HC Deb 21 December 1954 vol 535 cc2644-88

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [20th December], That the Draft National Assistance (Determination of Need) Amendment Regulations, 1954, a copy of which was laid before this House on 1st December, be approved.

Question again proposed.

5.45 p.m.

Mr. Harold Wilson (Huyton)

I do not apologise for bringing the attention of the House back to the consideration of the position of a very large number of people who have no banking accounts and are not concerned with signatures on the backs of cheques, but who are much more concerned where the next meal is to come from. Even at this late hour it is right that we should continue to debate these National Assistance Regulations, because I can think of no more urgent matter for debate—not after but before the Recess.

We had a good debate yesterday, during which the speeches of my hon. Friends proved conclusively how miserable and inadequate are the proposals put forward by the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance. Most hon. Members opposite skated round the subject of the inadequacy of the increases. What I thought remarkable was the fact that neither from any back bench Member opposite nor from the Joint Parliamentary Secretary—in his extremely slight and perfunctory commendation of these scales—did we have an answer to the two main questions in the minds of hon. Members on this side of the House. We want to know, first, why the increase is limited to 2s. 6d. and, secondly, why those people who, on everyone's admission, are the worst off will get the least help? I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will answer those questions tonight.

The Government have been trying to justify this very small increase in the National Assistance scales by referring to the Interim Index of Retail Prices. As far as I know, the only argument put forward by them is that the increase in Assistance scales equals the increase in the cost-of-living index. The best comment upon the Government's attitude to the problem of old-age pensioners was that made by one of our most notable cartoonists, Vicky, who portrayed the Minister of Food as a latterday Marie Antoinette, saying, of the old-age pensioners, "If they cannot afford bread, let them eat statistics." The one piece of humanity which we can attribute to the right hon. Gentleman is that the statistics which he serves up to the old-age pensioners are not served raw but are invariably cooked beforehand.

If one looks at the figures contained in the Interim Index of Retail Prices, it must be conceded to the right hon. Gentleman—there is no doubt that he will be including it in his speech—that the Index has increased in total by 6.6 per cent. since April, 1952, when the last National Assistance Regulations were moved in the House, whereas, under these proposals, the scale for a single person is up by 6.8 per cent. and for a married couple by 7.1 per cent. I have no doubt that the Government will claim that the increase in these scales, expressed as a percentage, is slightly better than the increase shown in the Interim Index of Retail Prices.

When I see some of the propaganda circulated by the Conservative Central Office in the constituencies, especially in those where there is a pending by-election, I am reminded of the truth of the ancient adage that "Figures cannot lie, but liars can figure." There is no part of the statistical picture where this is more true than this question of the cost of living and its relation to pensions, because I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree that it is quite inappropriate to take the general cost-of-living index for measuring the cost of living of the old-age pensioners.

Therefore, I hope that he will not use that argument tonight, but, if he does, I think he will be in some difficulty, because when last the House debated the National Assistance Regulations in April, 1952, we had a speech by the then Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of National Insurance, who has recently been translated to the Foreign Office, a translation which has been widely welcomed, and not least by the old-age pensioners. The hon. Gentleman said it was quite inappropriate to use the cost-of-living index in relation to Assistance scales, and continued: … I would remind the House that these scale rates are supplemented by a rent allowance, and, therefore, in dealing with the impact of the cost of living, it is not the all-item index that is relevant, but the specific indices for food, clothing, fuel and light and household goods."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th April, 1952; Vol. 499, c. 1364.] I think it is right to ask what has been the percentage increase in the cost of living since the scales were last increased in April, 1952. If we take food items alone, we find that they increased by 11.2 per cent., which is considerably more than the percentage by which the right hon. Gentleman has increased the scales. If we take fuel and light, which occupy a very important part in the budget of any old-age pensioner, we find that they have increased by 8.4 per cent., which is again more than the increase in the scales. But, of course, even these are average figures, and I can only use Government statistics. I wish we had better statistics about the cost of living position of the old-age pensioners.

If we take the figures from the Government's own published statistics, we find that bread and flour increased by 3.5 per cent. from April, 1952; meat, bacon, ham and fish, taken as a group, have increased by 11 per cent.; milk, cheese and eggs by 13 per cent.; butter, margarine and cooking fat by 34 per cent.; and tea and sugar by 48 per cent., since the last increases were made in these Assistance Board's scales. These are figures relating to last October, and take no account of the most recent increases which have been announced in the price of tea, which will put up that cost-of-living index figure by more than 50 per cent. Against that, we have these Assistance scales proposing an increase of 2s. 6d. for a single person.

In the last day or two, I have been studying some of the actual cost-of-living budgets of old-age pensioners on Merseyside. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has really studied any of these budgets himself, but I know that many have been submitted to him. If he has studied them, it will be quite impossible for him to commend this miserable increase of 2s. 6d. One thing that came out of these budgets were the figures of the cost of the food bought by old-age pensioners in Liverpool. An average was taken of the food consumption of old-age pensioners, and these goods were priced in the local shops in Liverpool. They showed that food bought in 1952 for an expenditure of 14s. 4¾d. cost 15s. 8½d. in 1953 and 18s. 4d. in 1954—an increase of about 4s. for an average old-age pensioner in his food costs since 1952, when the right hon. Gentleman last increased these scales.

The Interim Index of Retail Prices is quite irrelevant to our needs. We see that it allows for about 400 points for food out of a total of 928 points, whereas we know that most people on National Assistance spend far more than half their income on food and fuel. I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that, before the House can commend any further scales as adequate, it is about time that the Government did some research into the real living conditions of the old-age pensioners and produced for the benefit of the House a cost-of-living index based on the actual consumption of the old-age pensioners. If we had such an index, we should find that the cost of living has gone up a very great deal more than is suggested by these Regulations.

The next question the House must ask is why it is that the scales proposed in these Regulations provide for a smaller increase than was given in the pensions increases which we debated a couple of weeks ago. In 1951, the same increases were given on Assistance as on pensions, and in 1952 the Government gave more on National Assistance scales than on basic pensions. Yet now, in 1954, when the need is greater, they give less on National Assistance.

I know that the Government have tried to justify what they have done by producing figures showing that, as compared with 1946 or 1948, Assistance Board payments have increased more in percentage than have pensions, and that it is time to even them up. I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that this is an utterly bogus argument. Surely, we all agreed last July, when we debated a Motion of censure relating to old-age pensioners, that there was considerable hardship in the country, especially though not entirely among the old-age pensioners, and, if we are all agreed that there was hardship, no one could deny that the greatest hardship was in the case of those people who were in receipt of National Assistance.

Therefore, if we were all agreed in July that those on National Assistance were in the worst position and were suffering the gravest hardship, why, in heaven's name, has the right hon. Gentleman given them the smallest increase? That is the question to which we shall want an answer this evening, and I am surprised that that point was not dealt with in the very perfunctory introduction of these Regulations by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary.

We should like to know, roughly speaking, how many of all those on National Assistance will get only 2s. 6d. Some figures have already been given to the House by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham, West (Dr. Summerskill), and I want to know whether the Government accept these figures. Let us take the case of retirement pensioners, of whom there are about 1 million on National Assistance. About 800,000 of these will be only 2s. 6d. per week better off, about 130,000, it is estimated, will get between 2s. 6d. and 5s., and the remaining 70,000 will get between 5s. and 7s. 6d. That means that the greater proportion will get only 2s. 6d.

If we take the case of the widows, there are 95,000 drawing supplementation, and it is estimated that 81,000 will get 2s. 6d., that 8,000 will get between 2s. 6d. and 5s. and that 6,000 will get between 5s. and 7s. 6d. Taking the recipients of sick benefit, there are 141,000 drawing supplementation, and about 123,000 will receive 2s. 6d., 10,000 will get from 2s. 6d. to 5s. and 8,000 will get between 5s. and 7s. 6d. On top of these, there are about half a million others, non-contributory old-age pensioners and various other groups who were not in receipt of any other pensions or benefits, and most of these will gain only 2s. 6d.

As we know, and as my right hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) pointed out yesterday, those who have other sources of income than superannuation or who have private means will get the full 7s. 6d., whereas the 1 million people to whom I have referred as being in the worst position will get only 2s. 6d. Does the Minister deny this position? My hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) yesterday quoted from an article in the "Economist" of 11th December, and this is what it said: There is no doubt that almost all the cases of real hardship are to be found among these one and a half million people, and that it will be only very barely relieved. The article goes on to quote some complacent averages which were received with satisfaction, no doubt, by the Marie Antoinettes of the Ministry of Food and the Bourbons of the Treasury, and continues: These averages undoubtedly and cruelly disguise some real cases of hardship; but, once again, it must be emphasised that it is precisely those cases of hardship that the new Pensions Bill will do least to relieve. The truth is that the Government are so dazzled by their own political propaganda that they are blinded to the extent to which poverty still exists in the country and to the fact that this poverty is still growing. I remember listening entranced a fortnight ago, during the economic debate, to the speech of the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. He was giving us all the indices of economic expansion and was getting enthusiastic about the Stock Exchange boom through which we are going. A few days later, going to my constituency, I was appalled at the amount of real poverty shown, not only by old-age pensioners but by others.

