§ 3.39 p.m.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. Ernest Marples)
I beg to move,That the Draft National Assistance (Determination of Need) Amendment Regulations, 1955, a copy of which was laid before this House on 28th November, be approved.On 16th June, 1948, this House had its first discussion on the first Regulations laid before it under the National Assistance Act, 1948. As a result of those Regulations, the original scales of assistance, exclusive of rent were fixed at 40s. for married persons and 24s. for a single householder. This set of Regulations is the fifth change which has been made since 1948, so the procedure is well known, especially to those hon. Members who have been Members of the House since 1948, and I see many who were present during those previous discussions. I believe that I shall be following precedent if I first give a short exposition of the actual rates in the Regulations and do not wander into the wider field of National Assistance. Apart from there being more powerful reasons why I should not do so, there is the fact that I should possibly be out of order as well.
These draft Regulations, if approved by Parliament, will amend the Regulations which lay down the amounts of National Assistance paid to persons in need. The amending Regulations increase as from 23rd January next, the weekly sums paid for requirements other than rent. I stress the words "other than rent" because I propose to say a few words about the National Assistance Board's policy in connection with rent a little later on.
If hon. Members will turn to the Regulations, they will see that there are two scales, the ordinary scale which applies, for want of a better term, to what I will call normal persons, and a special scale which applies to blind people and to certain people suffering from tuberculosis. The special has always been higher than the ordinary scale.
As far as the increases in the ordinary scale are concerned, my right hon. Friend proposes to increase the rate for a married couple by 4s. That will raise it from 63s., at which it stands at present, to 67s., 385 and my right hon. Friend proposes to increase the rate for a single householder by 2s. 6d.—from 37s. 6d. to 40s. If we compare these figures with those paid in 1948, we find that the rate for a married couple today is 67s. compared with 40s. in 1948, and that the rate for a single householder today is 40s. as against 24s. in 1948.
I now turn to the special scale which is to be found on the second page of the Regulations. As I have said, the special scale is for people who are afflicted by blindness and for certain people who are suffering from tuberculosis. I am sure that the whole House will agree that people suffering from these special afflictions, and for whom everyone feels so sorry, should receive a higher rate than the ordinary rate. The rate paid to a married couple, one of whom is blind, is to be raised by 5s. a week compared with the increase of 4s. to be given on the ordinary scale.
The rate goes up for a married couple from 82s. 10 87s., and in the case of a single householder by 3s. 6d. a week, from 56s. 6d. to 60s. The increase on the ordinary scale will be 2s. 6d. a week. The special scale has always been higher than the ordinary scale. When the Regulations were first introduced in 1948, the party opposite had a differential of 15s. a week. That was the differential between the special and the ordinary rate when they went out of office.
When the present Government came in, they increased that differential in 1952 from 15s. to 18s., and in 1954 to 19s. The extra 1s. increase being given on the ordinary rate now makes that differential 20s. In both the ordinary and special scales, there are appropriate increases for other categories, including dependant children, and they are listed both in the Statutory Instrument itself and in the Explanatory Memorandum.
Now a word about rent. It is often forgotten when comparing assistance rates with pension rates that the existing scales are exclusive of rent. The scale rates which I have just described are for requirements other than rent. The policy of the National Assistance Board is to pay the rent in full unless, firstly, the rent is plainly excessive, or, secondly, the accommodation is shared by someone who is not on assistance Therefore, the Board will normally pay the full rate, if 386 it is at the level of rents generally in the area.
To give an example, the married couple paying 15s. a week rent would get at least 67s., the scale rate, plus 15s. for rent, making a total of £4 2s. a week, which is at the annual rate of £213 4s. I use the words "at least"—
§ Mr. George Chetwynd (Stockton-on-Tees)
The hon. Gentleman gave the figures by which the amount is deducted when relatives or dependants are living in the house. But that varies from case to case, and in some cases wipes out the whole of the rent allowance.
§ Mr. Marples
As the hon. Gentleman says, it varies from case to case, and where the accommodation is shared by someone not on assistance, it is necessary for the local officers to make some sort of assessment of the circumstances, because they can vary so much in different areas in the country and in different households.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards (Caerphilly)
Surely, that is not left to the discretion of area officers. There is a formula for it. Will the hon. Gentleman say whether that formula has been departed from in any way and give some indication of its nature?
§ Mr. Marples
There has been no change for a long time in the Board's policy in respect to rent. While rent does not come into these Regulations, I mention it because I want to make it absolutely clear that the scale rates which I have described are exclusive of the arrangements for rent.
§ Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset, South)
There are many local authorities—rural and urban district councils in particular—who are very fearful of this whole business of differential rents which is now going to result from the Government's proposals on housing. They are anxious to know whether the Assistance Board will be empowered to pay the full rent in those cases where rent increases are made. Where a differential rent scheme is not popular or adopted, will that be the case?
§ Mr. Marples
In the case of the council tenant. I have no doubt that the National Assistance Board will pay the rent in full, because it is highly probable that, in any 387 circumstances, it would not be an excessive rent. Therefore, my answer is that if a higher rent were introduced, in 99 cases out of 100 the Board would pay the rent in fall.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
This is rather an important point. Does the hon. Gentleman expect local councils to make a rebate in a case where there is a low assistance scale income on the differential basis in order to save the Board?
§ Mr. Marples
I would refer the right hon. Gentleman to the Report—issued by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government to all local authorities—of the Committee, the Chairman of which was, I think, my right hon. Friend the present Financial Secretary, which gave rules for the guidance of local authorities. I shall take the opportunity of sending the right hon. Gentleman a copy of that pamphlet.
One of the points which the Minister of Housing and Local Government has always stressed is that rents should be settled by the local authorities because they know the local circumstances. Therefore, I cannot stand at this Box and make a rigid rule that shall apply to every single local authority. I think that I have more faith in local authorities than has the right hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
On a point of order. It is not up to the hon. Gentleman to misrepresent me. I have not asked what the local council would do. I am asking whether the rebate of the advantageous differential provided by the local authority will be taken advantage of by the Assistance Board in calculating the supplementary payment.
§ Mr. Marples
The Board will pay the rent in full if it is at the level of rents in the district. If the local authority decides to charge a small rent, then the Board cannot do more than pay it in full.
I said "at least" because the Board can, in addition, give discretionary allowances. These amending Regulations do not affect the Board's discretionary power to give more in special cases for such things as special nourishment, laundry charges and domestic help. These are most valuable services, and two out of every five people on National Assistance are receiving them. In 1955, there were 388 642,000 cases where discretionary additions were given. The annual cost was running at the rate of £9 million a year, or just over, and the average was 5s. 7d. a week for each person.
This discretionary allowance gives assistance a great flexibility, which is sometimes necessary. If hon. Members read the Board's Report they will find many examples of how valuable discretionary allowances can be. I was very pleased to learn, recently, that a deputation of old-age pensioners had said that in their view the National Assistance officer was the old-age pensioners' best friend. I hope that hon. Members will encourage their constituents to ask National Assistance officers to call round and see them if they need their help.
§ Mr. Marples
There are occasions when the National Assistance officer experiences difficulty. Some people are a little proud, and do not like to ask for assistance, but I am glad to say that their numbers are shrinking, There are also other difficulties. One distinguished member of the Board told me of one difficulty which was experienced by one of his officers in Scotland when he went to see an old miner, aged 90, because he had heard that it might be possible to give him a discretionary allowance.
The old miner was living with his daughter, aged 60, who had the great individual courage of the Scots but was not quite as bright as most of the Scottish Members in this House. She was a little retarded, mentally, and told the officer where to go and what to do. I will not repeat what she said, because I am sure that the House would not understand it. The area National Assistance officer then went along. The daughter opened the door and said, "You must not come here," and he got similar treatment. She said, "I am the Queen of Scotland." He said, "Excuse me, Your Majesty, but I have come to you with a message from the Queen of England." She said, "That is different. You must come in." The man went in, and the miner eventually received his discretionary allowance. I hope that hon. Members will encourage their constituents to call upon and ask National Assistance officers to go into their homes, because these officers are their friends and not their enemies.
389 I now come to the exceptions to the advantages which are gained by most people, which are set out in paragraph 7 of the Explanatory Memorandum. Out of about 1,600,000 people who are receiving assistance, about 80,000 will not have their assistance increased, or will not have it increased to the full extent. They can be divided into three categories. First, there are those persons who are in homes provided by local authorities under Part III of the 1948 Act. The minimum charge is made there, and a weekly sum is allowed for personal requirements. Those two sums are prescribed by the Minister of Health and the Secretary of State for Scotland respectively, and the Board's allowance takes these charges into account.
§ Mr. James Carmichael (Glasgow, Bridgeton)
Can the Joint Parliamentary Secretary tell me what is the allowance of people in residential homes, and what they are allowed for pocket money?
§ Mr. Marples
I believe that it is 7s. 6d., but the responsibility for fixing that sum does not rest with my right hon. Friend. It rests with the Secretary of State for Scotland or, in the case of England and Wales, with the Minister of Health. They prescribe the actual sums. I believe that it is 7s. 6d. a week. If there were to be any question of increasing it, any inquiries should be directed to one of the two Ministers to whom I have referred.
The second category of people who will not receive much help comprises those persons who are in hospital. The reason for that is, first, that they are maintained free and, secondly, that they receive some pocket money from the Board, which also takes into account any outside commitments of the person concerned. The third category comprises those people known as lodgers, that is, those who are paying an inclusive figure for board and lodging. The regulations which I have described this afternoon are not applicable in their case because the increase is in respect of persons living in separate accommodation and keeping themselves.
Those are the bare bones of the regulations. I now want to deal with some of the criticisms which were made at Question Time when my right hon. Friend announced the regulations. The first criticism was that the increase was too little, and the second that it was too late. 390 With regard to the first, it is the Board's duty to ask the Minister for increased rates when such increases are justified by the increased cost of living. The fact that the increases are not more than 4s. and 2s. 6d. respectively is not, of itself, a ground for criticism. It is merely the result of the Board taking action promptly and not waiting until increased prices called for larger additions.
The care that the Board takes in maintaining the value of its rates is proved by the number of increases which have been made and their timing, rather than by the size of any one of them. This is the fifth time that rates have been raised since 1948. If the Board allowed prices of commodities to rise excessively and get so far in advance of its rates that it had to ask for an exceptionally large increase, hon. Members would probably think that it had failed in its duty.
The second criticism was that the action was too late. Since February last, when the last increase was made, the All-Items Index of Retail Prices has increased by six points—from 146 to 152, which is a 4 per cent. rise. The latest rise, of two points, was announced on 18th November. Five days later the Board met and prepared these Regulations, and five days after that my right hon. Friend made a statement in this House and laid the Regulations before it. The justification for an increase in the index was published on 18th November, and ten days later the Regulations were laid before this House. I do not consider that that is undue delay. I believe that it is extremely prompt action.
§ Min Elaine Burton (Coventry, South)
Will the Joint Parliamentary Secretary answer one point, which is of much concern to my hon. Friends?—and it will not be sufficient for him to reply that the Labour Government did it. We are concerned at the fact that the chief items in the budgets of old people are fuel, food and light, and we believe that the prices of those items have risen far more than the percentage figure which the Minister gave us. Will he comment upon that?
§ Mr. Marples
I shall come to that point in my own time, if the hon. Lady will allow me. I am not dealing with the question whether the actual rise itself is justified, but with the criticism that the Government have acted too late. I main- 391 tain that the ten days which elapsed between the publication of the index and the laying of the Regulations is not a great length of time. Some people may say, "That is all very well, but between the laying of the Regulations and the paying of the money you are taking too much time." The Regulations were laid on 28th November, and the money will be paid on 23rd January, which is eight weeks and one day later. In 1951, it took ten and a half weeks; in 1952, it took ten weeks; in 1955, it took nine and a half weeks, and the present operation is taking eight weeks and one day. I do not think that the Government can be accused of undue delay in that respect.
Another criticism was that the present rates do not provide a reasonable standard of living. I believe that this is really the one to which the hon. Lady has referred. That criticism is unwarranted, taken against the background of the situation. The rates that we are now proposing give a greater purchasing power than those which the party opposite brought in in 1948. In that year the basis was 40s. for a married couple and 24s. for a single householder. When introducing those rates the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, West (Mr. Steele)—who was here at Question Time last Monday, when my right hon. Friend introduced the Regulations—said:It is suggested that the draft Regulations provide a fair and humane code of State assistance according to need. The scales of requirement allow an appreciable margin over bare subsistence, since it is desired that no one shall be denied a reasonable standard of living."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th June, 1948; Vol. 452, c. 564.]The House accepted the hon. Gentleman's statement in 1948 that they were fair and humane. Today's rates have a greater purchasing power than those rates. It is not right to describe those rates as fair and humane and these as miserable and niggardly, when these are greater.
§ Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)
Is is not correct that the rise in the real value of these scales is about 9 per cent? The hon. Gentleman says that they give increased purchasing power. Will he say by how much, in real terms?
§ Mr. Marples
I cannot say by how much. All I am saying is that the real value is higher than that of the rates 392 which were proposed in 1948, and that it is impossible to apply the term "niggardly" to them if they buy more than the rates introduced in 1948 by the party opposite and called "fair and humane." My right hon. Friend will deal more fully with this point when he winds up the debate. I might with justice call in aid the attitude of the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) to prove that these rates are better than the rates of 1948. He is very knowledgeable in these matters. If the present rates had bought less he would have been the first person to expose their inadequacy. The hon. Gentleman agrees that they buy more, although he says "not a great deal more." He accepts the fact that they buy more.
§ Mr. Houghton
I believe they show a 9 per cent. increase, as against a 27 per cent. increase in production.
§ Mr. Marples
At any rate, the hon. Gentleman agrees that they buy more, and that is something. If hon. Gentlemen opposite called in 1948 rates "fair and humane" it will be interesting to hear what they call rates which are higher in purchasing power.
Further, I will quote what the Economist of 3rd December says on this subject. It is:The changes in the Board's scales have tended to anticipate future rises in prices as well as to compensate for past ones. This week's decision continues that policy. By October of this year the continuing rise in the cost of subsistence had very nearly caught up with the rise in assistance scales since 1946. The new scales will thus restore a margin to meet further price rises. This is the right policy.I share the feeling of some hon. Members who detest arguments based upon indices. There are several indices. There is the London and Cambridge Economic Service Index, the official All-Items Retail Price Index, the same index differently weighted for certain items—this was the point made by the hon. Lady the Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton)—and what is known as the "Mikardo" index, which is weighted in the way which the hon. Lady has in mind. Judged by any reasonable index or combination of indices, the purchasing power of the assistance rates which are being proposed is greater than of those of 1948.
§ Mr. S. O. Davies (Merthyr Tydvil)
Would the hon. Gentleman try to confine his remarks to the restricted list of 393 absolutely essential things, food, fuel and light, which the old-age pensioner must have, and, because of small income, is incapable of going much beyond? My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton) referred to them. Have they not gone up since 1948 very much more than the 7 per cent. to which reference has been made?
§ Mr. Marples
No. Any reasonable combination or weighting of these indices shows that the present assistance rates buy more, and we have more than taken those rises into account. My right hon. Friend will deal with this point. Even if we use the "Mikardo" index, we find that the result is not unfavourable. I assure the hon. Member for Coventry, South that the hon. Member for Sowerby knows that what I am saying is perfectly true.
I believe that the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) will play a leading part in this debate, as is right and proper. He has been interested in this subject for many years. All the time that I have been in the House of Commons, just over ten years, he has been interested in it, and I understand that before he came to the House he was a supporter of the old-age pensioners in the north of England. It is a great honour for him to play a leading part in these matters, so I thought I would look at some of his speeches.
On 3rd May, 1950, he said, of the right hon. Lady the Member for Warrington (Dr. Summerskill):She has performed a miracle, in these days of economic stress, by extracting from the Treasury £8½ million."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd May, 1950; Vol. 474, c. 1821.]The hon. Gentleman calls £8½ million a miracle. The cost of the present proposals is £12½ million, plus the additional cost of new applications. I know we shall get from the hon. Gentleman a feast of reason, because he has so much experience of National Assistance. I ask him to be a little sparing with his adjectives when describing the proposals of my right hon. Friend, lest he causes some embarrassment to his own party. If he called £8½ million "a miracle" I wonder what he is going to call something which is 50 per cent. higher.
§ Mr. T. Brown
Let it be remembered that since I made that statement there has been a considerable increase in the national cake which the old-age pensioners and those on National Assistance are not sharing adequately.
§ Mr. Marples
We are grateful for that tribute from the hon. Gentleman to the wise government of this country which has increased our national cake by so much since our party came into power. [Interruption.] I cannot hear with certainty the interruptions of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock).
§ Mr. Marples
I remember the gloomy prophesies of hon. Gentlemen opposite before the General Election of 1951 about what would happen. It is, therefore, all the more encouraging to know from the hon. Member for Ince how well we have done as a Government.
I have now dealt with the bare bones of the Regulations and dealt briefly with some of the criticism. I have not roamed over the wide field because I did not think it was my province. Re-reading the previous debates on the five increases that have taken place since 1948, I found that any Parliamentary Secretary who dwelt at length in his opening speech received great criticism afterwards from back benchers, of whom I was then one. However, I will not spend any more time on that, but will commend these Regulations to the House. They provide for the people in need a higher standard of living than what was considered so good in 1948. By comparison with what many of us would like them to be, perhaps they are not enough, but by comparison with the past they are certainly very favourable and are much to the credit of the Government.
§ Mr. Frank Anderson (Whitehaven)
If a young person is suffering from tuberculosis what rate of assistance will he get?
§ Mr. Marples
If the hon. Gentleman looks at paragraph 2 (2) in page 2 of the Regulations he will see set out clearly what is being done for anyone who is 395 blind or suffering from tuberculosis. It states:
|"(a) For a husband and wife—|
|(i) of whom one is such a person||87||0|
|(ii) of whom both are such persons||101||0|
|(b) For any other such person, being—|
|(i) aged 21 years or over||60||0|
|(ii) aged 18 years or over but less than 21 years||46||0|
|(iii) aged 16 years or over but less than 18 years||37||6"|
§ Mr. Anderson rose—
§ 4.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)
On both sides of the House we are all agreed on one thing, that these Regulations deal with an intensely human problem. Apart from the criticisms that we are prepared to make, and are justified in making, we hope that as the debate proceeds we shall hammer out the human aspect of the Regulations. That is of paramount importance, because they deal with the aged, the infirm, the chronic sick, the blind and those in an advanced stage of tuberculosis.
I repeat what I said when the Minister introduced the Regulations. I said that the proposed increases were too little, given too late. The Parliamentary Secretary very cleverly talked about the lapse of time between the National Assistance Board agreeing the scales and when the Regulations were laid. What I, and I am sure, my hon. and right hon. Friends meant was that the amount involved is too little and that it is being paid too late. There is a vast difference between the laying of the Regulations and making the actual payments under them.
When the Minister replies to the debate I should like him to clarify what the Parliamentary Secretary said about rents. That is very important. He led the House to think that the amount is to be paid exclusive of rents. When challenged, he said there would be payment of rent in full provided it was the average rent prevailing in the region or district. There is a great difference between the actual rent and the rent prevailing in the district. What is the method adopted by the National Assistance 396 Board? Here be it understood that I am not complaining about the attitude of the Board—I shall have something to say about that later.
I understand that the country is split into nine regions in each of which they strike an average rent. Last time the calculation was made, the average rent in the region in which I live was 8s. 10d. or 8s. 11d. In the London area, the average is 16s. 10d. Except in isolated cases the Assistance Board bases the rent allowance on the average rent. We should not let it go out from this House that the Board pays the full rent. The Minister may shake his head, but he might examine that before allowing a pronouncement of the character which has been made today. I know from my own experience that the full rent is not paid in all cases.
It should be remembered also that many of the old people, the sick and the infirm, live in low-rented houses and in those cases, particularly in the rural and semi-rural districts, they do get the full rent. Those who are compelled by circumstances to live in a higher standard of house—for example, a council house—receive not the full rent but an allowance equivalent to the average rent of the district. The Board's Report—and I must compliment the Board upon it—clearly sets out the rents prevailing in the district and, speaking from memory, it will be found that in no two districts are the rents alike. I do not suggest that the Parliamentary Secretary said it deliberately, but those who are, unfortunately, called upon to make application for a rent allowance must not think that they will get the full rent. As I say, it will be an allowance based on the average rent of the district.
With your permission, Mr. Speaker—and I hope that you will not rule me out of order—I should like to clear up a misunderstanding. Though I may get a little angry later on, I want to start on a friendly footing with the National Assistance Board. The misunderstanding arose in this way. On 21st November last I asked a Question—No. 36, in column 1036 of the OFFICIAL REPORT—On the subject of discretionary powers being transferred from area to regional officers. In some quarters that has been taken as a criticism and condemnation of the area officers.
397 May I first assure the right hon. Gentleman, the Parliamentary Secretary and the Assistance Board that it was not my intention to criticise all National Assistance officers. I complimented thorn when I attended the Board on 16th November. I have said before, and I re-emphasise it now that, with very few exceptions and having regard to the problems with which they are confronted, the Board's officers do a magnificent job. What I was complaining about was that someone, somewhere, at some time appeared to have given some instructions to area officers that long-standing cases must be referred to the regional office.
I complained, because who is better placed to assess a case than the men on the spot? They understand the circumstances in which applicants live; they understand their problems and difficulties. I am concerned about those instructions, and that they have been issued is confirmed by my hon. Friend the Member for Whitehaven (Mr. F. Anderson), who tells me hat the same thing is occurring in his district. Let us not get to the stage when regional officers, feeling, perhaps, that the local officers are being a wee bit too generous, say, "Transfer the case to the regional office." The people in the regional offices do not know and cannot assess the requirements of applicants in dire need.
I repeat what I said to the Assistance Board, and what I have said in this House and outside it—the Board's area officers do a magnificent job. Only about 2 per cent. of their number still have the old Poor Law conception of relief, but they are diminishing and, perhaps, in a year or two will pass out altogether. Our job is to make it easy for the officers to meet the needs of the poor. It is to that task that we have to set our hands.
The Minister today possesses a high degree of protection by the rules of procedure of this House. We on this side of the House cannot put down Amendments to the Regulations. We either have to accept the new scales or vote against them, and we have to accept them in toto. If we could do so, we should certainly move Amendments. We should certainly move the deletion of the provision of 2s. 6d. for a single person and substitute one of 7s. 6d., which is what was asked for when we went to the Assistance Board. We should certainly move the deletion of the provision for 4s., and sub- 398 stitute one of 11s., which would take these people back to the position which they occupied on 7th February of this year.
On the other hand, we could go into the Division Lobby and vote against approval of these Regulations, but if we did that our action would be misconstrued in the country. We should then be accused of preventing this morsel of help reaching the poor and needy and the unfortunates of the country. We are not going to do that. So far as my hon. and right hon. Friends and myself are concerned, we are thoroughly dissatisfied with the amounts and the date upon which these miserable increases will be paid, so we had better make it quite clear that that is the line of demarcation between the two sides of the House.
The Parliamentary Secretary is very charming, and tries to disarm us with his charm. He tries to make us believe that he is creating a Utopia, but this is not a Utopia for these people. I sometimes wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has taken the trouble to visit some of our industrial areas to see how these people live and have lived for very many years. The people who come under these Regulations suffered starvation wages in the early years of the industrial depression, and they are the people whose needs have to be met.
