HC Deb 09 July 1941 vol 373 cc276-84

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

Mr. Daggar (Abertillery)

When I raised the question of the need for an increase in the billeting allowances on the 12th of last month, I intimated that such an increase was necessary upon the ground that there had been a considerable increase in the cost of living. With characteristic flippancy the Minister of Health observed that he was not sure that that increase was so considerable. I submit that that was an observation typical of the many with which we became familiar when he occupied the office of Minister of Labour.

It being the hour appointed for the interruption of Business, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Daggar

It was an observation which was superficially smart without being really clever. If it is not considerable, perhaps the Minister can tell us what is the difference between the cost of living on 4th September, 1939, when the first billeting rate was fixed and the cost of living on 1st June last year, when the billeting allowances, as far as I have been able to ascertain, were first increased? I submit that these statistics are necessary in order to show that if the increase in the cost of living which took place in that period justified an increase in the billeting allowances, so does the increase that has taken place in the cost of living since June, 1940, warrant another improvement in the billeting allowances. Otherwise, we must conclude that, had the Minister then been Minister of Health, no increase would have been made in the allowances of 1st June last year.

What are the figures? In September, 1939, the cost of living figure for all items, compared with July, 191:4, was 55; in June, 1940, when the first increase in billeting allowances was made the figure was 81. That is a difference of 26 points. Food alone shows a difference of 20 points and clothing shows a difference of no less than 77 points. In June of this year, as far as I have been able to ascertain, the figures by the same method of calculation, compared with June, 1940, show the increase in the cost of living for all items to be 19 points. Food shows an increase of 13 points and clothing 77 points. It is interesting to observe that during the two periods the cost of clothing has increased by precisely the same figure—77 points. From the point of view of the increase in the cost of living, if the first increase in billeting allowances was justified upon the basis it is incumbent upon the right hon. Gentleman to prove that the demand we are now making should not be met by a similar increase because of the cost of clothing having been raised by 77 points. There is no Member in this House, with the exception of the Minister, who would not admit that that item is important. On the question of food it is true that the difference as shown between the period June, 1940, and May of this year is seven points, but for all items, the difference is also seven points and no one can reasonably argue that because there is this difference in the second period compared with the first period, the billeting allowances should not be increased.

As I have shown, the cost of living has increased by 19 points for all items, with food showing an increase of 13 points and clothing 77 points. I want to make it clear that I am quoting the May figures, and as far as I can judge, and as far as any of us is entitled to anticipate or predict —which is a very unpleasant pastime even for a politician—the June figures will be worse. In his reply to my Question on 12th June, the Minister said: I have replied to the Ebbw Vale Urban District Council that increases have twice been made in the rates of billeting allowances since they were first settled."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th June, 1941; col. 316, Vol. 372.] Is that statement correct? My knowledge of the subject is that the first rate was fixed on 4th September, 1939. one day after the declaration of war by the Government, and that it remained unaltered until 1st June of last year, and that the change then made still exists. Moreover, the change made on 1st June of last year placed the evacuees in various categories according to their ages. In point of fact, whether one child or more than one child was taken, the rates were not varied. The rate was, and still is, 10s. 6d. a week for one child, and for each additional child 8s. 6d. a week. I realise the ease with which the Minister could defend even those rates, because he has without difficulty defended an even smaller allowance, plus visits to the public assistance committees, in the case of the old age pensioners. The Minister said that in his view the billeting allowances were generally adequate. That statement was not original, because the right hon. Gentleman has said it about almost every payment made by the State. I would remind him that recently advances have been made in regard to unemployment standard benefit, assistance board allowances, soldiers', sailors' and airmen's allowances, dependants' allowances, and old age pensions. The billeting allowances for persons other than those I have mentioned are as follow: ten years and under 14 years, 10s. 6d. a week; 14 years and under 16 years, 12s. 6d. a week, and 16 years and over 15s. a week. To describe those rates as adequate is to reduce their defence to an absurdity.

Finally, let me quote to the right hon. Gentleman some observations of a very capable ex-billeting officer who, when he was so acting, was also accountant for the Abertillery District Council. He points out that in some instances there is what might be described as neglect on the part of parents of the evacuees, and that the official machinery to meet these needs is still slow and unsatisfactory. He points out, as must be appreciated and recognised by all hon. Members, that the people with whom the evacuees are living feel that the evacuees should be dressed in the same way as their own children, and that on Sundays they should have a change of clothing and, as far as possible and practicable, that the Sunday clothing should be superior to the clothing worn on any other day of the week. I think that, far from discouraging the foster parents to perform this service in the interest of the evacuees, we should encourage them to do so by giving them an increase in the billeting allowances, consequent upon the increase in the cost of living.

