§ 9.3 p.m.
§ The Minister of National Insurance (Dr. Edith Summerskill)
I beg to move,That the Draft National Assistance (Determination of Need) Amendment Regulations, 1950, a copy of which was laid before this House on 18th April, be approved.It affords me considerable satisfaction to ask the House to approve the Draft Regulations now before it. As I recognise, and as I am quite sure hon. Members on both sides will recognise, the increase in purchasing power represented in these Regulations will go into the pockets of the least fortunate of the community. I am very glad to see here certain hon. Members who, I know, have devoted a considerable portion of their lives in campaigning persistently and consistently on behalf of those people who will be benefited if the House approves these Regulations tonight.
The House will recall that nearly two years ago, in 1948, the Assistance Board took over from the local authorities responsibility for paying assistance. One purpose of that change, of course, was to remove finally the traces of the old Poor Law which attached to the administration of public assistance by local authorities. Another purpose was to remove the objectionable means test, objectionable on two accounts. It not only made those subject to it discontented, but it was a perennial source of uneasiness to those called upon to administer it. Another very important purpose was to introduce a uniform scale instead of the wide variety of scales which existed throughout the country. Although I have been in my present Department for only a few weeks, judging by what I hear, and perhaps by the fact that I do not hear many complaints, I think I can assure the House that this new system is working very smoothly, and that the National Assistance Board is giving a splendid service, which is being appreciated by those unfortunate people who come within its province.
The new scales which operated from 5th July, 1948, were welcomed by both sides of the House. My predecessor submitted them. It was said then—and I think events have proved my predecessor was correct—that the great majority of those who would be transferred from the 1804 local authorities to the Board would benefit. Broadly speaking, they have benefited to something like 5s. a week for married couples and 4s. a week for single people. But, of course, it must be realised that when one replaces a series of scales by one uniform scale for the country as a whole, there are bound to be some in the country who, under the local authorities, were receiving a scale of allowances higher than that laid down in July, 1948; but I am glad to say that no one's allowance has been decreased on that account. I want to remind the House that if they approve these draft Regulations tonight, and these new scales are introduced, there will still be some people who remain in that category—probably only a few—who may be receiving a scale of allowances slightly higher than the ones we are introducing tonight. If I may use the expression, it is a " hangover " from the old local authority days.
Before I come to the Regulations themselves, there are two classes which I want specially to mention. The House will recall that the National Asssistance Act placed a duty on the Board regarding blind persons and people suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis. The 1948 Regulation accordingly included a special scale of allowances for those people. Broadly, that special scale provided an additional 25s. for a husband and wife, both of whom were blind or undergoing treatment, and 15s. if one of them was affected. Under these special scales, the Board is now paying at these rates to about 45,000 blind persons and 25,000 tuberculosis cases. I regard the tuberculosis allowances as a national investment which, I believe, returns dividends of incalculable value. Not only, of course, is the worker enabled to leave his work and obtain treatment as soon as possible, but it must be remembered, too, that a source of infection is removed from the family. I am very glad to be able to say tonight that the new Regulations will maintain the existing difference between the new scale and the old.
The older Members of the House are, of course, very familiar with the procedure regarding National Assistance Regulations, but for the benefit of new Members I might, perhaps, just summarise it. The National Assistance Board is responsible for keeping an eye 1805 on the adequacy of the scales. It is for the Board from time to time to submit Draft Regulations. The Draft Regulations are submitted to me, and I, in turn, submit Draft Regulations to both Houses of Parliament. But, if the proposals which I put forward differ from those submitted to me by the Board, then it is necessary for me to submit a report to this House explaining why the two vary. I am pleased to say tonight that the Draft Regulations now before the House are in the same form as those submitted to me by the Board.
I think hon. Members will agree that this is a very simple document—a ()pod deal simpler than some of the Draft Regu— lations submitted to this House earlier on. It does not mean that there is any change in form; there is simply an increase in the scale rates. The scale rate for a single adult—and I am sure the House will be pleased to see that there is no sex differentiation—is increased by 2s., and for a married couple by 3s. 6d. With the increase now proposed, it will range from 8s. for a child up to the age of five to 12s. for a child over 11. I think it will be agreed that this is a substantial improvement on what some of us remember many years ago.
One of the main problems in the way of framing scales is how to deal with the wide variations in rent. The Board can never produce a single figure which would be fair, say, to a woman in a London suburb paying £1 a week rent and to a woman in a remote part of the country who may be paying 5s. for a cottage. As far as the assistance allowance is concerned, the practice, therefore, is to treat rent separately and to give a separate allowance to cover it. Normally the Board will pay the rent the applicant is paying, so long as it is reasonable in relation to the locality in which the applicant is living. We made an inquiry in 1948 which revealed that the average rent paid by the Board over the whole of the country was 10s. a week. I am pleased to tell the House that on inquiry I found comparatively few applicants are refused a full allowance for their rent.
I have been asked by hon. Members on both sides of the House to define the discretionary powers exercised by the Board. I have had to tell hon. Members often that these discretionary powers are very wide. They will be exercised under the 1806 Regulations. Discretionary power covers power to give assistance with extra food for sick people and even the cost of domestic help. I have sometimes felt that in this respect hon. Members have thought the Board may have been a little niggardly. [HON. MEMBERS: " Hear, hear."] My hon. Friends are not quite right in saying, " Hear, hear." One—quarter of the applicants for National Assistance received this extra grant and last year, in the aggregate, it cost the country £3 million. I hope my hon. Friends will recognise that the National Assistance Board appreciate that these discretionary powers can be exercised very widely.
I want to remind the House of the general basis on which these proposals are put forward. The duty of the Board is to put forward proposals and submit draft amendments as they think fit. Besides taking into account the movement of the index of retail prices, they must take into account wider considerations. They must, for instance, consider the importance of maintaining administrative stability.
Let me remind hon. Members of the volume of work this change will entail. There are something like one million order books outstanding which will have to be dealt with if these Regulations are approved. Therefore, it is of vital importance that when the Board submits Draft Regulations to us they should be able to do so on a footing that if these proposals are accepted they will be regarded as settling the whole question of assistance for some time to come.
The House will realise the administrative difficulty in adjusting the payments on a million hooks month after month or quarter after quarter. That is why hon. Members will realise that these scales are not mathematically related to the movements of the index of retail prices. In fact, the increase in those prices is something like 4 per cent., whereas the increase in these scales is much higher.
I think the House would like me to put on record something about the number and types of case on the Board's books. In March of this year there were rather less than 1,200,000 cases. Of these, over 700,000 were pensioners out of a total of 4½ million pensioners. I should like the House to remember that figure. Although there are over 4½— million pensioners in this 1807 country, only 700,000 have applied for assistance. The blind and tuberculous, as I have mentioned, account for about 70,000. About 75,000 out of a total of about one million recipients of sickness benefit were getting it supplemented. Supplementation was also being paid in 34,000 out of some 260.000 on unemployment benefit. The House will agree that that figure is a little different from the figure that we used to know some years ago. Then there were about 220,000 in a miscellaneous group consisting mainly of old people, sick people and widows not qualifying for insurance benefit. Lastly there are about 30,000 in local authority homes and in hospitals.
I want to say a word—because I feel that hon. Members will be asked this question by their constituents—about the date of operation and the procedure which will be followed in reviewing existing cases. All except 65,000 able—bodied men and women who are being paid at the exchanges draw their assistance by means of order books, and there are something like one million books to be dealt with. This is a considerable operation and will require the most careful preparation. It was quite impossible until I made the announcement in the House for these preparations to go forward, but now they are well in hand.
I want to make it quite clear that nobody who receives assistance by means of a book need do anything to claim any increase which in time may be paid to them. Everyone now paid by a book will receive a new book from the Board, and we hope that they will receive their books so that they will be paid very soon after 12th June. If, however, they do not receive their books they need not bother their Members of Parliament, because the books will come along; they will be paid, if not immediately after 12th June, then later on, but any arrears, of course, will be made up.
I now come to the cost to the Exchequer. These increases are expected to cost about £8,500,000 in a full year for the 1,200,000 existing cases alone. But I would remind hon. Members that when the basic pension went up in 1946 there were a number of pensioners who found themselves not eligible for supplementary assistance. As a result, with the increase in these rates these pensioners
1808 may now come forward again and apply for the increased rates. Besides those pensioners there will be others, too, because we always find that when rates are increased new applicants are attracted. For these reasons it is likely that the ultimate cost of the proposals which I am submitting to the House for approval will cost the Exchequer something of the order of £10 million.
My last word is this. I have always felt that whatever the scales of assistance may be, it is necessary to ensure that they are administered in a humane and kindly fashion. From my observations I believe that the National Assistance Board, serviced as it is by very fine men and women, is observing its duties very closely, and is being courteous, understanding and kindly to the applicants. I commend to them and to all hon. Members of this House, when we think of these people who are applying for assistance, to repeat to themselves and to ourselves, " There, but for the grace of God, go I."
§ 9.20 p.m.
§ Mr. W. S. Morrison (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)
I am sure the House would like me to thank the right hon. Lady for the clarity with which she has explained these Draft Regulations to us and to congratulate her on her promotion to be head of the Department which she now adorns. The only criticism which I myself would advance of the remarks she was good enough to make, is that they showed a quite pardonable reticence about the historical background of the edifice of national insurance and national assistance which we are now considering. Indeed, the National Assistance Board was set up by the Unemployment Act of 1934 and the labours of many Parliaments and many Ministers, of many different parties, have all gone to the gradual creation of this structure. In fact, the present system, which imposes upon us the necessity of considering again these scales of assistance, was enshrined in the Command Paper issued by the Coalition Government in September, 1944, when the principle was laid down that the scope of national assistance should be extended to all on proof of need.
That, I take it, is common ground on both sides of the House, and I do not think there is any right of one party more 1809 than another to pride itself upon achievements in this great social field. I recollect that when this matter was being discussed in another place, the present Lord Chancellor, who was, in fact, the first Minister of National Insurance—he was appointed during the Coalition Government, when the Ministry was set up —was good enough to give historical perspective of this matter. He mentioned the work done in building up this great system by Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, Mr. Asquith, Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Neville Chamberlain and the two then existing chairmen of the Assistance Board, Lord Rushcliffe and Lord Soulbury.
I am sure that a word of that sort, without straying too far afield, is necessary to give the historical perspective, but I am sure the House will agree with me that in our present straitened circumstances it must be very pleasant for the right hon. Lady to come before us with these proposals. It is not given to many Ministers nowadays to play a convincing role in the part of Santa Claus, and even if I cannot with propriety say that the right hon. Lady appears before us as Father Christmas, yet she has borne a very tolerable resemblance tonight to Lady Bountiful.
However, the hard fact needs to be faced by the House that these new Regulations are but a symptom of the increasing cost of living, of the fall in the power of our currency to command goods and services, of the decline in the purchasing power of the f; and this, of course, is an evil which afflicts many more people than those who are touched by these amended Regulations before us tonight. The regulations which we now propose to amend came into force on 5th July, 1948, and they remained stable at those rates until the present proposals. I remember that in answer to a Parliamentary Question the predecessor of the right hon. Lady stated, as recently as 13th December last:The Board do not think that the change in prices since the present rates of assistance were approved by Parliament last year is sufficient to justify them at present in submitting fresh draft regulations to me. The Board are, however, continuing to watch the position closely."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th December, 1949; Vol. 470. c. 2486.]Four months after that was said the right hon. Lady announced in the House that these increases would in due course 1810 be made and that the proper Draft Regulations would be laid before Parliament. It is evident that in the four months since the Minister said the change in prices—as he called it—did not justify an increase the Board have now come to the conclusion that they ought to ask the House to approve these increases. The words " the change in prices " are rather an anaesthetic or anodyne way of expressing what has occurred. It is, of course, quite clear that the only justification for these amended Regulations is the fact that there has been a rise in the cost of living, which is likely to continue, and that, in consequence, we must make provision for it.
We on this side of the House do not oppose these Regulations, but I feel bound to say that the evil of which they are the symptom is one which afflicts many more people than those who will receive some benefit from the amended Regulations. Indeed, all who depend in this country on fixed money payments of any sort are suffering from the rise in the cost of living—and in the cost of living increase the present high taxation plays a very great part. Service pensioners and other pensioners, people who are not on National Assistance but who are living on annuities and superannuation allowances very little above these scales, and, indeed, the lowest paid workers—are all feeling the effects of the rise in the cost of living, and are afflicted by the evil which these Regulations propose to mitigate in the case of those only who are receiving National Assistance.
It is quite clear—it must be—to the House that if we had a steady currency instead of a declining currency, the Assistance Board would not have found it necessary to bring these Draft Regulations before us, any more than they found it necessary in December last. A million people, roughly, who are drawing National Assistance would not have been, as they are now, worse off, and all the 'many other millions of people in the country in the categories to which I have already referred would not be feeling the pinch so sorely as they are at the moment.
