HC Deb 12 March 1941 vol 369 cc1370-81
Mr. White

I beg to move, in page 6, line 7, at the end, to add, 6. Save in exceptional circumstances, or at the request of the applicant, investigations into the needs of an applicant shall be carried out at the office of the Assistance Board and not at the domicile of the applicant. I have little doubt that after a few words of explanation my right hon. Friends, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Minister of Labour, will accept this Amendment. If I may address myself first to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, it is the case that these domiciliary visits are very costly. I think that if the right hon. Gentleman were to inquire into the cost of the machinery of these visitations, he would be surprised. It would be interesting to know the cost of the domiciliary visits in the West of England, and how many times a man has to go on a motor cycle once a month 100 miles or so in order to check up on the resources of individuals. The Committee will have noticed that in the White Paper the hope is expressed that the number of visitations will decrease; I think that that process ought to be carried a good deal further. It is unfortunate that under this Bill we perpetuate and even accentuate some of the anomalies which riddle the whole of our social services. We may have this sort of case arising: A son who is a householder, and with a considerable income, may have been paying Income Tax for 10 or 20 years, and in that respect may have his word taken for it, but if his affairs are looked into by the Unemployment Assistance Board, his word is not taken for it; instead, visitors from the Unemployment Assistance Board go to his house and make an inquiry into his affairs. From the point of view of economy, this Amendment should be accepted.

The other point I wish to make is this: There is a hang-over from the old Poor Law tradition. The visits are not appreciated. Much of the bitterness in connection with the administration of the Unemployment Assistance Board and the means test has arisen from the domiciliary visits. What happens is this: If I and my right hon. Friend here were living in the same street and he had the misfortune to get out of work, the Unemployment Assistance Board would call at his house, and when my right hon. Friend's wife stepped into the street she might be confronted by her neighbour, who would say, "So you are on the U.A.B. now?" That may seem a small matter, but, believe me, from close observation I know that such matters are of some consequence to people who have to undergo those experiences. It is for that reason that I have put down the Amendment, which, on economic and psychological grounds, should be accepted by both my right hon. Friends.

Mr. Bevin

I regret that we are unable to accept the Amendment. We do not want this to be put in the Bill at all. The administration of Measures of this kind must undergo a process of change from time to time. Imagine the cost of transport, and the other difficulties in a rural area, with which an old age pensioner would have to contend if he had to visit the Board. This difficulty has arisen even in regard to paying out unemployment benefit in scattered areas. With all respect to my hon. Friend, I do not think you can have a strictly rigid and uniform method at all. There will have to be a process of change, and in time it will no doubt be better than it has been. But there is another factor to consider. When the Old Age Supplementary Pensions Act was going through the House, I noticed that great anxiety was shown that the administration, in addition to investigating the means of an applicant, should have a second function. The House was very concerned for the development of a service to look after the welfare of old age pensioners. That side of the work of our administration must develop more and more, and if it is reduced to a mere calling at an office, we shall get back to the counter method, the method of indifference, and perhaps even the queues, which would be a very bad thing. I give the Committee an assurance that when this Bill is through my right hon. Friends the Minister of Pensions and the Minister of Health and myself will carefully examine the whole of the methods of administration in order to accomplish two purposes—one, which I indicated earlier in the day, to avoid any temptation for applicants to use cunning to get their benefits, and the second to develop the welfare aspect, in order, as far as we can, to humanise the whole business.

Mr. White

In view of the right hon. Gentleman's statement, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this Schedule be the First Schedule to the Bill"

Mr. Mainwaring

I would like to refer to one or two points in connection with the Schedule. Reference has already been made earlier in the day to one, namely, the amount of profit which will be deemed to be made from a boarder and which will be regarded as resources. It is one thing to assume that a son whose earnings stand at 40s. will provide a given profit, at 50s. another and at 55s. something more, which will presumably be 7s. per week. But it is another to say what a boarder, paying perhaps 25s. a week for his board and place in the household, will provide by way of profit. His earnings may be anything perhaps£2 a week, perhaps£8 a week—but it does not seem to be possible to base the amount deemed to be profit and to be calculated as resources on the wages of the boarder. It is an utter impossibility. Some figure, which will be fair in its application to the householder, must be agreed upon. I simply mention that point so that it may receive consideration.

