HC Deb 24 February 1949 vol 461 cc2123-43

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £6,710,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1949. for the salaries and expenses of the Department of the National Assistance Board and of certain Appeal Tribunals and Pension Committees; non-contributory Old Age Pensions, including pensions to blind persons; Supplementary Pensions to certain persons in receipt of Old Age Pensions or Widows' Pensions; allowances to applicants for assistance, etc.; assistance grants; the expenses of re-establishment centres, reception centres, etc.; and the expenses of maintaining certain classes of Poles in Great Britain."—[Mr. J. Griffiths.]

8.18 p.m.

The Minister of National Insurance (Mr. James Griffiths)

The original Estimate of the National Assistance Board for this year was £61,780,000, and in the Supplementary Estimate sanction is sought for an additional £6,710,000. The original Estimate was made at the beginning of 1948 and could, in the nature of things, only be speculative because at that time the National Assistance Bill was in its early stages, and the scale rates of assistance which Parliament was in the end to approve in June of that year could not have been foreseen when the original Estimate was made. The National Assistance Act and the new scales which were approved by the House came into operation on the 5th July, 1948.

The need for the Supplementary Estimate arises mainly, if not entirely, from the changes consequent upon the launching of the new National Assistance scheme. The new Act provided for new and more favourable methods of computing resources and made new provisions for "disregards." These represented an increased expenditure on assistance over and above the original Estimate. There are three ways in which the new Act and the new scales have led to the increase and I will explain what they are. First, the new scales, which were approved by the House and brought into operation on 5th July, provided for more generous disregards of income for those for whom the Board was responsible before the new scheme came into operation. Before 5th July the Board had responsibility for supplementing the basic pension of old age pensioners and for supplementing the benefit or providing assistance for those who were unemployed and not in receipt of unemployment benefit, The higher scales have, of course, applied to those classes of beneficiaries since 5th July.

Under the new Act, all those in receipt of public assistance—outdoor relief was the old name—were taken over by the Board, and as from 5th July, they all became entitled to the new scales, which were higher in the majority of cases than were the public assistance scales which applied before. In addition, as we expected, and as we are glad has happened, there have been additional claimants as from 5th July—people who have claimed and are now obtaining assistance from the Board who either could not, because of the old scales or their resources, claim assistance before 5th July, or who would not before have gone to the old public assistance committee.

These new claimants are important, and I will give a few brief figures to the Committee showing the increases since 5th July. On 25th June, 1948, just before the Appointed Day for the new scheme, the Board was granting supplementary pensions and payments in the way of unemployment assistance to 543,464 persons. On 5th July the Board took over 250,000 persons who previously had been in receipt of public assistance. By 27th July, four weeks after the new scheme began, the Board were making payments to 50,000 new claimants who obviously, from our experience, were in great need before 5th July but had refused to ask for what they still regarded as poor law parish relief. The number in receipt of assistance from the Board has increased steadily since 5th July, and on 25th January the number was 1,031,000, an increase of 137,536 over and above the number the Board had as beneficiaries when the new scheme began on 5th July.

This shows that the replacement of the old poor law by the new scheme has proved itself—as we believed and were confident it would—a boon to many people in need who would not ask for public assistance. We are glad indeed that people arc coming to regard the new assistance scheme as being one that is shorn of the indignities of the poor law, and as a provision made by the nation to assist them in time of need. Since the entire amount we are asking for is accounted for, I do not propose to enter into details; they are set out clearly on pages 59 and 60 of the Vote. However, if there are any questions, I will do my best to answer them and I hope that the Committee will grant us the amount of this Supplementary Estimate.

8.24 p.m.

Mr. McCorquodale (Epsom)

This Supplementary Estimate is for a large sum, and the actual deficit before deductions were made was some £8 million. Therefore, it is necessary and proper that the Minister should come to the Committee to justify his request. I think the Committee will agree that he has done so to our satisfaction. The action of the House in June last year in providing increased benefits and a higher standard of assistance, is the main cause of the increase. I have one comment to make on that. The cause for that action is the ever-increasing cost of living, which bears most hardly on the unfortunate people who go to the Assistance Board for help. It is our duty to see that that cost of living is kept down wherever possible.

