament of an opportunity to discuss the financial burden of unemployment. There is only one way that I know of forcing the House to discuss the conditions of the unemployed, and that is to make the unemployed so expensive a burden upon the State that the House will take steps to provide them with employment instead.

Hon. Members opposite have told us on a number of occasions that the difference between them and us is that they are never doctrinaire, that they always take a purely practical view of things. In fact, their chief boast is that they have not got a philosophy at all, but deal with things empirically. Why is the means test still in existence? Simply because Conservative Members will not allow it to be said that a man can have public money from the State without investigation into his resources. We keep in existence a vast machinery the whole purpose of which is to submit hundreds of thousands of our fellow creatures to an inquisition which cannot be justified on financial grounds alone. If that view is persisted in hon. Members will find themselves in the grotesque position of paying £3,000,000 or £4,000,000 a year for the administrative machinery of the Unemployment Assistance Board in order to prevent people having £200,000 or £300,000 which they may not be entitled to because of their private resources. If that is not carrying a principle to absurdity I do not know what is.

It is difficult to say what the nation is saving by the means test. There are no exact figures. The Minister refuses to give his estimate, but he cannot give the exact figures, because there are no means of knowing how many people who are "off determination" would come on to the fund immediately in the event of the means test being abolished. They are saving an absolute sum of money, but that saving, put against the administrative cost of the board, is not a very substantial sum in terms of the State's finances, although it is a substantial sum to the unemployed. It does seem that there is something wrong with hon. Members when they are prepared to flick out £1,500,000,000 or £2,000,000,000 for the sake of rearming this country against the possibility of attack from abroad and are not prepared to spend £3,000,000 or £4,000,000 to defend homes in distressed areas from the attack of poverty every day of the week. If hon. Members opposite would only fling away their prejudices they would see that from every angle it is unwise to continue this process. It is unwise from the point of view of nutrition. How absurd it is for this House to discuss the physical well-being of the adult population of Great Britain, for the hon. Member who sits opposite me—

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

Question again proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Lieut.-Colonel Kerr.]

Mr. Bevan

I submit that it is unreasonable for this House to discuss the athletic well-being of young men and to expect them to keep themselves in good condition upon 10s. a week. Looked at from any angle, it is absurd. There is not one hon. Member in this House who would get up in his place and say that it could be done; and yet that is precisely what we are asking of these young men in Great Britain to-day.

I know that all these arguments have been used in this House over and over again and that there is nothing new that we can say on this matter. It is unfortunate in the extreme that we have not a full House at this moment to consider this point of view. I am convinced that if hon. Members would shed their prejudices on this matter there is a case here to which they should listen and which they would concede. Consider for a moment the question of family income. Take into account the resources of a family, considering only the man, his wife and the children below the age of 16. Leave the adults to stand on their own. If you make that distinction, I challenge the Minister that he could not produce at that Box an amount of saving that would persuade hon. Members to continue the means test on that basis. The fact of the matter is that you have built up in Great Britain behind the Unemployment Assistance Board a vast vested interest in the maintenance of the means test, a vast body of officials who would lose their jobs if the means test were abolished, and you are perpetuating a persecution. That is why the Minister is unable to produce for this House facts upon which hon. Members could make up their minds.

Not only are you undermining physical wellbeing of many thousands of our people, but you are at the same time destroying a vast amount of domestic happiness. Most hon. Members are thinking of the moral of this nation in times of adversity, but that moral is dependent upon the happiness of the home life. The wife of a collier came to see me in my home three weeks ago. She had two sons and five stepsons. They were all at work, although the father was unemployed and was over 65 years of age. They stopped the money, of course, for the parents on the ground of the earnings of the children, but the five stepsons left home, one after another. The two sons were left, but that week one son had left home and the remaining son was threatening to do so. All the seven were thus leaving the home. The household was wrecked and the domestic atmosphere was made absolutely unlivable by the impossible human relations introduced into that home by the means test.

Hon. Members have always refused to understand that in this matter it is not that the son who is working refuses to help to keep the brother who is idle, but that the brother who is idle resents being kept by the brother who is working. It is that fact which smashes up the family life of those people. On financial grounds and on grounds of physical wellbeing, as well as on grounds of the moral of the nation, I ask hon. Members whether they consider that it is worth while keeping in existence a miserable institution which is abhorred from one end of the country to the other.

11.5 p.m.

