HC Deb 22 February 1951 vol 484 cc1603-14

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

10.43 p.m.

Mr. Keeling (Twickenham)

I want for a few moments to draw the attention of the House to the threat to the efficiency, and indeed to the very existence, of Citizens' Advice Bureaux, which is presented by the withdrawal of the Government grant from their central organisation in the National Council of Social Service. This year the grant has been halved—from £10,000 to £5,000, and from April next it is to be withdrawn altogether. I urge very strongly that that decision should be reversed and the grant continued. This is not a party issue and, as I know that I have support on both sides of the House, I shall be brief in order to allow time for other hon. Members to speak. The only party point which might conceivably be made against me is that the Conservative Party are always advocating a reduction in expenditure and here am I resisting a reduction; but, as I shall show in a couple of minutes, that is, in my opinion, a false point, because it would be true economy to continue this grant.

Everybody knows—not least hon. Members of this House—the extraordinarily valuable services rendered by the Citizens' Advice Bureaux in the last few years in explaining to the citizen his new rights and new duties under innumerable Acts and orders, and acting as a sort of buffer between the citizen and Government Departments. These bureaux were first officially recognised early in the war, when the Minister of Health made a twofold grant—first to individual local bureaux, and secondly for the central services rendered to them by the National Council of Social Service. The Treasury grant to local bureaux was discontinued in 1945, and I make no complaint of that, because local authorities have statutory power to make grants, and two-thirds of them in fact do so. What I am complaining about is that the central services performed by the National Council of Social Service are to lose their grant.

What are these central services? They are, first of all, to supply information to the bureaux. The National Council collects, sifts, and reduces to simple language the mass of Statutes and Statutory Instruments and Rules. No Citizens' Advice Bureau could hope to do its work properly without this, and I understand that even some Government Departments find it simpler to read the digest of the law prepared by the central organisation than to read their own Acts.

The second service maintained by the National Council is that it maintains a high standard in the individual bureaux by training their staff, and by inspection, and this is especially necessary in small towns and rural areas. A high standard is absolutely essential, for otherwise the public would lose confidence in the bureaux. A Citizens' Advice Bureau which is not adequately guided may do more harm than good. It is not too much to say that if it does not set a high standard it is better to have it closed down.

I said just now that it is a false economy for the Treasury to save this £10,000. There are about 530 of these bureaux, and two-thirds of their workers are unpaid. I am told that in a year they answer one and a half million queries. During 1948–49 they dealt with 300,000 inquiries about National Insurance, 250,000 about supplies and rationing, 100,000 questions connected with the Fighting Forces, 29,000 war damage questions, 10,000 war pension cases, and 8,000 town and country planning cases. It is quite obvious that a very large proportion of these cases, if not dealt with by them, would have taken up the time of Government or local government departments at a far greater cost than £10,000. It would perhaps not be an exaggeration to say that the Government Departments would have at least one million more queries to deal with if the Citizens' Advice Bureaux were closed. If we divide one million by £10,000—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Colonel Sir Charles MacAndrew)

Is there any Government responsibility for spending this money?

Mr. Keeling

The Government up to now and at the present moment are making a grant which they are threatening to withdraw.

As I was saying, if we divide one million queries which otherwise would have gone to Government Departments by the £10,000 which the Government are at present spending, we get 2½d. a time. There are not many civil servants who could deal with queries, some of very great intricacy, at a cost of 2½d. a time. It is a fact also that sometimes Government Departments actually ask for the help of the bureaux. For example, as I mentioned at Question Time today, they recently asked them to explain the census of distribution to small traders. There is no doubt at all that if the bureaux ceased to exist, the staffs of some Government Departments would have to be increased.

There is a further service which the central organisation renders. It collects information about the problems and difficulties which are causing most trouble, and informs the Government Departments concerned. It interprets the State to the citizen and the citizen to the State.