The only other thing I should like to say is that we must give careful consideration to the consequences of the step we are taking unitedly tonight. There is a risk, always present in circumstances like 1811 these, of creating a disparity, an unbalance, between the various rates of monetary payments which go out in social services of one sort or another. Pensions and insurances, and so on, sick benefits—all these things should somehow be brought into line with the other social benefits of the State—insurance benefits, in particular. They are linked to contributions, and we cannot increase the benefits without increasing the contributions.
I think there is a large measure of agreement on all sides of the House that any further increase in contributions would bear very hardly both upon the employers and upon the workers. But the great thing about insurance benefits is that they are received as of right, whereas, however generous the scales we may have for National Assistance, they cannot be paid without determination of needs, and determination of needs involves a means test. There is also to be considered in these matters the effect of these scales and increases upon the lowest category of wages. Connected with all that group of problems are the problems of an inflationary situation, and until the central weakness is cured we shall never be free from the recurrence of those problems.
The real problem, the real difficulty, is the falling purchasing power of the currency. These Regulations will, for the time at least, mitigate the situation for those who are receiving National Assistance, but they are no permanent cure even in that restricted sphere. The permanent cure can only lie in general Government policy, in regions outside the Departmental purview of the right hon. Lady. I fancy I should not be in order in expanding this Debate into a discussion of a general economic character, but it is very well for this House, while agreeing to the Motion before it, to have regard to the grave trouble which has caused this Motion to be proposed to us tonight.
§ 9.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Carmichael (Glasgow, Bridgeton)
I am amazed at the approach of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. W. S. Morrison) to this matter. When he got well under way in his speech, I had the feeling that he was anxious to make a speech on the Budget, and not to deal with National Assistance at all. The 1812 money has to be found, and at the outset I would point out that we have had a rather strange and unique background to this Debate today, because earlier in our proceedings we heard woeful tales from the Opposition about the miserable existence of High Court judges living on their present salaries. I hope the same attention will be paid to our deliberations in dealing with those who are, without question, the very poorest people in the land. I accept the increases, like the rest of my hon. Friends, but I do so with mixed feelings. I regret to say that there are one or two things in the Regulations which, in my view, create anomalies which might be wiped out.
I wish to raise three issues. First, the scaling down could have been attended to with greater accuracy and with some benefit to the recipients; second, there is a differentiation between certain categories of people under 21 years of age; third, I shall deal with people living in local authority homes. The right hon. Lady will remember that when she made a statement in the House I asked whether the Regulations would be so framed as to give the benefits all round. I consider, first the scales, and I discover that, apart from people of 21 and over getting 2s., there are variations. Why is it that those between 18 and 21 years of age are permitted an increase of 1s. 6d., those between 12 and 16 an increase of ls. 6d., and those between 16 and 18 an increase of only ls.? The only explanation I can find on examination is that it makes the arithmetic in the Department a bit easier by giving an increase of ls. instead of ls. 6d. It cannot be an increased cost of living basis which permits the giving of Is. 6d. to certain categories while excluding those between 16 and 18. How is that arrived at? Unfortunately, we are not permitted to amend the Regulations; we have to accept them; but I think that is an anomaly which might well have been avoided.
§ Dr. Barnett Stross (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)
Has my hon. Friend considered that between the ages of 11 and 16 adolescence is the main factor, and that at such ages children of both sexes require more food than they do between the ages of 16 and 18?
§ Mr. Carmichael
My hon. Friend may be speaking as a medical man, but I know a lad between 16 and 18, and so far 1813 as eating is concerned I will put him against anyone the hon. Member likes to present. The point I am trying to make is that the group 18 to 21 get ls. 6d. and the group below—16 to 18—get Is. I want to know why the Department have subtracted one group and granted ls. as against the other group at Is. 6d.
My second point relates to those who are at present getting 24s. and will be getting 26s. We are told in paragraph 2 (1, b) that that sum is grantedFor a person who is living alone, or is a householder and, as such, is directly responsible for rent and household necessities.In the first place, can we be told quite clearly who is " a person living alone "? Will a person living in lodgings be regarded as living alone? Will a person living in a common lodging house, where there may be hundreds of people, be regarded as living alone? Will a person who is a relative, living in a house where he does not pay the rent but contributes towards the rent, be regarded as living with someone and, therefore, be denied the increased amount?
From all my long experience of Public Assistance, I have never known a local authority to differentiate between a person over 21, saying that one person should get a higher scale because he is living with certain people and another person should be denied it because he is living with other people. I will give a concrete case. If I live with a complete stranger, I get 26s.—2s. above the 24s. formerly granted. If I live with a relative, no matter how remote, I shall be regarded as being a member of some household and, therefore, be denied 4s.—not 2s., but 4s. It need not be argued that it is in consequence of rent, because the rent is excluded from the calculation in scaling. The rent is added to the scaling, so that the amount of money paid to the person is an amount to sustain that person in the ordinary material things from week to week. I objected to this from the very beginning. A person over 21 years of age, living with someone who may be regarded as a relative, will get 22s., but if he lives with a complete stranger he will get 26s.
I will put it another way. It is quite possible for a householder to apply and get 26s., although he may be living with a brother and sister earning quite good money. I want it to be clearly under 1814 stood that so long as he is a householder, no matter who else in the household is working, he will get the higher sum. I think that we are bound to admit that there is still a tendency for the Poor Law mind to operate in that particular scale. If it is not the Poor Law mind, what is it?
Surely an unemployed person who is compelled to go to the Assistance Board is entitled to be treated as an adult and get a scale laid down for adults. I submit that as being the practice among advanced local authorities for many years. For instance, Glasgow gave the 20s.—odd to all over 21, and I want it to be noted that at that time the first 10s. 6d. of National Health Insurance was excluded from the calculation, so that a person was actually getting a scale well over 30s.
I can find no justification for separating those over 21. It should be a flat scale for all of them, because rent is excluded entirely from the examination. In fact, if hon. Members examine the rent part, as I have done, they will find that those over 21, receiving the smaller sum, get a small fraction of rent because, again, it is thought of as being attached to the same family. I have calculated that throughout the country 62 per cent. of the people of that class only receive rent allowances of between 2s. and 5s. This makes it clear that not only are they not in the actual scaling, but, because they are living within the family and spread the total rent round every member of the family, they suffer also in consequence of that.
My final point concerns the person living in a local authority home. Why is that person not included in the increase? The amount paid today is 26s. —21s. claimed by the local authority and 5s. pocket money for the person in the institution. Surely the cost of living has gone up both for the institution and the individual? I have been making inquiries and have discovered that the cost of maintaining a person in an institution works out at between £3 4s. and £3 10s. a week. When bringing in a Measure to improve the conditions of the unfortunate, we might have thought of those people. Would it have been a difficult task for the Department or the Board to have granted at least 2s.—ls. for the local authority which pays a heavy bill at the moment, and an extra Is. for the person who has to meet the same cost of living as those living in their own homes?
1815 I am pleased at the approach which Assistance Board officials are making to recipients of relief. I am aware of this because I have been in close touch with them in my own area. Apart altogether however, from the rights of the recipients to get the increase, it would make the task of the local officials much easier. What will happen is that we shall have more claims presented for extra allowances—for clothing and for a lot of other things. I hope that the next time we are considering the Regulations we shall remove some of those unfortunate anomalies, because they are unfair. I ask the right hon. Lady not to think in terms merely of increasing the scale in accordance with the increased cost of living. We have always held the view, which I think she has also held, that for too long the people at the bottom of the social scale have had too little. If conditions improve, apart altogether from whether the cost of living goes up, it is our job to see that those who, I repeat, are the most unfortunate members of the community get all the advantages we can give them, particularly old age pensioners who are in the evening of the days.
§ 9.45 p.m.
§ Mr. J. N. Browne (Glasgow, Govan)
I crave the indulgence of the House, as this is my maiden speech. In my view, there are two ways in which the regulations are not just as they should be. In one case they go too far, and in the other, they do not go far enough. The hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Carmichael) has given me a lead because I wanted to speak about old age pensioners in receipt of supplementary allowances. I should like to echo the sentiments of the right hon. Lady the Minister when she spoke of the sympathy, the skill and the careful attention which are given by the officers of the Board to these old people. I am sure that both sides of the House will agree with me that these men carry out their work in a very fine and creditable manner. [HON. MEMBERS: " Hear, hear."]
In interesting myself in this matter, I first of all wanted to find out the spending pattern of the old age pensioner, because unless one knows how the old age pensioner spends his or her money, it is difficult to make a case to the Minister and to suggest any improvement. I went to 1816 the Library of this House, but I could find nothing at all that told me how the old age pensioner spends his money, nor from any source could I get this information. With the assistance, therefore of my friends in Govan and elsewhere I have carried out a fairly scientific survey of exactly how old age pensioners spend their money, and I crave the indulgence of the House if I read out this pitiful little bill of 26s. worth of living:Food … 14s. 6½d. per week, made up as follows:Bread, potatoes and flour—2s. 6d.Meat, including bones and offal—1s. 4dMilk, half a pint a day—ls. 1½d.Vegetables "— there is nothing here for fruit——1s. 6d. Tea, cocoa and similar drinks "—there is nothing at all for alcohol——1s. 2d.Jam—1s. 6d.Bacon and eggs"—sometimes the old folk take milk instead of bacon and eggs——Is. 4d.Butter, margarine and cooking fat—11d. Porridge or cereals—7+d.Sugar and cheese—41d.Fish—1s, 2d.Sundries "—that is, condiments arid other foods——1s. 0d.That is, 14s. 6½d. worth of food. The next heading is: " Fuel and light," which comes to 5s. 9d. made up, as far as I gather, by coal, 4s. 3d., and light and cooking, 1s. 6d. The next item is " Tobacco and/or sweets "—there is no room for both—which comes to 1s. 6d., and finally " Sundries," which amount to 4s. 2½d. and are made up as follow:Soap, powders and disinfectants—11½d.Matches—2d.Bus and travel—6d.Admission to entertainment or a subscription to the Old Age Pensioners' Association—2d.Reading matter and newspapers "—which are vital to the old people——10d.This item must in some cases include 4d. for a wireless licence.Boot and clothing repairs not met by the State—8d.Hairdressing, shaving, toilet, brushes, combs, etc. —5d.and for men over 67 and women over 62—Funeral insurance—6d.1817 I should like the House to note that this pitiful little bill of 26s. contains no item which can be supplied under the heading of supplementary allowances, as these items are normal needs which are intended to be covered by the scale rate and are not regarded as exceptional needs.
Examine these figures for a moment. The conditions of old age remain for the full span of the declining years; one cannot expect any improvement; and these figures, although they may give life, cannot give enjoyment of life. I have made many surveys and have received figures from all sources. I have had to arrive at averages to give the House this information. Perhaps the publication of these figures will give rise to charges that they are incorrect. I hope that they do so, because only by the examination of this serious matter can we hope to arrive at a right conclusion. I ask the Minister also if, when she has examined these figures, she could provide a similar break—down, and explain to the House how the Ministry intend that the sum of 26s. a week should be spent.
If my survey has done nothing else, it has achieved its object because it has shown where lies the greatest hardship. I am not referring to the fact that if the old gentleman wants to go to the pictures he has to give up one of these little items, or that if he wants another packet of cigarettes or another glass of beer, he must go without something else. I am talking about a much graver hardship, that is, in relation to fuel. Hon. Members will have noticed that of the 26s., 5s. 9d. is spent on fuel; that is, 22 per cent. I could not find any current statistics, but, in the Bulletin of the Oxford University Institute of Statistics, I found that in 1938 for the lower income group 8 per cent. was spent on fuel, as against 22 per cent. today.
The result of my survey is that old people—far too many of them—are not spending 5s. 9d. a week on fuel, but 8s. 6d. to 8s. 9d., just to keep warm. Far too many old people today, in spite of supplementary allowances, are faced with going without desirable foods—and they usually go without butter, eggs or jam—or staying in bed, in a cold, dark room, because they cannot afford to maintain a fire. It is wrong that old people should be faced with this alternative of being able to keep warm, or 1818 getting correct food to eat, but they cannot do both. I am aware that there are powers to supplement fuel, but those powers of supplementation only refer to damp and dark premises, and they do not go far enough.
In all sincerity I ask the Minister to consider the point, which I believe to be administratively practicable, of giving old people a bag of coal a week or, alternatively, a weekly fuel token to the value of 2s. 6d. or 3s. to be accepted by the fuel supplier in lieu of cash. I suggest that these tokens be held by the National Assistance Board officers and given out by the Board's officers, who would have discretionary powers to give them especially to old people who live alone, with no other means of support, or to old people who live in houses which are abnormally dark or damp. If the Minister did this, it would not be a too heavy drain on the Exchequer because it would only occur in winter and would be received by a small proportion of the 700,000 pensioners on receipt of supplementary allowances. I do not think it would cost more than £1 million a year.
