HC Deb 27 June 1952 vol 502 cc2788-96

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

4.1 p.m.

Miss Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

In my constituency there is the urban district council of Whitley Bay, which is part of the Parliamentary borough of Tynemouth. In the bounds of that local authority there are more than the average number of retired people. There live there retired men of the sea, Merchant Navy men and fishermen, railwaymen, bank clerks, insurance clerks and, of course, a large number of teachers, nurses and civil servants; in addition to which there is a large number of women, both widows and spinsters, with small savings, who live there because it is their own part of the country where they have either earned their livelihood or been brought up.

I feel that this section of the community has suffered most through the six years of Socialism. Socialist finance has for them increased the cost of living, and therefore the problems of life. So far as at any rate one section of the community is concerned—that section which through purchase owned its own houses—on the income that kept them happy in their own homes prior to the outbreak of the war it is now almost impossible for them to live at all, and for them Socialism and Socialist finance have proved to be a disaster.

Mrs. Freda Corbet (Camberwell, Peckham)

Could the hon. Lady indicate in what way this disaster has come upon them?

Miss Ward

I have a very great deal to say and I do not intend to be drawn into a political discussion. My constituents know exactly what I mean, and if the hon. Lady would like to pay a visit to Whitley Bay I should be delighted to take her round and show her, in the homes of the people, the results of Socialism. In addition to that, the withdrawal of the food subsidies, has, of course, created an additional problem.

Lieut-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

Not by the Socialists.

Miss Ward

Not by the Socialists. I always try to be absolutely fair. The withdrawal of the food subsidies has created an additional burden for these people, and although in introducing the Pensions (Increase) Bill my hon. Friend has helped considerably a certain section of the community, there is left a large number of people whose circumstances require representation being made in this House. They must have someone to speak for them, and I wish to put their case today.

Broadly speaking, I am referring to those who, by virtue of their slender resources, are above the National Assistance level, and, because of their slender incomes, are not accessible for Income Tax. As my hon. Friend, who is sympathetic towards their position, has explained, they are a very difficult section of the community to help. They do not draw Government or local authority pensions. They receive no help from the State, except perhaps that which comes to them through the National Health Service. They are at present faced with an increasing cost of living, which is only an addition to what had already started under the Socialist regime, on the three essentials, food, rates and heating.

I am quite certain that there are people, not only in my constituency, but in other parts of the country, who have not sufficient resources to feed themselves adequately or to keep themselves warm. As I said earlier in the week on the debate on the Pensions (Increase) Bill, there are signs of a fall in the cost of living. But there are no signs of a fall in the cost of those three essentials, and what I am asking my hon. Friend is if he could find a method of investigating the cases of these people to see whether their position can be ameliorated.

I do not think it is beyond his powers to look at the problem and see what can be done. I have a number of proposals which I could make. In the hurly-burly and speed of life, and with the problems which have to be faced by both Government and the Opposition, and by the people of this country, we are apt not to find time to look into the problems of this very deserving section of the community.

I would say a word about the retired railwaymen who in the bad old Tory days managed on their savings to purchase their houses. I have quite a community of them in Whitley Bay who have been drawing their superannuation. They and other members of former railway staffs of the old private enterprise companies are now under the nationalised boards.

My hon. Friend says that the Pensions (Increase) Bill does not cover these people and that is only too true. But I think that, speaking on behalf of our great Treasury and in the national interest, my hon. Friend could approach the Boards to ask whether they could consult with the appropriate bodies representing these men to see whether benefits, similar to those we are giving to civil servants, local government officers, teachers and the like, could be given to those who served under private enterprise in the railways or coalmines or banks.

Mr. Speaker

I am afraid that what the hon. Lady is now suggesting would involve legislation, and that is out of order on this Motion.

Miss Ward

I will, of course, leave that point. Last night, however, you asked for guidance on the subject of the alteration of the income of non-contributory pensioners. If I remember rightly, though it was early in the morning, you were told, Mr. Speaker, that that could be altered by regulation and that, there- fore, it could be raised on the Adjournment. If my first point is out of order I will proceed to my second suggestion, which I do not think will be out of order.

I should like to ask my hon. Friend whether he will enter into conference with the representatives of the nationalised boards with a view to ameliorating the conditions of the people who are on superannuation and who are, so to speak, the responsibility of those boards. I noticed, for instance, that the trade unions were called into consultation by the Financial Secretary in connection with the Pensions (Increase) Bill. If the trade unions gladly co-operate with the Government, I see no reason why the employers cannot co-operate with the Government too.