A recent Ministry of Health circular describes the part which the Bureaux could play in Civil Defence and particularly after air raids. It is quite certain that, backed by a good central organisation, the bureaux can render incalculable service in time of war. This time of international stress seems a very strange moment to choose to cripple the central organisation.

In withdrawing the grant, the Ministry of Health, as it then was, suggested that the National Council of Social Service should ask the local authorities to contribute this £10,000. The Minister must have had his tongue in his cheek when he made that suggestion. A moment's consideration will show that it is quite impracticable. The National Council of Social Service would have to approach over 500 local authorities. It would have to negotiate suitable scales of contribution. It would have a hopeless job, not knowing how many local authorities would contribute.

The House will agree that nothing can take the place of a Treasury grant. Ta continue this very modest grant of £10,000 would be a recognition of the help the Government get from the bureaux. It would be the only way of continuing that help efficiently, and it would save, as I have already shown, a much larger sum. I ask for an assurance that this matter will be reconsidered.

10.52 p.m.

Miss Burton (Coventry, South)

In common with other hon. Members I lend my support to what has been said by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling). I have had a good deal of experience of the National Council of Social Service and Citizens' Advice Bureaux. No one will dispute that they do a first-class job. I hope very much that the Government will feel able to withdraw the suggestion that this grant should be cut, because the central administration, which would lose this money, supplies the background information upon which the Citizens' Advice Bureaux work. The town clerks of our various cities know very well the Citizens Advice Notes which are issued quarterly. In addition there is a monthly duplicated circular while an information department is maintained at the centre. This department deals with problems too difficult for the local offices and also with those needing telephone contact in London. A two-way traffic is supplied because the centre is used for the purpose of Government information which is put out to the country through the local C.A.B.'s. If the centre were not there, the Government would miss it very much. We all agree that it is very difficult to understand legislation, even when it is worth-while legislation, as it is today. It is most essential that we should have qualified laymen on the spot to give information. For example three specific types of claim arise today. The first arises out of the Coal Mining Subsidence Act. Secondly, we have the development schemes under the Town and Country Planning Act, and lastly there are the new rating assessments. I know that in my own city many queries arise out of that.

The work of the bureaux falls into two main categories. First, there are the day-to-day problems that arise locally, and secondly the problems which provide pointers to the need for fresh legislation or amendments. The secretary in my own city, Miss Smith—this information does not come from her—has had many questions on war damage schemes affecting small businesses, which have provided very valuable details for the headquarters of the C.A.B. on which, I know, they hope to make representations to the Board of Trade. I lend my support very much to the hon. Member. I hope that we shall persuade the Government from all quarters of the House to prevail on the Treasury to withdraw this suggestion.

10.55 p.m.

Mr. Oakshott (Bebington)

I should like to support very warmly the plea of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) and the hon. Lady the Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton). I do not think there is anyone who does not agree that the service provided by the public-spirited people who man these bureaux is one of inestimable value to tens of thousands of people who get advice and information from them. Speaking from my own experience, the bureau in Birkenhead which serves my constituency has dealt, in the last four years, with an average of over 8,000 cases a year, and many of those were of that sort where all that was wanted was a simple interpretation of some official language, which, of course, a number of these people who are harassed and worried—and a number of old people—simply do not understand.

I think it must be the experience of many hon. Members that to these people the very sight of an official communication is almost hypnotic, and they are really so frightened of it that they do not know what to do at all. This is particularly the case with the re-assessment of houses, forms to do with pensions, forms to do with the Census, and so on; and their relief when these are explained to them in simple language by one of the interviewers of Citizens' Advice Bureaux is wonderful. Many of the questions dealt with are connected with the Service Departments. For example, a Reservist is called up and he is worried about his family; he is worried about his pay and allowances, and about his home commitments. On these matters the bureau can help him enormously.