This poverty was shown by some of the people who had been waiting for years to move out to a new housing estate. Almost every one of the people who came to my "surgery" said, "We can't afford to live here. Can you get us transferred back to Liverpool?" The people in that very beautiful housing estate, because of poverty under this Government, wanted nothing better than to be transferred back to overcrowding or to the slums, where they could at least know where the next meal was coming from. That is the position the Government have entirely disguised and hidden from this House.

It is very difficult to get authentic, official figures about the position. I should like to refer to some very valuable studies which have been recently made by a private social investigator, and published in a series of articles in the "New Statesman and Nation." They cover a very detailed survey of the poverty in the constituency of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for St. Helens (Sir H. Shawcross). This survey showed that about one-tenth of the people are living in the poverty zone; that is, either on or just below the poverty line.

The investigator took the Rowntree standards, with which we are familiar in the great sociological work of the late Seebohm Rowntree. Everyone will agree that those standards were very restricted and stringent. Certainly, no hon. Member would like to live for very long on those standards. The investigator took those standards, and made allowances for the increased cost of food since the Rowntree figures were calculated. He compared them with the National Assistance Board's rates in 1954. Those rates, before these Regulations were put forward, were 12s. below the Rowntree minimum standard, thus adjusted, for a man. They were 16s. below the Rowntree subsistence level for a man and his wife, 26s. below for a couple with one child, 30s. below for a couple with two children and 39s. for a couple with four children. These people are the new submerged tenth of the population that the Government have done so much to ignore.

Perhaps the tragedy of these lives is that they go on to a very large extent in secrecy, in privacy, almost concealed behind lace curtains in back streets. Because we do not hear or read very much about them, the Minister is satisfied to give them only 2s. 6d. a week, and in some cases not that. I have been studying many individual budgets from Liverpool. I wish other hon. Members could see them, although I think all of us have been studying these budgets from our own constituencies. I was appalled to see the report published in a medical journal and written by two Liverpool doctors, saying—and this is very recent—that 39 cases had been admitted into hospital due to malnutrition, to illness due to lack of sufficient money and to similarity of diet. The doctors concluded that if less than 12s. 6d. per week was spent on food, malnutrition would result.

That was last year. We know that the cost of living has gone up since last year, and we can certainly say that if less than 14s. a week is spent on food, malnutrition must be the consequence. I have looked at 34 budgets, and in 14 of them, less than 14s. was being allowed for food; 12 out of these cases were of married couples.

We cannot begin to decide whether these Assistance scales are adequate without looking at one or two individual cases. Those I shall take are well-authenticated and have been published and open to challenge. They have never been challenged, so far as I know. Every hon. Member on this side of the House, and probably one or two Members on the Government side, can support these illustrations from their own constituencies. The four cases I shall take are all from the inquiry to which I have referred. The details of them were published earlier this year in the "New Statesman and Nation."

The first case relates to a couple who live in a four-roomed house, old-age pensioners over 70. They have neither savings nor children on whom they can fall back for help. The man has been a miner. He told the investigator that he had been out of work for a total of seven years between the wars. That was a common experience in St. Helens. He pointed to the relatively new furniture in the parlour, and said, "I would not even have a decent home if I had not had a steady job during the war. I would be working yet, only my heart won't stand up to it." Their total income is £3 16s. 6d. a week. Their pension is £2 14s., and the National Assistance Board gives them an additional 22s. 6d.

I have their budget, and I challenge any hon. Member to quarrel with any item in the budget as excessive or unnecessary. It shows rent, 12s. 6d.; coal and light, 7s. 6d.; insurance, Is. 6d.; newspapers, 1s. 3d.; sweets and tobacco for two people for a whole week, 3s. 6d.; clothing club, 5s.; other clothes, including shoe repairs, 2s. 6d.; household sundries, 6s. 3d; and football and cinema—I hope that no one will begrudge them this sum for visits to football or the cinema in the course of a week—3s.

All this adds up to 43s. If there is anything excessive in that budget, perhaps hon. Gentlemen will tell us about it. This leaves them with 33s. 6d. a week for all food for two people, for any extras such as saving up for Christmas or for special outings, or buying anything for the house such as sheets, blankets and pots and pans, or whatever it may be. The investigator said that neither of them complained that they did not get enough to eat. The wife said, rather wistfully, "We don't need teaching how to manage." Her husband chimed in to say, "Once you've been on the dole, you're used to going without."

The plain fact is that these two people were spending less on food than would buy them the minimum diet which Seebohm Rowntree estimated provided the British Medical Association level of adequate nutrition. They were spending less than the 17s. per head on food which the National Food Survey, in 1951, showed was the average of old-age pensioners; since when food prices have risen by one-third. That is one case.

The second case is of a woman living alone. She is 76 and infirm and needs a home help for six hours a week to keep her house clean and to do her washing. Most of her shopping is done for her by neighbours. Her income is 50s. a week. Her only luxuries are sweets, for which she allows herself 2s. 6d. a week, and a wireless on which she is still paying instalments of 3s. a week. I do not think any hon. Member opposite will regard that as excessive spending. Even so, after paying for essentials, she has only about 18s. a week for her food and for any extras.

Recently, this woman needed a new blanket. She could not afford it, and it had to be given to her by one of the voluntary organisations. She buys no butter or cooking fat, but gets a lump of suet from the butcher. For breakfast she has a cup of tea and stays in bed until mid-day. Her lunch most days is an orange, bread and jam and biscuits. She said to the journalist who wrote these articles, "If I'm rich, I have a fried egg and chips." A neighbour's boy usually fetches fish and chips for her tea. This costs her 5s. a week, and she gives the boy another 6d. About twice a month a friend comes on Sundays and cooks a small roast or a stew. "This old lady," said the journalist, "was proud. Her home was small and neat, but she was living in poverty." On those figures, does anyone suggest that there was wasteful expenditure or anything that could have been cut down?

There was a third case, where the persons interviewed said, "If we eat as we should like, we can't make ends meet." Another said, "If it's a question of coal or food, in winter we pay for the coal." A third pointed to his patched suit and to the shoes he had rather clumsily repaired for himself. "Do the politicians who fix our pensions know how we live?" he asked. "Have they ever had to stop buying newspapers for a month to pay for soles for their boots?" One of them had an apt phrase. He said, "No, you can't say that we don't know where our next meal is coming from. Things aren't that bad. But sometimes we go without the next meal."

The fourth case that I want to quote relates to a widow. We all know that the extent of hardship here is perhaps worse than in any other section of those who are on National Assistance. Here is a woman of 42. Since her husband died last year, she has been supporting herself and two children by part-time office cleaning for which she is paid £2 12s. 6d. a week. Her widowed mother's allowance, plus one family allowance and a payment of 2s. 6d. for the elder child, bring her a total income of 106s., which, the Minister would probably feel, is not too bad.

She had worked out a rudimentary budget, and she said, "Unless I've got this to go by, I just can't make the money go round." She kept four pots in a cupboard into which she put her income at the week-end. This is how the pots were divided: House 42s.; of this 17s. goes on rent. 7s. on coal, 4s. electricity, 5s. hire purchase, 2s. 6d. insurance, and the rest on household sundries. For herself 10s. a week is allowed. Fares are 2s. 6d.; a packet of cigarettes a week, which is all she has, costs 2s. 7d.—not the most expensive brand—and one visit to the cinema costs 1s. 5d. She sets aside 4s. for incidentals, such as cups of tea at work, stockings and underclothes.

The report says that she had spent nothing on dresses, coats or shoes since her husband died, and was unable to make any provision for them. She provided 12s. for her children. She paid 7s. 6d. of this into a clothing club, but she finds that this is insufficient to keep pace with wear and tear on the children's clothes, and we all know how hard this is. Shoe repairs were allocated another 1s. 6d., which I should have thought was inadequate, sweets 1s. 6d., and she tried to put 2s. 6d. a week aside for day trips to the sea in summer and other amusements. The children got free meals and milk at school. A fourth pot was for food, and into this she put 42s. a week for herself and her two children.

That is a picture of someone living in this modern Welfare State in a period of this Tory boom. There is a woman who is keeping herself and her two children with the most careful housekeeping on 42s. a week—14s. a week for each of them for food. So far she has done this because it is only a year since her husband died and she is still living on the household equipment of the past. The report states that with every month which passes she slides deeper into poverty. She still has a nice home, the children are kept neat and the family have enough to eat. She said, "If I thought the kiddies were going short, I'd give up my cigarettes and cinema. But that's all I have for myself these days." One fear dominates her mind: "What will happen if I become sick?"