In these days one should not suggest spending money without suggesting some way in which it can be saved. I said that the Regulations did not go far enough in relation to old age pensioners. I want to make a counter suggestion. I believe the Regulations as at present drafted go too far in another direction. In my view it is wrong that while old people have to stay in bed to keep warm there is a class—admittedly a small class —of people in receipt of National Assistance which they do not deserve. I refer to those who habitually commit industrial misconduct, those who come under the category of " benefit suspended " or " benefit disallowed " and not under appeal. These are men who deliberately throw up their jobs, or refuse suitable employment in some cases, and who know quite well that the employment exchange will not keep them, but do not care because they know the Assistance Board will keep not only their wives and children but also themselves.
These people are known personally to the officers of the Board. They come to the offices, usually on a Friday, and plead urgent need on a plea of destitution, and the officers of the Board are only able, as far as I can ascertain, to dock them 1819 two or three shillings under the present Regulations and they must, quite rightly and properly, provide for the wives and children. I have tried to find the extent to which this is going on. The only record I can get from the Ministry is in page 21 of the Report of the Assistance Board for the year ended 1947. It shows some 2,000 a week, but, as we have already been told, certain types of cases were at that time being passed on to the local authorities who in some cases gave relief on a much more meagre scale. It is surprising to me—I hope that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong —that since the new Act came into operation in 1948, no statistics appear to have been kept of " benefit suspended " or " disallowed cases." I have, therefore, to make my own estimate because of lack of other information.
I believe that investigation would show that there are nearer 20,000 of these cases per week than the 2,000 per week in 1947. Even if my figure is an over—estimate, the figure will steadily increase as loopholes are found in the Regulations and as those loopholes are more widely known. If I am correct, the cost to the National Assistance Board and Exchequer grant funds is some £20,000 per week. That means that £20,000 more per week is being received by these men than they are entitled to expect from their fellow men. That is £1 million a year, which, diverted to fuel allowances, would bring warmth, light and happiness to some 250,000 old people who are not getting them now.
Surely some action should be taken to stop this very undersirable leakage of National Assistance funds. I believe that the Board already have the powers in Clause 3 of the National Assistance (Determination of Need) Regulations, 1948, which we are now discussing, to adjust the amount of benefit to the amount appropriate to the circumstances. We have heard of the benefit being increased. There may be appropriate circumstances in which the benefit can be reduced. I suggest that the Board have been over—generous and have been timid in the use of the powers which they already have. So far as I can ascertain, there have been only two or three instances of prosecution in this type of case. I do not think that in giving instructions to their officers the 1820 Board have made it sufficiently clear that they will support to the full the widest use of the discretionary powers of their officers very drastically to reduce or in some cases even completely to stop allowances made for the personal benefit of known habitual offenders.
I ask the Minister to look into this matter and to take a firmer line with this sort of offender. If she does so she will find a desirable saving from every point of view and one which will go far to offset the essential additional relief to which, I feel, these old people are so justly entitled.
§ 9.58 p.m.
§ Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)
I am sure that the whole House will join with me in extending congratulations to the hon. Member for Govan (Mr. Browne) on his eloquent and informative maiden speech. If I may say so, I think that he is on the wrong side of the House. I recall that I made my maiden speech on the very same question of old age pensioners in February, 1943. The hon. Member happens to possess the same surname as myself, and he has certainly given the House evidence of his interest in old age pensioners. I hope that when at a subsequent date, the time comes, he will reveal the same enthusiasm in his plea for some assistance to those who are getting just the bare pension.
It was on 4th November that I, with a number of other Members, raised the question of an amendment to the National Assistance Regulations, which we now have presented to the House. I recall that there was not the same enthusias m as is manifested tonight. There were only comparatively few in the House, certainly fewer on the Opposition 'benches, when we pleaded for some consideration of the Regulations. I made a suggestion which, I think, as the amended Regulations reveal, was accepted by the Government. I suggested that there were three Departments concerned with bringing forth amended Regulations to assist those people who were most in need. One Department was the Ministry of National Insurance and the others the National Assistance Board and the Treasury. I suggested that the high level officials in each Department together with the Minister should get together and, with a will and determination, amend the Regulations, which fell 1821 very far short of meeting the needs of the most needy.
I am delighted to know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of National Insurance has done so exceedingly well since she took over the office. I would like to congratulate her on performing what I consider to be a miracle. The days of miracles are not over. She has performed a miracle, in these days of economic stress, by extracting from the Treasury 01 million. That is an accomplishment, and I heartily congratulate her and her Department on having done what has been done.
§ Mr. Brown
I wish he was here. The acceptance of the amended Regulations now before the House can be acclaimed without fear of contradiction as another step forward in the field of social insurance. They aim at making a further provision against every one of the main attacks which economic ill—fortune can launch against individual well—being and peace of mind.
The story of the growth and development of our Social Services is a great and a long story, and it is characteristically a British story. Like so many of the institutions of this country, it has been slow in its growth, unhurried in its develop— ment, but capable, as is manifested by the present Regulations, of quickening its tempo to meet the urgent demands of necessity. It has been characteristically British in its growth, its variety, its flexibility and its readiness to admit the necessity for improvements. Our social insurance schemes carry a policy, as no one can deny, of securing a balanced combination of humanity and freedom. They seek, and have always sought from the very early days, the abolition of want; but not at the expense of individual liberty.
No one can deny that today we are living in a vastly changing world. The opinions and thoughts of responsible people have changed considerably, and within the last few months the opinions of hon. Members opposite have changed considerably on this particular aspect. The weight of public opinion has brought that great change about. It is interesting to compare some of the statements that were being made during the last 40 years.
1822 I shall not quote every one of them, but I will quote two. I recall, having read the history of this House, that on 9th July, 1908, a well known Member of the Opposition said that he was surprised that a Government pledged to economy should come to this House and wantonly break their pledges. That was said by a prominent Conservative in this House. I compare that statement, made in 1908—
§ Mr. Speaker
I think that we had better get back to 1950. Nineteen hundred and eight is a long time ago.
§ Mr. Brown
I should just like to repeat what was said in 1948 by the Bishop of Croydon. He is not a politician. He said:We thank God that the Government is taking care of the aged as the Church never could do.The aged are getting a far better deal than ever before, and the growing interest of the Government in their case is a matter of vital concern. The Government are helping the most needy people in our land by the Regulations now before us. No longer do the old people appear in the dreary queue outside the Poor Law doctor's surgery. They choose their own home doctor now as a right, which they never had before the passing of the National Insurance Act.
As I have said, these Regulations are another step forward in the field of social security. I thank the right hon. Lady for taking this courageous step at a time when this country is under economic stress. As one who has tried throughout his life to improve the lot of the most needy, I say, " Thank you " to those who have made these Amendments possible. I express the profound hope that, when the opportunity presents itself, my right hon. Friend will act with the same speed, the same courage and determination and the same human feeling, to increase the basic pension of our old people, remembering, as I said in my maiden speech in 1943, that a nation finds its soul only when it looks after its old people. I hope and trust that the right hon. Lady and her Department will bear that in mind. I welcome these Regulations, which will meet to some degree the most needy cases.
§ 10.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Macdonald (Roxburgh and Selkirk)
I should like to present my congratulations to the hon. Member for 1823 Govan (Mr. Browne), who made a truly remarkable maiden speech which was full of most useful information and was a constructive speech in every sense. I should like also to congratulate the right hon. Lady the Minister of National Insurance on the much—needed Amendment Regulations which she has brought forward tonight and which, I hope, will have the full support of Members of all parties. I know that these Regulations will be welcomed by that very large section of the community, the old age pensioners and those in great need—people who are dependent upon Members of all parties in this House to give them a fair deal.
I wish to ask two questions. These supplementary allowances have become necessary as a result of the increase in the cost of living. I have looked through these Regulations in an endeavour to find some provision that these supplementary allowances will be further increased should the cost of living rise still further. In her speech the right hon. Lady mentioned that amendments to Regulations of this kind meant a great deal of clerical work in the different offices of the Ministry of National Insurance, and I rather gathered from her statement that it was anticipated, or hoped, that there would be no need to do this work again for a very considerable time ahead; but we cannot be sure for one moment that the cost of living is likely to remain stable. In fact, it may go higher, and this section of the public certainly needs our protection so that, if the cost of living does go higher, it will not leave them in want.
My second question also concerns supplementary allowances. I ask the Minister whether those who are not now drawing supplementary allowances, but who may need to do so in future, will have to wait very long before they can benefit. The right hon. Lady said that those now drawing them will get new books for their old books, but the new applicant may have to wait some considerable time. I should be glad to know what assurances can be given to them.
§ 10.11 p.m.
§ Mr. Hubbard (Kirkcaldy Burghs)
It was with some satisfaction that I listened to my right hon. Friend tonight introduce these Regulations, having heard her on many occasions, before she reached the 1824 elevated rank which she now so graciously occupies, make earnest appeals on behalf of the old age pensioners who are greatly affected by these Regulations.
I am fully aware that every consideration has been given to all aspects of this matter. Nevertheless, there are, in my opinion, one or two points which warrant further consideration. It is stated in the amended Regulations that householders would be entitled to the 26s. a week National Assistance scale but there is one class of people now drawing National Assistance who, while they may be scaled at 26s., will, in fact, after the date when these Regulations come into operation, receive considerably less. I refer to widows who are between the ages of 50 and 60, who receive 24s. at the moment and will receive 26s. under the new Regulations, but who will, in fact, have to pay 3s. 8d. every week for a stamp for National Insurance to enable them to qualify for a pension.
While my right hon. Friend is anxious to do the right thing, so that everyone will be able to meet the present—day cost of living, these people will find themselves out in the wilderness, as one section of the community poorer than the old age pensioners. I had rather hoped, having drawn the attention of the Assistance Board to this anomaly on more than one occasion, that it might have been taken up this time, particularly when we remember my right hon. Friend's statement that it may be some considerable time before we can hope to amend the Regulations again.
Then there is another section of the community which will be little better off. I refer to the old age pensioners or persons living on National Insurance rates who are not paying rent and rates. Those are the qualifying words in regard to the National Assistance scales. I have had experience of an old age pensioner living with his family, in which there was a rather large number of children, having a struggle at all times to keep up with the cost of living. Of necessity they brought the father into the home to live with them in order to give him a little more care and attention that little affection which means so much to old people. But what did they find? They found that the 26s. a week which their father was drawing by way of National Insurance 1825 benefit could not now be supplemented because he was living with relatives, even though their own income was very low. They might well have taken in a boarder who would have had to pay far more than 26s. a week. It was impossible for them to treat the old gentleman very generously; they could not buy him clothes. An application was made to the Assistance Board for clothes, but it was refused.
I am sorry to relate that the economic circumstances of these people were so reduced through trying to assist the old man that, in the end, he had to go to what was formerly the Poor Law authority, which of course cost the country more than it would have done if he had been given a little supplementary benefit. A person living in a house for which he is paying rent and rates can enjoy supplementary benefit up to 24s. after rent and rates have been paid, but a person living with his own relatives is denied such supplementary benefit.
Then there is the case of the man who, for some reason, has never paid National Health Insurance contributions and who receives only the ordinary National Assistance scale of 20s. Such a man may find himself in the same position. I should be very interested to know whether, in fact, those who receive no old age pension or any other payment from social insurance, and who are drawing 20s. a week from the National Assistance Board, are allowed to have their benefit made up to the 26s. or the 22s. as the case may be. There are one or two exceptions. No one would want to oppose the Regulations when they realise the difficult circumstances in which old people are living at the present moment. This applies not only to old people, but also to those who perhaps, have been unable to work through sickness
It might also be said that a more generous scale might be given by way of a clothing allowance because the cost of clothes is based on what it used to cost local authorities to provide the clothing by bulk purchase. I have found that the sum allowed is absolutely inadequate for the purchase of individual items of clothing, although it was sufficient under the system of bulk purchase. I was very interested to hear the right hon. Gentleman 1826 opposite relate the need for these Regulations to the increased cost of living, but we must remember that the old people have been pursuing this point for many years, and that it is not something which has arisen only recently.
It is very interesting to note that for some people, the cost of living increased only last night. I am sure old age pensioners will not be overjoyed to know that now the cost of a meal may be 30s., whereas all they receive is 26s. a week. I am glad to see a more humane and generous approach to this question by hon. Members opposite even at this late date. I remember, in 1947, the right hon. Gentleman who then represented the Scottish Universities in this House suggesting that the Government were premature when they increased the basic pension.
In conclusion, I wish to say that while we welcome this change, I hope that the response which the right hon. Lady will get from the country as a consequence will spur her on to greater things, and that she will find some way of helping the widows who have to pay National Health contributions if they want a pension at the age of 60.
§ 10.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Summers (Aylesbury)
Like those who have spoken before me, I greatly welcome the new Regulations the right hon. Lady has put before the House. At the same time, I deplore their necessity. It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman the Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) to describe the advent of these Regulations as a great step forward. What he appears to overlook is that people are stepping forward on a moving staircase. He may have found, as I have found, that for some unaccountable reason it is far more tiring to walk upstairs on a moving staircase than it is on a stationary one.