The ex-billeting officer also points out that there are minor ailments from which these children suffer, such as colds and many other complaints which affect them, especially having regard to their recent experiences. Here, again, is an instance where, in virtue of the fact that they are members of the same household, money is spent on doctors' bills and "also on medicine. He observes also that the boys and girls over 16 years of age are obviously much more expensive to keep because their tastes and needs are much more expensive than those of the younger children, and he states that 15s. per week, in view of the increase in the cost of living which has taken place since the alteration of these allowances on 1st June, last year, is inadequate for this purpose. Then, again, there are many pers6ns with whom these evacuees are living who are, naturally, anxious that their children and the evacuees should not be separated, particularly on Saturdays, when there are shows in the local cinemas. There is also the question of providing some kind of confectionery. All these items add to the expense. All I need say now, and much more could be said by other Members, is that I trust this House will not be satisfied with a negative reply from the Ministry upon this question of increasing the billeting allowances. While I anticipate that we shall not get anything to-day, I want to intimate to the House the imperative need for insisting that the Government shall improve the lot, not only of the evacuees, but of these persons who have shown their appreciation of the suffering endured by the parents of these children and who are under no obligation whatever.

The Minister of Health (Mr. Ernest Brown)

I am quite sure the House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Abertillery (Mr. Daggar), as indeed I am, for raising this very important subject. It is important from more than one point of view. I am very glad he has raised it, coming as he does from an industrial area. It is one of the great problems connected with this vast revolution which we call evacuation—the change of surroundings, the change of the normal habits of life, and the burden, as my hon. Friend rightly called it, which has been placed on the shoulders of the foster parents of unaccompanied children. There are 500,000 unaccompanied children, for whom I am responsible, in the reception areas. I am glad the matter has been raised here again—it cannot be raised too often—in order to point out to the country, and to the parents in the evacuation areas whose children are evacuated, how difficult a problem it is to solve, how much progress is being made with it, and what a debt of gratitude the country owes and the parents of the children owe to the housewives on whose behalf this plea is made. I will not debate with my hon. Friend about the past. If anyone takes the trouble to go through the records and add up the amount of gain in one way and another to the social services for which I am responsible, I think two things will be found: First, steady and sustained improvement, and, secondly, always of course the plea that more ought to have been done. I will just leave it at that.

I am quite sure the last thing the Government want, and my hon. Friend wants, and, I am equally sure, the last thing the parents of the children want, is political controversy about this great social revolution. What we want to do is to take the revolution—and it is a revolution—and consider where it has been successful and where it has not been successful. Instead of discussing it merely from one point of view we should take the problem as a whole, including the particular point raised by my hon. Friend.

He asked about the alterations. There have been two alterations. The last, to which he referred, was the revision of rates all round, but previous to that, on 2nd March, 1940, there was a very big alteration which went almost unperceived. Whereas the first 10s. 6d. scale of October, 1939, applied to all children over 16, the second alteration, a very big one From the point of view of the housewife, lowered the age limit from 16 to 14, showing that the Government were alive, through their day-to-day contacts in the areas and through representations made to them by local authorities' billeting officers and by individuals—to say nothing of their regional staffs—to the needs of the children's welfare. So on 31st May, 1940, there was a revision of rates. The present rates are not an easy thing to debate. If I read out a complete schedule of rates of all kinds, it would take a very long time. It is a long and complicated schedule. Leaving out all other priority classes, let us take the unaccompanied children, those for whom particularly, though not exclusively, the hon. Member has been speaking. There are now in England and Wales 500,000 unaccompanied children living in other people's houses, and the present scale of allowances means that, allowing for repayment, the State is paying a gross figure of about £260,000 a week, £200,000 a week net, or £10,000,000 a year. It is in that setting that we have to see the efforts that are being made by the State to meet the needs of the housewives who billet children and of the children themselves. The hon. Member confined himself, though he need not have done, to the cost-of-living index. No one will object to that, except to point out that it is an index, and no more. Secondly, he laid more stress on clothing than on any other item in the sum total of the factors that go to make up the index.

Mr. Daggar

That is not quite correct. I am sorry if I gave that impression. I emphasised the increase in the cost of living with regard to clothing because the figures are identical in the two periods.