I believe that there is a Bill coming up shortly to give some protection to men who are called up, with regard to hire-purchase agreements. This will mean an enormous amount of work for these bureaux. I should not be surprised if the Service Departments have not already consulted them about the problems a Measure of this sort will bring. Lastly, there is the thing my hon. Friend mentioned, namely, the Advice and Information services under Civil Defence, which were largely the responsibilities of the bureaux during the last war. Now it is proposed that the advice and information services of this sort should be part of the Civil Defence programme. Here, again, the Citizens' Advice Bureaux have a very big part to play.

The fact is that, for a very small sum indeed, we are getting a service which is of enormous value to thousands of people, and it would be a very great pity indeed if they were to lose the full advantage of it. I think there are two very simple questions to be considered. First, can the individual bureaux up and down the country do this really important work without the information from their headquarters? They cannot. Secondly, can the headquarters itself carry on and send out this information quickly and accurately without the grant? The answer, again, is that they cannot. I beg the Government to reconsider their decision in this matter.

10.58 p.m.

Mr. Manuel (Central Ayrshire)

I support the representations made by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) and other hon. Members. I feel that we cannot make enough of the point that this grant of £10,000 to the National Council of Social Service is a very cheap method of getting essential legislation carried down into the homes and minds of the people. I believe this work is being well and truly done. One of the things which gave me a great amount of satisfaction during my period of local government work was the fact that I was able to inaugurate in my own town of Ardrossan a Citizens' Advice Bureau.

I am informed now, in a letter that I have had from an official there, and also from the secretary of the Scottish Council of Social Service—because it is broken down into a Scottish Council, while affiliated to the National Council—that this whole work has been built up over the past 10 years. Incidentally, the work has trebled in the 10 years since it was started just after the war began. As an indication of the number of inquiries with which a small bureau deals, Ardrossan, which has a population of only 8,000, handles well over 3,000 queries annually.

I feel that we have to do what we can to see that this grant is carried on. Of the £10,000 allocated to the National Council for Social Service, a small portion is allocated from the National Council for the work in Scotland, through the Scottish headquarters in Edinburgh. From that very small portion we are able to have a travelling officer to send out these Citizens' Advice Notes. If we are deprived of these facilities in the smaller rural and urban areas; if we have no help from the centre on the hundred and one problems that we need to solve; and if we cannot get legislation "broken down" into the language of the people, then our work will be nullified to a great extent.

I hope that we shall manage to retain these facilities, and I appeal to the Government Front Bench and to the other right hon. and hon. Members to reconsider this whole question with a view to continuing this grant and making possible the continuation of this work. The amount of new legislation passed by this Government over the past five years means, in my opinion, that we must have some instrument in the lives of the people so that they can fully appreciate the effect of that legislation. An hon. Member for a Welsh constituency asked me to inform the House that much the same problems arise in Wales.

11.1 p.m.

Mr. J. N. Browne (Glasgow, Govan)

I should like to speak of the effect of this matter on Scotland. In regard to employment, family problems, health and medical, there was a substantial increase in the number of cases dealt with this year as compared with last year. Under local information, travel and housing there were smaller increases. In regard to supplies and rationing and social insurance there were fewer inquiries this year than last year. Surely, the people of Scotland need someone to guide them through this mass of red-tape that we have today? The effect of this proposal on Scotland will be that, instead of having a full-time travelling officer going round and doing co-ordinating work, only one-third of his time will be given to this work, which cannot be done by a part-time officer. I therefore hope that the Minister will reconsider this decision.

11.2 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Roberts (Merioneth)

I rise to reinforce the plea made by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling). As the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel) pointed out, this may affect the Welsh Council of Social Service as well as the Central Council of Social Service. I should like to make one argument. The activities of the Welfare State are so vast that we are apt to forget the importance of voluntary action, but I believe that voluntary action has a very important part to play in the Welfare State and that it is the duty of the central Government to make it possible for men and women to give voluntary action in helping their fellow-beings. For this reason, I hope the Minister will listen to the plea that has been made.

11.3 p.m.

