HC Deb 05 May 1950 vol 474 cc2150-60

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

3.58 p.m.

Mr. Macdonald (Roxburgh and Selkirk)

I wish to speak today on behalf of approximately five million people in this country, our old age pensioners. To ensure that they have some degree of security and comfort in their declining years, this section of the community is dependent upon the fair-mindedness of this House, whatever party may be in power. My party has always had the care of this section of the community well in the forefront of its activities, and we deplore the fact that the Conservative Government, pre-war, was prepared to allow old age pensioners to live on only 10s. Od. a week plus a supplementary pension which was subject to a means test.

We fully supported the Socialist Government when they raised the pension to 26s. Od. a week for the single pensioner and 42s. Od. for a married couple. We felt, however, that they had made a grave error in not attaching these pensions to the cost of living. We are all aware that the cost of living has increased substantially since 1945 and the Interim Retail Price Index shows that it has risen from 100 in June, 1947 to 113 in March, 1950. This means that the real purchasing power of the pension has been reduced from 26s. Od. per week to about 22s. 6d. We believe that this reduction in the real value of the pension is causing a great deal of hardship throughout the country and we ask that a Select Committee composed of some of the Members of each of the parties in this House should be formed to inquire into the present day living conditions of old age pensioners.

It being Four o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Macdonald

On Wednesday the Minister of National Insurance mentioned, in this House, in her very able speech, that of the 1,200,000 who had applied for supplementary assistance from the Assistance Board during the last year approximately 700,000 were old age pensioners. I gained the impression, rightly or wrongly, that she felt, therefore, that the bulk of the old age pensioners, because they did not apply for a supplementary grant, found that their basic pension was sufficient for their requirements. I can assure the right hon: Lady that this is not the case as far as my constituency is concerned, and I feel sure it is not the case in a great many other constituencies. The hon. Member for Govan (Mr. Browne) on Wednesday night, in this House, gave a very graphic account of the budget of the old age pensioner which clearly shows that an investigation is called for into the basic rate of pension as the pensioner is having considerable difficulty in finding reasonable comfort for himself on the basic rate. The average old age pensioner, while requiring a supplementary allocation is, in my opinion, reluctant to approach the Assistance Board to discuss intimate details of his personal needs, even though I agree with hon. Members opposite that officials are much kinder nowadays when going into these details than previously was the case.

The housing of the old age pensioner is a matter which the Select Committee should consider, if appointed, as 95 per cent. of the pensioners live outside Public Assistance institutions. The housing schemes in most towns make little or no provision for the old age pensioner. Of the 3,150,000 houses built between the wars, less than 11 per cent. were designed specially for people, aged 65 and over and this section of the community represented, in 1931, 7.4 per cent. of the community and, in 1948, 10.7 per cent. This ratio will rise rapidly in future years and, therefore, as local authorities are empowered to build housing accommodation for the use of old people, I hope that this Select Committee, if created by the Government, will recommend that a given percentage of houses in each area should be built especially for old people. This development would tend to free many other houses which are at present occupied by two, or perhaps three, old people and make them available for people with families.

The Committee might also recommend that special assistance from local authorities should be given to the creation of hostels for old people and the alteration of large houses which are becoming white elephants on the market into one-roomed accommodation for a great many of these pensioners to enable them to live together where they can look after one another and have congenial companionship. To date it is estimated that only about 7 per cent. of the demand of pensioners to enter Public Assistance homes and other homes of that type is being met and there is a special need for this type of establishment in rural areas. The demand to enter these homes comes not only from the destitute, but sometimes from people who can afford to pay a small amount for accommodation in such homes.

Improvements in Public Assistance homes would prevent the shunning of such homes by old age pensioners and unhappiness which is sometimes caused in these homes by those who enter them. I am fortunate in my constituency in that the Public Assistance homes are very well run and that the inmates appear when I visit them to be quite happy. But I understand that is not the rule in every case. I hope that the Ministry will look into that question and improve the homes to the full.