Well might a very distinguished journalist this week refer to the Treasury as "the misers of Whitehall"—not the Minister, or his Parliamentary Secretary, or even the National Assistance Board. The people who are the real niggers in the woodpile in this matter are the Treasury, and I only wish that a representative of the Treasury was sitting on the Government Front Bench. That is what a journalist thinks of those responsible for the Regulations now before the House. I hope that the ghost of Scrooge will not visit them this Christmas time, because at this season, when the doors of good will and generosity are thrown wide open to the poor man in his cottage or the Queen in her palace, all will be the recipients of good wishes and generosity except those who are unfortunate enough to be covered by these Regulations.
I want to ask the Minister several questions, and it may be that by the time he winds up the debate he will have accurate answers to them. The first is 399 this: what basis has he used to arrive at the figures of 2s. 6d. and 4s.? Was it a scientific basis, or an arithmetical basis? If he will tell us upon what basis he has arrived at the figures in these Regulations providing increases of 2s. 6d. and of 4s., then we may be in a position to assess whether the calculation is right or not. Is it guess work, or is it based upon a reliable calculation? If it is based upon a reasonable calculation has the right hon. Gentleman ever thought of rewriting the values, because he will have to do it, as sure as my name is what it is? As I read the signs of the times—not The Times newspaper, but the signs of the times—the values will have to be rewritten. They cannot go on as they are.
Secondly, I want to ask him whether the National Assistance Board had already decided to recommend the increased scales when the deputation waited upon them on the morning of 16th November? If they had, why was not the deputation told? Further, had they decided what to do when another deputation waited upon them eight days later from the General Council of the National Federation of Old Age Pensions Associations, with whom were associated several hon. Members of this honourable House? If so, why was not that deputation told? Why cannot people be told about the changes that are decided upon? We are not in the Foreign Office, where everything is veiled in secrecy.
§ Mr. Brown
Well, unless something gets out and it is discovered.
Was the Minister aware of the grave discontent existing among old-age pensioners about the policy pursued by the Government in April, when almost all those in receipt of National Assistance supplementary allowances suffered a reduction in the amounts paid to them? Was the right hon. Gentleman or the Assistance Board aware that, in most big cities and large towns, protest meetings were being held against the Board's action—in towns such as Plymouth, Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool, Coventry, Castleford, Manchester, and in other places too numerous to mention? Was the Minister aware of them, and of the 400 fact that at these meetings resolutions were passed protesting against the rising prices of food, fuel, and lighting since the last increases in basic pensions and supplementary allowances? If not, what was his public relations office doing? I will give way to the Minister if he wishes to interrupt.
§ The Minister of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. Osbert Peake)
I wanted to interrupt the hon. Gentleman a little earlier to ask him about a point with which he was dealing then. He has asked whether or not the Assistance Board had decided upon something at a date when a deputation, to which the hon. Gentleman was a party, went to see the Board. If I knew the date upon which the hon. Gentleman went to see the Board, it would make it easier for me to give him the answer later.
§ Mr. Brown
I gave the right hon. Gentleman the date, but I will repeat it. It was on the morning of 16th November.
Another question I want to ask the Minister is this. Why has the Assistance Board not suggested any change in the disregards, which have remained fixed since 1948? The Minister does not need to evade this question, because we on this side of the House have called his attention to the fact that these disregards have not been changed. If he will look at column 765 of the OFFICIAL REPORT for 4th May, and also at column 2510 of 20th December, 1954, he will find that in those debates we called the attention of the Minister to the question of these disregards. This matter has now reached a stage, particularly in the industrial areas, where industrial workers who have unfortunately sustained accidents which have rendered them permanently incapacitated, have £1 taken into consideration at a time when the cost of living is rising.
Why have these things been ignored? Is there a mystery about it? I long to see the day when everything which these people have going in each week is disregarded. That would mean the abolition of the means test. No members of any other section of the community, whether serving in the Army, the Navy or the Air Force, or in the judiciary, are subjected to a means test when they receive their pensions. I may be accused of being too idealistic, but the nation must not disregard the need of the poorest of the poor.
401 Let us examine for a moment the size of the family which these Regulations will cover. It is no small family. On 25th October, 1955—and that is not long ago—the total number of recipients was 1,598,030, which is a reduction from the number on 30th March, 1954, when it was 1,798,739. I agree that there is a reason for the change. Let us break the figures down so that the picture becomes clear. It is necessary to do so, just as it is necessary to draw back from the canvas upon which the artist has painted his picture in order to get a proper perspective.
Let us take March, 1954. The number of non-contributory old-age pensioners in receipt of supplementation was 114,213. On 27th September. 1955, the number was 155,009—an increase of the noncontributory old-age pensioners. Next, let us take the retirement pensioners or those whom we classify as the contributory old-age pensioners. In 1954, the number was 929,725. This year, September, 1955, it was 883,994. Next, let us consider those in receipt of sickness benefit—and these are the chronic sick who will not get better: in 1954, the number totalled 115,536 and in September, 1955, it totalled 111,654. For widows' pensions the number in 1954 was 93,510 and in September, 1955, it was 76,258. Again, that is a diminishing quantity; these people are slowly but surely passing off the list.
Whenever I listen to debates in the House or outside on this profound human problem there come before my mind men like Keir Hardie, George Lansbury, Robert Smillie and many others too numerous to mention, who sought in their day to alleviate poverty as we understand it.
If we search the records of the House we find that Keir Hardie became Member for West Ham—and there is a connection between West Ham and what I have to say—on 7th February, 1893. Incidentally, next year we shall celebrate the centenary of his birth in Scotland. He had not been in the House very long when he put a Motion on the Order Paper. It was on 10th December, 1902, just 53 years ago. It bore only his signature and so it was not debated. The object of the Motion was to call the Government's attention at that time to the alarming poverty and suffering due to 402 unemployment. The Motion was never debated.
A few days ago another hon. Member put down a Motion, supported by 120 names. We have thus made some improvement in 53 years—from one to 120 supporting the alleviation of poverty. The prime mover on this occasion was my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith), whose great interest in human problems is well known to us. May I express our gratitude to him and to all who signed that Motion. Anyone, either inside the House or outside, who has the cause of the old people at heart gets my thanks.
This Motion, in effect, called upon the Government to request the National Assistance Board to make proposals substantially—and mark the word "substantially"—to increase the Assistance scales as early as possible and to meet adequately the needs of all who require assistance. These scales are neither adequate nor will they meet the needs of all who will be entitled to thm.
I am not so foolish as to claim that the Motion was responsible for this increase—this meagre increase—but it did this: it at least focussed public opinion upon the dire need for something to be done. I draw that conclusion because I have received a large number of letters and a large number of budgets from old people, although I do not want to weary the House by reading them.
Another former Member whose name comes to my mind, another great man who was a Member of the House for over twenty-one years and who was respected and revered for his work on behalf of the bottom dog, is Joe Tinker. He always kept before him the needs of the poor. Incidentally, I had a letter from him yesterday which I will read to the House and which reveals to me the continuing and constant thought which he has for those who are in need of help. It reads:I have been asked many times if the Members of the House of Commons realise the hardship elderly people are going through because of the increased cost of living. The reply that I have given is as follows: 'The House of Commons is composed of men and women who feel a deep sense of justice to all the people, and I am confident they will do something to help you.' I do sincerely trust that Members of the House of Commons will respond to the appeal made by all sections of 403 the community for more generous treatment to the old folks who have given of their best during their lifetime to help the nation.Our plea is not based upon charity. Our plea for these people is based upon a reward for services rendered. My philosophy may be wrong and may not be acceptable to either side of the House, but I firmly believe that it is the duty of all men and women to do their best for the State and industry in which they live and earn their livelihood, and that when these people are overtaken by misfortune—sickness, infirmity or whatever it may be—it is the duty of industry and of the State to protect them from want and penury. That is my philosophy, and I believe it to be true.
What is the reason for this agitation which has been going on for so long and for these conferences and protest meetings? I may be wrong, but in my judgment this agitation is due in the main to the lowering of the spending power of the £ since 1938. We know that before that the value of the £ decreased and then rose again, but in 1938 it started to decrease and has been decreasing ever since: in 1938, 20s.; in 1948, 11s.; in 1954, 8s. 10d.; in February, 1955, 8s. 7d.; in October, last month, 8s. 3d. Coupled with the rising food prices since 1954, up to and including September, 1955, this lowering of the spending value of the £ has been responsible for more disturbance in the minds of these people than anything else.
I cannot do better than to refer to a Written Answer given by the Minister of Labour a few days ago when a question was asked of him by my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Lewis) on 1st December. This comes into conflict with what the Parliamentary Secretary has said. I shall quote the figures given by the Government. My hon. Friend asked the Minister:if he is aware that the cost-of-living index figure has risen from 143 points in September, 1954, to 150 points in September, 1955; and what is the reason for this rise.The Minister gave this reply, and it is of great importance to our case today:Between September, 1954, and September, 1955, the all-items index figure of the Interim Index of Retail Prices rose by 4½ per cent. This was due to rises of 7½ per cent. in the general level of food prices, of 3 per cent. in rent and rates, of 9 per cent. in fuel and light, and of 5 per cent. in the group index covering 404 various services. There was little change in the other components of the index. About two-thirds of the total rise of 4½ per cent. in the index was due to changes in the prices of food."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st December. 1955; Vol. 546, c. 229.]The greatest increase was on the three or four essentials on which old people spend their money, food, light and clothing. It is for that reason that the present agitation has been carried on.
On the subject of rising food prices over the past eighteen months I was very forcibly impressed by the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton), who said:One of the extraordinary things about this Government is that ever since they came into power they have been trying to reduce the cost of living by putting it 1113."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th November, 1955; Vol. 546, c. 2051.]That sounds extraordinary, but I think that there is a great deal of truth in it. When we examine rising prices we find that these commodities are essential to maintain not an average life, but a bare existence. So long as the Government continue to allow prices of food, fuel and lighting to increase, so long will they have applications for increased wages and applications for pensions and National Assistance scales increases.
I want to say a word or two about the date of 23rd January. It would be a good thing if the Minister, his Department and the National Assistance Board, could see whether they cannot bring the date of 23rd January forward to 23rd December. May I make a suggestion to the right hon. Gentleman? There are 460 area National Assistance officers. I do not know the method adopted by them and I do not know whether all the books are printed by one printer, but, if the orders for printing of the books were spread over many firms in the country, what would prevent the printing of the books in the districts where they could be circulated by the area offices in those districts? If 1,600,000 is divided by 460 it would not make a big total for each area office. With an effort and the desire to help these poor people, I think that the Minister could bring the date forward from 23rd January to 23rd December.
I have spoken for longer than I anticipated. I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for his references to me. I have been in this business of trying to alleviate, if not completely to abolish, 405 poverty since 1919—for thirty-six years. It is true that I have seen changes, but our job today is to see that these people, who have given of their best when they were able in the mines, in the fields, in the mills and engineering shops, shall not suffer undue hardship because of the niggardly policy pursued by the Government.
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael Hughes-Young (Wandsworth, Central)
It is with humility that I rise to address the House for the first time and pray for the indulgence which is accorded to a maiden speech. I feel particularly diffident after listening to so obviously sincere a speech as that made by the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown).
I fully realise that many hon. Members have more knowledge of this subject than I have. For that reason I shall be brief, but this is a matter upon which I hold strong opinions, particularly as to the principles involved. It is also a matter upon which considerable concern is felt by some of my constituents in Wandsworth, Central. There is a very wide difference of opinion throughout the country on the relative merits of fixed or flexible pensions.
Great matters are involved. There is the question of national finance, and also the question of the personal pride of the individual, who might not wish to receive something that all his fellow members do not also receive. I feel that one of the main duties of the Government is to make certain that the taxpayers' money is spent economically. That, to my mind, undoubtedly involves the question of selection and of priorities. I do not believe that the Government would be correct to redistribute indiscriminately the money they receive from the taxpayers.
I would go further and say I do not believe that any generation has the right to enter into undefined financial arrangements which in future might place an immense burden on the shoulders of their children—so great a burden, possibly, that it may far outweigh the value of any financial benefits which eventually might be received. Having said that, I fully agree with the hon. Member for Ince that we have a very great social and moral obligation to help the needy of this country.
406 I will not enter into the difficult calculation of breaking down the figures in the Report, but, as I read it, there are approximately 2½ million people, including wives, children and dependants, who at present have been by-passed in the growth of national prosperity. It is those people—the elderly, the incapacitated and certain others—who for limited periods are within that category that we have to consider today. It is certainly no consolation to those people to be told that, for instance, the average industrial wage has reached an all-time record, because on their limited and fixed means they have still to carry on the battle against prices.
As I think my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary mentioned, at this season of the year probably the most worrying problem to those people—particularly the old—is that of getting enough fuel for the winter. In fact, I should say that whereas the vastly greater part of the population is considering which luxuries it will select, this limited part of the population is wondering how it can procure necessities.
One of the very difficult problems that we have to face is how we are to use the money, whether it be surplus national wealth or money raised by taxation, to the very best advantage. Are we to have a uniform increment to existing pensions, in which case, in trying to achieve too much, we may achieve far too little, or are we to go in for a far more flexible use of the money through, say, National Assistance and ensure that the maximum amount is available to the needy?
I have no hesitation in saying that pensions must in all cases be related to contributions. I do not feel that pensions can be tied to the cost of living, for if we do anything of that nature we will be saddling our children with the most appalling financial burden. On the other hand, having said that, I believe that National Assistance is the direct link between the personal life and the national cost of living. It is the one ready-made method whereby the Government can make certain that there is a guaranteed basic standard of life below which no one must fall. National Assistance has great advantages, at any rate from an administrative viewpoint, because it embraces everybody, whether the young man or the old man of pensionable age; it embraces 407 mothers, families, children and handicapped people.
I should like to refer briefly to some of the special allowances which are being paid out in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary referred to rent, which is a matter particularly applicable to National Assistance, for there are variations of rent up and down the country. There is also the question of domestic help. In my constituency, it being in London, cash is not given for domestic help. What always happens is that the National Assistance officer who calls on the family realises that domestic help is necessary. It is then procured from the London County Council through the National Assistance officer's good offices. I understand that, elsewhere in the country, actual cash advances are given for domestic help.
Cash advances are given for the payment of laundry bills, which is extremely useful to old and sick people. I believe the Report states that no less than one-third of all old people over the age of 80 who are in receipt of National Assistance send out their laundry and are given extra payments to cover the cost. Exceptional payments are made also for such matters as clothing and bedding. Generally, the payments come about as a result of the visit of a National Assistance Officer. It is extraordinary how seldom people ask for these things and how often it is that the National Assistance officer is the first to notice the need and suggests that a cash payment should be made.
There is no specific upper limit to a cash advance of this kind. People are not told that they must satisfy their needs within a certain range of goods. The National Assistance officer, having been round the shops, probably knows what quality of goods is being sold but he will not specify to the recipient any upper limit for what must be bought. There is, of course, no question of the officer's going to assist in making the purchase.
These are matters of real help and advantage to the old and the infirm. I associate myself with the hon. Member for Ince in paying such a stirring tribute to the human approaches of the National Assistance officers. It has been the whole policy of the National Assistance Board to humanise and individualise its approach to the people with whom it is 408 dealing. That is a very fine thing. I know that the Board's officers, certainly in my constituency, carry out periodical visits to see how the people with whom they are dealing are getting on and also to pick up such matters as I have mentioned concerning extra payments for necessities.
I was glad to hear my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary say that the National Assistance officer will in time come to be regarded as the old age pensioner's best friend, and I hope that that is true, in the same way as the policeman is today the small child's best friend. When I was a small child I was terrified of policemen, for I was always told that if I misbehaved I would be given over to them. I notice, however, that my own children are not in the least afraid of policemen. I believe that the same relationship will come about—I hope quickly—between the National Assistance officer and the recipient of National Assistance.
My last point in that connection concerns the speed with which National Assistance can be made available. I am quite certain that it is the quickest of all methods used to adjust individual hardship. My hon. Friend quoted the article from the Economist and mentioned that no less than five increases have already been given since 1948. It was said that the changes in the Board's scales tended not only to cover past rises in prices, but also to anticipate future rises.
I conclude by referring briefly to the attitude of some people who receive National Assistance. I am very sorry—one cannot disguise it—that some people deeply resent receiving National Assistance. They regard it as a charity and they believe that to receive it brings shame to their families. I have even heard people say that they would rather go without the money than receive National Assistance.
This is a matter in which everybody who has any administrative or official connection with National Assistance can help. All political parties agree that National Assistance has nowadays become an integral part of the social services and I am certain that if we can persuade people that they are in no sense accepting a charity, but rather a right, in receiving National Assistance, we shall be doing a valuable service.
409 I asked one of the National Assistance officers in my constituency whether she ever received abuse from people who received National Assistance. Her reply was very much to the contrary. She said, "It would do your heart good to see some of the letters of thanks which we receive." She said it was remarkable how people who at first are worried and frightened when applying for National Assistance, when they realise how much they can get and the kindness of the Board's officers, are overcome with gratitude and send the most pathetic letters to the Board.
There is, of course, the unfortunate feeling that if someone receives National Assistance, the neighbours are bound to know about it. That is not altogether correct. It is really unnecessary for the neighbours to know. When the National Assistance officer calls, he gives no message except to the person he has come to see, and unless that person is at home he goes away and comes again another time. Unless the person who receives the National Assistance goes round talking about it to everybody else, it is quite unnecessary for anyone to know that he or she is in receipt of Assistance. That is an extremely important point which cannot be over-emphasised.
I conclude by reiterating my belief that National Assistance is the right of all those people who have failed to share in the national prosperity. We cannot but remind them that during their working lives they have helped to contribute to that national prosperity. It is for that reason that I most strongly welcome the increase proposed by the Government, and I would only ask them in the future not only to maintain the standard but to do their utmost to increase it in conformity with our national prosperity.
§ 5.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Thomas Hubbard (Kirkcaldy Burghs)
I am particularly glad to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, at this moment so that the honour falls on me to compliment the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central (Mr. Hughes-Young), who has just made his maiden speech. I feel particularly fortunate in being able to do so because, although my constituency is a long way from Wandsworth, I notice that the hon. Member began his very distinguished Army career in the Black Watch, which is a very big advantage, because I am sure 410 that he must have come into contact with some very gallant gentlemen from the area which I have the honour to represent.
The hon. Member has distinguished himself very well in his military service, and he has distinguished himself today in an admirable maiden speech, well thought out and well delivered, and I am sure that the House will look forward with great interest to his speeches in the future, and perhaps to the rather rude interruptions of one's speeches which one gets from time to time. It is a great honour to be able for the third time in a not too long Parliamentary career to compliment an hon. Member on his maiden speech. I do so with the greatest sincerity.
I wish that I could be equally complimentary to the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, who has just left the Chamber. I am sorry that I in no way feel like being complimentary to him, and I will address my remarks to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary who. I am sure, will convey to him the remarks, kind or otherwise, which I propose to make.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House, and from all parts of the country, will assess the need of people according to their own experience. I have listened to the quotation from the Economist which has been made today, and I have also listened to the figures given us by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. I would prefer, like most hon. Members, to draw upon my own experiences and my own knowledge, rather than that of the individual who wrote this article in the Economist. I do not put my trust too much in the figures compounded by people within the four bare walls of a room, whose contact with the human aspect of those concerned must be very remote. In the remarks which I have to make, I prefer to rely on my own experience, which started nineteen years ago, of administering the Poor Law under the old Public Assistance committees, and my experience of an old-age pensioners' association of which I have had the honour to be an honorary president since 1937.
That is a rather long period during which I have had some very bitter experiences. Indeed, it is those experiences which make me feel that the present advance given by these Regulations is so 411 miserable, so mean and so unrealistic. I was with the deputation to the National Assistance Board on the date mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown). Included in that deputation was the secretary of the Scottish Old-Age Pensions Association and the vice-president of the British Council of Old-Age Pensions, Mrs. Anderson. It is not often that I take the privilege of mentioning an individual by name in this House, but Mrs. Anderson, although herself not yet an old-age pensioner, has spent a great deal of her life in trying to improve the lot of old-age pensioners. She has met the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance on many occasions, and I am quite sure that she has also met the Joint Parliamentary Secretary.
I believe that the Minister complimented her on the reasonable, competent way in which she stated her case. Would not the Minister prefer to accept her experience and her figures rather than the matter which he read from the Economist? Figures only mean one thing in cold print, but who on this side of the House has not had the horrible experience of being in a shop watching an old-age pensioner, who draws the supplementary pension, groping through her purse for coppers and asking whether it is possible to buy 2 oz. of meat, or 2 oz. of tea, or 1 1b. of potatoes—although potatoes are only about 7½d. for 3½ 1b.? Is she expected to be satisfied with the suggestion that an increase of 4s. will meet the needs of the day? These are the figures which really tell the story. When assessing needs, one is obliged to look at all sides of the picture.
One of my constituents asked me whether the pension which had been granted to him by the Transport Commission would prevent him from drawing a supplementary pension and any increased supplementary pension. It is this sort of people that we are dealing with—people who have devoted the whole of their lives to industry in order to make this country what it is, who have 1.ad to work long hours and who have brought up large families. Many of them fought in two wars and suffered to make this country as great as it is.
This man had served for 45 years as a railway worker, and in spite of the fact 412 that the Government are trying to encourage people not to retire at 65 but to go on working in order to meet the country's needs, due to the shortage of labour, he received a notice on 11th August that he was compulsorily retired by the British Transport Commission. I find that he received a notification on 27th October from the Transport Commission, which says:In accordance with the rules of the above scheme, you have been granted a pension of 6d. per week commencing from 11.10.55."—He had been granted a pension of 6d. a week and he wonders if it will be taken into account in assessing his need when he makes application for a supplementary pension.
Another question arises, apart from the question of this "grand" pension of 6d. a week. He is told:The first payment will be made on Friday, 4th November, and will represent the amount due to 5th November, 1955, plus two weeks pension in advance. Thereafter your four-weekly payment will be 2s. and you should collect this on 2nd December and every subsequent four weeks, at Kirkcaldy Station. It is necessary to restrict the time at which your pension can be collected and I would ask you to ascertain from the Paying Officer the most suitable time for you to call on the day when payment is due.Not only is this chap to get only 6d. a week pension, but he has to collect it once every four weeks. He has to make sure that the paying officer at Kirkcaldy Station is available so that he can collect the pension, and he has to walk a mile and a quarter to get it.
That is the sort of thing that I want the House to consider when we are assessing whether or not 4s. a week is enough for a married couple and 2s. 6d. a week is enough in the case of a single person. I have painted this picture to try to make the House realise that this is a human problem and not merely a problem which should be considered from the point of view of figures and calculations.
I listened to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary saying that the full rent was paid in respect of supplementary pensions. I put down a Question on 21st November to the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance. I asked the Minister:if he will agree to have the additional sums payable to old-age pensioners, in respect of the period they continued in gainful occupation after reaching retirement age, added to the disregards when their income is assessed for National Assistance."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 21st November, 1955 Vol. 546, c. 1045.]413 These Regulations which are before the House have to be read with the main Regulations of 1948. There has been every opportunity for the Minister to adjust matters so that the increments are added to the disregards.
After the passing of the National Insurance Act. 1948, an appeal was made to those people who were no longer to get the old-age pension but were to qualify for retirement pension to continue in industry. By doing so they would earn the right to an additional income of 2s. for themselves and 2s. for their wives—an amount which was increased to 3s. at a later date. That was done for the purpose of encouraging these old people to continue in industry and help to maintain production figures.
Many of these people earned these additional increments. Nowadays, because of the devaluation of the £ and because of the increased cost of the commodities which old people buy, these people are feeling the pinch. They can only get the rent allowance if they qualify for supplementary pension. But when they apply for supplementary pension they discover that the increments they earned by continuing in work are deducted from the supplementary pension.