I do not apologise for having given those four examples. I am sure that all hon. Members on this side of the Home could have given 400 more from their constituencies. Surely the Government will not deny that these are fully authenticated cases, representative of a considerable and significant section of our fellow human beings for whom we in this House have a responsibility. They are the conditions of life for hundreds of thousands in the year 1954 of the Christian era. These are the forgotten men and women of the Tory Stock Exchange boom.

We recently debated fair shares in this House. Since the National Assistance Board scales were last debated, the national income of this country has gone up by £2,500 million or £3,000 million, and is increasing by about £1,000 million every year. We are gaining through the continual progress in national production. We are gaining £600 million a year through the favourable turn in the terms of trade, and with all this wealth, with about £2,500 million to £3,000 million more to dispose of as our social dividend, all the Minister can offer to the people who are in worse poverty is this miserable 2s. 6d. a week.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Gaitskell) gave the figures covering this year only, not the whole of the period since April, 1952, showing that profits have increased this year by 10 per cent., dividends by 20 per cent., capital values, tax-free, by 40 per cent.—and all this after the previous increases in 1953 and 1952. All the right hon. Gentleman can offer is 2s. 6d. a week to those who are in most need. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Government have decided, as a matter of policy, to discriminate against the recipients of National Assistance Board payments. They have had plenty of time to think about this. I know we have had this charade about waiting for the quinquennial review, the Phillips Committee Report and all the rest of it, but the Government have had plenty of time to consider the position of recipients of Assistance Board payments.

I have a feeling that the Government and their supporters—this attitude seemed to creep into their speeches yesterday—consider that those who are on National Assistance are in some way less respectable than those who are getting their pensions, as they say, as of right. My hon. Friends and I fear that the Government are building up a position of less eligibility for those on Assistance, harking back to the social philosophy of the old ideas of parish relief, the old Poor Law and all the rest of it. There is just a slight suggestion—and I hope the Minister will go out of his way to remove this suspicion—that there is in the minds of hon. Members opposite this Victorian idea that those in the worst poverty are there by some cause of their own, through their own fecklessness and their own unwillingness to work.

I appeal to the Government to think again. We ought to ask them to take these Regulations back tonight before it is too late, and not to put them through. After all, other things can wait until 25th January. Why cannot these wait, and why cannot the Government bring forward decent Regulations which at least match the increase in old-age and other pensions? Indeed, in my view, they ought to go considerably beyond. If they are not going to do that, at least let us have from them a clear statement of their policy about Assistance Board payments. Let them at least tell us tonight, if they admit that hardship exists, has existed all this year and has been worst among the recipients of Assistance Board payments, why, in these proposals, after all the trumpeting at West Derby and elsewhere, the least of all is done for those on National Assistance.

We cannot vote against these Regulations. We cannot be in the position of denying even this measly increase to those who are on National Assistance. Obviously, we must vote for any increase, however small, but responsibility for plunging these people, as the months go by and the cost of living rises, further into poverty, lies with the Government.

Earlier today the House showed a certain end-of-term hilarity, but there is no hilarity among those of us who have stayed to debate these Regulations. When the House adjourns tomorrow many of us will leave with very heavy hearts, regretting that we have not been able to do more for those who are in the greatest need. Thanks to the Government's in excusable callousness and political cynicism in postponing the pensions increases, hundreds of thousands of old-age pensioners and others are this year facing a very bleak Christmas, and thanks to these niggardly Assistance scales they will be facing an even bleaker New Year.

6.21 p.m.

Mr. Jack Jones (Rotherham)

I intend to be brief. The House has already spent time in dealing with important matters which are to be discussed after the Recess, but this is one of the matters which should be dealt with before the Recess. We should try to make what will be for most of us a reasonably happy Recess a slightly happier Christmas for those affected by the Regulations.

I am the president of a pensions association in my area, and I am thrown closely in touch with many pensioners. Some of them are much more fortunate than others. Some of them were able to "put by," as we say in Lancashire. Others were unable to do so. It is the generation which preserved our constitutional way of life that now suffers the worst. I refer to those men and women, mainly men, who came back from the 1914–18 war to find themselves unemployed or only partly employed and who could make no provision for their old age. When I hear Tories talking about the thriftless, the hopeless and the helpless, I know that there is an obvious retort.

Even pensioners themselves, who are to get the 7s. 6d. increase, are gravely concerned about the plight of their less fortunate pensioner brothers and sisters. We are concerned about the question of this half-a-crown. I listened to the Minister after the television programme last Saturday night, and I have yet to hear a person who was as satisfied with what he was about to do as the Minister appeared to be during that broadcast. But he did not tell the whole story. He did not tell the country that the very worst hit were not to get even the half-a-crown.

Last Saturday I was in my constituency, and in the course of my business I visited the home of an 80-year-old pensioner. She was attempting to whitewash the kitchen ceiling—at 80 years of age! She had a step ladder, a whitewash brush and some whitewash, trying to whitewash the ceiling. I asked why she was doing it and said, "You will kill yourself climbing about the place." She replied, "Well, Jack"—because they all call me "Jack" in my constituency—"I cannot afford to pay for it to be done. These days they ask as much as 3s. for a ceiling, and I cannot afford 3s."

She had a lodger, another pensioner, a good fellow, 72 years of age—one who served his country and his generation well, both in industry and in the trade union movement. When I left she was expressing the hope that somebody would invite him out on Christmas Day, because she did not know how she could provide a meal for him. She herself had been fortunate; a rather distant relative had asked her out for the day.

This Government are supposed to be ardent supporters of the trade union movement. They keep asking—and rightly so; I make no complaint about it—the great trade union movement to increase the national productivity, to increase the national wealth. I was talking the other day to another pensioner, an old bricklayer, and he said to me, "We are not getting a fair crack of the whip." I had already been to the National Assistance Board on Saturday morning, for I am in close contact with the Board. I am fortunate in that respect, for I know officials of the Board in my constituency and I am able to keep in close contact.

In passing, I want to pay tribute to the marvellous work done by these people at the Assistance Board. I have heard complaints about different officers in different parts of the country, but my experience has been that they are most humane and helpful, and, with the exception of when dealing with the odd "smart Alec" who thinks he should get something for nothing, they are the most humane people I have ever met in the course of my political and trade union career.

This trade unionist told me that he would he hard hit as a result of these Regulations, and I asked him to explain why. This was his reply. "When I was at work, I was an ardent supporter of my trade union and I paid my trade union contributions, so that when I ceased work I received a small amount of money from my trade union funds as superannuation." When he had exhausted his savings—he had not been able to save much—he went to the National Assistance Board. This is the strange position which arises—and it is perfectly true. This man has already been to the National Assistance Board to ask how he will stand under the new rates. The officials gave him the courteous attention which he has always received, and they told him that, as a result of the new Regulations, he would be 1s. a week better off. Because of the superannuation and because of a small pension from the firm, plus his ordinary National Insurance pension, he is near the limit, and when everything is taken into consideration, on the day appointed he will be 1s. better off than he was before.

Consider the case of the non-trade unionist—a fellow who did not pay his contribution, the fellow who was a nuisance in the works and often caused trouble. He does not get the superannuation from the trade union fund and he can go to the National Assistance Board. Because he does not receive this superannuation, because he was not a trade unionist but opposed what the union sought to do, he will get the half-a-crown.

It is a shocking state of affairs, but that is how it works out in practice. The fellow who did not pay his contributions to his trade union and who does not get superannuation is 1s. 6d. a week better off than the good fellow who helped to keep the wheels of industry turning and to keep strikes and other troubles away from industry. That is the sort of thing which the Minister forgot to tell the country in his broadcast. He would not know about it, but we are telling him now. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson) said, we cannot vote against these Regulations. But we can at least voice our protest.

Nothing at all has been done about the disregards. There are plenty of people in the country today, even in my own comparatively well-paid industry, the steel industry, who can put nothing by. Consider the position of the bottom dog, the labourer with a reasonably large family, or the man who is trying to build a better home and to give his children a decent education, the man with commitments; if he falls sick, he has no reserve on which he can fall back. In a short time such people have to go to the National Assistance Board, and under the new Regulations the disregards are not being touched at all. Therefore, those who are hardest hit—not what I call the steady regular pensionable person, but those who are hit because of accident or illness—are given nothing at all extra in disregards. The Government have not done the slightest thing about them, and we want to know why.

I promised to be brief. However these matters may appear on paper, or however they appeared to the Minister when he was speaking in his broadcast, in practice they will work out as I have told him. Let him go on the air again in 12 months time—with the one condition that one of us be allowed to follow him immediately—to state what the position is after these Regulations have been in operation.

I tell the Minister and the Government that this is wicked discrimination against the very poorest of the poor, those who are not poor because of sloth, indifference, or drink. I have not the slightest time for those who try to get something to which they are not entitled. In my constituency we would help officials to prosecute that type of person. On this side of the House we have always been against the individual who wants to get something for nothing.

