HC Deb 20 May 1938 vol 336 cc811-20

3.26 p.m.

Mr. Batey

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke (Mr. E. Smith) was anxious to get the House to devote the last hour of today's sitting to considering the needs of pensioners, but he has been most unfortunate. The hon. Member for Norwich (Mr. H. Strauss) tried to prevent this important question being debated, by deliberately speaking at nearly half-an-hour's length. Previous to that, my hon. Friend was most unfortunate, because the hon. and gallant Member for Cleveland (Commander Bower) did his best to prevent him from saying anything at all, by calling a count and attempting to stop the debate altogether. I should have thought that if the hon. and gallant Member for Cleveland had had no sympathy with the question of old age pensioners, at least he would have had some sympathy with the ex-service men, and in order that he might be in a better position to understand the case of the ex-service men, I want to remind him that there has been issued a Command Paper containing copies of reports made to the Prime Minister by the British Legion regarding the condition of ex-service men, and the right hon. Gentleman's reply. I say nothing today in regard to the Prime Minister's reply to them, but he refused an inquiry because he considered that it would be "rambling." There is too much that can be said for the present position of ex-service men and of things needing to be done for them for anything in relation to them to deserve to be described in such language as that. But in order that the hon. and gallant Member for Cleveland may understand the case for the ex-service men, I would direct his attention to pages 12 and 13 of this Command Paper, which says: Information was then sought from the Government as to the number of ex-Service men and non-Service men, in age groups 40 to 49 and 50 to 59, who were receiving assistance from the Public Assistance Committee. Then, at the bottom of page 12 and the top of page 13, it says: It will be noted from these figures"— which they have got from other sources, because they could not get them from the Minister of Health— that 4,493 Great War ex-Service men between the ages of 40 and 60 were receiving assistance from the Public Assistance Committees, compared with 5,170 non-service, and that 3,224 were receiving in-patient treatment in Municipal Hospitals, compared with 1,497 non-Service. There is the case today that justifies my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke in raising this matter in the House and asking the House seriously to consider it. Another aspect of this question is dealt with in the 20th Annual Report of the Ministry of Pensions, which is published today. It is well worth reading by hon. Members. Dealing with unemployment assistance and disability pensioners on page 5, the Minister says: Material though indirect advantages of practical benefit to disability pensioners became operative during the year by general legislation. Foremost of these was the provision of the Unemployment Assistance Act, 1934, which came into full operation under revised regulations in 1936, whereby the first pound a week of any wounds or disability pension is to be disregarded in determining the amount of the pensioner's resources for the purpose of unemployment assistance. (A similar provision applies to men seeking public assistance under the Poor Law Act, 1934.) Then the Minister uses these pregnant words: This generous provision places the man whose health is impaired by service in the Great War in a privileged position as compared with other workers. It is remarkable that the Minister of Pensions should talk about ex-service men being placed in a privileged position because they are able to go to the Poor Law and have certain things taken into account. That was never the intention of this House or of the country during the Great War. During the War the one thing that was said was that this country would never again allow ex-service men to beg in the streets or to go to public assistance in order to live. Yet we have to-day numberless ex-service men begging in the streets and a huge crowd going to the public assistance committees in order to live. We are justified in bringing to the attention of the House the terrible condition of ex-service men and in asking the House seriously to consider it, and to see whether a different spirit can be aroused so that some different treatment can be meted out to these men.

My hon. Friend also drew attention to the necessity of doing something for old age pensioners. For a long time we have been asking, not for legislation, but simply for an inquiry in order to see whether 10s. a week is sufficient to enable old age pensioners to live, and whether some addition should not be made in view of the increased cost of living. This applies not only to old age pensioners of 70 but to pensioners of 65 and those in receipt of widows' pensions. We submit that with the increased cost of living, 10s. a week is not sufficient to enable old age pensioners or widows to live as they ought to live.

Further, we believe that the time has come when there should be an inquiry into whether we did not as a House make a mistake when we said that when a man reaches 65 years of age his unemployment benefit must cease. A man will be drawing 24s. or, it may be, 26s. a week unemployment benefit, but as soon as he reaches the age of 65 that benefit stops and he has to come down in some cases —indeed, in a huge number of cases—to 10s. a week, although he is a married man. We should like that inquiry to consider whether the time has not come when the wife of such a man should not also receive the old age pension. Even 20s. a week for an old couple who have house rent to pay is not too much, in fact, is not sufficient, to enable them to live.

