HC Deb 23 March 1953 vol 513 cc473-6
28. Miss Burton

asked the Minister of National Insurance what proposals have been made by the National Assistance Board to meet the present inadequacy of the assistance scales.

29. Mrs. Braddock

asked the Minister of National Insurance whether he is aware of the hardship now suffered by many old age pensioners in receipt of National Assistance; and what steps are being taken to ease their difficulties.

The Minister of National Insurance (Mr. Osbert Peake)

As hon. Members know, the initiative regarding National Assistance scales is with the Board, and I have not received any new proposals from them. Hon. Members will recollect that when the scales were increased last year, it was pointed out that the new scales took account of further expected rises in the cost of food. In fact, the changes in the index of retail prices since the new scales became operative are neglible, and I cannot admit that the existing scales are inadequate or are causing hardship.

Miss Burton

I really think that the right hon. Gentleman does not live in this world. Has he seen the reports in the Press of 11th March of a survey made, I think, by the Ministry of Health, which stated that old age pensioners who were today dependent on their pension and National Assistance grant for their weekly budget were spending less than 2s. 6d. a day on food? Is the Minister also aware that old people cannot afford today's charges for light and heat? Will he consider offering these to old people at a reduced rate?

Mr. Peake

The survey to which the hon. Lady referred and which was reported in the newspapers of 11th March was made during the tenure of the Socialist Government in 1950. The report was actually made in March, 1951. In fairness to the National Assistance Board, who by general consent, I thought, were agreed to be doing a fine job of work, I should point out that the allowances given today are greater in spending power than at any time during the period of office of the Socialist Government.

Mrs. Braddock

Is the Minister aware that a statement has been sent to him by the Old-Age Pensioners' Association giving factual details about their spending and their complete inability to live in any degree decently? In view of this and the fact that old people cannot live on statistics or reviews, but need money to buy the things that are necessary, will the Minister ask the Assistance Board to look again at the scales that they are at present applying?

Mr. Peake

The question to which the hon. Lady refers about old age pensioners is to be raised in a subsequent Question by the hon. Lady the Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton) and I hope I shall deal adequately with it when it is reached.

Miss Lee

Will the Minister make representations to the Board so that they review the items which they are taking into consideration? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that old people now spend so much solely for food that it is not true to say that they are as well off as before the adjustments were made? If they returned to the former National Assistance rates plus the present old age pension, they would still be short.

Mr. Peake

I will give the hon. Lady the figures. Since this Government took office, the general index of cost of living has risen by 7½ per cent. The Assistance scales have risen by 16½ per cent. for a single person and by 18 per cent. for a married couple. The rise in the cost of food in the same period is under 15 per cent.

30. Mr. T. Brown

asked the Minister of National Insurance how many retirement pensioners are now in receipt of the maximum amount of National Assistance; and on what estimated rate of domestic expenditure he bases the present scales of National Assistance payments.

31. Mr. Houghton

asked the Minister of National Insurance if he will state the budget of estimated domestic expenses on which he bases the scale of National Assistance payments to old age pensioners.

Mr. Peake

It is not possible to state the number of pensioners in receipt of the maximum amount of Assistance because there is no fixed limit to the amount the Board can grant in a particular case. In preparing scales of Assistance, the Board take all relevant factors into account, but it has never been the practice to publish anything in the nature of a purely notional budget showing how recipients of Assistance might be expected to spend their money.

Mr. Brown

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that when the Annual Report of the National Assistance Board is presented to his Department and to the House, it gives those figures? I am asking for the present figures in order to see the change, because a tremendous number of people have been forced by economic and social circumstances to go to the National Assistance Board who never did so before the present Government came to power.

Mr. Peake

It is impossible to state the number of persons in receipt of the maximum amount of assistance. As, no doubt, the hon. Member is aware, the Board have a wide discretion and are granting exceptional needs grants in over 300,000 cases.

Mr. Houghton

In regard to the point raised in Question No. 31, may I ask the Minister whether there is any reason why the previous practice should not be changed and the House have some glimpse of how the National Assistance Board think the old age pensioners live? Will he not give us some information upon which we can test the adequacy of the National Assistance scales from the assumptions of distribution of expenditure?

Mr. Peake

It is certainly not for me to give directions to the Board, which are an independent statutory authority, on a matter of this kind, but I would say in my view a notional budget would be very misleading as spending habits vary very widely owing to the various needs in individual circumstances.

Mr. J. Paton

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the cost of living index is not a true guide to the peculiar pattern of expenditure of those who are on National Assistance; that it is a peculiarly limited expenditure which is entirely different from the ordinary pattern covered by the index?

Mr. Peake

If the hon. Gentleman studies the figure he will see that on the cost of food alone it has risen a great deal more than other items which fall within the index, and that the allowance as paid by the Assistance Board is more generous today than it has been at any time since the end of the war.