§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.
§ 8.30 p.m.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams (Droylsden)
I want to deal with the question of the appointed day as it was dealt with in the debate on 9th December. If I am in order in doing so, Sir Rhys, I will refer, purely in an exploratory way, to some of the statements made by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance in connection with the position of the trade unions of the Civil Service on that question.
I want to give an opportunity to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, if he feels so inclined, to augment, or perhaps to correct, his statement here and there. Unfortunately from my point of view, I was not in the House when the hon. Gentleman made his speech but, after reading HANSARD carefully, I gathered that there was a pretty good knockabout. There one can read his speech—when he was allowed to speak—from my point of view with a good deal of incredulity.
I have not read anything so funny for a long time as the record of the perambulations of a Minister and, when he invited my hon. Friend the Member for Spark-brook (Mr. Shurmer) to join him in his perambulations. I thought that he became funnier still. To expect any Minister to attempt to resolve such a highly technical matter in such a casual way as to talk to the staff over a public counter about whether they could do this, that, or the other, seems to me unprecedented, and it is one of the funniest things I have seen in HANSARD for a long time.
The point I want to make this evening is that there was a suggestion—I put it no higher—in the speech of the hon. Gentleman that the trade unions concerned had made it clear to him and to the Government that they would not be able to regard a payment at Christmas of any increases or lump sums as being a practicable proposition. I gathered that this was the basis of the remarks of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary and his counter-remarks to some of my hon, Friends.
He made it clear that not only had he had consultation with the so-called back-room boys whom he visited casually, but that he had also been in correspondence, 1486 discussion, and negotiation with the trade union leaders, the real leaders, the people who could be expected to give him the considered views of Post Office workers and civil servants in regard to the practicability of official proposals.
To my utter amazement, after reading those assurances to the House on 9th December, I found in the "Manchester Guardian" of 10th December two statements which raised some doubts in my mind, though they may not raise any doubts in the mind of the Minister. I feel sure you will allow me, Sir Rhys, to quote those two statements because they are important. The first was made by Mr. L. C. White, General Secretary of the Civil Service Clerical Association. This is what Mr. White said, after having read the statement of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary in the House on 9th December:A statement made by Mr. Marples, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance in the House of Commons on Thursday regarding the difficulty of paying increased benefits under the Pension Bill before Christmas, has given the impression that a Civil Service trade union representing clerical staffs of the Ministry has been consulted on this subject and had agreed that to make these additional payments before Christmas was impracticable. The C.S.C.A., which represents exclusively the clerical workers employed in the Ministry, wishes to make it clear that it has never been consulted on this matter.Mr. White went on to say that the Association had not only never been consulted, but—has never expressed any opinion as to the practicability or otherwise of making these additional payments before Christmas, and indeed was only informed of the arrangements"—
§ The Deputy-Chairman
Order. This Clause is confined to the appointed day. I do not know what the argument of the hon. Gentleman about payments before Christmas has to do with that. There is no date here.
§ Mr. Williams
With due respect, and I do not want to challenge your Ruling, Sir Rhys, I was leading up to the point that the Minister has made the appointed day later because of, among other arguments, the argument that the Civil Service organisations and associations had told him that an earlier appointed day would not be possible. I thought, therefore, that on this Question, That the Clause stand part of the Bill, I ought to 1487 try to correct the impression made in this House by the Parliamentary Secretary, which in my opinion did not correctly reflect the approach of these trade unions towards the appointed day.
§ Mr. Mitchison
Further to that point of order, Sir Rhys. The question we have to consider is whether or not we approve of a Clause containing rather wide provisions for an appointed day. Upon that question, surely we are entitled to express our views, and make inquiries of the Minister as to what the appointed day is likely to be, since it may well be that if the appointed day were to be before Christmas, we should support the Clause, whereas if it were to be after Christmas. we should oppose the Clause?
In those circumstances, as the Joint Parliamentary Secretary appears to have made a statement about the possibility or impossibility of an appointed day within a certain time, we are entitled to find out how far that statement was really an answer to the suggestion that there should be an earlier appointed day. With great respect, I submit that my hon. Friend's argument is in order.
§ The Deputy-Chairman
If that was the point of the argument, I agree with the hon. and learned Member that it is in order, but I thought the hon. Member put it in a rather wider form than that.
§ Mr. Williams
If I had had the legal training that my hon. and learned Friend has had, I might have been able to put the argument more succinctly, but when it is boiled down, you have correctly interpreted, Sir Rhys, what I am seeking to do. I am sure that, with your guidance and on those lines, I shall be able to lead the Committee to the conclusion which I believe it is only right and proper it should. in the end, reach.
