HC Deb 05 March 1948 vol 448 cc681-6

Where upon complaint made by a person to whom the Board have decided to give assistance either by way of an assistance grant or by means of assistance in kind, a Court of Summary Jurisdiction is satisfied that that officer of the Board or of the Post Office has wilfully failed to pay the assistance grant or to give the assistance in kind to that person, such officer shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding five pounds provided that proceedings under this Section shall not absolve such officer from any criminal proceedings to which he may be liable in respect of the embezzlement or misappropriation of the grants or of the goods directed to be given to such person.—[Mr. Basil Nield.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

11.30 a.m.

Mr. Nield

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

In effect, this is a proposal to insert in the Bill a provision that where an assistance officer is charged with the duty of granting assistance and wilfully fails to do so, he shall be liable to be proceeded against and fined. The purpose is to bind him to a definite and individual responsibility where application for assistance is made. It is a well-known principle —one of sense and long usage—that where an Act of Parliament imposes a duty upon a person or body of person:, it proceeds to lay down a sufficient penalty for failure to discharge that duty. That principle is recognised in the Bill itself, for the House will recall that under Clause 35, if the Minister is satisfied that a local authority is failing in its duties he has the right to have the functions of the local authority transferred to himself, and the right to charge the expenses of discharging those functions. So much lot the principle.

There is a precedent, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, because in the Poor Law (Scotland) Act, 1845, which was amended as recently as 1934, there was an express pro vision for proceeding against defaulting "inspectors of the poor," as they were called in those days. Applying those matters to this particular Bill, Clause 4 imposes a duty to provide assistance and Clause 8 requires the Board to discharge that duty, but nowhere in the Bill is the position made clear as to what happens if the assistance officer wilfully refrains from discharging the duty which is imposed upon him. It is the view of my hon. Friends and myself —and I hope the House will agree with us—that it is in the interests of those who seek assistance for the relief of distress that there should be individual responsibility and that such a penalty as we suggest here should be imposed for failure to discharge that duty.

Mr. Molson

I beg to second the Motion.

Mr. J. Griffiths

Interesting as this new Clause is, I am sorry to disturb the harmony which has prevailed this morning, because so far we have accepted all the Amendments that have been proposed. If I oppose this new Clause and ask the House to reject it, it is because it will disturb the whole harmony of the scheme and provide no protection to the applicant for assistance. This old conception of personal responsibility began in the early days of the Poor Law, when the magistrates were held responsible in a general kind of way for Poor Law relief. They appointed an officer to look after it, and thereafter he had to do the job himself without being answerable to anyone.

Under the Assistance Board a man will apply for assistance. If he is ablebodied, he will apply at the Ministry of Labour employment exchange and he will be paid each week in cash at the exchange. If he is not ablebodied, he will apply on a form, and after he applies for a grant he will receive notification saying whether a grant has been made. If he is dissatisfied with any award made, he can appeal to the Appeal Tribunal, but grants will be paid to him by way of order. It is admitted that this kind of individual responsibility would not provide protection for a man at all. If an officer of the Board fails to carry out his duty, that is the responsibility of the Board and the Minister. That is the man's protection. A man who has not received a grant which has been awarded to him can go to the particular office of the Board and make a complaint, or he can go to the Appeal Tribunal. There is also an advisory committee to whom he can present a case, and the protection afforded to him, if he is made a grant and fails to receive it because an officer fails to carry out his duty, is much better than that suggested in this new Clause.

The protection proposed in the new Clause is more apparent than real, and to continue this old system in the new conception would be a great mistake. For many years the Assistance Board has made grants for assistance and supplementary grants, and the system under which this operated and was administered has afforded certain protection, but the protection which is now provided for the applicant under this Bill is infinitely better than the protection afforded before. I am sure the hon. and learned Member for Chester (Mr. Nield) will realise that to go to an applicant and say to him, "If you have not got your grant, go to the courts" is no protection at all. If a man has not received the grant which he has been awarded, he can go to the local office or the Appeal Tribunal as I have outlined. That protection is more real and effective than the protection afforded by this new Clause, which I hope the House will reject.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot (Scottish Universities)

We see the point of view which the Minister has advanced, and it may well be that his contentions are correct. What we had in mind was certainly not the ordinary run of the administration such as he has described. If a man did not receive an award which had been made to him, the remedy of bringing the officer to court would not be the real remedy at all. The real remedy is to be found in the ordinary run of the administration. What we had in mind was the emergency provisions. The Minister will remember that this matter was discussed at some length in the Standing Committee, and the fact that the safety net of the old local administration was being replaced by this new system was specially stressed. Several hon. Members were anxious to make sure that no loss would occur under the new system if some unfortunate individual had to receive a grant in an emergency.