§ Mr. Summers
Unfortunately there appears to be no prospect of this moving staircase coming to an end. I am glad to welcome these Regulations, first because the most deserving in the community are to have consideration, since the right hon. Lady has found it possible to give them help, unlike the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Budget arrange 1827 ments for this year. Secondly, I welcome the Regulations because I think that, more and more, we shall have to discriminate in the expenditure of the taxpayers' money to make sure that those who really need help do in fact get it. The fact that within two years of the previous Regulations being brought forward it has been necessary to come to this House and admit that they are quite inadequate for the needs of the day is a shocking indictment of Socialism in practice.
I was interested when the right hon. Lady told us that we ought not to compare, say, the addition of 3s. 6d. for a married couple under these Regulations with any figure arising from a strict interpretation of the cost of living index or the index of retail prices. I understood from her that she had intended to put rather more into these Regulations than an exact calculation of the past would have made possible if that had been done strictly. Since the Regulations have been brought out, there has been a rise of five points in the cost of living basis.
§ Mr. Summers
If the hon. Gentleman will look up the figure, he will find it has gone up from 108 in April, May, July, August, September and October, 1948.
I have taken the trouble to see how an increase in the cost of living is translated into terms of money in those wage regulations which are linked with the cost of living. It is interesting to see how those figures compare with the 3s. 6d. which, under these Regulations, it is suggested a married couple should have in addition to what they had before.
Arrangements in different industries differ greatly. Some only make a change when there is a rise of three points. That is the position in the building industry. In the steel industry each point is reflected in a change in wages related to the cost of living. In the boot and shoe industry, it takes four points before a change is made. The upshot is that for a rise of five points, such as we have had since 1948, there would follow a rise of 2s. 10d. a week on wages in the building industry. In the iron and steel industry the rise would be 3s., and in the 1828 boot and shoe industry and hosiery manufacture 4s. for men and 3s. for women.
If in the light of those figures we take the 3s. 6d. that is now suggested, there does not seem to be very much wrong with that comparison, but when we are told that it is expected to have in it some element to take care presumably of still further additions to the cost of living, then surely it must be regarded as inadequate. It is not many days since we were told that the increase in the cost of food would be something approaching one point. The increase in railway fares translated into coal and various other items may well result in the best part of an additional point being added. We have the effect of the increase in the price of petrol, and still further increases to come, in my judgment, from the ultimate effects of devalution.
If, therefore, under these Regulations, at the very most 6d. is expected to take care of the further rises still to come, which on the basis of wage rates may be expressed in terms of 7d. a point in the cost of living, then I suggest the Regulations will not last long and it will not be long before the right hon. Lady has to come to this House again and tell us that all the planning from the Government benches has failed to do justice to the requirements of the people who are most in need.
There will be two main indirect results from the very welcome changes which we are now considering. The first will be the effect on wage scales. When we find that a man paying a rent of the order of £1 a week, having three children, will have a claim to something like £5 a week, there will be many too close to that amount who will quite properly say " If for a regular week's work I can earn but a few shillings in addition to the basic needs as judged by these Regulations, then it is surely time that I had an increase in my wages." [HON. MEMBERS: " Why not? "] The Chancellor of the Exchequer is the person to whom that question should be addressed.
We are now told that it is not expected that the additional assistance will be limited merely to those who are at present drawing benefits. Of course, as the rates go up so will be the attraction for fresh people to put forward claims in consequence. A man who is out of work or 1829 sick, with three children, will receive in the form of National Insurance benefit £3 a week in round figures. Under these minimum scales, in terms of need the basis is found to be £5 a week for such a man. There will therefore be the attraction of applying for an additional £2 under the Regulations. It suggests to me that the total increase which was mentioned by the right hon. Lady is a considerable under—estimate of what we may expect under these Regulations.
This is not the time to expand on the economic situation. We are all familiar with the inflationary effect of wages chasing prices. Instead of that spiral between wages and prices with which we are familiar, it seems that we are getting into a spiral of one Government expenditure chasing another and making still further Government expenditure necessary to deal with the needs of the people. It seems to me, therefore, that these Regulations point both a warning and a moral. The warning I have already dealt with, and the moral, if the House will bear with me for a couple of minutes more, can best be expressed in a little conundrum which used to be set as an intelligence test and which I think is not entirely irrelevant to what we are discussing this evening.
It is said that once two sheiks were crossing the desert on two camels. [An HON. MEMBER: " Do they come under the Regulations? "] They had gone a long way and were in sight of an oasis when they met, coming towards them, another traveller who reported to them that there was only enough water at the oasis for one camel. In that part of the world chivalry still prevails and the tradition is that the first arrival must on no account water his camel, but must give place to his neighbour, as a kind of hospitality. The riders were both very fond of their camels, one of which was noted for its endurance and the other for its loyalty, and realising the situation, they both rode slower and slower and slower, so that neither should arrive first and have to give way, until finally they reached a standstill—not unlike the situation we had in this House on Monday night. The traveller, looking over his shoulder, observed them standing still. Then suddenly he noticed that one spoke to the other, after which they galloped to the oasis. The conundrum which was put was, What 1830 were the two words, and two only, which resulted in that marked change in the situation?
§ Mr. Summers
The hon. Gentleman does not think fast enough. I will not detain the House. The two words, which I commend to the British public at the present time, were " Change camels."
§ 10.33 p.m.
§ Mr. Crossman (Coventry, East)
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Summers) and to agree with him on two points. I also would like to raise the question whether the increase in these scales is large enough to meet the prospects of the next 18 months. I agree that if the increase in scales encourages an underpaid worker to achieve a decent wage, that will have an excellent subsidiary effect. I note with pleasure the contrast between the hon. Gentleman's attitude to the problem and that of his own Front Bench. We had the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. W. S. Morrison) telling us of the menace of these increases because they would create a wages crisis, and we see the younger and more progressive Tories understanding to the full that if we produce a national minimum—for the scales of supplementary assistance are designed to provide the minimum on which a human being can live and retain his human dignity—it is a basis on which all wages should rest.
§ Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, East)
I understood from a recent article of the hon. Member that the wage freeze was the sole explanation of full employment.
§ Mr. Crossman
I do not know to what the hon. Member refers. What I pointed out—and I will repeat verbatim what I said in my article—was that as a makeshift it had maintained full employment, but that in justice wage restraints had to be instituted which permitted increases in pay for lower—paid workers. If these new scales of assistance have the subsidiary effect of encouraging the lower—paid workers to demand what the Chancellor of the Exchequer has already repeatedly told them they should demand, these Regulations certainly should not be criticised for that reason.
1831 I should like to make some reference to the character of this Debate. I think it is very satisfactory that so many hon. Members have decided to attend it. I remember vividly the first time I sat on a public assistance committee: it was in a very reactionary borough, the borough of Oxford, and at that time it had very few Labour members. I remember on that occasion the chairman, who was an old Oxford don—and we did not have any scales of assistance in Oxford then; we were too sensitive and individualistic for that saying, when the case of a certain lady was brought forward, " Oh, I do not think her character is very good; give it to her in kind; she is not worth the money." That attitude did pervade the situation.
As my right hon. Friend said, National Assistance brought up some of the backward boroughs but did not improve some of the progressive municipalities. I think she was candid in asserting that. It may be true that in some progressive Labour boroughs, so far from National Assistance assisting, it had a slightly retrogressive effect, bringing the bottom up but also smoothing off some of the peaks. It moved from democratic control to centralised control, which meant that no longer could local councillors respond to need. We in this House are the only democratic representatives who can respond to need. It is a good and healthy thing, therefore, that we should be sitting here this evening and recognising that we are the only democratic representatives to whom these one million people can go for justice. It is through us that they may get it: through pressure on us. With great respect, I would point out to the Opposition that until this evening I have not heard any great response from them on this question.
§ Mr. Crossman No doubt individual Members have done it. I noticed the other night pressure from other groups—the road hauliers—and a certain response to demands by the herring industry for a subsidy; but on the issue of these one million people it is a very instructive thing that until this evening, during the five months in which it was necessary to urge reforms, the pressure for these reforms has been wholly from this side of the House and not from the other side.1832
§ Squadron—Leader A. E. Cooper
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I should like to point out to him that in the division which I have the honour to represent and which has a strong Conservative council and has had one for a long time, we have a system operating under these Regulations which no Socialist borough in the United Kingdom operates, by which we subsidise meals for old age pensioners.
§ Mr. Crossman
I think I have proved my point. The hon. and gallant Member for Ilford, South (Squadron—Leader A. E. Cooper) knows little about this subject. It is a satisfactory thing, but it is five months too late that we have achieved it. I hope that the next time we shall achieve it earlier. [HON. MEMBERS: " It is your own Front Bench."] I am saying it is a good thing that, because of pressure from behind the Front Bench, this thing has been achieved. A Front Bench which responds in a period of two months rather than in a period of years is not so bad. The response of the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury was that of a man who would have taken years to move.
§ Mr. Macdonald (Roxburgh and Selkirk)
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Liberal Party, which I have the honour to represent, takes second place to none in its pressure for increased benefits?
§ Mr. Crossman
We are all glad to see the mood of anxiety after the event, but we did not see the Liberal Party in all its strength accompanying us on our delegation to the Ministry of National Insurance Perhaps the next time they will come to help us, and not congratulate themselves on the achievement after the event.
The issue which we have to discuss is. I think, whether these Regulations are sufficient. It is stated that the cost of living has gone up by five per cent., or by between four and five per cent., and that this is an increase of eight per cent., which gives a three per cent. margin. Those who have stated this know that the cost of living index is no index of the life of a man living on National Assistance. The cost of living index is weighted in terms of drink, and of " smokes," which they cannot afford.
1833 Unfortunately, the cost of those items which bulk largest in the budget of the very poor have gone up much more than the cost of such items as tobacco and cigarettes, and beer, which bulk larger in the cost of living the better off you are. Therefore, it is perfectly clear that, though the cost of living may have increased by between four and five per cent. only, the increase in the scales, in my view, just about makes up for the increase in the cost of living without any such margin as, I think, the hon. Member for Aylesbury calculated.
I would rather see the increase which some of us originally proposed, of 2s. 6d. and 4s. 6d. for the pair, instead of what we have at present, because it would have given a margin. We may find it necessary to keep up this pressure until the House of Commons is aware of its centralised responsibility to those one million unfortunate people who ought to be an absolute first charge upon the community, for the relief of destitution surely conies as an absolute first charge about which there can be no question. That should be done before anything else can be afforded.
I had the misfortune, or accident, last December to write an article on this subject and I received 300 letters. What I learned from those letters impressed me with the urgency of two points. I found that in half the cases which I put to the Chairman of the Board, a substantial increase had to be granted. That proved to me overwhelmingly that if for half of the cases discretionary relief had to be granted, the scales needed to be raised, because discretionary additions are for specific reasons and not for the general cost of living. The second thing which I learned was that half of the cases were those of people who did not know to what they were entitled. What really appalled me in that large correspondence was the number of people writing to me in desperation, whereas all they had to do was to go to the assistance officer and demand by right what some of them seemed still to regard as unpleasant Poor Law charity.
I see that the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) does not like my talking of their rights. He has not learned that these have been achieved during his absence from this House. I think it is important for us, as Members 1834 of the House, to see that there is sufficient publicity for the citizens of this country to know that, since the passing of this new Act, they are entitled by right, and not by charity, to these scales of supplementary assistance, so that there shall not be, as I believe there are in many of our towns today, hundreds of people who literally do not know either that they are entitled to it or that it is not going to be given to them in conditions which offend human dignity.
I congratulate the Minister, and through her the Chairman of the Assistance Board, on taking away that stigma. One of the things that I look back on over the last five years which has been really Socialist in spirit is removal of the idea that this is Poor Law and is a patronage from above. It was typical when the right hon. Gentleman said how kind Santa Claus was in coming down and giving this. These scales are being raised because these people have the right under our system to he given sufficient to make them free from destitution. No one gives it them from above. It is granted through Parliament as a necessity of that new way of life which we are trying to build.
One last point—again about wages. I very much hope that the creating of this national minimum standard of living will give an impetus to the lower—paid workers. It is high time that it was given. Though it may create problems, there are some problems which need to be created today.
§ 10.45 p.m.
§ Sir Ian Fraser (Morecambe and Lonsdale)
May I add my congratulations to those which have been given to the hon. Member for Govan (Mr. Browne)? It is indeed interesting to those who, like myself, have been in this House for a considerable number of years, to witness the keen interest in matters of this kind which seems to be part of the tradition brought to this House by men from that part of Glasgow.
I should like also to offer my congratulations to the Minister on her promotion, and I think one should add a word or two of appreciation of our old friend, George Buchanan. If there is a person who would command the confidence of all sides of the House, and the local officers of this Department, he is that person. So far as the local officers are concerned, I must add that I have been surprised and gratified at the courtesy with which they 1835 treat the inquiries put to them, both from hon. Members of this House and by constituents whom they are so ready to meet and help.