There is, of course, a great need for a number of nurses to visit old age pensioners in their homes, or hostels, to deal with occasional illness. The London Council of Social Service stated, in 1947, that 10 per cent. to 15 per cent. of the old people admitted to hospital were not seriously ill, but in need of rest, food, or medical supervision not available in their homes. If provision could be made by the nursing service to give temporary medical attention to these people in their homes, many of them would not need to enter the hospitals and occupy beds that are so urgently required for more vital cases.

I know that some local authorities are already advanced in providing mobile meals canteens for old age pensioners and other sections of the community, but I hope that whatever Ministry is concerned with that matter will develop it so that it becomes the general rule in every town that there are mobile canteens of this kind to provide meals for old age pensioners. These meals should be provided at a price which, while not making a profit, does not make a loss. It will be obvious to hon. Members present that such a service would save the old age pensioners a great deal of fatigue, and perhaps make their meagre pensions go further if these meals could be available to them at this cheap price at least once a day. It would also save them long shopping expeditions which they have to undertake at present.

Now let us turn to the question of production in this country. First, the growing cost of old age pensions is a problem which we must face. It is something that we cannot disregard, particularly as the old age section of the public will grow year by year in its ratio to the younger members of the community, who will, for the most part, have. to provide the necessary wealth to give pensions of that kind. What is the case today? Are we making it possible for these older people, when they want to continue to work, to go on working? They represent some of the finest craftsmen we have in this country, and it is quite wrong that we should proceed on the understanding that 65 years of age, in the case of a man or 60 in the case of a woman, is the beginning of a useless period. A person is as old as he or she feels, and not necessarily what the chronological age indicates.

It was found during the war that, so far as conscientiousness, punctuality and reliability in the job were concerned, the older members of the population, some of them beyond the age of 65, were far better than many of the younger members. As we are out to secure the maximum production from this country, we are not making full use of the older people. Their health, their happiness and their physical well-being in every way would improve if we gave them full encouragement to continue in their jobs.

Mr. Jack Jones (Rotherham)

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that there is a law which lays it down that at 65 a person must stop working? Is it not a fact that private enterprise, which has its own laws, insists that people should stop at 65? Is it not also a fact that this Government have provided for people who remain at work, an extra shilling in pension for each year in which they remain at work?

Mr. Macdonald

I fully agree that the Government have done much in this matter, but I am saying that it is the general attitude of the public—and perhaps private enterprise is to blame for this—that a person is beyond any usefulness above the age of 65. The Government have given this increase, but it is available to them only when they have passed the age of 70. Many of these people may not reach the age of 70, and I believe that we should give every incentive and encouragement to them, and a far bigger one than the Government are giving at the moment to people of this kind. It may cost more than before, but there is still room for a greater incentive for older people. If the Select Committee should find that it is necessary to advise the Government in favour of an increase in the pensions, the cost, to a great extent, would be met by the efforts of the old people themselves through the greater production in industry for which they were responsible.

I suggest that we have got the wrong psychological approach to the term " old age pension " or " retirement pension." It may seem a small thing to mention, but the name tags which we place on things do affect them very much. I think we might call it " long service pension." The very fact of calling it " old age pension," makes the public generally feel that people in receipt of such pension are beyond any form of usefulness. As I have said before, I hope the Government will give the closest possible consideration to the setting up of a Select Committee. I know they have decided that there should be a quinquennial review in 1953—the last one having taken place in 1948—but if they will set up this com- mittee, it may be found that this review of the whole situation needs to come into force sooner than 1953.

I feel that in the present state of the country, with the very greatly increased cost of living which we have to face, and with some many other economic problems confronting us, it would be better for the Ministry concerned to shorten the time within which that review is necessary by placing the onus on this special committee to investigate these problems, and then to bring its findings before this House. I, therefore, urge the Government to give its attention to this matter, and I hope that, as a result of it, a Select Committee, representative of all parties in this House, will be set up without delay.

4.12 p.m.