In passing, and since the Minister cannot do so himself, I should like to pay a tribute to his officials, the servants of the Board, for the way in which they carry out their duties. Rarely, if ever, nowadays does one hear anything but praise for their tact and understanding in a difficult job.

The Minister was wise enough in his Financial Memorandum which accompanied the National Assistance Bill, to safeguard his position. He indicated that the cost to the Exchequer must be estimated without precision, and might well exceed the sum budgeted for. Some of his colleagues, in drawing up their Estimates, might well follow his example. I do not think there is anything further to say about this Estimate except this: the Minister took pride—and is entitled to do so—in the fact that an increasing number of people have come to seek assistance from the Assistance Board who, entitled to it, did not wish to receive assistance from the old poor law. That is right, but the figures of those needing assistance seem to be increasing rather rapidly. I trust that this is not an indication of what is going on in this country—that more and more people will have to receive assistance owing to the poverty of their position. Apart from that, I have no criticism to make, and we on this side wish the Minister well in the task which he has undertaken, so far satisfactorily.

8.27 p.m.

Mrs. Castle (Blackburn)

I am sure every one in the Committee will wish to echo the words of the right hon. Member for Epsom (Mr. McCorquodale) when he paid a tribute to the work of the Assistance Board and its officials, because the old people of the country are the first to pay testimony to the humane treatment and the friendly approach they receive from these officials. Indeed the proof of the value of the work and the spirit of these officials is to be found in the fact that the Assistance Board is now having to deal with an increasing number of applicants. If an intimidating reception were given to the old people, if they were made to feel that they were getting charity in a grudging spirit, these increased numbers would not have been before us tonight. I am sure we all welcome the fact that there is this increased number of people having aid, for what we intended when the National Assistance Act was passed was a service which those in need could claim as a right, and which was an integral part of our social security scheme.

There are one or two points about which I am not clear, about which I am not particularly happy, and on which I should like the guidance of my right hon. Friend. I am a little puzzled by the nature and size of this Supplementary Estimate. Whereas I agree with my right hon. Friend that when his original estimate was introduced he was in no position to foresee the extent of the expenditure needed, because then the scale rates had not been fixed, yet when they were fixed, and the explanatory Memorandum on the draft regulations for the determination of need was before the House, an estimate was put in at that time of the cost of the increased scale rates to which we were then agreeing. That cost was in the nature of £37 million for a year.

However, that was only part of the additional expenditure which it was anticipated would arise from the new regulations because, as has been pointed out, we were not only increasing the scale rates, but were also greatly modifying the disregards, and making them much more generous. There was an un-estimated additional expenditure to be met under that head. There was also another item of expenditure which we had to foresee and which the Minister at that time said he could not estimate; that was the cost to the Board of the maintenance of old people in local authority residential homes. Under Part III of the National Assistance Act it was visualised that we should encourage local authorities to set up these homes. We all agreed it was far better that some old people should go into these residential homes, run by local authorities on lines more like hotels than institutions, where they could be cared for in privacy and comfort, instead of struggling along alone as best they could in lonely back streets and trying to make do with their cash payments.

If, therefore, we take all the expenditure which might have been foreseen over the year as a result of these items, it would come to a great deal more than the £32,640,000 appearing under Subhead "I" in the Supplementary Estimate. In view of the fact that the new disregards have apparently brought in more claimants, and that was the only explanation my right hon. Friend gave for the additional figure, what has happened to the other items which, we might have imagined, would have pushed up the total estimate to well above the figure which is before us?

I should like a little more information from my right hon. Friend. How much of the additional sum of £7,440,000 under item "I" is in respect of the increased scale rate; how much is in respect of the additional beneficiaries—new people coming in as a result of the modification of the means test; and how much is in respect of the old people who, since the original Estimate was drawn up, have been accommodated in the local authority residential homes? I hope the Minister can say that quite a number of people have been so accommodated, for we would all agree that it is an almost impossible proposition at present for old people who live alone, as many of them do in my constituency, in back rooms, in drab streets, struggling along as best they can, to manage on the present scale rates; even on the new scale rates it is impossible for them to enjoy any comfort.