In 1925, or certainly in the Conservative Parliament of 1924 to 1929, when Lord Rushcliffe was Minister of Labour—
§ Sir I. Fraser
— I and one or two others—I was a private Member—put down a new Clause to the Determination of Needs Bill; it was accepted as an Amendment, and the effect of it was the exemption of the first £1 a week of the disabled ex—Service man's pension from inclusion when need was being assessed in order to establish what amount of public assistance should be given.
I have reason to believe, from what I hear, that this exemption of the first £1 of the individual disabled ex—Service man's income is not being observed by the Board. I believe that they are taking into account either the wife's allowance, or the children's allowance, or some of the special hardship or other allowances if given, whereas I am quite certain that Parliament intended, and the law provides, that one pound of the total pension should be excluded from consideration. Will the Parliamentary Secretary, when he replies, tell me that he will look into this or that I am wrong? But I believe they are not carrying out the law, and the result is to the detriment of the ex—Service man.
May I say that I am glad that the blind people are continuing to have special consideration? I ask the indulgence of the House to say a sentence or two on this, because there is a special case for consideration of the blind in these matters, since for them living is more costly than it is for other people in similar conditions. In the determination —of need, or the means test. I think it is very important that the House and the country should recognise the fact that the Labour Government have had a very big majority in this House over a period of nearly five years, and are now maintaining the principle of the means test. There is a means test as one of the basic principles of all these allowances to which we are granting increases tonight. It is 1836 important that the country should recognise this because continuity of policy and an understanding by all our people of the principles that are involved is vital to the smooth working of our system.
Since I have sat in this House for 25 years or more and heard in Parliament after Parliament representatives of the Labour Party, including notably George Buchanan, to whom I have made reference, and others, point out the iniquity of the means test as a matter of principle since many elections, individually and otherwise, have been won on this issue; and since this is wholly misleading and utterly contrary to public policy as well as contrary to human nature, it strikes me that it ought to be put on record now that the Labour Party. in two Governments. are committed to the principle of the means test.
If a man is dealing with his own family and there are in his family four or five boys or girls, some of whom are in work and some of whom are not, some of whom are having good luck and some are not, some of whom are thrifty and earnest and hard—working and some arc feckless and careless and undisciplined—if there is such a family and if one of them comes to father, the head of the house, and says, " Dad, will you help me to set up in business in this way or that way; will you help me about a spot of bother I have got into?" what does father do about it and what do the family expect him to do about it?
He considers all the circumstances of all the members of his family. He takes into account what they have done, how well they have tried, and also what means they have. If the boy who persistently comes to ask for help happens to be in a good and well—paid job and has married a wife who keeps a little shop, and if the father knows that particular son is best off of the lot, then that son will be the one he will be the last to help, because he will know that the need of the others is greater.
There is a means test applied by every prudent father in every family in the land, and it cannot be wrong for the nation, in considering its duty towards those who need help, to apply the same kind of test to one of its citizens who needs help from his neighbours. This principle is, therefore, a proper one. It is something that 1837 has to be continued and defended in any country which wishes to go on looking after the old, the poor and the needy, instead of giving money wastefully to those who are not in need. Therefore it is important that it should go on record that two Labour Governments, after all they have said for years, have now, at last, under the responsibility of being in office, seen the necessities of the matter.
§ Sir I Fraser
I do not blame right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite for changing their minds. The only people who are not to be admired are those who have not the courage to say they have changed their minds. Experience has changed their minds, and it is inevitable when the burden of responsibility falls upon them and they themselves have to administer, that they should find out what are the difficulties of administration.
I myself believe, with the hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman), that the care of the poor and the needy and the old is a first charge upon those who are still fit to work and to earn, but I also believe that a prudent management of the national finances will enable a decreasing number of those who are young enough to work and earn to earn more for those who are children or are old or sick. For remember that the old, the sick and the poor can only be helped out of the earnings of the workers and they are a limited number of the population—and a decreasing number. It therefore follows that unless we encourage profitable business which will increase the national income, we cannot find the money to do what should be done in regard to this first charge on the nation's earnings.
I have promised not to detain the House unduly, but I want to make one observation on the remark of the right hon. Lady about the cost of living scale being a little more than the actual arithmetic would have suggested, the reason being that she cannot make changes frequently and that she wants a certain measure of stability for a year or two. That is a good reason for what she has done, but mark the implication: the implication is that she expects a continuing rise in the cost of living. [HoN. MEMBERS: " No."] That must be so, or there would be no sense in what she said. I 1838 regret that very much, because I believe that the only real cure for our troubles is a fundamental Government policy which will reduce the cost of living.
It must be extraordinarily hurtful to all, as it is to me—to all who have middle class incomes or better, to all hon. Members of this House—to have to think even for a brief time about people to whom an increase of ls. or Is. 6d. a week will make all the difference. It is terrible to think that our fellow citizens in their old age should be concerned whether Is. 6d. a week is to be added to the pittance upon which they live—the ls. 6d. which many hon. and right hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House would casually spend in the Smoke Room, without thinking twice about it, in one afternoon.
That gives pause for thought, and it does seem to me that the whole thought of this Parliament and of this people should be directed towards some way in which this nation can earn more in order that, by earning more, there may be more to divide amongst all. My belief is that only by giving the utmost possible encouragement to those who earn our living for us, namely, those who work by hand and brain and those who save, by enabling the whole nation to make more money and business to be more profitable, can we find higher taxes which can be brought in to support and sustain the allowances for the old, the poor and the needy.
§ 10.59 p.m.
§ Mr. McGovern (Glasgow, Shettleston)
In listening to speeches of the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser), I always have mixed feelings. I do not know whether he got up to sympathise with those who are receiving relief and to express that sympathy in a material manner or whether he got up to try to brand the Government of this country as a Government who have either grudgingly done anything for those who are in need or who are paying money to those who do not require relief. He has a great affliction, but he is a strange mixture. I must say this; he is, I believe, in some ways kindly, but politically he has a vicious trait in expressing his antagonism to the common people and to the Government who respond from time to time and try to uplift them from the poverty from which they suffer. We must remember that we all desire some of the things that he says, but underlying 1839 a number of speeches we have heard there has been a bitter resentment of any increase being given to those who are suffering. [Interruption.] After 22 years in public life, I can assess the Dr. Jekylls and Mr. Hydes when they are expressing some sympathy as a cloak for deep—rooted antagonism.
These Regulations seek to give grants to a large number of people who are suffering in the very depths of poverty even yet in this country. If there is one thing I should have liked the Chancellor of the Exchequer to do from the humane point of view and even the political point of view, to help the old age pensioners, the people on relief, widows, and people of the lower income group, it would have been to let them have the entire money raised by the Petrol Duty, neglecting all the little changes in Income Tax and other fields.
After all, there is one great weakness in dealing with people on assistance and the Government are bound to take account of it. There is no ready—made machine to lay down the grant to be given according to the cost of living in the country, and we are not entitled to pat ourselves on the back and think we are doing something tremendous at this stage. I am always prepared to applaud the spending of £10 million on those on the bottom rung of the ladder. Let it be remembered that hon. Members raised their salaries from £400 to £600 and then from £600 to £1,000.
§ Mr. McGovern
I could have gone into the Lobby against it and then drawn it, like some of the Tories. But in raising the salaries of hon. Members, it was stated that the cost of living and the cost of hotel accommodation had risen so steeply that Members could not live to the standard to which they had been accustomed.
I remember the people at the bottom of the ladder 22 years ago when I entered the old Poor Law body in Glasgow, and we sat day after day on daily relief work. It is an amazing thing that many of these scales in their real monetary value are no better than those that were paid by the Tory council in Glasgow. I would be dishonest if I did not say that. What is the value of the 26s. of 1950 as corm- 1840 pared to 1930? Roughly it would be something like 16s. Are we going to say that is a tremendous advance? We would have said that was a meagre standard in 1930. Therefore, we ought to deal, not with one or two shillings, but with what they will buy today compared with what they bought in 1930.
§ Dr. Summerskill
I think my hon. Friend is under a misapprehension. Is it not a fact that in Scotland rent is included?
§ Mr. McGovern
One of the great fights in Scotland was the demand made by me in my old parish council days. Mr. Rayner, who was clerk to the parish council before he went to the Public Assistance Board, agreed with me in many discussions that it was a sound way of looking at it. One man who was on the 22s. scale might have a rent of 14s., and another man a rent of 5s. It sometimes meant that you penalised a good father and gave assistance to a bad father who did not want to advance the standard of housing of his family and maybe even drank away the money. We gave at that time 7s. 6d. for the first child and 2s. for a child under two. The scales at that time of a diehard Tory council compared favourably in monetary value with the scales being paid by the Assistance Board. [An HON. MEMBER: " Go over to the other side."] No. I do not need to go to the other side. I have to speak honestly about what I feel. That is the way human progress is made.
Let us examine the scales being paid today. In my own home I do more than the usual amount of housework and cooking and other things, and I know the prices. Butter went up 4d. a lb. recently; coal is 4s. 6d. a cwt. more in my area; electricity has gone up substantially since the Electricity Board took over; gas has gone BD; all the basic foods have gone up—eggs, bacon, and other things. When we come here and say, " We are giving 2s. or 1s. 6d. more," I say that is nothing for which we need pat ourselves on the back. I do not believe that the standards of payment to the old people, widows, and others in distress and requiring relief, are anything like adequate. The nation is bound to take note of the fact that while some are clamouring for an increase from 5s. to 15s. in the price of their dinners, those 1841 at the very bottom are finding even greater difficulties in living at all.
There is another thing standing out, and that is the question of clothing allowances. When they are given—and they are given very sparingly—it is said, " There is £3 10s. for a suit of clothes." From where is a man going to get a suit for that sum, unless it is some cast—away clothing? Sometimes it depends on the reply of the inspector. I have heard an inspector examining a man and saying, " Is this the suit. That is all right "when it would not have been accepted in any decent company and. the man wearing it was almost ashamed to go and ask for help. It should not be at the whim of an inspector whether the man is given a clothing allowance. He should be given the allowance as of right. A statutory allowance should be fixed, and he should be given it, instead of its depending on whether he makes his approach in the proper manner. Many of the inspectors in this job came from the old Poor Law boards, and they still have in their minds the Poor Law conception as to how the people should be treated.
I approve of the allowance that has been proposed, but some machinery or statutory body must be found whereby the people who cannot cope with the increase in the cost of living are given adequate relief at the earliest possible moment. A nation, even in its hour of crisis, should give freely to those who are most in need.
I disagree with the hon. Member who said that this is simply a means test. It is a needs test. If the hon. Member does not know the difference between a needs test and a means test, he should not be in public life. A means test embraces every member of the family. Under the old law sometimes one member of a family, perhaps the son or the daughter, had the responsibility of keeping the father and mother. Sometimes I wonder whether, in other fields, we are justified in giving assistance to all and sundry. There are, for instance, Conservative Members in this House who are drawing family allowances; one of them is a noble Lord.
I do not think the hon. Member ought to pursue that question. He has already had a good deal of latitude.
§ Mr. McGovern
I was only going to round it off by saying, in regard to the needs test, that I wonder whether we should pay unlimited amounts of money to people who do not require assistance. The people who are suffering most are very often the people who have been broken on the wheel of a bankrupt capitalist system. Therefore, they ought to be relieved and they ought to be given speedier relief.
While I cannot oppose the Regulations, I say that they are totally inadequate to meet the needs of the old people and others who require relief. I hope that at some very early date another substantial increase will be given to meet the needs of these people.
§ 11.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Iain MacLeod (Enfield, West)
am glad to follow the hon. Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern). Indeed, I think I am the eighth Scotsman who has spoken in this Debate, although I sit for an English seat. The hon. Member's speech included some shrewd slaps at the party on these benches, but it also included something else, and I am sure we were very grateful to hear the financial honesty of his argument. I thought it tore up and threw in the faces of the Socialist Party their hypocrisy in this matter over the last quarter of a century. Indeed, looking at their faces as they listened to him, I felt that they knew it too.
There is a certain amount of common ground in this matter, and it is beyond question that these increases are closely related to the increased cost of living and to the decline in the value of the £, although of course it is more contentious as to where responsibility for that situation lies. I say to the right hon. Lady that in my view the best comment on these Regulations will not be made in the House tonight; neither has it been made in the Press. It is in the Royal Academy at the moment. It is a picture by Charles Spencelayh about an old man, a pensioner such as we are discussing tonight. He is staring gloomily and unhappily at a small collection of those nuts which the right hon. Lady will remember from a previous Ministerial existence, and of which, no doubt, she hoped she had heard the last. The title of the picture is, " Where the Money Goes." I invite the right hon. Lady to go and look at it. It is perhaps the aptest comment on these Regulations.
1843 [Laughter.] I am glad I have cheered up the hon. Member for Reading, South (Mr. Mikardo) after the depressing speech he has been listening to from his own side.