Forgetting Christmas for a moment, we say in no uncertain terms that when this country is really prospering because of world forces and reduction in world prices, when profits have increased and the availability of wealth is at its highest possible point, at this moment of history the Minister seeks to give those who deserve the most the very least.

6.31 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Moyle (Oldbury and Halesowen)

We have reached a stage when we have some real assessment of the value of the contribution of the Government to relieve the needs of the poor. The pensionable section of the community have been dealt with and yesterday and today we are reviewing the draft Regulations affecting those who come within the scope of the needs determined by the National Assistance Board.

What does all the effort of the Government amount to concerning those subject to the provisions for increased pensions and the Regulations we are now considering? Two Ministers come out of this exceedingly well from a strictly financial point of view; I refer to the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance and to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. By the speech he made in the West Derby by-election they were committed by the Minister of Defence in his statement to the voters, if plain English means anything, which gave the people in need, the old-aged pensioners, a very definite impression that something effective would be done for them.

What is the result? The Minister of Pensions and National Insurance has been able to introduce increased pensions and increased scales for National Assistance. As a result of the way in which he has done that the Chancellor, who proposed to make a contribution towards the increased pensions of £21 million, gets away with a net contribution, when the new pensions operate in April, of about £9 million. That, I am advised, will be the extent of the contribution of the Chancellor on behalf of the Government when the full effect of the pensions is felt in April next year.

Yet the whole impression the Government have created is that they are responsible not merely for providing legislation and helping the National Assistance Board to increase its scales, but also for financing the increased expenditure on old-age pensions. Whereas the net cost to the Government is £9 million, the bulk of the old-age pensions will be defrayed by the insured workers to the extent of £50 million. The greater part will come from industry and that contribution is an on-cost on the joint efforts of those who work by hand or brain, or both. The Government get away with a mere expenditure of £9 million.

That explains why the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance came to the Box last week with a jaunty and unusually arrogant air. I say "unusually" because, when he was in Opposition, the right hon. Gentleman earned the regard arid respect of hon. Members on this side of the House and his arrogant air last week was unnatural. He was able to satisfy his hon. Friends that with all the increases in pensions and National Assistance rates the flow of the national dividend would still put relatively more into the pockets of the rich than into the pockets of the poorest of the community. Notwithstanding this programme of social improvement, it was done in such a way that, under the present Government, the rich will become richer and the poor poorer than they were under the Labour Government.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson) pointed out in his most effective and admirable speech, since 1952, according to the Government—for the purposes of making my point I accept it without the slightest qualification—the national income has gone up by £2,000 million, dividends have increased by 20 per cent. and profits by 10 per cent. Yet this is the meagre contribution which the Government are able to offer to the poorest section of the community.

I have gone through a whole body of figures relating to National Assistance. So far as I can see, when the new pensions come into operation the bulk of the pensioners will get a net increase of about 2s. and 4s. a week. The temporary advantage which will come their way on 7th February will disappear and the net result will be that they will be in the same position in April as they are now. I imagine that with the continuing increase in rents there will be a complete cancellation of the slight improvement for those who come within the scope of the National Assistance Board.

I want to say a word about what is known in the language of the National Assistance Board as disregards. The explanatory leaflet issued by the Board explains the disregards in connection with sick pay, workmen's compensation and superannuation, and deals with capital assets. I should have thought that the Minister could have whispered in the ear of the Chairman of the National Assistance Board, "Let us have a tidy administration on this adjustment. We suggest increasing the National Assistance scales to come within the range of the increases for pensions, but not to put them on the same level. Make them slightly less, than the pensions level. We are not doing too badly—financially, we have come out of this very well; but to tidy up the administration, we ought to get an adjustment in terms of the purchasing power of these disregards according to their value in 1946. We ought, therefore, to maintain the 1946 value in the present adjustment." But nothing whatever is being done towards this end, and the disregards remain precisely the same.

I should have thought that in the interests of tidy administration, and to give some sense of reality to his work in connection with the Assistance Board regulations, the Minister would advise adjusting the whole range of these payments, which affect the domestic economy of the people, and would, therefore, increase the value of those factors which are disregarded in the assessment of need by the National Assistance Board.

A pensioner may, if he wishes, remain at work after the age of 65. For every 26 weeks' stamps that he gets on his insurance card, he eventually receives an additional deferred payment of 1s. 6d.; in other words, on retirement he receives his pension plus 1s. 6d. for each additional 26 weeks that he has worked beyond the pensionable age. Some people remain at work for four or five years.

What astounded me was to find that while the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance encourages men and women to remain at work by giving them an accruing increment, determined by the number of years that they remain at work beyond pensionable age, he sends them to the National Assistance Board to consider whether they are deserving of assistance within the meaning of the Regulations. The poor pensioner finds that while he has been encouraged by the Minister to remain at work, he is depressed by the Chairman of the Assistance Board, for this increment, I am advised, is taken into account before a pensioner's need for National Assistance is determined. I ask the Minister to be good enough to whisper in the ear of the Chairman of the Board that that factor should be completely eliminated in deciding need for the pensioner who has sponsored his country's need by remaining at work.

Those of us who engage in canvassing at election time cannot fail to be impressed by the tragedy of loneliness among aged people. A report which I have been reading reveals that the number of people living entirely on their own has increased by 100 per cent. in the last 20 years. It is estimated that practically a million men and women are living entirely alone.

Their problem cannot be met merely by an increase in the scales, important though this might be. I ask the Minister, in conjunction with the Chairman of the Assistance Board, to see what can be done to empower all local authorities, without any distinction between county boroughs, urban district councils, borough councils or county authorities, to undertake work of a domiciliary nature, including the employment of health visitors, home nurses and the like, so that these people can be properly cared for and the problem of loneliness removed.

In this way, we can help the people not only economically, but socially, so that they may feel that in the eventide of their lives they still remain an important section of the community and are not forgotten, even though they may be living alone and no longer contributing to the economy of the nation. This is a matter that requires the immediate attention of the Government and of the whole nation, for loneliness among the aged is a tragic problem and one that should be remedied without delay.

6.47 p.m.

Mr. J. E. S. Simon (Middlesbrough, West)

It is pleasant to follow the hon. Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Moyle) because, however offensive are the things he finds it necessary to say in debate, the way he says them is invariably attractive and charming; and that we saw today. I did not propose to make a party political speech. On the other hand, I cannot forbear replying to two of the points the hon. Member made.

The hon. Member dealt with the advances in the rates as if they were niggardly. I cannot refrain from point- ing out that people on National Assistance, just as those on National Insurance, will be far better off than ever before.

Mr. William Warbey (Broxtowe)

What exactly does the hon. and learned Member mean by saying that those people will be far better off? Does he mean in monetary terms, or what?

Mr. Simon

I should have thought it would be understood by any hon. Member that it means that a person's standard of living would be higher. Whatever scale we use as a measure, the people who will be drawing National Assistance and those who will be drawing National Insurance payments will find themselves, in terms of the goods that they can purchase, better off than before. Whatever scale or standard one selects, that will be so.

The hon. Member for Oldbury and Halesowen referred to the proposals costing a mere £9 million. I cannot speak as to the actual cost, and I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Minister will deal with that in due course but however much the cost, we are, at any rate, entitled to say that we are effecting that advance and that it was not effected before.

As the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. Jack Jones) pointed out, the country is at present enjoying great prosperity. That cannot be entirely divorced from the action of the Government, particularly the action which they found it incumbent upon them to take on assuming office—action which was resolute and necessarily unpopular. The Government faced the position courageously. We have seen the turn in the tide of our affairs, and it is owing to that increase in prosperity that we are now able, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in one of his striking phrases, to bring those in the rearguard up into the main body in our advance forward towards a greater prosperity for the country as a whole.

The main question which arises, and which has been canvassed in the debate, is the relationship between the National Assistance payments and the National Insurance payments. Apart from any party point we may make on one side or the other, that is the crucial matter with which we have to grapple. It was referred to in striking terms, which threw great light on the subject, I thought, by the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) yesterday.

It is, of course, part of the problem of poverty. Poverty is relative. It is relative to the state which the community has reached at any particular time. It was not so very long ago in our history when the bulk of the community would have thought that the standard of living enjoyed by those among the poorest in our community, was a very high standard of living. It is not a matter only of mere subsistence, of the necessities of life. Not very long ago it was only kings, princes and nobles who could enjoy such amenities as music and drama, which are now—and we are very glad of this, and it is a matter on which we should reflect with pride when considering the state of our civilisation—open to those who are among the poorest in the land.

Coming to our time, I remember my mother telling me that, when she started her work among the poor in Kilburn, she found that in the poorest homes there it was nothing unusual—indeed, it was common—to see that the only bed furniture was a crate with some rags thrown over it. I have myself been in many homes in my constituency where I know that life bears very hardly on the families. However, it is a very different picture from that.