Could anyone conceive of more shoddy and mean treatment of old people who have worked in industry until 65 years of age and have then continued to work for the good of the country, than to penalise them by deducting those increments from their supplementary pension? Could the Joint Parliamentary Secretary or any decent minded persons justify such treatment? No wonder my hon. Friend the Member for Ince expressed the hope that Scrooge does not visit the Treasury representatives on Christmas Eve.
The Minister said in reply to my Question on 21st November that if increments were disregarded it would tend to depart from the main purpose of the Beveridge plan. He did not seem to be aware that the Beveridge plan had been departed from and that the pension bore no relation to the Beveridge plan. The Beveridge plan was that old people were not to get the old-age pension until twenty years after the scheme had been placed on the Statute Book. His argument at that time was that the old people would not wish to 414 draw an increased pension unless they had had the honour of contributing towards it, and that they should get a gradual increase at the rate of 1s. 6d. until they reached the sum suggested by Lord Beveridge of 24s., which would be in twenty years' time.
It was a very good job for the old-age pensioners that old-age pensions were increased from 10s. to 26s. when the party to which I have the privilege to belong introduced the National Insurance Bill. Not only did the old-age pensioners get the pension at the time of that Measure but they got it a year beforehand. The increased pension was paid in October, 1946, whereas the scheme did not come into operation until 5th July, 1948. It was a good job for the old people that National Insurance was introduced by the party to which I have the honour to belong, and not by those who issued the White Paper about the Beveridge Report in the days of the Coalition Government. I was a Member of this House at the time, and I remember these things very clearly.
There is another measuring stick of people's needs. I suggested on 21st November that far too many old people required hospital attention. I suggested that in England, Scotland and Wales complaints were being made of the number of old people requiring hospital beds because they were inadequately fed. I have since taken the trouble to confirm this fact in my own area. The Minister of Pensions and National Insurance promised in reply to my Question to send me some figures relating to this matter. There is a shortage of hospital beds all over the country, and these old people are occupying hospital beds in larger numbers today than ever they were, simply because they are suffering from malnutrition—a complaint which I thought had been abolished. Is that not a better measuring stick of people's needs for supplementary pensions?
§ Mr. Raymond Gower (Barry)
I agree with a good deal of what the hon. Gentleman has said, but he has repeatedly stated that "the party to which I had the honour to belong" did so and so. At the same time, he has complained about the harsh operation of disregards. Surely the party to which he belonged must have had some good reason for including these disregards.
§ Mr. Hubbard
If there is anything which makes me feel sick it is the repeated attempt by hon. Members opposite to justify something which is wrong simply because we thought it was right at some time in the past. Let me say here what I have said elsewhere. The man who has not changed his mind has never changed his shirt. I do not try to justify the actions of the Government in power at that time. I look at things as they are today. That is all that concerns me. Today we are dealing with new regulations which affect the lives of people today and not ten years ago. Therefore, I disregard completely any suggestion that my argument is wrong simply because the party to which I have the honour to belong did these things immediately after the war when the country was in economic difficulty and, indeed, was bankrupt. The Government of those days did a wonderful job.
To continue with my argument, many of these old people are occupying hospital beds which should be used for remedial purposes. The average cost per patient in hospital nowadays is £28 per week.
§ Mr. Hubbard
I agree, it is for medical patients. Obviously, it would be much better to ensure that these old people are adequately fed and cared for than that they should occupy hospital beds.
There is another very tragic aspect of this matter. I refer to the number of old people who today are accommodated in mental hospitals simply because there is no other place for them. I would rather use as a measuring stick of people's need the fact that old men and women are underfed and cold through lack of coal. I am aware of people living in a coal area, walking on top of coal, who have worked all their lives in coal mines and yet today, in the winter months, are sitting without fires. I can take the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to some of these people.
The Minister's area officer in Kirkcaldy knows of these cases. This area officer is one of the finest men that I know. He is one of the most decent fellows to the old people. He not only helps them but addresses meetings telling 416 them what they are entitled to get. I should like to compliment his staff, too, for no area officer can be a good officer if he has a bad staff. That does not alter the fact that these old people have no tires. Is it any wonder that some of them slip a little bit mentally? They are improperly fed, they have no one to speak to and nothing to amuse them.
I compliment the Government on having introduced home helps, but there are still the lonely hours at night when many of these old people are alone and when someone ought to be with them. Something beyond State schemes is necessary. There is a need for some voluntary organisation to ensure that no old person is left alone at night. It is a horrible thought that people who have worked not only until they reach retirement age but sometimes beyond it finish their lives in mental institutions.
What has the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance, hon. Members opposite or any person anywhere to say about that? Let us remember that these are human beings who, as has been said in the debate, made this country what it is. I hope, therefore, that even at this late hour the Government will get away from the idea that these things can be settled between four bare walls simply by computing figures.
I am quite sure that the area officers are forced to make decisions against their will because they have to work within limits. It has been suggested from this side of the House that the increase of supplementary pensions could be paid before Christmas were it not for the printing of the new pension books. What does this work amount to? If the will were there the increase could be paid tomorrow, never mind the 23rd December.
These old people had to go all through last winter without an increase in old-age pensions and supplementary pensions. We did not know why. The Government admitted that there was a case for it. The Minister admitted it to a deputation. He had said it also in July of last year, but there was no increase until this year. I suggest that that was because it was not until April that an Election was expected.
§ Mr. Hubbard
These old people had to go without any increase last Christmas because there was to be an Election this year. The Government had admitted the need, but nothing was done until April of this year. The Election had come along, but just prior to it an increase in old-age pensions was announced. If that is how the Government are going to compute human values, the Parliamentary Secretary, for all his charm, is not a fit and proper person to look after the affairs of old people. I suggest that he makes closer contact than he has made in the past and consult with his area officers and advisory committees. If he does, he will find that, far from 4s. being reasonable, the figure should be 11s. at the very minimum for married people and 7s. 6d. for single people. Even that would not be giving them one penny more than was necessary to bring their standard of living to its level when the Government unfortunately came into office a few years ago.
On this occasion, like my hon. Friend the Member for Ince, I cannot go into the Division Lobby against this proposal or be party to an Amendment. We have to accept or reject these things. If we reject them, we shall be accused of preventing people from obtaining an increase in their supplementary pensions. I therefore accept the proposals, but with the regret that at a time when old people have proved their need the maximum they will receive is only 4s., which is not only insufficient but is an insult to them.
§ 5.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)
I should have thought that the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy Burghs (Mr. Hubbard) knew that the increases in the old-age pension and the other matters to which he referred were decided upon a very long time before the Election was thought of last April, and I do not think that there is very much force in that argument of his. If things really were as bad as the hon. Member has suggested, it would amaze me that anybody should ever be elected to this side of the House. Certainly, if the electors believed every word that has fallen from his lips, it would be impossible for anybody to be elected to this side.
§ Mr. Hubbard
is the hon. Member not aware that the increase in the old-age pension was not made until April this 418 year, but that legislation was going through the House last Christmas time, although the Minister had admitted the need for pension increases a year earlier than that?
§ Mr. Kershaw
That is my point—that legislation took such a long time to go through the House that the matter had to be decided upon and put into operation and the books had to be printed, as hon. Members know, long before that.
I must be careful not to sicken the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy Burghs any further and call further bursts of eloquence upon my head by suggesting that the Socialist Government could have done what we are trying to do now and by saying, "Would that the hon. Member had made that speech before when his party was in office."
§ Mr. Kershaw
I am not going to say that. What I am going to say is that, far from doing what the Socialist Government did, we are doing far better. The levels of payment are fractionally above any level received before, not only arithmetically but in terms of these people's standard of life. Therefore, I find it difficult to understand why such heat should be generated against these proposals and why people say that they are so thoroughly dissatisfied with them.
The constant attacks made from the other side of the House on the cost-of-living index do not convince me and I believe not very many other people either. The index was invented and brought into operation when the Socialists were in office. It was then thought to be very reliable. It is relied upon for argument on both sides of the House, but when hon. Members opposite find that their arguments do not look so well in conjunction with the cost-of-living index they throw the index out of the window and say, "You cannot talk of the cost of living. This is a human problem and if you come to my constituency I can tell you all about it."
The hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) said that rent was not always found for those receiving National Assistance. But it is true that the vast majority of rents are paid for those in need of National Assistance. The Report of the National Assistance Board for the year ending 31st December last states: 419In the assessment of the allowances current in December, 1954, the rent had been provided for in full in 1,167,000 cases, and, of the other 185,000, 133,000 were cases in which the household included at least one earning member able to take responsibility for part of a relatively high rent.That means that only 4 per cent. of those in receipt of National Assistance did not have their rent paid in full. Four in every hundred is a very low figure. One wishes that it were none, but we should not allow the impression to go out that rents are very seldom paid.
It is suggested that the proposed rise in supplementary pensions is too small. We all wish that it were greater, but we certainly would be very right to criticise the National Assistance Board if it held back giving a rise for a long time in order to give a substantial rise and thus obtain publicity when it gave it. That would be quite wrong because in the meantime many people would be suffering hardship. It is quite right that the increases should be small and should be given comparatively frequently. The Board would be failing in its duty if it hesitated too long. The speed with which the Board carries out these transactions is extremely praiseworthy. We have heard from the Parliamentary Secretary that only ten days elapsed between publication of the cost-of-living index and the laying of proposals before the House. It is a great tribute to the efficiency with which the Board carries out its duties.
It has been suggested, however, that because the payments are not due to be made for a month or so, this will impose additional hardship on those waiting to receive them. That point has not escaped the attention of the Board and this increase takes into account not only the rises which have taken place, but those which can reasonably be expected before the payments begin. The Economist of last week stated:… Ever since 1948, when the national assistance scheme replaced supplementary pensions, the changes in the Board's scales have tended to anticipate future rises in prices as well as to compensate for past ones. This week's decision continues that policy.If that is so, it largely removes the sting from the criticism made by the hon. Member for Ince when he said, "Too little and too late." As to too little, we wish we could give more. But it is not 420 too late. It has been done in time and care has been taken to cover the cost-of-living rising between now and when the payments begin.
Figures were given about the numbers of those in receipt of National Assistance to show that the figures were increasing. The rates which are now coming into operation will cause those figures to rise further, and for a gratifying reason. It is because people will be brought in who up to now have not come within the ambit of the payments. Yet, speaking for my own area of Stroud, I can tell the House that the numbers now on National Assistance are smaller than they were at the beginning of the year. In January this year there were 3,100, there are now 2,700 and there is no indication that the figures will rise, except possibly due to a seasonal rise at this time of the year as winter begins.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wandsworth, Central (Mr. Hughes-Young) made an admirable maiden speech, if I may respectfully say so, although that may seem presumptuous, as I have only just made my own. I want to associate myself with his remarks about the help which the National Assistance officers can give when they go into homes of applicants and give advice. I do not think people realise that no less than £9 million a year is distributed by way of discretionary allowances on the personal intervention of the National Assistance officer. Anyone acquainted with these matters will know that the officers carry out their duties sympathetically and efficiently. If there are some people who are reluctant to get in contact with the Board, I hope that what is said here this afternoon will help them to make up their minds to ask an officer to call.
None of us likes the means test mentioned by the hon. Member for Ince but he went to the other extreme in suggesting that there should be no inquiry. That everybody should receive National Assistance without any test is a novel doctrine—
§ Mr. James Simmons (Brierley Hill)
My hon. Friend made no such suggestion. All he was talking about was the disregard.
§ Mr. Kershaw
I listened most carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said, and the implication clearly was that there should 421 not be a means test and that everybody who wished to qualify for National Assistance should do so automatically.
§ Mr. Hubbard
What my hon. Friend for Ince said was that in this country there are a number of pensions granted—he instanced one or two of them—for large sums without any regard being paid to the means of the individuals concerned. The hon. Gentleman ought to be fair and factual in his comments about the speech of my hon. Friend.
§ Mr. Kershaw
I would not wish to misinterpret the remarks of any hon. Gentleman, and if my attention wandered for a short time during the latter stages of that speech I must apologise, though that was my definite impression.
Part of the general question we are considering is the pocket money of 7s. 6d. a week given to those living in institutions. I am sure it is a matter of great pleasure to my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne-mouth (Dame Irene Ward) that as a result of her initiative, and that of a friend of mine who lives in my constituency, a Bill was introduced in 1936 giving pocket money for the first time to those in institutions, although the amount was not then 7s. 6d. Nevertheless this is very little for an old person who has no other resources, and I hope that when the matter comes up for review the Minister will give sympathetic consideration to this point.
I am certain that these proposed scales are an advance on anything we have had up to now, so, while they can never be as generous as we would like, I welcome them.
§ 5.36 p.m.
§ Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)
Two attempts have been made already to remove any misunderstanding about what my hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) said. I hesitate to offer a third, but while I think that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw) correctly heard what my hon. Friend said, he probably interpreted those remarks somewhat differently from the way my hon. Friend intended. What my hon. Friend said, what he meant, and what I wholeheartedly approve, was that he was looking forward to the day when an adequate pension would be paid as of right without a means test. That is an 422 object which many who are close students of our social affairs wish to achieve.
It is perhaps one of the great divides in opinion and in objective in our social system as to whether the pension payable as of right shall be enough for a reasonable standard of life or whether, as the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central (Mr. Hughes-Young) said, we should regard National Assistance as an integral part of our social security system. It occupies a far bigger part than ever Beveridge thought it would. It occupies a far bigger part than ever we thought it would. It occupies a far bigger part than we think it should. That was really what my hon. Friend was saying. Therefore, I think the hon. Member for Stroud need not apologise for his remarks because, if they were interpreted correctly, I am sure that he was agreeing with my hon. Friend the Member for Ince.
When the late Samuel Gompers, the American trade union leader, was asked what it was that the trade union leaders wanted, he said, "More." I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance thinks that that goes for the Opposition benches. As far as National Assistance is concerned, it does. Many of us have taken part in movements for wage restraint in times of economic difficulty, but this is a topic on which there need be no restraint. One simply cannot go wrong in asking for more for the National Assistance scales because they deal with the lowest standard of life in the community, and are something upon which, even in the hardest times and in the greatest economic difficulties, the social conscience must be maintained and must, if necessary, be aroused in order that we discharge our moral obligations.
I thought the Parliamentary Secretary dealt very lightly with the proposals contained in the draft Regulations. He excused himself by saying that experience had shown that the more one said the more one was criticised, so possibly the best thing to do was to be brief, so that nobody could hang on to one's words and tear them to pieces afterwards.
In the absence of the explanation, which we all await, how the National Assistance Board decided on these amounts, we can only conjecture, even now, how the Board came to think of 2s. 6d. for the single person's scale and 423 4s. for the married person's scale. Although it will be belated, I hope the Minister will satisfy the inquiries which have been made on this topic.
In 1954, a year ago this month, when the draft Regulations were debated in the House just before Christmas, the increases then proposed, which became effective from 7th February this year, were 2s. 6d. for the single person and 4s. for the married couple. The proposal in these Regulations is an increase of 2s. 6d. for the single person and 4s. for the married couple—in other words, the same.
If the amounts proposed are the same this year as they were last year, are the criteria upon which the National Assistance Board has come to its conclusions the same this year as they were between 1952 and 1954? We have not been told. If so, what are those criteria? Many of us on these benches are constantly asking to be allowed to eavesdrop on the Assistance Board. We want to know what it does, what it says, what figures it has before it, what information it has from local offices, how many economists there are in one ante-room, how many statisticians in another ante-room, how they do their job and how they get at what they propose.
Surely we are entitled to know more about this. Cannot the right hon. Gentleman lift the statistical curtain or whatever it is which obscures the information which I think we are entitled to know? Is it the cost of living which decides these increases or the wages index or the index of production or a combination of all three? Is it reports which the Assistance Board receives from its area officers as to how the old people are living? Where do all these factors come in the final result?
I always think that the arguments on this matter are much more plausible and the figures much more impressive than the facts. In considering the matter, we cannot refuse to accept the visible evidence which surely all hon. Members observe as they go around their constituencies and see how the poor live. We cannot feel proud of how they are just getting along on the barest level of subsistence and we cannot be unduly impressed with the statistical truth which the Parliamentary Secretary brought forward that, according to the figures, there 424 is an increase in the real value of the pensions in 1955–56 as compared with 1948.
This is, perhaps, one of the few debates in which it is not seemly for the pot to call the kettle black. It is not, in 1955, an argument to say that in 1948 the Minister expressed satisfaction with a state of affairs as he then saw it and with the proposals he was then making, or to refer to utterances of the Parliamentary Secretary at the time about the fairness or otherwise of what he believed to be the sound proposals of the Government of the day.
I repeatedly emphasise that the whole of our social thinking in 1948 was based on the inter-war conditions. Our mentality at that time was infected by the Poor Law. The Beveridge Report was pre-war thinking brought up to war-time and post-war standards and a writing up of the old standards of life, not the creation of a new standard. I think we must accept that as a fact in our experience, and we should now look ahead and think in terms of social advance and not be tied down to the formulae of 1937 and 1939 or even the social thinking of Beveridge in 1944.
I hesitate to use figures, although I spent all the morning working a lot out to see what I could make of them. As far as I can see, the present rate of 63s. for a married couple is worth, at 1952 prices, 58s. If that is correct, then the married couple are at present 1s. down in real terms on 1952 scales, because the scale was then 59s. and under real terms the 63s. of today equals 58s. at 1952 prices. It is obvious that on that comparison alone something is now due because, as I say, the married couple are already down on 1952 values.
§ Mr. Houghton
I was working from the figures for the values of sterling given in column 175 of the OFFICIAL REPORT Of 6th December. The Chancellor, replying to Questions, then gave details of the internal purchasing power of the £ in the years 1950–55, as compared with 1946, and I arrived at both my 1952 and 1955 basis from those figures.
425 On that assumption, the new scale of 67s., subject to a fall in its value during the next few months, which I by no means rule out, will be worth 61s. 8d. at 1952 prices, so it seems that for the moment and on paper the real increase in the new scale over the 1952 prices for a married couple is 2s. 8d. That, as I see it, is the temporary increase in the real value of the Assistance scales now proposed over the 1952 values. That is a 5 per cent. increase in real terms over 1952, and I presume that that is what the Parliamentary Secretary had in mind when he said that these proposals represented a positive increase in the purchasing power of the National Assistance scales.
We have already heard, however, that the Assistance Board, taking the hint of the Minister on a previous occasion, is probably anticipating price increases in the coming months, and we can therefore expect that the rise in prices in the coming months may absorb and more than absorb the temporary increase in the real value of the Board's scales in these proposals. That is what happened last time. There is a real danger, stimulated, of course, by the Chancellor's autumn Budget and by Purchase Tax, that the tendency for a price rise may be sharper than it was a little while ago and that this slight temporary advantage may soon be swallowed up and that the beneficiaries may find themselves once again sinking below the standard which the Minister thinks he is providing in the Regulations.
When we have done with all these figures—and I admit that in terms of money the National Assistance scales have gone up by 67 per cent. since 1948, although their real purchasing power is a great deal less than that—we know that production is rising considerably more than the increase in the real value of the scales. We know that earnings have risen more than the rise in the National Assistance scales. It all boils down—and this is where the social policy arises—to this: what standard of life do we think that those on the lowest rung of the ladder should have, and what provision are we prepared to make for them to have a continuing share of the rise in the national income? Those are the twin problems of social policy in this connection.
I want to underline what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Ince and 426 reiterated by the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central, in an admirable maiden speech, and that is the quality of the people about whom we are talking. These are not the driftwood of life; these are not the flotsam and jetsam of our community; these are worthy retirement pensioners, the salt of the earth, the people who put in a lifetime of work for the community and who have the very least to show for it.
Many of them were the victims of the depression of the inter-war years. Many were too old to be able to avail themselves to full advantage of the higher wages and more secure employment during the war. These are the people whom we should regard as a legacy of bad times, times which we hope will never come again. It is our special responsibility to see that in a community with greater prosperity and higher social values they are treated decently and even generously by those of us who are in a position so to do.
§ Mr. J. K. Vaughan-Morgan (Reigate)
I am very interested in the hon. Member's speech. He is putting a most interesting point of view very cogently. Is he suggesting, as was explicit in the earlier part of his speech, that the standard need by which the Assistance Board should judge those who apply for assistance should vary with the index of production? It sounded rather like it.
§ Mr. Houghton
Certainly. I think that it should be a rising standard, and that was the very point to which I was coming.
I was looking at the functions of the Assistance Board and at the references to "those who are without resources," and of "meeting their requirements," and references to those whose resources include benefits under the National Insurance Acts which must be supplemented "to meet their requirements." There is no need for the Assistance Board to look at this in terms of abject poverty and to stick to pre-war datum lines on the minimum needs of a family. The Board has discretion to look at requirements in a changing social structure and economic circumstances. It is entitled to look at what standard of life a person is enjoying when he retires. I mean, of course, the general run of the wage earner.
427 As I have asked many times, are wireless licences and television licences now to be regarded among a person's requirements, or are we to say "Unfortunately, this is something we are not willing to provide for you; your requirements, judged from our point of view, are below that and are merely the necessities of life, food, fuel, light and shelter. No enjoyment for you, nor the standard of life in your retirement to which you were used when at work"? I do not think that we are entitled to say that, and neither is the National Assistance Board entitled to say it. I sincerely hope that the Minister will reassure us on this point and will say that he is inviting the Assistance Board to look at its functions in the light of present conditions and to interpret the term "requirements" in the light of the sort of standard people in these days have come to enjoy.
Let me say, in passing, that in asking for more we shall not embarrass the Chancellor of the Exchequer. After all, he is to take £75 million out of the people's pockets by means of the increases in Purchase Tax. He is not at all short of money. He has used this additional tax for economic purposes and no economist would say that to redistribute some of it to the National Assistance beneficiaries would put that inflationary pressure upon the economy which he is anxious to avoid. These people are not the community's spenders. They are not people sending up the cost of living by pressing against inadequate resources by their expanding purchasing power. The National Assistance beneficiaries have less responsibility than most members of the community for any economic difficulties into Which we may be getting, because none of them declares bonus shares or higher dividends and very few indeed are beneficiaries from such activities.
I am encouraged by what the Minister said on 21st December, 1954, when he declared:I agree that it would be wrong to regard subsistence as a static conception.…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st December, 1954; Vol. 535, c. 2673.]I am sure that the whole House will approve of that. All we complain about is that we have not seen a little more evidence of it. Had he come forward with bolder proposals, we should have felt more satisfied.
428 I therefore trust that the Minister will regard the criticism that we are making from this side of the House today as encouragement to adopt a bolder social policy. I am sure that the whole country would endorse a more radical and imaginative approach from the Minister and from the Government. I am making no party capital at all out of this, because I think that, basically, the approaches of the two sides to this problem have a great deal in common. The important difference between us is that we regard social advance from this level as being one of the highest priorities in an expanding economy and in a developing community and hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite probably do not attach quite the same importance to it.
Looking at it from a Socialist standpoint, I think that our aim must be a better life for everybody. Old age is merely one phase of life and we have as many responsibilities in that as in any other. There is an obligation upon the community to provide the old in their declining years with a standard of life which can be regarded as a suitable reward for their endeavours. If we do not put it any higher, that would certainly give great moral satisfaction to many whose consciences must be sorely troubled by the spectacle of poverty which we see among these people at the present time.
§ 6.0 p.m.
§ Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)
The whole House is indebted to the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) for the speech which he has just made. I hope that when my right hon. Friend the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance replies to the debate he will answer the broad, basic argument which has been put by the hon. Gentleman.
