HC Deb 18 May 1953 vol 515 cc1835-44

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

10.22 p.m.

Miss Elaine Burton (Coventry, South)

On Monday, 23rd March, in answer to a Question referring to the present inadequacy of the National Assistance Board scales, the Minister of National Insurance made this reply: … I cannot admit that the existing scales are inadequate or are causing hardship."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd March, 1953; Vol. 513, c. 473.] I am aware, Mr. Speaker, that one would not be in order in discussing either legislation or matter pertaining to legislation on the Motion for the Adjournment, and I say at once that I have no intention of doing so; but I hope that after this debate the Government will feel able to agree that the cost of living to an old age pensioner is very different from the cost of living to the rest of the people in the country.

I believe very much that the old people need primarily three things—food, heat and light. From the evidence which has come to me, and, I am sure, to many hon. Members, over the past months, I am forced to the conclusion that, in the winter at all events, many old people are being forced to choose between food and warmth. I believe that if this could be proved to the Government, they would agree that it should not be so. However, whenever we have raised the matter in the House, the Minister has said that that is not the position and that the Opposition are exaggerating when they say that it is.

I hope that such evidence as I am able to bring forward tonight will persuade the Parliamentary Secretary that it would be useful if we could have a committee of inquiry specifically to examine the cost of living of old age pensioners, because I believe that any inquiries which are being made today are on an incorrect basis, and do not deal solely with the position of the old age pensioners.

In June last year retirement pensions were increased, in the case of the single old age pensioners to 35s. and in the case of the married couple to 59s. per week. Whenever the matter has been raised in the House the Government have said that these increases were fixed to make allowance for the Chancellor's action in cutting food subsidies. My hon. Friends and I believe that the increase was more than swallowed up by the time it became operative and, what is more, the old people who are in receipt of it believe that too. I am convinced that they believe it sincerely and quite apart from party politics.

Speaking in no party political sense. I believe that a conservative estimate of the rise in the cost of living for food alone over the 12 months between the Budget of 1952 and the Budget of 1953 would be at least 3s. per week. Indeed, the Government have already admitted an increase of 1s. 6d. in the case of rationed foods, and I imagine that nobody in this House would deny that in the case of unrationed foods the cost has arisen by 1s. 6d. per person over the last 12 months.

This increase in food prices did not start in June, when the pension rise became operative for the old age pensioners. If we go back to the period from April to May and that from May to June of last year, we find that the rise was considerable. If I quote from one source in considerable detail, it is because I know the Parliamentary Secretary will be impressed. It is from the Interim Index of Retail Prices, and I find that, taking January, 1952 as 100, the food prices rose by 8.7 per cent. from January to June last year. I want to know from the Government how the old people were supposed to cope with that 8.7 per cent. increase in the cost of food when they had not got their rise in pensions. That is the first question.

According to the same index—turning from the last Budget in 1952 to the one in 1953—the cost of food and fuel and light increased by 13 per cent. In common with many other Members of this House I study this index with care. I have tried to follow the methods of construction and calculation, and I have tried to understand something else, which I think in this case is wrong. That is the weighting basis which has been used in the index since January, 1952. In this weighting basis we find that food has the biggest allocation at 399 per 1,000. Then comes clothing, then rent and rates, then fuel and light. From the point of view of the old people, fuel and light should come next to food. To them this would make a good deal of difference as they can obtain assistance in the case of rent.

I said I would not embark tonight on party politics, but if the Parliamentary Secretary will accept this statement I shall be grateful. I cannot understand how the Government can believe that any members of the public anywhere accept a statement that the cost of living has remained stable over the past nine months. The person who does his or her own shopping knows well that the £ in the shopping purse does not go as far in the shops today as it did last June. I would add that I believe that the people at the top end of the shopping purse are finding their money goes further because prices have dropped at that end. But tonight I am concerned with the bottom end and not the top.

If the Parliamentary Secretary would ask some of the small shopkeepers anywhere, or cause them to be asked, about the purchases made by the old people, I am convinced he would hear some very piteous tales, tales which are not made up by hon. Members on this side of the House. I have talked to small shopkeepers who do not agree with me politically, and they have told me that they are very distressed when the old age pensioners come into their shops and are unable to buy the sort of food they ought to have.