Equally we should remember that there are many communities in the world who are so near the starvation line that they are in constant danger of sinking below it. I have myself seen, admittedly during the war, in the streets of an Eastern city bodies of people who had died from starvation. So one must bear in mind that the problem is relative. But we have to see that the whole community advances, and that those who are the poorest in the community share in that advance; and we must also see that we do not limit our viewpoint entirely to our own country.

So the first problem, of course, is the problem of raising the general production of the community. It is the problem of seeing that there are more goods, of giving incentives to those who in industry are going to produce the goods that the rich and the poor will consume, the rich and the poor not only of this country but abroad. That is the fund out of which all these contributions are to be drawn. Having done that, we then surely seek to assist those who are the most pressed by the hardships of life.

I myself have seen in many cases in my own constituency a reluctance to go to the National Assistance Board. I know that that is a common experience, and I am sure that it will be agreed throughout the House that that reluctance arises from a misconception. I was very glad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Miss Ward) say yesterday that she regarded payments from National Assistance is a right. I think that that is generally agreed throughout the House.

I think it is fitting today, which is the 150th anniversary of Disraeli's birth, to call to mind that we in this party have a long tradition in the same viewpoint. I was looking only the other day at the first speech he made to the electors of Maidstone immediately before his election.

Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

What was his party then?

Mr. Simon

He was in the Tory Party, standing as a Tory and elected as a Tory, and he said, referring to the Poor Law Act of 1838: That Bill bears dreadful tidings for the poor.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

Whose Measure was it?

Mr. Simon

It was a Whig measure, a measure of the Whig doctrinaires of the time, of the Radicals of the time, and it was defended time and again by the Radicals and the Left Wingers of the time, Disraeli said: Its primary object is founded not only on a political blunder but on a moral error—it went by the principle that relief for the poor is charity. I maintain it is a right! Those were almost the same words as were used yesterday by my hon. Friend, speaking in the same great tradition.

So I think it cannot be too widely known, too widely understood, that recourse to National Assistance is as much a right on the part of those on whom misfortune has fallen as recourse to National Insurance payments. Nevertheless, there is a relationship to be drawn between the two. I think we are all agreed that indiscriminate help would defeat itself. That would mean wasting assets on those who do not need them instead of devoting them to those who really do need them. The way in which the great social security scheme was framed was that we envisaged that there were certain classes of the community inherently likely to suffer hardship. These classes were brought within the National Insurance Scheme, thus freeing them from the means test in affording them relief from their sufferings—such classes as the old people, the sick, the unemployed, and those with large families. The large families, of course, we help by the family allowances, the others come within the National Insurance Scheme. They are the classes so inherently likely to suffer hardship that we afford them relief without imposing a means test, partly, of course, for administrative convenience, partly because we want if possible to avoid the means test if we can do so, while at the same time not wasting our assets.

Nevertheless, as the hon. Member for Sowerby and my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Alport) pointed out yesterday, we cannot rely entirely on the National Insurance Scheme. There is then not sufficient flexibility. There may be sudden needs which require relief, and sudden needs over and above the best scales which could reasonably be given by the National Insurance Scheme, and it is for that reason that we still need a system of National Assistance.

There is another reason, too, why I think National Assistance has a very valuable part to play in our social security system, and that is that it does afford a means of having a continual movement forward of the poorest in the community, in line with the general advancing prosperity of the rest of the community. We have all seen the difficulties of effecting such an advance under the National Insurance Scheme. There is a whole mass of machinery and administration which has necessarily to be gone through in order to effect such a change. The National Assistance Scheme is far more flexible in securing that gradual advance. We can see the way in which that has happened in the number of advances which have taken place during the last 10 years.

Mr. George Lawson (Motherwell)

Is not that an argument for having the National Assistance scales higher than the National Insurance scales?

Mr. Simon

I was going to deal with that point and was about to say that it was an argument for precisely the opposite. As soon as one has a National Assistance scale which is higher than the National Insurance scale one has exactly the situation which we have experienced repeatedly during the last six years, namely more and more people being thrown on to National Assistance and subjected to a means test rather than having their hardship relieved by National Insurance without a means test. Therefore, I welcome the solution which my right hon. Friend has found, namely, to secure a great advance—for such we regard it—in the National Insurance scale, to bring those on National Assistance forward, but to have a slight margin between the two in order that the bulk of those needing help should be helped without a means test.

7.1 p.m.

Mr. S. O. Davies (Merthyr Tydvil)

I shall be brief, and I hope that the hon. and learned Member for Middlesbrough, West (Mr. Simon) will forgive me if I do not follow the line which be took. I confess at the outset that I am congenitally incapable of facing the problems which we are discussing today in the quiet, pedestrian and philosophical manner of the hon. and learned Gentleman. Nor shall I take up the time of the House in adding to the detailed analysis of the lives of the people whose misfortunes we are considering, the millions who are living in enforced poverty.

Like many hon. Members, I live in my constituency and have done so for very many years. The House must forgive me if my own contemporaries in the South Wales coalfield, who are suffering from the consequences of the indifference of this Government, are brought to my mind when listening to the calm, quiet almost callous manner in which we approach the sufferings of these people. These are men whom I have known as first-class artists in the coal mines, men who have more than justified themselves in the iron and steel industry, men who have made the railways and tunnelled the mountains, and men who have spent most of their lives in the bowels of the earth. It is concerning these men and their wives and their mothers that we deliver speeches in the House on these niggardly, almost contemptuous additions to National Assistance which the Government are now placing before us.

There must be a limit to our analysing. We are not dealing with guinea-pigs but with human beings. The House should consider whether this microscopic examination ad nauseam of the lives of these people is a nice, healthy thing, or whether it is bordering on something approaching political sadism. The analysis made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson) today was a shocking revelation.

I have also seen and questioned hundreds of people in their homes in my constituency, homes which I am proud to say have their doors always open to me. I have not done this deliberately, because I do not need much additional information upon the subject. The facts are obvious. I ask the Government to recognise that under their proposals thousands of people will not receive a farthing extra. Hundreds of thousands will receive only 2s. 6d.—a 2s. 6d. so fleeting and evanescent that by the time it is offered to them it will have been eaten up again by increases in the cost of living.

The old-age pensioners, who run into millions, have the Government of the day in their hands. When I am invited to address meetings of old-age pensioners in my constituency or outside, I have never failed to appeal to them to organise on a political basis. I say to them, "You have been appealing for a square deal for many years now. You have not had it yet. It is time you made Governments or potential Governments come to you. It is for you to name your price to any political party which may form the Government."

The hon. and learned Member for Middlesbrough, West referred to some of the progress which we have made. One example of progress is that most of these people can read. Very many of them like to read and, thank heaven, they are interested in the Government and in this House. We should not forget that. References have been made from the benches opposite to the care which we should exercise in the administration of National Assistance, and we have been told that we should not waste our substance. Those were surprising words to come from the other side of the House. We are already wasting our substance to the tune of several hundreds of millions of pounds. Old-age pensioners can see the futility of squandering £1,700 million a year on arms, most of which are obsolete and useless before they leave the conveyor belts of the factories.

All these debates on pensions have only confirmed that the advice which I have given to old-age pensioners is the best. It is that they should add to their organisation and their political power, that they should realise that the Government of the day will have to depend upon their vote. There are millions of them, and the Government of the day will be largely a Government whose presence in this House will depend mainly upon the votes of the old-age pensioners. That is my advice. That is the only lesson which the Government are driving home to these people who are having such a frightfully miserable deal from them.

7.10 p.m.

The Minister of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. Osbert Peake)

We have had a longer debate than usual on the Question to approve the new draft Assistance Regulations. In my recollection of the four or five occasions since 1948 when similar Questions were before the House, the rule has been three-quarters of a day or something of that sort for the discussion. But I do not think the debate we have had has been in any sense a waste of time. It is the best debate upon this subject that I can recall, and yesterday, in particular, there were some admirably constructive speeches from both sides of the House. It was very pleasant to note that there was less feeling of bitterness than there was in the past on similar Questions.

There has been very little criticism on this occasion of what I call the structure of National Assistance, that is to say, the relation between the various rates of benefit. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith), who is not now in his place, called attention yesterday to the fact that the rate for children had gone up somewhat less since 1946 than some of the other rates had. I think he overlooked the fact that the Labour Government in that year increased the children's rate, selecting that rate alone for an increase.

Nor has there been any criticism of the differential rate for persons living in a household as compared with persons living alone. We have not had our attention called to the special scale for the blind and those suffering from tuberculosis, where, once again, we are increasing the differential in their favour. I think therefore, that what I call the structure of the scheme, which is, after all, very much the same structure as in 1948, has the general approval of Members in all quarters of the House.

As we anticipated, the main criticism has been directed to the amount of the increase which these scales provide. I do not think I can do much better on that than to say that during the two and a half years since the increases were made in 1952 there have been very few Questions in this House and very few letters in my correspondence complaining of the amount of those scales. The Board, of course, has a high reputation. It very frequently uses its power to give discretionary additions, and that may be the reason why I get so few complaints about Assistance scales.