Mr. Blackburn (Birmingham, Northfield)

I feel sure that the speech of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Macdonald) was a most sincere speech, and I am also sure that if this House were filled—which on a Friday afternoon is not always the case—the hon. Gentleman would have a great deal of sympathy; but I do not, of course, agree with him that an all-party committee on this subject would be a particularly good thing. There is a very good reason for that. At the last election, both the Tories and the hon. Gentleman's own party came out with a programme of greater public expenditure and less taxation at one and the same time. We know perfectly well that that cannot take place.

In actual fact—I am not going to accuse the hon. Gentleman—the case of the Tory Party on this subject is an absolutely hypocritical one, and, if I may say so, one is glad to see that the Tory Party are so interested in the subject of old age pensions that they have only a very handsome Whip present when it is debated on a Friday afternoon. Surely —and this is the main point I wish to make—there is a very great case to be made out for being exceedingly concerned about old people. I entirely agree that the name " old age pension " is a misnomer, and that some new name ought to be found. Secondly, I agree that it is ridiculous to believe that people at the age of 65 are finished. Even the right hon. Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) seems to be able to produce a great deal more fire and vigour than most people who are 50 years younger than him.

Therefore, I entirely agree with the main point which has been made. Surely, if our concern here is to look after those who are in misery, and to visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction, as St. Paul said, the way to do it is to give the money to Geordie Buchanan, because, when this Government came into power, the man they put in charge of the National Assistance Board was the man who had been thrown out of this House more than once by a hostile Tory majority for the great fight he has put up for old age pensioners and people in distress. I am absolutely delighted that he has managed to get £.8½millions out of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I thank Geordie Buchanan, in addition to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of National Insurance, whom I am very glad to see on the Front Bench, and also the right hon. Lady the Minister. They deserve credit for having obtained that. If we have money to spare, I should like to see the £.8½million doubled before raising the basic rate in relation to the old age pension itself. That is the way to see that the money goes to those people who need the money most.

Mr. Bowen (Cardigan)

A means test. The hon. Gentleman intends that the money should go to those who most need it, through the operation of a means test.

Mr. Blackburn

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the Labour Government have never applied anything approaching that means test. What he says it utter nonsense. The hon. Gentleman knows that those who apply for help to the National Assistance Board have only to go to the post office to ask for a form; and National Assistance is administered in practice, in my constituency, by most excellent people. They are people who go and visit those in need and become their friends. Only last Sunday I went round in my constituency, and I shall do so next Sunday, to see old age pensioners. I visited two old age pensioners the Sunday before last and arranged for them to be visited in their homes by people who try to help them. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that is the Tory means test, he might consult the Leader of the Liberal Party on the matter. I do not think he takes the same view.

Mr. Bowen

I said " means test."

Mr. Blackburn

We are delighted that there is this £8½million. I hope that the closest touch will be kept with Mr. Buchanan, Chairman of the National Assistance Board, to make sure that it is really enough. I do not accept for one moment the view, though it is very popular, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is a tight-fisted individual. He has been called by the Press the " Iron Chancellor." I have not the privilege of personal friendship with him, but I am quite certain that beneath that Iron Chancellor exterior there is a heart that beats very passionately for old age pensioners and people of that kind. I know that on this particular matter he is exceedingly sympathetic.

I ask that, without accepting the proposal of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Roxburgh and Selkirk, the Ministry at all times should take into account and obtain evidence about the actual way in which the old people and sick people of this country are faring. I hope the Minister will continue to receive representations from us and will keep in touch with the Chairman of the National Assistance Board. After all, is it not the supreme test of any civilisation to find out how the State looks after those who fall by the wayside? I venture to say that by that test, the Labour Government have helped to make this country stand higher than any other country in the world.

4.18 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of National Insurance (Mr. Bernard Taylor)

I am sure that when he has time, possibly this week-end, my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield (Mr. Blackburn) will read the Debate which took place in this House on Wednesday night. I am sure, without going into a lot of detail, that he will find there the answer to the very important point he raised in regard to the National Assistance Board.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Macdonald) has initiated a Debate on a subject which is very dear to the hearts of Members on all sides of this House. We had from the hon. Gentleman a speech of great sincerity, and he spoke with much feeling and understanding of the difficulties which, in these days, confront old people who are no longer able to work. I would remind the hon. Member that this Government has no less sympathy for those old people than any Member of this House. But sympathy, to be of any use, must take a practical form, and one must not, for example, by action leading to inflation, leave pensioners and others who are unable to work in greater difficulties than they would otherwise have experienced. One of the battles of this and preceding Governments on behalf of people of fixed incomes, and particularly old age pensioners, has been to keep the inflationary tendencies in check.

