HC Deb 22 May 1946 vol 423 cc343-50
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of National Insurance (Mr. Lindgren)

I beg to move, in page 8, line 15, at the end, to insert: and for treating, for the purpose aforesaid, contributions payable by an employer on behalf of an insured person, but not paid, as paid where the failure to pay is shown not to have been with the consent or connivance of, or attributable to any negligence on the part of, the insured person. This addition is intended to carry out an undertaking given by the Minister during the Committee stage. My right hon. Friend agreed to consider, between then and the Report stage, making clear, in the Clause, that an insured person should not suffer, in any way, loss of benefit by reason of the default of an employer to pay contributions which were due to be paid.

Question proposed, "That those words be there inserted."

Mrs. Castle (Blackburn)

I beg to move, as an Amendment to the proposed Amendment, in line 4, to leave out: or attributable to any negligence on the part of. When I raised this point in Committee upstairs, the Minister admitted that the Bill, as it then stood, was inadequate on a matter of very great importance, in that it failed to give the protection to the employed person which he or she should have, against the failure of the employer to carry out a duty under the Bill to make the necessary deductions. My right hon. Friend promised to meet this point, provided he could guard himself against the possibility of collusion between the employer and the employed person. I suggest that his Amendment goes very much further than that. I would remind him that, in the Bill, he has placed the duty of making deductions squarely on the shoulders of the employer. By introducing this saving factor of negligence on the part of the insured person, he is putting the responsibility back again on to the contributor's shoulders. I suggest that the interpretation of the word "negligence" could be very wide indeed and could rob employed persons of the safeguard which we are seeking to give them. For those reasons, I urge my right hon. Friend, in view of the fact that he is now covered against collusion between the employer and the employed person, to reinforce the safeguard given to the contributor, and not to introduce this very wide factor of negligence, which may undermine the whole undertaking.

Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

In view of what my hon. Friend has said I do not think it necessary to take up much time in support of the Amendment, but I want to emphasise one point which she made, and which I think was conclusive. If the Minister keeps the Amendment in the form which he has it on the Order Paper, and resists the Amendment to the Amendment which is now moved, he will take away with one hand what he is giving with the other. It would be impossible to imagine any case in which a deduction has been made from an employee's pay and withheld from the Ministry, without it being possible to argue that there must have been some negligence on the part of the employed man. The employed man can protect himself completely by demanding every pay day to see his card with the appropriate stamp on it, but we all know that many men will not do it and even those who make it a weekly practice at the beginning, will as the years pass, stop doing so. I think the Minister is absolutely right in putting into his Amendment the provision against connivance or consent. Obviously an employed man who connives at or consents to a fraud of this character ought not to have the benefits of this scheme, but to say he shall be deprived of the protection now offered if guilty of "any negligence "Is to provide a protection of which nobody in the end will be able to avail himself. I do not think there is any wide disagreement between the Amendment moved by the Minister and our Amendment to it. I am sure a man ought to be protected against a fraudulent employer, even if the fraud is assisted by the employee's failure to demand weekly production of the cards.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. J. Griffiths

We had a discussion about this matter in Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) then moved an Amendment. I indicated that I could not accept the Amendment in the form in which it was then presented, and I asked her to withdraw it I undertook to look into the matter again and if necessary to make the desired change in the Bill. This is a very important problem. We had experience of this problem in the old days when contributions were at a much lower level than those in the new Bill. The temptation to avoid paying contributions is much greater now, and, therefore, the protection must also be stronger. What we are anxious about is that the person who works for an employer shall not, if the employer defrauds, be penalised, unless he enters into collusion with the, employer, or unless he is negligent. I do not think I am asking too much when I ask for the cooperation of employees themselves, because without their cooperation we shall be dependent almost entirely on our inspectors seeing that employers stamp cards, and of course it is possible to escape the attention of inspections at times. Thus, it is necessary also to have the full cooperation of employees themselves. In the Amendment which I have proposed, I have carried out fully what I promised to the Committee upstairs, namely, protecting the employee against collusion, and, secondly, securing the cooperation of the employees against negligence.

As I indicated, what we propose to do under the new scheme for the protection of the men, is at the end of each year to issue to each contributor a record of the contributions of the previous year. He will then know exactly where he stands. I am sure it is not asking too much, when a man gets his contribution cards and finds his cards have not been stamped and knows that that is due to default on the part of the employer, to expect that he will bring it to our attention. In cases of this kind if we took action under the Amendment, particularly within the Amendment to the Amendment, the man would have a right of appeal, and surely a tribunal with an independent chairman would see to it that we were not using the powers unnecessarily. I have given this matter anxious consideration, and I appreciate the difficulty of the problem I do not think I am asking too much, in asking employees to aid in their own protection. Where a man has fulfilled the intention of this Clause and where the employer has not paid the contribution although he has deducted it from the man's wages, while we shall never probably recover the contribution, we propose to give hill credit to that man I think it is only reasonable and fair then that all concerned should aid in their own protection.

