HC Deb 14 March 1944 vol 398 cc202-8

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

Mr. Ness Edwards (Caerphilly)

I am sorry to delay the House, but the matter I wish to raise has been outstanding for some time and it was felt that this was the only opportunity for another five or six weeks when the points I have to make might be cleared up. On 3rd February, a Question was put on the Order Paper as follows: To ask the Minister of Pensions if the increase in the rates of supplementary pensions now payable to old age pensioners will be deducted from war service grants to the mothers of serving men in those cases in which the father is getting a supplementary pension."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd February, 1944; col. 1,383, Vol. 396.] The effect of the Minister's answer was that an increase in supplementary pension to a father in a household would lead to a reduction of war service grant to the wife or mother of the serving soldier. In order to see how this was done further Questions, relating to the same point, were put to the Secretary of State for Air and the Secretary of State for War, who answered that the increase in supplementary pension was not used to reduce the Air Force or Army allowances respectively. Perhaps I had better read what was said so that we might have it on record. The Secretary of State for Air said, on 23rd February: In order, however, to avoid a series of adjustments in cases where a person is eligible for both dependant's allowance and supplementary pension the practice of the Service Departments is to disregard supplementary pensions when assessing dependant's allowance, and of the Assistance Board to take dependant's allowance into account, subject to certain disregards. …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd February, 1944; col. 852, Vol. 397.] I am sorry if I am not making myself heard so well as usual to-day, but I have left half my voice on the battlefront of the Welsh coalfields. Calculation of the war service grant is provided for, as far as disregards are concerned, by the same Act as the provisions applying to supplementary pensions. The effect of the Parliamentary Secretary's answer to the Question is that, if an increase is given in the supplementary pension on the one hand by the Assistance Board, the Ministry of Pensions comes along and takes away from the mother in that household the increase which the father has received. We say that this is getting behind the back of the House. The House was aware that there are some hundreds of thousands of cases in which a father and mother, living together, have a son in the Forces, the mother in receipt of a dependant's allowance and a war service grant, and the father in receipt of a supplementary pension, when it decided to increase the scales of supplementary pensions. My hon. Friend innocently declared "We take it into account for the purpose of reducing the war service grant," and then set at nought what was decided after a very hectic Debate. Suppose the supplementary pension is reduced; does the war service grant go up or, if the war service grant is increased, does the supplementary pension go down, or are we going to face the situation that we had when we had the introduction of the war service grant that, when the supplementary pension was reduced, an applicant could make another application for an additional war service grant? I ask my hon. Friend to try to justify the practice that he has adopted of taking away with one hand what someone else has given with the other.

Mr. Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

I know that the House is extremely anxious to hear my hon. Friend's attempt to justify this monstrous proceeding. I got up for two purposes only, one to show that the position taken by my hon. Friend is taken not merely very widely in the House but is getting very wide support in the absence of the acceptance of his view, and is causing very bitter indignation all over the country, and secondly to sympathise with my hon. Friend who is going to reply for the Government. I do not know who has provided him with the brief that he will speak to, but I know he does not believe a word of it, any more than the person who provided it believes it either. We are getting to a very sorry position when the presence in the Government of people who accept our point of view is used to stall off very real grievances of this kind. I do not think my hon. Friend agrees with this position, whatever he may say. He knows it is wrong, as we all do. He knows that the intention of the House when it approved those increases was that the standard of living should improve, and he knows that the practice of his Department has the effect in this case of preventing those families from enjoying the increase in the standard of living which the House desired them to have. I wish he would use his energies, instead of defending a position that he knows to be wrong, in making certain that the practice is altered.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions (Mr. Paling)

I agree that, if the two answers that my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) elicited, one from my Department and the other from the Services, were all that is to be said about the matter, it would place my Department in a very bad position as compared with other Departments. But it is not quite all that can be said about the matter. The hon. Member's first question about war service grants was to my Department. It was whether, if a supplementary pension was increased, we took the increase into account in the war service grant. The answer was "Yes." Then he put the opposite case to the Services and asked whether, where an allowance was granted and a supplementary pension was also granted, they reduced the allowance. The answer was "No." That appeared on the face of it to put us in a bad position as compared with the Services, but it is not quite so bad as that as I will try to show. What happens in the case of the Services is that they do not reduce their allowance when a supplementary pension is granted, but it is the supplementary pension people who make the adjustment. Before they make the supplementary pension they take into account the allowance that is given from the Services. In our case the opposite occurs. The supplementary pension people do not take into account our war service grant and so we have to do it from the opposite point of view. The net result in both cases is the same. If we adopted the administrative practice of the Services, this question would not have arisen.

