HC Deb 09 June 1943 vol 390 cc770-83

I beg to move, in page 3, line 26, at the end, to insert: (iii) the rules contained in paragraph 2 and in sub-paragraph (a) of paragraph 3 of the said Schedule shall not apply in any case of financial assistance under the Blind Persons Acts, 1920 and 1938, unless the appropriate authority so determine. With permission, I am moving to insert this Amendment at line 26 instead of at line 16, as the Amendment stands on the Order Paper, and so to make it a third proviso. The words remain the same. The purpose of the Amendment is to enable local authorities who are granting financial assistance to blind persons in a household regardless of the means of the household to continue to do so without having regard to the means of the household. Under the Bill as it stands local authorities will be compelled to have regard to household means in the case of blind persons. Some local authorities are treating blind persons better than that by disregarding the household means, except the means of the wife or husband of the blind person. If the Bill went through as it stands, blind persons would be worse off.

E. Brown

It has been the practice of authorities to use discretion in this matter, and from inquiries which I have made I have found that in the case of one or two authorities blind persons might be worse off than they are now if the Clause were passed without this Amendment. I am sure that no Member would wish that to happen. I have consulted with my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Mr. Silkin) on how best to fit this proviso into the Bill, and I am prepared to accept his Amendment.

Evelyn Walkden (Doncaster)

I am certain that the hon. Member for Peckham (Mr. Silkin) and other Members will be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, but I would appeal to the Minister to review the practices of local authorities who do not seem inclined to act in the spirit indicated by the Minister. In dealing with blind persons they not merely take into account the means of the household but also bring into assessment all sorts of other things. Not all local authorities are so generous as he has suggested. In one case in my Division a blind man received 10s. blind pension and 2IS. domiciliary grant from the local authority. He lost a son in the Royal Air Force, and the Minister of Pensions granted him 5s. a week on that account. The Minister of Pensions said, in effect, "You need 36s. a week," and so he granted 5s., bringing the man's income up to 36s. a week. Then the local authority reviewed what had happened and decided that the man was getting 5s. more than he ought to have according to their scale, and they deducted 5s. from the 21S.

A fortnight ago, when I raised the matter, my right hon. Friend said the statements I had made were correct, but when I asked what he could do about it he said: "I cannot do anything; I cannot interfere." We hope that he will interfere in such cases, because when further representations were made in this case this local authority said: "If the Minister of Pensions gives another 5s. we shall take that off as well; and if he gives a further 5s., making 15s. in all, we shall fake that off."In the case of the loss of a son the Ministry of Pensions can, I think, give up to 16s. 6d. a week, and in such a case this local authority would deduct the 16s. 6d. from the domiciliary grant, and the man would still be left with the 31s. In a word the local authority is playing a game of put-and-take. Will my right hon. Friend, who has displayed generosity, go a step further and make it clear to such a local authority that he will stand no nonsense from them, tell them that when the Minister of Pensions has augmented the domiciliary grant to a blind person the final figure is to remain, so that if the Minister of Pensions thinks the income ought to be 36s. it shall remain at 36s.?

Sir Adam Maitland (Faversham)

I am sure that the Minister's acceptance of the Amendment will give great satisfaction to local authorities and will go a long way to mitigate some of the hard cases to which attention has been called. I thank the Minister.

Mr. E. Brown

My answer to the case put by the hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. E. Walkden) is that he will know that it is an exceptional case. There may be one or two other cases. I have looked at the matter. If the hon. Member looks at the terms of the Amendment which I am accepting, and considers my expression of feeling made from the Government Bench, he may, be of opinion that that will do what the Committee desires.

Mr. E. Walkden

Will that give the blind man his five bob back?

Mr. Brown

I think so.

Mr. Messer

There should be some kind of uniformity among local authorities in the method of arriving at the amount of the domiciliary grant. The Minister is to be congratulated upon accepting the Amendment, but I would point out that the domiciliary grant is usually arrived at by a local authority purely in accordance with its own arbitrary decision. In effect, the local authority says, "We will make up the blind person's allowance to a given amount." Take only one geographical area, Lincolnshire. It has three administrative county councils and one county borough council, each having a blind persons scheme. Would the Minister have regard to the fact that what he is doing in the Bill is to say that pensions will have no regard to what the domiciliary grant may be, while there is no guarantee that when a scheme is made by a domiciliary assistance authority the authority shall not have regard to the pension?