I myself very much regret that we have had this debate on these Regulations before the promised debate on the Report of the Phillips Committee. I find it extremely difficult to try to discuss the responsibilities of the House of Commons to those who are living under not such happy circumstances as we are. It is almost impossible to have a debate on the basic principle of how to move forward in their interests without discussing that Report.
The time has come when, having expressed views on the new Regulations, we ought to move forward to a debate 429 on the Report, so that we can really discover in what direction we are travelling. I hope that my right hon. Friend will encourage those who have made contributions to the discussion, from both sides, by saying that he, as a member of the Cabinet, will press for a debate on the Phillips Report at the earliest possible moment.
Like everyone else, I welcome the introduction of these new scales. We are indebted to the National Assistance Board for making these recommendations and putting them into operation as speedily as is humanly possible, but I wish to ask my right hon. Friend to deal in more detail with the possibility of bringing up to date the disregards. Looking at the matter from my own point of view, and taking into account the standards of life which we are discussing, I would say that we are now tending to make it better for people not to save.
There are occasions when people who have no resources at all can be better off than those who have tried, through hard work and thrift, to make some provision for old age. I am, in this sense, reflecting the general opinion of the country. Those who move among the people, as many of us on both sides of the House do, know that this opinion is expressed time and again.
I will not get into a political argument over the introduction of the 1948 Act and the disregards which were laid down, but in all sincerity I say that now, in 1955, when we have settled down to an ever-increasing standard of life, with higher wages, higher profits and a controlled inflation, it is time to reconsider the disregards which are implicit in that Act.
§ Mr. Bernard Taylor (Mansfield)
I am following the argument very closely. Would the hon. Lady agree that the question of disregards is not only one for those who have saved but also for super-annuitants and disabled people such as the war disabled and those on workmen's compensation?
§ Dame Irene Ward
Of course. The disregards must take account, over a wide range, of those who have been unfortunate in life. I fully accept that.
I get slightly impatient with my right hon. Friend, because we never seem to make any real progress in this matter. 430 The time has come when some real progress ought to be made. I am quite convinced that that is what the country wants. I take one example. I do not think that it will be very acceptable to my right hon. Friend, but sometimes what he says is not acceptable to me. I am very glad when, occasionally, I get the chance of tit for tat.
One of the very good points about the 1948 Act was the introduction of Part III accommodation. I think that everybody would pay tribute to the imaginative thought devoted to the planning of Part III accommodation. It is not a very attractive description, but it has proved a valuable provision for progress in the social services. Now, under Part III accommodation, the inmates are entitled—as a result of my Bill—to 7s. 6d. a week to spend on their amenities, in whatever way they like.
I was interested to note that the hon. Lady the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock) disapproved of what was said by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw) about my Bill. I am extremely proud of it and proud that it was a Conservative Government which allowed me to place that Measure on the Statute Book. From it arises the 7s. 6d. which is now paid to people who live in Part III accommodation. This means that over and above the fact that they are housed attractively, fed reasonably well, looked after, and given a great deal of encouragement, they have the pleasure of having 7s. 6d. a week to spend as they like. These people are never lonely because the communities in which Part III accommodation establishments are situate like to be friendly. There is a delightful relationship between these people and the ordinary public.
Yet, outside Part III accommodation, in the assessment of what is necessary under the National Assistance scales, there is nothing like that sum of money left for those who are struggling, in very difficult circumstances, to maintain their homes and, live outside Part III accommodation. There is nothing like that amount of money left to pay for the little necessities and frills of life.
I got a very dusty answer the other day when I raised this matter with my right hon. Friend. I should like him to reconsider the position. This links up with what was said by the hon. Member 431 for Sowerby—that we have to decide what are the standards that we want to apply to these people, now, in our modern life. They are people many of whom, as has been said by many hon. Members, are the very salt of the earth. I commend that point of view of the whole problem to my right hon. Friend.
I think it fortunate that in some parts of the country we have been able to develop a good home-help service. We all agree that the problem of the care of elderly people is one which must be faced. A great many of us are unhappy about the fact that elderly people are sometimes left alone in their homes all night and there is no one to know how they are getting on and whether they require attention. The establishment of a home-help service has been a valuable part of our social services. But there are some local authorities which do not operate a home-help service.
In my constituency there are two admirable local authorities. The County Borough of Tynemouth does not operate a home-help service in the accepted sense, but it has a very good welfare service. Efforts are made to get one responsible person in each street to see that there are no lonely, neglected folk whose circumstances are not known to the local authority. At the same time, the money is not forthcoming which is forthcoming under an established home-help service.
The other local authority in my constituency, Whitley Bay, has a home-help service. It is true that in that local authority area the number of retired people is above the average; but in assessing the whole position of National Assistance, surely there should be some consideration for people who live under National Assistance within the ambit of a local authority which does not run a home-help service. I commend that matter to my right hon. Friend for examination, because I think that it is very important.
While I welcome these National Assistance scales, I am certain that they are not the whole answer. If he was not convinced before, my right hon. Friend should be convinced now that this is a matter of the greatest interest to the House and to the country. While I am on the subject, I should like to ask what progress has been made regarding the 432 introduction of a chiropodist scheme. I was under the impression, and I am sure it is so, that that was what my right hon. Friend wished to do, but up to now we have not heard much about it.
Every time I try to raise the question of people in the small income groups, and go hopefully from one Minister to another, each Minister "passes the buck" to someone else, and I am tired of that. Every Minister says how difficult it is to help. I am fully aware that it is a difficult problem. These people cannot be relieved from the payment of Income Tax, because their incomes have been exempted from that responsibility. In other words, the lower income groups, and those on small fixed incomes, present a difficult problem for every Minister. They all say that, and I am sure that Socialist Ministers did the same when they were in office.
Every Minister says that he would be delighted to do something if only someone would suggest what might be done. Valuable suggestions have been made this afternoon which. I hope, will be noted by my right hon. Friend. After all, at the Conservative Party Conference, he gave a pledge. He succeeded in getting my constituency resolution turned down, after it had been voted for consideration by delegates as the most important resolution dealing with small fixed income groups. The right hon. Gentleman gave a pledge that something would be done. A little has been done, but it is not satisfactory to the country. The last time he made a speech my right hon. Friend did his best to—I hate using the word "denigrate"—"pull my leg" thoroughly, and now I am giving it back to him. I suggest that he gave a specific pledge to the Conservative Party Conference—and to my constituency, which is more important—that something would be done for the people in the small fixed income groups, and I am saying that in the sphere of his own Department—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris)
Order. The hon. Lady has been given a fair amount of latitude in the latter part of her speech, but the point which she is dealing with does not arise under the Regulations.
§ Dame Irene Ward
My peroration is this, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I suggest that 433 within the sphere of these Regulations my right hon. Friend might begin the redemption of his pledge.
§ 6.15 p.m.
§ Mrs. E. M. Braddock (Liverpool, Exchange)
I wish to support my right hon. and hon. Friends in saying that the increase suggested in these Regulations is too small and too late. Those of us who interview constituents who have grievances find them a barometer, since as soon as things become difficult, and people find it hard to manage, they contact their Member of Parliament to see whether there is anything extra they can obtain.
Over the past six or seven months constituents who have visited me have included an increasing number of people in receipt of National Assistance, either wholly or by supplementation. Many of them, particularly older people who are living on their own, or where there is only the man and wife, tell me that they cannot manage on what they are getting, and they ask whether there is anything extra which they can obtain. I wish to give the Minister information which is conclusive on this point.
A year or two ago the Liverpool local authority thought that it had almost solved the problem presented by people desiring hostel accommodation. There are nine hostels in Liverpool fully occupied by men and women over the age of 65. The waiting list in those days was very small, and the local authority considered that it would not have to look for many more places to accommodate these people. This is, of course, the Part III accommodation which has been referred to by the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward).
Now we are discovering that the number of these people is increasing by leaps and bounds. There is a list of nearly 200 old people who are awaiting accommodation, and who have always lived in the same house. Most old people continue to occupy the same house; they do not dash about all over the place. They occupy one house and bring up their family, and when the family leaves home the old people are left together. They do not want to be disturbed when they reach the age of 60, 70, or 80. They wish to stay where they have lived all the time, and it is only under extraordinary circumstances that they are prepared to 434 move out altogether and into hostel accommodation.
I am a member of the local authority in Liverpool; of the health committee, which is the welfare committee, and of the sub-committee which deals with aged persons. That sub-committee receives reports every month. The latest report states that there are 197 aged people awaiting hostel accommodation. Let us look at the cost, because this is where the suggested increase is proved to be inadequate. A local authority does not allow an aged person to enter a hostel unless it is absolutely certain that he has reached a stage where he cannot manage; where his income is insufficient, or he just cannot cope. In the Liverpool area the cost for each person in Part III accommodation is £4 15s. 9d. per week. Out of that the local authority obtains only £1 12s. 6d., either from the person's pension or from the National Assistance Board.
If it costs that much to keep a person in a hostel, how can it be argued that a person outside can maintain himself on £2 per week? It is completely impossible to put forward that argument. The present increase will give a single person £2 a week if he is in receipt of nothing but National Assistance. If he is in receipt of a smaller amount of insurance benefit, due to the fact that he has not worked, or has paid reduced contributions, he receives £2 plus his rent. There has been some argument about rent. The whole rent is not always paid. When it is a very small amount it may be that none of it is paid.
An increase of 2s. 6d. for a single person and 4s. for a married couple is shown to be inadequate when we consider the numbers of old people who are entering hostels. These old people hate leaving their homes. It takes us all our time to persuade them to go into hostels. It is much more important to give these aged couples an adequate amount so that they can remain at home in the community and in the place where they have lived for many years, than to put them in the position of having to go into a hostel. If the Minister studies the figures for the cost of hostel accommodation for people over the age of 65 he will find that the amount of £2 that is given by the increase is 100 per cent. less than is required in respect of Part III hostel accommodation.
435 Why are people outside who are receiving the total amount of National Assistance saying that they are unable to manage? For the answer to that question we must consider the alteration which has taken place in the prices of certain commodities. I am not referring to any indices, because people do not live on indices; they live on the ordinary food for which they have to pay. If we compare the rise in prices that has occurred between October, 1951, and October, 1955, we find that the figures reinforce the case put forward by my right hon. and hon. Friends that the increase which is now being given is too small. I want to give figures in respect of ordinary commodities which working-class people need. In the light of the increase in the price of those commodities, let us consider whether the increase in National Assistance rates since 1951 are adequate.
I shall give comparisons of prices in October, 1951, and October 1955—per lb. except where otherwise indicated. First, let us consider the various kinds of bacon. Back bacon was 3s. 1d. and 4s. 6d. to 5s. 6d.; gammon, 3s. 1d. and 4s. 8d. to 5s. 4d.; collar, 2s. 4d. and 2s. 10d. to 3s. 8d.; streaky bacon, which is the sort which the ordinary working-class person buys, because it is generally the cheapest, 1s. 8d. to 2s. 1d., and 2s. 6d. to 3s. 4d.; milk was 11d. a quart and 1s 2d. a quart; butter, 2s. 6d. and 3s. 6d. to 4s. 2d.—and it has gone up again recently. I do not want to give the December price, because I must keep to the October comparisons.
Margarine—which the majority of of people in receipt of National Assistance must buy instead of butter—1s. 2d., and 1s. 4d. to 2s. 3d.; cooking fats, 1s. 4d. and 1s. 6d, to 2s. 2d.; flour, 4d., and 6¾d. to 7d.; cheese—and everybody knows that working-class people, including working men, carry any amount of cheese in their sandwiches—1s. 2d., and 2s. 4d. to 3s. 6d.; sugar 6d. and 8½d.—and it is liable to become dearer still when the Government pass their Sugar Bill.
I now come to carcase meat. Topside boneless, English meat, 2s. 6d., and 4s. 8d.—imported frozen, 2s. 2d., and 4s.; English rump steak—which the person in receipt of National Assistance will never see—3s. and 6s. 8d.—imported— 436 frozen, 2s. 8d. and 6s.; coffee, 4s. 10d. and 6s. 2d.; tea, of a representative grade, 3s. 8d. and 7s.
Anyone studying those figures can see that the suggested increases in the rates are totally inadequate to meet the increases in the price of the items of food which ordinary people have to buy. No luxuries are included. I have left clothing on one side. In these days it is the most difficult thing in the world for a person in receipt of National Assistance to obtain a grant for clothing unless he is standing with practically nothing on.
I can show the Minister correspondence which I have recently had with some of my area officers, concerning people who have gone to the Assistance Board almost in rags and have been refused clothing grants. When I have referred these matters to the officers they have been looked at again, and it has been proved that the persons concerned needed the grant. Why should they have to go to Members of Parliament or local councillors before proper notice is taken of their cases?
I have said nothing about entertainment. As the hon. Member for Tyne-mouth said, a man in a hostel receives 7s. 6d. on top of his keep, his entertainment and everything else, to spend upon anything he may like. The man who does not go into a hostel—whether he be aged or a member of the working class who has to ask for supplementation—receives no extra payment of that kind. The sum he receives is brought right down to the lowest possible subsistence level, just as the amount of relief used to be before the National Assistance Board came into being. These increases are far too small to meet the increased cost of living.
Purchase Tax has been placed upon articles which ordinary people need. In the speech I made during the debates on the Finance Bill, I referred to the tax of 2½d. which had been put upon an ordinary cup. The ordinary cups are generally the throw-outs which do not last very long. All these things add to the needs of the people who are on National Assistance and make the proposed increases of 2s. 6d. and 4s. ridiculous and insufficient.
On the matter of the date, I do not know whether I take things as being too 437 simple. People in receipt of National Assistance have already had their incomes looked into and no new assessment has to be done, except on people with new claims. Is it not possible that in the weeks intervening between now and the issue of new books, an additional voucher could be issued to every person in receipt of National Assistance? Obviously, these persons will get the 2s. 6d. or 4s. increase. Is it not possible, as a temporary measure, to give power to the area officer or the regional officer to issue a voucher to them immediately? The Treasury cannot lose very much. These people are tied down almost to the last halfpenny before they receive any assistance at all.
If there is the will to do it before Christmas, and before the permanent books are issued, I am sure that the Department is quite capable of issuing vouchers so that these very miserable amounts can be paid immediately, instead of waiting for the date on which they are to be paid, 23rd January.
§ 6.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Raymond Gower (Barry)
I imagine that when the system of National Assistance was reorganised into its present form, in 1948, a great deal of thought was given to the method of putting the subject outside the normal interplay of party politics in this House and in the country. I imagine, also, that a great deal of thought was given to the various indices by which we attempt to form a correct assessment of the changes in purchasing power.
On both these very important matters some hon. Members seem to be in doubt, first, whether the National Assistance Board is an organisation responding to instructions from the Minister, and secondly, whether even the best indices at our disposal are any guide upon which to base our assessments. Though these indices are not perfect, they are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw) pointed out, weighted very heavily in the direction desired by the hon. Lady the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock). They are weighted in such a way as to give great emphasis to the sort of articles upon which people in modest or poor circumstances would spend the greatest proportion of their money.
438 I commend the speed with which my right hon. Friend has taken up the recommendation of the Board. It may be said that there should have been a larger recommendation. The hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown), whose work in this field we all admire, asked questions to find out upon what basis my right hon. Friend had assessed the need of people upon National Assistance, or something to that effect. May I point out to the hon. Member that the Board has done this, and that my right hon. Friend has accepted its recommendation? I see the hon. Member nodding in agreement. This is properly a question for the Board.
§ Mr. Gower
I realise that.
The National Assistance Board was set up in such a way as to protect the people in poor circumstances from being the playthings of politics. That was one of the many ideas that went to the creation of the Board in its present form. The further we go in that direction the better. It is regrettable that any attempt should be made at any time to bring party politics to bear upon these issues. I fear that in some cases that is done, while in other and very honourable cases party politics are kept out. I sincerely hope that whichever party is in office in future we shall find party politics playing a smaller and smaller part in matters of this kind.
It is, of course, always within the power of any Minister of Pensions and National Insurance to come to the House and say, "I shall propose something extraordinary, over and above the normal devices available," or to say, "I shall bring in some entirely new scheme." We are tonight dealing with something that already exists, an organisation that has been created. Within the framework of that organisation my right hon. Friend has done the proper thing in accepting the recommendations of the Board.
The hon. Lady the Member for Liver pool, Exchange raised a very valid point about people whose needs are not properly met by the new scale payments. Of course, as my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary said in opening the debate, the needs of such people are generally met by the discretionary allowances. Would my right hon. Friend say 439 whether the ceiling to these discretionary allowances—there must be a ceiling—is also to be raised to some degree? I do not know how that ceiling operates. We have been told that these allowances lie solely within the discretion of the officers in a particular district according to the circumstances of that district, but I cannot feel satisfied. It is not likely that these people have unfettered discretion to give any amount. There must be a ceiling. Is any step to be taken to raise that ceiling?
§ Mr. B. Taylor
It is advisable to make it clear to the House that there is no ceiling at all to the discretionary allowances, which differ very widely. The assistance scale laid down is rigid, but the discretionary allowances are entirely and absolutely in the hands of the manager in the area office.
§ Mr. Gower
There is obviously some basis upon which the discretionary allowances are decided.
Let me now refer to something which may be even more important, the disregards. The policy followed in this respect runs completely contrary to our policy in the whole field of National Insurance and the closely associated field of National Insurance benefits. Indeed, the whole system of National Insurance is likely to break down, owing to our increased longevity, unless people voluntarily decide to work longer.
What incentive is there for the person subject to something to which I cannot refer in detail tonight—the earnings rule, strictly applied—to remain in work and so gain an extra increment when he knows that his National Assistance will be reduced as a result? If we look at the whole National Assistance and National Insurance benefits picture we realise that this practice is absurd. I hope that my right hon. Friend will look at this. The more one thinks of this aspect of National Assistance the more serious it appears, and of the many valid problems mentioned on both sides today this is surely one of the greatest.
If, during the years since 1948, a case had been revealed for increasing considerably the National Assistance rates, there is some case for increasing the disregards. If there is a valid case for increasing the rates to 67s. there is an 440 equally valid case for enhancing the disregards. If the disregards were correct in 1948 it cannot be suggested that they are the correct figures today. This is obviously one of the wider issues—I am sure that all hon. Members are grateful for the opportunity of a wide debate, and one not strictly limited to the narrow proposals of these Regulations.
I therefore hope that my right hon. Friend will very seriously consider the disregard as it affects the pensioner who remains in work long enough to earn an increment, and also as it affects all recipients. What is the use of the National Coal Board bringing in a pensions scheme if the pensioner can receive so little without its affecting his National Assistance? The whole incentive to spread the field of industrial pensions will be damaged and hampered by the strict enforcement of a disregard appropriate to 1948 conditions.
The hon. Member for Ince said that the new scales will not mean Utopia for these old people, and all of us who know their conditions of life will agree with that. One might go further and say that old age itself is far from Utopia. The loneliness of old age cannot be cured by the Regulations. In some cases we know that that loneliness is due to what is very often the thoughtlessness of families and children—something which did not exist a generation or two ago—but if this modest increase does something to help those who are on the margin, and to bring in some of those who have been outside the margin, we shall not have wasted our time tonight.
§ 6.44 p.m.
§ Mr. Bernard Taylor (Mansfield)
I dislike both the smallness of the increases proposed by these Regulations and the time which must elapse before they are paid. A lot has been said about percentages, figures and indices. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw) rather suggested that the present cost-of-living index was the responsibility of the Government of 1947. That argument is wearing a little thin. Whatever was done in 1947, we should all realise that we are now living in 1955. The time has come when that index should be revised, because the present one does not reflect the true position of recipients of National Assistance. There was sufficient evidence in the references made by my hon. Friend 441 the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock) to increases in the prices of a long list of basic commodities to indicate that the time had arrived when National Assistance payments should no longer be based on the present cost-of-living index.
Of the two matters which I wish particularly to raise, the first concerns the timing of payments under these Regulations. The Minister may argue that the job is a big one administratively. No one doubts that. But the time that must elapse between this debate and the first payment of the new amounts on 23rd January is forty-seven days. On a similar occasion in 1952, only seventeen days elapsed between the time of the debate and of the first payment. Having in mind the time of year, is it not possible for the Minister to expedite the payment of the increased amounts? In the next fortnight many people will be singing carols, some of which make reference to those who have winter but no Christmas. The timing of the Regulations means that that will apply to all the recipients of National Assistance.
The global total of those benefiting by National Assistance is very large. Year by year it has consistently grown, until today it has reached a figure of 14 million. I want to make a special plea for those not living as members of a household, but paying an inclusive charge for board and lodgings. There are only about 48,000 of them. Even when the scale rates are increased to 40s. who will board and accommodate such folk for less than 40s.? If they have to pay the whole of that sum they will not be as well off as those in Part III accommodation with a certain allowance for pocket money. In all sincerity, I ask the Minister to have a word with the National Assistance Board so that it can give special consideration to this section.
It is true, as I have indicated, that there are 48,000 people in that category, but in another category of people not quite so badly off as the one I have mentioned—those living in a household in which another person, usually a son or a daughter, is responsible for the rent and other household expenses—there are 315,000. Therefore, out of 1¼ million people, we have 360,000 who are having to pay their board and lodging out of 40s. per week. I would ask the Minister 442 whether, if he is not prepared to increase the scale rate for this type of person, he will impress upon the National Assistance Board the need to allow some degree of latitude and flexibility to its managers in the exercise of discretion in this type of case.
Now I want to make a few observations on what has been said by the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) and the hon. Member for Barry (Mr. Gower) on the question of the disregards. Whatever the Minister may think about the way in which he is improving the standard by giving 2s. 6d. in the case of a single person and 4s. in the case of a married couple, there are thousands of recipients of National Assistance whose standard is constantly and consistently being lowered because the disregards are not now of the same value as they were in 1948.
May I give an example? I come from the Nottinghamshire coalfield, and exactly a year ago, the miners' union there, which has a pension scheme of its own, increased the payment which had been made for a number of years from 10s. to 15s. Those who were in receipt of National Assistance benefited only to the extent of 6d., because their National Assistance was reduced by 4s. 6d. Not only do these disregards refer to superannuitants and people of small means, but also to a very unfortunate section of the community.
Two types of case come readily to mind. First, there are the war disabled, in whose case the amount of the disregards is £1, which was laid down in 1948. Then, the people who are in receipt of workmen's compensation, who have the same disregards as the war disabled, are much worse off in 1955 than they were in 1948, because the value of the £ has changed so much. Only a week last Monday, I put a Question to the Minister asking him if he would introduce legislation with a view to increasing the disregards and bringing them more into line with the value that obtained in 1948. Although the Question was not reached, I received a very short Written Answer from the Minister. "No, Sir." was the reply. I would again urge upon the Minister that he should have another look at this question of the disregards, because if the existing amounts were right in 1948, with the change in the value of the £ they cannot be right in 1955.
443 I conclude by once more expressing regret that the amounts are so small and about the date chosen for payment—23rd January. I thought the National Assistance Board might have shown a little more foresight on this question so that these increases could have been paid at any rate before Christmas. I believe it was Thomas Hood who wrote:But evil is wrought by want of ThoughtAs well as want of Heart!Had the National Assistance Board given a little more forethought to the needs of the beneficiaries of National Assistance, I have no doubt at all that, ruling out the question of the amounts for the moment, these increases could and should have been paid before Christmas this year.
§ 6.56 p.m.
§ Squadron Leader A. E. Cooper (Ilford, South)
From time to time, we have all criticised civil servants, but I think all of us in this House in our experience of the National Assistance Board and its local officers have always been very impressed by the courtesy and understanding with which they have dealt with the cases that come to their notice. In fact, in the few years during which I have been a Member of this House and have been brought into close association with the local officers of the National Assistance Board in Ilford, I have heard nothing but praise for their work.