Perhaps I might now finish the quotation—and indeed was only informed of the arrangements that had already been settled on the day"—that is, the appointed day; that is the point that we are on all the time; we want to make quite sure that the House of Commons does not commit itself to something because it has not been properly guided as to the views of those who have to do the work at the Post Office counters— 1488the increased payments were announced in Parliament.I am staggered that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary should come here and give the views of individuals in various post offices, which he has casually obtained, as being that it is not practicable to do this, that, or the other, and should omit to tell the House that one of the most important Civil Service organisations, the one representing the people who will prepare the necessary forms and allowances, knew nothing about it and had never been consulted. If the Civil Service Clerical Association had been consulted much earlier, and, in particular, immediately after the important pronouncement made in the House on 19th March, it is possible that, with the concurrence of the Staff Side of not only the C.S.C.A. but also the Union of Post Office Workers and other Service associations, emergency arrangements could have been made to make it practicable for the increased pensions to be paid before Christmas.
I have a quotation here also from the "Manchester Guardian" of a statement made by Mr. Charles Geddes, the General Secretary of the Union of Post Office Workers, of which I was once a member and to which I am still attached in an honorary capacity. Mr. Geddes says:The Union of Post Office Workers has expressed the view that any system of paying out the increased pensions which did not clearly define the amount due might lead to fraud or to confusion or to losses which might render the counter-clerks liable to disciplinary action. The U.P.W. took the view that it would be better for pension books to be issued which indicated the amount.I am giving all these points because they might be regarded as favourable to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary's argument. Mr. Geddes… saw no reason why the books should not have been printed.The Government should have planned ahead sufficiently to have the books printed much before Christmas. Mr. Geddes added:Moreover, there is no question whatsoever that our objection had anything to do with pressure of work on the counter clerk or anyone else. It would be just as easy to pay out £1 as it is to pay out 15s 6d.From my experience of paying out such pensions many years ago, it would be easier to pay out £1 than 15s. 6d.
1489 There is some information which has come to me about which I shall be very circumspect, contrary to the action of the Minister, who has made all sorts of pronouncements, although the seal of confidence about what happened between the Postmaster-General and the unions is still maintained.
I want to put a serious point to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. He gave us only half the story. Mr. Geddes has made it quite clear that the Union of Post Office workers, like a good union, responsible for the efficient working of the service, and wanting to see that its people are not confused, and that there is no possibility of fraud and losses, asked for the maximum inquiry into the possibilities of any system which might be imposed upon their members.
The point on which the Joint Parliamentary Secretary is inclined, inadvertently or otherwise, to mislead the House is that the union—after discussions with other organisations, Post Office headquarters, and representatives of the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance; realising the position of the old-age pensioners; realising the desire of all Members of Parliament to make sure whatever increases and benefits were approved should be implemented as early as possible—within a day or two made it perfectly clear to the Post Office that it had no desire to press for any arrangement which would unduly delay implementation of a Government decision to increase pensions and allowances.
For that reason—and it is one which I want to underline—the union had said to the Department that it would be prepared to accept the Department's proposals despite the difficulties and inconveniences which would undoubtedly arise for its people. The House has not been fair to this trade union, which is prepared to waive some of the principles that it has held dear for many years, to try to meet the needs of these old people. In fairness to these trade unions, some of which have not been consulted, it would be the magnanimous thing if the Joint Parliamentary Secretary tonight enlarged upon the statement which he made on 9th December.
§ Mr. Mitchison
I hope that we shall have a very definite statement from the Joint Parliamentary Secretary on this matter. He told the House, on 9th 1490 December, that, by comparison with what happened in similar cases in the past, the appointed day for most purposes would be 25th April next. That is on the last line of c.1147 of HANSARD of 9th December, 1954.
A suggestion was made to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Shurmer) of a 5s. stamp on the books, and I think it is exceedingly interesting to see how the hon. Gentleman treated what seemed to me to be a very sensible suggestion.
The OFFICIAL REPORT of 9th December records, in col. 1144, that my hon. Friend asked him what difficulties would there be about stamping 5s. on each slip torn out of a book. My hon. Friend said:There is no difficulty at all. It takes no time.The Joint Parliamentary Secretary replied to that by what I may call a double answer. His first was:That is what the hon. Member thinks, That is not what the trade unions of the various interested workers think. The hon. Member is quite at variance with the official trade unions whom we have consulted.On that point he was then asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Waltham-stow, East (Mr. Wallace):Which trade unions?He replied:There are several unions, among them one representing sub-postmasters."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th December, 1954; Vol. 535, c. 1145.]I should be the last person to comment in any way on the importance of sub-postmasters. They are, no doubt, very important people. In fact, I know they are. I have several in my constituency. But it is a bit odd when one is asked which are the trade unions, to select this particular union and altogether omit the union of which my hon. Friend the Member for Droylsden (Mr. W. R. Williams) has for long been such a distinguished member and official.
One wonders, what does it come to? We now have at any rate two of the principal unions concerned saying that something could have been done by Christmas. As practically the only defence to a particular suggestion made to him in the House, we have the hon. Gentleman saying, "Oh, but the unions don't agree with you. The unions say 1491 it could not be done, and particularly the sub-postmasters say it could not be done."