Mr. Pritt

There is one aspect of this question that has been borne in upon me for years, and that is the appalling selfishness of every section of the middle classes of this country. They will spend money on themselves; they will spend a little money on defence, though they would rather that someone else spent it; but when it comes to the payment of money for people who, though just as good as themselves, have less money, every mean instinct in their minds rises to Heaven. I have had to sit for hours listening to people objecting to the payment of rates because some of the money was wanted for the education of the children of people who were poorer than themselves.

Captain Cobb

Where does the hon. and learned Gentleman think that the majority of the money for charity comes from, if not from the middle class?

Mr. Pritt

I have been begging for money for Spain for weeks and months—

Captain Cobb

I am suggesting worthy objects.

Mr. Pritt

The hon. Member, whoever he is—I have never had the pleasure of seeing him here before—wanders in with a red herring, which is about the only thing about him that is red, and tells us that he is thinking of worthy objects. He is a typical instance of middle-class mentality. When Franco spreads the diseases of malnutrition among Spanish children, the hon. Member thinks it is wrong to keep them alive. He is a worthy illustration of my argument, and I hope he will interrupt me again.

The middle-class mentality gets furious when it is asked to give money in order that people shall be educated, or in order that the disease of malnutrition shall cease to exist. It is an unfortunate fact that their economic education is so warped that they are not shocked by the fact that somebody in Mayfair is drawing, not 10s. a week, but 10s. a minute, or even second, out of the national resources. It may be said that that is not the same thing as a payment from the State, but it is part of the wealth that we create and that these people grudge.

11.8 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. Lennox-Boyd)

The hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. A. Bevan) expressed regret that so few occasions in this House were found for the discussions concerning the welfare of those people who are in receipt of unemployment assistance, and whose welfare and conditions should be a matter of primary concern to every Member of the House. I assure him that it is through no fault of mine or of any of my hon. or right hon. colleagues that so much of our time is taken up with questions of foreign affairs. On at least five occasions in the course of the last few weeks I have come down to the House armed with complete, I think satisfactory, and I know sympathetic answers to questions directed to the Ministry of Labour by hon. Members opposite, and on every one of those occasions, owing to the great amount of time taken up by questions on foreign affairs, all directed from the Opposition Benches to the Front Government Bench, it has been impossible for questions addressed to the Ministry of Labour to he reached or considered. I feel that it is not altogether unfitting that I should point out this fact on an occasion when, I am glad to think, we are able to meet for a short while to discuss a purely domestic matter.

The hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Lawson) drew attention to the absence of my right hon. Friend, but I am sure the hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. G. Hall), and, indeed, the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street himself, realised well the reason for that absence. It was discussed and explained a day or two ago. The hon. Member for Chester-le-Street also referred to some instructions which, he said, had recently been sent out limiting the discretion of officers of the board. I was a little uncertain of what he had in mind. I am prepared to give way to the hon. Member, if he cares to amplify that observation, though I think it would be as well if I confined myself to the matter which the hon. Member for Aberdare has raised.

Mr. Lawson

There was a general instruction, based on the Schedule to the last Act.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

That is, of course, true. Instructions based on the Schedule have been issued, but the discretion remains unimpaired. Indeed, it may be said to have been increased as the result of the additional discretion now given with regard to winter allowances which have been agreed to by both sides of the House. The hon. Memberfor Aberdare need, I think, make no apology for raising a matter of this kind. It would be a bad thing for the House and for the country if a question of this sort were regarded with indifference by people returned to this House to look after the welfare of the mass of our people.

The Debate has gone a long way from the question and answer which first occasioned the promise from the hon. Member to raise this matter on the Motion for the Adjournment. He will remember, and the House, perhaps, needs reminding, that this question arose out of the case of a household of two people living on an allowance from the board, to whose home their son, himself a recipient of unemployment benefit, had come. He was taking up residence in the family presumably after absence. I put it that way because the particular situation envisaged by the hon. Member could come only after the son had lost his employment and come to live with his parents. If he had been living with his parents before losing his employment the adjustment for rent would have been made before and the precise circumstances outlined by the hon. Member would not have arisen. I must apologise to the House for bringing their attention back to this particular problem. It was this which drew from the hon. Member the suggestion that it was a fit subject for an Adjournment discussion. It is obviously impossible at a time like this—and I speak as a Parliamentary Secretary—for me to make any sweeping undertaking about the incidence of the means test or any possible change which the future may bring.