In that context, and if we accept that, I think we must criticise, perhaps mildly, the closing words of the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. B. Taylor). I believe that, since its inception, the National Assistance Board has regarded its duties with a very considerable sense of responsibility, and, I think, has brought forward these new Regulations at a time when the Board thought it was appropriate to do so. In the Forces, we always used to say that we were all gifted with "hindsight," implying that we could all have taken some action better than somebody else after that action had been taken. We all know that we all have certain decisions to take in our own lives, and we take them when we think they should be taken, but very often, having taken them, we know perfectly well that we could have done much better many months earlier.
§ Mr. B. Taylor
I was not criticising the administration of the Board itself, but only pointing out that if this had been done only a fortnight earlier these increases could have been given by Christmas.
§ Squadron Leader Cooper
The hon. Gentleman could go further than that and say that if the Board had introduced the Regulations two months before, it would already be paying the increases. The fact is that it did not do so, and we are face to face with the situation that the Regulations are now before the House and will come into effect on 23rd January.
I want to make an appeal to my right hon. Friend on this question of the date upon which these payments will be made. Will he please tell the House what is wrong with the suggestion made by the hon. Lady the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock)? I think the hon. Lady was quite right when she said that anybody in receipt of National Assistance at the present date will presumably still be in receipt of National Assistance on 23rd January. That being so, why is it impossible for the Minister to give an instruction to the National Assistance Board to the effect that payments made now should be augmented by the sums of 2s. 6d. or 4s., as the case may be, without waiting for the new books to be printed?
After all, this is an exceptional time of the year for everybody. The old people are living on the closest of margins, and we ought to try to make it possible for them to have some extra enjoyment at Christmas time. I do not wish to appear melodramatic about this, but it is quite possible, and indeed probable, that this will be the last Christmas for many old-age pensioners. Surely we ought to try to make it possible for these payments to be made before 23rd January.
Several hon. Members have referred to the cost-of-living index. In my opinion, there is a very strong case for a new cost-of-living index to be prepared to deal with pensioners. The existing index, which relates to the country as a whole, covers many items which would not normally be bought by old people, and I think we must have regard to their lessening requirements for certain commodities and increasing requirements for other commodities. I urge my right hon. Friend 445 to have this question examined to see whether there is some justification for a review.
§ 7.2 p.m.
§ Mrs. Alice Cullen (Glasgow, Gorbals)
Like my hon. Friends, I very much regret that the increase is so small and so late. I was one of the hon. Members who had the honour to take part in a deputation to the Board, and I think all Members of that deputation put their case so well from their constituents' point of view that they impressed the Board.
We have different problems in our various constituencies. As the Member for Gorbals, a working-class constituency, I have very many old people as constituents who are on the verge of starvation—and I say that truthfully, because I live with them. I pointed out to the Board that clay that some of these old people could not light a fire until the evening; they sat without a fire all day because they could not afford to buy more than one bag of coal a week. They were afraid to switch on the electric light or the gas, whichever they had, because they were afraid of the bills. In some of the houses one found a tin of condensed milk on the table which must satisfy them for the whole week because they could not afford to pay 7d, for a pint of milk.
Last year I asked the Minister whether it was not possible to allow old-age pensioners to obtain a pint of milk for 1½d., as in the case of expectant mothers. It could not be done. I also asked whether we could not give the old ladies a tea coupon as we give the old men a tobacco coupon. The Minister was unable to do that either. I have been told, "You can get cheap tea." That is true; one can get cheap tea, but cheap tea is no good and the old people are very fond of a cup of good tea.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. B. Taylor) spoke of old people living in lodgings. I have a case which I should like to plead without giving any names. It was brought to my notice today. It is the case of a lady of 79 years of age. Her income is £2 2s. 6d. a week. She pays 35s, for her board and lodging and 7s. for a bag of coal, which leaves her with 6d. for everything else. A few months ago she applied for a grant to obtain underclothing, and this was granted. Like other hon. Members 446 who have spoken today, I have great regard for the supervisors of the National Assistance Board, but I am afraid that in this case their discretion has not been very well used, because although this old lady was granted clothing five months ago, when she applied for a pair of shoes, which she needed very much, her request was turned down.
When an old person has £2 2s. 6d. on which to live, and pays 35s. of it for board and lodgings, how can she buy clothes or shoes? It would be disgraceful for this old lady to have to go about with wet feet, at 79 years of age, because she had been refused a pair of shoes. We are told that they need not be hungry and need not be naked, but it seems to me that all depends on who is dealing with the case. I feel that this lady of 79 years of age has not been properly treated.
We must thank God for the mild weather which we have had, for if it had not been so mild many of these old people would be in their graves now, because they can keep themselves neither fed nor warm.
The hon. Lady the Member for Tyne-mouth (Dame Irene Ward) spoke of home-helps, and I must state that Glasgow has the best home-helps service in the country. Yet it does not go far enough, because neither the full-time nor the part-time home-helps are available at night. Several hon. Members have referred to the loneliness of these old people; many of them are lonely and living alone. This year in my constituency no fewer than five people have been found, in the morning, lying dead behind the door. When people tried to open the door, they could get no further.
I appeal to the Minister to try to bring about a home-helps service which can attend to these old people at night. From five o'clock at night until nine o'clock in the morning is far too long for them to be left alone, especially if they have no relatives.
Reverting to the question of the proposed increases, I still think we ought to have tried to give them something before Christmas. It is now up to us in our constituencies to try to arrange treats for them, to take them out for the evening, to give them a good meal and tobacco, and to make things more pleasant for them. The increases are not to be paid until 447 23rd January. By then, in Scotland, we shall have the cold January winds, and many of these old people will not be there on 23rd January to receive their money. I hope the Minister will have second thoughts on this matter.
§ 7.8 p.m.
§ Miss Elaine Burton (Coventry, South)
I am very pleased to have the privilege of following my colleague and hon. Friend the Member for Gorbals (Mrs. Cullen), because I went with her and several other colleagues to the National Assistance Board last week.
The one problem which I raised there was one which has been causing hon. Members on this side of the House a great deal of worry—the problem of coal. I am not telling a hard luck story about this. Indeed, I am sure hon. Members opposite must be in the same position; it cannot be that hon. Members on this side of the House are the only hon. Members who have in their constituencies old people in need. I should find that quite impossible to believe.
I say—and my hon. Friends have been saying it for a very long time—that it is impossible for old people in receipt of National Assistance to buy the coal which they need to keep them warm in the winter.
§ Mr. Cyril Osborne (Louth) indicated assent.
§ Miss Burton
I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Louth agrees with me, because it is the truth.
I should like to refer to two points which the Parliamentary Secretary made when he opened the debate, and I hope that the Minister will comment on them in his reply. If I understand the Parliamentary Secretary correctly, he said that the payments of these additional amounts in January was being implemented quicker than it had ever been done before. I think that is quite beside the point. I am sorry to break up the harmony of the proceedings, but one of the reasons for which I indict the Government is that I cannot conceive how anybody with any imagination could introduce an increase in the scales for the people, who have next to nothing, and then defer it over the Christmas season until 23rd January.
§ Miss Burton
I think it is almost impossible to imagine such a thing being done. I do not mind if it is the responsibility of the National Assistance Board or not; as has been said, the Minister is responsible to this House.
I think it disgraceful and entirely lacking in any humanitarian principle that any Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, over the time of Christmas, can say that these old people must wait until 23rd January. I think the Minister should have said, whatever it meant, that these payments must be made before Christmas. I cannot conceive of any Minister from this side of the House who would have let such a thing go. From what has been said in the debate, I think hon. Members opposite are not pleased either. Everyone has asked whether it is not possible to advance the date of these increases.
I was horrified when I listened to the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw). I took down what he said, that in his opinion there would be no hardship for old people in waiting until 23rd January. That made me shudder because I could not imagine that young man going back to his constituents and telling old people in receipt of National Assistance, "It will not hurt you to wait until 23rd January because account has been taken, in this 2s. 6d. and this 4s., of additional price increases which are to come." I am sorry that the hon. Member is not present now. I should like to know how he imagines that these old people are to pay the increased prices of goods between now and 23rd January.
There is another matter I should like to take up with the Parliamentary Secretary. I cannot believe that what he says is true. I do not want him to take that as an insult, and will put it in parliamentary terms by saying I think it must be a mistake, but quite honestly I do not believe it is true. There was a considerable amount of chat between him and my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton), who is a very great authority on these matters. I would not dispute what my hon. Friend said. If I remember correctly, there seemed to be agreement between them that the actual purchasing power of National Assistance scales today was 9 per cent. up on the value of the scales in 1948. They agreed on that.
449 I interrupted the Parliamentary Secretary and I still do not think I have had the right answer to my query. I find it quite impossible to believe that the purchasing power of old people on National Assistance today in relation to food, fuel and light is 9 per cent. up on what it was in 1948. I really cannot accept that.
We have tried to get the answer in the House many times and I should be grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary would ask his right hon. Friend to clear up that point when he replies to the debate. We who now sit on this side of the House had the Interim Index of Retail Prices and the cost-of-living index and if my hon. Friends were now the Government in power I would say exactly the same as I am saying. But we are dealing with the position as it is today. I do not believe that the purchasing power of old people is 9 per cent. better than it was in 1948 for food, fuel and light.
I think these increases are too little and too late. I wish very much that it were possible for us to vote against these Regulations. I know that is not possible because it would then go out to the country that we voted against an increase and I should say that the increase is better than nothing at all, although I think it is far too little.
We in this House cannot see ourselves as others see us. That may be good or bad, but the fact remains that we cannot do so. We on this side of the House over the past few years have gained the impression that the present Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, when he answers Questions we put to him at Question Time, is quite deliberately evasive in his replies. It is quite impossible to track him down to a definite answer.
We have only to go back to Question Time on 21st November. I should think that most of my hon. Friends have the list of Questions which were asked then. I have brought the list with me, but I will not weary the House by reading it. I have never seen a Minister dodge as much as the Minister dodged on that day from Question to Question and answer to answer.
It would not do for me to say that the answers were untrue. I can only say they were definite evasions. Obviously, at Question Time Ministers try to avoid 450 difficult Questions, but I have had the impression over the past few years that in the present Minister we have one who is not in sympathy with those in need—
§ Mr. Osborne indicated dissent.
§ Miss Burton
Hon. Members opposite disagree, but that is the impression we have had.
A thing which is worrying me very much indeed is this. As I have listened to hon. Members opposite today I have thought that on a great many matters in connection with old-age pensioners we are in agreement, but I cannot believe that the few hon. Members opposite who have spoken today speak for the Tory Party, or we would get something done about this matter. If enough hon. Members opposite were dissatisfied with what is being done they could force the Government to take some other action. Way back in 1953, on 7th May, we had the Chancellor telling us:The case of the old-age pensioners is very near our hearts,…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th May, 1953; Vol. 515, c. 717.]I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. K. Thompson) has come into the Chamber, because I was interested to see that he seemed to have accepted that statement of the Chancellor. I find that on 28th November last, when the new National Assistance scales were announced to the House, the hon. Member said:Is my right hon. Friend aware that the anouncement he has just made will give great satisfaction and will assure the country that we have the interests of the old people very much at heart;…But even the hon. Member for Walton had a slight reservation which he went on to make and it would not be fair if I did not quote that. He also asked:but will he allow me to say that we should welcome it if it were possible to have the increase in operation in time for Christmas because of the important psychological effect of the recognition of the needs of old people?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th November, 1955; Vol. 546, c. 1945.]I do not think the Tory Party has the slightest conception of the needs of old people on National Assistance scales.
§ Miss Burton
The hon. and gallant Member is entitled to his opinion, but I am giving mine. I just do not think 451 that the Tory Party has the slightest conception, for if it had hon. Members opposite would not be supporting these small increases.
§ Squadron Leader Cooper
The hon. Lady is making a monstrous assertion. If there were any justification whatever for it, the Labour Party would be sitting on this side of the House and we would not be here.
§ Miss Burton
I will not be drawn into that as probably I would be out of order, but it is an accusation I certainly intend to substantiate because I feel that it is one which is fundamentally related to the present position. It is obvious that some hon. Members opposite feel ashamed about it. When for the last few years we have brought cases to this House which one might say were small or trivial cases—such as old people who could not afford 1d. or 2d. for this or that—we have been laughed at by the Minister and told that it is sob-stuff.
§ Squadron Leader Cooper
The hon. Lady has been quoting Questions and Answers to them made by a Minister in a Conservative Government. Is her memory so short that she fails to remember the Answers given by the right hon. Lady the Member for Warrington (Dr. Summerskill) when she was Minister of Pensions and National Insurance?
§ Miss Burton
The hon. and gallant Member is five years out of date. I am dealing with the position in December, 1955, and I would have hoped that we had reached a sufficiently adult stage in this House to deal with it on an adult level.
§ Miss Burton
I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, but I was dealing with them. It is my contention that the Regulations are far too inadequate because hon. Members opposite do not understand the need for making the benefits greater. The hon. and gallant Member for Ilford, South (Squadron Leader Cooper) cannot bear to hear it, but I still think that it is true.
In September, 1955, there were more than a million people in receipt of National Assistance. The figure given to the House was 1,039,000. That number is higher now, but that was the figure then. 452 The old people who are in receipt of National Assistance and who are living alone are in dire need. I do not think anybody in the House would deny that. I am glad that hon. Members opposite can nod agreement, for those old people are in dire need because the rate has not been increased any further.
A tribute has been paid—it was paid when we went to the National Assistance Board the other day—
§ Mr. Marples
I was not clear what the hon. Lady meant about rent. She said it had not been increased any further. I could not follow the point she was making.
§ Miss Burton
I should like the opportunity to repeat here that at the offices of the National Assistance Board the other day, when we went to press for an increase in the Regulations, every hon. Member who went paid tribute to the work of the Assistance Board locally. In Coventry, the Board helps to the utmost of its powers. The trouble, unfortunately, is that there is a limit to those powers. I reiterate the tribute that if it were possible, certainly in the City of Coventry, for the area officer of the Assistance Board to give more, he would do it. When he says that he cannot, I know full well that he cannot do it.
I said quite deliberately that I do not think the party opposite understand the need of people who have nothing at all. The hon. and gallant Member for Ilford, South looks very angry, but if he has never been in the position of having nothing, with all the will in the world he cannot understand it. We keep bringing these cases forward, but hon. Members opposite and the Minister—
§ Mr. Osborne
It is quite true that only those who have known poverty know how the shoe hurts, but surely the hon. Lady is not going so far as to claim that everyone on her side of the House has always been poor and everyone on this side has always been rich. A number of us on this side have known a great deal more poverty than many hon. Members opposite have known.
§ Miss Burton
I certainly was not going to those lengths, but there is no doubt that more people on this side than on the other side have known poverty. I am not being rude; I am merely stating a fact. It is difficult to know something if one has not experienced it.
§ Mr. Osborne
I am sorry that the hon. Lady has brought this note into the discussion. Up to now it has had a rather different tone. Surely she is not right in saying that hon. Members on this side either do not know or do not care for the old people. Let me tell her that there are far more people on this side who have known acute poverty than she realises, and that on her own side of the House there are many people, including those on the Front Bench, who have never known poverty at all.
§ Miss Burton
If the hon. Member wants to ride off on that one, I do not mind in the slightest. I say that there is no understanding on the Government benches of the needs of old people on National Assistance. If there were, the old people would have got more.
We have just had the case raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock), who spoke about Purchase Tax as it affected the old people in receipt of National Assistance. Even they have to buy the things on which Purchase Tax has been imposed. My hon. Friend quoted the case of crockery. This is absolutely fundamental. It seems quite impossible for hon. Members opposite to realise that what they call small percentage increases in various things are beyond the means of people who have got nothing extra. That is my point.
The old people on National Assistance who are to get the extra half-crown or 4s. have to buy the crockery or the goods which bear Purchase Tax. On 15th November, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury saidas a result of the tax"—that is, Purchase Tax—having been increased or re-imposed, over a wide range, there will be less purchasing power available for other things."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th November, 1955; Vol. 546, c. 352.]What I am trying to get the Government benches to understand is that it is not a case of less purchasing power being available for other things so far as people in 454 receipt of National Assistance are concerned. They have not got any spare purchasing power at all. Remarks like that would not be made by Ministers if they understood the position. That is perfectly plain.
The Chancellor himself told us, on 26th October:we have to do all we can to meet imperative needs … in the case of the old …"—[OFFICIAL, REPORT, 26th October, 1955; Vol. 545, c. 211.]What are the imperative needs? There is no doubt that we shall be in complete agreement on this on both sides of the House. The question of imperative needs is more the concern of people who are receiving National Assistance than of any other section of the community.
How are these Regulations arrived at? I am not being wise after the event, for on 19th May, 1953, I initiated an Adjournment debate in which I produced budgets from old people throughout the country in an effort to prove to the then Parliamentary Secretary, who is not the present Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance, that the weighting of the needs on which National Assistance scales were based was wrong so far as old people were concerned. I produced figures, as, I should have thought, any hon. Member, on any side of the House, would have produced, to prove that on food, fuel and light the money spent by the old people was out of proportion to anything else.
In that debate, I asked how the National Assistance Board arrived at the then figure of 35s., plus, of course, rent. We were told, as we have always been told, that it was not possible for the National Assistance Board to break down in public the way in which its figures were arrived at. But we are anxious to see whether we cannot get somewhere on this, and I am back now to what I raised with the Parliamentary Secretary at the beginning of my speech. It is quite impossible for the old people in receipt of National Assistance today to buy the food and fuel and to pay for the light that they need out of the present scales, or even with the new increase.
Our feeling on this side of the House—and, I would have thought, there was agreement on the other side, too—is that apart from whoever made the scales in 455 the past and whoever said they were good, whether in 1948 or at any other time, there is today a need to revise the scales so that the things which the old people need most are put at the top for priority. I should be glad if we could have an answer to this.
There is only one other point that I would bring to the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary and of hon. Members opposite. I would have thought that it must have been brought to their attention anyway. In most of our cities, the small shopkeepers—they do not notoriously vote for my political party—have stories to tell of old people in receipt of National Assistance going into their shops and being unable to buy the ordinary necessities of life. That really is true.
I have with me a report of an investigation by the Guildford Old People's Welfare Committee. I should like to read just one paragraph to the House, because if the investigation is made by an old people's welfare committee, it is worth noting. This is what the report said:Some old people cannot afford to buy bacon any more and can have very little meat, and only an occasional egg. They seem to have turned to breakfast cereals, Oxo cubes and bread and jam as substitutes. Some have a mid-day meal of chips, but cannot afford the fish which should go with them. Increasing numbers spend a good deal of their time in bed to save food and fires.I do not know Guildford, but I know that throughout the country today there are old people who have to go to bed early at night because they cannot afford the coal to keep themselves warm and because they cannot afford the light. That is not sob stuff; it is true. I think that this is a blot on the nation.
The position today is that the Conservative Party is in power and I believe that the Conservative Party should do something about this. I believe that hon. Members opposite who know that there is this hardship today should force their Government to do something about it. I think that what is now being done is too little and too late and it is with very great regret that I shall not vote against the Regulations tonight.
§ 7.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Cyril Osborne (Louth)
I did not intend to take any part in this debate until I heard the speech of the hon. Lady the Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton). I had sat here and learned quite 456 a lot, and I am sorry that she destroyed the harmony of the debate. I feel compelled to reply to one or two of the points which she made.
I think that the hon. Lady was grossly unfair to the Minister in saying that he had no sympathy with the old and the poor. I think that any fair-minded hon. Member would agree that of all the Ministers in the House my right hon. Friend is just the one man about whom that should not be said. I think that he has done his utmost for the old people and for the unfortunate ones, and that the hon. Lady will live to regret having said that about him.
The hon. Lady also astonished me by continually saying that we on this side of the House did not know how the old and poor people live. If the House will forgive me for saying this, I come from a very poor family, indeed—much poorer than the hon. Lady's.
§ Miss Burton rose—
§ Mr. Osborne
Wait a moment. Just to put this in its perspective. I would point out that there are three hon. Members on the benches opposite who come from North Lincolnshire. They all come from extremely rich families.
§ Mr. Osborne
Who started it? Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to finish my sentence. I was sorry that this was introduced by the hon. Lady, and I am entitled to reply to it. It is a monstrous claim, and it has destroyed what was a very informative and useful debate. I regret that she has done this and I think that she, too, will regret it. It does not help the old people at all, and it does not help the House to meet their problems to inject into a debate like this the bitterness that only the hon. Lady has injected.
§ Mr. Osborne
If the hon. Gentleman had been in the Chamber a little longer he would have heard more about it.
§ Mr. Osborne
The hon. Lady said that coal was the greatest need of the old-age 457 people and the poor, and that many could not afford to buy coal to keep themselves warm. That is quite true. A year ago, in my own constituency, I was asked to meet the old-age pensioners, and I met about 400 of them in the town hall. The complaint which they made to me was that the money which they were getting was not sufficient to buy three things—coal, gas and electricity. We would all like to give more to the old people, especially those of us who know what poverty means.
I hope that the House will not think that I am being the Scrooge of the party in saying this. I wish that by administrative action we could have these two amounts paid by Christmas. There is an old saying. "He who gives quickly gives twice." Let us have this soon. During the war, my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) used to say. "Pray do it tomorrow." I think that if he were here tonight he would give the same instruction—that this could be done by Christmas. If things could be done for my right hon. Friend, they can he done for the present Prime Minister. We would all like to give more to the old people. I cannot understand how the poor people live at all. I just do not know how they live.
The hon. Lady the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock) made some extraordinarily good points and I should like to refer to one or two of them. On the question of coal, the hon. Lady the Member for Coventry, South said, of the old folk, "They cannot afford to light a fire until late in the evening." I told old-age pensioners in my constituency—and I ask the House to look at this matter seriously, and not think of it from a party point of view—that if the assistance grants were doubled or trebled they could not have more coal to burn to keep themselves warm unless one of two things happened: either that there was more coal produced from which they could share, or that someone who was getting more than they were getting went without.
Surely that is the problem facing the whole nation. We might share out more fairly in the case of coal. We could say to someone who is already getting more, either in industry or in the other parts of the domestic economy, "You shall not have quite so much so that we can give 458 more to the old people." That is one way of doing it. Another way, if we are to give larger grants, is that we have to go to the younger generation, the middle strata of our population, and say, "You have got to make more sacrifices to help the old people." I do not think that we should be nervous of making that appeal.
I think that the amounts which we are to grant tonight are pitiably small when we think that as a nation we are spending £2,000 million a year on drink, tobacco and gambling. What we are giving is a mere nothing. The hon. Lady for Coventry, South has made the point that the amount which we propose to grant tonight will not help the old-age pensioners even to buy coal, and the hon. Lady the Member for Liverpool. Exchange quoted the price of bacon and showed how impossible it would be to buy much bacon with this extra amount.
I would ask hon. Members opposite to realise that it is useless to give extra small amounts like this if the nation's productivity of real wealth does not increase, because the result will be to put up prices again. The appeal that we have to make it we are to help the old people is that all of us who are younger and stronger must make definite sacrifices for them. The sacrifice which we have to make for them is to produce more wealth so that they can share in it.
We are only playing with an immense problem which medical science is putting before us. As people live longer, so will the problem get more serious. Unless the younger element—instead of demanding fewer hours of work—is prepared to do more work for the old, whatever we do in this way will not materially help them. That is the problem which we have to face. It is a problem of making the nation realise that we can share out only the wealth which we produce.
