HC Deb 23 February 1938 vol 332 cc501-10

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

11.6 p.m.

Mr. Gallacher

A few weeks ago I put a question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer asking him whether he would receive a deputation of old age pensioners, and the answer I got was so unsatisfactory that I am now raising the matter on the Adjournment. I am of opinion that there are no people in the country who have a better right to be received by the Chancellor than the old age pensioners. I base that view on two particular grounds. From the point of view of the service they have given to the country they have a right to be received. They have given 50 years or more of service to the industries of the country. They have laboured in the mines and the factories, they have cared for the homes, they have built up our cities, towns and villages, these men and women who are now 65 years of age and over. It can be said with the greatest measure of truth that all that is great in this country, whether in its commerce or its institutions, has been based upon the service given by them and their predecessors.

So on the ground of service I would claim the right of these old people to be heard; but there is also the question of need, and here it has to be said to the shame of those in authority that their need is as urgent as their service has been great. Ten shillings a week, under the best conditions, means the most bitter hardship for these old folks, but with prices steadily rising it is almost impossible to describe the conditions under which many of them are forced to live. There is not a Member on this side of the House who could not spend hours dealing just with their experiences among the old folk in their own districts and with the hardships they have to endure.

I do not want to take up much time with particular cases but I will tell one story to which I have already referred in this House. At an old age pensioners meeting in Lochore, in Fife, where I was asked to speak, I was accompanied upon the platform by representatives of many social and religious organisations. One of those upon the platform was Father McGarvie, the parish priest of Lochore. He spoke of many of his experiences in visiting the homes of the poor. He told us of an old age pensioner who was afflicted with the poverty which is common to so many of them. Poverty and want are their constant companions. He went one day to this old lady, and she showed him a certificate which she had received from a doctor certifying that she was blind. No greater calamity could befall any man or woman than never to see the face of friends or loved ones any more. Father McGarvie said that this old woman expressed a strange, sad and pathetic pleasure in the receipt of that certificate. Why? Because it meant that she would now receive a few more shillings a week to ease the heavy burden of life.

Let the Minister think of that tragedy. Will he listen to it? Will he hear further stories from me or from others who can speak for the old folks? We have in Scotland an Old Age Pensioners' Association. What a commentary upon the Capitalist system that the old folk, men and women who have given such service to the country, should be forced, in the last years of their lives, to form an organisation in an effort to get justice. In Lochore there is Mr. John Gray, who for long years has been the district secretary for the Foresters' Society, and associated with him is his colleague Mr. Penman. Although they are 70 years of age or thereabouts they have been carrying on the greatest possible activity in connection with this question of the position of old age pensioners. They have been out night after night, giving voluntary service in connection with the conditions of the old age pensioners. Have they not a right to be heard in the behalf of many thousands of people with whom they come in contact and whom they represent?

In another part of Fife, Mrs. Westwood, 75 years of age, the mother of the hon. Member for Falkirk Burghs (Mr. West-wood) goes out day after day and night after night trying to get something done on behalf of the old age pensioners. Has she a right to be heard? She writes to Ministers, as others have written to Ministers. What happens? I have many letters. I have a pocketful, but here is a sample: Dear Madam,—In reply to your recent letters addressed to the Prime Minister on the subject of old age pensions, I am directed by the Minister of Health to state that your representations have been noted.—Your obedient servant,"— and then signed by some secretary. "your representations have been noted." Can hon. Members imagine the coal-owners writing to the Prime Minister and receiving a reply of that kind? Can they imagine the City of London writing to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer on some pressing question and getting a letter of that sort? Is it possible that the old people of this country, who have given such service to the country, can be treated in that manner? Here is another letter: Dear Madam,—I write on behalf of the Prime Minister to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 27th October. It would, I fear, be quite impossible for the Prime Minister, during his forthcoming visit to Edinburgh, to receive a deputation as you ask. Yours truly,"— and then again signed by some secretary. No, the Prime Minister would not meet the old age pensioners in Edinburgh; Mussolini? Oh, yes, he must be considered. Surely in Edinburgh the Prime Minister should have been prepared to meet these old folk. Surely it is not possible that they can be treated in this way.

So, I ask, have not Mr. John Gray, Mr. Penman, and Mrs. Westwood a right to be heard in behalf of the old age pensioners? In Fife, as in other parts of the country, there has been much discussion of this matter, and the hon. Members for Dunfermline (Mr. Watson), Kirkcaldy Burghs (Mr. Kennedy) and even the hon. Member for East Fife (Mr. Henderson Stewart) have all been associated with the old age pension movement. Have they not a right to be heard by the Minister with the representatives of the old age pensioners? Surely they have. I am not asking for some special privilege for the old folks of the country. I am asking for what everyone must recognise to be the right of the old age pensioners. I remember the Prime Minister telling us, before he became Prime Minister, that Lord Baldwin received a number of Members of Parliament and asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer to be present; and so we had the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer receiving Members of Parliament to hear their story of how they were getting along on £8 a week.

The present Prime Minister told us in this House that Mr. Baldwin and he were very deeply distressed to hear of the difficulties of some of their fellow-Members. But, if they were deeply distressed to hear how Members have to live on £8 a week, why will not the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Prime Minister receive a deputation from these old age pensioners, and hear how they have to live on 10s. a week? It may be that they are afraid that their distress would be too great; I am not very sure about that. If the City of London, the coalowners, or the railway directors asked for a deputation to be received by the Prime Minister or the Chancellor of the Exchequer, would they be refused? No. But have they any more right to be received than the old folks? I am not asking for a special privilege. I assert here that if the door of Downing Street is open —and I do not want to close it to anyone—no body of people in this country has a greater right to enter than the old folks of this country. They have given great service to the country; their need is very urgent; and, because of the urgency of their need, and because of the service they have given, on which any prosperity that may exist is built, I demand that these old age pensioners be received and have an opportunity of stating their case.