Our second point is that similarly, under the resources which must be estimated under this Schedule, appears the question of rent. This Bill provides for further rent Rules, and great advantages to a large number of applicants. But is there any possibility that the existing Rules may be modified to the disadvantage of large numbers of people? For example, an aged husband and wife, in receipt of 32s. a week pension and supplementary pension—or, for that matter, an unemployed husband and wife, in receipt of 32s. a week unemployment assistance—are deemed to be able to pay 6s. a week rent. What if, in fact, this couple succeed in finding accommodation costing them only 5s. a week? At present, their pension, or assistance, is not reduced by reason of the fact that they pay only 5s. when they are deemed to pay 6s. Is there any danger that, under this new method of administration, provided for under the authority of this Schedule, there may be reductions in some of such cases? I hope that my fears are groundless; and that it will be decided that the old rent rule shall operate, together with the new benefits.

Mr. Ness Edwards (Caerphilly)

We now come to the part of the Bill which contains the most dangerous provisions. To use a vulgarism, we come to the guts of the means test, which still has a place in the Bill. We had put down a series of Amendments designed to remove the household means test from the Bill; but, as has been said before, it is not our intention at this stage to re-fight the battle we lost on Second Reading. But the time is opportune to impress again on the Committee the importance of the main theme of our contribution in the Second Reading Debate. This morning we have had from the Chancellor of the Exchequer an indication of certain improvements that have been negotiated. As long as the distinction remains, in the First Schedule, between the householder and the non-householder, nearly 50 per cent. of the applicants for supplementary pensions will not, in my view, be affected by the reforms contained in this Bill. Perhaps the Minister of Labour will take note of this point. He indicated that if he undertook to carry out the principles contained in the letter of the ex-Minister of Health, that would solve the problem. I submit that it would not even touch the fringe of the problem.

The problem really is here. The Assistance Board know that if an old age pensioner can be described as a non-householder, it means 6s. a week less for him in supplementary pension. So long as that distinction is there, so long do you get the difficulty about genuine households and all the consequences which arise from it. I submit that, the Prime Minister having made his pledge that personal need should be the test, we should now be carrying out that pledge in this Schedule, but it is in this Schedule that we provide for the contravention of that pledge, in so far as there are distinctions made between the needs of the householder and those of the non-householder. We have appealed to the honour of right hon. Gentlemen opposite to keep the pledge to the country. Apparently they are not sensitive on that point, but they might be sensitive on another phase of human nature, and that is their vanity. They ought to know that the Assistance Board and the Assistance Board's officials up and down the country are laughing at the way they have got away with the undertaking which the Prime Minister gave in this House. The Prime Minister was made to read a document which, first of all, promised the abolition of the household means test. Personal need was to be the test, and in the last part of the last paragraph the personal need was replaced by the household need. In continuing those distinctions in the first Schedule you are betraying the pledge that was given by the Prime Minister and are misleading thousands of old age pensioners in this country.

A question has been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Rhondda (Mr. Mainwaring) about rent. I said on Second Reading that provision as to rent in the First Schedule was a tremendous advance on the old rent position, but I submit that that advance on the old rent position was a recognition of the lack of justification for the distinction between the householder and the non-householder, and an attempt behind the scenes, as it were, to try and equate the personal needs of the various applicants for supplementary pensions. I am afraid these contentions and arguments will not now unduly impress the Minister, in view of the probable Third Reading, which is to be taken to-day, but I ask that when the Regulations are considered and this First Schedule is being interpreted in the form of new Regulations, he will endeavour to see to it that he abolishes this distinction between the need of the non-household and the household. If that is removed, in my view, it will satisfy a substantial proportion of the complaints that now arise out of the administration.