Mr. McEntee (Walthamstow, West)

I would ask the Minister to go a step further than he has done to ensure that local authorities become aware of what has happened.. Not all local authorities will become aware of it unless the matter is brought directly to their notice. From time to time the Ministry of Health issue explanatory circulars to local authorities. I have seen thousands of them myself and have tried to understand them. I suggest that an understandable circular might be issued to local authorities drawing their attention to the Debate which has taken place here to-day and to the Amendment which the Minister, I am very glad to know, has accepted, and also to the expressions that he has used in the Committee in regard to the practice of local authorities in the future. I suggest that he might say that it is the desire of the Ministry of Health that if the Ministry of Pensions grant another 5s., it shall not be taken away by the local authority. To put that in the circular would have a very good effect, would do no harm to the Department and would not in any way alter the law.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Silkin

I beg to move, in. page 3, line 27, to leave out Sub-section (2) and to insert: (2) No order of maintenance shall be made under Sub-section (2) of Section nineteen of the Poor Law Act, 1930, upon the relations of a poor person to whom outdoor relief has been granted, and accordingly the provision of that Sub-section shall cease to have effect in respect of outdoor relief. The more generous and expansive mood of the Minister encourages me to hope that the words I am putting forward will be equally acceptable to him with those of the last Amendment. The purpose of the Amendment is to achieve something which I am sure he will desire, and that is to avoid embarrassment to local authorities in the administration of the Poor Law. The purpose of Clause 2 of the Bill is that in dealing with outdoor relief local authorities should apply the same test of relating household means as is at present applicable to persons receiving supplementary pensions. Therefore when local authorities in future consider an application for outdoor relief they will take into account the means of persons who are members of the household, whether the applicant is a householder or is a member of the household. Certain incomes will be exempt from being taken into account. Where the income of a member of a household is under £6 a week he will not be deemed to be making any contribution to the maintenance of the applicant if he is the householder.

Section 19 of the Poor Law Act will still require the local authorities to claim a contribution from a member of a family who is not a member of a household. So you will have the anomalous position that where an applicant has two sons with equal earnings, say of £3 or £4 per week, one being a member of the household and single and the other not a member of the household and married, the single person will not be required to make any contribution towards his father's maintenance, while the married man living outside the home will be required to do so. That is grossly unfair to the married man, and at the same time it is extremely embarrassing to local authorities who have to apply that anomalous procedure. I recognise that Section 19 is not mandatory, but, on the assumption that every local authority is required to do the best it can for its ratepayers, there is a real danger that where a local authority decides not to make any claim on the relative living outside the home, the auditor may come down on the local authority and surcharge them or require them to claim that contribution.

The Amendment is put down in order that the local authority shall not be required to claim contribution from a member of a family, whether that member is living in or outside the home. It is an eminently reasonable Amendment, and the words of it indicate the purpose which I have in mind. I shall not attempt to argue the wording, for if the Minister should find that the words do not meet the case, I should be quite happy to agree to any other form of wording that he might propose in their place. I do beg him to accept the principle that you ought not to claim a contribution from a relative living outside the home when the person living inside the home is exempted by the Bill. If the Minister insists on the Bill going through without the Amendment, he will be inflicting great hardship, creating an anomaly and embarrassing local authorities. I hope he will see his way to accept the Amendment.

Mr. G. Griffiths

I support the Amendment. I had correspondence the other day from one of the county councils in the British Isles with no mean influence in legislation, especially on this matter. This authority asks for exactly the same Amendment as is now proposed. The Minister stated, when I made a similar suggestion some time ago, "This is such a difficult thing. If we make this alteration for the sons outside the family as well as the sons inside the family, it will take a tremendous amount of legislation." That was a very poor excuse. It is not a matter of legislation, but of justice to the members of a family. The present position is unjust. Under the present law sons can claim for the grandfather, never mind the father. There are sons who have helped to maintain the home until they were 25, and when they got married, it the old people fell ill and on evil days and had to apply for public assistance, the whole amount could be recovered from those sons, now bringing up their own families. When an hon. Member on this side of this House was rather perturbed recently about girls getting married at 16, saying that it was a bit early, there was such a howl from the other side. Hon. Members there said it was not too early because we wanted more population. Yet sons leaving the home and beginning to populate the British Isles are penalised when their parents apply for poor relief. I know that the way that I am putting it may seem a bit crude, but it is the truth. A son at home can earn £5 19s. 11 ¾d., and he has only to contri bute 7s. The Minister of Health, who was then Minister of Labour, when we were putting these things through in the House, said, "Seven shillings is not much for a bed and for a mother washing his clothes. etc." ——