The Deputy-Chairman

The hon. Lady cannot complain about the scale being too low.

Mrs. Castle

I was not doing that. I was merely trying to point out that part of this expenditure, presumably, is in respect of the old people's homes and was stressing the benefits to be obtained by old people from those homes, rather than that they should suffer the inadequacy of the scale rates. Clearly, the more inadequate the scale rates, the more urgent it is that we should increase the number of old people's homes. It is impossible for an old person to live in reasonable comfort, with prices at their present levels, on the cash payments they receive, even supplemented, as I know they are, by payments in kind, of clothing, footwear and so on. I know from experience amongst my constituents that old people cannot possibly live in anything like comfort and reasonable happiness on the amounts which it is possible at present for them to receive. This question of the old people's homes is one about which I care very much.

I should like to know therefore from my right hon. Friend whether some of the additional expenditure represents progress in the provision of these homes. The cost of maintaining an old person in a home is, of course, very much higher than the cash payments available, under even the improved scale rates. Indeed, in his scheme the Minister visualised that the minimum charge for an old person in one of these local authority hotels should be 21s. per week, and that the old person should be given 5s. a week pocket money; yet so high is the present cost of maintaining an old person in residential accommodation in reasonable comfort that a supplementary payment would be necessary from the Assistance Board to make up the difference between the 21s. which is charged and the actual cost of maintenance.

I ask my right hon. Friend, also, how much of the sum being asked represents payments in kind? How generous is the Assistance Board in the provision of gifts of clothing, footwear and so on, in helping old people to eke out their cash payments? How much of item A—"salaries, etc."—can be attributed to an extension of the service of visits to old people by Assistance Board officials? Something of a gap has been left in the lives of old people by the removal of the relieving officer, who in many cases took a very great personal interest in the people with whom he was concerned, and who visited them rather more regularly, perhaps, than has been done since. I am alarmed about the problem of the old people who live absolutely alone, in many cases in their late 70s or even 80s, trying to do their own little bit of cleaning and shopping. Some of them might die in such utter loneliness that their death is not discovered for a very long time.

I know that my right hon. Friend cares about these welfare problems and I hope he can say that provision is made for seeing that old people are visited and not left in the loneliness of terrible isolation, which their physical feebleness may force upon them under the conditions of today. I do not need to press these matters upon my right hon. Friend, who is a very humane man and cares passionately for the welfare of old people, but I hope that when he replies he will be able to report in detail on the points which I have raised.

8.37 p.m.

Mr. Chetwynd (Stockton-on-Tees)

I think that the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) has concentrated perhaps a little too much on the problems of the old persons in their relation to National Assistance. Provision is made not only for old people but for any person in need, and this covers a very much wider field than merely the old people, in whom we are, of course, very much interested.

In welcoming the Supplementary Estimate and the fact that we must find another £6 million for the purposes of the Board, we ought to be clear in our minds that the increase is not due, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epsom (Mr. McCorquodale) seemed to think, to any considerable rise in the cost of living or because a new poor class is growing up. The reason is that, in our view, the old scale rates were far too low, and we are only now putting right something which ought to have been put right long ago.

There are one or two points I should like to address to my right hon. Friend, who has given us the overall figures of the people who are affected and the extra people who have applied for assistance. Can he give us the number of pensioners in receipt of a supplementary pension who are covered by these Supplementary Estimates? What proportion of the total number of old age pensioners does that figure represent? I ask that particularly because I discovered, by a question to the Minister last week, that in my own constituency something like 1,550 old age pensioners are in receipt of supplementary pensions. That would seem to be a very high proportion of the total number of pensioners in the town. It was pleasing to know, also, that the average amount of supplementary pensions was as much as 7s. 6d. per old age pensioner. While showing that the need exists, these figures give an indication that by means of supplementary pensions people can considerably increase their old age pensions if they are able to fulfil the more generous requirements which are now in force.