11.19 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Lieut.-Colonel Colville)

The hon. Member has made a strong and sincere appeal for the old age pensioners. I would remind the House of the cause of this discussion to-night. It arose, as the hon. Member has said, from a question which he put to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the 8th of this month. It was as follows: Whether, in view of the increased cost of living, he will receive a deputation from the Scottish Old Age Pensioners' Association on the question of increased old age pensions?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th February, 1938; col. 847, Vol. 331.] The Chancellor of the Exchequer replied that he did not consider that a useful purpose would be served by this deputation. The hon. Member said he would like the doors of Downing Street to be closed to no one; but, if his party ever comes into office, and he finds himself a Minister, as I have no doubt would happen if his party were in office, he would be pressed by a very great number of requests for deputations, and, in deciding whether to meet a deputation or not, the Minister concerned must consider whether a useful purpose would be served. I use that phrase, not in any hard-hearted sense, but in its literal meaning.

The question of old-age pensions is of real national importance. It covers not a part of the country, but the whole country. There are at present some 2,500,000 old age pensioners receiving pensions under the various Acts, and the hon. Member's plea was that the Chancellor should receive a deputation from the Scottish Old Age Pensioners' Association. The hon. Member spoke of the work of that association. I know something of the association, and I am not in any way criticising its work or its composition. But I state the fact when I say that its membership does not represent more than a small proportion of the old age pensioners even in Scotland. I do not think the hon. Member will dispute that. I do not say that their views differ from those held by a large number of old age pensioners. But this question affects not only Scotland, but England and Wales and all parts of the country, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer has to consider, in the first place, in deciding whether to receive deputations or not, whether the deputation is fully representative of the whole question which is raised.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer mentioned also the financial aspects of this problem in a supplementary answer to the hon. Gentleman. He said that a matter of this sort is governed by finance. In my task as Financial Secretary, I am frequently told I am hard-hearted, but I have a certain responsibility in this matter of finance; that is, to point out to hon. Members of all parties that the social services, of which our pensions scheme is possibly the greatest, depend for their existence and continuance on being based on a sound financial structure. It has been pointed out in several Debates that the financial aspect of an all-round increase in pension rates is one which merits very serious consideration. For example, if all old age pensions were increased, including those of widows under 65—and a strong feeling has been expressed on their behalf—by 5s. all round, that would cost £43,500,000 per year at present, while if widows were excluded the cost would be £35,500,000. Even as things stand at present, the total cost of our pensions scheme, contributory and non-contributory, is steadily and automatically increasing. At present, the total cost is £92,000,000, and the cost to the Exchequer is £63,000,000, a figure which is automatically increasing. In point of fact, this Government is spending £16,000,000 more in pensions than was spent by the Labour Government when it was in office. That must be borne in mind when one is asked to undertake a big all-round increase such as the hon. Member has in mind. It is only fair that I should point that out. The hon. Member, in his question, based his plea on the increased cost of living. I know when we speak of the cost of living that what the pensioner has in mind is not so much ancient history, looking back a number of years, as the recent trend in the cost of foodstuffs in the shops. But even when full weight is given to that consideration it remains true to say that had pensions originally been tied to the cost of living when they were fixed at 10s., they would to-day be considerably less than 10s. The figure, which I have worked out, is that to-day they would stand at 7s. 1d. if they had been tied to the cost of living when they were instituted, because that cost of living has fluctuated. Recently there have been upward movements, although in the last few months there has been evidence of some check in that movement, and in February the cost of living was two points lower.

I recognise that this question of pensions is one of national interest and one which it is very proper that hon. Members of all parties who are in close touch with their constituents in all parts of the country should voice and discuss. I suggest that in a national matter of this kind, it would be quite proper for hon. Members who have any fresh facts which they wish to bring forward to come and see me, and I would make a point of seeing them. I make that offer to the hon. Member, if he is able to produce any fresh facts. I am, however, bound to warn him before he comes that the present financial situation is not favourable to a large increase in the burdens upon the taxpayers, a view which was expressed in the House of Commons in a Motion only a fortnight ago. My answer to the hon. Member's plea is that I do not lack sympathy for the old age pensioners, but I consider that it is best that their case should be put by Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. If he wishes to meet me and discuss the facts, I will gladly meet him, but I must emphasise that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer was, in my view, taking the proper course when he said that at the present time to discuss that question with this association would not serve any useful purpose. I am therefore bound to answer the hon. Member in that strain, but I shall be glad to meet him if he wishes to discuss the matter with me.

11.28 p.m.

Mr. E. J. Williams

During the last few years there has been a substantial increase in indirect taxation. It is estimated that by this means more than £100,000,000 has been realised. Could not the old-age pensioners obtain from that source of income, which is taken from the livelihood of the people, an increase in their old age pensions? Increased prices bring to the Treasury an enormous amount of money, and surely that is a sum of money which ought to be available for the persons for whom we appeal.

Mr. Gallacher

Will the right hon. and gallant Gentleman be prepared to meet me and one or two other hon. Members in order to discuss this matter?

Lieut.-Colonel Colville

Yes, I will meet the hon. Member and any other hon. Members of any party who wish to discuss this matter with me.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.