HC Deb 29 April 1952 vol 499 cc1363-409

10.11 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of National Insurance (Mr. R. H. Turton)

I beg to move, That the Draft National Assistance (Determination of Need) Amendment Regulations, 1952, a copy of which was laid before this House on 8th April, be approved. I am asking the House to approve the Draft National Assistance Regulations which are designed to improve materially the standard of living of over two million people. The scale rates under the National Assistance Act have been increased on two previous occasions, the last as recently as last September. As on those occasions, the reason for the increase is the fall in the value of money.

On this occasion, the Board are responding to the invitation made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Budget speech of 11th March, when he said that the Board would have to take into account his proposal to lower the food subsidy ceiling to £250 million. The estimated effect of this proposal is 1s. 2½d. per head per week. In addition, there is a figure of 3½d. per head per week in respect of other food price increases, including increases resulting from the agricultural price review announced in the House of Commons last week.

The scales suggested take into account these factors and also the considerable rise in the cost of living that has taken place since the Regulations introduced by the right hon. Lady the Member for Fulham, West (Dr. Summerskill) in June, 1951, came into operation.

In this connection, I would remind the House that these scale rates are supplemented by a rent allowance, and, therefore, in dealing with the impact of the cost of living, it is not the all-item index that is relevant, but the specific indices for food, clothing, fuel and light and household goods. It is the expectation of the Board and of my right hon. Friend that the scales laid down in these Regulations will provide a fair and reasonable standard of living, not merely at present, but for a considerable period of time in the future. The unfortunate factor which we have to bear in mind is that it is only as recently as eight months ago when the last Regulations were introduced.

When those Regulations were introduced last June, the House approved an increase in the ordinary scale for a single householder by 4s. a week from 26s. to 30s. The present Regulations propose a further increase of 5s. from 30s. to 35s. The rate for the married couple is raised to 59s.; in other words, the three-to-five ratio is broadly being maintained. In fact, it is being rounded off to the nearest shilling, giving the extra addition of the 8d. involved to the married couple. The rates for dependent children are being increased by 2s. 6d., 2s. and 1s. 6d. according to their age.

Besides the ordinary scale, there is a special scale which applies to blind persons and to certain persons suffering from tuberculosis. The number of blind persons at present benefiting from this special scale is about 50,000, and the number of tuberculous persons benefiting from this special scale is in the region of 35,000. The most important rates in the special scale were fixed in 1948 to be 15s. above the corresponding rates in the ordinary scale. When the ordinary scale rates were increased in 1950 and 1951, blind and tuberculous persons were given the same increases as those on the ordinary scale, so that the margin was maintained at 15s.

Last year in the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) and the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Messer) pressed that that margin of 15s. should be increased. At that time the right hon. Lady was unable to do so, but, on further consideration, we have in these Regulations been able to increase that margin from 15s. to 18s. Thus, a single blind person who has been having his income made up to 45s. plus rent as against the 30s. plus rent on the ordinary scale, will now have his income made up to 53s. plus rent as against 35s. plus rent on the ordinary scale.

The House will notice that Regulation 3, which deals with people living in accommodation provided by or by arrangement with local authorities under Part III of the National Assistance Act, is on new lines, and perhaps calls for a few words of explanation. The intention of the Regulation in its present form is to get Parliamentary approval in principle for a method of dealing with these cases which the Board has in practice adopted since 1948 when the payment of assistance to cases in these homes first started.

As hon. Members know, it is for the Minister of Health and the Secretary of State for Scotland to prescribe under quite separate powers the minimum charge which a local authority must make for a person living in this kind of accommodation and also the amount which he should be allowed for small personal requirements—what is known as a pocket money allowance. Hon. Members will appreciate that the Regulations about charges and pocket money allowances apply to a large number of people who are not in receipt of assistance at all. They apply, for instance, to people drawing National Insurance pensions. But, in so far as people living in this kind of accommodation have not got resources of their own, the National Assistance Board have to provide them with an allowance equal to the sum of the minimum charge and the pocket money allowance.

When the question first arose in 1948, it was known that the amounts that the Ministers of Health would prescribe for this purpose were going to be 21s. and 5s., respectively. The Assistance Regulations, therefore, prescribe a sum of 26s. This method was, it is true, simple, but it had the disadvantage that if at any time the Health Ministers decided to change the pocket money allowance or the minimum charge, a formal amendment of the Assistance Regulations became necessary before the residents dependent on assistance received the benefit of the change.

In fact, there has been a certain amount of doubt whether the allowance for pocket money in these cases is appropriate in present circumstances and the Health Ministers, as a result of inquiries they are making, may decide to improve it. The present Regulations, therefore, provide, instead of a fixed amount which might have had to be altered, a formula which makes it possible to alter the allowances in these cases without fresh Regulations should the amounts prescribed by the Health Ministers be changed.

The number of persons at present affected by these Regulations is about 20,000. In addition, there are 50,000 persons on National Assistance paying an inclusive sum for board and lodging to whom the ordinary scale rates cannot be applied. In those cases the Board's officers use discretionary powers to put the boarder in a position to meet his board and lodging charge and have a reasonable amount left for personal expenses. These discretionary powers extend over the whole field of the Board's activities and will not be impaired in any way by the new Regulations. My information is that at present over 500,000 of the 1,500,000 allowances are now being increased by the exercise of these powers to meet special expenses.

Among old people the proportion of the allowance so increased is at present over a half. I remember that when the right hon. Lady the Member for Fulham, West, introduced the previous Regulations she mentioned that these discretionary powers were costing at that time £5 million. It will interest her to know that the cost of these special allowances is now approaching £6 million.

I hope that the House will not delay in any way in giving approval to these Regulations, as the matter is urgent. We are anxious to bring these Regulations into force on 16th June, which is six weeks from next Monday. This will throw on the Board's officers a great load of administrative work, and it is in fact a shorter period than was allowed last year between the approval of the Regulations and the date of operation.

The Board's officers will do all the work necessary to put these Regulations into operation. There will be no need for people drawing assistance to take any action to obtain the assistance due to them. Where assistance is paid by order book the Board will issue an additional book for the extra amount due, and they expect to be able to do this in nearly all the cases before 16th June. In the exceptional case where that is not possible the arrears will be paid back to that date.

The matter is complicated because at a later stage more than two-thirds of the allowances will need to be adjusted again when family allowances and retirement pensions and other insurance benefits are increased under the Family Allowances and National Insurance Bill published last week. The Board will not be in a position to provide for these adjustments until the House has passed that Bill into law and full details have been settled. But in the communications they are sending with the additional order books they are including, where appropriate, an intimation that the amount of the assistance will have to be reduced when the family allowance, pension or benefit is increased. This further operation, however, will not reduce the total income below the figure to which it is now increased by the Regulations.

The estimated cost of the new scale is £25 million in a full year. In the current year about three-quarters of the amount will be required, over and above the £77,500,000 provided in the Estimates that the House has before it. But the increase will be offset to a material extent by the effect of increases in insurance benefits and family allowances which, as I have mentioned, will reduce the sums the Board have to pay by way of supplementation. I commend these Regulations to the House. However much we may disagree in our approach to certain problems in politics, there is, I know, on all sides of the House a unanimous wish to see that those affected by these Regulations, who may well be described as the casualties in the battle of life, should be treated with sympathy and all the generosity which, in our circumstances, we can afford.

10.26 p.m.

Dr. Edith Summerskill (Fulham, West)

I think I am speaking for my hon. Friends behind me when I say that we welcome any increase in the scales for those who are, through misfortune, dependent upon National Assistance; but I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary one or two questions. He said, quite rightly, that in arriving at these new scales it was necessary to take into account the increase in the cost of living since the last scales were introduced—in September, 1952—together with the increase in the cost of living up to and beyond the coming into operation of the new scale. I think the House understands the reason for that; that for administrative reasons it is impracticable to change the scales too frequently and therefore it is customary to err on the generous side in order to try to assess what would be the increase in the cost of living in the coming months.

We on this side of the House are a little alarmed at the impending increases in the cost of rationed food, and the significant hints that while these increases in price will take place there will be a de-rationing of other foods. I can say no more than that we feel that there have been hints in this direction. The synchronisation of these statements cannot fail to fill us with a certain apprehension, because if this is to come about it will mean that the prices of certain rationed foods will increase, consumption will drop and, in consequence, de-rationing will be possible.

If this is the sequence of events, the very poorest in the country—and I include those on National Assistance—will be compelled to go without rationed foods. I want to know if the Minister is satisfied that the new scales which he has introduced tonight will meet the new prices of rationed foods. I have sought at Question time to elicit this information from the Minister—who, I see, is sitting in his place tonight—and he has been a little elusive. He was a little querulous, I thought, on Monday. I was not trying to be difficult or to harry him. We do not do that kind of thing on this side of the House. I was trying, quite kindly and with a certain sympathy and understanding—because I have been in his position—to get an assurance from him that the new scales would meet these increases.