The hon. Member who has had experience of administration, whose knowledge of these problems I am aware of, and for whose advice and help I am indebted, knows the extreme difficulty of dealing with hypothetical questions based on hypothetical combinations of circumstances. It may be that there are specific cases where precisely these circumstances apply, but the hon. Member knows enough of the working of unemployment assistance to realise the infinite variety of circumstances that have to be borne in mind in connection with this problem. So anything I might tell the House if I tried to be emphatic and dogmatic would lack that strict adherence to facts that the House has a right to expect from this Box. Any such answer that I might give, based on a hypothetical combination of circumstances, must create a misleading impression of the way these regulations are administered in practice. What is true in most cases is in particular true when questions arise involving rent adjustments. I have only been a few months at the Ministry of Labour, but I remember very vividly the discussion in this House some years ago when the regulations were before Parliament. I remember the discussion on the rent adjustment section, and I recall, as indeed, I think hon. Members who remain in the House do, that the regulations contained no precise rules as to the amount of such rent adjustment, which rested then, and which rests now, in the main on the discretion of the Board's officers.

Mr. Bevan

That is not true. It is not really fair to the House. The hon. Gentleman cannot have met these officers. They tell us, when we see them, that they have departmental instructions from the Board which limit their discretion, so much that the repetition of them in this House is a false implication.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I was coming to that, but because of the oft repeated wish in this House, which I think is a very reasonable wish, that the experience of local people who are fully seized of local conditions should be brought to bear upon the matter, we have in existence advisory committees whose recommendations form the basis of these rent adjustments. It is perfectly true to say that the regulations contain no precise rules as to the adjustment or such rents, and that this discretion is as much a part of these regulations as the scales themselves. [Interruption.] If I stop at every moment to challenge every point hon. Members opposite have in mind I shall be unable to come, as I hope to do in some detail, to the particular case which the hon. Member for Aberdare has raised in this House.

Mr. Lawson

We have not the regulations with us, but, while they contain no precise rules about the rent, they certainly lay down the principles inside which the Advisory Committee must keep, and mention maximums and minimums.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

It would be futile to discuss the actual Clauses dealing with the rent. But within the provisions that are laid down by Statute there is a fairly wide field for discretion which is followed, I think, with a growing assent among the mass of the people affected. As the hon. Member for Aberdare knows, if the net rent actually paid varies from a given standard, it may be adjusted. In the two cases he mentioned in his question—

Mr. G. Hall

Only within the amount recommended by the Advisory Committee, which was accepted by the Unemployment Assistance Board and which is limited to that.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

The very fact that the recommendation is accepted by the Unemployment Assistance Board shows that the Board in this matter—and the hon. Member will, I think, agree—is not conducting its business on a national basis; but is taking the local point of view put before it by the local committee.

Mr. Hall

I have given the full advantage in the case to which I have referred on the Question Paper to the full allowance recommended by the Advisory Committee and accepted by the Board, which is the 3s.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

It is to this particular case that I want to come, if the House will allow me. In the first case which the hon. Member mentioned 3s. was added to the rent allowance and in the second case 6d. was added. Over and above this the officers of the Board, after the various mathematical formulas have been complied with, have an overriding discretion. That finds expression in the oft-repeated statement that the over-riding consideration always is the need of the individual case.

It would be prolonging this discussion beyond the time at my disposal if I illustrated at any very great length this discretion and the effect of that discretion in the very area of South Wales which the hon. Member in part represents. The hon. Member will recollect, however, as I certainly do, the deputation from various interests in South Wales which waited on my right hon. Friend and the chairman of the Unemployment Assistance Board—I was also present—where this discretion formed the subject of a great part of the discussion. He will also recollect the very full answer that was afterwards sent by the chairman of the Board to Mr. Oliver Harris, dealing in detail with the various points raised. It was there shown that in no less than 28 per cent. of a sample of households in South Wales containing earning members, some modification of the assessment by the exercise of discretion was made which had the effect of reducing the amount of the earnings taken into account, on such grounds as those urged by the deputation. It would be giving a wrong impression to the House to ignore the fact that, apart from the advice tendered on rent matters by the Advisory Committee, which advice is followed, there has been a widespread exercise of that very power of discretion which it is essential should be maintained if the scheme is to work in that humane way which the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) hoped it would.