The other matter which I wanted to raise relates to Subhead I, which covers the provision of reception centres and so forth. I have visited a number of Assistance Board offices. While they are working at great pressure—in the early days of the scheme the officers did not know where to turn—many of the premises are drab and uninteresting and likely to deter people from visiting them to seek assistance. Have efforts been made during the past year to improve accommodation and make it more bright and cheerful and take away the wooden benches and provide a more attractive kind of accommodation?

I wish to add my tribute to the staff and to the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Assistance Board, who are doing a great work. I pay tribute to the devotion to duty of the officials who, whenever I have had cause to write to them, have replied almost by return of post, although it may have involved a special visit to the person concerned in order to check up the facts. The Estimate covers widows who are in want and people who, because their husbands have not paid insurance contributions, have not been able to benefit, and another class which gives a lot of anxiety, those dependent people, such as imbeciles, who formerly were counted in the family, but can now stand on their own for purposes of grant. Will my right hon. Friend say how many of those are in the scheme?

It seems to me that the old stigma of the poor law has been finally removed and we ought now to ask all our people who are in need, to co-operate with the Minister and the Assistance Board so that they will be helped as of right.

8.42 p.m.

Mr. Butcher (Holland with Boston)

The right hon. Gentleman presented his Supplementary Estimate so modestly that I feel we ought to congratulate him on his administration. The additional amounts required for the remuneration of the officers of the Board are, I am sure, properly incurred. The amount of time and patience which individual officers of the Assistance Board give to ascertaining the facts in specific cases is amazing. In my constituency there was a very elderly gentleman who was entirely deaf and dumb. We conducted our conversation by printing on a slate. I was satisfied that he was entitled to additional benefit. The officers of the Assistance Board attended and, I believe, spent several hours with that man, and his needs were properly ascertained. I think it is right for the Minister to be told of the good work done by his officers, which would not otherwise come to his notice.

The hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) referred to Subhead I and expressed some regret that the item was of an omnibus character, adding together the assistance grants and provision for re-establishment centres. It would be interesting if those items could be split into actual cash payments made for relief of need and also if the Committee were given some indication of the amount of money made available for re-housing of the elderly and others. Perhaps the Minister may venture a forecast of the future in regard to these matters. I commend him upon his work and upon the presentation of the Supplementary Estimate.

8.45 p.m.

Mr. Tolley (Kidderminster)

As one who was associated for many years with the old poor law organisation, I wish to say how much I welcome the Supplementary Estimate. I am gratified to feel that the whole Committee is congratulating the Minister on this Supplementary Estimate. It is rather an unusual thing for all sides of the Committee to agree on a large sum of money supplementary to the Estimate already presented, but we do so because we all realise the great benefits which are accruing. I agree with the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Butcher) as to the qualifications and human values associated with all who are called upon to operate the scheme. I have had personal contact with some of them, and I pay my tribute to them and express appreciation of the sympathetic understanding which they have and the manner in which they carry out their duties. The Estimate is for a fairly large sum, but I am satisfied that the Minister will be able to tell the Committee exactly how the Estimate for £270,000 for salaries is made up.

Enough has been said already about supplementary pensions to indicate their real value. I ask my right hon. Friend to analyse how the total under Subhead I is made up. I view with some concern the slow progress which is being made. I do not attach blame to the Minister or to any particular person, but I am not altogether happy that we are making sufficient progress in finding accommodation for our old people who some months ago had cause to believe it would be at their disposal. There are still hundreds of thousands of old people who are enjoying only the conditions they had before the passing of the Act. There are still old couples who are parted from each other because of lack of accommodation which would give them the comfort and pleasure all of us would wish them to have. Will my right hon. Friend tell us what is represented by the items: Old Age Pensions (Non-Contributory) £840,000, and Maintenance of Certain Classes of Poles in Great Britain, £550. I look forward to the time when another Supplementary Estimate will be asked for in order to help to give human happiness to old people who have borne the heat and burden of the day.