Some weeks ago I also asked him—and I think it was a fair question—whether he would consider meeting the Minister of Food with a view to synchronising the increase in price of rationed foods and the new scales. I think that that was a question which was quite practical, but I have still not had an answer. I should like to know tonight, if possible, whether the increase in the price of rationed foods is coming into operation before or after 16th June. That is the kind of thing the people would like to know. I have asked that question on various occasions.

I think it was last Monday that the Minister of National Insurance retorted that the Labour Government was responsible for doing all kinds of things; but he must remember that the Labour Party, when in power, never reduced the food subsidies. They never considered reducing the food subsidies. The Minister need not raise his eyebrows. The food subsidies remained, and it was only when the present Government was returned that these reductions were introduced. Therefore, I say he is in a different position. He cannot very well ride away by saying that the Labour Party did different things when they were in office. So perhaps he could answer that very important question tonight.

The main weakness which I see in these calculations is that the retail price index is not a representative one for people on National Assistance. I am not quite sure from the Parliamentary Secretary whether he suggested that the new scales are related to a different kind of index or whether they are related to the retail price index.

Mr. Turton

I was explaining to the House that we were not using the all-item index. As there is a rent allowance in addition to the ordinary scale, it would be inappropriate to use the all-item index, as in fact was used in the debate last July by the former Parliamentary Secretary. What we do take into account, amongst other factors, are the food, clothing, household and fuel and light items in the Ministry of Labour retail price index.

Dr. Summerskill

If the hon. Gentleman is talking about the retail price index, that is what I am going to relate my remarks to. I am sure he will agree that household goods can cover a wide variety of items. Amongst the most important items in the budgets of recipients of National Assistance are, first, food and then fuel. Both these items, particularly food, are increasing in price, and will increase rather faster than the overall cost of living index. I think the Parliamentary Secretary will agree with me so far.

Mr. Turton

indicated assent.

Dr. Summerskill

If that is so, this allowance is an apparent gain, but if the food and fuel costs increase more quickly than the overall cost of living index, this apparent increase will be substantially greater. I think the hon. Gentleman will agree that that is a valid argument. If he had said to me that he has only taken into account such things as food, fuel and rent, the position would be different, but he has admitted that he is taking into account all those items which are used in the household.

I take it that these figures are related to the price index figures up to the beginning of March. I have a list of goods which have increased in price from the time of the General Election up to March, and I think there are something like 60 items in it. Assuming that those on National Assistance only have the bare essentials of life, a considerable number of these goods will be found in the list, and those which are in the list which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned will be taken into account.

But I have a list of 53 more which have been increased up to April, and presumably, for actuarial reasons, the Minister has not been able to base his rate on the latest figures. He has only had to assume—and I quite understand this—quite generally what the increase in prices will be. All this tends to confirm our suspicions that these scales tonight may not meet the increased prices which will come about in the next few months, and I would welcome some further reassurance on that point.

Mr. Peter Roberts (Sheffield, Heeley)

I understand that this includes articles of household clothing as well, a number of which, as the right hon. Lady knows, are coming down in price, and have come down quite recently. They must be set against the figures which she has given.

Dr. Summerskill

If they come down I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I would welcome it. I appreciate the difficult position in which the Parliamentary Secretary finds himself. All we want is some assurance that we shall not find in two months, or in June, that the scales are entirely inadequate. That would be a waste of time, and it would be costly for the Minister to have to introduce new scales.

Now I come to discretionary powers. I am pleased to hear from the Parliamentary Secretary that the amount of money spent on discretionary services can be increased. He explained that in the memorandum. We all know the real safeguard against any undue suffering by a family or an individual is to be found in the discretionary powers possessed by officials. I have been told by my hon. Friends that for the most part the officials exercise these powers very wisely. Here and there an hon. Gentleman feels they may be more than generous. For my own part, in my constituency the officials handle what is a delicate matter excellently.

I want to put this point to the Parliamentary Secretary. It is possible to give a coal allowance to those who live in cold or damp rooms, or to families where there is cause for the allowance. Since the General Election the price of coal has increased by an average of 5s. a ton throughout the whole country. In London it has risen by 7s. 8d., in Birmingham by 5s. 11d., in Manchester by 6s., in Leeds by 5s. 10d., in Bristol by 7s. 1d. and in Exeter by 8s. 3d. I have not to remind the House that fares have increased, and yesterday's debate did not clarify the issue. It seems that the increases in fares which have been suspended will be put into operation after the borough elections.

Having regard to all this, may I ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether these officials can exercise their discretion in respect of hospital fares—that is fares incurred by patients who have to go to hospital? I should also like to ask him if he will give an instruction to officials to exercise wider discretion in respect of coal and fares. He does not have to introduce new Regulations. He has all the necessary powers.

The other thing I want to raise concerns the disparity between insurance and assistance rates, and we shall be able to discuss this when the National Insurance Bill is introduced. I am not going to criticise this: I am merely going to comment on it. We are departing from the principle that pensions should be related to subsistence. We are asking that all insurance beneficiaries under the scheme should apply, if necessary, for assistance to supplement their pensions. In consequence, it is even more important that the new National Assistance rates should be brought to the notice of all National Insurance beneficiaries.

When one thinks today of the increases in prices and of the difficulties which in the next few months will be faced by all those who draw unemployment or sickness benefits, or old age pensions, before the new scales come into operation in September, it seems that the Minister should use all the media open to him to give wide publicity to these new scales. I deplore the fact that all the splendid work by the Ministry in the last few years with a view to giving assistance without undue publicity has been vitiated by the new Health Bill. I am sorry the Minister did not do something about that. He knows that in the Ministry of National Insurance today they are very proud of the fact that an individual in need of assistance need not disclose his poverty publicly.

We have seen to it that Post Offices are supplied with simple forms of application which can be obtained by applicants for assistance, and we have made it known that, if someone is still nervous or shy about applying, an official will call at their home. We did this to relieve dire poverty in the country, and when I was at that Box I used to explain week after week what the arrangements were. I thought that both sides of the House then approved of this approach to those who were too proud to come forward.

I am surprised at having to tell the Minister that he has allowed a Bill to go through which will, to a certain extent, reverse our policy when the Health Bill operates. The Minister did not deny this when I explained to the House on Second Reading that an individual will disclose his poverty in the chemist's shop when he asks for a receipt for his prescription. He knows that is the procedure, and it is no use saying it is untrue.

Mr. Iain Macleod (Enfield, West)

Will the right hon. Lady permit me? In the first place, the provisions made for National Assistance under the National Health Service Bill this year are identical word for word with the provisions in last year's Bill. When the right hon. Lady refers to the prescription in the chemist's shop, that is not in this year's Bill. The power to charge through National Assistance is in the Bill she supported and voted for a year ago.

Dr. Summerskill

When I gave way I thought the hon. Gentleman had some new point. He has repeated that so often in the last few days that I know it off by heart. The fact was that the Labour Government, having examined the operation of this scheme, decided that this part would be unworkable and would not be fair. That is why we rejected it, and it is quite stupid for the hon. Gentleman to say that the Labour Party also operated it. Of course they did not. He is supporting a Bill on which the Guillotine is going to fall for the last stage on Thursday.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Wolverhampton, South-West)


Dr. Summerskill

I am not going to give way. The two hon. Gentlemen, like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, have been doing this for such a long time and have repeated the same phrases so often that I know the question they are going to ask.

I am sorry the Minister is not following a policy of which he should be very proud in the Ministry of National Insurance, which protects these people who do not want to reveal their poverty, and that that policy is being reversed. I hope he will have a word with the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health with a view, at the last moment, to persuading him not to do it.

Obviously, we only want to improve the Regulations, and the last thing we would do would be to criticise the administration. I want to thank all those officials who serve the National Assistance Board. They have a very difficult function. The applicants they see every day may not receive that sum of money they would like. We all know that. Despite that, the officials do their work in a tactful and courteous manner, and I should like it to go out from the House that all hon. Members, on both sides of the House, appreciate their work.

10.45 p.m.

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

The House always listens with very great interest to the right hon. Lady the Member for Fulham, West (Dr. Summerskill), and we are sorry that she should make what seemed to me to be a destructive, rather than a constructive, contribution. The right hon. Lady, for instance, said that her party did not cut the food subsidies. Of course, she knows perfectly well that from the point of view of the old age pensioner, if one raises the price of food that is exactly the same thing, even though it is done in order to keep the food subsidies at a certain level. That is simply a quibble, and the old people and those in receipt of National Assistance will not take it very well.

Secondly, the right hon. Lady said that the basis of the new rates was not realistic. I am surprised that she should cast any doubts in the country about the correctness of the rates of National Assistance, because she knows—and I know that she knows—perfectly well that these rates are based on the same basis as when she was in office, and that that basis is both humane and realistic and takes into account all the factors. Do not let it go out from this House to the people in receipt of National Assistance that there is any doubt about the correctness of the rates, or that there has been any change in the method of computing them since the right hon. Lady was the Minister.

Then—I nearly interrupted her—the right hon. Lady suggested that it was possible to give coal allowances. The right hon. Lady will remember sitting on the Front Bench many times when I asked from the back benches whether we could not have a little more coal for the winter for the old people. If she now says that it is possible to give coal allowances, I only wish she had done something then.