Another point is that it is about time that the conditions on which National Assistance is granted should be examined in the light of present-day circumstances. It is true that we have increased National Assistance scales. That is of benefit to a large number of people. But I noticed that in the Pensions (Increase) Bill we propose to raise the limit of income so that more people may benefit. If that can be done for one section of the community, then the conditions under which National Assistance is granted could be examined so that possibly benefits could accrue to this other section of the community.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

Without legislation?

Miss Ward

I am only asking for an inquiry. I have been a long time in this House and I have tried to learn the procedure. I know that it is in order to suggest that there should be an inquiry into the circumstances of any section of the community however payments from Government sources reach the individual. I ask that my hon. Friend should initiate an inquiry into the circumstances of the people about whom I am speaking.

I should like to see set up a committee consisting of representatives from the National Council of Social Service. We have had great benefit and assistance on Tyneside from that Council, and I regret that my hon. Friend cut the grant to them. I should also like to see representatives from the National Assistance Boards who know this problem. I should like to see representatives from the Women's Public Welfare Committee, who are closely in touch with the problem and from a number of voluntary organisations which are dealing with certain monies which go to supplement, in a voluntary way, the income of elderly people who are left with slender resources.

Then, of course, there is another angle. My hon. Friend, if he so liked, could most certainly go into consultation with the Minister of Health and find out just how far the charges imposed by the Socialist Government and continued by this Government in regard to spectacles, dentures, certain appliances and indeed prescriptions could be withdrawn from this particular section of the community. We have been assured by the Minister of Health that people of slender resources, even though not on National Assistance, are entitled to relief, and I myself took the trouble to go into a chemist's shop to see what sort of notice was displayed there for their benefit, and I am bound to say that I found it far from satisfactory.

I know only too well that, if my hon. Friend so desires—and I know that he is sympathetic to this case, as his speeches have indicated—he could turn his mind to the establishment of such a committee to look into the circumstances of these people, and even the overspill to other people of small incomes. After all, the people who are on National Assistance have had an increase in the assistance scales.

At the present moment, the position is that thrift is penalised, and the people who have very slender resources are not people who go about trying to find out what they can get out of the nation. They are much more inclined to withdraw into their own homes, or into rooms where many of them are very unhappy, and say nothing. I really cannot bear to think that there is a considerable section of the community absolutely afraid to face life and the difficulties which life presents at the present time, and I think it is our responsibility, however difficult it may be, to do something for them.

I think that sometimes the Treasury is apt to over-estimate the difficulties of dealing with these problems. I have given a rough indication of how I think the problem can be met, but it is absolutely important that I should enlist the co-operation and sympathy of my hon. Friend in support of those people who have in the past been magnificent members of the community.

After all, we are trying to save the country for the benefit of all, and that really should mean the benefit of all. I therefore hope my hon. Friend will consider the points I have made, and will promise to set up a small expert committee. It is no good setting up a committee of people who do not know the problem, and, sometimes we are apt to set up, on the human plane, committees of people who do not know very much about the problems they have to consider. I sit in my surgery Saturday by Saturday, and it touches me a very great deal. Quite seriously, I want my hon. Friend to look at this problem sympathetically in the hope that we as a House of Commons, representing all parties, may be able to do something to help.

4.20 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. John Boyd-Carpenter)

I know very well, as do, I think, all hon. Members, the concern which my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Miss Ward) has shown on this subject and her very human and instructive approach to it. She has shown that concern in many directions, not excluding "The Times" of today, which does, however, contain one phrase which I cannot believe of my hon. Friend. She there uses the expression, "I am dismayed." I have never seen my hon. Friend dismayed, and I do not think I ever shall.

I hope I do not have to tell her that I fully appreciate and understand her feelings on this somewhat difficult problem, and that I feel a good deal of sympathy for it. No one would dispute that people on small fixed incomes have suffered considerable hardship in recent years, and they are, I think, the section of the community which my hon. Friend had most prominently in mind.

She dealt, of course, with certain other classes, and I am bound to say in opening that my hon. Friend covered such a wide field, embracing many matters which are the responsibility of many Ministers, and some which are the responsibility of none, that, quite obviously, in the nine minutes she has been good enough to leave me in which to reply I should have to imitate the oratorical speed of the hon. Member for Oldham. West (Mr. Hale) if I were to have a chance of covering the ground.