8.49 p.m.

Mr. Keenan (Liverpool, Kirkdale)

I do not want the Minister to think that there is any desire to encourage people to go into institutions, but I want to see the larger institutions broken up into hostels and homes. I do not think it is at all desirable to make conditions such that the homes will be more attractive than those in which people were able to live with their families, or separately. I wish to tell the Minister that in spite of the very desirable advance that we have made it is still not enough. Our old people are still contending that what they are getting in supplementation, although it has been considerably improved, is still not enough. They are pressing for more.

The Deputy-Chairman

I have already ruled, and I think I am right, that no hon. Member can ask for more, in other words to spend more.

Mr. Keenan

I am not asking for more; I am saying that what we have done is unfortunately not enough. What I wish to bring to the attention of the Minister is the very important matter of administration in the difficulties that exist today. We have undertaken what was normally the task of the P.A.C. As one who has had some considerable experience of that, I say that we centralise our activities in the Assistance Board. The Assistance Board in Liverpool, like most other places, has not been extended, and most of the old and infirm people have to come a considerable distance. I know the difficulty of finding accommodation, and in this Supplementary Estimate there is some expenditure in connection with that, but I suggest it is not enough. I ask the Minister to look at what has been done. It may be very good, but certainly there is much more to be done. We need additional offices. In spite of the magnificent things that have been done, that additional factor has yet to be provided.

8.52 p.m.

Mr. W. Griffiths (Manchester, Moss Side)

I join with other hon. Members in paying a tribute to the Minister and the officials of the Assistance Board. We were interested to hear the Minister say that 50,000 applicants to the Assistance Board—who presumably are qualified to apply for relief—have, because of the provisions of National Assistance and the abolition of the stigma of poor law, applied for the first time. I think that the very great reform of allowing people to draw from the Post Office, with all the respectability that that entails, was perhaps the greatest reform of all.

I wish to refer to a rather narrow point under Subhead A, where the increase in the payment of salaries to officials of the Board is listed and the explanation is given that this is largely because of overtime and extra duties, etc., of the staffs of the Assistance Board. My hon. Friend the Member for Kirkdale (Mr. Keenan) referred to the disadvantages of centralisation which have become apparent in the large industrial areas. I would endorse that, and I know the Minister is aware of it. I hope he will be able to say that steps are to be taken to decentralise as far as possible and as soon as the technical difficulties can be overcome. The present position in the City of Manchester is that in half of the City, on the south side, there is an area extending eight miles from the point where people have to apply for assistance. That is a very long way and imposes a severe hardship on many people when they have to apply for relief.

In addition, it is very difficult for the staffs of the Assistance Board and one of the reasons why they have to put in so much overtime. I have been to the office of the Assistance Board dealing with the South Manchester area. It is quite unsuitable, both for the staff and for the people who go there. The result is that the applicants, who include old people and invalids, have to wait a long time. The atmosphere is not conducive to producing that new spirit which the Minister and hon. Members on this side of the Committee wish to see established at the earliest possible moment. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that the matter is receiving the closest attention and that in time these disabilities will be removed.

Another point I wish to raise is in regard to the amount of the supplementary assistance. I refer particularly to the amount given to those people who are given medical priorities. I repeatedly come across the type of case where a doctor certifies that certain milk and eggs—as in the example I have here—shall be allowed to the wife of an old age pensioner. In a week that costs 6s. 7d., in this particular case. The grant of the Assistance Board towards that is 5s. I wish to ask whether it is possible—and I understand that the Board has great powers and is very flexible—when a relatively small amount for extra nourishment is mentioned the local officer can have power to grant the full amount? It seems a small point, but when one is dealing with a man and wife whose total income is £2 12s. 6d. a week, 1s. 7d. becomes a matter of considerable importance.

8.58 p.m.