Dr. Summerskill

The hon. Member is not correct. I was always being asked to give a coal allowance to every old age pensioner. I said—I remember the language I used—on each occasion that that was impossible. What I am asking now is that the officials should have a wider discretion for those people who qualify for it.

Mr. Browne

I quite agree with the right hon. Lady, and if she looks at HANSARD—but I am sure she will not bother—she will find that I realise that just as much as she does and that that was what I was asking her for. What I ask the Minister for is a widening of the discretionary powers of the Board's officers, so that for old people, especially those living alone often in cold and damp premises, some greater discretion can be given to the Board and more coal can be given to these people than they get now.

I should like to bring to the attention of my right hon. Friend the fact that, in spite of the increase, I am still not happy about the rates where one or two old people live alone. I am still not happy that sufficient differentiation is made between people living alone and those living with their families.

The right hon. Lady spoke of encouraging people to go to the National Assistance Board, and I think it is time that somebody in the House said of some old age pensioners' associations, and especially of the National Federation of Old Age Pensioners, that although we all appreciate the good work they do, to my mind they do a great disservice to the old people in suggesting to them that it is not in their best interests to go to the National Assistance Board.

Mr. L. M. Lever (Manchester, Ardwick)


Mr. Browne

I speak as I find the National Federation, and I should like a spirit to go round these old age pensioners' associations, not that there is something wrong in going to the National Assistance Board, but that pensioners can go as a right.

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

That is a new line.

Mr. Browne

I join with the right hon. Lady when she spoke of the good work of the Board's officers. I remember a case in my constituency where one of the old age pensioner association officials found a very old lady living alone who had spent nearly all her money. She was far too proud to ask for any assistance. This visitor realised that she could not get the old lady to go to the National Assistance Board, so she got into touch with the officer. He called to see the old lady, and when the visitor went back to the old lady she said that a nice kind gentleman from the church had made her an allowance, and everything was all right. That is the spirit in which the Board does its work. Its officers do not want to behave like officials, but to see that people are adequately provided for.

There is a point on which I should like to ask for the Minister's help. I have found in my constituency that the old age pensioners and their organisations are pleased if the National Assistance Board officers will go and talk to them and explain things. I should like more to be done by representatives of the Board seeking opportunities to explain the rates and other matters to the old people.

Mr. Thomas Hubbard (Kirkcaldy Burghs)

Is the hon. Member not aware that that is part of the work of the old age pensioners' association? It has invited officers of the Board to visit the branches of the association to explain these matters. I speak with some knowledge as an honorary president of the association.

Mr. Browne

I am aware of that, and that is why I am raising the point. Encouragement is not being given in this matter, and where these meetings have been held they have done a great deal of good on both sides.

One criticism I have to make, and about which I may be wrong, is that I am still not entirely happy about the status of the National Assistance Board. I am not sure that the Minister is close enough to its operation, and I am not sure that basically the Board is always going to remain with its present function. There are about 1,500,000 people drawing assistance, and of these all but 300,000 or 400,000 are trotting round to some other Ministry to get some money.

Of the people in receipt of assistance, in round figures, three out of every 15 are drawing money from someone else, generally from the Ministry of National Insurance or the employment exchange. It is just possible that it would be better—certainly the old people would prefer it—that the Ministry of National Insurance, or the employment exchange could carry on the work of the National Assistance Board through their own officers. There is no reason why people should have to go to two offices to receive their few shillings from the State. It is possible that some change would be of benefit to everyone, especially the recipients, and, to some extent, to the cost of operation.

Lastly, when we talk about the Board in this House, we are afraid to refer to abuses. We all know that there are abuses. It is easy to talk about them, but difficult to know what to do. If the money of a man who has refused to work is cut, his wife is injured. This is a difficult matter to solve. Then there is the fellow who pretends he has lost the money paid to him and goes back for more. It would be possible to examine the question of giving relief in kind instead of money in certain cases. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I know. The answer in my own mind is the reaction of the party opposite. But we must face the fact that the taxpayer is paying a great deal in taxes and too much money goes out in abuses. We shall not get anywhere by denying that there are abuses. We will get somewhere by making it perfectly clear that we are going to do something about it.

Finally, I should like to add my word of thanks to the officers of the Board for the way in which they have administered the service.

10.56 p.m.

Mr. Thomas Hubbard (Kirkcaldy Burghs)

I appreciate the pressing urgency of this problem in relation to the passing of the Regulations. Regulations today mean much less than they used to mean. In fact, the rapidly changing cost of living has meant that for a considerable time these people living on the lowest possible scales have always been lagging behind.

The last Regulations which were issued came before the House in June, but even by September, by the cost of living figures compiled, old age pensioners were requiring further increases from the National Assistance Board. It has been my lot to go on deputations to the National Assistance Board and to find that the chairman and the Board can do little or nothing because of the powers prescribed by the House.

The fact that these Regulations have either to be accepted or rejected ought not to preclude us from making some comments on them. The figures will not take care of the increased cost of living in the months that lie ahead. The obvious answer to an increased cost of living is a demand for increases of income from people in all walks of society—those who draw wages and those on salaries. Even last week, a huge sum was announced for the farmers because of increased costs. Obviously, if the cost of living goes up, there is a corresponding demand for increases in salaries, income, wages or whatever it may be.

What does this mean? Let us be realistic about this policy. If wages and salaries go up and there are subsidies given to farmers, up goes the cost of living again and it leaves the people with low fixed incomes lagging behind all the time.

Mr. Ellis Smith

They have no margin.

Mr. Hubbard

They have no margin whatever, and pennies mean something to these people. I wish I could be optimistic enough to believe that in the months ahead of us the figures given in the draft Regulations will in fact meet that. Can we have an assurance that if there is an all round increase in wages, corresponding with the tremendous figure given to the farmers, we shall have new Regulations before the House? If the optimism of the Minister is not realised, can he promise us that there will be fresh Regulations?

The powers of the Chairman of the National Assistance Board are strictly limited, and on almost every occasion this section of the community are lagging behind the ordinary standard of living and we find malnutrition creeping in. It is high time this House and the country realised that it is bad enough to be unemployed for periods and bad enough to be sick for periods and unable to follow gainful occupation, but these Regulations very much concern old age pensioners who are permanently unable to follow gainful occupation, and the longer they are unable to do so the worse become their circumstances.

Mr. Ellis Smith

Is my hon. Friend aware that even this year's Economic Survey expresses great concern about the position of the people for whom he is speaking?

Mr. Hubbard

Yes, I have that in mind and also that a few short weeks ago, replying from the Despatch Box, the Minister of National Insurance said that it would require 34s. 4d. to give the old age pensioner the equivalent purchasing power he was enjoying from 26s. in 1946. It was even lagging behind the figure stated then, and that was before the Budget.

While hon. Members opposite accuse my right hon. Friend and this party of having fixed a ceiling on subsidies when they were in office, what they seem to forget is that there is a big difference in reducing subsidies at a time when prices are going up. It is all very well for hon. Members opposite and for Ministers—especially the Minister of Food—to speak of being able to de-ration food. That can be done quite easily. If the cost of food goes up beyond those people's pockets they cannot get their share of it, and so there is all the more available for those who can afford the price.

We are speaking not so much in terms of so many shillings but of so much food, clothing and warmth, and those of us associated with the Old Age Pensioners' Association realise how desperate indeed the circumstances of many of these people are. Because they are old, they have not been able to go out through these winter months. They have needed coal to give them heat, and they have to pay for gas and electricity. Because they cannot pay for the best clothing, their clothing is worn, thin and shabby.

None of us could object to an increase in the incomes of these people, and to that extent we welcome this change; but we do say the lag of time today is bound to have a worse effect on the incomes of these people than it did when prices were more static than now. Even if we had to introduce Regulations every month, surely it would be a humane thing to do, if our experience should unhappily prove that further increases are needed to meet the increased cost of living and the increased cost of food—at this time when subsidies are being handed out by the shovelful. If the Minister's estimates have proved to be optimistic, he can introduce fresh Regulations immediately. Our deputations have been going to the Board, and as far back as last September the then Minister was acquainted with this case.

There is another thing that I deplore in these Regulations, and that is the differential scales between people living in households and those over 21 years of age—the difference between 35s. and 31s. It has been within my experience that some men and women living at home find that they cannot manage at these rates. Who would like to feed and clothe an individual for 31s. a week nowadays? We must remember that very often the people expected to do these things are those who themselves are living on very low wages and incomes. It is rather mean and shabby that there should be differential at all when, indeed, a person entitled to supplementation comes under the "determination of need."

I have asked the area board about this and can give evidence in one case where an old man of my acquaintance could get nothing more because of the differential. He was receiving assistance only on the basis of 26s. a week. In spite of all they wished to do, his family could not keep him at this figure and he was removed to an institution. There it was found that it cost almost £4 a week to keep him—from Government and local authorities' funds. Yet a few shillings more would have sufficed to have kept him in his own home where he could enjoy the comforts of his own fireside.