Mr. Brown

I am glad that we have cleared that up. It is useful to a Minister to see the picture as Members of the House see it and to estimate whether or not they are doing what the country wishes done. It is a heavy responsibility that is placed upon Ministers. I was surprised to hear the hon. Member talk about the cost of medicines, because special arrangements are made for the children as regards doctoring. If he has any particular case in mind, I hope he will let me know, because I think there must be some misunderstanding. Arrangements are made for medical attention for the children under our care in all the reception areas. I have been receiving representations on the point raised by my hon. Friend. One of the facts which a Minister has to take into account in judging whether a change is necessary is not only the cost-of-living index, but what those who have to face the real problem of seeing the change successfully applied, and of looking after the welfare of the children, have to say about it. I have taken some little trouble in the last four months to pay regular and constant visits at week-ends to every one of the regions, and I have given half my time there to the reception side of the problem. At the moment I have only a very few individual requests making the plea, which was made also by various local authorities and billeting officers, that in present circumstances—my hon. Friends will remember that my answer said, "at present "—

Mr. Kirkwood (Dumbarton Burghs)

What does that mean?

Mr. Brown

That if circumstances change, I might give a very different answer. I think that is the right attitude for a Minister to take, and that he should not have a closed mind on a social problem of this magnitude. The smallest number of representations have come from individuals, and they are very few indeed. I have had a certain number of representations from individual billeting authorities and their chief officers. It may surprise the House to know that there are 1,000 authorities in England and Wales. It is a formidable number, and I think that many people do not realise how many and varied those authorities are. Out of 1,000 authorities I have received representations from 60. My hon. Friends who represent Welsh constituencies, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Sir C. Edwards), whom we are all glad to see back after his illness, will be interested to know that 42 are English authorities and 18 Welsh. The resolutions of a certain number of authorities are what one may call "snowball" resolutions. One interesting thing is that a number of authorities sent me resolutions supporting a resolution of the Porthcawl authority, but I have not yet received Porthcawl's resolution. Something has evidently gone wrong with that "snowball."

Mr. Bernard Taylor (Mansfield)

Those authorities that sent on the Porthcawl resolution gave it due consideration.

Mr. Brown

I am not belittling them at all, for it is obvious that an authority would not send an agreement with a resolution without considering it; indeed, they might find it more convenient to approve the terms of such a resolution than to draft another one in a slightly different form.

Mr. Kenneth Lindsay (Kilmarnock)

Of the 42 English authorities, how many were large counties and how many smaller boroughs?

Mr. Brown

I have a schedule here, for one of the elements to be considered in forming a judgment must be the kind of authority which is sending a resolution. It is a point that weighs with me that some of these authorities are not the normal authorities that send resolutions. They are small rural authorities. The first on my list, for example, came from the billeting officer of the Wycombe Rural District Council. It is an interesting one, because it conveys the opinion expressed at a meeting of voluntary billeting officers in that district. I cannot in this short speech go into all the details, although they would be very interesting, and they are very varied. On the whole, my judgment would be from my analysis of the 60 that they come from the smaller rather than the larger areas. As a Minister I should give added weight to that point, because these are not authorities which normally take part in movements of this kind, and it shows that in those areas, at any rate, there is feeling on the issue. There are 60 out of 1,000.

Mr. Lipson (Cheltenham)

For how many children are they responsible?

Mr. Brown

I could not answer that without notice. Five or six resolutions came from my hon. Friend's division, and others from the division of the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards), one or two from Carmarthenshire, two from Merioneth, and others from Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Lincoln, Hertfordshire, Gloucestershire. Devonshire, Derbyshire, Cornwall, Cheshire and Cumberland. The House will see that it is a varied list. With regard to the point about the cost of living, when the Government decided to make the first revision it was felt that we had taken a big step by lowering the age. When the second revision was made, it was made not simply on the basis of the cost of living, but because at that time in 1940 my predecessor was facing a very difficult problem in the very heavy drift back. It was with that very heavy drift back in mind, and not merely on arithmetical calculations about the cost of living, that he proposed the revision which produced the present scale. I will give the cost-of-living figures in my last sentence or two. In September, 1939, the scale was 55 points above the 1914 figure, on 1st January, 1940, it was 74, on 1st June it was 81, on 1st January, 1941, 96, on 1st May, 100, and on 1st Tune it was also 100.

As for the prices of food alone, there has been some slight reduction in the last six months. For 1st September, 1939, the figure was 38 per cent. above that of July, 1914. The figure for 1st January, 1940, was 57 per cent., for 1st June 58 per cent., for 1st January, 1941, 72 per cent., and for 1st May 71 per cent. I can tell the House that the figure recorded by the Ministry of Labour for 1st June will be one point less than that. I am glad that my hon. Friend raised these matters. The House may be sure that I will keep the matter constantly under review. My only desire will be to reconcile the over whelming obligations that the country has in other directions with the welfare of the people in this new and very difficult situation.

It being the hour appointed for the Adjournment of the House, MR. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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