The National Assistance Board puts the amount on which a pensioner must manage at 35s. plus rent. The Old Age Pensioners' Federation have stated recently that the average amount by which a single old age pensioner is short is 6s. 6d. per week, and 7s. 6d. per week for a married couple. The Secretary of the Federation claims that these figures are based on the actual budgets he has received from old age pensioners, and I want to ask the Government if they will look into those statements. Is the Secretary of the Federation correct when he makes that claim or is he wrong? A committee of inquiry would obviously either substantiate or deny those figures. I should have thought that both sides of this House would agree that the old people, in common humanity, should have the chance of stating their case.

As the Minister is aware, the National Assistance Board is not prepared to give the breakdown of that 35s. I have tried to find out from the Board on what it was based, but I think everybody will appreciate the difficulty of the Board because, as it says, everybody spends money differently. However, we on this side of the House would say that if one has only that amount to live on, one cannot spend 35s. so very differently today on the real necessities.

The point I have been trying to find out—and I do not pretend to have succeeded better than anybody else as the Board is not able to give the breakdown of its 35s.—is what does an old age pensioner spend on essentials today? I have no desire to exaggerate this because I do not think that would get us anywhere, and in this matter there is no need to exaggerate. In common with everybody else, I should think, I have had a great many letters over the past 12 months from old people, not only in my constituency. Also, I have had the pleasure of seeing them here in company with my colleagues; and I have taken over the past few months an average which may be a high average or a low one, I do not know—I give it to the Minister as a fair one—from the information I have got.

From the old age pensioners in different parts of the country I have a figure per week for coal of 6s. 6d., for gas 4s. 6d. and for electricity of 7s. If we take any two of those—that is, coal and one of the other two—the lowest figure is 11s. 6d. and the other is 13s. 6d. Something else I have found out from the people who have been to see me and have written to me is that the average cost of their shoe repairs is 8s. 6d. I say shoe repairs, because the old people must have their shoes mended like the rest of us, and they have not always the money for that.

It would be easy for me to quote what I might call sobstuff to the Minister and I do not want to do so, but I have here four letters from different parts of the country. I do not propose to give the names because I have not asked permission, but only sentences. They are genuine letters, written by people in need, and I do not think they are written by scroungers out for what they can get.

The first letter comes from Barrow-in-Furness: … our electric light and gas had gone up —I can't afford a smoke or a glass of beer and my wife has to do without her sweets. The next one comes from Exmouth in Devon: …we enclose our budget—We cannot put everything into detail … this doesn't leave anything for fruit, we never go to the cinema, and if we want anything extra as clothing or shoe repairs, either coal or bacon has to be cut out. My next one comes from just outside Bury in Lancashire. It was in short sentences and it reads: Need 5s. weekly for coals. Never see egg or bacon or cheese. Quarter of pound of sweets a week. No fruit. Fares to Bury weekly 3s., so walk. No little luxury whatever. So mind three little ones and wash and look after five people for 15s. a week. Aged 70 in July. In need of holiday badly. My last one, which comes from just outside London, was sent to me by an old age pensioner telling me how she keeps her gas and coal bill as low as she does. Coal: burn only 6s. worth a week. Do not light fire before 3 p.m. Damp with tea leaves and potato peelings, keep it going for nearly five hours"— I should say that this last letter was sent to me in the winter— Gas, 6s. a week (light and cooking). Wait till nearly dark before lighting up. Go to bed at 8 p.m. by candle light. Make one box of matches last 10 days by using spills too. Of course, we on this side of the House think that if the Government took the right action, that lady might get a few more matches in her box, or would get them a little cheaper—but that is by the way. I quote those letters only because I think they are the ordinary letters of ordinary people. If they are true—I am willing to let the Minister have them— I think they are a disgrace to any Parliament which permits such a disgrace to continue.

Also, on 23rd March, the Minister was asked if he had considered a weekly budget based on barest need prepared by the General Secretary of the Old Age Pensioners' Association. I should like to read his reply: The article set out a weekly budget, the total of which, excluding insurances, was approximately the same as the amount provided by the current National Assistance scales. The figures given, even if one were to accept them as typical, do not therefore support the assertion made in the article that pensioners could not afford to buy enough food."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd March, 1953; Vol. 513, c. 478.] The total of that budget was £1 17s. 3½d. Excluding the insurances mentioned by the Minister, we arrive at a total of £1 15s. 9½d.