Therefore, I wish indeed that there could be a little extension of the humane side. Differential scales can have no justification in determination of need Regulations. They are only there for the people who need them, and no matter what the circumstances in a man's life, whether he is living with his family or living in lodgings, they are bound to be the same, unless he is subsidised by his family, and when that family is on a low income it is altogether wrong to have these things.

In my constituency, we have a splendid area officer. An hon. Gentleman opposite spoke about people explaining things to the Old Age Pensioners' Association. He is quite wrong. We never told them not to go for National Assistance, because we go round the country advising them what they are entitled to, and encouraging them to get it, although we do not like a means test and think a basic pension is the right way. At no time have we told people not to apply for National Assistance. We encourage them to do so, and we go out of our way and spend a great deal of time, and have done for years, explaining to them what they are entitled to receive.

Mr. J. N. Browne

That is the point I was making. The hon. Gentleman contradicts himself. He tells the old people they should not go in for National Assistance, and then he tells them they ought to have it. The effect of that is to drive the Old Age Pensioners' Association away from National Assistance.

Mr. Hubbard

I never said anything of the sort. I hope the hon. Gentleman will do me the courtesy of trying to listen. Perhaps I think like a Scotsman and speak like a Scotsman, and that makes it difficult for him. We as a party have never believed in a means test. I think it is bad, and, therefore, while we do not like the determination of need, it is something we have to accept. We have never told the pensioners they ought not to take advantage of National Assistance. We have told them repeatedly, and, as a matter of fact, when the predecessor of my right hon. Friend was Minister of National Insurance, I was informed wherever I went that there would be an influx of applications for National Assistance, because the people did not know until we told them.

However, I was trying, when interrupted, to pay some tribute to the area officer in my constituency, who has just been to about 14 branches of the Old Age Pensioners' Association explaining what they are entitled to. He has certain discretionary powers, running to about half-a-crown or something like that, and he exercises that power wisely and as generously as he can. What I fear on this occasion is that the Minister might well be proved to have been too optimistic, and, in fact, in a month or two, we shall have general, all-round increases being demanded.

Nobody living on a low income will stand idly by knowing that the doctors have had a retrospective payment, and that the farmers and the bankers have had them, and that money seems to be available for these purposes. We simply cannot do it with people living on these scales. If the Minister has been too optimistic, I am concerned to see that we do not let these people go on suffering for another 18 months, or 12 months, or even six months, because the Minister should remember that part of his duties and of the responsibilities of his office is to see that these people do not suffer.

Summertime is a bad time to assess the scales. Things are never so difficult for the old people in the summer. They do not require so much coal, gas, electricity or clothing, though they require the same amount of food. The march of time will leave them behind, and who is going to say that, even on this maximum of 59s., they are adequately provided for today? In spite of all the efforts of the Chairman of the Kitchen Committee, it takes me all my time to get my meals for a few days in this House for that. I do not show any effects of malnutrition, but I find it very difficult at any rate to meet my food requirements here.

Remember those people have to buy in the same market, and which one of us can say that even these new scales are adequate, bearing in mind present day prices for clothing, food and everything else, plus increasing rents and rates which may be covered by the National Assistance Board scale. Therefore, I say in all sincerity, that even though we approve these scales tonight, none of us can say that we are satisfied that they are commensurate with the cost of living. We should remember that the very people who require the advantage of these Regulations today are the very people who have made this country what it is, the very people who made the industry of the country what it is, and it is poor compensation for them, when they can no longer follow gainful occupation, that even under these Regulations they will receive only 59s. a week for a man and wife.

While thanking the Minister for the expeditious way in which he has set about this matter, I hope that he will in future keep his eye on the problem and will remember that when he is dealing with the old people he is dealing with those who have made a great contribution to this country and who are deserving of the best we can give them.

11.13 p.m.

Mr. Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

Until the last few words of the last speaker the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy Burghs (Mr. Hubbard) I was particularly disappointed at the trend this debate had taken. In the end, the hon. Member did extend his compliments to the Minister on the expeditious way in which he has dealt with this problem, though in a word or two before he seemed to apologise for so extending it. However, it is his last words I am remembering, because I think they reflected the spirit in which we ought to discuss these Regulations.

I was rather sorry to recognise that little bit of party feeling and sectional argument which seemed to be drifting into the debate. I am certain it is wrong that that should happen. It was the right hon. Lady who really set that tone. I do not see the necessity for it.

Dr. Summerskill

The hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends provoked me.

Mr. Nicholls

Before there had been any interruption at all the right hon. Lady thought fit to refer to the increase in prices which came after the Election. That really is not good enough. I do not think we ought to conduct this debate in any party spirit.

Mr. Hubbard

What is the hon. Gentleman now doing?

Mr. Nicholls

If we have to do that there are one or two figures we ought to bear in mind. When we are talking about the old people and about those who have to apply for National Assistance due to increased prices, I think we ought in fairness to explain when those increased prices came about. I find that the cost of living went up as much in the four months from June to October when the Election took place as it has in the six and a half months since October. With regard to food, for instance, the June figure was 135.9, in October it had gone up to 142.8, and between October and the present time it has gone up to 150.9.

I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman who said that old people do not buy clothes. My father, who is an ex-miner and 72 years of age, still buys the clothes which he thinks the times demand. He is not on assistance, but if he were his concern for his general appearance would not be very different to what it is now. The interjection was that people on National Assistance do not buy clothes.

Mrs. E. M. Braddock (Liverpool, Exchange)

They cannot.

Mr. Nicholls

I am saying that people with families on National Assistance have to buy clothes because, even if they are on National Assistance, their children's clothes and shoes wear out.

Mr. Ellis Smith

It is to the everlasting credit of the new administration that allowance is made for clothing where necessary.

Mr. Nicholls

The cost of living on clothing in June was 138.6. It rose to 145·1 in October, and in the six and a half months that followed it has gone up to 147.1. On household goods the figures are rather more startling, and people on National Assistance still have to run their households. The June figure was 134.2, the October figure was 136.5, and it has now gone down slightly to 136.2.

Mr. W. Griffiths (Manchester, Exchange)

Will the hon. Gentleman say from where he is quoting?

Mr. Nicholls

I am quoting from the cost of living figures available to any hon. Gentleman. The hon. Gentleman and I often have a chat together, and we can go into the matter later. I only quote them now to have it placed on record that all the increases in costs that people have to face have not come about since the General Election.

Mr. Hubbard

Would the hon. Gentleman not agree that, whatever the increased costs might be since October, they are on top of the others?

Mr. Nicholls

Of course, but it seems to have been the desire of hon. Gentlemen opposite who have spoken to anticipate that things are going to be desperately bad. I hope they will not. It was very unfair to talk about a £39m. extra subsidy for farmers, and to suggest that it had not been taken into account, when we have had the word of the Chancellor that the figures he gave in the Budget speech did take that into account. There is no need to frighten the old folk when we meet them. We all go along to the meetings of the old people's associations, and it would be wrong to put in their minds things which from official quarters we know are not the facts.

I agree, however, that it is the duty of all of us to watch their interests, and if we find that prices, despite all anticipations, are running away, we will have to see that these people are protected. I should like that point to be made as coming from the whole House and not just half of it. That is the point of my intervention in the debate.

I appeal to the Minister to give special discretionary powers to the officers who administer this scheme. It is the experience of all of us that they know their job. They are doing it sympathetically, and the reputation they had in years gone by is not present today. We can safely entrust them with more discretion. I hope that other speakers will not apologise for passing on a compliment to the Minister.

I remember last year the hon. Member the Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) chastising the right hon. Lady in a charming way, but he did object to the time-lag that had taken place in these Regulations. I think he will be pleased tonight we have acted with some speed, and I hope he will pass on his congratulations. The hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Messer) on that occasion made a strong point that only 15s. separated those who were blind from those with all their senses. That difference is now 18s. We ought not to make a party point out of it, but we have shown that we listened to those arguments put forward last year and acted on them with expedition. I think we shall help the case for the special discretion we are asking for the officers if we deal with it in an all-party manner, devoid of special party or sectional pleading.

11.20 p.m.

Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)

I respond at once to the invitation of the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. H. Nicholls) to pay my tribute to the Parliamentary Secretary and his Department. When any Member of this House does something to which I take exception he will be told if I get the opportunity, but I shall tell him in a very kindly way.

I have made a note on a piece of paper that I must congratulate the Parliamentary Secretary and his Department on two things; first, the brevity of his speech in introducing the Regulations, which gives back bench Members an opportunity of speaking, and secondly the speed with which he is operating the scales—and that is very complimentary to the Department. They have done exceedingly well, and I pay them a tribute for so doing, because they have appreciated the point that we put to them on 12th March with regard to the urgency of bringing in these Regulations. It is to their credit that they are bringing them in so quickly after representation has been made to them.

