HC Deb 02 February 1939 vol 343 cc517-26

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

10.49 p.m.

Mr. Tomlinson

On 16th December, I asked the Minister of Health a question regarding the loss of pension in the case of one of my constituents under the Blind Persons Act, and as I regarded the answer as very unsatisfactory, I gave notice that I would raise on the Adjournment the principle involved in that answer. That question was prompted by a letter which I received from a friend of the blind man, who wrote as follows: Dear Sir, I am writing on behalf of a friend of mine, Mr. Arthur Sterratt, of 4, Harrowby Lane, Farnworth. He has been in receipt of a blind person's pension for several years of 8s. per week. He has now received a written intimation from the committee of a decision of the Minister of Health that his pension is to cease. Would you kindly see into the matter, as it has brought hardship to a very deserving case. As a consequence of receiving that letter, I wrote to a gentleman who for many years has been responsible for the administration of this Act of Parliament under the Lancashire County Council and he wrote informing me of the position that had arisen with regard to this man—and I suggest with regard to other individuals. His statement is as follows: I beg to inform you that for some time this man, of whom I have spoken, has had an average weekly earning at the workshops for the blind which amounted to 22s. 1d. and he was paid an augmentation, which was net earned, of £1 4s. 11d. a week to make the weekly income up to £1 7s. Up till quite recently the old age pension committee disregarded the amount that he received as augmentation and, in consequence of his being a married man, halved his earnings, to give him an income not exceeding £31 10s. a year, which entitled him to receive 8s. a week old age pension. The pensions committee disregarded the augmentation because the Pensions Acts provide that, in the case of. a married man, £78 per annum and an amount not derived from earnings should be disregarded when assessing the amount of the pension to be granted to him. It is the next sentence which caused me to put down my question and which gives me great concern: The Minister of Health has recently given a ruling that augmentation allowances paid to blind employés at workshops for the blind must be regarded as earnings. Consequently the whole of the £2 7s. a week is now regarded as income and, even when halved, the amount does not entitle him to receive any old age pension. In view of the fact that the Old Age Pensions Acts for so long a period have been in operation, and that augmentation of £39 a year for a single man and £78 for a married man has been disregarded, it is difficult to understand why the Minister has recently decided to regard augmentation as earnings. Because the handicap of blindness prevents most blind persons from earning a livelihood if they are paid only the amount they actually earn, their earnings are either augmented by local authorities or to a certain extent out of voluntary funds received at the various workshops for the blind. In 1924, when the means test came into existence, when the case had been proved that thrift ought riot to be penalised, it was definitely understood, and put into operation by many local committees, that augmentation of the earnings of the blind worker was not to be regarded as earned income. Many blind persons receive pensions because augmentation was always reckoned as unearned income, and in the circular that was sent out with the memorandum in 1924 an illustration is given of a payment received by an old age pensioner from a benevolent society.

I contend—and the contention has held good at least for 14 years—that augmentation paid either by a voluntary association or by a local authority is a gift from a benevolent society. In April the new Act came into operation and, in consequence, the age at which a pension might be claimed by a blind person was reduced from 50 to 40. Naturally a larger number of the people who were engaged in the workshops for the blind then became pensionable but that larger number is still small in comparison with the number of blind people in the country. There are more people in the workshops between 40 and 50 than there are of 50 and upwards, as one would expect. In the borough of Oldham and the district when the age was reduced, 55 individuals were entitled to claim under the new Act and 40 of the workers received the pension nominally. The corporation, it is true, took the whole of it. It was taken into consideration in their domiciliary relief and consequently the corporation benefited and not the blind persons. Fifteen workers were in the workshops for the blind and these all came under the scheme, and as it has been administered previously they were entitled to the pension. As a matter of fact, the pensions committee discussed the cases and granted pensions in 15 instances, but the pensions officer took up the position that augmentation was now to be reckoned as earnings. The consequence was that although the committee passed the pensions, the Minister, on appeal, turned down the case of these people. In another case, on 9th June an application was made in two cases and was granted the committee acting as they had done previously, and treating this money as charity rather than earnings. Again there was an appeal to the Minister. The same thing happened in Radcliffe and in one or two other places.

The question now arises why this change has taken place in the interpretation. On 15th July the hon. Member for East Birkenhead (Mr. White) asked a question about augmentation. The answer was that in cases of persons who worked at home, the augmentation which they received, either from a local authority or a voluntary organisation, was not to be regarded as earned income, but in the cases of people who worked in the workshops for the blind, that augmentation was to be regarded as earnings. It seems strange, if the principle of work and earnings and augmentation, whether in the home or in the workshops, is being considered, that such differentiation can be made. In Circular 1306 issued by the Minister of Health, dealing with the question of how the money paid to these people shall be allocated, it is laid down that in making up the accounts for the workshops for the blind only earnings—that which is actually earned by the worker—can be put against the productive side of the balance sheet and that any augmentation must be treated as charity. If it is charity for the purposes of the accounts, it ought to be charity for the purpose of settling whether the individual is entitled to a pension or not. The Ministry's inspector has given rulings that augmentation should be ignored. During the Recess I received a memorandum from the Minister who has been going into this question—

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

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

Mr. Tomlinson

I do not want to go through the whole of the circular which has been issued, but I think there is a complete answer to all the arguments; that have been put into that circular, and I would stress this point, that in the case of an individual who had been receiving under the Old Age Pensions Act a pension that had been granted to him for a period of years, it was never intended at any rate that the application of the new Act should deprive him of that pension. It seems strange to me that after the coming into operation of the Act a circular should be issued suggesting that the legal people who arc advising the Minister have now come to the conclusion that the augmentation payment should be treated differently.