Mr. E. Brown indicated dissent——

Mr. Griffiths

Well, if it was not the right hon. Gentleman, it must have been somebody else similar to him. That remark came from the Government Front bench. Possibly it was the other Ernest. I cited a case from the West Riding where three lads who are now earning a bit of money at the coal face were brought to Barnsley in front of the magistrates, and they had a certain amount put upon them, on the application of the West Riding County council. Note that the West Riding County Council are now asking that this provision shall be removed from the law, so that they will not be forced to make such applications for sons to keep parents. I am not sure, but I believe it was the Minister of Health who said, when we were discussing the Bill, that the local authorities were not doing this. We said, "They are doing it. If the local authorities do not do it and the auditor comes along, he will force them to do it. It is not a matter of choice. We are asking that the married son shall be put on the same footing as the son who is at home. Surely we are not asking too much. Up to now we have not had a crumb fall from the rich man's table. [An HON. MEMBER: "Oh yes, just now."] One crumb. Well, let us have another. I am sure that the Minister should look at this from the standpoint of the sons outside the home, and bring them into the same position as the sons inside the home.

Mr. Logan

If this could be removed, it would be very beneficial to the Poor Law in Liverpool.. I think a great injustice has been done in the past, and many anomalies have been created. The hon. Member for Peckham (Mr. Silkin) has introduced this Amendment from the standpoint of his practical view in the light of his administrative experience on the L.C.C., with regard to which he is a well known expert. What applies to London also applies to the provinces. I think it is the duty of a son, if he is in circumstances enabling him to do so, to make provision for a parent. I have not thought yet that sons or daughters with means at their dis- posal can be relieved of the obligation of doing their duty to home. I feel that is essential, I also know that when a man leaves home, and has ceased to have anything to do with that home, and has started a home of his own, he has his responsibilities. It seems to me an anomaly that a man may be getting good wages and living at home because he gets the best of everything in the house, and is treated by his mother just as a favourite son—if he went elsewhere he would have to pay more—and is able to live practically on the mother and get the benefit of his wage, and this son is supposed to be a contributing factor to the home; therefore no charge is made on him with regard to the maintenance of his mother, but in the case of a son outside we do get this charge made. I think that if we could do away with it altogether it would be better.

Some boards of guardians have a certain method of managing their affairs. I suppose that those not bringing in the most money they possibly could would be considered from the point of view of the auditor not to be carrying on their affairs as they should. The Minister must know that a surcharge can be made on the guardians with regard to the question of administration if they are not prepared to put the law into operation to the full extent, even though they themselves may consider, "We will let this matter slide." In those circumstances there can be a surcharge, while the law stands as it is at present. Why not try to get rid of this question and thus remove one more anomaly by doing as the hon. Member for Peckham wishes the Government to do?

Lieut.-Colonel Sir Cuthbert Headlam (Newcastle-on-Tyne, North)

I am rather in agreement with the previous speaker. I belong to a generation in which it was conceived to be the natural course of things that a son or daughter in a position to do so should assist the family of his mother and father if they. needed it. If this Bill relieves a son who is living in the house of responsibility in that matter and leaves the responsibility on sons living outside the house, it seems to me that what the hon. Member for Peckham (Mr. Silkin) has said contains a certain amount of reason. I should be grateful to the Minister if he would explain to us why this anomaly should remain. I do not understand the previous speaker, when, having agreed to the fact that a son who lives in the house should help his parents, he asked for the anomaly to he removed. If the position is as has been said by the hon. Member for Peckham, I think really it is up to the Minister to make us understand what his reasons are.

Mr. E. Brown

I thought I had done that plainly on Second Reading so that the House should be under no illusion. The hon. Member for Peckham (Mr. Silkin) always states his case carefully, but he did not state what the Government are setting out to do here quite accurately. He said in his first sentence that what we were asked to do here was to apply the same test as under the Determination of Needs Act. It is not what we were asked to do. The hon. Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Key) will remember that the case put to the Government was that we should apply the rules of the Determination of Needs Act to public assistance. That is what we are doing. Therefore the anomaly does not arise from that fact. The anomaly arises from the present law, and of course the discretion used by local authorities under the law in applying for orders for maintenance. Although there has been talk of the district auditor, I do not gather that the district auditor was paraded as having a very ferocious club in this matter but rather more by way of illustration, or perhaps, it may be, as a debating point.