My first complaint is this. It would have been much better, in my opinion, if the increase in the basic pension rates could have been brought into operation simultaneously with these scales. I think we are all agreed upon that. But I know the impracticability of doing that because of the amount of work that has to be done. The right hon. Lady had to face the same position the year before last. When old age pensioners have complained to me about the time-lag, I have said, "You have got to remember that there are 4,250,000 old age pensioners, every one of whom has to have a new book; in those new books are 52 money orders, and if you multiply that by 4¼ million that will give you some idea of the task that they have got to undertake." So I have to content myself by saying that it is impracticable to bring in the increase in the basic rate at the same date as the new scales.

The objective of these amended Regulations should be to base the new scale rates in relation to the spending value of the £. If they fail to do that, then they fail in their purpose and objective. It is hoped that they will attain that objective because, as has been mentioned so eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Mr. Hubbard), they are dealing with the poorest section of the community, and when poor people are crying out for assistance it is the duty of hon. Members and the Departments concerned to render that assistance as quickly and as generously as they can.

The solemn question to which we have to address ourselves and to which we have to find the true answer—and not from a party point of view—is whether these Regulations relate the spending power of the £ to the new scale rates. I say that they do not do that, in face of the increased cost of living. Already we have had a close analysis of the rise in the price of food. It is quite true that the clothing prices have not been increased very much, but the rise in the price of food and fuel—two very important items in the lives of old people—have gone up tremendously.

The Regulations now under discussion are the third set—and this is both remarkable and unchallengeable—which have been introduced in this House since 1950. Never in the history of this House have Regulations been submitted one after another in so short a time. That is conclusive evidence of the trend of rising prices to meet the needs of the poorer sections of the public. The first set of Regulations was introduced on 5th May, 1950, and came into operation on 12th June, 1950. The second set was made on 19th July, 1951, and came into operation on 3rd September, 1951. The set now before the House was made on 4th April, and I understand from the Parliamentary Secretary will, all being well, become operative on 16th June. There is conclusive evidence of the trend of events, which have caused these Regulations to be brought more rapidly than hitherto.

I submit that not one of these sets of Regulations met the needs of those requiring assistance. How true were the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy, when he said that those who drew old age pensions, or were in need, always lagged behind the prices and scales submitted in the Regulations. The constant and ever rising food prices have destroyed the desire of the National Assistance Board to meet the needs of the poorer people. It is not altogether their fault.

I have great admiration for, and have said so on many occasions, not only in the House but outside, the work of the area officers who have to administer the National Assistance Board. They have done a splendid job of work, but there are still a few who have a miserable conception of the old poor law system. They will have to die off, and in their place will come a newer generation who have a wide vision about what is to be done. I have a good area officer in my constituency, and when I compare his generous attitude with the parsimonious attitude of the area officer in the neighbouring place, then I would say … Well, I do not think I will continue that.

The Regulations now under consideration contain, within their ambit, and this is a tribute to the Department, the highest increase ever given. That is unchallengeable, but I must repeat that they fail, and fail miserably, to meet the requirements of the poorer section of the country. In 1951 we were told, when the Regulations were under consideration, and we were putting forward arguments based on information we had secured from various documents available, that the estimated increase in the cost of living would be 10 per cent. In fact, the actual increase that year was 15 per cent. Therefore when the Regulations were brought in 1951 the rise in the cost of living was under-estimated.

The hon. Member for Peterborough went back to October for his figures on the cost of living. I will not do that, but I will bring it nearer to present day circumstances. I could go back to 1939, but it would serve no useful purpose. I hope the hon. Gentleman will not misunderstand me on this. I am not making a party point. From January, 1952, to April this month the cost of food has increased by 6 per cent., and the cost of clothing has risen by 1 per cent.

Mr. Turton

Could the hon. Gentleman say what figures he is quoting? The Index of Retail Prices published by the Ministry of Labour shows, in the index price for food from 15th January to the last current period, the one published yesterday, a rise of 1.2 out of a total of 150 points. I do not know where he gets his figure of 6 per cent., but the figure for clothing published for January, 1952, was 147.1 and the figure published yesterday is 147.1, so there is no rise at all.

Mr. Brown

My authority for the figures I am quoting is the Ministry of Food, Parliamentary Secretary's Branch, January, 1952.

Dr. Summerskill

Can the hon. Gentleman say what foods this covers? It has no meaning unless he states what they are.

Mr. Turton

The index price covers the same foodstuffs as it covered when the right hon. Lady was Minister of Insurance and dealt with the same point in the debate of last July. I was merely correcting the figure as I would not like figures which were not accurate to get abroad.

Mr. Brown

I hope I shall never be accused of giving inaccurate figures. We have both been reading the same document, but we may not have both referred to the same period.

The rise in the price of fuel and light since 15th January up to and including 31st March is 9 per cent. That figure is extracted from the Ministry of Labour Gazette. From October, 1951, to March, 1952, the cost of miscellaneous goods has risen by 3 per cent. and of services by 4 per cent. If one takes a few individual items mentioned by the right hon. Lady, one will find that out of 36 articles every one has increased in price.

I hope hon. Members opposite will not accuse me, because this is the first time I have mentioned the Conservative document, "Britain Strong and Free."

Mr. Ian Winterbottom (Nottingham, Central)

Look what the hon. Member has missed.

Mr. Brown

I said "quoted" not "read." It says: A Government will be judged according to the effect of its programme upon rising costs and prices. Prices have gone up. I am not saying that they are 100 per cent. the responsibility of the Government. The rises are due to world conditions in the main but, if they continue, we have a responsibility to increase the basic pension rate and the scales under the Regulations. That comes to us as a full responsibility.

I want to say a word or two upon the rising price of fuel. The figures given by my right hon. Friend are identical with the figures that I have extracted, but instead of giving the percentage increase I want to give the exact prices, because our people in the country understand increased prices in terms of £ s. d. rather than in terms of percentages. Expressed in terms of £ s. d., the increases in the price of fuel are: London, 7s. 8d.; Birmingham, 5s. 11d.; Manchester, 6s. 1d.; Leeds, 5s. 10d.; Bristol, 7s. 1d., and Exeter, 8s. 5d. The overall increase in the price of coal is 5s. 6d.

There is one thing that I do not understand. It is true that under the existing Regulations old age pensioners and people in need of assistance can get a coal allowance, but I regret to find that it is for inferior coal. That is wrong. It is manifestly unfair. It is socially unjust to concede to an Old Age Pensioner applicant for coal an allowance for coal of an inferior quality. If there is anyone who is entitled to the best that the country can give, it is the old age pensioner.

Many of these people do not live in modern council houses or in "ideal homes." Many of them have lived in their dwellings since they were born—obsolete houses, damp, dismal, unlighted—by natural light—and they require more coal, the best coal. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy that they want the best. I plead with the Parliamentary Secretary, with the Minister and with the National Assistance Board, not to approach the coal allowance on a parsimonious basis.

I have two or three old colliers in my constituency. One man started in the pit at the age of eight. He worked until he was 68 producing coal, and after 60 years in the pits he has to be content with an allowance for coal of an inferior quality. That is definitely wrong. Instead of the allowance being based on the lowest quality of coal, they should be given the best that the country produces. I plead with the Minister to see that the officers of the Board act on this basis.

I am not very optimistic, as I have already said, that we shall not have to come again to the Minister to ask for a revision of the scales now before the House. The rise in the cost of living, whoever may be at fault and from whatever source the rise comes, will have to be met. I intensely dislike causing the administrative trouble and difficulty which is necessary to meet the rise in the price of food, fuel and clothing, and it would have been much better had we gone just a wee bit further now in order to obviate coming again to the House at a very near date with a new set of Regulations.

The Regulations are put before the House with the express intention of their coming into operation on 16th June, 1952. I pray and hope that a fall in the cost of living will be our experience very soon, and that as a result the position of our old folk, and of those who require assistance, will not necessitate our asking the House for further increases. But I warn the Minister and his Parliamentary Secretary, and the National Assistance Board, and the Government, that unless an attempt to bring down cost of living prices is made, we shall not hesitate to ask the Minister to bring forward amended Regulations which will give these old people a standard of life commensurate with that of other people.

11.40 p.m.

Mr. J. K. Vaughan-Morgan (Reigate)

I hope that the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) will forgive me if I do not deal in great detail with his remarks, but I have several questions I want to put to the Minister, and I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. I should like to congratulate the Minister on the speed with which he has introduced Regulations to meet the changed circumstances; on the efficiency with which in a year he has managed to bridge the gap between bringing into force the Regulations and the payment of the increased benefits; and on the sympathy he is showing in this matter, which is especially exemplified by the fact that at long last consideration is to be given to the question of raising the 5s. weekly pocket money for those in Part III homes a change which is long overdue.

I want to confine myself to two narrow points, the first of which is the matter of disregards for National Assistance. Like other hon. Members, I have been refreshing myself by re-reading the report of the debate of 10th July, 1951. On that occasion I, like other hon. Members, put a number of points to which, I must say quite frankly, we got rather a dusty answer from the then Parliamentary Secretary—if, in fact, it was an answer. I am delighted that, circumstances having changed, most of the points which I raised then have been answered. Two, however, remain.