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson), who opened the debate today, drew attention to some observations of mine during the Motion of censure debate on old-age pensions on 16th November. I think I might quote one or two sentences. I do not often quote my own speeches, but I think on this occasion it will save me a certain amount of time and trouble. I said then: The Assistance scales are higher in purchasing power, and have been higher in purchasing power over the last two years, since the increases made in 1952. than at any previous time in the history of the Board. The scale has been 59s. for a married couple over the last 2¼ years, which compares with 40s. from 1948 to 1950 and with 43s. 6d, from 1950 to the autumn of 1951. Whatever index he may use, no one can show that the 59s. today is worth as little as the 40s. and the 43s. 6d. were in the three years to which I have referred. Then I mentioned the discretionary powers which the Board exercise so freely, and I went on—and this is perhaps also worth quoting—to say this: The only valid ground on which an increase in the Assistance scales and the supplements to insurance by the Board could be claimed today would be that so much has national prosperity increased in the last three years that the poorest people, and particularly the aged poor, are entitled to a larger share of the nation's cake than the 1952 scales, the highest scales ever introduced, give them at present."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th November, 1954; Vol. 533, c. 237738.] That was not challenged at the time though most of the statements I made in the course of that debate were. Indeed, I believe it is unchallengeable, and if any hon. Member chooses to make up for himself an increase which excludes such items as rent, which does not come into the computation of the scales because it is paid for separately by the Board, tobacco, alcohol and any other items which a person on assistance might be assumed not to consume, it will be seen that, first of all, the 1948 standards, then set by the Labour Government, were a distinct advance on anything in the Assistance scheme before.

The persons on assistance in July, 1948, got a definite increase in their standard of living. There is no doubt about that, and there is also no doubt that the 1952 scales represent a similar advance in the standard of living. Under these two increases taken together a single person got 11s. more than he had in the years 1948750. going up from 24s. to 35s., and a married couple got no less than 19s. more from 1952 onwards compared with what they received in the years 1948750.

I would just mention one or two facts about the cost-of-living indices. Clearly, the official index is no guide to a person on assistance. All the same, it is just as well to note that the rates proposed in these Regulations are aping up 56¼ per cent. above the 1948 scales, which, in their turn, gave an increased standard to persons on assistance. The official index since 1948 has moved up by about 33 per cent. If we take the two items which have gone up, food and fuel, it will be found that since 1948 food only has gone up by a fraction over 60 per cent. and fuel and food by about 56 per cent. Of course, nobody spends his or her money entirely on food and fuel, and other items, such as clothing, which have moved up very much less, do come into any reasonable computation of what a person on assistance needs.

I would say, therefore, that it can be established beyond doubt that the standards being provided by the proposals now before the House will put them considerably in advance of the position in which they were in 1948. So I think that some of the strictures of the right hon. Member for Huyton were a little exaggerated. Indeed, if they were true they would be a severe condemnation of the scales which were in force during the six years when he was a Member of the Government from 1945 to 1951.

Mr. H. Wilson

Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that, despite the great increase in national production and in the national income since 1948—and I gave a figure of £3,000 million over the last two or three years—we cannot afford a better standard of living for our people than we had in 1948?

Mr. Peake

I agree that it would be wrong to regard subsistence as a static conception and I was saying that there had been an increase in our conception of subsistence in 1948 and another advance again in 1952. At that time, in recommending the scales, the Board said that it took account of future increases in price which it thought might occur. So, for the first time in 1952, the Board definitely fixed scales which went ahead of the 1948 conception. The increases of 1950 and 1951 merely restored the person on National Assistance to the position in which he had been in 1948, whereas, in 1952, the Board made it clear in its Explanatory Memorandum that its proposals were definitely aiming at a higher standard for persons on National Assistance.

When I said in the debate on 16th November that, in my view, the only valid ground upon which the Board could put forward the scales now would be to give a higher conception to the idea of subsistence, I was giving—and I think the Board accepted it as such—a hint to the Board that the time had come for a further advance in the Assistance scales. People have asked me what index the Board consider. It looks at and considers many indices, but it has something much better nowadays by which it recommends new scales of National Assistance. The Board has the experience of its officers, who are in constant touch with persons on National Assistance and who have their own commonsense.

The Board is an excellent body. Things have been said about its constitution. It is true that there has been a change of chairman. I think the Board has been exceptionally fortunate in its chairmen. The first chairman was known to some older hon. Members of this House, Lord Rushcliffe, a man of quite exceptional experience. He was followed by Lord Soulbury, who, in turn, was followed by Mr. George Buchanan, a man known and liked in this House. I am glad to say that Mr. Buchanan not only served his appointed period but, at our request, served for some months beyond his appointed period and still remains a valued member of the Board.

The hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) suggested that there has been some tightening up. I can assure him that the administration of the Board goes on exactly as before. Although we all know that when members of different political parties get round a table they can often agree very well among themselves, if anyone cared to examine the political predilections of the present Board, he would find that today it had a predominantly Left-wing majority.

Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)

Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves that point, would he be good enough to answer my question?

Mr. Peake

It is an important question and I will deal with it. Before I do so, may I say that while it is possible for hon. Members to say that this advance is inadequate, any suggestion that the Board and the Government ought to have gone further than this is a great tribute to the success of Tory Government in the last three years.

Now I want to give a few figures dealing with finance, because the right hon. Gentleman suggested that this was a good bargain for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Let us get the figures clearly on record. The total cost of all the operations will be £25 million a year in the first full year. Of that, £15 million is the cost of the war pension increases and the balance of £10 million in the first full year is the difference between the £23 million which the Exchequer has to pay by way of additional contributions into the Insurance Fund as its proportion of the quota, less an estimated amount of £13 million which the National Assistance Board is likely to save through paying smaller amounts of assistance to persons whose insurance benefits are increased under the insurance proposals.

However, this is only an estimate for the first full year, and the reason it can only be an estimate is that nobody can tell with any precision what the future trend is likely to be of the number of persons seeking National Assistance. But, while the Exchequer gets off fairly cheaply in the first full year at £10 million, in five years' time, as a result of all these proposals, it will have to find an extra £50 million a year over and above what it would have had to find previously. I go further and point out to the House that the burden on the Exchequer towards National Insurance which is now £70 million will increase to £236 million a year in five years' time.

Mr. Ness Edwards (Caerphilly)

Is the point which the Minister is making that the cost to the Exchequer in the coming financial year for the whole of the operation is less than £10 million?

Mr. Peake

No, I thought I made it clear that the whole of the operation was covered by my statement to the House on 1st December that it would cost the Exchequer £25 million in the first full year. Apparently it is considered a wicked thing for this Government, by increasing insurance benefits, to make some saving on the National Assistance side.

But, after all, there is nothing novel or surprising about this since the right hon. Gentlemen the Members for Huyton and for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) claim the credit for having increased the National Insurance pension from 10s. a week to 26s. a week in the year 1946 and, as a result of that operation, they not only cut down the grants of assistance of many people but deprived nearly one million people of National Assistance altogether, so the resulting financial saving on the assistance side to the Exchequer was on a colossal scale. Assuming that each of those persons was drawing, on an average, £60 or £70 a year in National Assistance at that time, taking one million persons off National Assistance must have saved the Exchequer £60 million or £70 million.

I turn now to the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Miss Ward). Apparently she is not in the Chamber.

Miss Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

Yes, I am.

Hon. Members


Mr. Peake

I do not believe that I am allowed to "see" my hon. Friend in view of where she is sitting. Nevertheless, I will reply to the points which she made yesterday. My right hon. Friend made a very good speech. She usually attacks me and takes me on a trip to Margate, reminding me what happened at our conference there in 1953. But my hon. Friend never went to Margate at all. I missed her very much when I got there, because I had prepared a speech to deal with the motion which she had inspired, which was concerned with what she and I call, and understand to be, "the small income groups." I should have thought that she might have regarded what has been done for the five million old-age pensioners under my proposals as of considerable help to the small income groups.

Nevertheless, my hon. Friend attacked me because there is no increase in the rate of non-contributory old-age pension. That pension is becoming an anomaly. It is neither an insurance pension nor truly a grant of assistance, but all the money for it comes from the Exchequer. It is subject to a means test, though not quite the same kind of means test as under National Assistance; it is a means test which is more generous where capital is concerned and rather less generous where income is concerned. However, no more of those pensions are to be granted after 1961.

All the recipients of the pensions are in close touch with the National Assistance Board. Nearly half of them are actually drawing National Assistance in supplementation of their non-contributory old-age pensions. I am following the precedent set by the Socialist Government in 1951 and my own precedent in 1952 in leaving the non-contributory old-age pension where it is. My personal wish is that it had been allowed to lapse in 1948 when the great new scheme of insurance pensions was brought into operation.