This is no new thing; it is an old thing. What are we doing here? It is not true, first of all, that the Determination of Needs Act rules completely take from those living in the household all responsibility. The hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. G. Griffiths) underlined that in pointing out that if they have more than £5 19s. they are, under the Determination of Needs Act, left with a certain responsibility: What we are doing here is to make what is applicable now under the law in terms of assistance for supplementary pensions equally so with regard to public assistance. But what we are not doing, as I pointed out on Second Reading, is to attempt to amend the Poor Law in other regards, because the thing is not so simple as the hon. Member for Hems worth says, as he must know from his local government experience. Look at the anomalies that are bound to come if alterations are made here in our mixed structure. I can give a very good reason why I will not accept this Amendment. Indeed, the hon. Member for Peckham, judging by his reference to the wording of it, himself sees that it goes further than the case to which it is directed, as I shall show the Committee it does. It is not only a question of responsibility of the relative for a person living in the home, whether the home has got sons and daughters in it or sons and daughters out of it. It is a question here as to whether we are to alter the law so that the liability for the relative outside shall be lifted. If the question were one of someone living in the how, I should be attacked at once. What about institutions, because the law of maintenance affects institutions too? Therefore it is not so simple as my hon. Friend suggested it is to do this in relation to this Bill.

I assured the House on Second Reading that we have looked at it; we are quite conscious of it. That is why I said so frankly, almost in the first sentence, that in doing what we were asked to do, and we have done what we were asked to do—applied the principle of the Determination of Needs Act to public assistance —there were bound to be anomalies, arising not out of our doing this, but out of our present Poor Law—the Acts and the administration of that Poor Law. Therefore I cannot accept the Amendment. The Amendment goes much further than this. I believe that there are few Members in the Committee who would want to do what I am advised this Amendment would do; it would not only do this thing, this simple thing, but it would abolish the responsibility of a husband and wife to maintain one another and would abolish the obligation of a parent to maintain a child. That is because of the wording: No order of maintenance shall be made under Sub-section (2) of Section nineteen of the Poor Law Act, 1930 which applies not merely in the limited number of cases which my hon. Friend has raised but to the whole field. The Committee will therefore see I cannot accept the Amendment. It is not the case that we are now discussing the whole field of our social services, and this is not the occasion in advance of the big decision, to begin tinkering in small ways with the Poor Law.

Mr. Ness Edwards

The Minister has failed to deal with one phase of his problem, that arising out of the application of the determination of needs calculation to the sons in the household. Under this new provision the contribution of the son in the household will be reduced. Under the Poor Law the contribution to be made by the son living outside the house automatically has" to be increased by the amount of the sum reduced in respect of the son inside the household. We have not got any correction of that position. I agree that it is making the position of the members of the household very much better by applying these rules to those members, but I do not want their position to be improved and the portion of the burden they were carrying to be thrown on sons and daughters who live outside the household. That is the phase of the problem to which the Minister has paid no attention. I do not want to talk about the thing at length, but would ask the Minister what are the views of his Ministry on that particular point.

Mr. Lipson (Cheltenham)

I have to confess that I cannot see that the Minister has met the point raised by the hon. Member for Peckham (Mr. Silkin). Here it seems, so far as I am concerned, a very simply issue. In this Bill it is proposed to relieve the sons who are members of the household of a certain liability, but the liability still remains upon those outside. I do not think that is at all satisfactory. I do not think the Committee want a position like that to remain. It is no argument to say that that is the law as it stands. Here an Amendment has been proposed. If the Minister cannot accept the particular wording, could he not accept the principle that they should be treated alike? The Committee could understand that those in the household and those outside should be liable, or that neither should be liable, but to say that if one is to be liable it should be the one outside the household, the one with greater responsibilities, seems to be quite unreasonable. I must express the hope that the Minister will say that he is prepared to accept the principle of dealing with the particular difficulty raised by the Amendment. Even if he cannot accept the wording of the Amendment, surely a simple way out can be found.

