HC Deb 29 June 1950 vol 476 cc2625-34

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

11.22 p.m.

Mr. Cooper-Key (Hastings)

I am glad to have the opportunity of raising the subject of old people's welfare committees, and of the work which is being done, and still needs to be done, for the care and well being of the old. This is a national problem and I intend to deal with it as such, but I cannot help making some remarks about the pioneer work which has been carried out in my own county of Sussex and in my constituency of Hastings. Perhaps we have been faced with the problem longer and more acutely than any other area in the country, as a consequence our authorities and associations have given it particular study. There is a saying that people go to Hastings to die and having got there forget what they came for. This is a compliment to the kindliness not only of our climate but to the resident community who in the last 50 years have built up a really comprehensive service for the aged.

The increase in our aged population has long been considered a serious problem, and it has recently been brought acutely before the public by the disclosures in the report of the Royal Commission on Population. I would refer especially to the statistics which show that 25 years from now the number of people older than 65 will increase by 50 per cent. These are alarming figures, particularly to those individuals, authorities, and associations who are in touch with the problem every day and know how small the resources at their disposal are to meet the requirements of the old people. We are today nowhere near meeting the existing requirements, and if the numbers increase in the future without proportional increase in the number of amenities, there will be tremendous hardship for a number of people in this country.

People with whom I have discussed this matter have no great confidence that the Minister is fully aware of the seriousness of the outlook, or that he is taking energetic steps to meet the future need. I have in my hand Circular 11/50, dated 23rd January, 1950, addressed to all local authorities in England and entitled, "Welfare of Old People." This document starts by admitting that Parliament, the Press and the public are distressed and disturbed over the totally inadequate steps being taken to promote the welfare of old people. It then continues in the form of an essay in self-congratulation on the passing of the National Assistance Act and the National Health Service Act; but, except for an appeal for more volunteer workers and more voluntary welfare committees, it contains no constructive proposal or plan for the future.

I believe that if the Minister got down to the matter he could do more than he is doing. In the short time available I should like to make a few constructive suggestions. It is clear, I think, that today the main problem is not entirely one of subsistence, although pensions fall well below the present cost of living. What we are up against are the stringencies of the post-war period—lack of suitable housing, rationing, queueing, and the complexities of modern life, added to the characteristics of old age, especially loneliness and a feeling of being unwanted.

The first and most important thing about these points is that something should be done to improve the housing of these old people. But for every application received by my local authority for entry into a hostel there are ten for a small flatlet of one or two rooms. A number of houses have already been converted into these flatlets in Hastings and surrounding areas. It has been found that they do pay their way when they are established; but the capital cost of the conversion is prohibitive and the local people could not provide them. I suggest that grants should be made towards the provision of these flatlets, somewhat on the lines of the assistance which is already given towards the provision of hostels. It ought to be remembered that to accommodate an old person in, say, one room on one floor, with amenities, will often release a house containing several rooms for the accommodation of a larger family.

My second suggestion is directed towards the next most serious trouble of old age. That is the feeling of these people that they are neither wanted nor of use. I believe that every effort should be made by the Ministries, by employers, by trade unions, and by everyone else in the country, to see that elderly people shall be usefully employed for as long as possible. There is an economic reason for this, also. At present the cost of maintenance of people of pensionable age is estimated at £238 million a year. In 1978, that is, in 28 years' time, it is estimated that the cost will be just over £500,000,000 a year. This represents a huge burden upon the economic life of the State and its working population. That must be considered along with humanitarian reasons. I think that the Minister ought to get into consultation with the trade unions and employers to see whether there cannot be produced a labour plan for people of pensionable age.

The third of my points is loneliness. Tremendous things are being done by local volunteers and local organisations in arranging parties and outings, Darby and Joan clubs, and so on, but volunteer social work today is becoming increasingly specialised and more full-time workers are needed; workers who should be adequately paid, and who, in turn, would attract a wide section of the community towards voluntary work and who would pass on a higher understanding and efficiency to the ranks below them. To some extent, these lonely old people miss the routine visits which used to be undertaken by the relieving officer, and they miss their occasional chat with the doctor. In this question of visiting, the Church has a great opportunity to regain some of that social influence which, I am afraid, it has to some extent lost in recent years.