When we ask for an increase in the amount of the old age pension we are apt to be met with the retort "You forget what the Government are already spending upon old age pensions." This year the Government are proposing to spend £63,000,000 on old age pensions, including not only the pensions paid to those over 70 years of age but the contribution which the Government makes towards widows' pensions at 65; but the working class are paying this year far more than they are getting from the Government in old age pensions. By taxation upon tea the Government are taking this year £10,000,000; sugar, £11,750,000; tobacco, £67,000,000; and beer, £67,000,000. Some may say: "All that is not paid by the working class," but the great bulk of it is, and when the working class is paying those huge sums we are entitled to ask the House whether the time has not come when more should be given to old people in the way of pensions. Even if the inquiry reported that 10s. a week was not sufficient for old age pensioners and widows, and steps were taken to increase the pension, the working class would not be getting back from the Government what they are paying the Government today.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke raised this question today, and I hope hon. Members opposite will give more consideration to this case than they have done hitherto. Sometimes one feels that we spend a lot of time on foreign affairs. Here is a question that is well worthy of the consideration of the House not only on Friday, but on Monday, on Tuesday, on Wednesday, on Thursday. In my opinion the House cannot too often give consideration to this human question. Our old people are entitled to live in a way altogether different from the way in which they have lived hitherto. This country is rich enough. When we can spend nearly £ 400,000,000 upon armaments this year we can afford to give far more to the old people. So I ask the House to help us and to cultivate a desire to see justice done.

3.42 p.m.

Sir Robert Tasker

The observations of my hon. Friend who has just spoken about old age pensions find an echo on these benches. I have some justification for that statement for I was chairman of the London Old Age Pensions Committee for 15 years and vacated the post only when I no longer sought re-election on that body. I have been requested by the existing Committee to address questions to the Government, but since financial considerations would be in- volved and legislation would be required, I suggest to my hon. Friends opposite that, although it is too late to ballot for Notices of Motion or to bring in a Bill, I would willingly join with them when opportunity offers, if I were successful in the ballot, in putting down a Motion relating to old age pensions, and I hope I may look forward with confidence to some assistance from hon. Members opposite who have shown their great interest in this question.

We are fully aware that it is impossible to live on 10s. a week, but we are also aware that in order to increase the pension legislation would be required, and it would not be in Order for me to discuss that matter to-day. With regard to the ex-service men, just after the War I did make the suggestion to the biggest municipal authority in the world that they should resolve that, all things being equal between candidates, preference should be given to the man who had served his country overseas. That motion was carried and it has never been revoked to this day. I suggest that any Member of the House who has any influence with his local authority should get that local authority to pass a similar resolution. We know that some men did stay at home; they did not offer their bodies as a shield. I think that preference should be given to ex-service men. I know that many of my old comrades are in indigent circumstances, in some cases largely because of the happy-go-lucky and improvident way of the ex-service man. In many instances these men have lost their all or have been swindled out of their money.

The Debate has been concerned largely with foreign policy. I have never had the audacity to address the House on foreign policy because I do not pretend to know very much about the world or to be able to direct the Government on what they should say to other governments. My travels have not extended further than North and South America. I have never been East of Suez. I count myself as one of the rather ignorant people and I never talk about foreign policy in relation to other parts of the world. We on this side of the House are often twitted about the League of Nations and our professions during the General Election. In order that there may be no mistake, this is what I put in my Election Address: Our thoughts have been distracted by discussions about sanctions, coercive measures advocated to humiliate a friendly nation regardless of all its implications. One very vocal section of the community are exhorting us to intervene unduly, but it is my firm view that any attempt to indulge in isolated action should be resisted and that no obligation should be entered into unless it be collective and equally shared by all countries represented in the League of Nations. It is well to recollect that great nations like the United States of America, Japan and Germany are not Members. Then there is one short paragraph of two lines: I am unwilling to support sanctions which involve the loss of a single British life of any man, woman or child. [HON. MEMBERS: "Read the rest."] That was my declaration then and it is my opinion now. I very much regret that so much capital is attempted to be made by saying that we have betrayed the League of Nations and that we have not kept to our agreement.