On the matter of disregards, I should like the Minister to say whether he is satisfied that the basic £400 is now the right sum. That amount has been unchanged since 1943, I am informed. Nowadays, £400 is not what it was. I am leaving out war savings, and so forth. Can the Minister assure us that he is satisfied that by retaining the £400 level he is not excluding from National Assistance a number of people who are entitled to it.

I should also like elucidation in regard to the lodging charge in the Part III home. It seems to me that the increased cost of maintenance of these homes has been met by allowing an extra burden to fall upon the local authorities. I consider that this is a charge which ought to be borne by the national income. It may be that it is the same purse from which the money comes in the long run, but there is an important principle involved. I think we should be going back to the worst aspects of the old Poor Law if we allowed this burden increasingly to fall on local authorities. It should be borne on taxes.

11.45 p.m.

Mrs. E. M. Braddock (Liverpool, Exchange)

I want to deal with something which has not been mentioned up to now, the scales in the second paragraph of the amounts paid to people who do not pay rent. It is not generally known that when we are discussing Assistance Regulations more than old age pensioners are included. I want to deal with a section of the community about which very little is said, but who are deserving of very special consideration in relation to these scales. I refer to mentally or physically handicapped persons who are maintained wholly by the family. In very many instances the rate which is suggested is not paid in full. The amount required is assessed on the basis of the full rate that is laid down, and very often the Assistance Board officer, in making an assessment of the amount necessary, takes into account the earnings of the rest of the family when saying what shall be paid to a mentally or physically handicapped person who is completely incapable at any time of earning a living.

I ask the Minister to draw the attention of his officers to this matter and to see that, wherever it is possible, no amount of the income of the rest of the family shall be taken into account in paying rates for these mentally or physically handicapped persons. There are special features in relation to these cases. Very often special assistance has to be obtained or someone has to come into the family for a period to look after the mentally or physically handicapped person in order to relieve the rest of the family of the responsibility of looking after them permanently.

Very many of these cases would be in institutions if there was accommodation for them, particularly the mentally defective. We asked for figures recently of the number of mentally handicapped persons who were resident in their homes over the age of 16—it is laid down that over the age of 16 the parents or the rest of the family are no longer financially responsible for their maintenance. Many of these cases are in families because they are unable to find accommodation for them at all in institutions. There are thousands of them and, if and when they are admitted to an institution, the weekly maintenance cost is about six times the amount that it is suggested they should receive if they are at home with their parents looking after them.

In my opinion, the scales for cases of that sort are low. While I agree that it would be very difficult to set up a separate scale entirely for that type of person, I should like to be assured that the Minister will ask his area officers to pay special attention to the difficulties of parents or other relatives for maintaining and looking after these people in their homes and that the full maintenance rate as suggested should be paid wherever that is possible and that, even if the income of the family is very big, that that should not be taken into account from an earnings point of view.

It was that particular section I wanted to refer to, because it is not generally known that these scales do apply and that payment can be made. Leaving out the question of the additional welfare services that local authorities are responsible for seeing put into operation for this type of person, it is not generally known that these rates can be paid in a household to mentally or physically defective persons over 16 years of age, irrespective of the earnings of the rest of the family.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Govan (Mr. J. N. Browne) referred to abuses, because I think that this is one of the services where there is very little abuse. How many prosecutions, in fact, take place in a year of people who are found guilty of obtaining relief from the National Assistance Board when they have no right to do so?

Mr. Browne

The hon. Lady must surely know from her great knowledge that the number of prosecutions bears very little relation, I am sure, to the number of abuses.

Mrs. Braddock

I think that is a very serious statement to make indeed: it reflects very badly on the administration.

Dr. Summerskill

Hear, hear.

Mrs. Braddock

It reflects on the administration, because it is the duty of the administration to make certain that people are making correct statements before any additional assistance is paid by the Board.

Mr. Iain Macleod

We have not had this year's Report of the Board, but surely the hon. Lady remembers that in the Report a year ago there was considerable evidence from the Board themselves of abuses and that it was the Board themselves who added that in extremely few instances were they able to prosecute.

Mrs. Braddock

There is rather a difference between the question of whether it is possible to prosecute and whether the Board are able to put a stop to any possible abuses in obtaining money or assistance from the Board. There is very little abuse at all in relation to the tremendous amount of money paid out by the Board, yet the statement made by the hon. Member for Govan would give an indication that there are large numbers of people who do obtain money from the Board to which they are not entitled. I think that is quite a wrong supposition.

People can get through all sorts of Regulations. If those who have to deal with people who dodge laws and regulations at the top of the scale did it as well as those who check the poorer section of the community to see that they do not get a farthing more than the Regulations permit, there would be more people in prison from the top of the sale—and they would be more entitled to be there—than those at the bottom end of the scale. I do not think that the abuse is sufficient to warrant making a particular and specific reference to it in relation to the very large amounts that the Board pay out.

With reference to the comments of the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Nicholls) on clothing and household necessities, anybody who knows how these people have to manage on this low rate would realise that it is completely impossible for them to replace the things that wear out. They cannot replace them; they just borrow them or cadge them from somebody else. Buying new clothing, particularly boots, for people on the National Assistance scales, is very difficult.

The Assistance Board officers have a certain discretion, and here let me stress the request made from both sides of the House that a wider scope of discretion should be allowed to these officers. On the amounts that are paid, it is impossible for these people to replace the things they require. I do not think sufficient latitude is allowed, and I think further attention should be paid to that matter.

I visit some of these people in my own constituency in Liverpool, which had the reputation of being very poor in the past, when, under the Administration of the party opposite, poverty was something which everybody lived with. It was not just the person next door, but whole streets of poverty. Those who are in receipt of National Assistance are in need of the bedding and clothing which the ordinary person is entitled to and which the people in work can procure for themselves. The amount of discretion which an area officer has in regard to bedding and clothing should be extended further.

The last point I want to make is that the expenses of old age pensioners living on their own are very often higher than if two or three people are living with a family. There are things they need and must have, and although the area officers in my division in Liverpool are very good, we have still got a few relics of the old Poor Law administration. We have not got away from it altogether yet. On very many occasions, I have had to send specific cases to the Secretary of the Assistance Board because I considered they had not been properly dealt with in certain parts of the Liverpool area.

Discussion on these Regulations gives us the opportunity of saying that we ought to expect these area officers to forget the old methods of dealing with Poor Law cases, and of suggesting that wide powers of discretion should be given to them to see that the people coming under the Regulations are as fairly dealt with as it is possible for them to be.

11.56 p.m.

Mr. Peter Roberts (Sheffield, Heeley)

I think the hon. Lady the Member for Liverpool, Exhange (Mrs. Braddock) tended to exaggerate her case, as she often does. She exaggerated when she referred to what my hon. Friend the Member for Govan (Mr. J. N. Browne) said when he made a quite reasonable point. The hon. Lady had to twist it into making him say that there was a great number of abuses, which he never did.

I want to congratulate the Government on bringing in these Regulations, because I am quite certain that my supporters in my constituency in Sheffield will be glad—those who are on National Assistance—to receive the new scales, and those who contribute by taxation to pay them. I am also certain that I speak for those Liberals with whom we in Sheffield are joined in our local federation, and those sitting on this bench, because this is something that is very near to their hearts.

I wish to refer to some of the arguments that have been put from the other side of the House. It seems to me that they have been trying to suggest that the rise in the cost of living is the result of the actions of this Government. Hon. Members opposite have mentioned the question of farm prices, and yet it was, to a large extent, the increase in farm wages, which were raised directly after the September award, which resulted in the higher farm prices. Are hon. Members opposite now going to say that they are against that increase?

The hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) mentioned the price of coal. That is more or less directly related to the increase in the miners' wages. Is he going to say that he is against that? I think the results in the mines recently redound greatly to the credit of the miners, and I do not think hon. Members opposite should try to make out that the rise in the cost of living is a result of the actions of this Government.

We heard the figures from my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Nicholls) and also from the Minister and what is happening to the cost-of-living index.

Mr. T. Brown

I never blamed the Government. I said it was due to world conditions.

Mr. Roberts

I am glad to have that statement from the hon. Member and I should like it repeated by every hon. Member who speaks from that side of the House, because I have heard it suggested here, and sometimes outside, that these rising costs are directly due to the present Administration. That is quite wrong, and I am very glad that this debate has been able to bring out that argument and that we have been able to get the assurance from the hon. Gentleman opposite that these things are not the result of the efforts of the present Administration.

Mr. A. Edward Davies (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

If that is the hon. Gentleman's argument in respect of coal and agriculture, what is his argument in respect of the rise in prices for transport for which the Government sought to blame nationalisation and the rising costs?

Mr. Speaker

I think this debate is getting a little wide of the Regulations.

Mr. Roberts

I was merely answering the points raised earlier in the debate, Mr. Speaker. I quite appreciate that I should be out of order in giving the very easy answer to the hon. Gentleman which I imagine he already knows himself.

I notice the absence of the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan). He and his hon. Friends are here often when it is a question of attacking impositions placed upon the community, but they do not come here tonight when the Government are giving assistance to certain sections of the community. What about all his gibes about mean people? He always comes to make those, but tonight he is conspicuously absent. I think that shows something of the sincerity of what he says at other times.