Mr. McGovern (Glasgow, Shettleston)

No one can deny that the Minister has gone to great lengths in this Measure in trying to give justice to those who are insured, but I agree that if this provision were limited to connivance or consent one could dispense with the other words. The Minister has given us some explanation of what might be termed negligence. I would rather see negligence more strictly defined, and the use of the word here is too wide in my estimation. Employers may take on men for say six months, and during those six months some default may take place on the part of employers. A man may not know about it. After all, one realises that an employee will be chary about going every week and asking to see his cards. An employer generally stamps a man's cards in the office, and the employee does not see the cards, in most cases, until the end of six months, when they are handed to him to give to his society. During that period default may take place. It may be that the employee is negligent to the extent that he did not see the cards week by week. It is all very well for the Parliamentary Secretary to shake his head, but if it is as simple as that, why not put it in the Clause? An employee may be negligent in not asking to see his cards. I have heard it said that employees should see their cards stamped week by week. If an employee asked to see his cards week by week, in many cases it would be resented by the employer. While desiring the greatest possible protection for the Minister, the Fund, and the community, I think the words he proposes to insert are too wide. Here in Parliament we are often told it does not matter what the Minister says; all that matters is what is in the Bill. The Minister's statement is not binding. It may be that failure to inspect the cards week by week might be deemed extreme negligence on the part of the individual and, therefore, sufficient to prevent him enjoying the benefits. I would rather see these words or attributable to any negligence on the part of. withdrawn, or, at least, a definition of "negligence "Inserted.

Mr. Charles Williams (Torquay)

At first I viewed this Amendment to the Amendment with complete impartiality, but after the very attractive way in which it has been moved by the hon. Lady, after the extremely able legal argument of the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Silverman), and the hard commonsense speech of the hon. Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern), I feel inclined to vote for it. I listened very carefully to what the Minister said, and I realise his difficulties. Every Member in the Committee wants to see this Fund administered fairly and properly. But, as I understand it, this point of negligence ought not to be left to what a Minister says here. This is simply another instance of what has been happening in Bill after Bill. This Amendment is backed by three hon. Members opposite who have great knowledge of this subject, who say that it would not be fair to the workers as a whole to leave the Bill as it is at the moment, and that the Minister's Amendment does not adequately protect the workers' position. Commonsense demands, therefore, that the negligence of the employed person should be much more closely defined.

The Minister said that a person could look at his card, that there would be more inducement to do so because he would have more to pay. There is a great deal in that, but nowadays there are many more cards to be looked at than there used to be. I am sure that nine out of ten of us loathe looking at cards, and avoid doing so, unless we cannot possibly help it. I feel that when Government supporters move an Amendment in the way in which this has been moved, we should attach great weight to their proposal. Their action may have great significance [An HON. MEMBER: "Be serious "]. I hope we shall find one or two of the tame Socialists opposite joining the ranks of the thinkers. Unless I hear from the Minister a much stronger case, on the grounds of commonsense and legality, I shall be forced to support this Amendment to the Amendment.

Mr. S. Silverman

I want to make a practical suggestion to the Minister. I felt that what he said was perfectly fair, and if the thing were to be administered only in that way none of us would have any doubts at all. I suggest he should add to his proposed Amendment power to make regulations defining "negligence," for the purpose of this Amendment. I think we would all be content with that, and everybody's object would be secured.

Mr. Stephen (Glasgow, Camlachie)

I have had experience of these cards. A person gets his card, sees that he is in arrears, and then queries it. But then he does not know what to do next, and continues to wait. Unfortunately, some of these people have come to me, and I have had a lot of trouble trying to put the matter right. I suggest to the Minister that it should be made plain that if a person has a query to make as to the accuracy of his card he should go to the local National Insurance Officer.

Mr. Osbert Peake (Leeds, North)

I am sure the Committee does not want to take up a great deal of time on this Amendment, which is not of a vital character. Having listened to the discussion, I sympathise with the Amendment to the proposed Amendment, proposed by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle). The circumstances envisaged by that Amendment are these: A man falls sick, or unemployed. He applies for benefit. He goes to the employment exchange, and there is told, "There are not sufficient stamps on your card." He says, "That is not my fault; that is my employer's fault," and the insurance officer replies, "You ought to have seen that your employer put the stamps on your card."If such a duty is to be laid on the employee, it ought to be stated in terms in the Bill or, alternatively, as the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Silverman) suggests, in the regulations. The words attributable to any negligence on the part of the insured person, as forming the ground for disqualification for benefit, are, in my opinion, much too vague. If a duty is to be placed on the insured person to see that his card is stamped week by week, that duty ought to be expressed in clear terms, either in the Bill or the regulations. I hope the Minister has not said the last word on this matter, and that he will give it further consideration before the Bill becomes law.

Mr. J. Griffiths

I would like to look into this point again but, frankly, I do not think the right solution is to attempt to do it by regulations. To define in the regulations what is or what is not negligence would, I think, be wrong. However, I will see if some other way can be found. I do not think I am asking too much, in asking persons to see that their cards are properly stamped. Each year we shall give them a complete record of their contributions for the previous year, and I think that if they find it deficient, they should go to their local National Insurance office. I am not disposed to leave out of the Bill entirely the provision by which we can get after people who have been grossly negligent.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

This seems to he a completely artificial issue. There is no magic about the meaning of the word negligence."It is well known in law and in practice. Negligence, in law, means doing something which a reasonable person would not do, or omitting to do something which a reasonable person would do. I think the Amendment to the proposed Amendment should fall, as being unreasonable, and that my right hon. Friend's Amendment, as drafted, should stand.

Mr. Harold Roberts (Birmingham, Handsworth)

I agree that to define "negligence" by regulation would be difficult, if not impossible. But I think it unfortunate that we should leave in jeopardy what is not a very well defined, common law term. I sincerely hope the Minister will see his way to accept the proposal.

Mrs. Castle

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment to the Amendment.

Hon, Members


Amendment to the proposed Amendment negatived.

Proposed words there inserted.

Clause, as amended, agreed to.