The hon. Member for Ince said something about a secret circular. He said: Within the last 12 months there has been a tightening in the application of the Regulations. … Is it true that a private or confidential circular was sent out by the Assistance Board, or possibly by the right hon. Gentleman's Department, telling area officers and investigating officers what to do and how to do it? He went on: That is a very pointed question I am putting to the Minister. If that is not so, I shall be delighted. But if I am correct I think he ought to tell the truth to hon. Members and to the people who have to look after these cases. … if such a circular has been sent out, he bears the responsibility."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th December, 1954; Vol. 535, c. 2515–6.]

Mr. T. Brown

So the right hon. Gentleman does.

Mr. Peake

That is a very old gambit. It has often been played before. I thought it had rather gone out of fashion.

Surely everybody realises that government would be impossible if Ministers had to disclose all the advice and instructions issued by their Departments to their officers who are responsible for administration in the country. I do not know whether or not any circular has been issued. In any case, it is the responsibility of the National Assistance Board. One of the occasions upon which the gambit was played was during a debate on 9th December, 1943. when the right hon. Member for Caerphilly—

Mr. Ness Edwards

Old battles.

Mr. Peake

—asked the late Mr. Ernest Bevin: Will my right hon. Friend deal with the point about making the instructions issued by the Assistance Board available in the Library?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th December, 1943; Vol. 395, c. 1243.] The right hon. Gentleman got from the late Mr. Ernest Bevin—

Mr. Ness Edwards

A raspberry.

Mr. Peake

—a rather dusty answer which I will not now quote to the House.

The right hon. Member for Caerphilly also asked me about our detailed timetable for introducing the short-term benefit increases. The main dates for National Insurance and Industrial Injuries Insurance are as follows. For retirement pensions and widows' benefits of all kinds the new rates will commence on the pay days in the week beginning 25th April. Hon. Members will know that there are different days of the week on which different classes of beneficiary go to the Post Office for their benefits. For the short-term benefits for injury, sickness and unemployment the increase will commence on 19th May. For the increased contributions it will be the week commencing 6th June.

I should like, in conclusion, to say a word or two about the very interesting subjects which were raised in yesterday's debate about the relation between National Insurance and National Assistance. The hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) gave us a very interesting contribution on the subject. He complained of the Conservative Party's "empirical approach" to this matter. Let us look at the history. In July, 1948, under the great new schemes, for a married couple the National Insurance benefit rate was 42s. and the National Assistance rate 40s.; the National Insurance benefit was 2s. ahead of the National Assistance cash scale. The rent, of course, was paid separately by the National Assistance Board. In June, 1950, two years later, while the National Insurance benefit for the married couple remained at 42s. the National Assistance scale for them went to 43s. 6d.; for the first time, the National Assistance scale exceeded in cash the amount of the National Insurance benefit.

In September, 1951, after the increase given then to pensioners only—not to the sick or the unemployed, and by no means to all pensioners, because those attaining 65 after that date were omitted—parity was established between the two rates for the first time, 50s. being the National Insurance pension benefit rate and 50s. also the married couple's National Assistance rate.

In June, 1952, under the proposals which I sponsored, once again the National Assistance scale outran the National Insurance benefit rate. The National Insurance benefit rate went to 54s. and the National Assistance scale to 59s. Under the proposals which I have now put before the House we are going back very much to the situation as it was in July, 1948. We are establishing a position where the National Insurance 'benefit rate will be 2s. a week higher than the National Assistance scales, the figures being 65s. on the National Insurance benefit side and 63s. on the National Assistance side.

The hon. Member for Sowerby complained of what he called our empirical approach. Our approach is empirical and I will tell him why. It is better to have an empirical rather than a doctrinaire approach.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

It is better to have a humanitarian approach.

Mr. Peake

I certainly claim that in both our proposals we are adopting the humanitarian approach. There has been a great deal of agreement on both sides of the House that we must try to restore the insurance system and the insurance principle to their proper place in our national affairs.

Hon. Members have expressed a great deal of agreement with the speech by the right hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) in the debate on the Motion of censure on 21st July. He said: I have previously said that I wanted to raise the basic pension before raising the basic National Assistance scales. He went on: It is not only the fact that the number of persons seeking assistance is increasing all the time which worries me, though if that goes on it will undermine the scheme and break it down."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st July, 1954; Vol. 530, c. 1476–7.] The right hon. Gentleman said that he was also worried by the number of people who, because of their pride and dignity, would not go to the National Assistance Board. He was very much in favour of doing something on the National Insurance benefit side before action was taken over the scales of National Assistance.

In deciding our policy, therefore, and in deciding on a very much larger increase in the National Insurance benefits scale than in the National Assistance scale rates, I have been very largely guided by an empirical consideration, and that is the growth in the numbers receiving National Assistance. That is the yardstick by which our policy in this matter should very largely be guided. It has been very distressing to see year by year a growth in the numbers having to seek help from the National Assistance Board.

They were steadily growing in the years following 1948. On my table in the Ministry I have a graph showing month by month and week by week the numbers receiving National Assistance and having different classes of National Insurance benefits supplemented. There has been a steady rise since 1948 to the end of 1952. In 1953, the graph was tending to flatten out and the increase in numbers was only about half what it had been over the average of the three or four preceding years.

Mr. Ness Edwards

That is the increase.

Mr. Peake

Yes. In 1954 for the first time the line has flattened out and we have achieved stability. We want to go further and aim at seeing the numbers receiving National Assistance tending to diminish by virtue of other provisions made for them.

Mr. Ness Edwards

Is that why the scale is being cut down?

Mr. Peake

It is certainly not. There are four favourable tendencies today. One is the increase we are making in the National Insurance benefit rate; another is the very large proportion of people today who are earning increments to their pensions under National Insurance and are, therefore, retiring on rates of pension which take them outside the range of National Assistance. A third feature is that nearly 30 per cent. of all those going on to National Insurance pensions today have another pension from some other source which they have earned by virtue of their employment. A fourth factor acting favourably in this field is the great revival in personal thrift and personal savings which has taken place in the last 18 months or so.

All these are hopeful signs in the objective which all Members on both sides wish to achieve, namely, an increasing reliance on insurance benefits earned by virtue of contributions rather than payments by way of gift or grant from the Assistance Board, subject to test of means. I believe that we all have very much the same object at heart. I can assure right hon. and hon. Members that the scales, which I hope the House will now approve, provide a better purchasing power than any scales which this House has ever before adopted.

7.45 p.m.

Mr. William Warbey (Broxtowe)

Yesterday the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples), in a speech of unusual restraint for him, managed, towards the end of his remarks, to work in a little flourish of hyperbole. He said that these scales are the most generous we have yet had. If he had said that the monetary values of these scales are the highest we have yet had, he would have been correct and platitudinous. But what he presumably meant to say was that the Government were being more generous in the standard of living they were providing for the poorest sections of the community than any other Government of our time.

We have just had from the right hon. Gentleman a somewhat more modest claim. It was that these scales preserve the standard of living for the poorest section of the community; that we have got hack to 1948.

Mr. Peakeindicated dissent.

Mr. Warbey

The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head; but that is what I understood him to say.

Moreover, that is borne out by the figures he gave, because he has admitted—and I was very glad to hear the admission from the Government Front Bench—that in the case of the poorest section of the community one cannot take the official cost-of-living index as a guide to the changes in their standard of living. It was an admission that one must recognise that their budgets substantially are made up of food, fuel and light and other items which, owing to the deliberate policy of the Tory Government, have risen far more in price than the other items in the budgets in the rest of the community.

What were the figures which he gave us? He said that since 1948 the scales have risen by 56¼ per cent., but he told us that the cost of food had risen by no less than 60 per cent. In other words, in terms of food, which is the biggest single item and in fact the largest item in the budget of the poorest sections of the community, such people will be actually worse off than they were in 1948.

It is true that fuel and light have gone up by only 50 per cent., slightly under the figure of the monetary increase in the scale. Nevertheless, on balance, all that the Minister can claim is that those drawing the full scales of National Assistance, those relying entirely upon National Assistance for their means, will have had compensation for the increase in their cost of living since 1948. That is the best that he can claim.

But the Minister claims that only by disregarding a number of elements which affect many of the people—in fact, the majority of the people—who draw National Assistance. He can achieve that target of marking time with 1948 in this year of prosperity 1954 only by disregarding the disregards. I very carefully listened to the right hon. Gentleman and there were some questions from hon. Members on this side of the House which he did not answer. He made no reference at all to the question of the disregards in National Assistance. I suspect that he did not do that because, had he done so, that would completely have upset the figures which he gave.

Mr. Peake

I am sorry that I forgot to deal with the question of disregards. I have often dealt with it at Question time and pointed out that most of the disregards have remained unaltered for many years by both Governments. The 20s. disregard goes back to 1944 and increasing disregards would not help the neediest people drawing National Assistance.

Mr. Warbey

I am dealing with the very large class of persons who are not totally without resources other than National Assistance.