§ Mr. Speaker
The debate has got into rather wide channels. The argument of the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne) would imply that discussing the whole economic situation of the country was in order in a debate on these Regulations. It cannot be so. I have tried to allow the debate to run as widely as I thought was proper, but there is a line at which I must protest. We really cannot go into these great economic questions on the groundwork of these Regulations. I 459 hope that in future hon. Members will try to stick more closely to the Regulations.
§ Mr. Osborne
I will obey your injunction, Mr. Speaker. I had no intention of speaking, but I was provoked by the statements of the hon. Lady the Member for Coventry, South, whose remarks I thought unjustified.
I will merely say, in conclusion, that I beg my right hon. Friend to make these payments before Christmas, if possible, Lastly. I beg the hon. Lady—she probably did not mean it—
§ Mr. Osborne
—not to adopt such a sanctimonious attitude on these matters and to claim that she and she only has the heart and will to help the old people, for I tell her straight that she is wrong.
§ 7.43 p.m.
§ Mr. E. Fernyhough (Jarrow)
The hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne) made some very tempting statements, and were it possible to keep within the bounds of order I should have liked to have replied to them in detail; it would also be preventing some of my hon. Friends who want to take part in the debate from speaking. The hon. Member for Louth pleaded with the Minister to get the money paid before Christmas, yet he knows very well that if ever an appeal fell on deaf ears this appeal did. He knows very well that last year in exactly the same circumstances we tried to get the same Minister to do the same thing, and if hon. Members opposite who pretend to be so interested in the old people had backed us last year, we might have got that done; but they did not.
What excuse is put forward? We are told that it is administratively impossible to alter the books of 1,600,000 people in less than six weeks. I do not believe it. If war broke out tomorrow—which God forbid—we should call up hundreds of thousands of men. Does anybody believe that the wives and children of those men would be kept waiting for six or eight weeks for their allowances? There would be a revolution if they were not paid. Let us suppose that a great natural disaster were visited on this country, flood, fire, pestilence or disease, and there were 1,600,000 460 people involved. Does anybody believe that it would take six to eight weeks to take sustenance to them? Of course it would not. In those circumstances the machine would be made to respond to the will of the people. It is because with every week that passes the Chancellor saves money that there is no hurry to deal with this matter.
When we were discussing this problem twelve months ago, I had that very week been reading an article about Littlewoods and how Littlewoods administer its football pools. I am not a football pools fan, and I do not know much about them, but my friends who send in coupons tell me that they post the coupons on a Friday night and hundreds of thousands if not millions of coupons pour into Littlewoods on Saturday. Littlewoods do not know until five o'clock on Saturday night who will get anything, and yet by Wednesday morning everybody has been paid.
§ Mr. Fernyhough
If I were the Minister, I would invite the Littlewoods people to give me a few lessons on how to pay out money quickly, and I am sure that the pensioners would be very glad.
One of the things that always disturbs me about anything of this kind is how mean and miserly we are when we are dealing with those right at the bottom of the social line—4s. and 2s. 6d. The hon. Member for Louth said we would all like to give them more but that we have to be very careful because it has to come from somewhere. Of course it has. But if it is true, as we have been told this afternoon, that there are people suffering from under-nourishment and malnutrition and who are slowly being driven to their graves because they are not getting enough, then the defence of those people is just as necessary as if they were being attacked by an enemy from abroad.
Being killed by steady starvation is just as bad as being killed by guns. Hon. Members on both sides have indicated case after case of serious, urgent need for an increase in the allowance. We should apply to the wellbeing, the safety and the health of these people the same economics that we apply to the hydrogen bomb. We say that we must have a hydrogen bomb, and nobody ever questions the cost. I 461 say that we must have an aged population relieved from poverty, and I do not want the cost questioned. We can always find money to protect our people from the enemy abroad, but we can never find money to protect them from poverty, which kills far more than any enemy has ever killed and in a more brutal way, because it is a more lingering death.
Who are these people? Who are these 1,600,000 people who will benefit to the tune of £12½ million during the next 12 months? They are the aged, the sick, the unemployed, the cripples and the maimed. They are the defenceless section of our community. They are not the people, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) said, to whom the Chancellor needs to appeal for restraint. They are not the people who have been making it difficult for Britain to export. They are not the people who can afford to buy motor cars, television sets and washing machines.
They are the people who are living from hand to mouth, and who know constant worry and anxiety. If a wireless valve fails, or an electric lamp bulb burns out or a pair of shoes need repairing, they are faced with an economic crisis. These people live on such slender means that any out of the ordinary expenditure creates for them an economic crisis.
If we were in their circumstances, how should we spend the £2 or the 67s.? We need only look at an Answer which I received this week from the Minister of Food. I asked what was the increase in expenditure on food between 1951 and 1954. Of course, I was merely doing what the hon. Member for Louth used to try in relation to the Labour Government. He did not get the answer he wanted, but I did. The increased expenditure on food has amounted to £820 million, and of that sum £640 million is represented by increased prices.
§ Mr. Fernyhough
In three years. The old-age pensioners who cannot afford to buy coal, cannot afford it because food prices have risen so dramatically under this Tory Administration which promised to keep costs down. No section of the community has been harder hit than the old people. By and large, their only needs are food and fuel. If the Government 462 had kept the cost of these necessities within the reach of the old people, then obviously many of the difficulties which now beset them would not exist.
The Parliamentary Secretary must realise that so long as the scales are kept on the poverty level and so long as there are people who are not getting enough food or fuel, then so long are they being undermined physically and mentally, thereby creating an additional problem of welfare and hospital services. Many of the old people who have to be taken to hospital would be fit and well enough to look after themselves if they were not tied down to what I call this "bread and margarine level," with the constant worry and anxiety which goes with it.
The hon. Member for Louth said that we had to have regard to future liabilities. He talked about the size of the national cake and about where the money was to come from. All I ask is that the lot of the aged, the sick, the unemployed, the maimed and the crippled, should be improved as national productivity improves. Let them maintain their share of the national income. Do not let them slip behind. If that is done then I shall have no worries, because I am not as pessimistic as the hon. Member for Louth.
He looks forward anxiously to the day when we shall have six million or seven million old people. He forgets that those who opposed the first 5s. old age pension advanced exactly the same argument. They forgot that through technology and science, the wealth of the nation would increase. The hon. Gentleman forgets that we are now starting on what I should call the second industrial revolution, and that automation, used wisely and intelligently on behalf of the whole of the people, can avoid the pitfalls and difficulties which he fears if we are too generous now and create precedents.
I end as I began. It is shocking and unforgiveable that it should take so long to bring these increases into operation. If there is one action which the Government could take even now to retrieve the position, it is to look across the Irish Sea where the Government of the Republic of Ireland have decided to give to all old people there a double pension in the Christmas week. If a poor country like Eire can afford to do that, this nation can afford it.
§ Mr. John Hall (Wycombe)
It is an interesting suggestion that a double pension, or special relief, should be given at Christmas time. I seem to remember that the same suggestion was made when the right hon. Lady the Member for Warrington (Dr. Summerskill) was the Minister responsible, and she rejected it.
§ Mr. Fernyhough
If the hon. Gentleman thinks that I always agree with the right hon. Lady, he must have missed some of the debates in this House. I take my stand on the question of decent treatment for old people, irrespective of who is Minister. All I suggest now is that the Parliamentary Secretary and the Minister can retrieve their good name by saying that, although they cannot give the increase to old people, who are those mainly affected by the new scale, before 23rd January, in compensation and as a good will and thank offering they will double the old-age pension during Christmas week.
§ 7.57 p.m.
§ Mr. James Carmichael (Glasgow, Bridgeton)
All hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have shown considerable sympathy for those in receipt of National Assistance. If sympathy could be transformed into pounds, shillings and pence, there would be a considerable increase in the National Assistance scales.
Two criticisms have been put to the Minister. The first is about the cost of living. The second, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) said, is that this is a more human than a cost-of-living problem. I do not want to argue about the cost of living, because the hon. Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock) gave the facts. The increases provided for in the Regulations are 4s. for a married couple and 2s. 6d. for a person living alone. This means that a married couple get an increase of 3½d. a day each, and that in a country which is wealthy. The person living alone gets an increase of 4½. a day. If a person is to have three meals a day, he cannot get very much extra for the 4½d.
One hon. Member said that we wanted this to be a non-party discussion; that National Assistance should be outside party politics. Hon. Members would be appalled if their friends or relatives received National Assistance at the present rate. A point which the Minister 464 should bear in mind is that people from the age of eighteen to twenty-one get 29s. a week, which is 7s. less than the amount received by those over twenty-one. It is obvious that people over eighteen and under twenty-one who apply for National Assistance are either sick or are not able-bodied, and why should there be this difference? Even those over twenty-one get only 36s. a week. I ask the Minister to examine the scales again. In their present form they are inadequate. I wish to see the lower scales increased.
Some attention should be paid to residential accommodation. One of the great revolutions in our social conditions during the last ten years was the abolition of the Poor Law. I can remember the workhouses of this country and the shocking treatment accorded to old people. We should not forget that it was the Labour Government that abolished the Poor Law. Today we find residential homes all over the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Exchange referred to conditions in Liverpool, where it costs the local authority about £4 15s. to keep a person in residential homes. In Glasgow the figure is around £5. The residential homes in Glasgow may be compared favourably with the finest hotels in any part of the country.
I wish the Minister would emphasise to the National Assistance Board the need for inspectors to go round the country and see what local authorities are doing to establish the sort of homes which have been provided in Liverpool and Glasgow. When one remembers that it costs around £5 to keep a person in Glasgow, one realises that the present National Assistance scales are quite inadequate. Such accommodation as is provided in Glasgow is properly organised and no money is wasted. The accounts of the local authority are examined by Government auditors. If the Minister has a feeling of sympathy for old-age pensioners, he should examine the conditions in these residential homes and accept the fact that we should increase the assistance for old people who live in their own homes.
I wish to refer to exceptional needs. When this Bill was going through the Committee stage and a Labour Government was in power. I protested against these exceptional needs. No one has been able to define them. Today every hon. 465 Member who has spoken has paid a tribute to the work of the National Assistance Board officers, but they are handicapped by having to deal with what are termed as exceptional needs. I shall be grateful if the Minister will advise me about what are exceptional needs. I understand that, as a result of the clothing distribution, there has been a reduction in the amount of money which has been spent. A National Assistance Board official in one part of Liverpool, for example, may be more generous than his colleague at the other end of the city. At the end of the financial year it may be found that the first officer has spent more in meeting exceptional needs than his colleague, which is quite unfair to the officers.
In reply to a Question which I put to him recently, the Minister said that the scales are supposed to keep a person and provide him with clothing. It is impossible under the present scales to provide food and the other amenities of life and to put something by for clothing. In Glasgow, at a period when the scales were the more able to meet the cost of living than at present, it was decided that every year each old-age pensioner should receive a new suit of clothes and other wearing apparel. In the period 1935–36, in Glasgow alone, we spent £81,533 in clothing grants apart from the scales. On 21st November, in reply to a Question, I was informed that in 1952 160,000 people out of 1,667,000 received clothing grants and a total of £650,000 was spent. In 1954 the number of people had increased by 9,000 and the amount of money had decreased by £80,000. In other words, in 1954 169,000 people received grants and the total amount of money spent was £570,000. In 1954 the average sum of money paid to a person receiving a grant was £3 6s.
I want to stress the point that, though the sum has been reduced, the cost of living has gone up. The only city in Great Britain which provides clothing direct to those on National Assistance is the city of Glasgow. For the year 1950–51, the grant made from National Assistance Board funds to the corporation for clothing amounted to £70,000. Compare that with the total sum granted for clothing over the whole country at the present time.
466 The £70,000 was not actually the real figure. Anyone receiving a grant for clothing from the National Assistance Board can go either to the local authority for the clothing or to a private trader. Some of my friends at that time did not like the idea of exceptional grants. They visualised margarine tickets and things of that sort. The local authorities in Glasgow buy the clothing direct from the manufacturers. Therefore, if a person receives a grant to the value of £5 and exchanges it with the local authority for clothing, he gets goods which would cost him around £9 in a retail shop. Which means, of course, that the £70,000 granted by the city of Glasgow for the year 1950–51 really represented over £100,000. I think the Ministry representatives should examine the Glasgow experiment.
This is a humane and a social problem. One of the things that has baffled me since I have been in this House is the view of the economists about inflation and deflation. During the last fortnight, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and, particularly, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury have been telling us that this Budget had to be brought in because too much money was chasing too few goods. That does not apply to the old-age pensioner. Last year there were 1,800,000 people drawing National Assistance, two-thirds of whom were old-age pensioners.
Recently, an arbitration court examining the conditions of N.A.L.G.O. decided in this great period of economic stress to grant all permanent chief officials in Scotland, who are already in receipt of salaries amounting to thousands of pounds a year, an increase of £1,000 per annum. Similarly, owing to a Report which was recently issued, the permanent officials of the Civil Service have got it into their heads that they should receive salary increases ranging from £1,500 to £2,000 a year.
My economics may be a bit cockeyed, but I fail to see how certain persons can be expected to live comfortably on 40s. a week when other members of the community, who are already receiving salaries of £12,000 and upwards as civil servants—[HON. MEMBERS: "£1,200."] If I understand the Report aright, many of the permanent officials in the Civil Service will receive more money than Cabinet Ministers.
§ Mr. John Hall
The hon. Gentleman has just made a very interesting disclosure. Can he say which posts in the Civil Service are going to carry this tremendous salary of £12,000 a year, because, if it is at all possible, I should like to make application for one of them?
§ Mr. Carmichael
I am open to correction on this matter, but the point I wish to make is that at a time when it is suggested that increases of between £1,000 and £2,000 a year should be given to certain members of the community, couples on National Assistance are only to receive an extra 4s. a week.
Something has been said about coal. An amazing thing is that if one goes round a mining village and visits those on National Assistance—fellows who have been in the pits for 40 years—one finds they cannot have a fire because they have not the money with which to buy the coal.
The abolition eight years ago of the Poor Law was a big step in the right direction, but in my view there should now be a complete review of the Regulations concerning National Assistance. The National Assistance Board does not fix the grant. It is the Treasury which is responsible. The Government should re-examine all the National Assistance Regulations and should make them more humane than they are at the present time.
§ 8.18 p.m.
§ Mr. A. E. Hunter (Feltham)
I welcome the opportunity of saying a few words about these draft National Assistance Regulations because one of the first positions which I held in public life was that of an elected member of a Board of Guardians, about thirty years ago, in a very poor part of London. The old Board of Guardians of 1925 was entirely different from what the National Assistance Board is today.
Old people, sick people and unemployed people—and there were thousands of unemployed in those days—used to come to the Board of Guardians. They were interviewed by a committee, and their means were inquired into. In many cases, they were not given money, but only grocery tickets, and relieving officers visited their homes. Some shops would not take relief tickets. In others, notices were displayed saying, "Relief tickets 468 taken here," which indicated to the people concerned that they could take their relief tickets to those shops and exchange them for groceries without feeling nervous.
I wish to join with hon. Members on both sides of the House in paying a tribute to the National Assistance Board and its officials. The administration is humane. Whenever I have had occasion to write to area officers, or to send them applicants, they have acted with great courtesy, and no applicant need feel nervous, as was the case in the old Board of Guardians' days. I gladly pay a tribute to the staff of the Board.
In the old Poor Law days poverty was treated as a crime. In this more enlightened age, in 1955, we do not regard it as such. I strongly support the plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough) that the Minister should reconsider these scales as quickly as possible. I agree with my hon. Friend that they are too low, and I also believe that if there had been the necessary will behind this matter these payments could have been made by Christmas.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton)—who made a very brilliant speech—and my hon. Friend for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock) dealt with the problem of old-age pensioners, pointing out that they are in a different class from the rest of the people who are receiving National Assistance. Nearly 1 million are receiving supplementary old-age pensions. These people need special food. It is unfair to apply the general cost-of-living index to them. In their 70s or 80s there are some things that they do not require, but they require milk, which is very dear; they require eggs and Butter—and one cannot buy an egg for boiling at less than 6d. today—and they require sweets and fruit—apples, oranges and bananas. But all these things which old people like are expensive. Since 1948, there has been a big increase in the price of milk, eggs, bacon and meat. The old pepole should have good meat; we do not want them to have the left-overs, the scrag ends, which they probably cannot digest. But good meat is very dear. I hope that the Minister will bear those points in mind.
National Assistance Board officers should have full powers to make 469 additonal grants where they feel that there is need. They should be able to give grants in respect of blankets, shoes and boots. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has often said, both in the House and outside, that he hopes to double our standard of living in twenty-five years. These old-age pensioners, unfortunately, have not twenty-five years of life left to them. Since 1948, there has been no rise in their standard of living, only increases to meet increased cost of living. I hope that the Minister will very soon increase the benefits set out in the Regulations.
§ 8.24 p.m.
§ Mr. James Simmons (Brierley Hill)
My hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) insisted that this is a human question. It would certainly be a pity if, in our examination of these Regulations, we became bogged down in masses of contradictory figures and the intermingling of boasts and reproaches by political zealots. This is not a matter of mechanics or economics; it concerns human beings. The adequacy or inadequacy of the proposed scales will be conditioned by each hon. Member's conception of human values.
What is the Minister's idea of the rôle of National Assistance, getting right down to fundamentals? Is it designed to ease or to abolish poverty? On the last occasion that we discussed similar regulations the hon. Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Fort) said:When we discuss the whole problem of National Assistance the real difficulty is to lay down exactly what we mean by poverty."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 20th December, 1954; Vol. 535, c. 2488.]Let those speak of poverty who only poverty know.
I should like to introduce a personal note. A few days ago I got home a little while before my wife, who was out upon civic business. The groceries had arrived, so I opened them. My wife has a little black book, with entries going back about three years, giving particulars of grocery bills for each week and showing the prices of each item ordered. I thought that I would do a little research until she came home to join me in supper. I discovered that in one week butter was 3s. 8d. a lb.; then, about two weeks later, the price had risen to 3s. 10d.; about a fortnight later it was 4s. 2d., and a fortnight after that 470 it was 4s. 4d. What applied to butter applied also to other commodities.
I shall not go into all the figures relating to the increased cost of living, because that is not the point which I wish to make at the moment, but as I went through that grocery book and noted these increases—imperceptible to us, in the standard of living we enjoy today—there flashed before my mind the picture of the time when I, a disabled ex-Service man, was standing outside Lench Street Employment Exchange, in Birmingham, at the end of the 1914–18 war. I thought of what I should have been able to do then if I had had the benefit of these continual increases. That immediately linked up with the problem of the old-age pensioners.
Only this morning I received a letter from a constituent of mine. He is an ex-Service man who served in the 1914–18 war. He has done a great deal of work for the community during his lifetime. He was in the Ministry of War Transport, he served in the Home Guard and he raised £500 for the Merchant Navy Fund. He has been in a good position, but now he is stricken down, and his wife appeals to me to get some assistance for them. Here is a quotation from the letter:In actual fact, he has not a penny piece; no sick pay, no unemployment pay and no National Assistance. The latter, I suppose, because I keep my home nice. We have already sold the piano"—That takes me back to the old days when the relieving officer used to come round and demand that you sold the piano. This is actual fact—large radiogram and some of our household silver. I ask you, is this fair? I am 60 years of age, and have got to work whether I feel fit or not. My son, who is 16 (6ft. 1in. tall) earns only pocket money … as an apprentice, and with his height and—thank God—good health, it is as much as I can do to feed him and make ends meet. We have just one bucket of coal which we are keeping for Christmas, and this in so prosperous a country screaming for good workmen.Here is a man who was never lazy, but he cannot now get either work or maintenance. We fought the fight for "work or maintenance" back in the days of Keir Hardie, who came into this House as the Member for the unemployed, fighting for that principle. Yet in my constituency, on this very night, there is a man of 60 who fought for his country, who served his country, and who yet gets neither work 471 nor maintenance under this Conservative Government.
Is the subsistence level to be made the ideal aimed at in framing these Regulations? How are we to decide whether the amounts are enough or are too much and whether we have to accept them or not? What is behind the framing of these Regulations and the method of arriving at the figures? What is subsistence? The Minister in a debate on similar Regulations on 21st December last year said:… in my view, the only valid ground upon which the Board could put forward the scales now would be to give a higher conception of the idea of subsistence …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st December, 1954; Vol. 535, c. 2673.]To be quite fair to the Minister—I am not complaining—he said that he would give the Board a hint to raise the scales. What does "a higher conception of the idea of subsistence" mean? When we use the prefix "sub" we imply inferior, as in "sub-standard." The whole trend of these Regulations and those which preceded them has been to give to the aged, the disabled, and the unfortunate, a sub-existence. "Subsistence" means sub-existence. No party is blameless in this matter and I am not making a party point. I am asking for a fresh outlook and for new hope for those who depend upon National Assistance for a living.
Must the aged and disabled be denied participation in the higher standard of living now enjoyed by the nation generally? Subsistence does not give them that right of participation. So long as they are on subsistence we are not giving them that right to participate in the advance of living standards enjoyed by the rest of the community.
Are we to hear the old Tory argument again about the improvident, thriftless workers who wasted their earlier years in riotous living'? When the Government of the day brought in the 5s. old-age pension, prominent members of the Tory Party used that argument. A great number of recipients of National Assistance lived, or existed, through the hungry 'thirties. They never participated in high wages and full employment, so they never had a chance to save. Many had the humiliating experience of the means test.
472 What a humiliating experience that was. I was on the dole for about six months, but I never got so far down as to undergo the means test. I had to stand in the unemployment queue and go to the employment exchange week after week to draw my money to support my wife and three children. I decided to branch out and do something to get out of it. Those who were on the means test had a humiliating experience. Others had to keep the families of their married children. How could they be expected to save and to make provision for their old age? Is it to be argued that because they had to accept lower standards of life then they should now have no more than subsistence levels? "What was good enough for my father and grandfather is good enough for me" is the philosophy of stagnation, not progress.
In the main, these Regulations deal with the people who bore, nurtured and reared those who have given us the higher standards we enjoy today, and they did it to the very extremes of self-denial. They are a grand lot of people, and deserve much better treatment from the nation than they have received from any Government in modern times. What human stories of personal love and sacrifices those living near to the working classes could tell. One of the hardest tasks is to convince those grand people that National Assistance no longer carries a stigma. It is very difficult. I go round the Black Country. The people there are a very independent lot.
§ Mr. Simmons
Yes, and in Wales—the miners, the steel workers—real good old stock.
We find them at Quarry Bank and Pensnett, and around there, and they say, "What, go on the parish?" They are told that it is no longer parish relief, but as long as National Assistance is anchored to the subsistence level it is difficult to convince them. The old people will not believe that the old taint of parish relief has gone when they are told "You can have food, but not too much—and keep it plain. You can have heat and light so long as you go to bed early to save as much of both as you can" That will not solve the problem.
It is no good quoting what past Governments have or have not done. It is far 473 better to quote the promises of this Government; the promises of the mended hole in the purse, of the cheaply-filled shopping basket, of the warm climate of prosperity. If those promises have been fulfilled the recipients of National Assistance would have a right to share in the benefits of the roseate-hued régime promised by the Tories, to sit at the table on which prosperity is spread and not just to take scraps from the kitchen. If the Government claim that they have carried out their pledges to bring us prosperity, these benefits are too low. If they admit failure, it is mean and despicable to take it out of the old and the disabled by condemning them to live on a bare subsistence level.
§ 8.39 p.m.
§ Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent, South)
Under these Regulations we are dealing with the poorest of the poor and I welcome the opportunity of placing on record facts which, if they do not attract much notice in the House, will be read and considered by the people. The Regulations deal with about 2¼ million men, wives and children. They concern thousands as good as any of us who are suffering through no fault of their own, who, in the main, live in the industrial centres. I want, first, to make my own position quite clear, because I have been dealing with this problem now for thirty years. I have spent ten years as the secretary of a trades council, twenty years as a Member of this House and twenty-five years as president of a trades council in the largest industrial area in this country.