Some important issues arise out of these Regulations. The first question is whether these increases are adequate. I do not want to go too closely into the financial side, even if it would be in order. The 26s. is worth what 21s. was worth in 1945. In terms of purchasing power, which is what matters to these people, they will get less than the Coalition Government planned or any of the major political parties promised in 1945. That is true.
I understand that the Board make draft Regulations to the Minister, who, if she approves them, as she has done in this case, puts them before the House for affirmative resolution. Presumably there is some scientific basis for the recommendations of the Board. Presumably they study the budgets of these people and consider the cost of living and the value of the pound, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Govan (Mr. Browne), before they come to their conclusions. I was not in the House at the time but I was surprised to read, as was quoted by the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. W. S. Morrison) that on 13th December of last year, the then Minister of National Insurance told the House that the Board did not consider that circumstances justified an increase. About a month ago the right hon. Lady told the House these Regulations were to be laid, and said this was the result of periodical review. The question I want to have answered, because it has a real importance in the question of adequacy, is: What does " periodical " mean? If it is not as one would suppose it to be, a continuous process, then when and on what evidence did that review take place? Was there a review by the Board after devaluation and before the announcement made in the House on 13th December?
We have to make up our minds what we are going to do about the fact that now, even after we ignore the rent element for married couples, the assistance rates are higher than those in National Insurance. That means that the ordinary person with no particular resources beyond National Insurance benefits, in 1844 order to get up to what this House recommend tonight as the basic minimum standard—have to undergo a test of need. That is not what any member of any political party who has thought deeply about this hoped for when these great schemes were planned in the Coalition days prior to the legislation formulated by the last Socialist Government. That does not apply to the destitute or near—destitute because we have considerable and I think proper disregards. One can disregard up to £800, if £750 of it is in savings and there are certain other earnings and other disregards which can be made, and the married couple with the rent element is not a long way above the National Assistance scales.
That problem has consequences which this House must, in due course, face. The next problem was mentioned by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Summers) and the point was also taken by the hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman). It is that these scales are close, and perhaps dangerously close, to the scales being paid to the lowest paid workers. The Chancellor of the Exchequer told the House yesterday that 91 million incomes were between £135 and £250 a year. I do not suggest there is any temptation, or indeed that there will be, for a man to leave full employment and take assistance, but the fact remains that it is more profitable on paper perhaps for a man, say with three children and an income of £4 10s. a week, to take temporary work instead of full—time work and to draw National Assistance.
It is a problem which we may have to face increasingly in the coming years, and we have to remember the unfortunate experience last year with the sickness benefits at the Royal Ordnance Factories.
§ Mr. MacLeod
By all means: the hon. Gentleman should tell that to his colleagues. The remedy is not to reduce National Assistance benefits, but to do more for the workers and increase the purchasing power of the £. If hon. Gentlemen opposite want the answer shorter they can have it in two words: " Another Government." We are told that the cost of this will be £81 million, and it may be approaching—and that is the term of the explanatory memorandum —£10 million. I think that figure is 1845 absurdly optimistic; it is probably far too low. It seems based on an assumption that though many people will qualify for these grants few will seek them.
Here I would like to join in something which the hon. Member for Coventry, East, said. I do hope that the Under—Secretary when he replies, because his word will carry more weight than mine, will let it go out again that these moneys are not charity. It is a fund freely voted by Parliament on which these people by Statute have a right to draw. We all know from our own correspondence that although the Poor Law has been abolished, there still remains a reluctance to go to National Assistance. I think it would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman would emphasise that point from that Box.
It seems to me that the other matter which this calculation does not take into account is the fact that as savings dwindle and as the scales of National Assistance reflect the growing cost of living and life in this country, so inevitably the cost of assistance in relation to insurance must soar and they will go up together. I believe for these reasons that the figure of f10 million, which is the outside figure mentioned, is a considerable underestimate. That is for the future. For the present we have these Regulations before us tonight. No one, I am certain, would grudge these moneys. The only question on which we have heard there is considerable anxiety is whether or not they are adequate. I think we must say that approval of these Regulations tonight does not in any way convey approval of the financial policy which is the story behind these Regulations, for they make it abundantly clear, just as the Budget made clear, that no one suffers more from Socialism than the poorest of the poor.
§ 11.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Mikardo (Reading, South)
I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Enfield, West (Mr. lain MacLeod), and I tried to find out whether he was arguing that we ought to give National Assistance recipients more or give them less. In some parts of his speech he seemed to be arguing one way and in other parts he seemed to be arguing to the contrary. He talked about these sales being, to use his expression, dangerously near the lower wage levels, and seemed to suggest that they were too high. In other parts, he seemed to be trying to argue, as he did 1846 at the end of his speech, that they were too low. He referred, for example, to the statement on 13th December that the rates were not then going to be raised.
The hon. Member and his hon. Friends have been showing a lot of solicitude this evening for the National Assistance recipients. I wonder if he can tell us which of his hon. Friends, on that occasion, protested against the announcement made by the Minister. None at all. We had a Debate which was initiated by the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) in which some hon. Members on the other side of the House sought to put pressure upon the then Minister to do then what is being done now. Not only did no hon. Member opposite join in, but no hon. Member opposite was present.
This solicitude this evening seems to be very new—found indeed; yet the hon. Gentleman has the nerve to get up and talk about hypocrisy after the performance which he and his hon. Friends have put up. The hon. Gentleman followed the lead set by his Front Bench, and later followed by some of his hon. Friends, like the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser), of welcoming these new Regulations with the warmth and cordiality and enthusiasm of a vegetarian who finds a caterpillar in his salad. This ought to be a joyous occasion, because there is nothing more joyous which a man can do than contribute to doing some good where it is most needed.
One could have hoped that we would pass these Regulations tonight without any observations being made in a spirit of dissension and faction. I was grievously disappointed when, at the beginning of the Debate, the right hon. Gentleman who opened for the Oppostion departed from that. I think he would have been well advised in his own interest, and in the interest of his party, if he had not gone into the history of public assistance. It is all very well for the right hon. Gentleman to talk about that history in terms of what Joseph Chamberlain, Mr. Asquith, and Mr. Lloyd George said, and what a number of Members of another place said; but the history of National Assistance was not made in this House, or in another place. It was made in the public assistance offices. Those who compare what used to happen there with the present work of the National Assistance Board will not agree with the hon. Mem- 1847 ber for Morecambe and Lonsdale that there has been any continuity of policy, and they will not agree with the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. W. S. Morrison) that what is being done tonight, and what was done on 5th July, 1948, is merely an extension in degree of what had gone before. [Interruption.] The right hon. and gallant Member for Kelvingrove (Lieutenant—Colonel Elliot) has not been here throughout the Debate.
§ Lieut.—Colonel Elliot (Glasgow, Kelvingrove)
I have been in touch with the problems of National Assistance longer than the hon. Member.
§ Mr. Mikardo
I think the right hon. Gentleman might allow the Debate to proceed without the intermittent eruptions of his subterranean volcano.
§ Mr. Mikardo
That, Mr. Deputy—Speaker, is something which I should have thought would have been decided by you and not by the right hon. and gallant Member opposite. May I repeat that in July, 1948, there was a revolution in kind; if there had not been a single penny increase, we should have revolutionised this matter if only by the change of the attitude of the National Assistance Board to its applicants and a change in the behaviour of the officers of that Board. The hon. Member for Lonsdale and Morecambe stated, in a tribute to the officers of the Board—in which I join gladly with him—that he was surprised and gratified at the courtesy of those officers and I took down the remark when he made it. Why is he surprised that these officers should show courtesy? Perhaps, because he is only remembering the days when they were not so.
§ Sir I. Fraser
Since the hon. Member refers to me, I would say that, even after the benevolent regime of the last five years, there are still many civil servants who treat the public as though they did not want to sell the public anything. I give credit in this respect to the right hon. Gentleman who is now the Colonial Secretary; I give credit where it is due.
§ Mr. Mikardo
I gladly join with the hon. Gentleman in that tribute, but I 1848 still repeat that his surprise probably arises from the fact that the history of the National Assistance Board is such that the story was once a very different one from what it now is. Let us understand that it is not what Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, or Mr. Lloyd George said about these things. What people compare in this matter—and I have the dubious advantage of having been born in a street whose people had to go to the National Assistance Board—are the conditions obtaining today and the fact that the history was made in the days when applicants went to the Board and were made to stand in a shabby building for hours on end merely to give them a feeling of their place in life, and then have their affairs discussed in the hearing of other people. That does not happen today. If those people had a gramophone, they had to sell it; if they had three table—cloths for their front room, they had to sell two before there was a pennyworth of assistance.
§ Mr. Mikardo
The hon. Member for Lonsdale and Morecambe seemed to make a speech, not to welcome these Regulations, but in a passionate desire to get it on the record that the means test is being continued. With respect to him, I would say that he just does not understand how the means test operated.
§ Mr. Mikardo
If the hon. Member will allow me, I want to tell him how it operated. It was a household means test, of all the earnings of every child, or anyone else in the house. It was all considered before any member of the household got anything at all. My constituency has a lot of Welshmen in it, living a long way from Wales, and the reason is because, if the young man was to avoid the penury which his father knew, through no fault of his own, he had to run away from home so that his father could get some assistance.
§ Sir I. Fraser
The hon. Member may have had the experience to which he refers, but I have spent 20 years in this House, and if I had not learned what I know from my own experience, I should have learned it from George Buchanan, and others, long before the hon. Member 1849 came into this House. He may have been born in a street where these things went on and has risen above it, but he need not boast about it. Others have risen above it, and let us hope it will continue to be possible for people to rise above it. I was not defending every aspect of the means test since the Gladstonian era, but pointing out that the principle is an inevitable one so long as there is any need in the land.
§ Mr. Mikardo
The hon. Gentleman, who has taken a very long time in his intervention to explain that he has not got the excuse of ignorance, must know there is absolutely no comparison between what happened in the old days and what happens at the present time. There is no way now in which families can be broken by an application for national assistance. All that is required of earning children in the family is that they should bear some share of the rent of the place and comparable overheads for the space they occupy, but they are not required to bleed themselves and make themselves poor before their father and mother can get assistance. This is the revolution that has taken place and this is why it is nonsense to talk about any continuity of policy.
Some hon. Members opposite have been at pains to point out that this increase is a reflection of the rise in the cost of living. There was a considerable rise in the cost of living in the 1920's and 1930's. We did not have a stable pound then. Somebody tonight talked of a stable pound. There was no stable pound in the 1920's and 1930's, but there was no increase in the National Assistance.
§ Mr. Mikardo
Yes, there was a decrease while the cost of living was going up. It ill becomes hon. Gentlemen opposite to talk derogatively about the Government responding after only five months in this matter, when they had Governments in office who responded to an increase in the cost of living by reducing the level of assistance. [An HON. MEMBER: " The cost of living went down."] It sometimes went down.
§ Mr. Mikardo
I have looked up my figures. The hon. and gallant Member has not a monopoly of having studied the period 1920–1930. In fact, of course, there were fluctuations in prices and I repeat that all the time there was a general over—all rise. [Interruption.] Of course there was, and a general fall in the scales. Nobody on the opposite side, who then would have been sitting on this side of the House, protested about it at all.
For goodness sake, if as a House of Commons—because the right hon. Gentleman said his party were going to support these Regulations and the Liberals also said so—we are going to set our hands this evening to this worthwhile task, let us do it in a spirit of generosity. Let us not do it in a carping, reluctant spirit. Let us recognise that what the Minister is doing tonight is to remove what was pretty well the last major defect in the system of National Assistance.
The Board has removed the defect that existed in the old days—that public assistance always tried to find excuses for not helping people. My experience of the officers of the Board is that they strain every nerve now to try to find some reason for helping people, and sometimes they go outside the Regulations to do it. In the old days, the public assistance authorities used to keep their activities dark in case anybody should find out about public assistance and apply. Nowadays the Board go to tremendous trouble to publicise their activities, and the Minister announced a week or two ago that she would insert a notice about this in the pension books to publicise it still further. Now we have brought the scales to an amount which more than compensates for the rise in the cost of living. Let us do it in a spirit of responsibility, recognising that the millions who have to depend on the National Assistance Board should have no more of the halfhearted, reluctant welcome which we have heard from the other side of the House tonight.
§ 11.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Molson (The High Peak)
I am confident that I shall be in Order if I reply briefly to the speech to which we have just listened. The Regulations before the House do not relate to the household means test, which was abolished by legis 1851 lation passed by this House in 1941 and in 1943. The argument which my hon. Friends have been advancing is simply that under the legislation passed when the present Secretary of State for the Colonies was Minister of National Insurance, those people who contribute to the National Insurance Scheme are entitled as a matter of right to draw certain benefits and, under the National Assistance Act and the Regulations made thereunder, the amount which is paid to individuals who can show they are in need is determined.
My hon. Friends have been pointing out in reply to what was said by the hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) and at greater length by the hon. Member for Reading, South (Mr. Mikardo), and emphasised by the hon. Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern), that in arriving at the payments that can be made under these Regulations those responsible for the administration have to take into account the needs and means of those who lay claim to that assistance. That is the parallel which has been established between the system to which these Regulations give effect and the means test which has been so much criticised by hon. Members opposite.