It would be interesting, for the record, to know the contents of that budget of barest need. It was for one week, for one person, and this is what it stated:

  • "Coal, 5s. 3d.
  • Gas, electricity, etc., 5s.
  • Renewals for clothing, 3s. 6d.
  • Household requisites, 2s. 6d."
We come next to rationed food.
  • "½ lb. sugar, 3½d.
  • 4 oz. margarine, 4d.
  • 2 oz. butter, 4½d.
  • Cheese, 2½d.
  • Bacon, 1s. 2d.
  • 1 egg, 5d.
  • Meat, 1s. 8d."
Unrationed food:
  • "3½ pints milk, 1s. 9d.
  • Tea, 8d.
  • Bread, 1s. 8d.
  • Vegetables, 2s. 6d.
  • Fish, 3s.
  • Offals, 2s. 6d.
  • Jam, etc., 1s. 6d.
  • Flour, etc., 1s. 6d."
We all realise, without thinking, that in that there is no mention of sweets, tobacco, shoe repairs, cinemas, holidays, fruit or bus fares.

The Minister—I am sorry to say this, but those of us who were in the House remember it—sneered at those figures—

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

Miss Burton

Yes, he did, because he said even if one were to accept them as typical. It is not a case of being typical. It is a case of their being quite inadequate. Surely the Minister would accept that if those figures are correct, they are inadequate. Anyway, at the very best, they are more than the 35s. estimated by the National Assistance Board. Secondly, a committee of inquiry would find out whether the figures were typical; also they would find out whether they were true. I and, I believe, many of my hon. Friends on this side of the House believe that that budget, based on the barest need, was not only typical for many of our old folk. Furthermore, I believe it to be an under-statement for others.

I now ask the Parliamentary Secretary what relief the old age pensioners have had in the Budget to meet this increase, which, I have said, is 13 per cent., according to the retail index, on those items alone. The Budget, it is claimed, helps everybody in direst need. But the best that the Chancellor of the Exchequer could do, as recorded in c. 719 of the OFFICIAL REPORT of 7th May, when dealing with old age pensioners, was to say: I point to one of the larger reductions, that on pipes, tobacco, smoking equipment and so on, which has been reduced from 66⅔ per cent. to 50 per cent. … shaving articles, paper, postcards, pens, playing cards and many other things …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th May, 1953; Vol. 515, c. 719–20.] As the House knows I am a non-smoker, and I do not know what is meant by "smoking equipment." I should have thought that the occasional pipe would have been a help to the old age pensioner, but these reductions would not help the cost of living over a period of 12 months. I should not have thought the old age pensioner's wife would have benefited much. I do not know whether old people wish to sit and smoke pipes and play cards, and in any case the reduction on a pack of playing cards is only about 2d. or 3d.

We on this side of the House say it is a complete mockery to claim that old people will gain by these reductions in tax. Look at the items in the reductions from 100 per cent. in tax; fur coats, electric fires, cosmetics and scent. The reductions for 66⅔ per cent. include washing machines, vacuum cleaners, leather handbags and refrigerators. The 33⅓ to 25 per cent. reductions include carpets, lino, saucepans, watches and alarm clocks and dolls. If the Government can think of a better list, they are welcome to give it.

On this side of the House we have a great admiration for the Chairman of the National Assistance Board and the work he has done. He has humanised the work of the Board in a way in which it was never humanised before. My complaint is not against him. I believe that in this matter the old people differ from the rest of us. The weighting of the Interim Index of Retail Prices is wrong: it should be different, and I ask the Government to let us have an inquiry into this matter.

10.42 p.m.

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

I have only ten minutes in which to reply to the very interesting and helpful arguments of the hon. Lady the Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton). Hon. Members on both sides of the House have the concern of the old people very much at heart. The hon. Lady has directed her remarks to those old people who are on National Assistance. Let me give the House the history of their position. From June, 1950, until six weeks before the last Election the assistance scales had been at the level of 26s. plus rent. The cost of living had risen during that period by nearly 12 per cent., and the preceding Government, on the advice of the National Assistance Board, raised those scales from 26s. to 30s.— a rise of 4s. a week. After we had been in office for six months we decided that a 4s. increase was not enough, and from June, 1952, we raised these scales by 5s. a week, which was the greatest rise which had taken place in the National Assistance scales since National Assistance was introduced.