I readily admit that we have made some progress, but our standard of measurement is too narrow. The progress we have made is from the criminal days of the Poor Law, and therefore our standard of measurement is wrong when compared with the outlook of our people today. In spite of that, I believe in giving credit where it is due, and I admit that we have made progress. I have seen the days when our people went cap in hand, shaking because they knew how previous applicants had been dealt with, and I sat myself among the applicants in 1930 and 1931. I have seen the way in which they were treated in those days, when the late Mr. Oliver Stanley had to withdraw the regulations he introduced owing to mighty demonstrations against them in South Wales and in Lancashire.
474 I have known all the chairmen of the National Assistance Board—Sir Henry Betterton, Lord Soulbury, the late Mr. George Buchanan and the present chairman, and I know that, within the limits of their duties and opportunities—and it is only a matter of degree between all of them—they tried to administer the regulations and the Acts in accordance with the generous manner and sympathetic treatment which applicants now receive as compared with the old Poor Law days.
Let me frankly admit that National Assistance, although based on need, is a big step forward. There is a greatly improved administration of a more sympathetic character. Those who care most dare most, and it is time that the Labour Party, which has the privilege of representing the people to whom we belong, bore that in mind. I was privileged to be associated with the Joint Insurance Committee, the Trades Union Congress, the Parliamentary Labour Party and other ancillary sections of our movement when the evidence was prepared and placed before Sir William Beveridge and his Committee. I remember all that went on and what lay behind it.
In page 6 of the White Paper entitled "Social Insurance and Allied Services" (Cmd. 6404), it is stated:A revolutionary moment in the world's history is a time for revolutions, not for patching.Those of us in the House at that time will remember it. For the second time in my life I now find that the promises made during those days of difficulty have not been fulfilled. I am reminded of what Lord Morley once wrote, and I cannot quote his exact words, but the sense was something like this: "We need to learn this lesson in particular, and we should beware in dealing with a grievance that we do not perpetuate it by only alleviating it and not dealing with fundamental issues." I shall bear these sayings in mind while I proceed to produce certain facts and figures to put on the record.
The first point that I want to make is that the scales of National Assistance in these Regulations are far too low. I am a democrat and, therefore, must accept majority decisions, but in my view we should have voted against them. I have learned in my life that when we do an 475 unpopular thing today, it is only a matter of time before people see the correctness of it and one receives increased support in dealing with a problem of the kind we are facing tonight. The working classes have worked harder and faster than ever during the past ten years in this country. The output of the industrial worker is now 18 per cent. greater per worker, but when they are in need they are treated like this.
In relation to our national income, we are spending less each year in social benefits and assistance than any other country in Europe, and if any hon. or right hon. Gentleman doubts that I would invite him to go into the Library and ask the Librarian to produce the International Labour Office Reports. There he will find statistics to prove what I have just stated. Our national income is increasing each year because of the great work being done in the industrial centres in particular and by the nation as a whole. In relation to that increasing national income, we are spending less on the benefits which we are considering this evening than is any other country in Europe.
Both sides accepted the Beveridge Report, after a fight against certain sections of the House behind the scenes. The main purpose of the Report was the elimination of charity and of collections and the provision of insurance benefits as a right, based on insurance records. National Assistance was then to be paid in accordance with need. I remember Sir William Beveridge, now Lord Beveridge, coining the phrase, "We need a Plimsoll line below which nobody should be allowed to sink."
These Regulations and the scales of National Assistance, and the continuance for years of the lowering of the Plimsoll line, mean that through no fault of their own we are putting people under the water. These Regulations must be combined with the effect of the abolition of food subsidies and the encouragement of scrambling for the largest share of the national income. For the second time in my life promises made during the war, in days of difficulty, have been broken. We thought some of those promises were meant and we plead guilty to having been taken in for the second time, because they are now being broken. The Beveridge 476 Report said that the flat rate of benefit shouldin itself be sufficient without further resources to provide the minimum income needed for subsistence in all normal cases.I will produce facts and figures to show that a large number of those receiving National Insurance also have to apply for National Assistance.
The benefit fixed in 1948 was 42s., which was 31 per cent. above the 1938 prices. The benefit which should have been fixed was 56s. The Beveridge Report suggested that the 1938 prices, plus an increased allowance for the higher cost of living, should be the basic figure.
The figures which I quote are from the International Labour Office Survey of the benefits paid throughout the world. The benefit fixed in this country in 1948 was 14s. too low according to the Report of the International Labour Office. The statistics are available in the Library for anyone to see. We now have a number of first-class research officers, which is unlike the position when we first came into the House and when we had to do all this work ourselves; we now have a great service at our disposal and we have only to go into the Library to get a first-class service in facts, figures and other statistics which can be produced from official sources, from Blue Books and White Papers, which prove the accuracy of the facts I am now putting on record. It is time they were put on record.
We were asked to pass the present scales on 20th December, 1954. I thought then that we should have voted against them. Some of those who said we should not vote against them then became the loudest in the denunciation of those scales in the General Election campaign. On 20th December, 1954, I said:These new scales of National Assistance are a further contribution towards Britain's retreat from the acceptance of freedom from want."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th December, 1954; Vol. 535, c. 2480.]The retreat is still proceeding. Its speed is gathering momentum. Full employment covers that retreat. If it were not for full employment in our country, greater indignation would be expressed in all the industrial centres about this matter. The effect is felt by those on 477 fixed incomes, the sick, the injured and pensioners and all who come under the Regulations. I shall give the numbers later. It is slowly being realised that we can have full employment, even in a prison.
We cannot consider these Regulations in isolation, for they are dependent on administration in general. I have copies of the instructions given to the Board if anyone doubts these things. These Regulations are dependent on other Regulations and on the administration in general. They are ancillary to the kind of administration of disregards, the rent allowance, special scales and other Regulations. They cannot be considered in isolation, because every penny counts to those whom we are considering in this debate.
I ask the Minister how the rent allowance is calculated? There does not seem to be uniformity of administration throughout the country. I have concrete evidence of a case where two applicants live in one street. One receives his scale allowance plus rent allowance whilst his friend, two doors away, who has worked hard and has full employment and whose earnings were great has saved and bought his house. This is becoming a serious matter because values have so changed that rates, repairs and decorations are a big problem to these people. That is why I want to know how the rent allowance is calculated.
When the Minister replies, will he quote the Section of the Act which authorises the Board to refer applicants to others for charity? In this House we try to see that Acts are administered constitutionally. We are entitled, before parting with the Regulations, to ask if the Minister will quote that part of the Act which, for example, authorises applicants to be sent from an office to the office of the W.V.S. next door. I have seen that happening—not in my area, because there the people would not stand for it—
§ Mr. Ellis Smith
There is concern about this matter, and it is our duty to ask the Minister how it is administered. Section 4 of the 1948 Act states:It shall be the duty of the Board … to assist persons … without resources … to meet their requirements.478 Will these scales allow Section 4 to be implemented in view of the changes in value?
Could we have a statement about the disregards, because they are causing great concern? If I understand correctly, the limit fixed in 1948 was 20s. We all know from experience how values have changed. Surely values have changed in relation to disregards? When is the Minister going to do something about that? I have with me the explanatory leaflets issued by the Board and according to them the amount is still 20s. Is that so? If it is, we have a right to ask that it should be changed. Section 5 of the Act states:The Minister … shall … make regulations as to the computation of requirements and resources.…Has the Minister carried that out? What are the Regulations, apart from those we have before us? I emphasise that we cannot consider these Regulations in isolation because every penny is at stake. We must ask, how are computations made and on what basis?
Because of the sympathy of people throughout the country all kinds of proposals are made. The essence of the Act was to eliminate the need of resorting to charity. That is leading to a differentiation of treatment in various localities. Suggestions are made for free travel, cheap milk, free milk and all kinds of things. No one welcomes that spirit more than I do, and no one gives more credit to it than I do, but that is not the right way to deal with this question. Such help ought to be in addition to an adequate scale. For that reason we speak so critically of the inadequate scales before us at present.
As I said at the beginning, it is in the industrial areas that people suffer most. It is in those areas where the work is done and where the need is greatest. These are the places where miners are suffering from pneumoconiosis, in this order: Cardiff, Swansea, Stoke-on-Trent, Edinburgh, Sheffield and Newcastle. Are there any special scales to deal with these special circumstances? I understand that there are special scales for people suffering from tuberculosis, and for the blind and others, and I welcome this addition. But if that is so, there should be special scales for men suffering from pneumoconiosis. Apart from miners, the areas 479 where there is most suffering are Stoke-on-Trent and then, with many times less than the number there, Edinburgh, Manchester, Swansea. If we cannot have—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris)
I do not want to interrupt the hon. Member, but he seems to be widening the debate beyond the scope of the Regulations.
§ Mr. Ellis Smith
I respect your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. The difficulty with these people is that every farthing counts—I made a mistake in saying "every penny." When men suffer from pneumoconiosis, the stage is reached when it becomes a living death. These men are dependent upon the benefits provided by the Regulations, and what I am asking is that they should not be considered in isolation. While I respect your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I think that within limits we should be entitled to reply to these points without going too wide.
If we cannot have increased benefits above these inadequate rates, can we not have special treatment for these men, who are suffering mainly through trying to increase coal output in the mining areas? Because the scales are so low, there is much needless suffering and neglect. People know that I am interested in these problems and when I travel in first-class compartments and discuss these matters with people who know me by sight and who know of my activities, they seldom speak against the kind of case that my hon. Friends have presented today.
I understand that the National Assistance Board is making discretionary additional payments averaging 5s. 3d. a week to 621,000 people. This is concrete evidence in support of our case when we speak critically of the inadequacy of the scales. In addition, difficulties have arisen from the charges for prescriptions, spectacles, dentures and surgical appliances. All this added irritation is unfair to the Board and to the sympathetic men and women who have to administer its activities. All this is further proof in support of our case today.
In December, 1954, 14.8 per cent. of people who were in receipt of National Insurance sickness benefit were drawing National Assistance. Twenty per cent. of the unemployed were drawing National Assistance and 23 per cent. of the widows were on National Assistance benefit. Then 480 we come to the most tragic figure of all—the retirement pensioner, the old-age pensioner—of whom 27 per cent. have to apply for National Assistance.
Therefore, I think that we have made an unanswerable case in regard to the inadequacy of these Regulations. Owing to democratic majority decision we shall have to allow them to go through tonight, but I hope that this is not the end of the consideration which this House is to give to them, so that as soon as possible we can have them improved.
I would point out as strongly as I possibly can that the National Insurance benefits are far too low, and if they are too low then the National Assistance scales also must be far too low. The cumulative effect of this is that men and women who are on National Insurance benefit for a long time have to go on National Assistance. Their life is tragic after their standard of living has been lowered to that extent.
With regard to the supplementation of the low National Insurance benefits by National Assistance, the figures for the various categories on 21st December, 1954, were: unemployed 30,000, widows 93,000, sickness benefits 138,000 and retirement pensions 1,100,000—and they have gone up since those days. That means that two-thirds of those receiving National Insurance benefits are having to apply for National Assistance. When we think of those incapacitated by sickness or industrial disability, how dare this House acquiesce in these days in this treatment of our people who suffer through no fault of their own?
I conclude by saying that our economy is in a difficult economic situation. We have pleaded with the industrialists in particular, and with the working-class, in general, to deliver the goods in order that we may improve the economic position of our people. In no part of the world have the people responded to the country's need like our people have in my lifetime. First in the First World War, then in the Second World War, and now in the economic battle for the maintenance of standards in our country, our people have responded in a way which should receive the whole-hearted admiration of all of us.
It is in the industrial areas in particular that they have responded. I am not saying that they have not played their part 481 in other areas, but it is in the industrial areas that output is produced, first from the mines, and then from the engineering, steel and other industries generally. I say that, after people have responded in that way, we have no right to allow them to suffer through no fault of their own and to have to accept inadequate scales of this character.
I know that we cannot alter this within a few days, but I say that none of us, no matter who we are, ought to be left alone unless we are doing all that we possibly can to get this nation to put itself in a position worthy of the people, worthy of our past, and worthy of the future, so that we can hold up our heads when we go to I.L.O. and other international conferences and say that our country is at least paying National Assistance benefits equal to any other country in Europe.
§ 9.4 p.m.
§ Mr. H. A. Marquand (Middlesbrough, East)
May 1, at the outset of my speech, associate myself with the congratulations already offered to the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central (Mr. Hughes-Young), to whose speech we listened with very great interest? He spoke with modesty, clarity and an imperturbability which I greatly envy. After ten years in this House, I wish that I could feel as assured of myself as the hon. Member seemed to be.
May I also join in the tributes paid to the officers of the National Assistance Board for the way in which they go about their task? I am sure that we all come into contact with them personally—I certainly do on almost every visit that I make to my constituency, and I know that they are trying to do their job as it should be done. The difficult and regrettable thing about it all is that the load is so heavy that they are not really fully able to discharge their task of looking after the welfare of recipients of National Assistance as they would like to do.
The Minister will have a great number of questions to answer and I have no doubt that he will be forced to say that he cannot answer them all. However, I hope that when he does answer the questions which have been put, he will not find that he has no time to deal with at least three of those questions which seem 482 to me to be of very great importance and which have been reiterated again and again during the debate. One question is that of the disregards on which strong feeling was expressed on both sides of the House and on which a good deal of valuable information was given to him and which he might not have known before.
Without going all over the thing again—I do not want to repeat any more than I can help what has already been said—I hope that he will say something to the House about that tonight and that he will explain more clearly than did the Parliamentary Secretary the exact position about meeting the rent obligations of recipients of National Assistance. Above all, I hope that he will address himself to the constructive suggestions put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. B. Taylor) and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock) about means whereby, after all, the increased benefits can be made available by Christmas.
We should remember that in April there were announcements everywhere in the Press and a good deal of talk at a famous by-election about very great increases which were to be provided for the old people. The newspapers carried banner headlines that married couples were to get another lls. and those living alone another 7s. 6d. a week. When it was all over, those drawing National Assistance found that, in fact, a married couple got 4s. and those living alone only 2s. The discontent which was felt then is still felt.
Tonight, the discontent, which my hon. Friends have been expressing with all the vigour that they can command, speaking on behalf of their constituents with whom they are in daily touch, is that same discontent, and if the Parliamentary Secretary was doubtful when he spoke about what we meant by too little and too late I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman can be in no doubt now. We are still dissatisfied with the step that has been taken to meet the needs of those in our community who are the worst off. I hope that the Minister has paid special attention to the pleas which have been made to him all through the debate that something might be done somehow to make these meagre additions to the incomes of National Assistance beneficiaries available before Christmas.
483 I find it hard to believe that that could not have been done when the Chancellor introduced his Budget almost as soon as we came back from the Summer Recess. He knew perfectly well that the intention of the Budget was to increase the cost of living and that could have been indicated in some sort of way to the National Assistance Board, perhaps in an informal way—although, of course, officials of the Board could have read the OFFICIAL REPORT of the Budget debates. Why was it necessary to wait until the actual increase in the cost of living was published, as the Parliamentary Secretary said, on 18th November? It could, of course, have been foreseen. It was certainly foreseen by my hon. and right hon. Friends on this side of the House. It was prophesied that that sort of increase would take place. The change might have been made in time. It is not unreasonable to say that Christmas might have been remembered.
When we go into the country, the people will say, "This is the Government which not only failed in April last to do all that should have been done for the most needy, but this is the Government which forgot Christmas." I hope that the Minister will refer to the questions asked about the discretionary allowances. They are extremely important, and they cover a vast variety of assistance to people who find themselves in jeopardy from time to time. They cover clothing grants, and all the rest. But, surely, at this time, just as we are approaching the worst of the winter, the discretionary power should be exercised, at any rate in respect of coal.
It is possible for the right hon. Gentleman—indeed, it has been indicated before now—to show that he feels that the onset of Christmas is a time of rejoicing and festivity, a time of reunion, which should be regarded as a special occasion for discretionary allowance purposes before the new scales are introduced. Though the Board is independent of him and must make his own decisions, and its officers must use their own discretion, surely the Minister can indicate what he feels.
If people know now that they will be entitled in January to a small addition to their weekly income, it will be all the more difficult for them to face the festivities and the reunions of Christmas and to feel the humiliation of not being able to 484 give 6d. to a grandchild or a great-grandchild. This is the humiliation which bears so oppressively upon old people, the humiliation of not feeling that there is money in the pocket.
If it is impossible to do what was suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield or my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Exchange, bring out special vouchers or expedite the printing of the books, or whatever it may be, is not it possible in the interval to do something, through the power of discretion, which would make Christmas an occasion on which these people could feel a little better off? We have been reminded again and again during the debate that there are now large numbers of people who are dependent on National Assistance. There are 1,600,000 recipients, and the total number of beneficiaries is much larger.
That is a sad and grim fact which we must face. If it were only a temporary number it would not be so bad, but it is not. As we see from the Report of the National Assistance Board, this sort of load has remained now for a very long time. For thirteen or fourteen years we have had no mass unemployment, but we have undoubtedly still got mass poverty. That is a stark fact which we must face. I would not go so far as some have gone in suggesting that the mass poverty is as bad as it was twenty-five or fifty years ago. I do not think that. I well remember that at the time of the first Royal Commission on the Poor Law, in 1909, it was revealed that one in every three of people over the age of 70 was living in a workhouse.
The workhouses have gone. Strides have been made, and one recalls the names of some of those who were responsible. Not only the names of Beatrice and Sidney Webb, who began the investigations which revealed these conditions in our land, but names like that of George Lansbury, who carried on the agitation and went to prison. And while I am mentioning names, may I also remind the House—I think it appropriate to do so—that in those days, when the Poplar system was derided by all the respectable people, the chairman of the London Labour Mayors Association was my right hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, West (Mr. Attlee). Were my right hon. Friend present tonight, he would wish to voice the indignation which 485 is still felt at the fact that, in spite of all that has been built up, mass poverty remains in the land.
The situation is better than it was, but we cannot be content. The Parliamentary Secretary said, I took down his words and I think that I have them correctly, "I think it is untrue that these rates do not give a reasonable standard of living." He defended that claim, with which we on this side of the House completely disagree, by proving, by reference to indices and the like, that people gained a better real standard than the real standard of 1948. That claim has since been denied. But if, for the sake of argument it was right; if, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton), we allow ourselves to agree with the accuracy of these calculations of indices, the outstanding fact revealed by this debate is the discontent of the House of Commons with the feeling that all we have to do is to keep to the 1948 real standard of living.
That has been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. The Parliamentary Secretary said that by comparison with what we might like, this may be disappointing, but by comparison with the past it is a considerable improvement. But why all this continual hankering after comparison with the past, as if the only question at issue was which party had done best in this field? I do not think we want to spend a great deal of time on that sort of argument but to face the stark facts of the situation and ask ourselves whether we can be satisfied with the existing standard upon which 1,600,000 in this land, and their dependants, have to live at the present time.
I agree, indeed I have said, that a comparison with the past is not what we want. Before this debate, when I looked at the statistics in the green book, the Monthly Review of Statistics, and in the blue book on National Income and Expenditure, I found that there was this merit in the statistics; that at the moment, 1952 is a very satisfactory base year to take, because at that time all the statistics happened to have the same base. Without wishing to weary the House with a lot of statistics, may I say that I looked at how the rates of benefit and the prices of the various articles which have to be bought with these rates compared with one another.
486 The rate now proposed for a single householder represents an increase of 14 per cent. over the rate prevailing in 1952. But the Interim Index of Retail Prices showed an increase of 13.2 per cent. over the same period, and so there we are. It may be said that the rates are one point higher than the Interim Index of Retail Prices, but when we look at the content of the index, we find significant differences according to which item we examine. In particular, we find that whereas the total index shows an increase of only 13.2 per cent., the price of food shows an increase of 23.6 per cent., and the price of fuel and light 21 per cent.
The articles upon which the greater part of the National Assistance supplementary pensions have to be spent have, in fact, increased in price very much more than the assistance rates themselves within the lifetime of the right hon. Gentleman's own administration. Those are the facts, although I do not propose to expand them too much because I know that there are other hon. Members who wish to speak in this debate. It seems to me that those few figures which I have taken from the official publications show that the old people with whom we are so greatly concerned tonight cannot find it easier, but must find it harder to live even on the benefits now proposed. Let us compare their welfare in terms of those figures with the welfare of other groups in the community.
During that same period from 1952 to the latest date in 1955, wage rates went up by 19 per cent., so that some of the extra productivity of the country which was denied to the very poorest in the land went to the wage earner. We cannot deny that and there is no reason why we should. But where did most of it go? If we look at payments of dividends and interest, those figures are only complete from 1952 to 1954. They are, of course, not yet available for 1955. But within the two years from 1952 to 1954, the total payment of dividends and interest went up by 24 per cent. and dividends on ordinary shares in non-nationalised companies went up by 34 per cent.
The inflationary movement redistributes the wealth of the country. The more that movement goes on, the more it redistributes the wealth of the country in favour of the profit earner, and the worse becomes the relative position of 487 those at the bottom of the income scale. It may be said that these figures are for this, that and the other reason not quite satisfactory. Or it may be asked why we are always exchanging statistics of this kind across the table. But what else are we to do until, somehow, we get an objective standard whereby we can accurately measure the welfare of the people with whom we are here concerned?
It is obvious to everyone who thinks for a moment that the shopping basket of the unemployed man, the man on sickness benefit and of the retirement pensioner is not composed in the same way as the shopping basket of the average housewife. It is the shopping basket of the average housewife upon which is based the cost-of-living index. When we claim that there ought to be a special index created to suit the shopping basket of the people on National Assistance and on pension, it seems to me that our case is unanswerable. For the life of me, I cannot see why the Government should not now proceed to undertake the construction of an index based upon the actual shopping baskets of actual people on National Assistance.
§ Dame Irene Ward
The right hon. Gentleman can eliminate coal, because one cannot get that into a shopping basket.
§ Mr. Marquand
I am sorry that the hon. Lady is not sufficiently familiar with the phraseology of compiling these statistics of the cost-of-living to know that "shopping basket" is the most convenient term for what we mean. Of course, she may prefer the term "weighted average of consumption."
§ Mr. James Griffiths (Llanelly)
The term "shopping basket" would be understood by a grammar school child of ten years of age.
§ Mr. Marquand
I now come to the Report of the Phillips Committee, and here I am going to attract the hon. Lady's attention and, I am quite sure, her support, because she is a "fan" of Sir Thomas Phillips, at least, we understand, so far as this book is concerned. Paragraph 108 of the Report says:There has been no systematic analysis of the income and expenditure of elderly house- 488 holds in Great Britain. We attach great importance to such an analysis, and had time permitted, would have wished to set on foot a special inquiry to assemble the necessary information.Time did not permit because the Government wanted to hasten the publication of the Report in time to bring about the increases—and we know why they were in such a hurry to do so. The Phillips Committee, which was a body of expert people—nobody can deny that—found that for its work the absence of such an index was a great disadvantage.
When I asked the right hon. Gentleman, during Question Time on 21st November last, whether such an index could be produced, I was told that the National Assistance Board had subsequently produced its Annual Report for 1954, which contained an admirable survey of the way in which old-age pensioners and similar people were living. It does, but it is a short survey; it is merely a chapter in the report and is no substitute for a proper index. It is a discussion of how certain things were done, and is a summary of the findings of visits by National Assistance officers to 120,000 households.