Mr. Silverman

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the responsibility for this situation lies not with his Department, but with the Ministry of Health?

Mr. Paling

I am not saying anything of the kind. I am merely saying that the adjustment so far as supplementary pension is concerned is made by us in one case by reduction of service grant, and in the other case, where the reduction is not made by the Services, the supplementary pension people make the reduction.

Mr. Silverman

Who are they?

Mr. Paling

They are the Assistance Board.

Mr. Silverman

Who answers for them?

Mr. Paling

I do not know. I am concerned with the war service grants. An adjustment is made in both cases. In our case it is made by ourselves because the Assistance Board do not take into account our grant. In the other case, the Assistance Board make the adjustment from their point of view. The net result is the same. The adjustment is made whether it is made by us or by the Assistance Board. It would simplify it, I agree, if the Assistance Board made the adjustment for us, as they make it for the Services, but for administrative reasons we prefer to make the adjustment ourselves because our practice of assessment is different from that of the Services. Therefore, it is easier for us to do the adjusting than for the Assistance Board to do it, as they do in the case of Service allowances. That is the main answer to the problem which my hon. Friend has put. The net result is—

Mr. Silverman

They lose the money.

Mr. Paling

No, they do not. The net result is that the people lose no more under our practice than they do under the practice adopted by the Services. The hon. Member shakes his head, but if he can prove otherwise I shall be glad to hear him.

Mr. Edwards

Here is the answer to the Question, in which it says that the allowances are not interfered with.

Mr. Paling

Exactly, the allowances are not interfered with by the Service Departments, but the Assistance Board, when there is a supplementary pension, interfere with it and adjust the pension according to the allowances that have been made. In our case we do it the other way. The Assistance Board in our case do not take into account the War Service grant that we give, but we do the adjusting when they give their pension, by reducing the Service grant if it is necessary.

Mr. Silverman

Is the net result that in all cases these families lose the benefit of the increase that this House authorised?

Mr. Paling

I do not know whether the hon. Member cares to put it like that. All right. The point that I am trying to meet in answer to the hon. Member is whether we treat the supplementary pensioners worse than the Services treat them. We treat them exactly on the same basis.

Mr. Driberg (Maldon)

Which means just as badly.

Mr. Paling

If you like. My next point is that the hon. Member has in mind the case in which we might have seen fit to leave the extra pension alone and not count it against the war service grant. There might be a case for that, but the Government have always refused to interfere with the principles on which war service grants are assessed. When the last increases were granted to the Services, hon. Members opposite asked that the increase in the children's allowances should not be counted against the war service grants received by the family, but the Government refused, because the war service grant was given to deal with the special case of hardship, and was not on a Hat rate. We are in the same position. We have no power to grant an exception in these cases, or it would be followed by scores of others till the whole thing got into a condition of sheer disorder. There is another point, in which there is a slight benefit because of our method, and though it is small it is worth mentioning. We deal in two-shilling units, and nothing under 2s: is taken into account. There are numbers of cases in which the supplementary pension is lower.

My last word is that the hon. Member tried to make out that we were a harsh, mean and undeserving body, but that is not so. I claim that, on the whole, war service grants are administered in a generous spirit and with a fair amount of elasticity. We have never been concerned with reducing people to the lowest penny we can get out of them. Our outlook has never been that; we try to be as generous as we possibly can, and try to conduct our administration in the most generous and humane way and I claim that we are doing it. I claim that the case that the hon. Member thought he had against us just does not exist.

Mr. Mathers (Linlithgow)

I think that what my right hon. Friend has demonstrated beyond any shadow of doubt is that the means test or needs test that is applied by those who administer the war service grants is of the same kind as that applied in the administration of supplementary pensions, and that the ordinary Service allowances are not in the same way sub- ject to a needs test. Anything that is additional to them in the family income, whether under the head of supplementary pension or war service grant, is under the Regulations of necessity subject to a needs test. I think that is perfectly clear and that my right hon. Friend has made clear his case and has justified his own Department against the claim made by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Driberg

I am afraid I must disagree with the hon. Member who has spoken from my adopted Front Bench. I think the Government have put up a really lamentable and feeble case. It is conceded that, as a result of these manipulations and administrative arrangements, the families are impoverished. That is all that matters. The Government excuse for that reminds me of a little boy caught pinching jam out of the larder, who points to his elder brother and says, "He does it too." The slight concession which the right hon. Gentleman announced at the end of his speech simply means the giving back of the empty jam-jar to the housewife.

Question "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.