Mr. Silkin

I agree freely that the words of my Amendment go too far, and I do not feel justified in pressing this particular Amendment. I think the whole Committee is with me in feeling that this is a serious anomaly and that something ought to be done about it. I do beg the Minister—I do not ask him to accept the Amendment, because it goes beyond the point raised—to pay attention to the anomaly and see what can be done to remove it. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment, and I would express the hope that between now and the next stage it will be possible to agree on a form of words which will not force authorities to administer something which they could not possibly justify.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Ness Edwards

I beg to move, in page 3, line 28, to leave out from "sixteen," to "are," in line 29.

This Amendment seeks to clear up a position which appears to be ambiguous in the draft. The proposal, as I understand it, of this Clause is to apply the principle of the Determination of Needs Act to persons applying for public assistance. That has been the general intention, but in the wording it says this: the resources or needs of the person to be relieved or the blind person as the case may be, shall, if that person is a member of a household, … That occurs in line 10, and again in line 29. We have the exclusion of the husband or wife of the poor person. As the Parliamentary Secretary knows, there are three categories of persons under the Determination of Needs Act—the householder, the person who lives otherwise than in a household, and a member of a household. If I can be given the assurance that these three categories are covered, I will withdraw the Amendment.

Miss Horsbrugh

The Amendment would have this effect. Take the case of a husband and wile living in the same house. In order to make it perfectly clear that there is complete equality between the sexes under this Measure, I will put it this way. If a wife was possessed of sufficient money and refused to give any for the maintenance of the husband living in the same house, money would have to be provided by public assistance for the maintenance of the husband. I. put it that way; but if the husband had money, it would be exactly the same position in regard to the wife. It is a question of husband and wife living in the same house, one having money and refusing to assist the other, and public assistance having to step in. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, whatever he dislikes about this Bill, does not want that state of affairs.

Mr. Ness Edwards

That is all very well, but the income is deemed to be the income of the two persons, and not of one. No compulsory powers are needed under the Determination of Needs Act. Really, I think the fear of the Parliamentary Secretary is completely unfounded. What I want to know is whether the Determination of Needs Act scales apply to all those categories I have mentioned. The Minister of Labour has said that where a person remains under the Poor Law the Determination of Needs Act is so superior to the family test that it has been applied to poor persons. Does this Clause really give effect to that declaration by the Minister?

Miss Horsbrugh

Yes; so far as we know, it does. If we accepted this Amendment, it would make a completely ridiculous state of affairs.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill."

Mr. Silkin

I hope that we are not leaving this question of the anomaly where it is. I withdrew my Amendment because I wished to be honest with the Committee, and I felt that it was going further than I intended. I accepted the Minister's explanation. But the anomaly remains, and it has to be dealt with. I hope that the Minister will hold out some prospect that it will be dealt with during the remaining stages of the Bill. The Minister has spoken of the difficulty of amending the Poor Law, but this Bill itself amends the Poor Law in a number of respects; this very Clause amends the Poor Law. Therefore, there need be no fear about amending the Poor Law. I shall be very happy to place my services at the Ministry's disposal in endeavouring to draft an Amendment which will meet the case. I hope that he will be able to give some kind of assurance which will be satisfactory.

Mr. Burden (Sheffield, Park Division)

Speaking with some knowledge of public assistance work, may I suggest to the Minister that unless the Amendment to which my hon. Friend has referred is adopted in a different form, it will simply mean a flood of forms going into the homes of liable relatives, poor people having to fill up these forms, and the collection of relatively trivial amounts from poor people. This is a very substantial hardship for numerous people, and I add my appeal to that of my hon. Friend that the Minister will give us some assurance that the matter will be dealt with at an early stage.

Mr. Ness Edwards

Unless we can get some satisfaction on this point, we shall have to consider dividing the Committee. Persons in the household are being relieved from their contribution. We are told that it is only a payment for their place in the home and not a contribution for their maintenance of the poor person. That was the contention of the Minister. We argued to the contrary, but our point of view was not accepted. The anomaly was created that the relatives living outside the house had still to bear their Poor Law responsibilities. A second anomaly is that if you decrease the contribution made-by the person inside the house, the Poor Law authority automatically has to decrease the amount of maintenance paid to the person living outside the house. This is an important issue. The Government are not entitled to give benefits to some sons of the family by passing the cost of those benefits on to other sons of the family who have other burdens to carry.

Question, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.