The second suggestion was he hoped that the hon. Gentleman would go round with him the next day. We all appreciate the light and merry wit of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. We like him for it; it is pleasant. But he must remember that the date of the payment of these pensions is not a very appropriate subject for humour. On any showing, these old folk have had to wait an uncommonly long time for an increase which everyone in the country who was not blinded by political prejudice knew was overdue.
When we come to the timing of this Bill, and the Bill itself could have been brought earlier, the best we get from the Joint Parliamentary Secretary is an answer which, in the light of what has been said now, is exceedingly unsatisfactory— I do not want to say any more about it than that—and the statement that the whole business is to wait until 25th April.
Suppose the Joint Parliamentary Secretary can convince us that, willing though the unions and their members were to put their backs into it, and to do something quite exceptional to make good the excessive tardiness of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite; willing though they were—and with "Leo" behind them, if he would be any help—it still could not have been done, surely he will offer us something better than 25th April as the appointed day? I would remind him of the presence of some very distinguished hon. Friends of mine from across the Border, for there at any rate Christmas does not have the same importance as here. He might make a timely concession to Scotland and get it through before Hogmanay if not before Christmas.
It is not treating the House and these old people properly simply to give a rather uncomplete, unsatisfactory—I do not want to say any more—excuse when dealing with a sensible suggestion, and then to say, "Oh, it has got to be 25th April." Today the hon. Gentleman has an opportunity for sense and repentance, and I hope that he will take it.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. Ernest Marples)
It may be for the convenience of the Committee 1492 if I say a few words in reply to the hon. Member for Droylsden (Mr. W. R. Williams). I am grateful to him, for giving me notice, just after the previous Clause had been discussed, that he proposed to raise this matter. I am obliged to him—
§ Mr. Marples
Yes, but it was the previous Clause which we were discussing at the time.
Let us be clear about how this matter arose during the Second Reading debate. The hon. Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Shurmer) had made a number of attempts to interrupt me, and he interrupted me to say:I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He tells us that he has been to a post office. We are claiming that something should be done for old-age pensioners before Christmas.The hon. Member went on to describe the way he had in mind for it to be done before Christmas. He said:The old-age pensioners have to pass their books over. Therefore, what difficulty would there be about stamping 5s. on each slip torn out of the book? There is no difficulty at all. It takes no time."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th December, 1954; Vol. 535, c. 1144]The suggestion was that the existing pension books should be used; that the counter clerks at the post offices should stamp them in some way, and should give the extra 5s. upon them.
My reply was that if that was what the hon. Member for Sparkbrook thought, it was not what the trade union of the various interested workers thought. The interested workers are not the mineworkers or the bricklayers, or, in this respect, the civil servants. This is the job of the men who represent the counter clerks, who have to pay out the money.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams rose—
§ Mr. Marples
I agree that it is important.
I went round the post offices on a personal investigation. I would say to the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison), who was a little less 1493 than fair, that I did not go round the post offices because I had a sense of humour; I did so in order to exhaust all the possibilities of doing anything speedily. I do not think it was unworthy to go round. If any Member thinks that a junior Minister should not make such a personal investigation, I hope that he is not on these benches, at any rate.
The clear issue was whether cash could be paid out before Christmas upon the existing books, and not upon new books. I said that I thought that it was impossible. What did the trade union say about it? The hon. Member for Droylsden quoted fairly extensively from what Mr. Geddes said, as reported in the "Manchester Guardian" but I should like to read on from the point at which the hon. Member finished.
… Mr. Geddes, secretary of the union and president of the T.U.C.… said that the U.P.W. had expressed the view that any system of paying out the increased pensions which did not clearly define the amount due might lead to fraud, to counter clerks and the public being confused as to the amount due and to losses over the counter (which render the clerk liable to disciplinary action). The U.P.W. took the view that it would be better far pensions books to be issued which indicated the amount due.Mr. Geddes went on to say that if there had been new books printed it would be as easy, or easier, to pay £1 than it is to pay 15s. 6d.
After finishing his quotation, the hon. Member for Droylsden said that the U.P.W's. objection was merely to some system of using the present books to pay out the increased pension. I submit that what I said to the House in answer was correct, namely, that the union concerned did not think it possible, in the interests of its own members, to pay out the increased sums upon the existing pension books.
I believe there has been some misunderstanding on this matter. I think that hon. Members know me well enough to know that I should not try deliberately to mislead them, but I think some misunderstanding has been caused by an article in the "Manchester Guardian." That article is the most misleading I have known in a newspaper of its standing. Its first headline was,As Easy For Post Office To Pay Out £1 As 15s. 6d.What it omitted to say wasbut only on new books; not on existing books.1494 The next headline said:Union Denies Having Been Consulted On Pensions Increase.What it did not say was that the appropriate union did not deny it. In the second part of the leading article, in small print, it gave the correct views of the U.P.W. I do not want to make a lot of this point, but I want to say that the discussion at the time was confined to the question of an increased sum of money being paid out on existing pension books, as suggested.