The first point I would ask my hon. Friend to recall is that the section of the community to which she referred, that on small fixed incomes, is the section with the greatest interest of all in the stability of our economy and in the maintenance of the value of the £. As we have seen in other countries, it is precisely that section which suffers most acutely from an economic breakdown and which is the first and perhaps the most conspicuous victim of the inflationary process.

Therefore, I would say first of all to my hon. Friend that, leaving all other measures out of account for the moment, the greatest service which any Government can do to that section of the community is to stabilise our economy, restore our balance of payments and place our economy on a firm foundation. I know perfectly well that the connection between that and the next week's grocer's bills of the individual is sometimes terribly difficult for that individual immediately to appreciate. But it is none the less true that the people who will gain most from the success of Her Majesty's Government's general policy of stabilising our economy and restoring our balance of payments is this particular section for which my hon. Friend has this afternoon expressed such proper concern: since, without a shadow of doubt, were a breakdown to occur they would be the people who in the subsequent confusion would suffer worst.

Those who have substantial tangible assets and those who have the skill of their brains or hands to sell always have something by them even in the worst of economic crises; but people whose whole livelihood depends on the right to draw from either savings or pensions a specified sum in pounds, shillings and pence are the people who ought to be most of all concerned that our economy should be right.

Therefore, before passing as quickly as I can to the specific points which my hon. Friend raised, I would beg of her in her sympathetic discussions with these people to reassure them that their greatest interest, the one which I have just described, is the end which Her Majesty's Government throughout the whole of their economic policy are striving their hardest to pursue.

My hon. Friend referred to the effect on these people of what she described as Socialist finance. Even in her most exuberant moments I am sure she would not expect me to spend very much time in defending that. Indeed, I use what capacities I have in that direction in a contrary sense, and I will certainly not accept any responsibility for that finance.

There is here a real problem. Some of the aspects of it are, of course, not within the direct control of the Government. For example, my hon. Friend referred to rates, which are imposed by democratically-elected local authorities. The Government do not, cannot, and ought not to control them. The best thing for those people who feel that the burden of rates upon them is excessive is so to exercise their franchise at local government elections as to ensure that local authorities are elected who can be economical with local funds.

My hon. Friend referred to retired servants of what are now the nationalised industries, with particular reference to the important question of retired railway-men. She asked me to ask the Transport Commission to enter into discussions with the trade unions. In the first place, so far as I know, that is not a matter which, under the Transport Act, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport has express power to do.

In any event, it would be a wholly unnecessary request. It must be common knowledge that the distinguished members of the Transport Commission, as of other nationalised industries, are in constant contact with the relevant trade unions. Indeed they would find it impossible to discharge the duties laid upon them by Parliament did they act otherwise. But no doubt the effect of what my hon. Friend has said will be reported and will carry its own weight to the people in control of these great industries.

Then my hon. Friend referred to the conditions imposed in respect of National Assistance. I thought that she meant in particular the limitations on income on which entitlement may depend. That, as my hon. Friend knows, is not a matter within my control. In so far as it is not in the control of the Assistance Board, the Minister responsible is my right hon. Friend the Minister of National Insurance, and I am perfectly certain that my right hon. Friend will take note of what has been said.

I thought that my hon. Friend attached excessive weight to the desirability of setting up a committee with a roving commission in these matters. I fully agree with what she said about the use-lessness of setting up committees unless they contain people who are capable of coming to practical grips with the problem. I would certainly not rule out a committee on certain aspects, though it would require a great deal of thought as to the terms of reference and composition before one decided how to tackle the matter.

My hon. Friend's speech suggested the width of the problem and the number of subjects which required to be investigated, and if the committee had to cover the ground she covered it would require a quite remarkable membership. But I certainly would not dismiss the possibility of a committee, although a great deal of further thought would be required on the desirability of such a body as a real means of dealing with this problem.

The problem must not be exaggerated. Many people living on a small fixed income will benefit from a concession in the Finance Bill on the rate of tax on small unearned incomes. That was deliberately inserted by my right hon. Friend as a means of dealing with this problem. Many of these people will find that it brings them real and valuable assistance. It was certainly so intended, and no doubt it will have a considerable effect in that direction.

I fear that there is no time to cover the other points which my hon. Friend raised, but I can assure her that what has been said will be recorded in HANSARD with its usual accuracy, and we shall then have the opportunity of giving full weight to the important considerations which she has been good enough to bring forward.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Half-past Four o'Clock.