The rise in the cost of living between September, 1951, and June, 1952, was a little less than 8 per cent. In the Explanatory Memorandum which accompanied the draft Regulations it was expressly stated that the new rates, as well as allowing for changes in prices since the previous autumn, also took into account anticipated rises in prices. Since June, 1952, the cost of living has risen by 1½ per cent. It is, I maintain, clear from that, that the National Assistance scales today are far more satisfactory than they were in the period from June, 1950, until the General Election of 1951.

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

Are they enough? That is the question.

Mr. Turton

During that period I never heard the hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Member complain that the National Assistance scales were not enough.

The hon. Lady said that the Interim Index of Retail Prices was not a true criterion of the cost of living. She said, and it is true, that old people depend more on food, coal and light than they do on the other items in the index. From June, 1950, to September, 1951, the food items rose by 14 per cent. That was when the rise of 4s. was given. Between September, 1951, and today they rose by 16 per cent. That was covered by the 5s. rise.

The rise in the fuel and light index has been one of 15½ per cent since October, 1951, but the National Assistance scales for a single person were increased by 17 per cent., and for a married couple by 18 per cent. The hon. Lady says that these indices do not correctly set out the position. All I can tell her and the rest of the House is that they have been used the whole time the National Assistance Act has been in operation and there has not been widespread complaint about them. Indeed, it was the preceding Government who introduced, after the inquiry, the revised index of January, 1952, which was claimed by them to set out the position more accurately.

Mr. Tom Brown (Ince) rose—

Mr. Turton

I have no time to give way. I have been left with only ten minutes in which to reply. It is unfair of the hon. Gentleman to try to rob me of my ten minutes.

The hon. Lady asked for a committee of inquiry into costs. I assure her that the National Assistance Board are constantly inquiring into the position. It was they who made the recommendation to the preceding Government that in September, 1951, the National Assistance scales were quite out of alignment with the cost of living, and for that reason the rise of 4s. a week was given. It was they who came to us in the spring of last year and recommended a rise of 5s., not only because of the past rise in prices but because of the anticipated rise. For that reason we gave the increase. In fact the cost of living index has not shown an increase to the extent that was then anticipated.

The hon. Lady quoted from the budgets of old people. It must be realised that the needs of old people and their budgets vary greatly. We cannot say that one old person requires a certain amount for fuel and light. The figure must vary. The National Assistance Board try to see that the old people on these scales have an adequate amount to meet the essential needs of life. The hon. Lady quoted, I thought rather unfairly, a reply by my right hon. Friend to the open letter in the "Old Age Pensioner" showing that the cost of food and other needs was 35s. In that budget the cost of food came to 19s. 8½d. I notice in this month's "Old Age Pensioner" the editor says that the amount spent on food in the weekly budget of the old age pensioner is now not 19s. 8½d. but about 15s. 10d.

The most satisfactory way of dealing with this matter is not by an inquiry but by having confidence in the National Assistance Board. For those old people who have special needs, those who require extra food on special diets, the National Assistance Board provide additional sums, as they have discretion to do. There are at present some half a million allowances that are being supplemented for special needs and let me say straight away that what does concern me and, I am sure, the hon. Lady for Coventry, South and all hon. Members, is that there are so many old people having to have recourse to National Assistance. The fact that a quarter of the retirement pensioners have to have recourse to it is a matter of great concern; and that arises from the fact that the basic scales of retirement pension at present are well below the National Assistance scale.

Mr. T. Brown

Too low.

Mr. Turton

That is a problem which we have inherited; but this Government have taken the step of raising the basic pension by 25 per cent. Of course, it is true that about six weeks before the Election there was a rise from 26s. to 30s. for some pensions; but we have raised the basic pension from 26s. to 32s. 6d., and it has to be remembered that we are working a contributory pension scheme. I attach great importance to the contributory nature of the scheme, but we have inherited a difficult financial problem. Retirement pensions are at present costing £340 million a year, and we are told by our experts that they will cost about £700 million a year in 24 years time.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Eight Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.