Mr. Buchanan

Am Ito understand that as a result of that deputation a certain concession was made? Does that mean that the Welsh people are getting concessions that are not given to others?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

No. The hon. Member must not assume any such thing. I did not say that a concession was given as a result of that deputation. All that I said was that the deputation stated that the discretion should have been exercised in certain cases. We were in a position to say, after we had heard the case, that in 28 per cent. of sample cases discretion was in fact being exercised in those very groups of cases mentioned. I am certain that if the question were raised in regard to Scotland it would be found that the same generous treatment has been afforded.

The hon. Member for Aberdare referred also to the size of the cut as being 6s., and he gave the impression that the family to which the son had returned on unemployment benefit received no increase of income whatever from the accession of that sum to the household budget. If he would look at the case he would see that whereas in the first case the sum allowed was 27s. per week for the father and mother, with the coming of the son, who is a beneficiary of the scheme to which he has subscribed—the unemployment insurance scheme—the family income consists of the 17s. which the son receives, with the addition of 21s. received by the father and mother, making a total of 38s.

The hon. Member may or may not argue that the amount is adequate or inadequate for the needs of the family, but I contend that he cannot argue that the 38s. which is received after the advent of the son is precisely the same as the 27s. received before; nor can he dispute the fact that the average income of that household is increased from 9s. to 9s. 8d.

Mr. Grenfell

The hon. Member is confusing his arithmetic. There were two persons in the house when they received 27s., so that the average was 13s. 6d. each. When the amount received was 38s., divided between three, they were reduced to 12s. 8d. each.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I was dealing with the suggestion of the hon. Member for Aberdare that there was the same income for three people as there had been for two after rent had been paid. Let me now turn to the general question of the treatment of unemployment insurance benefit received by members of a household who are applicants of the Unemployment Assistance Board. The practice of the Board is to allow 13s. 6d. out of benefit of 17s. for the personal requirements of the recipient of benefit. The regulations provide that the minimum to he allowed is 12s. 4d., being one-third of the difference between the scale rate of 10s. and the amount of the benefit, but in fact instead of being 12s. 4d. it is 13s. 6d.

Mr. G. Hall

Is not that the minimum? The Board could not go below 12s. 4d.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

That is so. The figures of 12s. 4d. I have quoted are the minimum. I am only anxious to protect the Board against the charge, not made here to-night but freely made in some parts of the country, that in every case the sums which they allow are the minimum sums allowed by Statute. Let me refer to the general question of rent, because I think it is important that the House should have this clearly in mind. The principle on which the scales and allowances for personal requirements are based is that everybody living in the household is deemed to pay a share of the rent. This would apply whether or not the son was in some job and was in receipt of wages or whether he was unfortunately on unemployment benefit. He would in both cases be expected to pay his share of the rent. I am sure it would not be said that there is anything unreasonable in people who would have to pay rent if they were living alone being regarded as responsible for some share of the rent, if in fact they are living with their parents. Clearly it would be most inequitable that the Board should be obliged to pay rent for people who are not dependants. If this principle is fair in regard to a son in employment it is equally fair in regard to a son who is in receipt of benefit. If you apply this principle, to which I think there can be no serious quarrel, to the exact situation envisaged in what I think is still a rather hypothetical question, the actual rent allowance in the first case is 3s. in excess of the standard, and in the second case 6d., so that the son was expected to contribute 2s. 6d. towards his accommodation. Reference has been made to disability pensions and workmen's compensation, and one or two other sources of income being taken into account. The hon. Members who raised that matter neglected to point out that in the case of disability pensions, the first pound a week is wholly disregarded, and that in the case of workmen's compensation, one half of any weekly payment is also wholly disregarded. There is one point to which I want to refer, the question of maintenance allowances. If the hon. Member has in mind any case where these maintenance allowances have been held to apply to anything except the maintenance of the child for whose maintenance they were given, I hope he will bring them to the attention of my right hon. Friend, as he would be interested to see them. In general, the practice is to apply such resources as public assistance, old age pensions, and blind persons' pensions to meeting the need of the recipient and his dependants, and not to take them into account against the needs of any other member of the household. If hon. Members on either side of the House have cases which they think violate that general practice, I should be glad to hear of them. In conclusion, I ask the House to realise that in the precise situation envisaged in this question, it is almost impossible for me to give an answer which would be worthy of the attention of the House, which realises that conditions vary so infinitely that it is impossible to apply a general rule unless one knows to which particular household it has to be applied.

It being Half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.