The Minister might have the figures at his disposal. I have not, but in most cases which come to my attention in my constituency there are some means within the household. National Assistance is required as a supplement to those means. This is a very large class of persons who deserve some consideration from the Government, because they include people who have contributed by saving towards superannuation payments. We hear a lot from the Government about the virtues of thrift and about their wanting to encourage saving.

As the Minister knows, one of the reasons why this element of disregard is included in the scheme is precisely to go on encouraging saving and not to discourage it. The minister said in his interjection that these disregarded elements have not been increased in amount. In other words, they have not been increased to correspond with the increases in the cost of living; the value of those disregards has fallen with every increase in the cost of living. What is the effect of that?

Let us now adjust the figures for a person who is entitled to the maximum disregard for disablement pension, for superannuation pension, and so on—a maximum aggregated disregard of 20s. In 1948, when the scale began, such a person was able to draw 24s. in addition to the 20s. which were disregarded, making a total of 44s. Under the proposed new scales, next February he will be able to draw the new scale of 37s. 6d. plus a disregard which is still only 20s., a total of 57s. 6d. This is a typical example. The standard of living in monetary terms of such a person will have risen from 44s. to 57s. 6d. That is an increase of 32.6 per cent. That is the extent by which his total resources will have increased when the further increase of 2s. 6d. comes into effect.

That increase is actually less than the increase in the cost-of-living index which, the right hon. Gentleman agreed, had risen by over 33 per cent. Therefore, people in such a position would be worse off if their typical budgets were those which were the average for the population as a whole. If we take into account the fact that their budgets mainly comprise food, fuel and light, they are a good deal worse off now, and they will still be a good deal worse off when the scales have gone up, compared with what they were in 1948.

As a final illustration, I quote the case of an ex-miner from my constituency. He is 78 and he gave the best years of his life to some of the most important work which could be done—digging coal out of the ground. He has a retirement pension and a miner's pension to which he contributed himself, and he has been supplementing those sources of income from National Assistance. What was his position up to two months' ago? Until then he was drawing a retirement pension of 32s. 6d. and the miner's pension of 10s. and he was able to get total National Assistance payments, including rent allowance, of 12s. 6d., making a total of 55s.—the basic scale allowance being 35s. plus rent allowance of 10s., 45s. in all.

In November, his miner's pension was increased by 5s., from 10s. to 15s., but under the disregard rule—which in the case of a single payment within the category of disregards is limited to 10s. 6d.—he could only get the benefit of 6d. out of that 5s. increase. When his miner's pension was raised last month by 5s., his National Assistance was docked by 4s. 6d. Therefore, his thrift and service to his union and to his country was recognised not to the extent of an increase of 5s. but by a net increase of 6d.

What will be his position next February? When the scales go up he will get another 2s. 6d., so that he will have got by then a total increase of 3s. But then will come April, and his retirement pension will go up by 7s. 6d. His National Assistance will then go down again by the full amount of 7s. 6d. In April he will still be only 3s. better off than he was 18 months ago. What has he had? He has had an increase in retirement pension of 7s. 6d. and an increase in his miner's pension of 5s.—a total increase of 12s. 6d.

He has been told that the Assistance scale is increased by 2s. 6d., and out of this, including two pensions towards which he himself has contributed, all he gets is an increase of 3s. Including rent allowance, his income, 18 months ago, was 55s. Next February, his total income will be 58s., a net increase of 3s. on 55s. That is an increase of 5½ per cent. in two years. He has to wait very nearly two years to get an increase in his cash income of 5½per cent., and in his real income an actual fall.

That is the way the Tory Government treat the men in the mining and other industries who have given the best part of their lives to working for the country, and who have contributed towards its savings. They are to get an increase, of which the Government boast, in their retirement pension and an increase in their miner's pension, and yet, at the end of the whole process, they will be worse off than when they started.

That situation results from the fact that the Minister is deliberately allowing the value of National Assistance to be whittled away by reducing the amount of the disregards as the cost of living rises. He is doing it deliberately. As he rightly said, we have asked Questions about it in the House. I put a Question on 1st November. I asked the Minister if he would bring the disregards up to the level they should reach in accordance with increases in the cost of living, which, in the case of retirement should be £1 6s. 8d., or probably 30s., and in the case of the 10s. pensioner 14s. or 15s.

When I put that to the Minister, he answered: No, Sir. This is the reason he gave: I do not think we want to encourage more people to rely on Assistance."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st November, 1954; Vol. 532, c. 15.] It was an extraordinary reason to give. Suppose one turned the negative form of that question the other way. Suppose the right hon. Gentleman said, "I think we want to discourage people from relying on assistance." Is that what he really means? Is that the policy of the right hon. Gentleman? Is that what he is trying to do?

The right hon. Gentleman said, earlier, that he was anxious to get the figures down of those who are drawing National Assistance. He was indignant when it was suggested on this side of the House that he was trying to get the figure down by reducing the scale in real value. It is now clear that by ignoring the disregards and doing nothing to increase their value he is in fact, discouraging people from drawing National Assistance. He is making the value of assistance less than it was before.

This is the policy of the Government, in a year in which we are told that the country is prospering more than ever and in which the people are told that they can invest in success. I hope that the Minister will invest in a little of the milk of human kindness and will consider the case of those who are becoming again a submerged tenth. They have not very much to offer by way of votes to right hon. Gentlemen opposite, but a good deal by way of thanks if they were generously treated.

8.4 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

The Minister said that he was adopting an empirical approach to this question. Replying to my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton), he said that he would prefer an empirical approach to a doctrinaire approach. I interjected to ask why not a humanitarian approach. The Minister then proceeded to say how much concerned he was about a rising graph that was in his office of applicants for National Assistance. I look upon the matter from a different point of view, not as one of a complicated graph, or series of statistics, masses of figures or calculations, but as a problem of the human beings among whom I live.

It is more than 30 years since I first became acquainted, as a member of a parish council in the little town in which I lived in Scotland, with the administrative problems of the poorest of the poor. I remember how we had to go to the parish council, which was then an elected body, and engage in all sorts of calculations and scales which were submitted to us by the Poor Law authority. I used to see people coming along to be cross-examined about their meagre incomes and distressing circumstances. I saw the down-and-out miner, who might have saved a little and whose income had to be taken into account. We face exactly the same problem today.

Later on, the parish councils gave way to the public assistance committees of the county council, and they had the same calculations of income to make and the same attempt to square humanity with municipal taxation. All the time I remembered that these were the poorest of the poor, exactly the same kind of people who will be affected by these Regulations. This generation has seen lock-outs, strikes, poverty and the near-hunger that has come to the mining areas in recent years. It has seen two wars and the hardship and misery of life. It is now being divided into recipients of National Insurance benefits and those affected by these Regulations.

I agree with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. Jack Jones), who pointed out these facts and argued that people should be treated more generously because they had built up our national wealth. They have served this country in industry and are entitled to humanitarian treatment during their concluding years. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby, who talked about a Socialist approach which, from my point of view, coincides with the humanitarian approach. My hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby asked that these scales should not only include rent, clothing and food, but the little amenities of life like the wireless licence and the possibility of looking at a television set.

I go further. In my constituency many of the older generation are living in isolated villages perhaps 15 or 20 miles away from a town. Some of them may live 12 or 20 miles from the seaside. In their old age, in their twilight, they are entitled to go to the seaside, to the pictures and on the bus trips which are now the luxury of the mining folk. They see a new age, in which the wages in the mining areas stand at a level much beyond what in their own day they regarded as high. They now see the younger generation earning £12, £15 and even £20 a week, and yet they are compelled to live on a poor subsistence level with very little opportunity to enjoy the amenities of life. I fail to see how, under these miserable scales, it is possible for the veteran of the mining industry and his wife to lead anything like the life to which they are entitled, not as a charity from us but as mere justice.

We have heard about the cost. We have heard of the sum of £9 million and other large sums which will have to be paid by the Exchequer in the years to come. The Minister is always reminding us that he has to keep an eye on the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is quite true that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is interested, and that these millions have to be found out of national taxation, but I would point out what I have frequently stressed, that a nation which can find £1,500 million for the Services can afford to give a fraction of that sum to the people who have given their lives for this country.

That is going to be the perpetual problem—how can we increase the standard of life of the worker and maintain the social services, how can we give decent pensions and do justice to the poorest of the poor, if at the same time we have to carry this huge burden on other parts of the Budget?

My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General in the last Labour Government said during the weekend that there was too much emphasis on military expenditure, and I agree. We could find enough money to pay decent old-age pensions and get decent National Assistance scales if the emphasis were in the right place and if we had true priorities. When this nation is prepared to give a fraction of what it spends on the armed Services to the old-age pensioners, to those on National Assistance and to the injured workers, then it will be possible to solve the problem now confronting the nation.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Draft National Assistance (Determination of Need) Amendment Regulations, 1954, a copy of which was laid before this House on 1st December, be approved.