§ The Deputy-Chairman
This discussion seems to have gone very wide of the Clause. The Clause provides for the Minister to make the appointed day by order, and that is all that is in order in this discussion.
§ Mr. Marples
I am most obliged for your Ruling, and I beg you pardon, Sir Rhys, if I was out of order, but I felt that, after what the hon. Gentleman had said, I ought in fairness to be allowed to make a reply to him.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams
In order that I shall be on the record as saying what is correct, may I say that the hon. Gentleman had better consult some of his advisers, because when he says that the Civil Service Clerical Association is not concerned, he is showing abysmal ignorance?
§ The Deputy-Chairman
I do not think I should allow this discussion to range so far from the terms of the Clause.
§ Mr. E. Fernyhough (Jarrow)
What we are anxious to obtain from the Parliamentary Secretary is a promise that the idea given in a previous debate that the appointed day will be 25th April shall be reconsidered, with a view to making it much earlier.
§ The Deputy-Chairman
With regard to that point, I assume that it would be in order to debate it on the actual order itself, but not on this Clause. What can be argued here is only whether the Minister shall have power to make the order or not.
§ Mr. J. Griffiths
Under the principal Act, the Minister is entitled to fix the appointed day. but, as far as I know. there will be no order which is debatable in this House. I do not think that any order will come before this House which 1495 will give the House an opportunity of accepting or rejecting it.
§ The Deputy-Chairman
According to the Clause, the appointed day is to be a day such as the Minister "may by order appoint."
§ Mr. Mitchison
Are we not entitled to have information about the appointed day which will enable us to decide whether or not to vote for the Clause?
§ The Deputy-Chairman
Questions about the appointed day might arise when the order comes before the House, but do not arise on this Clause.
§ Mr. Jay
Surely, in this Clause, we are giving the Minister the power to say when the appointed day shall be, and we cannot decide whether to do that or not unless we are satisfied that he will name the sort of appointed day which we would like to see? I should have thought that hon. Members discussing that point would have been in order.
§ The Deputy-Chairman
It may be argued whether the Minister should have the power to make the order or not, and that is in order here, but the actual date is another matter.
§ Dr. Edith Summerskill (Fulham, West)
May I draw your attention, Sir Rhys, to subsection (1), which says:in this Act the expression 'the appointed day' means. subject to the following provisions of this section, such day as the Minister may by order appoint, and different days may be appointed for different purposes of this Act or for the same purpose in relation to different cases or classes of case.Surely, on that subsection alone, we could conduct a debate on whether we consider the date suggested by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary a suitable one or not?
§ The Deputy-Chairman
What this Clause says is that the Minister may fix such day as he "may by order appoint," and until he makes the order fixing the appointed day, the question seems to me to be premature.
§ Mr. Fernyhough
What we are anxious to do is to make sure that, when the Minister fixes the appointed day, it will be sufficiently early. What is the argument which the Minister has to far used for delaying the appointed day until 25th April? Administrative difficulties. I should like to put this problem to the 1496 Minister. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument—and heaven forbid that it should happen—that this country became involved in war next week.
§ The Deputy-Chairman
There is nothing in this Clause at all to indicate what is the date of the appointed day. No one knows what that day is until the order is made.
§ Mr. Mitchison
Surely, if the proposition before the House were to give the Minister a blank cheque, we should be entitled to discuss how much he was going to fill it in for?
§ The Deputy-Chairman
It is quite in order to discuss whether the Minister shall have the power to do this, but until he does it, and if he has the power to fix the date, no question can arise about the date itself.
§ Dr. Summerskill
In view of the fact that it all depends on the order and that, when the order is before the House, we shall not be able to amend it but only to accept or reject it, does it not therefore follow that unless we discuss this matter now we shall be denied for all time the opportunity of discussing the date?
§ The Deputy-Chairman
The right hon. Lady knows that that might be an argument for saying that the Minister should not have the power to make the order. It is quite in order to argue against giving the Minister the power to fix the appointed day, but to discuss the actual date before the Minister makes the order seems to me to be premature.
§ 9.0 p.m.
Mr. R. Williams
Further to that point of order. Would it not be entirely in order, Sir Rhys, to submit arguments why the House should not give the Minister power to appoint a day at all unless he gives satisfactory undertakings as to the day which he is going to appoint?
§ The Deputy-Chairman
Any arguments directed to declining to give the Minister power would be in order.
§ Mr. Fernyhough
In view of your last Ruling, Sir Rhys, I suggest to the Committee that we ought not to give the Minister power until we are satisfied that the appointed day is more in keeping with what the general public desire.