Mr. Burke (Burnley)

All that has been said by the hon. Members who have spoken is true. I want to refer to one specific instance of the working of the bureaux. When the new Legal Aid Scheme began, everyone concerned in my constituency wanted to get the new forms on the day when the scheme started and they were at the bureau. Therefore, though I say this selfishly, I hope it continues, and it cannot continue locally if it is not paid for nationally. I hope that it will continue thus to take a good deal of work off my agent, and enable me to keep my constituency safe.

11.4 p.m.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks (Chichester)

Has the Minister appreciated the false economy and the folly of this action? By withdrawing this grant, in two steps he is undermining the whole system built up in 10 years. What is more incredible is that this should be done at this moment. This organisation came into being as a direct result of the war in order to help people with their quandaries. To undermine it at the present time is the height of folly. This organisation has been the pride of Government Departments and trusted by them as well as by the people. Why go and strike a blow which is bound to weaken it to such an extent that it will probably be unable to recover at all? This decision will also throw a far greater financial burden on the local rates as well as on the central Government organisation. This is the cheapest investment the Government can make, and the best one, and now they propose to throw it away. It is the worst form of economy in which they can indulge.

11.6 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Local Government and Planning (Mr. Lindgren)

May I, first of all, join with all those hon. Members who have spoken in appreciation of the work of the National Council of Social Service and the Citizens' Advice Bureaux in particular? I have reason, as a result of wartime experiences, to be particularly grateful because, as Deputy Regional Commissioner for the West Midlands, I saw the Citizens' Advice Bureaux in effective action, and but for the work and high standard of training which enabled the folk associated with the bureaux to become guides, philosophers and friends, the morale of the people would have dropped to a much lower ebb. From first hand knowledge, I have a great appreciation of the work done.

Equally, like many other voluntary activities in all fields, which come into being for one reason or another, this organisation has shown that it has not only a war-time but a peace-time use. In this second sphere those associated with it have again proved to be the guides, philosophers and friends of people in need, giving them every help humanly possible to save them trouble. That has been done exceptionally well, and has been recognised in the Local Government Act of 1948 where, in fact, power is given to local authorities to establish Citizens' Advice Bureaux, to make grants to local bureaux, and generally to do the work as a local government service in co-operation with other local services engaged in work of this kind.

I wish that many more local authorities had established local bureaux, although not for the selfish reason the hon. Gentleman the Member for Burnley (Mr. Burke) so jocularly mentioned. After all, we as Members of Parliament often act as minor information bureaux on Fridays and Saturdays, so we appreciate what they can do for us. The Act provides for local payment. This is a local service, and there can be a grant from the local authorities to the National Council for the information which they supply to the local bureaux. It is not the Government giving the information. This is a local government service run locally, and the information is required for local purposes. Therefore, it is for the local authority to make a grant to the centre.

The only argument that is valid has not been used this evening; that is, that it will cost the central organisation a certain amount to collect the money, and that it will cost the local authorities a certain amount in clerical work, postage, and so on, to send it to the National Council. It is much easier to receive £10,000 in one cheque, passed in one transaction from one headquarters to another, than to have a thousand cheques of £10 each, or some of £5 and some of £20. But on the general principle that it is a local service, rendered to the locality, the locality ought to pay for it. There is the point, too, that in so far as wartime arrangements are concerned, local information will play a big part, and the National Council in its field will play its part in conjunction with the locality. In such circumstances there is a much stronger case for some payment in regard to Civil Defence responsibilities than in regard to normal civil responsibilities.

As I said at the beginning, I have the greatest admiration and appreciation of the work which has been done, and it is fitting that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) should have raised the matter, because I had the honour of working with his sister during the war. I hope that some time, I shall get the affection and esteem for him that I had for her, but he will have to improve a lot before that comes about. I am afraid that I can give no assurance that a continuation of the grant will be forthcoming.

Adjourned at Twelve Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.