§ 2. Mr. Granville Sharp
asked the Minister of National Insurance, approximately how many old age pensioners who are entitled to the higher rates of pensions as from the pay week in October are still without the appropriate pension books; whether he is aware that personal visits to area assistance offices and letters to his Department from the pensioners concerned do not meet with effective response; and by what date he anticipates that all such pension books will be forwarded to those who have been without them for nearly four months.
§ The Minister of National Insurance (Mr. James Griffiths)
I appreciate the concern which is felt both by hon. Members and by the pensioners themselves at the delays which have taken place. At the same time, I would ask them to recognise the great difficulties with which the Department have been faced in applying the conditions of the new scheme to the 4,000,000 existing pensioners without the equipment of local offices, which is an integral part of the proposed system of administration. Special steps to remedy the situation were put in operation at various dates, as they became possible. During the Recess, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and myself visited the office at Blackpool in order to examine matters for ourselves on the spot.
These efforts have now had considerable effect and, according to my latest information, the number of cases still outstanding in which retirement was notified to the Department by October is about 20,000, or less than ½per cent. of the total number concerned; these should be substantially cleared off in a week or two. Moreover, we have, since October, been receiving a large and continuous flow of notifications of retirement, some of them reporting retirement before October; these constitute a very heavy addition to the current work and have themselves given rise to arrears, which are being energetically tackled and should be substantially cleared off in about a month.
I should add that the full working efficiency at which I am aiming must depend upon the establishment of a complete system of local offices, but, as a temporary measure, I have enlisted the help of the local machinery of the Assistance 4 Board, which has been very freely and effectively given. I would ask any pensioner who is in difficulty to communicate with the local office of the Board if he has not already done so; it will not usually be possible for the Board to notify an immediate decision, but special arrangements are in operation at Blackpool for dealing with inquiries made at these local offices, and it is by using this local machinery that the pensioner will secure the speedist settlement of his claim.
§ Mr. Stanley Prescott
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that what has happened in many cases is that old age pensioners receiving 10s. a week have been asked to return their books in order that their pension may be increased to 26s. and that, as a result of this procedure, for over three months, thousands of old age pensioners have received nothing whatever, and that many of them are destitute? Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that at Darwen, on Saturday alone, 20 people came to see me on the subject?
§ Mr. Griffiths
If an old age pensioner has surrendered his book, no doubt arrangements have been made, and were made before, whereby, even if his book is exhausted, he gets the pension. Having regard to existing arrangements, there is no reason at all why any pensioner should be in distress.
§ Mr. Martin Lindsay
Surely it would be better if, instead of merely sending an acknowledgment postcard to each communication from these pensioners, they were sent a card inviting them to apply to the local public assistance office?
§ Mr. Griffiths
No, Sir. The real fact of the matter is that we have undertaken to work this very complicated scheme with a central machine. Because I realised that, I urged this House to agree—as they did—to the setting up of our own complete local machinery. In the meantime, let me indicate mat, in addition to raising the existing pensions to the new rate, we have to deal with 7,000 new claims a week from those reaching retirement age. Since October we have been receiving a weekly average of 9,000 notifications of retirement. On the whole, while I appreciate the difficulty—and no one understands the disappointment of a pensioner more than I do—I 5 would say that, in the circumstances, having regard to all the difficulties, we have been doing, and will continue to do, the best job we can.
§ Mr. Blyton
Is the Minister aware that because of these delays people in villages have to travel as far as three or four miles into towns to receive assistance?
§ Mr. Griffiths
I can only urge that pensioners who are in difficulties should report those difficulties at once to the local office of the Assistance Board. That is the way to expedite a case.
§ Mr. Leslie Hale
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the number of complaints has been relatively small; that complaints both about this and the payment of family allowances have been dealt with with ability and courtesy; and that most hon. Members would desire to compliment him upon the way in which his Ministry have carried out these stupendous tasks?
§ Mr. Prescott
In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I beg to give notice that I will raise the matter on the Adjournment.