1497 I was putting to the Minister a problem which I want him to think about. Supposing—heaven forbid—that war broke out next week, and that tens of thousands of people were immediately called up for service in the Forces. Is it suggested that the wives and children of the men called up would not get their allowances? Of course not. The machine would work with top speed in order to see that everyone got what they were entitled to, because the Government would know that there would be a terrible row throughout the length and breadth of the country if the money was not forthcoming.
I suggest, likewise, that if there were a great disaster, such as floods, we should obviously not wait until "the appointed day" before bringing succour to the people in need of assistance. If the Minsiter was not so concerned about saving money, I am quite sure that the appointed day could be much earlier. I beg the right hon. Gentleman to understand that the old-age pensioners will be very bitter indeed if they are kept living on hope deferred.
I am sure that, if he were to put it to the people who have to work the machine, that, provided they put their backs into it and did the necessary overtime, he would be able to pay the benefits much earlier, he would get the necessary response. It ought to be his privilege to make the appointed day much earlier. If he does not, his name, with the approach of Christmas, may go down in history as a second Scrooge.
§ Mr. T. Brown
The last few minutes of this discussion have obscured the real issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Droylsden (Mr. W. R. Williams) raised a point on a statement made by the Parliamentary Secretary on Second Reading. The question which we on this side of the Committee wish to ask is whether it is true that the trade unions were consulted as to whether it was possible for the Post Office workers to pay out the increased benefits at a much earlier date than that suggested by the Government.
With all due respect to the Parliamentary Secretary, he has not answered the question put to him by my hon. Friend. However much he may try to evade it—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I invite hon. Members opposite to examine what was said on 9th December and what has been 1498 said today. The Parliamentary Secretary has not made the statement expected from him in view of the disclosures made by my hon. Friend the Member for Droylsden.
The impression created in the country is very disturbing, because the Post Office workers have been brought into the picture more forcibly by the statement made by the Parliamentary Secretary on 9th December than they were before. There are now some people who think that not the Government but the postal workers are to blame for the late date. Surely, in view of the valuable service that these Post Office workers render to the nation day after day, and of the heavy demands made on their time and energy, we ought not to let that go by. The Parliamentary Secretary ought to be good enough to say that the trade unions concerned were not consulted in the sense that we understand consultations as between Government Departments and trade unions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Droylsden made a very strong point, apart from the argument which appeared in the "Manchester Guardian." We attach some importance to the honesty of the "Manchester Guardian." Oh, yes, the Parliamentary Secretary may smile, but he uses the "Manchester Guardian" when it is in his favour and refrains from using it when it is against him. There has been a conflict of opinion, as to what has actually taken place. Post Office workers feel keenly the statement made by the Parliamentary Secretary.
Surely it would be easy to say, and it would be true, "I mentioned this rather glibly, without giving it thought." It arose from an interjection by my hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Shurmer). It would be a gracious gesture and the right thing to do—especially when he knows the effect which his statement is having on the minds of the old-age pensioners and of the men in the Post Office—for the Parliamentary Secretary to stand at that Box and say, "I am sorry for what I said. These people are not to blame."
§ Mr. H. Hynd
I want to return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough) because I agree with him that it is asking a lot of this Committee to give the Minister the full authority set out in the Clause 1499 to make the appointed day as and when he likes.
We are under the impression that the pensions will be paid towards the end of April or in May but, unfortunately, we have to try to tie the Government down in a specific way in these matters. Only a few minutes ago the Committee found itself unable to discuss a certain Amendment which on this side of the Committee we considered to be of great importance, because of the precise wording of the Financial Resolution. Therefore, it is no use the Minister saying, "You can trust me to put the best possible interpretation on the Clause." We want him to give us a definite promise about the date that he has in mind.
Suppose that after committing himself to the date suggested previously, the Minister, under the compulsion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer or even of the Cabinet, decided that as the date of the General Election was to be postponed the date of the operation of the benefits could likewise be postponed. He would be expected to give that information to the House for anybody who cared to do so to criticise him for altering the date in that way.
I suggest to the Minister that to get this considerable power for which he is asking in the Clause he ought to promise us that the pensions will not be paid later than a certain date. Let him give us a date beyond which a day will not be appointed. Furthermore, he should give a promise that the full resources of his Department will be stretched to the uttermost in an effort to pay the benefits at an earlier date than that.
We have agreed to rush this Bill through before Christmas. For what purpose? If the benefits are not to be paid until April or May there is no necessity for the Bill to reach the Statute Book before Christmas. We are rushing it through in an endeavour to help not the Government but the old-age pensioners and other beneficiaries under the Bill. If we do take the unprecedented step of putting through an important Bill such as this in such a short time, the only purpose we have in mind, and the only purpose which the Government should have in mind, is that it may enable them to fix a date earlier than they originally anticipated.