We have experienced a revolution, and there is no doubt that a large section of elderly people, possibly with small fixed incomes or pensions, of superior education and perhaps superior service to the community, have been reduced to unaccustomed and unwarranted privation. Many of these people have little left but their pride, and these cases are probably more hard to deal with than many others. The Ministry can do much to bring them out of isolation. There is a large number of men and women in this country anxious and able to volunteer service in these cases. There is an urgent need for more of these old people's welfare committees, and there is still much for the Minister to take upon himself in performing an active part to solve this problem.

11.32 p.m.

Mr. Messer (Tottenham)

I am afraid that it is quite impossible to solve the problem of the aged population in the short space of time available on an Adjournment Debate. Although the hon. Gentleman has done a great service by raising this matter tonight, I think that he has rather over-simplified the problem. It is a complex one, because of the many changes which have taken place. Longevity can be mentioned and the problems which have arisen because of changing social impacts, but it would not be fair to ignore the great benefits which have been given in the laws passed by this Government.

Nobody who has studied this problem as I have, as chairman of the National Old People's Welfare Committee, will fail to have discovered that the important thing is to bring to them, as far as possible, normality of life. In the past there has been a tendency to recognise somebody who is old as no longer entitled to the same measure of happiness as younger people who are, because of their age, more able to enjoy life. That is a mistake. When a person gets too old to be active or to care for himself, he has in the past been put in the workhouse. Some of these places were little better than prisons; some, indeed, were worse than prisons. They have been abolished, but, strangely enough, that has created a difficulty in itself.

What are we going to do with those old people who are not ill enough to be put into hospitals but who are not strong enough to look after themselves although wanting care and attention? I appreciate the point which has been made, and I support it, that there is a great responsibility on the Ministry of Health. But the Minister of Health in passing his National Health Service Act gave to county councils and county boroughs the responsibility of becoming the welfare authorities. He said that home helps can be provided so that those who have reached the stage when they can no longer look after themselves, can be provided with domestic assistance, and those who fall ill can be provided with district nurses.

I want to support with all the power that I can, the claim that we keep these old people in their own homes as long as possible. When I say their own homes. I do not necessarily mean the houses in which they have lived for years, but houses which are suitable for them, a bungalow type of dwelling, for instance, so that they will not need to climb stairs. One unfortunate thing about the aged is that they tend to neglect themselves. Living is an effort. Cooking a main meal is very much an effort so that they just do not do it and suffer in consequence.

Here is where the voluntary work can be done; I want to see a bridge built between the local authority and the voluntary associations in this work. As may be known by the few hon. Members who are present, there is up and down the country a vast amount of work being done by the provision of "meals-on-wheels." The Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the Church of England, and many other agencies are engaged in this work, but it would be unfair of me to detain the House any longer on this subject tonight. It is so difficult when one begins, to find out where to leave off. It is a problem that has many sides.

I should like to deal with the difficulty of getting old people into hospital. Here is a strange contradiction, that the very improvement of our hospitals has militated against the admission of old people. The upgraded hospital has meant that hospitals do not want to deal with acute cases and will not take old people suffering from chronic illness. This presents us with a great problem which we are not going to solve in a thirty minutes Debate on the Adjournment. I want to thank the hon. Member for raising this matter and express the hope that public attention will be focused on it. There are not too many friends of the aged in this country and to the extent that we can get the support which I think we can get of those who can give help, the hon. Member has rendered a service by raising this matter.

11.39 p.m.

Major Hicks-Beach (Cheltenham)

I want to thank my hon. Friend for initiating this Debate. Everyone will welcome the fact that he has brought this important problem before us. My hon. Friend stated that his constituency was one of the pioneers of the movement of old people's welfare committees. That may well be, but my constituency is very active too, and I hope I can lay before the Parliamentary Secretary one or two suggestions which may help the old people. I am sure that we should all like to see the old age pension increased to more than 26s. a week. I do not want to be controversial, but we shall be told that is not economically possible at the present time.

There are two suggestions which can be put into operation, although the Parliamentary Secretary will not be able tonight to deal with them, because I appreciate that they should be dealt with by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Great hardship today has been caused to old people by the increase of the tax for a wireless licence from 10s. to £1. A pound may not sound very much, but when you are getting only 26s. a week, a pound is a large sum when paid cash down. I should have thought it possible without much loss of revenue to reduce the amount of a wireless licence to 10s. for old age pensioners. If the Chancellor does not think he could do that, could the licence not be paid 10s. in January and 10s. in June. I assure the Parliamentary Secretary that great hardship is caused to old age pensioners by this payment.