It may be that this is not, in modern conditions, a proper new Clause to move, and, therefore, we shall not divide the House upon it, but we are not entirely happy about the emergency provisions. A new administration is taking over a system of applications without experience of the work, which work it has been the custom for local authorities to manage. It was with a view to fixing responsibility that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Chester (Mr. Nield) moved this Amendment. We do not wish to insist upon it, but the Minister will agree that it is an aspect of the new administration which will require fairly careful consideration, because it may well be that difficulties—I do not wish to go into the discussions which we had in Committee on many cases of difficulty which might be brought out—may arise which are not covered by the present working of the machine.

Mr. J. Griffiths

With the permission of the House, may I point out that the new Clause will give no such protection at all, because it would not begin to operate until the Board had made grants of assistance. I understand the concern expressed on all sides of the House that the whole responsibility for making emergency grants rapidly and expeditiously shall be preserved under the new scheme, and I gave an undertaking to the Committee that there would be consultation between the Board and the local authorities on this problem of giving urgent assistance. It will be our desire to obtain the best protection obtainable and to improve upon that under the present scheme, but this new Clause would give no protection at all.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

I can only intervene again with the permission of the House. I admit this particular provision would not do so, but personal responsibility has a wonderful effect in quickening individual attention. For instance, the attention which one gives to a complaint from a constituent is more urgent than that which one gives to letters from people for whom one has no such personal responsibility. This is a case where the fixing of responsibility seems to assist the expedition of treatment.

Mr. Burden (Sheffield, Park)

May I add a word in support of the general idea behind this Clause and not of the exact form of words? We have to appreciate that, up to now, when a person was in need of sudden and urgent assistance, there was someone who had placed on him or her the statutory duty to see that that person was given immediate relief. That important responsibility was a protection for the people needing assistance. It enabled the flotsam and jetsam of our civilisation in some instances to be given immediate assistance. That statutory right has now gone. Moreover, the person who had that statutory duty placed upon him could not be reprimanded or dispensed with in the execution of that duty, except with the authority of the Ministry of Health. That was a safeguard for the people needing help. Now, apparently, we are to have an impersonal board which will be responsible and no one to whom appeal can be made. There is no protection for the officer or for the person concerned.

Mr. J. Griffiths

No, that is not so.

Mr. Burden

I suggest that the Minister should look at the substance of this matter again to see if something can be done.

Mr. J. Griffiths

I am most anxious that no wrong impression about the provisions of this Measure shall go out from this House, as this is probably the last opportunity we shall have of speaking on it. We discussed this matter in Committee upstairs. The new Clause cannot operate until the Board has made a grant. On the question that has been raised of the duty of the Board and 1he Board's officers to give assistance immediately in case of emergency, that is amply provided for in this way: The officer is told that if he gets an application for assistance he has to give assistance within the conditions of the Bill in normal cases, but if it is an urgent case it is his duty immediately to give assistance, without considering any of the regulations and restrictions. That duty is placed upon the officer. It must be remembered that the officer is acting for the Board, and the provisions under this Measure for meeting cases of a sudden emergency in which the officer of the Board has to act immediately are, I think, amply covered in the Measure. I repeat the undertaking which I gave to the Committee, that both the Board and I myself will make investigations to find out how best we can carry out in the new situation the duty that is laid upon us to give assistance in urgent cases of need; indeed the Board are now making such investigations. That is completely covered in this Measure. I do not want the impression to go out that there is something in the existing service which we are taking away.

Mr. Burden

We want to be sure that there is protection for the officer when he gives assistance acting in his own discretion.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and negatived.

11.45 a.m.