Mr. Hubbard

That is cheap.

Mr. Roberts

It has been suggested—

Mr. Hubbard

Where is the Minister of Health and where are many other right hon. Members opposite? I repeat, that is a cheap gibe.

Mr. Roberts

I do not think it is a cheap gibe. We have heard representatives of the Government who came here to put their case. We are adequately represented, but the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale has not been in his place the whole night. All I am saying is that when he attacks the Government so vehemently, then I think we can draw some conclusions about his sincerity from the way he behaves on an occasion like this.

I wish to end as I began and to say that this shows the good faith of the Government and of those who support them. It is our intention to do what is right and proper by those who need assistance. I am proud to be speaking from this side of the House tonight in support of the Government who are prepared, in these difficult times, to subscribe £25 million to help those in need.

12.5 a.m.

Mr. James Carmichael (Glasgow, Bridgeton)

I cannot follow the hon. Member for Heeley (Mr. P. Roberts) and others who have poured out congratulatory messages to the Government tonight. I do not say that in any intolerant way against the Ministers of the Department, because I recognise that they have to frame their Regulations within a certain budgetary figure. Therefore I am not levelling a charge in any personal sense against the Minister, but I question whether we are the competent people to measure up to the responsibility of the very poorest in the country.

I have examined the figures and in the case of a man and wife the total works out at something like £148 a year. If they have a rent of something like 10s. a week it is in the region of £170, and that is giving the benefit of the doubt to the Government. Sneering gibes have been made at the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan). Are we entitled to take pride in the fact that an old or sick couple will have an annual income of £170? It costs the hon. Member more in gratuities to people who supply him with food outside his own home.

Mr. P. Roberts

If the hon. Gentleman is referring to me I fail to understand the relevance of his remarks. I was saying that the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale has attacked the Government so vehemently, yet does not come here tonight to give his thanks. It is a question of the sincerity of his views.

Mr. Carmichael

You are suggesting that the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is getting himself into difficulties in using the pronoun "you." It really refers to the occupant of the Chair.

Mr. Carmichael

The hon. Gentleman is accusing the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale of a lack of sincerity, and expects him to be here tonight to congratulate the Government on their benevolence to the poorest in the land. I question whether we are justified in praising ourselves. The total sum is in the region of £170 a year, and, as I said, the hon. Gentleman will pay more in gratuities to the people who feed him outside his own home in a year than that sum.

Mr. Roberts

I am a Yorkshireman. I do not accept anything like the hon. Gentleman's figure.

Mr. Carmichael

I thought there was a streak of Scottish blood in the hon. Gentleman.

I have never been enthusiastic at any time about the Regulations. The only people who are not entitled to discuss them are the people who must approve them. I am satisfied that the Minister, his officials, and the Board go through the Regulations in detail, and decide the scales, but the House is not permitted the right to amend any one of them. They have to be accepted in toto or discarded altogether. I disagree with this form of legislation which denies the right of examination in detail or amendment. I do not blame the Minister for that. It has been the practice from the beginning, and I hope something can be done, even if it means the amendment of the National Assistance Act.

I have never been able to understand why the person living alone or in charge of the house gets a higher sum if he is over 21 than a person under Section 2 (c). For example, if a person is the occupant of a house and decides to transfer the ownership to his son or daughter his scale can be immediately reduced because he has no responsibility. If he merely takes the technical precaution of retaining the house in his own name he gets the added sum. Why should we distinguish between the person in that category and the person who has not got that responsibility, and give the former 5s. 0d. more than the latter person? The rent is already taken into account, so there can be no question of giving the extra because of rent.

Again, does a person between 18 and 21 get less to the extent of 26s.? He actually gets 9s. below the first person mentioned, and 5s. below the person of 21 and over. Why is it imagined that a person between 18 and 21 lives on 5s. less than a person of 21 years of age? When a young man reaches 18 years of age he is given the responsibility of defending his country. Surely from the age of 18 and upwards there should not be three scales; There should be one scale covering all persons. I admit this has gone on since the very beginning, but I have always objected to it, and I shall continue to object.

We have two lots of scales—the ordinary and the special scales. But the special scale applies only to blind persons and those who have had to give up their employment to be treated for tuberculosis and other diseases of the respiratory system. Over 20 years ago the progressive local authorities in this country always had a much higher scale for the people who were sick and suffered to a greater degree than the ordinary persons. Here we have two scales, and I think there is room for an extension of the special scales to other cases.

My next point concerns institutional treatment. The sum paid today is 26s. It has always been the same figure since the very beginning. I am glad to see the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Govan (Mr. J. N. Browne) in his place, because I gather that this scale can only be increased as a result of consultation between the Minister of National Insurance, the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Minister of Health. I hope that the hon. Member will use his good offices with a view to securing a very big improvement.

There are two serious points involved here. It has been admitted that the 5s. for the individual is quite inadequate. I hope that that sum will be increased to at least 10s. The burden on the local authorities is my next point. If the local authorities have to bear this burden much longer there will be a restriction of the programme for providing homes for the aged people. Therefore, it is urgent that the amount granted to the local authorities should be increased so that the old people should have more by way of pocket money and the local authorities may extend their building programme. I hope that the point will be considered very seriously.

My next point relates to exceptional needs. It is true the local officers have discretionary powers, but the discretionary powers are regulated by the words "exceptional needs"—a phrase of very narrow scope. Therefore, those words should be removed from the Act. Everyone admits the broadmindedness of the Board's officers. Some of them have been doing this job for over 30 years. They know the business inside out. They know the types of people with whom they are dealing, and they know what the needs are far better than any Regulation can specify. They know what discretion gives them. I hope in the times that lie ahead they will be given greater powers locally than they have now. If that is done, then it will be necessary to examine again the question of exceptional needs.

The last point I want to make is the one raised by the hon. Member for Govan, about doubtful cases. I have examined the facts about one point the hon. Gentleman raised—of people who refused work. According to the records in the 1950 report, published in 1951, there were actually 15 cases of prosecutions for neglect of employment in the entire country. Here, we are dealing with millions of cases, and the number of prosecutions was in the region of 960. I say that this is a libel on the people who apply for assistance. It is also a condemnation of the officials of the Department, because I know of no officers employed by the Civil Service who are so competent to examine the claims and requirements of the people than those working for the Assistance Board.

I have something like 30 years' experience. I know when the Public Assistance committees began to give relief to able-bodied persons there were a number of fraud cases because it was an entirely new Department and an entirely new form of social service. But the officers who were there at the beginning are still there, and so I say that this is a libel on the people who make application for relief and a condemnation of the officials themselves.

Mr. J. N. Browne

I am sure the hon. Gentleman only wants to face the facts. It is not enough to read the reports. I would suggest that the hon. Gentleman should talk to the officers who administer this service and satisfy himself about the extent of the abuses.

Mr. Carmichael

I talk regularly to the officials, because I pay as close attention to this side of social service as any other Member of the House. The facts are in the appendix to the report. It is not good enough to say there were a lot of cases and nothing is being done about it. It is unfair to the applicants or the officers. When anybody makes a statement libelling people for getting money falsely—and that is what they would be doing—we should have some more tangible evidence than has been submitted.

I want to appeal to the Minister, because the Parliamentary Secretary said the increase would have to cover a long period, to keep a close watch on the Regulation and, if necessary, come back to the House. So far as the administration is concerned he has worked quickly, and I hope it will continue in the future, because there will be a big inrush of applicants due to the gap between June and September.

Let the Minister display notices in every National Assistance office to make it known what the scales of the Assistance Board will be and give every possible help to people to find out whether they can make the application for the increased scales. It is no use having an increase unless these needy people get encouragement to make applications. I appeal for publicity within the Ministry's offices so that people may know the facts.

12.20 a.m.

The Minister of National Insurance (Mr. Osbert Peake)

We have had a very informed debate and if I intervene now it is because I know there are some hon. Members who have spoken who would like a reply to the points they have made and wish to avail themselves of any transport facilities there may be for getting home.

The right hon. Lady who opened the debate was, I felt, in a little difficulty in finding very much to criticise in these Regulations which embody the recommendations of the Assistance Board. The Regulations contain nothing more than the new assistance scales. As far as everything else in the practice and policy of the Board is concerned it same today as it was six when the right hon. Lady of National Insurance.

The points which have been made in one or two speeches from the other side tonight have been made before in similar debates on Regulations approving new Assistance scales. They have been made in 1948, 1950 and 1951 and have been answered at any rate with as great, possibly greater, ability than I can command by the right hon. Lady, by her quondam assistant, the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. B. Taylor) and by the right hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths).

These Regulations do not amend anything in the policy or practice of the Board except the actual scales themselves. The right hon. Lady said—and I thought she was getting a little wide of the main subject—that Labour never reduced the food subsidies. That, of course, is disputable. Whether or not that was a fact, they did not stop the cost of living going up steadily in the years between 1945 and 1951. From time to time the late Government had to bring forward and sponsor new Assistance scales.