I have been interested in the last two hours to hear the discussion on the legal matters then before the House, and I can understand a little better now why this decision has been arrived at and why for 14 years one method has been good enough and then should suddenly cease to be good enough. It appears that something of what was suggested with regard to the operation of the privilege applied to local authorities has been applied in the Ministry of Health, and when they discovered after 14 years that this question would affect a larger number of blind people, they went back for a fresh legal decision. Whatever the reason may be the fact remains that men have been deprived of pensions who previously have been adjudged by the law of the land to be entitled to them. There has been no alteration in legislation, and I contend that an injustice has been done to these people. I therefore ask the Minister whether he will reconsider the advice which he has received, and whether that which has been regarded by the people who have administered the Act for 14 years is not the right interpretation of the Act.

11.3 p.m.

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

The case made by the hon. Member is one that, I confess, on the face of it arouses great sympathy, and I have gone into it as carefully as I could, but I would like to say at the outset that it has nothing to do with the application of the new Blind Persons Act that was passed last year. I have here the figures of the increased number of persons who have benefited under that Act. The number of blind persons in receipt of pensions has increased from September, 1937, to September, 1938, by 5,000, and I think therefore that that Act may be said to be working satisfactorily. The question at issue, however, is a simple one of administration.

Mr. Tinker

Has this increase which the hon. Gentleman mentions gone to the local authorities to compensate them for the point made by my hon. Friend, or have they got it direct?

Mr. Bernays

What I said was that the number of persons in receipt of blind pensions had increased by 5,000 mainly as a result of the Act. We are not discussing the whole question of the Blind Persons Act; it is only incidental. The question that has been raised is the position of the hon. Gentleman's constituent.

Mr. Tomlinson

And other cases.

Mr. Bernays

And others. The case has nothing to do, as has been suggested, with the Blind Persons Act of last year. A pledge was given during the passage of that Act by my right hon. Friend, who is now the Secretary of State for Air, that no blind persons would suffer as a consequence of that Act, and, as far as we know, no blind person has suffered. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, Yes!"] The case of the hon. Gentleman's constituent arises out of an interpretation of the Old Age Pensions Act, 1936, which was a consolidation Measure. Under that Act, before a person can receive a pension, he has to satisfy the pension authorities that his yearly means calculated in accordance with the provisions of the Act do not exceed £49 17s. 6d.

The issue in this case turns on whether the augmentation allowance paid to a blind person should be regarded as earnings or not, as means from any source other than earnings are, in accordance with the Act, subject to special deductions. I do not think that this augmentation can possibly come under the term of a charitable gift, but even if it did it would be taken into consideration in assessing means. I would call attention here to the First Schedule to the Old Age Pensions Act, 1936, where it says that in calculating the means of a person account shall be taken of the yearly value of any benefit or privilege enjoyed by that person. In this case the hon. Member's constituent was definitely employed by the institution. He was a definite employé of the institution under a contract of service and required to work in a specified place during specified hours, and the amount of the augmentation paid to him was related to his earnings at piece-work rates. It has generally been held, where appeals have been made from the decisions of local pensions committees to the Minister on the question of augmentation allowances in the case of blind workshop employés, that these allowances should be regarded as earnings. The hon. Gentleman talked as if this was a question of a recent decision. I assure him that it is not. My right hon. Friend is simply following the practice of his predecessors.

Mr. Tomlinson

May I ask how it comes about that this man has been in receipt of a pension for six years and seven different local committees have acted on the assumption which I have outlined?

Mr. Bernays

I fully agree. The hon. Gentleman's constituent has been fortunate in that respect. That is the only answer I can make to that, but this was the first time the Minister of Health had been appealed to on the case, and my right hon. Friend naturally has to carry out the law.

Mr. Tomlinson

May I ask whether an intimation was sent from the Department that appeals must be made in these cases?

Mr. Bernays

No intimation of any kind was sent.

Mr. Tomlinson

If I bring the necessary proof that they have been made, will the hon. Gentleman be prepared to look into it?

Mr. Bernays

I will, certainly. I went into that very question and asked why the matter had arisen and how it was that this man who had had the pension all these years had had it discontinued. I was informed that it had been raised by the pension officer and he had a perfect right to do so.

Mr. Tomlinson

He was told to do so.

