HC Deb 23 November 1953 vol 521 cc2-11
2. Mr. Hale

asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance whether he will give in terms of the existing cost-of-living index, the amount available to be spent on food, and the weights and qualities of food which such amount is deemed to provide, based upon the income, under existing rates, of a married couple, each aged 70, with a rent liability of 10s. a week, each drawing a full retirement pension under the National Insurance Act, 1946, and such supplements of public assistance as they would be entitled to having no other income.

Mr. Turton

No, Sir. The National Assistance Board state that, in preparing scales for assistance, they take all relevant factors into account, but that 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. Hale

Is the Parliamentary Secretary aware that figures have been published showing a 399 weight on 1,000 on food, and showing a distribution in regard to various items of food of those weights as between the various heads? Is he further aware that, on that basis, taking the smallest measurable fraction, the old age pensioner would spend 1½d. a day on bread, 1½d. on bacon, 1d. on eggs, ¼d. on cheese, 1½d. on fruit, 2d. on milk, 2d. on fats, 2d. on vegetables, and 4d. on meat? Would he really try to give some advice to such people as to how they can live on those small amounts of money? Is not the position absolutely appalling?

Mr. Turton

No, Sir, I do not think it is. The hon. Gentleman seems to be referring to the compilation of the interim retail price index. That is not the basis which the National Assistance Board use. They are satisfied that their scales, which amount to £3 9s. for man and woman, are, in normal circumstances, sufficient. They also make certain discretionary additions to those scales.

3. Mr. Dodds

asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance what consideration has been given to the need for increasing financial aid to old age pensioners; and what action has been decided upon in view of the urgency of the situation.

Mr. Turton

I would refer the hon. Member to replies given by my right hon. Friend to the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds) on 9th November and 16th November.

Mr. Dodds

Would the hon. Gentleman answer the part of the Question which asks …what consideration has been given to the need for increasing the financial aid to old age pensioners;"? Further, will the hon. Gentleman's right hon. Friend see some of the old age pensioners in his own division in order to find out the facts of life?

Mr. Turton

The position is that since this Government came into power the National Assistance scales have been increased by 16 per cent. for a single person and 18 per cent. for a married couple. It would appear from the evidence that we have received up till now that this increase—the largest given at any time in the history of the House—has improved the position of old age pensioners on National Assistance far more than at any other time.

4. Miss Burton

asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance whether he is aware that many old age pensioners dependent solely on their pensions and a grant from the National Assistance Board find it impossible to secure renewals of clothes, bed linen, footwear and household utensils; and what measures the Board takes to help in such cases.

Mr. Turton

The scale rates in the Regulations approved by Parliament, which govern the amounts paid by the Board, are intended to cover all ordinary expenditure, including renewals of clothing and household equipment; but the Board also have powers to make lump sum payments to meet exceptional needs, and in 1952 these powers were exercised in about 160,000 cases at a cost of £650,000.

Miss Burton

Is the Minister aware, as most of us are, that a good many old people are finding it impossible to afford these replacements? Is he further aware that we on this side are very anxious to improve the position of old age pensioners? What should an old age pensioner do when he cannot afford to get his shoes mended, or buy pots and pans and blankets, even when he is on National Assistance?

Mr. Turton

The answer is that the old age pensioner should get in touch with the local officer of the National Assistance Board. I have already replied saying what additional amounts were given during the last year. In addition, about £7 million was paid out in discretionary allowances to those on National Assistance, as well as the normal allowances paid.

Mr. Bence

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that I have received details of many oases of people on National Assistance who have had a grant for clothing, but the Assistance Board have then made weekly deductions from the National Assistance to recover the grant given?

Mr. Turton

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to make an allegation about a deduction which has been made to recover the grant, perhaps he will put a Question on the Order Paper so that I can answer it.

10. Mr. Shurmer

asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance if he is aware of the distress and privations now being borne by old age pensioners, owing to the rising cost of living; and what proposals he has to make which will ease their burdens.

Mr. Turton

I would refer the hon. Member to the reply my right hon. Friend gave to this Question on Monday last.