I think we can all share the view that it is fortunate that on this occasion these changes, combined with other changes in the pension and benefit rates under National Insurance, are taking place during the summer. During the summer months the needs of persons on assistance undoubtedly are less than during the winter. If there are difficulties in the matter of timing and if these matters do take some months to bring into operation, especially in the case of pensions and family allowances, this will occur during the summer and that is something for which we may all be thankful.

The right hon. Lady asked whether the Board exercised, or could exercise, discretion—I think she suggested a "greater discretion"—in the subject of fuel allowances and in the payment of fares for persons who have to attend hospital. I am told that the number of recent additions to the scale payments for extra fuel was about 24,000 and that the position is that the Board's officers are always ready to consider cases where, because of the applicant's state of health, or because of defects in the home, it is clear that expenditure on fuel must be abnormal. I think, therefore, we may take it that the position as regards discretionary grants for fuel remains the same as before and that it will be extended as necessary to meet any rise in the cost of fuel that has taken place or that may occur in the future.

On the point of payment of fares for persons in receipt of assistance who have to attend hospital, the Assistance Board reimburse such persons those payments, but they do so as agents for the Minister of Health and the Secretary of State for Scotland. The charge, of course, is recovered through the Health Service and is not charged to the Assistance Board. It would, therefore, be out of order for me to pursue the matter further on the Motion that is now before the House to approve the draft Regulations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Vaughan-Morgan) and others asked about persons in what is known as Part III accommodation. I feel sure that what we propose here in regard to this matter is a sensible arrangement. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Health is anxious to make a considered increase in the amount of pocket money available to persons in Part III accommodation. There is also the question in regard to the amount of the minimum charge, which my right hon. Friend prescribes, which local authorities may charge for such accommodation.

My right hon. Friends the Minister of Health and the Secretary of State for Scotland will consider those two matters and they will then prescribe these amounts. It will be open to the House to consider them upon a Prayer being put down. I feel sure, however, that this is a wiser method than prescribing a global amount in the Regulations which those Ministers are bound then to divide as best they can as between the charge for accommodation and the amount of pocket money which is allowed to the person who is being accommodated.

The hon. Lady the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock), made some observations about mentally defective children, which I have noted, and I will see that her remarks are conveyed to the Assistance Board and carefully examined. I myself am rather too much of a novice in this field to have completely understood the points which the hon. Lady was making.

I think I have replied to the main points which have been raised during the debate. I thank the House for the way in which the new scales have been received in all quarters, and I should like to express what is, I think, the general feeling in the House that we all believe that the Assistance Board are performing a task of exceptional difficulty with courtesy, with humanity, and with great understanding of the needs of the people whom they serve.

12.30 a.m.

Mr. A. J. Irvine (Liverpool, Edge Hill)

I make no apology for continuing a debate, even at this hour, upon a matter of first-class importance. I regret that the matter comes up for discussion so late. Although I join in the tributes, such as they are, which have been paid to the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary, I do not want anyone to go away with the impression that the level of these scales is satisfactory.

Even applying the standards which the White Paper and the Explanatory Memorandum put forward, I do not regard them as satisfactory. I invite the attention of the Minister and of the House to paragraph 6 of the Explanatory Memorandum. I read there that the proposals in Regulation 2, besides allowing for changes in prices since the present rates came into operation last autumn, also took account of current trends, including, in particular, the increases in food prices.

The changes in prices since last autumn are taken into account, the current trends, and the reduction of the food subsidies. Bearing that in mind, one turns to look at the relation of the new rates to the old. Taking a particular instance, a boy or girl aged between 11 and 16 years, there is an increase from 13s. 6d. to 16s., which is 2s. 6d. We are told that 1s. 6d. of that is represented by the reduction in the food subsidy. So in that instance, there is 1s. left to represent what are described as current trends and the rise in prices since last autumn. Quite apart from any party question, I would have thought it ludicrous to describe that rise as approaching the standards set out in the White Paper. I would have thought that in the case of children of this age the rise in transport costs alone has exceeded that balance of 1s.

I want these considerations to be borne in mind. I support the objection of the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Carmichael) to the time lag between a person of 21 or over and a person living alone, or who is a householder and, as such, directly responsible for rent and the household necessities. I cannot see justification for this differentiation. I would have thought that it was difficult for the officers concerned to ascertain direct responsibility for household necessities. As my hon. Friend suggests, it appears to be an indefensible anomaly. In a case I have in mind it has the result that if a brother and sister live together, and the brother is the householder and pays the rent, he gets the rent allowance, and he also gets 4s. additional National Assistance over and above his sister, on the supposition, which is apparently adopted in the Department, but would not be adopted anywhere else, that because he is the householder and pays the rent he is directly responsible for buying the household necessities. It is not a view his sister shares.

A distinction between the Assistance payments in these cases seems to be an unjustifiable anomaly. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be good enough to bear this point in mind, because it has been made repeatedly from these benches year after year. As draft Regulations follow one another, the point is made with increasing eloquence by my hon. Friends.

Mr. Peake

And it has been repeatedly answered.

Mr. Irvine

Not yet by the Government Front Bench, but I hope it will be conceded because, in my submission, it is a reasonable and proper proposition.

I wish to comment shortly on two other matters which arise from these Regulations. Two-thirds of all Assistance grants are paid in supplementation of National Insurance benefits and pensions and in all these cases when the new rates of insurance pensions and benefits come into effect later in the year, there will be a very substantial saving to National Assistance and a large number of people coming off National Assistance and on to National Insurance benefits. I do not think it has been sufficiently emphasised that this shifting of their status causes a very considerable amount of anxiety and distress among the persons whom we are considering. They find themselves on National Assistance in one period of the year and, in due course, for reasons they do not understand, off National Assistance and back on National Insurance in another period. I should have thought that the adjustment would involve a great deal of administrative difficulty for the National Assistance Board; it certainly causes a great deal of misunderstanding among the recipients.

There has been a great deal of congratulation of the right hon. Gentleman for the speed and acceleration with which this has been achieved and I have no doubt that he may be, at any rate relatively, entitled to it. But it is a great pity that there has to be this hiatus at all and that it should be necessary for every increase in the level of National Insurance benefits and pensions to be accompanied by an interval during which a lot of people find themselves placed upon National Assistance and then coming off that and going on the National Insurance benefits and pensions for reasons they do not understand. They come into contact with different classes of officers and on to different classifications.

I express the view that, for the purpose of determining what are the appropriate scales for National Assistance, it becomes very desirable that the right hon. Gentleman and his friends should work out a quite separate and distinct cost-of-living index for old retired people. I feel quite satisfied that that is much to be desired. We have heard tonight that in considering these new scales, a modified, specially selected, cost-of-living index has been applied. I understand that certain omissions have been made from the ordinary cost-of-living index, but I would welcome for this purpose research initiated by the right hon. Gentleman and his Department and the preparation and development of a new cost-of-living index which should be applicable to old retired people alone.

It is entirely wrong that they should be in any way tied to any cost-of-living index which, for instance, is "weighted" one way or the other by items which, in their own actual experience, they know bear no relation to it at all. Although there are considerations which justify some little congratulation in regard to the whole development of National Assistance, I beg the Minister to remember that there are still many more things that we desire and that there are still many substantial improvements that we feel can be made.

12.41 a.m.

Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)

May I follow the point made by the hon. Member for Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine) and say that I was hoping that the Minister would deal with the suggestion of the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Carmichael) regarding the need for a breaking-down and an analysis of the "ingredients" of the National Assistance scales. The 59s. must be the sum total of something. Why 59s? It is either the sum total of a set of domestic expenditures which reach that figure and add up to 59s. or it is merely a percentage increase on something which has gone before?

It may be that the National Assistance Board, in putting forward new scales, have started at the beginning of the National Assistance scale of 1948 and have constructed upon that, having regard to the increase in the cost of living. If they have done that it may be that they are making their mixture of impure chemicals because in the last 6½ years full employment has brought about changes in living standards in many households which previously subsisted almost on the poverty line. So it is not enough to reconstruct the scale in 1952 merely by a percentage increase on the original National Assistance scales of 1948.

If, however, the Board based their proposals on some practical experience of the domestic needs of those who come to them for assistance, then it would assist the House considerably if we knew what they were. In common with other hon. Members, I have great difficulty in knowing whether 59s. is about the right figure or not. The hon. Member for Govan (Mr. J. N. Browne) said that we must admit that this was the correct figure. Well, to apply the term "correct" to an estimate of purchasing power in the wide variety of families that come for National Assistance is, I think, following arithmetic a little too far.

Neither the Minister nor the Parliamentary Secretary said a word as to how the 59s. was arrived at. I do therefore make the suggestion that when there are opportunities for discussions on details, it would be a great help if Members could see exactly how the Board came to the conclusion that their recommendations are the ones that meet the requirements of National Assistance beneficiaries in current circumstances—though I do not hope for an immediate reply on that suggestion.

Resolved, That the Draft National Assistance (Determination of Need) Amendment Regulations, 1952, a copy of which was laid before this House on 8th April, be approved.

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