May I remind the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Selkirk what this Government and the preceding Government have done to make more adequate monetary provision for old people? The hon. Member lightly touched upon the subject, but I should like to expand upon it. One of the first things the Government did after the 1945 Election was, within 12 months, to put on the Statute Book the National Insurance Act. I believe it to be not only important but remarkable that within 12 months of the Government's taking office this Act was on the Statute Book, and I should like to pay a very warm tribute to the inspiration of my right hon. Friend who is now Secretary of State for the Colonies for what he did in this respect.

The National Insurance Act provides on a contributory basis for very much higher pensions for all men who have retired between 65 and 70 years of age, five years younger in the case of women, and for all people, whether they are retired or not, from the age of 70 in the case of men and 65 in the case of women. So anxious were the Government of 1945 about the plight of the old age pensioners under the previous insurance schemes, that they not only brought into being the National Insurance Act, but they took very special action immediately to bring the new retirement rates into operation only two months after the Act was passed, and nearly two years before it was possible to bring that same Measure into general operation.

Perhaps it would be of interest to indicate the magnitude of this problem. I will do it briefly in the form of figures.

There are, at the moment, 1,350,000 men and 2,490,000 women receiving the higher rates of contributory old age pension provided by the National Insurance Act. There are a further 419,000 receiving the similarly higher rates provided for those aged 70 and over whose qualification was under the old non-contributory pensions Act.

One or two observations were made about the magnitude of the problem in relation to finance, on which I should like to comment. While the National Insurance Act is a contributory scheme, so that the cost of its pensions will ultimately largely be met by the contributions paid during working life, the cost of the increase for existing pensioners to which I have already referred, was, when the National Insurance Act become the law of the land—and still remains—a very heavy burden upon the taxpayer of this country. It is costing the national Exchequer, mainly for the increased rates of retirement pension, £130 million a year, and an additional £42 million for noncontributory and supplementary pensions. In 30 years' time, owing to the very important incidence of the change in the age structure of our population, to which the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Selkirk very rightly referred, the cost to the Exchequer will be £420 million. Whatever happens, nothing can alter the change which will take place in the age structure of the population over that period. The above charge represents mainly the cost of the increased pensions of our ageing population.

If I may say so, with great respect, many points which the hon. Member introduced come within the province of the Ministry of Health—certainly those dealing with the provision of houses and the provision of nurses to give attention to those who are in hostels. The provision of what he called hostels for the old people is the responsibility of the major local authorities in England and Wales under Part III of the National Assistance Act.

My time is limited but perhaps I may deal very briefly with pension in creases through postponed retirement. As the House well knows, 26s., with a dependency increase of 16s. for a woman and 7s. 6d. for a child, is the basic insurance provision for all contingencies in which the insured person may be prevented from working and earning. But at the time of the passing of the National Insurance Act the Government were so impressed with the need to ensure that the retirement pensions did not discourage people from continuing to work, where that possibility existed, that they decided that substantial increases to the basic rates should be available to those who continued working and who deferred their retirement. Already, since 1948, there are a number of contributory pensioners who have postponed their retirement for a period and who are entitled to the increments which were provided under the National Insurance Act. They are already drawing for themselves not 26s. but 29s. and, for their wives, not 16s. but 19s., and that will continue.

There are many other things I should have liked to have said, but perhaps I may conclude on this note. The Government realise the importance of stability. It is very important that there should be reasonable stability in any insurance scheme and the Government recognise that this is not possible without some reasonable stability also in the price level. The Government's economic policy, as the Prime Minister said in a reply to a Question put a few weeks ago by an hon. Member for one of the Sheffield divisions, has been and still is directed towards maintaining the maximum stability of retail prices.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Four o'Clock.