Dr. Stross

I, too, would like to refer to Subhead A, but before doing so, although this may be piling Pelion on Ossa, I should like to join in the tributes which have been paid to the Minister and his officials and staff in the working of this very great scheme. In Subhead A reference is made to salaries, where £270,000 additional money is asked for and the words are … mainly for overtime and extra duty payments to staff … Is the Minister satisfied that all this overtime has been essential, or has he any suspicion that some of his staff, particularly those in the more lowly-paid ranks, welcome overtime and go out of their way to seek it because their scale of remuneration is rather low? The information coming to me, certainly in the area where I live and represent the people, is that the scales are low. I am sure that the Minister must have had representations made to him, and if he has I hope that he will give us his views on this matter.

May I also say that I appreciate that we cannot immediately build up suitable structures for the reception of the people; nor can we adequately house our staffs. They are often in overcrowded rooms with inadequate ventilation. They grumble very little indeed, but when and if they do I hope that their low, patient voice is very easily heard by the Minister.

Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)

I wish to answer the remarks made by the hon. Member for Hanley (Dr. Stross). It ought not to go forth from this House that National Assistance officers are working overtime in order to increase their weekly salaries. Such is not the case. I find the National Assistance officers are only too willing to stop at the appointed time, but it is out of their great sympathy and wish to assist the old people that they go on. I have never found any officer who does overtime because his salary is so low.

9.0 p.m.

Mr. J. Griffiths

May I begin by expressing for myself, for the Chairman and members of the Board and for every member of the Board's staff our gratitude for the very warm-hearted tributes which have been paid here tonight. On 5th July we made a very big change which involved the transfer of responsibility for making decisions from several hundred local authorities to the National Assistance Board. There were many people who were deeply concerned that this essentially local service—a parish, a guardian and then a county service—had become the responsibility of the Board, and they feared that the result would be a form of bureaucratic body. It was gratifying to me that everybody paid warm-hearted tribute to the spirit in which the staff of the Department approached their work. From the beginning it was our desire to be helpful. I said to everyone concerned, "Remember that the people who come to us are people in trouble. They need money, and they need it quickly. Our administration will depend for its success upon that money being paid quickly. More than anything else, everyone who gets assistance must leave with his dignity completely unimpaired." I am grateful for the very fine tributes which have been paid to the members of the staff of the Assistance Board. I shall have pleasure in passing them on to the Chairman and members of the Board and, through them, to the staff.

The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) asked about details of this Supplementary Estimate and referred to what appeared on the surface to be a contradiction with the estimate in a Memorandum published when the Bill and the scales first came forward. The original Estimate was only a rough one. We could not possibly estimate accurately the increased expenditure due to the new scales. We estimated that the new scales would cost £9 million a year, and this £7,750,000 is actually the proportionate cost of the new scales for the part of the year they have been in operation.

The hon. Lady and several others asked about old people's homes. I am sorry that I cannot reply in detail because this is not strictly my responsibility nor indeed is it the responsibility of the Assistance Board. Under the Act local authorities were empowered—indeed it was made an obligation upon them—to make provision for homes for old people. Where old people enter into homes of this kind a charge of 21s. a week is made, but leaving them with at least 5s. a week for themselves. Suppose an old man and his wife enter one of these homes who get 42s. pension. They will be independent; they pay the 21s. a week and the Board adds in these cases a supplementary payment of 10s. so that they can have 5s. each.

I will convey to my colleague, the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health, and through him to the local authorities, the views expressed. It is our desire to press forward as quickly as possible with the provision of homes for old people. A good deal is already being done by the local authorities. This is a service which will develop as opportunity occurs. Let no one be under any misapprehension about the very great difficulties of securing premises for this and other purposes in these days. From my own experience with the authorities I know best in South Wales and elsewhere, having regard to the difficulty of obtaining premises, I think the local authorities are responding magnificently.

We all appreciate that, but we urge them to get on more quickly with the job.