Mr. Bevin

With regard to the point about the lodger, we have not attempted to define what a boarder should be. It would be impossible for us to try and define a boarding-house, as it is such a wide term. In some cases it may refer to a person in business running a complete boarding-house, but if you take the type of house and the type of lodger that I think the hon. Member has in mind, the determination will be approximately the same, so that the whole basis of the Bill is to treat that type of case and not to penalise the person who lives at home as against the person who lives outside. Clearly in that type of case you will apply a similar kind of ascertainment. I am afraid I cannot add to the answer with regard to the householder and the non-householder that I gave on the Second Reading, which completely demolished the same kind of case put forward by the same speaker to-day.

Question, "That this Schedule be the First Schedule to the Bill," put, and agreed to.

Second Schedule agreed to.

Bill reported without Amendment.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time"

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke)

Now that we have arrived at this stage of our proceedings, I want to record my keen satisfaction at the great improvement in this Bill. While I do not withdraw one word of what I said on the Second Reading, and while I have some misgivings with regard to administration, it seems to me that when one considers that we are involved in a battle for our lives, one owes a debt of gratitude to this House and to those organisations which have for their object the welfare of our people for the kind of Measure we have been able to bring forward for the benefit of many people in the country. I want to make one or two observations in order that when the framing of Regulations and the issuing of circulars is considered, instructions will be given to officers as to how they should administer the provisions of this Bill. I wish to quote an extract from a high authority in this country, who is well versed in this kind of legislation and administration. He says: There is a nasty snag which will cause difficulties in administration and will cause a whole crop of complaints to Members of Parliament. Rule 3 (a), paragraph 12, deals with free board and lodging (normally free). A great percentage of old people live with their sons and daughters who provide board and lodging, normally free He goes on to say that this will debar a supplementary old age pension being paid, and he draws attention to the fact that many old people, owing to their having spent 30,40 or 50years in industry, are feeling the need for convalescent treatment and special holidays. We hope that when people who apply for these supplementary pensions are in a position of this kind they will not be brought under the old form of administration, namely, that their circumstances have changed and that their supplementary pensions should be changed. We say that, once determination has been made, that determination ought to stand for a relatively long period. The fact that there is a limited change in their circumstances for a short time, because they go into a convalescent home, visit relatives, or go to another district because they have been bombed out, does not make a reasonable case for saying that their circumstances have changed. The right hon. Member for Kelvingrove (Mr. Elliot), who was then Minister of Health, said on 20th February, 1940: Cases frequenly arise in which the state of an applicant's household calls for some special measure of assistance Everybody who is acquainted with this matter knows that when people have been drawing only 10s. a week for years, nearly the whole of their household calls for some special measure of assistance. Therefore, in order that the good-will which has been expressed in the Committee and in the House may find expression in the administration, I hope that the Bill, as an Act, will be interpreted as generously as possible, so that the old people may have reflected in their lives some of the spirit that has been shown in our Debates. The right hon. Member for Kelvingrove went on to say: For example, it may be found that there is overcrowding or that the premises are dilapidated, or that the bedding or other articles of essential furnishing are inadequate. The Board's officers are always ready in such cases to ensure that housing or other defects are remedied if possible"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th February, 1940; col. 1210, Vol. 357.] I ask hon. Members whether it is their experience that what the right hon. Member then said has found expression in the administration of this matter? The right hon. Gentleman gave an assurance that those things would be done. They were not done. I hope that on this occasion they will be done. The right hon. Gentleman then said that the administration of supplementary pensions would be conducted in such a manner as would best promote the welfare of the pensioners. I remember when he said that I asked for an interpretation of "welfare" I was very pleased with the answer the right hon. Gentleman gave, and I am hoping, as the Minister has given such generous answers, especially during the last hour— and I was pleased when I heard him say that in future the Government were going to consider not only the means of an individual, but his needs—that more and more will the Government consider the welfare of applicants. I am hoping that in future we shall find the same spirit in the administration that has been shown in our deliberations to-day.