1500 If the Minister will say, first, that the appointed day shall not be later than—whatever he agrees to suggest; and, secondly, that he will do his utmost to bring it even further forward, I think he can justifiably ask us to give him a blank cheque in respect of the appointed day, as laid down in this Clause. If not, I think we should be justified—although I am quite sure that my hon. Friends would hesitate to do so—in refusing him such a large measure of power.
§ Mr. G. M. Thomson (Dundee, East)
The more I have listened to the discussion the more unsatisfactory this Clause appears to be. The central point in all our controversy over this Bill, and in the discussions which have preceded it, has been the date on which the increase in basic pension should be payable. Here, because of the nature of the Clause, we are presented with the astonishing position in which it becomes very difficult to demand from the Minister that a particular day be fixed.
I listened very closely to the interesting revelations of my hon. Frend the Member for Droylsden (Mr. W. R. Williams) about the position of the trade unions. I found the Minister's replies extremely inadequate. It seems to me that what the Government have been trying to do is to suggest to the country that the real obstacle to an early increase in the basic pension has been not the Government but the workers—the trade unions—concerned. My hon. Friend's speech should have very effectively disposed of that. There is no doubt at all that the only reason why an immediate increase is not being given is a lack of will on the part of the Government, and not a lack of willingness on the part of the workers—however great the inconvenience—to try to make an earlier increase possible.
I very much regret that this Clause gives no indication that the Minister was willing to follow a suggestion which I made in a Question some weeks ago. It was then being stated by the Government that the only reason for not giving the increase in time for Christmas was administrative difficulty; I suggested that, if that was the reason, and if the increase could not be given across the counter efficiently before that, he might arrange to back-date the increase to Christmas. That, of course, he turned 1501 down. He did so on the ground that it interfered with the insurance principle.
During the course of this Bill we have had a number of discussions as to whether or not this is an insurance system. Hon. Members opposite, as well as those on this side, have begged leave to doubt how much of a system of insurance it is. I would draw a distinction between the contributory and the insurance principles. If the Government had been really willing to meet the real difficulties—the hardships—of our old people in time for Christmas this year, then, in the context of the Bill, they should have found a means of doing it by fixing the appointed day at Christmas, 1954, instead of, as is likely, finally fixing it for April, 1955.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams
Although there are a number of points I should like to make, I do not wish to prolong the debate. I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary just one question. Is he aware that, at the end of my speech, I said that, on 15th October, the unions concerned in the discussions of 7th October made it clear to the Post Office that they had no desire to press for any arrangement which would unduly delay the implementation of a Government decision to increase pensions and allowances, and, for this reason… would be prepared to accept your proposals despite the difficulties and inconveniences which will undoubtedly arise for our people.Was he aware of that? If he was not aware of it, what would his views have been had be been aware of it?
§ 9.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Houghton
I wish to object to the Clause standing part of the Bill. I do so on the ground that the Minister is not the proper person to have these powers put into his hands. I think he is an unfit person because he has an insufficient sense of responsibility, because he is lacking in a sense of urgency, and because he lacks the power of bold decision. I think that that is a strong indictment of the Minister, and if the Committee approves it, it is quite clear we ought not to allow the Clause to stand part of the Bill. I do not think it would do much harm to the Bill if we rejected the Clause, because the Government would have to think it over and come back with a better one.
1502 I think the Minister has made clear that he is lacking in a sense of responsibility by his allowing the Parliamentary Secretary to cast some responsibility, which was apparently unjustly cast, upon the trade unions for impeding progress in regard to the payment of these benefits. The Parliamentary Secretary suggested that the unions were not as forthcoming as he had hoped they would have been. He gave the impression that the Civil Service unions had behaved quite contrary to the traditions of the public service, and that the Minister had failed to do anything about it. He said:We have pressed the trade unions as hard as we could, and we ought to thank them for the way in which they met us on 'his problem."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th December. 1954; Vol. 535. c. 1145.]The Minister undoubtedly thrust upon the trade unions a responsibility which he should not have thrust upon them and should not have allowed them to carry. The Minister, if he was having any trouble with the unions, should have told the House frankly what the difficulty was. He would then have been fortified and assisted in any action he thought it necessary to take. What this discussion has shown is that the Civil Service trade unions, and, in particular, the Union of Post Office Workers, can be completely exonerated from any suggestion that they put a brake on the Minister's action or failed in any way to co-operate in the fulfilment of his desires. Having dismissed the unions from this, we find the charge of a lack of responsibility must rest fairly and squarely on the Minister.
He lacks a sense of urgency. If he had felt a sense of urgency in this matter he would not have mentioned the date of the last week in April as that from which these benefits will be paid. He owes it to the Committee to explain why it takes so long to do the job, and to explain the steps he has taken to cut down the timetable and so to get the benefits into the hands of the old-age pensioners earlier than the apparent time-table.