Mr. Shurmer

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that I expected that answer and that it is unsatisfactory to the old age pensioners? In view of the answers given to other hon. Members this afternoon, may I ask whether the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend would try living on the old age pension for a month, to see whether they could live on it?

Mr. Turton

I assure the hon. Gentleman that no discourtesy was intended by referring him back to a reply to an identical Question last week. I can also assure him that the needs of old age pensioners are constantly in the minds of my right hon. Friend and myself.

Dr. Summerskill

Does the hon. Gentleman anticipate that any immediate revision of the scales will be made, in view of the statements of the Minister of Food and the Chancellor of the Exchequer that they do not know what the price of food will be in the event of derationing?

Mr. Turton

That seems an entirely different question. What we have examined is the National Assistance scale now, compared with what it was in the early days under the preceding Government. We find that, taking the 1946 level, the scale is some 7s. a week better for a single person.

12. Mr. Hamilton

asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance whether his attention has been drawn to the reports by the medical officers of Liverpool and Sheffield which reveal evidence of serious malnutrition among retirement pensioners; and what steps he contemplates to alleviate this hardship.

Mr. Turton

I do not know of any such reports by these medical officers of health. I have, however, read the survey made in Sheffield in 1950and the report of the investigations made in Liverpool in 1951–52. I cannot agree that they contain any support for the suggestion that the financial provision for old people afforded by the current scales of assistance is in any way inadequate.

Sir H. Williams

On a point of order. Is it not an established rule that an hon. Member is responsible for statements contained in his Question?

Mr. Hamilton

Will the Minister deny that a pensioner cannot spend more than about half his weekly pension on food, which amounts to about 2s. 6d. a day? Is he aware that the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself said in the House on 20th April that the cost of food had increased by 15 per cent. since October, 1951; and if the Minister cares to work out 15 per cent. of 16s., which is half the old age pension, he will find that it is; 2s. 5d.? Is the Minister aware, in other words, that this Government have given 2s. 6d. with one hand and taken it away with the other in the form of increased food prices?

Mr. Turton

I think the answer to that supplementary question is found in the Report of the Liverpool inquiry, which says: There is much to be said for the view that primary poverty among the aged can be avoided in present conditions, but it does require an approach to the National Assist- ance Board, a step which many old people seem to postpone as long as possible.

Mr. Hamilton

Can the Minister give a categorical denial to the widespread allegation that a directive has gone out from his Ministry to the National Assistance Board to tighten up discretionary powers?

Mr. Turton

I can certainly deny that baseless allegation. No such directive has gone out.

13. Mr. Lewis

asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance the number of old age pensioners who applied for National Assistance benefit during the last year; and how this compares with the last six years.

Mr. Turton

As the reply contains a number of figures, I will, with permission, circulate it in the Official Report.

Mr. Lewis

Anticipating that reply, may I ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether, generally speaking, the figures are now up or down, and if, as I assume, they are up, can he explain the reasons for these new applications? Is not the reason the continued rise in the cost of food?

Mr. Turton

The figures, when they are published, will show that the recent increase in the retirement pensions has resulted in a slowing up of the rate of increase to those going on National Assistance. In fact, whereas in 1950 and 1951 the increase of pensioners on Assistance was in the region of 108,000 and 116,000 a year, last year the rate of increase was down to 96,000.

Mr. Keenan

Is it the policy of the Ministry not to increase the old age contributory pension, but to insist on all the pensioners going to the National Assistance Board?

Mr. Turton

The policy of this Government is to increase the purchasing power of the retirement pension and, considering the past experience of the late Socialist Government, we have been singularly successful.

Following is the reply:

The numbers of retirement pensioners and old age pensioners who were receiving assistance at the end of September in each year since the start of National Assistance are:

1948 553,000
1949 637,000
1950 745,000
1951 863,000
1952 977,000
1953 1,073,000

Some of the grants covered the needs of a household containing more than one pensioner.

16. Mr. Lewis

asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance whether he will appoint a committee of inquiry to ascertain to what extent the present old age pension ensures that recipients are able to purchase the basic necessities of life without recourse to the National Assistance Board.

Mr. Turton

No, Sir; it has for many years been recognised that the basic pension has not in itself been sufficient for a pensioner's needs. Many pensioners, however, have other resources which make it unnecessary for them to apply for assistance.