I come to the question of why it has been necessary for these Regulations to be laid. The Minister of National Insurance skated over the matter very rapidly and very lightly, but in fact there has been a very considerable increase in the cost of living since the last Regulations were made. Therefore it has been necessary to alter the scales in order to take that into account. I find that between July, 1948, and March, 1950, there has been an increase of 4.6 per cent. in the interim index of retail prices. The increases which are provided for under these scales vary from 14.29 per cent. down to 4 per cent., and the average is 7.71 per cent. For husband and wife the increase is 8.75 per cent., and for a person living alone it is 8.33 per cent.
Therefore it is clear that the right hon. Lady, in laying these Regulations, has covered, and slightly more than covered, the increase which has taken place, and which I said was only 4.7 per cent. It would not be right, as was emphasised by the hon. Member for Coventry, East, to take these figures as being conclusive, 1852 because, in the case of those who are admittedly at the lowest scale, the items which have increased very much in cost, like tobacco and beer, do not enter to the same extent as the necessaries of life, and in the case of clothing there has been an increase from that time of about 6 or 7 per cent., fuel 4 per cent. and food as much as 10 per cent.
Having made as close an examination as I can, it appears to me that the Board has made as good and as accurate a calculation as was possible in order to bring the scales up to the same purchasing power as the scales laid down in 1948. I hope that there will not be any great further increase in the cost of living, but it was only the day after the right hon. Lady informed us that these Regulations would be made that the Minister of Food indicated to us that there would be a substantial increase in the cost of a number of foodstuffs. It is obviously of the utmost importance that these scales shall not constantly change up and down for every small fluctuation that takes place in the cost of living. Like some of my hon. Friends, I feel some doubt whether these scales will prove adequate for any considerable time to come, but at the same time I do think it is extremely undesirable that there should be constant changes for any small change in the cost of living.
I want once more to refer—as has already been done by the hon. Member for Enfield, West (Mr. lain MacLeod)—to one of the most striking changes that has taken place. When I spoke in June, 1948, I drew the attention of the then Minister of Pensions to the very small difference that existed between the rate of the retirement pension and the rate of the assistance scales. Now that difference has ceased completely to exist in the case of the single adult. In these scales the assistance is exactly the same as the retirement pension, and for a married couple the assistance will be Is. 6d. more. When we also take into account that under those scales the whole of a reasonable rent can be paid, it means that these scales do indicate that in order to avert destitution larger sums in total will have to be paid than are provided for in the National Insurance scheme.
The Colonial Secretary referred on the last occasion to the possibility that we had reached the limit of what the flat 1853 rate of contribution could do in the way of providing benefit, but it is quite obvious that if we are to have a steely decline over the next 10, 20, and 30 years in the purchasing value of the pound, then the main purpose which we all had in mind at the time of the passing of the Insurance Act, that the retirement pension should be enough to safeguard the aged from destitution, will prove to be inadequate with the rising cost of living. An ever—larger proportion of the ever—increasing aged population will find themselves obliged to go to the Assistance Board to have their pensions supplemented. These are financial factors which we have to take into account and it is the duty of hon. Members on this side to draw attention to these dangers and disadvantages.
We have two different scales of payment to the aged. One is based on a strict actuarial calculation of the maximum that can be paid when the contributions are a flat rate at what is now very nearly the highest level that the lowest paid people can afford to pay. At the same time, we have these assistance scales, which are calculated on what is the minimum payment necessary to avert destitution. It is when we look at it from that point of view that we express doubt whether these scales will prove adequate if the present tendency for the purchasing power of the £ to decline continues during the next few years.
So it is that we give our support—and not grudging support—to the proposals in these scales, but at the same time we are bound to draw attention to the increasing financial difficulties and dangers, and to say once more—and I end on what I admit to be a controversial note—that we consider that the whole policy of this Socialist Government makes it inevitable that the internal and external purchasing value of the £ will continue to decline.
§ 11.53 p.m.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of National Insurance (Mr. Bernard Taylor)
We have had a most interesting and useful Debate on what is to all of us a great human problem, that of providing for those who, through a variety of causes and often through no fault of their own, have few or no resources, and whom it is the privilege of the more fortunate—and our privilege as hon. Members of this House—to look after to the best of our ability.
1854 I should like first to make one or two general observations, and to remind the House of the position under the National Assistance Act. It is important that we should get this clearly in mind, or we shall be guilty of mistaken ideas and policies. My right hon. Friend has no power under the Act to take the initiative in proposing amendments to Regulations dealing with the determination of need. That initiative lies with the National Assistance Board, and if at any time they think that, in all the circumstances, amendments of the Regulations are called for they can take the necessary steps. Who is in a better position than the Board to take the initiative in this matter, since the Board's officers are in daily and intimate contact with the special problems of those in need? I join those who have paid a well deserved tribute to the noble work which is being done by the National Assistance Board.
I would also remind hon. Members that the scale rates at present in operation were approved by the House as recently as June, 1948, and the introduction of these rates in that year meant—I should like the House to take note of this—that hundreds of thousands of people in need received substantial increases in their weekly incomes. Now, less than two years later, the Board, having taken the initiative, have proposed the increases in the existing rates which my right hon. Friend so lucidly and in so interesting a manner explained to the House earlier this evening.
I do not think that anyone who looks at the position reasonably and impartially could accuse the National Assistance Board of being tardy in discharging their statutory function. Nor have the Government themselves lost any time in submitting these Regulations to help those in need for the approval of this House. If the Regulations receive such approval—and I hope and believe that they will, judging from the speeches which we have heard tonight—the new rates will be in operation by the middle of next month.
This Debate has ranged very wide indeed, and I believe that more has been said about various economic theories than about the value of the Regulations themselves. There is little that I can add to what my right hon. Friend has said by way of explanation of the Regulations. After her lucid speech I am sure that the 1855 House is now fully aware what the Regulations mean, and how they will affect those who are already receiving assistance. We have also been reminded by my right hon. Friend and other hon. Members what will be the estimated cost of the proposals which will be a direct charge on the Exchequer funds.
One or two points have been raised by hon. Members with which I should like to deal. I am sure we were all very pleased when the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. W. S. Morrison) in a reasonable speech felicitously and generously lavished good wishes and congratulations upon my right hon. Friend on her appointment to this new and important office. He had a lot to say about the increase in the cost of living. I hope hon. Members opposite will treat what I am now going to say with great seriousness and not with jocularity.
My main comment on the right hon. Gentleman's speech is that it is the desire and the intention of this Government to prevent increases in the cost of living. In looking at these National Assistance scales that is something of great importance. The right hon. Gentleman went on to say—and I admit immediately that he was right that the justification for these Regulations is the rise in the cost of living. It redounds to the credit of this Government, that as soon as the draft Regulations were submitted by the National Assistance Board, they brought these Regulations to the House to provide more adequate financial assistance for those who are in need. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the means test and many references have been made to that by speakers on both sides. May I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman and hon.Gentlemen opposite that if there is any body of people who know anything about the degrading iniquities of the means test, it is Members on this side.
The hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Carmichael)—to whom we always listen on this subject with great interest because we know that in the field of assistance to the needy he has had a wide experience, and we are always pleased to have his contribution—asked me three questions. Without going into details, I hope the answers I shall be able to provide will satisfy him. My hon. 1856 Friend drew attention to the fact that young persons in the 16–18 group are to get only ls. of an increase compared with Is. 6d. for those in the 11–16 group. I would remind him that the rate for the 16–18 group was increased substantially by 2s. 6d. in 1948, whereas children under 16 at that time got no increase. The rate for the other adolescent age group between 18 and 21 has been increased by ls. 6d., from 17s. 6d. to 19s. This increase is almost exactly in proportion to the increase in the adult rate and cannot really be substantially criticised.
§ Mr. Carmichael
I was not criticising the increase of Is. 6d. for those between 18 and 21. I asked why, having granted Is. 6d. to that group, the right hon. Lady grants only is. to the preceding group.
I think that if my hon. Friend will look at what I have said tomorrow, he will find that the point has been met. His next question was in respect of those in local authority homes. It is the case that people in " Part III " accommodation provided for under the National Assistance Act by the major local authorities will not participate in the increases which are proposed in the Regulations, for they are not directly affected by the increased cost of food and fuel. His third point was in regard to householders and non—householders. I would remind my hon. Friend that ever since the institution in 1934 of the Assistance Board, for reasons which are explained in the Report of the National Assistance Board for 1948, this difference has always existed. The Board themselves feel that it is reasonable on account of the additional commitments in the form of fuel and light and so on which fall on those who are householders and live by themselves.
We had a most interesting, and if I may say so lively, maiden speech from the hon. Member for Govan (Mr. Browne). I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate him on the factual budget of old age pensioners which he presented. While the hon. Member was giving that budget to the House, I could not but reflect upon the Tory attitude to those in need over the years. The hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown), whom we always enjoy hearing upon occasions of this kind, observed that my right hon. Friend had performed 1857 a miracle in extracting the £8,500,000, upon which these Regulations are based, from the Treasury. May I say that whether it be a miracle or not, the Treasury gave it without any hesitation for this purpose.
The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Macdonald) emphasised a point, as did also the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury, regarding the justification for the proposed increases in the light of the rise in the cost of living. He also asked a question, the answer to which is that those people who are not now receiving National Assistance and who under these Regulations, become entitled to it, will have to apply to the Board before they can have the benefit of the increases.
The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) put what I thought was a very important question regarding one of the disregards under the National Assistance Act. He was referring to the disregard of the 20s. disability pension. It had come to his notice, I think he said, that this provision had not always been adhered to by the Board. I want, on the advice I have, to deny that allegation categorically. The disregard of the 20s. of these disability pensions is being observed in every case. If the hon. Member is still in doubt on that point and will let me have particulars of any case or cases which he has in mind, I shall he only too happy to look into them.
§ Mr. Macdonald
I asked a second question which was of greater importance than the first. That was, whether the right hon. Lady had in mind any provision for a sliding scale should the cost of living rise, and whether under these Regulations the scales would rise with any rise in the cost of living.
I think that my right hon. Friend went fully into that, and explained it completely. There are many things which I would like to say tonight, but the hour is late.
§ Mr. Hubbard
Before the hon. Gentleman goes on, could he say one word about the widow who has to pay insurance contributions from the National Assistance scale? Does she have to pay?
Under the National Insurance Act, a widow in receipt of a 10s. 1858 widow's pension, if she wants to qualify for the retirement pension at the age of 60 years, will find it necessary to pay National Insurance contributions—if she is not in employment they will be at the rate of 3s. 8d.
We have gone a very long way on this question of meeting the needs of the poorest members of the community. Let us compare the position today with that which once obtained; and to illustrate that change which has taken place over the years, I would like to recount an incident told me many times when I was a boy. There was a man who met with a fatal accident and it was in the days when there were no compensation provisions, no widow's pension, no anything, except recourse to the old Poor Law. This man's widow was left with four children, aged from 12 years downwards, and so she applied to the appropriate board of guardians and was told that, for herself, there would be nothing. She was able—bodied and, although she !had four children, she would have to go to work. The eldest of the four was drafted into what, in those days, was called farm service. That generous board of guardians gave the widow, for the remaining children, half—a—crown a week. I repeat, half—a—crown for the three of these young children. I was in a very reflective mood when I heard some of the speeches from hon. Members opposite tonight, because the man who met with that fatal accident was my grandfather, and the eldest child of the four was my own mother.
I am sure that all hon. Members on both sides of the House must be shocked at such indifference, so greatly has the climate of public opinion changed. It can truthfully be said that the welfare of the poor is one of the main concerns of this Government, and I am proud of the record of the Labour Government in this particular field since 1945. It is not enough, however, for us to pass humanitarian legislation, as this, and the preceding government, have done, especially legislation designed to meet the particular needs of the individual, unless it is administered in a humane and discriminating spirit.
Here I should like to join with other hon. Members in paying my tribute to the work of the officers of the National. Assistance Board; work which calls for 1859 high qualities of sympathy and understanding, and which often requires the greatest degree of tact and delicacy. There was a time, as we have been reminded to—night, when the assistance officer was not universally popular. He was associated in the public mind with the means test and with large scale unemployment. In those days many people felt it was something degrading to apply for assistance, and they understandably preferred to fight a lonely, and often unequal, battle against poverty.
Today this attitude of the public has changed. The Board's officers are recognised for what they are—friends in need whose help can be called in without any fear of humiliation. It is largely the officers themselves who are responsible for this welcome change of attitude which has taken place in this field. Never in our history has so much been done to alleviate poverty and to assist those in need. I do not say poverty has been completely eliminated, but I do say this in all sincerity, that we are doing and will continue to do all that men of goodwill can in our present economic circumstances. I hope the House will give its unanimous approval to the Regulations which are before it.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
'That the Draft National Assistance (Determination of Need) Amendment Regulations, 1950, a copy of which was laid before this House on 18th April, be approved.