I think my other suggestion is practical. Old people should be given some reduction in bus fares. I am not going to enter into the question of the nationalisation of road transport, but the fact remains that it is not an impracticable proposition that the old people should be given free passes. Twenty-six shillings is a small sum to live on, and if these concessions could be given, they would benefit a class suffering great hardship. The old should be helped by all.

11.41 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Blenkinsop)

I do not think the hon. and gallant Member expects me to reply to the points he has raised, but it is the practice in some areas for local authorities to give assistance, where old people live in old people's bungalows on housing estates managed by the authority, by way of reduced rents for wireless sets and licences. We are all grateful to the hon. Member for Hastings (Mr. Cooper-Key) for raising this question, because it is one of grave importance. It is true that we are getting older as a nation. There is a higher pro- portion of old people in our population. That is partly the result of the fact that our average expectation of life is becoming greater.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Messer), who has done a great deal of work in this field, has said, this is a matter that needs to be tackled from a series of different angles. It cannot be looked at only in one context. We have to think of the problem of the old people in relation to our health policy, to hospital provision and to provision of the kind the hon. Member for Tottenham spoke of, part hospital and part residential home for those who slip into illness and out of it in old age. That is a real and difficult problem which we are determined to solve

There is the important problem of finding suitable housing accommodation for old people. There is the problem the hon. Member for Hastings properly raised—namely, the need to combat the danger of the isolation of old people. All these subjects are related one to another; they are not isolated one from another. We have to try to find an effective way of combining our forces on this great problem. I think we can be proud of the advances we have made and the new efforts that are being made today to find solutions to some of the difficulties, for example, in the health field.

We are all happy to know that the old institution is giving place to new residential homes for old people to a steadily increasing extent. I have been to many of them, opened some and visited many in different parts of the country. Many local authorities are using their powers under the 1948 Act to provide increasingly friendly, pleasant, residential homes for old people who are still able to get about and look after themselves to a reasonable extent.

As I think both hon. Members who have spoken will agree, our main anxiety today is to try to find means of keeping old people within the life of the community. Perhaps no one has stressed this more than my right hon. Friend, who has always insisted that if old people are to live happy and contented lives in their later years, we must do all we can to keep them in the natural flow of the community and in the life of the community, and avoid if we can their isolation. Even if it be isolation in well-furnished, well-provided accommodation, we would still rather see them provided with accommodation if possible within the new housing estates which are being developed.

We are actively encouraging local authorities to do as much as possible to provide special housing accommodation for old people on the new housing estates they are building because we want them in the life of the community. Provision is made in the 1949 Housing Act for hostels for old people, again within the general community. There is also provision in Part II of the 1949 Act which might perhaps assist in the proposals made by the hon. Member who opened the Debate; although I cannot tell without examining those proposals whether or not further use could be made of some large houses in his constituency, in Hastings or elsewhere, by converting them into flats to form small separate dwellings, some of which would be suitable for old people and others for younger people as well. I think that within the terms of the Act it might be possible—I cannot tell without examining the precise proposals—to give assistance in the way the hon. Member mentioned.

In addition, we are anxious to do all we can to break down the feeling of isolation and separation from the general community which may be one of the most desperate features of old age. Circular 11/50 pointed out the way in which cooperation can be secured between the local authorities and old people's organisations. Another circular issued last year pointed out the way in which local authorities could make contributions towards county bodies like the organisations for old people's welfare to help them in their expenses. For example, there is a county organisation in Sussex. It is possible for the county authorities to make a contribution towards the administrative expenses of that body and to help them in stimulating local committees in the towns in the county area.

Our desire is to encourage in every way the co-operation between local authorities and the great variety of welfare organisations that are already doing most valuable work in this field. I am glad to say that Circular 11/50 sent out this year has been very well received indeed by the local authorities. Throughout the country local authorities, with the stimulation and encouragement of this circular, and after conferences they have had with our officials, are taking the initiative in setting up joint organisations to deal with this problem. We want to encourage in every way the local authorities to work together with the voluntary organisations to avoid overlapping as far as possible. There are many examples—Nottingham is one I know from recent personal contact, but there are many throughout the country—where by joint membership of these welfare authorities steps are being taken to secure the most effective use of the numbers of workers who come in.

I am quite sure that the most useful contribution we can make to the health and happiness of our old people is to encourage the close contact of their friends and neighbours to help to keep them within the field of the community as a whole. If we can encourage visits by their own friends and neighbours through the voluntary bodies, with the assistance of the local authorities, I am sure we shall have done a great deal to break down that feeling of isolation which might spread and cause great un-happiness among our old people.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Nine minutes to Twelve o'Clock.