I am afraid that I have not got the separate items into which the £7 million is broken up. If I were to single out any one part of the Act which has brought joy and gratitude to many homes, it is the provision by which, if there is in a home a poor unfortunate child stricken either physically or mentally, or both, he is now entitled to receive assistance in his own right irrespective of what the income of the father or mother, or both, may be. We have had tributes to this new part of this new service. If it is only for that alone, I think that the Act is worth while. I am sorry that I cannot give the detailed figures. One day I shall do my best to give them. Neither can I at this moment say anything about the amount of assistance in kind. If my hon. Friend will agree, I will endeavour to make details available later.

Another point of interest raised by the hon. Member for Blackburn concerns visits to old people. When the new pension rates became payable in October, 1946, I realised that one effect would be that somewhere around one million people who hitherto had been receiving assistance from the Board would cease to be entitled to it because the new basic pension would put their income above the scale rate. We were anxious that we should not lose complete touch with these old people. Therefore, we wrote to each one of them telling them that as from 4th October, 1946, they would receive the new basic pension and adding "You will cease, therefore, to receive assistance and if there is anything we can do to help in any way we leave a postcard with you and if you post it a visit will be made."

One of the changes in our social life generally which has created a big problem in these days concerns the number of old and lonely people. As one who was brought up in the old Nonconformist tradition, let me say that visiting them was one of the functions which the minister or the parson fulfilled. But in these days, when church and chapel going is becoming less and less popular, there are large numbers of people who have no contacts of that kind. This is one of the services to which the Board is giving a lot of attention.

I make an appeal. There are lots of men and women with time on their hands who perhaps are seeking ways in which they can be of service. Here is a real service which they could render. If they can give a couple of hours in an afternoon in order to visit some old gentleman or lady, or perhaps two, and talk to them they will be helping. The Board is doing its best. We are in constant touch with the National Council of Social Service and the old people's welfare associations. The Board is represented on their committees and we hope to continue an increasingly effective service to remove what is now one of the biggest problems in this field—the terrible loneliness of old people. I give an assurance that that problem will be dealt with as effectively as possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) asked whether I could give him the number of supplementary payments to pensioners. The number at the latest date for which figures are available is 550,000 which probably represents a total of 650,000 pensioners. Where there are a man and woman both of whom are pensioners, the application for assistance generally speaking will be made on behalf of the wife by the husband, so that when we pay assistance in 550,000 pensioners' cases it is in respect of a total number of 650,000. The hon. Gentleman asked what percentage that was of the total. At the moment 3,750,000 people are receiving the new rate of retirement pension. Then there are nearly 500,000 receiving the noncontributory pension, and about 500,000 basic pensioners still at work, so that there are about 4,750,000 pensioners altogether; 650,000 of them are receiving supplementary payments.

My hon. Friend also asked me about the Board's offices, and let me say at once that I appreciate very much indeed the fact that some of the offices are far from being what we would desire them to be. The Board has done a very great deal in the last 18 months, and I myself, as Minister, had to find 1,000 offices with which to start our new National Insurance Scheme. As the Committee knows, only about 10 of these are new, so that we had to find existing premises and adapt them to the use of the Board and the Ministry. The Board has 300 area offices from which assistance payments are made, and they have made arrangements with my Ministry and with the Ministry of Labour by which they have the use of about 800 places at which officers of the Board attend.

We appreciate that the Board's own officers are far from being what we should like them to be, and we are doing our best to improve that situation. We think it is important that the offices to which people come should be as bright and attractive as we can make them, and we shall do our best to assist the Board in any direction we can. My hon. Friend also asked me the number of persons in the other classes in receipt of payment, but I have not got the figures with me now. I will obtain them for him as quickly as possible.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Butcher) for the tribute which he paid to the members of the staff of the Assistance Board. On the question of the salaries of the members of the Board, the additional sum that is asked for is £270,000, and this is mainly due to overtime. It must be appreciated that, round about 5th July, the Board had an enormous job to do. First of all, they had their own supplementary pensioners and those receiving unemployment allowances, and they had to apply to them the new scales and compute their assistance afresh; and there were new "disregards" which had to be taken into account when assessing their entitlements. They had to take over 250,000 persons in receipt of public assistance and had to do their best to ensure that there was no break in the continuity of their payments. Finally, in the first month, there were 50,000 extra claimants who had been repelled by the old poor law but who now came forward for assistance. Overtime had to be worked, and although there has been an increase in the staff, there has still been the need for additional time.