The Minister has shown a want of bold decision. Here is an emergency operation, which it surely should not be beyond the wit of the Government to get through in a shorter time than that proposed. Nobody can understand why it takes until the last week in April to do 1503 this job, and nobody has satisfactorily explained the reason for it. I charge the Minister with lack of the power of bold decision. He is clearly unfit to carry the responsibility which this Clause would put upon him, and I object to it.
§ Dr. Summerskill
I have every sympathy with the objection of my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton to giving the Minister power to make an appointed day and I endorse what my hon. Friend has already said. It is quite clear that the Minister lacks a sense of urgency, and I believe that he has also shown that he is incapable of taking the initiative. I want him to tell the Committee precisely what he is prepared to do to bring the appointed day forward.
I devoted some time on Second Reading to the question of timing, but I must remind the Minister why he has had to endure such harsh comments from this side of the Committee during the last five minutes. Surely, it is all justified. He will recall that the first promise was given to the House of Commons on 19th March of this year—a half-promise certainly—that pensioners would have their pensions increased. We waited patiently. I remember that the Minister's former Parliamentary Secretary charged me with being the only contentious voice in the debate. He said that everybody else was prepared to accept his promise, but I was not. But it seems to me that my suspicions were justified.
Then we waited for the Budget, which came within three weeks after the first promise was made. Again, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that he was very sympathetic and that if only we were patient for a few months longer something would be done. We sat back. Winter passed to spring and spring to summer. July came and we put a Motion of censure on the Order Paper. I thought that the Minister was then sympathetic. Indeed, he accepted it. Then came the Conservative Party Conference. Does the right hon. Gentleman recall what was said at that conference, when he made the most sympathetic noises from the platform? I saw him on television bend forward and at least indicate that he was sympathetic towards these proposals. Again, nothing happened and we were compelled to place on the Order Paper 1504 another Motion of censure at the end of last Session. It was quite clear by then that back benchers opposite were feeling very strongly about the matter. They compelled the Minister to take action.
There was evidence of that, because the Minister will recall that a very special meeting was held upstairs and that the Prime Minister found it necessary to attend that meeting to quell a revolt on the back benches. This is the record which we are condemning from this side of the Committee and this is why we are now suspicious that the Minister has no intention of bringing the date forward. That is why we are having to speak strongly. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us precisely what he intends to do so that old-age pensioners shall have these pensions a little earlier than the end of April or the beginning of May? If he does that, he will satisfy us.
§ Mr. Peake
I apologise for not having heard the whole of the discussion on this Question, but I had to leave the Chamber to obtain a little necessary refreshment. I wish to say at once in response to what the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) said, that I take full responsibility for the time-table. I do not propose for a moment to pass any responsibility for the administrative difficulties on to anybody else's shoulders. I know what an enormous operation it is.
I remember the administrative breakdown in 1946. It was true that there was not the network of local offices which we have established today. I also recall the length of time which it took to carry out a much smaller operation in 1951, when an improvement in pensions was announced in the middle of April and was not fully effected until 1st October.
I prophesied, when the Motion of censure was moved a month ago by the Opposition, that when I made my proposals they would complain, naturally, that they were too little and too late. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] They have not at any rate complained that they are too little, so that they are driven back on to the proposition that they are too late. I do not think we need go over all that ground today. What I am doing in bringing these proposals forward is acting under the statutory obligation imposed by Section 40 of the 1946 Act, which was carried by the then Labour Government.
1505 I have told the Committee that if everything goes well we shall get the retirement pension improvements into operation in the last week in April. We have got other things to do before that. There will be improvements in the National Assistance payments which are going to come into force in the first week in February, and improvements in the war disability pensions.
§ Mr. J. Griffiths
We are for the moment discussing the appointed day for the purposes of increases under this Bill, but the increases granted by the Assistance Board will be done by a separate organisation entirely.
§ Mr. Peake
Also it will take place at a much more difficult time of the year, when my office staffs are depleted by sickness, and when they are overwhelmed very often by sickness claims which have to be dealt with expeditiously We shall be carrying this operation out in a much more difficult time of the year than the operation carried out by the right hon. Lady in the summer of 1951. I certainly do not intend to adopt a timetable which would involve a serious risk of a complete breakdown. Nothing could be more tragic from the point of view of old-age pensioners than to be promised something on a given date and then not to receive it.
I, therefore, adhere to my statement that it will be the last week in April before the new retirement pensions come into operation, and that depends on us making the progress which I think we all want to make with the Bill now before the Committee. After it becomes law, there is a great deal of work to be done in the making of regulations and so forth. I adhere to the time-table, and I invite the Committee to accept this Clause, which enables me to fix the appointed days for the different new benefits to come into operation. The Committee would be taking a very grave risk if it were to delete this Clause from the Bill.
§ Mr. J. Griffiths
On many occasions the Minister has recalled what happened in 1946 and I accept full responsibility for that. But let me put this to the right hon. Gentleman. In 1946 we had no organisation whatsoever because it was scattered all over the country. In spite of that many pensions were paid on time. Some were not, but, eventually, the pensioners got them. Now there is an organisation with a head office in London, a magnificent office in Newcastle, none of which the right hon. Gentleman created, 13 regional offices all over the country and 1,000 local offices.