§ "BLACK LIST " SCHOOLS
§ Motion made and Question proposed, " That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Royle.]
§ 12.16 a.m.
§ Dr. King (Southampton, Test)
The matter that I raise tonight is one that, speaking with a sense of moderation and careful choice of words, I venture to describe as a national scandal although it has obtained over the past 45 years. I wish to raise the question of those schools which appear on the Ministry of Education's " black list." In February, 1908, the Board of Education began to compile a list of the worst schools in England. The criterion of accommodation which they used was that schools should provide accommodation of not 1860 less than ten square feet for older children and nine square feet for infants. This standard was low enough in all conscience. Actually, it was the minimum which had been laid down in the 1870 Act for older children and in 1898 for infant children. So this standard itself was already 40 years old.
The " black list " of schools took three years to complete and in 1910, when the Board reported on these " black list " schools, the immediate result was to write—off two thousand schools as unfit for children's accommodation and a quarter million school places as places which should not be occupied by children. To escape being on the " black list," a school—I quote from the Board's Report—must not, at all events appreciably, prejudice the health of the scholars.So that schools which did more than minor damage to a child's health went on to the " black list " and had to be replaced.
Incidentally, in the same yea r—1910— the Board of Education received a report from the Playgrounds Commisison which recommended that school playgrounds be 15 square feet per child within the next 15 years. A minority report was signed from the Liverpool Diocesan Authorities pleading for Church schools that this was extravagant and unreasonable, asking why not five square feet per child and suggesting they should go on to the playgrounds in shifts; whilst the Winchester College master, who was chairman of the Winchester Education Committee, went on record in the Minority Report, that elementary schools should not play football or cricket as school games and he opposed the 15 square feet of playground for school children.
So that a school which was condemned in that year as being a bad school, must indeed have been a very bad school. When the Board drew up its list, it might well say, as it did in its Report,for ordinary sanitary and hygienic conditions it had not erred on the side of severity,especially when it is remembered that the " black list " did not include schools which had three or less classes in one room. In 1910, presenting this list, the Board said that it would take five years' steady work to get rid of these " black list " schools. I speak tonight because that 1861 has not been completed, 40 years later. The first world war put a stop to school building and during that war His Majesty's Inspectors were busy compiling lists and checking up on the " black list " schools.
It might have been expected that when the 1918 Education Act came into force and with the great burst of idealism which followed the end of the war, the " black list " schools might disappear but, with the Geddes Axe economies that followed the war, the work of His Majesty's Inspectors was ignored and for the first seven years after the war nothing was done about the " black list." In 1923 and 1924, the first Labour Government turned again to this question and drew up a " black list " again. In its Report for that year, the Board of Education said:Even now much of the original task still remains to be completed, and many buildings have further deteriorated from age.This Report spoke of the " cruel dilemma " in the " black list " schools where children were either promoted according to ability and suffered overcrowding in small rooms, or were promoted prematurely or tardily according to the size of the next room to which they were to go. In the year 1925, 16,000 classrooms had two classes in them, 179 had even four classes and 20,000 classes contained more than 50 pupils, so that the " black list " of 2,000 of the worst schools must indeed have been " black."
Between 1925 and 1930 quite a lot was done, and by 1930 1,000 of the " black list " school had been dealt with either actually or on paper. Then came the National Government of 1931 to carry out the " strong Government and effective measures " for which another place was pleading last week. These included the sacrifice of our children by the virtual ending of the attack on " black list " schools. The school building programme was slashed and the rate of disappearance dropped to a mere 60 a year. In vain in this House in 1942 George Hicks, then a Member of Parliament, pleaded with the Government to let unemployed building workers get on with the job of rebuilding the nation's worst schools. From 1934, as if to conceal this false economy, the Board of Education ceased to give detailed progress reports on the " black list " schools. The problem shrank in the 1862 Annual Report of the Board from a paragraph to a sentence but the real problem got worse year by year.
Now, in 1950, there are still more than 600 of the original 2,800 " black list " schools. In the last 16 years, only 330 have gone and in the last 12 years, only 200 have gone. The purpose of this brief survey is to show that on the " black list " today are schools which were condemned in 1925, schools which were condemned in the First World War, schools condemned in the list of 1908, and schools which in 1950 are not conforming to building standards laid down in the Education Act of 1870. The House will not wonder when I call this a scandal. I have not time to analyse the cause of this neglect, nor to describe in detail the conditions of the " black list " schools, some of which I have visited.
The White Paper of 1943 attacked these schools, not merely on educational grounds, but on grounds of hygiene and ventilation and charged them with depriving children of " decent and healthy " surroundings. The Minister who is to reply tonight spoke in September, 1948, of buildings " unsatisfactorily lit and ventilated where the walls are sometimes damp."
The National Union of Teachers' Consultative Committee's Report on Nursery Schools of 1950 mentions some of the worst features of these schools. Here are some quotations from the Report:A school condemned in 1904. No cloakrooms or washplaces. No corridors. Electric light all day.Another reads:The sanitary arrangements vary in degrees of horror. I think some of us hardly realise the extent to which some of the closets are terrifying to a child….I could take you to schools within two miles of Whitehall where no self—respecting civil servant would work for a single day.The Chief Sanitary Inspector for Winchester reporting on a school there in April, 1949, spoke of the dark insanitary trough closet and said:Because of the fear of the darkness it was learned that the younger children have been known to urinate in their class rooms.And that school is not bad enough to be on the black list. Here are extracts from H.M. Inspectors' recent reports on seven primary schools in one county:" Five rooms, three of which are passage rooms containing two classes apiece separated! by small curtains.1863 One class is housed in a basement room.
Premises consist of two rooms, one small and dark.
Class I contains children with an age—range of 8 to 13.
The room occupied by the lowest class of 38 is so small that they are literally packed into it.
Seventy—eight infants in one room. No free space—access along the rows is well nigh impossible.
Buildings and surround of this school are in a deplorable condition … a rural slum."
The Ministry's pamphlet " School and Life " asks for a " strong sense of urgency " about the primary schools, and I am demanding the same strong sense of urgency to reduce the " black list " schools. I urge hon. Members to read the Minister's Report for 1948, and to remember that it describes schools on the whole which are not bad enough for the black list. Here is one quotation from the Report:The lavatories must be as old as the school building, that is, 100 years old. They flush only three times a day and stink in summer; the pans are over a foot in diameter, and those with wooden seats missing are dangerous to small children.Bad buildings, bad sanitation, unhealthy overcrowding, ugliness where beauty is essential—particularly in the old village schools, but often in the towns —lack of amenities, these are the grim features of thousands of the nation's primary schools. They reach their grimmest peak in the ' black list " schools. I want the nation to do something about it, and do something now. I shudder to ask for a five—year plan after 45 years of failure, and the five—year plan of 1910, but something must be done.
Last week I had the joy of visiting Hertfordshire's new schools where, by the systematic use of non—traditional materials, they are resolutely tackling the school building programme. I had the joy of seeing 300 infants surrounded by beauty and space in a school built in 12 months. I cannot convey what it means to teachers and children who were being taught quite recently in a number of classes in one large hall.
I want to ask for a planned attack by first—aid measures on the "black list " schools. Let us pool the experience local authorities gained during the first post—war building programmes. Let us 1864 devise, if necessary, a prefabricated building which can be put up to replace the worst of the " black list " schools. I want the Minister to call the attention of the local authorities and Church folk to their " black list " schools and insist on a time limit for their replacement.
In all my pleadings on this matter outside the House the greatest problem has been to convince the perfectionists, who want our children to wait for the glorious new schools now going up in greater numbers than before, but still not quickly enough. I think Hertfordshire points the way. It plans to build 175 schools in 15 years, and has a programme for building 20 schools in one year. I am told that even that programme could be speeded up if the Ministry's building year and the financial year were permitted to coincide, so that site preparation could take place in the spring. But I believe that even Hertfordshire has its " black list " schools still. I would appeal to those who have land to give it for this purpose. I appeal to those who believe in Church schools to prove their faith by going all out to replace Church schools on the " black list." I appeal to those who have architectural and building skill to devise the best and most speedy ways of providing new schools inside the bounds drawn by the economic budget.
At another time I shall plead against false economies in the nation's investment in education and in the replacement of schools. Tonight I am asking for practical steps. I would ask local education authorities to be less isolated, to pool the knowledge they have gained. I would ask the Ministry to implement the report of its own Working Party of 1948 on standardisation and prefabrication, and that it should take the lead there suggested to promote and co—ordinate research, to set up a permanent exhibition of school building, and to act as a live centre in a great national drive for schools. I want the initiative to come from the Ministry in a drive to destroy this 45 years old plague of the " black list " schools. The Report for 1948 says:We have to run faster even if we want to stand still … but it will not be enough to stand still.We are standing still on the " black list " schools. I raise this matter tonight because I think it is a matter of urgent importance, and I ask the Minister to take note of what has been said, and to 1865 do what he can to end this evil, which has been with us 50 years too long.
§ 12.32 a.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Hardman)
I agree that this is a matter of urgent importance and of great interest to all hon. Members, and I shall be as brief as I can in replying to what the hon. Member has said. He recalled that in 1948 some mention was made by me of the appalling condition of certain schools, and my right hon. Friend also drew attention to this in his Report of 1948. He regretted the appalling conditions under which some teachers and pupils still have to work, and this somewhat unusual frankness was noted with approval at the time. But frankness must be matched with determination, and we must try to see what is being done to meet this acute problem.
First of all, let me say that the " black list " itself is now quite obsolete, and that to work from it is likely to lead to confusion and distract attention from the larger issues we are facing today. It was framed in 1925, and it was only a rough—and—ready compilation to supplement the Board's information regarding conditions in what were then public elementary schools. It was not a comprehensive list, nor did the inclusion of a school in it mean that the school should be closed. This list is entirely superseded by the surveys made by the local authorities for their development plans.
§ Mr. Hardman
I am not going to dispute that. I am simply saying that to work from the " black list " framed 25 years ago does lead to confusion when we are faced with the future building programme and the proposals, spread over a number of years, revealed in the development plans.
I should like to say a word or two about the Ministry's building programme, in the light of the plea which we have heard tonight. I am concerned with the special steps which the Ministry are taking to replace the worst schools, 1866 whether they were ever on the " black list " or not. The plain fact is that we are already meeting the most urgent needs of the day to the very limit of our capacity. There are literally no further steps we can take in order to deal specifically with the conditions to which my hon. Friend has called attention, unless we divert manpower and materials at present devoted to providing school accommodation for housing estates, to meet the increased birth rate, and to meet the most imperative needs of technical education. I am sure we shall all admit how important it is in this critical period of our economic development to meet the needs of technical education.
As regards our building programme, I think we can show, and will show more fully in the Debate later today, what remarkable expansion has taken place. I will only mention tonight that at the end of 1946 we had only £10 million worth of schools under construction, whereas at the end of 1949 it had expanded to some £70 million worth of school construction. I agree that even this is only barely able to keep pace with the demands of the three factors that I have mentioned—the housing estates, the rise in the birth rate and the need for extending technical education. We are, therefore, not yet in a position to undertake new building solely to improve existing conditions.
It is all very well to talk in terms of a special drive which my hon. Friend mentioned tonight, but when one has to deal with particular cases with limited labour and material, then the choice is simply between leaving a housing estate without a school, or failing to provide any accommodation at all for children of school age, in order, on the other hand, to improve uncomfortable conditions at an existing school where all essential maintenance can be carried out. This is not the hon. Member's intention, I know. He does not want to divert energy, labour and materials from the essential purpose I have mentioned, but I fear it is the logic of his argument. It is obvious that at a time when there are many urgently competing demands on severely limited resources, every individual project which is permitted to start must be the most urgent for the area concerned, all things considered.
In conclusion, I would say that we are not complacent about this problem 1867 at the Ministry. If, therefore, I cannot accept the proposals of my hon. Friend it is not for want of sympathy with his aims, but simply because there are more urgent demands that must be met in the immediate future with present limited resources.
§ 12.37 a.m.
Major Hicks—Beach (Cheltenham)
I am very glad of an opportunity of saying a few words about " black list " schools. I was pleased to hear the Parliamentary Secretary say that the " black list " schools are now completely abolished. I also welcome the statement he has made that priority is to be given as far as possible to improve the conditions in schools.
If I may make one suggestion, as a manager of a school, and not a " black list " school, nor one that is even condemned, it is this: Instead of going 1868 ahead with these somewhat grandiose schemes which have been produced by the local education authorities, the Ministry should try to improvise more in the schools we already have. In the school in which I am interested we have had considerable difficulty with the local education authorities in getting proper sanction for the very small changes we want to make. Admittedly it is a Church school. I sincerely believe that a great deal could be done in this interim period if we could persuade local education authorities to give more attention to improvisation, while we are waiting until the bigger schemes to which we all look forward can be put into operation, which I appreciate cannot be done at the present time.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at Twenty Minutes to One o'Clock a.m.