Mr. Lewis

In view of the fact that many old age pensioners are rather loath to go to the Assistance Board—[Hon. Members: "Why?"]—because of the way in which they were treated in the bad old days, under Tory Governments—should not the Minister at least try to have an investigation made to see what can be done? Ministers have stated that old age pensioners are not now failing to take up their rations because of the shortage of cash, but will he not look into the matter because hon. Members on this side know of many cases where old constituents cannot afford the basic ration, and will not apply for assistance because of their fears of the National Assistance Board, following on what happened in the bad old days?

Mr. Turton

The retirement pension has not been at the subsistence level at any time. All parties have had to rely on old people going to the Assistance Board in order to make up their benefits. It would be very desirable if we could get the pension rates nearer subsistence level, but that would involve a considerable increase in contributions.

18. Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance on what basis he has calculated that the present old age pension of 32s. 6d. is worth only 1d. less than the 30s. pension rate in operation when the present Administration took office.

Mr. Turton

I would refer the hon. and gallant Member to the reply given by the Economic Secretary to the Treasury to the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd) on Thursday, 19th November.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

Having obviously based these calculations on the fact that the purchasing power of the £ has dropped to 18s. 5d. since the present Government took over, will the hon. Gentleman give an undertaking to increase the pensions for which he is responsible to the extent of 8 per cent.—so that the pensions are at least not worse off now than they were in October, 1951—or is it the clear policy of the Government to rely to an increasing extent on the National Assistance Board to subsidise the increasingly inadequate insurance scheme?

Mr. Turton

My answer to a previous Question shows that that is not the policy of this Government. In fact, the increase in the number of retired pensioners going to the Assistance Board has been less under this Government than it was under their predecessors. We have restored pensions to the 1948 level.

Captain Pilkington

Can the Minister explain why there are so many Questions about old age pensions from hon. Members opposite, in view of the fact that they did so little for old age pensioners, compared to what this Government have done, when they were in office?

19. Commander Donaldson

asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance if he will give an estimate of the increase in retirement pensions which would be required to give pensioners the purchasing power which the pension possessed in 1946.

Mr. Turton

On the basis of the Interim Index of Retail Prices and the earlier cost of living index which it superseded in June, 1947, the answer would be about 4s. for a single person.

20. Mr. Lewis

asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance whether he will now increase old age pensions to cover the cost of the proposed increased rents which may arise from the Government's Housing Repairs and Rents Bill.

Mr. Turton

No, Sir. It would be mere speculation to try and estimate how pensioners will be affected by this legislation.

Mr. Lewis

Will the Minister give a definite assurance that, whatever happens with regard to this Bill, old age pensioners will not be penalised by having the amount of extra rent taken out of their meagre National Assistance benefits and pensions? In addition to saying that they can go to the Assistance Board, will he make certain that their pensions will be increased pro rata if their rents go up, as has been promised under this Bill?

Mr. Turton

The hon. Member has referred to the question of pensioners going to the Assistance Board. Hon. Members of all parties will realise that when a pensioner goes to the Board he gets a rent allowance equivalent to his existing rent. For that reason the position of pensioners going to the Board will be completely covered.

Mr. S. Silverman

Would it not short circuit the proceedings if landlords who are in such hard case and need this money made their own personal applications to the Assistance Board?

Mr. Turton

No doubt the hon. Gentleman will put down an Amendment to the Bill to that effect.

21. Mr. T. Brown

asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance if he is now in a position to state what he proposes to do in response to the request made to him by the deputation he met from the General Council of the Old Age Pensioners on 4th November, 1953.

Mr. Turton

My right hon. Friend is at present studying the points put forward by this deputation.

Mr. Brown

It is now three weeks since the deputation waited upon the Minister. Surely he ought now to be in a position to consider the point. Are we to wait until next year, or does the Minister intend to ask us to wait until the review in 1954? If so, it is not treating the deputation with the courtesy and respect to which it is entitled.

Mr. Turton

The hon. Gentleman is doing less than justice to his deputation, who put forward some very difficult and complicated points. These are being very closely studied.