We are now told that it will take four months before the pensioners receive these increases. I am very disappointed that this organisation, of which I think we have every right to be proud and particularly of the men who serve in it and in whom I have very great confidence, cannot bring into operation in less than five months the scheme of improved benefits.
There is nothing to prevent the Minister ordering the new books now. He knows that this Bill will go through this House and that the other place is not likely to throw it out. Indeed, I expect that new books have been ordered already, which means that we are taking more than five months to bring the new payments into operation. I am profoundly disappointed that this magnificent machine which we have built up cannot operate more quickly. Indeed, I find it difficult to believe that.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ Mr. H. Hynd
We have had a series of excuses about the delay in paying these increases. Only a short time ago the Minister told the House that, if the old-age pensioners really needed the money, emergency action could and would have been taken, but that in his opinion they were not in dire need. Since then we have been told first, that the administrative machinery was such that it would require several months. Then we had the excuse that it was the trade unions, which were the stumbling block.
Tonight, we have had two more excuses: first, possible sickness in his Department and, secondly, that regulations cannot start to be drafted until after the Bill goes on to the Statute 1507 Book. On that last point, if the Department has not started to put those regulations into draft it is high time this was done, because it is obvious that the Minister will not make many concessions in the course of the Bill, and the Department ought to have a rough idea what the Bill will look like by the time it reaches the Statute Book.
On the second but last excuse about possible sickness in the Department, supposing that sickness is not as bad as the right hon. Gentleman thinks it might be, is he not now in a position to say that in this event he may be able to bring the date slightly forward. He has not even said that he will try to do so. Would he not at least say that?
§ Mr. Cyril Bence (Dunbartonshire, East)
I was struck by the suggestion made by the Minister that it would be a frightful thing to make a promise to the old-age pensioners that the new pension would be paid on 1st January and then for the machinery not to be ready to pay them. I agree that would be a terrible thing. In the trade union movement, however, in negotiations with employers on increases in wages, it has been known—and I believe it has been known in the House—for it to be possible to make a decision that certain increases would be paid on a specific date, and that they would be back-dated to when the decision was taken. I suggest that the Minister should tell the old people of this country that they will receive the increases in their benefits from 1st January, and that he should explain to them that, if the machinery is not ready, it may be that they will be paid in the last week in April, but that they will get back pay from 1st January. Could he do that?
§ Mr. M. Turner-Samuels (Gloucester)
It is very difficult, sitting here and listening to the Minister, to believe that this is an adult assembly. The reasons, or the lack of reasons, which he has attempted to put over to this side of the Committee—no doubt being confident that his own side will swallow them—are more fit for a nursery than for a deliberative assembly. Does the Minister ask us to accept the position that, having conceded increases in pensions, there is any difficulty in making those increases effective immediately, except lack of the will to do so.
1508 Here the Minister has a structure that has been built up, and is operating at the present moment over the precise field that these increases will cover. It is not too much to say that the payment of the increases would be part and parcel of, and concurrent with, the action which his Ministry is taking at the moment for the payment of pensions. The truth is that the difficulty is not in paying out the money; the trouble is that the Treasury will not give the Ministry the money to pay out.
It is no use whatever the Minister trying to put over this piece of sheer humbug, saying that he cannot pay the money until April. He could pay the money very quickly indeed. I doubt whether there is need for any delay whatever. All the Minister would have to do would be to put into the packets for the retirement pensioners the little extra that they are to have. For him to tell the Committee that with the machinery that he already has it will take four months is not only ludicrous, but completely wrong.
§ Mrs. Jean Mann (Coatbridge and Airdrie)
This welcome Measure has been introduced very quickly. At the time of the Budget we expected something like this, but the Chancellor told us that he must await the Report of the Phillips Committee. The Bill was ready before we had the Report, so we can congratulate the Minister upon some measure of speed. It will be nice at Christmas to know that the old people are to be so much better off.
However, I have a family of doctors, and they constantly tell me that the dangerous months for babies and old people are January, February and, particularly March. Cannot the right hon. Gentleman out of the goodness of his heart—[An HON. MEMBER: "Goodness? "I—everybody has some goodness in his heart—advance the date of payment a little, even to the beginning of March? If it is not to be until the end of April, the snows will have melted and the spring will be here and the need for coal and electricity will not be so clamant, although the money will be welcome; but if the old people could get the increase in March or at the end of February it would pay some of their bills for heat and light, and it would help them in other ways, because 1509 we must remember that the mortality rate among the elderly is highest in March.
I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman. I know quite well that he has a kind streak in his make-up. If he realised how much it meant to the old people he would put on a spurt, becauseHe gives twice who gives quickly.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.