Mr. Tinker (Leigh)

I rise to ask a question in regard to the Second Schedule. Its meaning is somewhat complicated. When this Measure becomes an Act, people who wish to apply for supplementary pensions will wish to know exactly what is meant by savings. I suggest that a leaflet might be issued for the benefit of applicants, explaining clearly what is the meaning of this Schedule. I have read it many times, and it was not until to-day that I obtained a grip of the situation. One can readily understand the difficulty of the ordinary applicant, unless an explanation is given. There will be many new applicants under this Measure, and I should like to know whether, when the time comes for applications, some notice will be given in the Post Office to show that now is the time to apply for benefit. A number of people who applied under the last Measure were unsuccessful, and I want to see that they will be the first to benefit.

Mr. McLean Watson (Dunfermline)

I welcome the Third Reading of this Measure. I was glad to have the opportunity of saying a word or two in its favour during the Second Reading Debate, and I welcome the stage which it has now reached. I wish also to express pleasure that we shall not require to wait for some months before it comes into operation—at least, I hope that will be so. This Measure would certainly have been delayed in its operation if an Amendment, which was moved earlier in our Debates, had been carried. I was called a Tory because I opposed the Amendment.

Sir Edward Campbell (Bromley)


Mr. Watson

I was called a Tory because I showed a little commonsense in regard to that Amendment, and because I was opposed to needless delay in this Measure coming into operation. During his remarks a few minutes ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) was concerned about the pledge given by the Prime Minister. A lot of concern was shown on the Second Reading as to what was the Prime Minister's pledge, but I notice that my hon. Friend was not quite so sure of his ground when he spoke a few minutes ago as on the previous occasion. On the previous occasion he was perfectly certain that the Prime Minister's pledge had been broken. The Prime Minister's pledge was that there would be a "personal test," but that was qualified by the "household circumstances." That is the reason why on Second Reading I opposed the Amendment from these benches and supported the Second Reading of the Measure. The Prime Minister's words were perfectly plain. He said that where the applicant was not the householder, regard would be had to the constitution and circumstances of the home, and I was not surprised when this Measure came along that a certain measure of the means test was still being retained. I said on Second Reading, and I say again, that despite that fact this Bill goes beyond anything any of us honestly expected during a period of war.

When this war began the old age pensioner was receiving 10s. a week, but today there are hundreds of thousands who are receiving 19s. 6d. and over 1, even without this Measure. There are hundreds of thousands more who will benefit under this Bill. I frankly confess that this is a measure of justice to the old age pensioners, and also to the unemployed, which I did not expect during the period of this war. However, it is nothing more than they deserve, and I am prepared to say that it is not as much as they deserve. In the Second Reading Debate I mentioned the demand of the old age pensioners—it was not a demand for 19s. 6d. or 32s., but a demand of £1 a week together with a cost-of-living bonus. Had that been the terms of the Amendment moved from these benches, I could have understood it, but in fact the Amendment was framed without regard to what the Prime Minister had said. The Government have gone as far as they possibly can without completely removing the means test, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer has gone even further still today. As far as I was concerned, I was prepared to accept what was in the Bill and in the White Paper as an honest endeavour to fulfil the pledge which was given. I do not know what my hon. Friends have been doing since this Bill has been printed, but I have been addressing meetings of old age pensioners in my constituency during the last fortnight and explaining the Bill to them. There is only one desire in their mind, and that is to have this Measure in operation at the earliest possible moment. I hope that that will be the case, and if we Members of Parliament are pestered by pensioners coming to us with means test grievances, I hope we shall do as we have done in the past, and that is to try and go on to something better. This Measure marks a big step forward in social amelioration.

Mr. S. O. Davies (merthyr)

We all, in every part of the House, recognise that this Bill represents an appreciable advantage as far as the unemployed and the old age pensioners are concerned, but I cannot be persuaded, notwithstanding the eloquence of my hon. Friend who has just spoken, that a great deal more could not have been done. I have noticed, in connection with the handling of the Bill, how extremely close the Treasury has kept to the Minister of Labour, and I am absolutely satisfied that he has had a very considerable kind of stranglehold put upon him.