Perhaps some idea of the work done in these offices may be gathered from the fact that one of the problems is the number of people who call personally. I sometimes wish that there were fewer people who called at the offices, because more people have to be taken away from the job of administration to attend to them. The number of callers increased from 43,000 to 90,000 a week after the start of the new scheme, and that is one of the reasons for the pressure of overtime work. I think the members of the staff have done a very good job, having regard to the tremendous difficulties which they had to face, but they are being overworked and doing far too much overtime; the same applies in the Ministry of National Insurance. We are doing our very best to improve administration so as to reduce the overtime, but let me say that a good deal of the trouble is due to the inadequate and unsuitable premises in which the staff has to work. To the extent to which we are able to improve the accommodation, I am sure that we shall be able to reduce the overtime.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Hanley (Dr. Stross) will not expect me to refer to the scales of salaries, which are settled for the service as a whole. The hon. Member for Kirkdale (Mr. Keenan) raised the question of the welfare of old people, to which I have already replied, and I may add that the problem of accommodation in his city is one of the difficulties with which we are faced. He reminded us that in the cities like Liverpool, Swansea and Plymouth, the problem of accommodation is very acute because so much of it was destroyed; we are doing our best to obtain new offices and to make improvements in the ones which we have already.

I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Moss Side (Mr. W. Griffiths) for referring to one tangible symbol of the success of the scheme in the use of the Post Office for payments. I should like to take this opportunity, both as Minister responsible for the Assistance Board and as Minister of National Insurance, of expressing my profound gratitude to Post Office staffs who very often do not get the credit which they ought, and I am sure that hon. Members will join with me. What would we do in our national life, particularly in this field, without the Post Office and their staff? I therefore wish to pay my warm tribute to those people. Perhaps I might be allowed to recall that there were many discussions on this question when the relevant Bills were going through their various stages, and I then said that this method of payment through the Post Office was the most dignified; in fact, 98 per cent. of the people have chosen to be paid in this manner. In this respect I agree that we must decentralise.

The question of individual needs is one of great importance in the assistance scheme. We lay down scales which cover the broad needs, but over and above those there are cases of individual needs. This is a matter which must be left to the discretion of the staff of the Board. I hope hon. Members appreciate that there is provision for appeal. If the officer refuses to give a discretionary allowance or refuses to give what the claimant thinks is adequate, there is an appeal to a local appeal board. At the same time, I know it is the desire of the members of the Board, as indeed it is the desire of the Government and of this Committee, that in this field in which there are so many varying individual needs each member of the staff should be given the largest possible discretion when dealing with these cases.

A question was asked about the savings under non-contributory pensions. In their original estimate the Board overestimated the number of people who would claim non-contributory pensions during this year. Under the new scheme, the administration of non-contributory pensions has been transferred from Customs and Excise to the Board. The Board over-estimated; the amount saved is the result of the over-estimate and is not a saving on the pensioners themselves. I have tried to cover most of the points, and I hope that the Committee will now approve this Estimate.

Mr. Tolley (Kidderminster)

Will my right hon. Friend deal with the question of Poles?

Mr. Griffiths

I am sorry I did not deal with it before. We had to make an estimate of the number of Poles who required assistance. I am sure hon. Members will be very glad to know that the reason why there is a saving on this item is that the number of Poles who are finding work and who, therefore, do not need assistance is greater than the number which we estimated.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved: That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £6,710,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1949, for the salaries and expenses of the Department of the National Assistance Board and of certain Appeal Tribunals and Pension Committees; non-contributory Old Age pensions, including pensions to blind persons; Supplementary Pensions to certain persons in receipt of Old Age Pensions or Widows' Pensions; allowances to applicants for assistance, &c.; assistance grants; the expenses of re-establishment centres, reception centres, &c.; and the expenses of maintaining certain classes of Poles in Great Britain.

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