My belief and my faith are similar to that of most Members on these Benches. We desire the League of Nations as an ideal, and we recognise that the greater the ideal the more greatly it should be encouraged. Its strength lies in combination and association; but if we take a calm view and are honest about the matter we shall admit that we expected far too much from the League of Nations. We thought it would operate far more effectively than it did. Unless the League is supported by force, power and might, those who desire to be dictators and act as dictators will ignore it and all who support it. Might is the only thing which is understood by certain people on the Continent. As a back-bencher, I deprecate very strongly the attacks which were made upon the personality of those who happen to be controlling the destinies of other countries. After all, other nations have a perfect right to form a view upon affairs, and to conduct their lives in the manner that they think fit.

I sometimes ask myself: Who are we to dictate to everybody else and to try to make everybody conform to our standards? It is utterly wrong. The conditions and troubles of other nations on the Continent are different from our own. They all have their own troubles and difficulties, just as we have, and I think that any undue desire to put everybody right is something which is regrettable, and from which we might well abstain in the future. One cannot help feeling that there is a lot of people who are nothing more than meddlers and muddlers, who conceive it to be their duty to put everybody right. That is an attitude to which I cannot subscribe. The right hon. gentleman the Member for the Gorton Division of Manchester (Mr. Benn) advocated very fairly, I thought, the case for the Opposition yesterday. Evidently he was anxious to avoid giving offence to foreign Powers, and I should like to say, if I may as a back-bencher, that I wish his action might be imitated by those who occupy a less responsible position than he.

We have to try to get goodwill, whether with Italy, or Germany, or Russia, or any other country. We all have to live in the world, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree with me that the last thing in the world he wants is another war. He and his gallant brother went through the last War, and they do not want any more. But what are we doing? It seems to be the policy of the Opposition to try to bring about in foreign countries a feeling of irritation and resentment such as will inevitably lead to war. If that is not the intention of hon. Members opposite, I think they might abstain from saying the things that they say in this House, and probably outside the House as well. May I express the hope that we may say good-bye to that blessed word "sanctions," recollecting that St. George did not kill the dragon by talking about sanctions, and recollecting, also, that, while we and other people were talking about sanctions, some of the others qualified it by saying that they would join in sanctions if they were recompensed for any loss of trade that they might suffer?

The question has been raised whether we should recognise the conquest of Abyssinia or not. I am tempted to tell the House what I have said to Italians in my constituency. I have many Italians in my constituency, but my attitude with regard to Italy is not governed by that fact. They have asked me," Why do you do not recognise our King as Emperor? "My reply has been," I do not mind very much whether you call him Emperor, Caesar, King, or anything else. When I come to think of it, my own King is an Emperor, but I should not be very vexed if you referred to my Sovereign as a King, as you do, though he is an Emperor nevertheless. I think you attach far too much importance to describing your King as Emperor." Does anyone mind whether the late German Emperor was termed Kaiser or not? Really, far too much importance is attached to questions of that kind. With regard to the conquest of Abyssinia, I think we must recognise that it has taken place. I do not say that it applies to every square yard or every square mile of the country, but the Italians are in possession. In 1868, we were in possession of Abyssinia, and we did not receive nearly the same amount of provocation when we went to war with Abyssinia as the Italians have received.

When I hear some of my hon. Friends speak of the Ethiopians as a very Christian race, I would remind them that we have spent large sums in employing ships of war to prevent trading in slaves by the Abyssinians. When you talk about their Christian principles, let us recall the emasculation that they practise. Reference was made by the hon. Lady the Member for the English Universities (Miss Ruthbone) to the bombing of ships. Those who know anything at all about international law know that our ships are entitled to protection only outside the three-mile limit. If a ship chooses to try to run the blockade, the British Government ought not to be blamed for not sending ships into the ports to fire at aeroplanes or to try to silence the forts there. Surely the sensible policy is to try to keep to non-intervention. Those who know the history of Spain prior to the Peninsular War know that almost identically the same thing is happening in Spain today as happened before the intervention of Napoleon Bonaparte. Our men fought for years to try to save the Spaniards—a very proud, very gallant, very arrogant race—and when the end of he Peninsular War came, what happened? Spain merely said, "Thank you; clear out." I have declined to take part in discussions advocating this side or that side, whether it is the Spanish Government or General Franco—

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

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 2.

Adjourned at One Minute after Four o' Clock, until Monday next, 23rd May.