Mr. Bernays

I note what the hon. Member says, but my right hon. Friend had to give a decision in accordance with the law. Admittedly there has been an increased number of appeals made and this position is due to the fact that the Act of 1938 applied to a new and younger class of blind persons, many of whom were engaged in Blind Persons Workshops. In view of this my right hon. Friend was particularly anxious that no injustice should be done, and immediately he sought legal advice on the question whether this augmentation should, within the meaning of the Act of 1936, be construed as not being earnings, but the opinion he received was such that he could not in furtherance of his duty as arbiter do anything else but declare that such augmentation must be regarded as earnings. I am sorry that I cannot give an answer which is more satisfactory to the hon. Member.

Mr. Tomlinson

For the purposes of clarity I should like to know whether, when the Minister sought advice for the purpose of carrying out his duties under the Act, the advice he received was similar to the advice that had been given to his predecessors?

Mr. Bernays

Yes, exactly. It was only because there were a number of other cases and for the reasons I have stated that my right hon. Friend went further into the subject and he received the same advice as his predecessors had received. I should like to say most emphatically that the decision in the case of Mr. Sterratt involves no change in administration or practice, and that it does nothing, directly or indirectly, to deprive blind persons of the benefits that accrue to them under the Blind Persons Act, 1938.

11.13 p.m.

Mr. Messer

It appears that even yet the Ministry of Health have not been able to see the principle behind the criticisms which were made while the Bill was going through the House. What was asked was that the basis of assessment should remain the same, but we now find that there are complications. In spite of what the Parliamentary Secretary has said, there are cases within my own knowledge where the income of the blind person has been reduced since the Act came into existence. It may be argued that it is not the Act that has done it, but the reduction has come into existence since the Act came into operation.

The reason for that is whereas formerly blind persons committees were able to make an assessment themselves the recipient is now dependent on the assessment made under the Blind Persons Act, which brings in the question of the allowance made for unearned income and the augmentation of the income. I am not a lawyer, but I have had to earn my income, and therefore I know what is earned income and what is unearned income. Whatever the lawyers may say I know that if I am a pieceworker working in a blind workshop and am paid so much for every basket I make and at the end of the week get 20s.—which is what I have earned—and if because the local authority considers that it is better for my peace of mind and happiness that I should be encouraged to work—because I am not compelled to do so—and encourage me by giving me an augmentation of my income, that certainly is not earned income. That is granted to him in a way that leaves no possible doubt in the mind of any reasonable layman, whatever the lawyers may say, that it is unearned income and should rank as blind person's income in the same way that that income ranks for old age pensions.

I should be glad if the Parliamentary Secretary and the Minister of Health would again look into the argument raised during the passage of the Bill, because hardship has been inflicted by it, although not necessarily in consequence of it. People at the age of 40 are being assessed in a different way from that in which they were assessed before.

11.16 p.m.

Mr. James Griffiths

This is a question of augmentation. It is a case in which a man was on piece-work, and he was, therefore, paid so much per article for what he produced. There was no minimum wage. There are men on piecework, who get wages according to what they produce, and the articles are subject to an over-riding provision that if their piece-work earnings fall below a minimum they get a minimum wage. There is no minimum wage in this case. This is a gift. It is said that augmentation is earnings. Is the Minister of Health himself his own interpreter of the Act?

Mr. Bernays

In consultation.

Mr. Griffiths

That a gift of this kind is earnings? It is contrary to the position which exists in parallel cases of persons other than blind people. A gift of that kind made by an employer would not tie deemed by a sighted man to be part of his earnings; surely a blind man should not be treated worse than a sighted man. Some workers receive gifts for Christmas; would they be entitled to claim that the gifts should rank as part of their earnings? Of course not.

Surely this augmentation ought not to be given a significance by the Minister of Health which no court of law would give to it. Therefore the whole case rests upon the fact that you deem this augmentation to be earnings. That is why the man has been deprived of his pension. The Minister of Health is entitled under the Act—I do not question it—to determine this case; but surely he ought to have regard to the general legal position and to the fact that in the case of a sighted man an augmentation or gift of that kind would not be deemed to be earnings. The employers of this country would sternly resist any suggestion that it was.

I ask the hon. Member to look into this matter again because I am sure that neither he nor any Member in this House desires to see blind persons treated, in a matter of this kind worse than sighted persons.

Mr. Silverman

Was the legal opinion on which the Minister acted that of the Law Officers of the Crown, or that of an outside authority, of was it a legal opinion furnished by some Member of his own side?

11.20 p.m.

Mr. Bernays

Perhaps I may say another word with the leave of the House. With regard to the last question, my right hon. Friend consulted his own legal adviser—the legal adviser to the Department. With regard to the point put by the hon. Gentleman opposite, it has been held in the courts that a gift received in this way by a man or woman can be treated as earnings. Obviously I cannot pursue the matter further to-night; I am merely stating the fact that my right hon. Friend did take legal advice, and that this was the advice he was given. My right hon. Friend is most anxious to administer the Act as sympathetically as possible, and I know that he will take into careful consideration what has been said on the matter to-night.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-one Minutes after Eleven o'clock.