The Minister of Labour (Mr. Ernest Bevin)

It is the Minister of Labour who is sitting close to the Treasury.

Mr. Davies

I must congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on having learnt a very useful lesson in the short time that he has been here. He has appreciated how close an eye he must keep on the Treasury. Possibly we shall see greater results of that careful watchfulness in the near future. But I am under no illusion at all as far as the Bill is concerned. The means test is still part of its structure. I know the Regulations may be changed from time to time, and I am under no illusion that they cannot be changed for the worse. But what I really cannot understand about the Government is this: Here was, at very little extra expenditure, a splendid opportunity to make the noblest gesture that they could make. These old age pensioners have their thousands and tens of thousands of sons who have gone to do their bit for the country, and the incomes of very many homes have been reduced as a consequence. Many of these sons are very anxious as to the well-being of their parents. At the time when the Government could have made a fine gesture to these old people which would have been appreciated by our men in the Armed Forces, they have placed before us a Bill which, notwithstanding its advantages, is a very niggardly Measure. By removing the means test they could have cut down the expenditure of administration by hundreds of thousands of pounds. Instead of doing that, they have kept the vicious machine in being and have perpetrated a thousand and one anomalies. My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline (Mr. Watson) will soon be up against them.

The Government could have done the big and clean thing instead of perpetrating the injustices of the means test. I was pledged against it not only to my constituents, but to something far wider than that. The movement of which I have been a part for many years has pledged itself on innumerable occasions that whenever an opportunity presented itself in the House we should fight the means test. I regret that that movement is not what it was. Given the opportunity to-day, I would, notwithstanding the advantages of this Bill, have gone into the Division Lobby to express my detestation of the niggardly spirit that has been shown and the class spirit of legislation which perpetuates injustices at the expense of the poorest. I am sorry that the Government have not risen to the occasion by responding to the demands of the old people. The time will shortly come when we who have protested against the contradictions, the anomalies and the viciousness which are still here will be able to show that our protests have been only too well founded.

Mr. Ness Edwards (Caerphilly)

I want to express my profound disappointment with the contents of this Bill. Something bigger and better should have been done which would have had a much better effect on the country. I want to warn my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline (Mr. Watson), who apparently finds pleasure in currying favour with people on the opposite side of the House by attacking his friends. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I do not think I have said anything that is untrue. I was able to see the smiles playing backwards and forwards from one side to the other, and I must believe my own eyes. My hon. Friend is very satisfied now, but he will become very dissatisfied when the Bill is in operation. I am certain, too, that many other Members who voted for the Second Reading will be dissatisfied. It has been suggested that we want to defer this Bill for months. We were asked half-an-hour ago to agree to the Third Reading to-day, and with regret we do agree, because it is obviously the desire of the House. We have no intention of wrecking what is regarded by some as a magnificent piece of work, but regarded by us as a puny piece of work.

There has not been time to raise all the points that one would have liked to raise. May I ask the Minister to see to the immediate payment of new determinations, and see also that the Assistance Board is properly authorised to deal with cases of accumulated hardship? Will he see, too, that the Regulations are laid before the House in ample time, so that we can give them full study before they are brought before the House for debate? It is proposed to deal with 100,000 applicants for supplementary pensions who have been rejected. The test will be how many of the 100,000 applicants who had a nil determination will get something under this Bill. I hope the Minister will give us an early report upon the working of the Bill and indicate the measure of relief which will, in fact, be given to old age pensioners.

Mr. Bevin

I should like to thank the House for the way in which it has received this Bill and the effective assistance which has been given in carrying it through. With regard to notices bringing it: to the attention of the public, steps will be taken, as soon as the Regulations are approved, to put them in the post offices, and also to make a wireless broadcast statement We shall also issue a pamphlet explaining the position as regards savings. The other points put to me will all be taken into account when we make the Regulations. I express, on behalf of the Government, their thanks to the Members of this House for the way in which they have helped to speed this legislation through.

Question, "That the Bill be now read the Third time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.