If, during that time, they could have persuaded some of these people to keep budgets, in the way that the Ministry of Labour has done in order to compile its Interim Index of Retail Prices, we might have had something concrete upon which to base our arguments, but we are left in a state of ignorance all the time as to the way in which the Assistance Board decides what the proper rates should be.
I can see no reason whatever why Parliament should not know the way in which the Assistance Board makes up its mind. I do not see why Parliament should not require the Board to be armed with the proper tool for its job—and the proper tool is an index properly compiled by reference to actual expenditure incurred by individual households which, to please the hon. Lady, is a longer way of saying, the shopping basket of the old people.
On 21st November the right hon. Gentleman said that the National Assistance Board has always declined to publish any kind of notional budget, because there is such a wide variety in the needs of pensioners. Of course there is; but there are basic scales. If there is such a wide variety that a notional budget cannot be compiled, how do we have any basic scales? The logical conclusion of the 489 right hon. Gentleman's argument is that it would be impossible to have any sort of basic scale. Surely it is possible to have a budget based upon a survey of the actual spending of actual people, to be used as the main criterion for determining these scales. We could use it even if it were only one of several criteria, as part of the information available to Parliament in order to allow it to make up its mind whether it is satisfied that the proposed scales are right. If that were done we might have less emotion about the subject; we might have less misunderstanding, more accuracy, and a greater feeling throughout the country that we were doing something satisfactory.
If we are left to make our own estimates of the right figures there is only one source to which we can go, in default of the necessary statistical information. We can ask ourselves what it costs to maintain a National Assistance recipient in a local authority hostel. Accommodation is provided for him there—food, clothing and shelter—on standards which we regard as decent, good and worthy but not extravagant. We are all pleased to visit these hostels from time to time and we regard them as among the best features of our social situation.
We are informed by the National Assistance Board in its Report that the average cost of the individuals living in the local authority hostel, with Part III accommodation, which has been referred to several times, is between £3 and £6 per week. The lowest is £3. I took care to find out what it was in my constituency; it is substantially above £3, but less than £4. This is done after considerable economy. The good local authority goes in for bulk buying of its food for the variety of institutions for which it is responsible. It has the advantage in many ways of economies which are not available to the individual household.
It is not a bad criterion. We have to ask why the individual, single beneficiary, living alone, has to live on a standard so much lower than that of those who are fortunate enough to get into local authority hostels. No wonder my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Exchange told us that the waiting list in her constituency is growing. I am glad to hear it. I hope that Liverpool can take over more houses and accommodate 490 these people in the way they ought to live. If we cannot have accurate statistical data this is the only basis we can take. We cannot be tied for ever to the 1948 standard—this is the main conclusion of this debate—which was based on the calculations of the Beveridge Report.
That Report assumed a much worse economic outlook in the years after the war than, in fact, was the case. It was based on an assumption of 8 per cent. unemployment, and looked forward to times much more closely resembling the times between the wars than arrived. We now know that in these years we have increased our national productivity faster than the increase in population, and far faster than the real living standards of poor people have increased.
Tonight, we are bound to say that the scales now proposed do not match the needs of the time. We must go forward to think of newer and better ways of solving these problems so that we can at least say honestly to ourselves that we have matched the needs of the times and given to the poorest in the land a standard of which we need not be ashamed.
§ 9.34 p.m.
§ The Minister of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. Osbert Peake)
We have had a very good debate on these Regulations. Nobody who has sat in the House as long as I have, like the right hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) whom I see opposite, will fail to note the very great difference in the way in which these debates are carried on since we joined the House some thirty years ago. It seems to me that the contributions from all sides of the House are much more factual, much better informed and much less tinged with pure emotion than they were in the nineteen-thirties. That is an indication of the improvements which have been brought about over the last twenty years.
I should particularly like to compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Wandsworth, Central (Mr. Hughes-Young), whose maiden speech from the benches behind me greatly impressed the House. This is not an easy subject for a maiden speaker, as I know from experience, but I thought that his speech was one of great interest and great value, and his future contributions will be looked forward to in all quarters of the House.
491 The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Marquand) anticipated that I would not be able to reply, in the time at my disposal, to all the points which have been raised. [HON. MEMBERS: "Take all night."] Although I might take all night, I am sure that hon. Members would not wish to listen to me all night. I would be very unwise to try to embark on a reply to all the points, particularly as some of them have gone a little beyond the scope of this debate, which is, in itself, a somewhat narrow one, being confined to the Regulations which embody the improved National Assistance scales.
A good many of the items in the scales have not been criticised. Although I have listened to as many of the speeches as I could, I have heard no criticism, for example, of the special scales for the blind and the tuberculous, where once again the differential margin over and above the ordinary scales has been increased. Nor have I heard anybody mention the case—which is not so common now as it used to be—of the man and wife with a number of children who have had to have recourse to the National Assistance Board. I think the reason for that is that the children's allowances are much more adequate than they were a good many years ago. No one has instanced as a hard case a man and wife with three children who, if paying a rent of 12s. 6d. a week, can draw £6 10s. from the National Assistance Board.
The criticisms have been that the Board has been too slow in bringing forward its recommendation; that the Government, having got the recommendation, have been too slow in making it operative, and thirdly, of course, that the recommendation itself is too small. The hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown), who opened this debate for the Opposition with what I thought was a very fair and very charming speech, asked why the Board had not told him—
§ Mr. Peake
Why the Board had not told the deputation, which included the hon. Gentleman himself, on 16th November that it intended to recommend some increase in the National Assistance scales. There are two answers to that. The first is that the Board did not meet until 23rd November—a week later—and it was not 492 until that meeting that, having seen the Ministry of Labour's statement about the cost-of-living figure, it decided to make a recommendation. But even if the Board had had it in mind on 16th November to make a recommendation, I really think that the House of Commons might have had something to say had the announcement been made to the hon. Gentleman and his deputation instead of to the House.
That leads me to the complaint of the Board being slow in making this recommendation. One of the very decisive factors in influencing the Board when to make a recommendation must be the course of the cost of living. It was undoubtedly the effect of the two points increase from 150 to 152, which was announced, I think, on 17th November, which resulted in the Board making up its mind the following week that the time was ripe for a further increase in the scales.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have said how much nicer it would be if the Board had been able to make its recommendations a month sooner and get these payments in time for Christmas. I think we are all agreed about that; there is no dispute that it would be much nicer if the payments could have been made a month sooner, but, of course, at that time there had not been announced the two points rise in the cost of living. In fact, my recollection is that the previous announcement had shown a fall of one point in the cost of living—from 150 to 149—in September.
§ Mr. Houghton
Surely the right hon. Gentleman will remember that the National Assistance Board apparently found that just the same had happened in 1954, because for two years running its recommendations have come forward after it has heard the cost-of-living index figure, apparently for the month of October or November?
§ Mr. Peake
Yes, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman will realise that the Board cannot work on the assumption that the cost-of-living index figure is going to make exactly the same moves and in the same months each year.
Now we come to the point about the time it takes from the Board making the recommendation and the Minister making the announcement—that is four or five 493 days later—and the payments becoming operative. If hon. Members study what has happened on the four or five previous occasions since 1948 when the scales have been increased, they will find that it has always taken round about ten weeks between the announcement in the House of Commons and the payments becoming operative over the counters at the post offices. This year, it has been done in eight weeks, and with the Christmas holidays intervening. I really do assure hon. Members that all Ministers have obviously wished that the thing could be done more speedily after the announcement is made in the House, but it is actually impossible, without a grave danger of complete chaos at the post offices, to bring an operation of this sort into more speedy effect. It has been done on four or five occasions, but it has never been done in less than ten weeks.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
I have the figures here. On the first occasion, in 1948, it was done in thirty-five days, but I agree that there was some criticism about that and that it is not fair to quote it. To take 1950, the operation was done in a shorter period than is being taken now—fifty-five days instead of fifty-six—but this is a straight increase, and there ought to be no difficulty about it.
§ Mr. B. Taylor rose—
§ Mr. Peake
No, I cannot give way. I should never come to the end if I give way to every interjection, and in any case I must reply to one interjection before I give way for another.
In 1948, the draft was laid in the House of Commons on 3rd May. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I have it here. I am not saying that it was approved, but according to the note I have, it was laid on 3rd May and became operative on 5th July, which is a period of a little over two months.
§ Mr. J. Griffiths
The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that these first Regulations were not Regulations just making increases of 2s. 6d. or 1s. 6d. They were a complete transfer from Public Assistance to National Assistance, with new scales and new disregards, and it was an entire major operation.
§ Mr. Peake
Yes, but the right hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) went on to mention what happened in 1950. In 1950, the right hon. Lady the Member for Warrington (Dr. 494 Summerskill) made her announcement in this House on 4th April. I have the OFFICIAL REPORT here, and there is no doubt about the figures. It became operative on 12th June, which is a period of something over nine weeks. I have the whole thing set out here. There has never been an occasion when the time between the announcement being made in the House of Commons and the date of operation has been shorter than it is going to be this year. This year, unlike the occasions to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, the Christmas holiday intervenes in the middle of the period.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
We must take similar things into account. The right hon. Gentleman referred, in the first instance which he mentioned, to the date of the draft being laid. In all these calculations which we have had from the research department of the House, the figures are given from the date the draft was laid, and the right hon. Gentleman's claim that this is the shortest period is not substantiated.
§ Mr. Peake
In 1950 there was an interval of a fortnight between the announcement and the laying of the draft, for which, of course, the Minister then responsible might have been blamed.
Nobody would be happier than I if this operation could be carried out more quickly without a risk of breakdown, but one thing for which I will never be responsible is a state of chaos and confusion at the post offices in the middle of the winter concerning these old people. Nothing would create more discontent or inflict more hardship than for them to go to the post offices and find that they had not their order books, or not the right order books, or that the amount entered in the books was not acceptable, or that some subsidiary voucher had been lost or mislaid. I will never be responsible for any sort of operation which will bring the old people out of their homes in midwinter to face that sort of trouble which might occur if the machinery broke down.
The right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East said we did not want comparisons with the past. I daresay he does not, but we have to make comparisons with the past if we are to discover whether we are making any progress. Having said that, he straight away went on to make a comparison with 1952. I will start a 495 little earlier. I will start with what I think is a good starting point—when the National Assistance Board commenced in July, 1948. I am dealing with the criticism that this recommendation is too small.
The 1948 scales succeeded the 1943 scales, which had been in operation for five years. There were then two scales, one for unemployment and one for pensioners; and the single unemployment scale was 18s. and the single pensioner scale was 20s. In July, 1948, both those figures were raised to 24s.
My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has already quoted the speech of the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, West (Mr. Steele), whom I see in his place, who introduced and commended those Regulations containing the 24s. rate to the House. I want now to refer to the speech of the right hon. Member for Llanelly, whom I see in his place, in winding up that debate on 16th June, 1948. Towards the end of his speech the right hon. Gentleman said:Indeed, I claim that we have made far better provision than anything before, taking it as a whole, and far better provision than in any other country in the world."—[OFFICIAL. REPORT, 16th June, 1948; Vol. 452, c. 608.]I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman made that statement on the best advice obtainable, and I concur in it, but it runs directly counter to the statement made this afternoon by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith), who denied that our provision in 1948 was as good as in many other countries. I prefer the statement of his right hon. Friend on the Front Bench, made after getting the best advice possible in the Department, to the figures given by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South.
§ Mr. Ellis Smith
I will say not another word except to refer both right hon. Gentlemen to the Library to consult the Report of the International Labour Office.
§ Mr. Peake
Very well, I think we can leave that matter there, but I do think it fair to take 1948 and to say that 1948 did effect an improvement—a considerable improvement—in standards, and that we have made some progress on 1948. In fact as recently as last year the hon. Member for Itchen (Dr. King), who always makes excellent speeches on this 496 matter, said in December what a considerable advance those 1948 scales made over anything that had gone before.
The next advance in National Assistance scales was made in 1950; it became operative nearly two years later, in June, 1950, and after two years it was an increase in the scale of 2s. There was no complaint then when the right hon. Lady the Member for Warrington made the announcement from this Box that the increase was "too little and too late." In fact, the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Mikardo) got up and asked:Is my right hon. Friend aware that the announcement she has just made represents a great act of social justice and that the £10 million could not have been spent in any other way to give so much benefit where it is most needed?The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. J. Paton) also paid tribute to the right hon. Lady. He said:Also, is she aware that her personal initiative and the sympathy she has shown in this matter merit the congratulations of every hon. Member in this House?The right hon. Lady, looking as modest as she could, replied:I thank my hon. Friend and would say how pleasant it is to bask in approval for the first time."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th April, 1950; Vol. 473. c. 1014–5.]We have not had all those bouquets thrown at us this evening, yet our increase is rather bigger and made in a much shorter time than the one which was announced in 1950.
Several hon. and right hon. Members have asked how the Board makes its calculations. We were never told that during the lifetime of the Socialist Government. I very much doubt if and when the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) stands at this Box—as I think very likely he may do one day as Minister of Pensions and National Insurance—that he will give the House the method adopted by the Board, even if he knows it.
§ Mr. Peake
I would point out that the Board has a good number of indices available to it. It has the results of the National Food Survey, the excellent survey commenced when the right hon. Lady the Member for Warrington was at the Ministry of Food. But needs vary immensely—this is a reply to the right 497 hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East—not only between men and women, but between middle-aged people, young people and old people. Needs vary between different localities, as we all know. The fuel ration is larger—rightly so—in the northern counties than it is in the southern counties. Therefore it would be quite impossible for the Board to make and publish a kind of notional budget applicable to everyone in receipt of National Assistance.
§ Mr. Marquand
If that is so, how is it possible for the Board to make basic scales? If they do not fit the whole country and apply to all persons concerned, what purpose do the basic scales serve?
§ Mr. Peake
The Board has succeeded in making basic scales under the Socialist Government and under the present Conservative Government. It really is not such a very difficult problem because the Board has got something very much better than indices to work upon. It has decency, humanity and common sense and, in the main, that is what guides the Board in the recommendations it makes to the Minister. It has the advantage of paying millions of visits to the homes of these poor people in the course of every single year. Anybody who troubles to read the Board's Report for 1954 will know how familiar the Board is with the way in which the poorest of the poor live from time to time.
§ Mr. J. Griffiths
I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman has said about the constitutional position of the Board, but let me put this point. My right hon. Friend quoted the Report of the Phillips Committee, who said that there was no adequate index for this purpose. The Phillips Committee was an important Committee. Was it in possession of the method by which the Board makes its calculations? When it arrived at the conclusion that there was no adequate index, did the Committee know how the Board arrived at its conclusions?
§ Mr. Peake
I cannot answer that question because I have not seen, nor has it been published, the evidence tendered to the Phillips Committee.
It is a great advantage that the Board is in close touch with the people who are in receipt of National Assistance. Do not let hon. Members think that it is only 498 the area officers, the junior officers, who go into the homes of the poor people. The senior officers of the Board do it also and members of the Board themselves accompany other officers in paying visits to the homes of the people.
There is a way in which we can to some extent check the recommendations of the Board. We can compile an index—any hon. Member can do it for himself—taking into account only those items which are, or can be regarded as, necessaries of life and leaving out from the ordinary index the things which are not the necessaries of life. I have compiled for myself an index leaving out of account rent and rates—they are separately provided by the Board and, therefore, do not come into the picture so far as this index is concerned—alcohol, tobacco and an item known as "services," which is a miscellaneous collection of things but 30 per cent. of which is travel, bus fares, tram fares and other things of which, very likely, persons receiving Assistance make little use.
That was what the hon. Member for Reading did some years ago, and that is why this index has come technically to be known inside the office—my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary mentioned it this afternoon—as the "Mikardo" index. I dare say the hon. Member for Sowerby has heard of it. He obviously has an index himself, because he was able to tell us that in his calculations since 1952 there had been an improvement in the value of the purchasing power of the scales of something like 9 per cent.
§ Mr. Houghton
I said that one could take various indices. According to the one I was taking, I asked the Parliamentary Secretary whether a figure of 9 per cent. increase in the real value since 1948 tallied with his calculation. My trouble was that the Parliamentary Secretary did not know. He simply said that purchasing power had increased. I asked to what extent. The hon. Gentleman was not sure. I asked whether it was 9 per cent. or what else it was, and the Parliamentary Secretary said that he did not know.
§ Mr. Peake
I am obliged to the hon. Member and will now give him the results of the calculations I have made, which exclude from the index all the items which it might be assumed that 499 somebody living on a subsistence level did not require. I have therefore excluded tobacco, alcohol and rent and rates and also the item "services" where it is doubtful whether it should be included.
Taking 1948 in each case as 100 and taking the National Assistance scale at 300 at that time, and taking this index which I have compiled comprising only the bare necessities of existence, we get the following results: The increase in the scale in 1950, which was a 2s. increase, increased the scale by 8 per cent. over the 1948 level. But during the same period, what I call the "Mikardo" index showed an increase of 10 per cent. That is to say, the increase of 1950 barely made good to persons on National Assistance the purchasing power which their money had lost since 1948 on the basis which I am describing.
The increase of 1951 was an increase of 4s. It took the single person allowance to 30s., which was an increase of 25 per cent. over 1948. The corresponding figure of this notional cost-of-living index, named after the hon. Member for Reading, had then increased by 28 per cent., so it will be seen that at that time the purchasing value of the scales in terms of bare necessities was lagging a little behind the fall in the value of money.
That seems to show that the Board at that time was probably taking an index which was slightly more favourable to it and slightly less favourable to the persons in receipt of Assistance than this index which I have, in fact, compiled. I do not think it proves that the position of the person on Assistance was getting worse, but it tends to show that the position was just being maintained, and the index I have chosen is one not favourable to myself or to the Board from the point of view of the calculations I have made.
I now want the House to appreciate the significance of the figures following on the increases in Assistance made, in 1952, 1954 and now recommended at the present time, because these are of very great importance if we want to see whether we are making progress or not.
The 1952 increase was a 5s. increase, and it took the single scale to 35s., which was 46 per cent. higher than in 1948. At 500 that time, the "Mikardo" index of the cost of necessities of life showed an increase of only 41 per cent. above 1948, so for the first time, it will be observed, the purchasing power of the Assistance scales notably outran by five points, 146 compared with 141, the rise in the cost of the necessities of life.
I come now to the corresponding figures for the increase made a year ago in December, 1954. At that time, there was a rise in the scale of 2s. 6d. to 37s. 6d. The scale level became 56 per cent. above that of 1948. The "Mikardo" index of the necessities of life at that stage had gone to 50 per cent. above the 1948 level. So at that stage the margin of five points in favour of the recipients of National Assistance had increased to six points as between 1952 and 1954.
Now I come to the effects of the recommended increase in the scales now before the House. That is a further 2s. 6d., bringing the scale to 40s., which is 66⅔ per cent. above the scale level of 1948, six-and-a-half years ago—an increase in the National Assistance scale of 66⅔ per cent. At the corresponding date, the last published figures of the cost of living, which I have here in the Statistical Digest, have gone on the "Mikardo" basis to 57 per cent. above 1948, so that the margin now is virtually ten points in favour of the person in receipt of Assistance.
I think that demonstrates—
§ Mr. Peake
We have not got to the end of the story. I think that does, in fact, demonstrate on an exactly comparable basis that whereas the increase in the scales made in 1950 and 1951 barely maintained the purchasing power set in the year 1948, which we all hailed as an advance over any previous standard, the increases since 1951, that is to say the increases of 1952 and 1954 and this one of 1955, have each shown progressively an improvement in the standard of living of the person in receipt of National Assistance.
§ Mr. Houghton
May I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to this important fact, that while the beneficiaries are at the present time 150 per cent. above 1948, their cost of living at this moment is 157 per cent. above 1948, so there is 501 no relief at all until they get the increased benefit? At the present moment, they are at a disadvantage as compared with the increase in the National Assistance scale.
§ Mr. Peake
I have stated the facts as clearly as I can, and I must leave the matter now to the judgment of the House. I want to turn from those figures, which are rather illuminating and which, I should have thought, would give satisfaction in all parts of the House, showing that we have made some fairly good progress in the last three or four years, to the question of discretionary additions.
Discretionary additions are a most vital part of the work of the National Assistance Board. It was suggested in a Question by the hon. Member for Ince ten days ago that the Board was restricting the discretion of its area officers.
§ Mr. Peake
The hon. Member says "Hear, hear." He will have some more figures thrown at him which will prove that that allegation is without foundation, but I am sorry to say that this allegation also found its way into the columns of the Daily Herald in an article entitled, "Misers in Whitehall," or something of that kind. Here are the figures regarding the grant of discretionary additions by the National Assistance Board at the most recent count. The Board takes a count at the beginning of November every year, and the figures have become available to me in the course of the last twenty-four hours. Here they are: The number of discretionary additions being paid is 642,000, which is the highest figure on record in any year since the Board was established. I will give the figures of the amounts of the discretionary payments.
§ Mr. Carmichael
I have a statement disproving that statement. The Minister says that it is the highest figure, but in answer to a Question of mine two weeks ago he said that in 1952 it was 650,000.
§ Mr. Peake
I am coming to that. At present I am dealing only with the numbers of payments and not the amounts. In 1952, the year the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Carmichael) has chosen, the number was 530,000. Today, at the most recent count, it was 642,000, an increase of more than 100,000 payments. The amount of the payment 502 has also increased from an average of 5s. in 1952 to 5s. 7d. today.
Let me emphasise that there is no ceiling on that kind of a discretionary payment. Some payments are small and some large, but they average 5s. 7d. a week. They are regular additions to the weekly grant and must be distinguished from the exceptional needs grant which is something quite different and which is a single payment to meet special needs arising at the moment. The discretionary payments are paid weekly and automatically. It is remarkable that the number of 642,000 payments should be the highest ever recorded, because the numbers in receipt of Assistance are nearly 200,000 fewer than they were at this time last year. The result is that the percentage of grants in payment by the Board which attract or receive a discretionary addition has gone up in the last twelve months, from 35 per cent. last year to 40 per cent., or two in five, this year.
To show the amount paid out in discretionary additions, I again compare with 1952 for the benefit of the hon. Member for Bridgeton. It has gone up from £6,800,000 in 1952 to £9,300,000.
§ Mr. Fernyhough
Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether the same conditions applied in 1954 as in 1952? If the same conditions applied, is not it obvious that, as the number receiving the additional grant goes up, the worse must be the circumstances of the people?
§ Mr. Peake
Of course I cannot accept that. It is of the essence of the whole system that the officers of the Board have the widest possible discretion to deal with any sort of exceptional circumstances by means of discretionary grants. The fact that the system has been used so freely ought, I should have thought, to have given satisfaction in all parts of the House.
§ Mr. T. Brown
The right hon. Gentleman referred to me. He is missing the point completely. I was not concerned about the number of discretionary grants or the number of cases dealt with. What I am concerned about—and what I have information about—is that, where there are difficult and hard cases, when the area officer knows very well that he could assess the matter and deal with it, he is now instructed by somebody somewhere 503 else that he must not deal with it but must refer it to the regional officer. My complaint is about the transfer of the discretionary power from the area officer to the regional officer in some remote office.
§ Mr. Peake
I told the hon. Gentleman, in answer to a Question on 21st November, that he was misinformed about that. I am sorry that the statement should have been repeated, I think in a misleading way, in the Daily Herald of 3rd December. I am also a little concerned that the hon. Gentleman should press the statement today without being prepared to give me any particulars to justify it.
§ Mr. T. Brown
I think the right hon. Gentleman, who desires to be fair, will know that I have claimed the Adjournment on this very question, and I will not give him the information now, before I take the opportunity I shall have then.
§ Mr. Peake
No, because the hon. Gentleman's allegation is that some poor people are being refused these discretionary additions whilst reference of them is made to the regional office. If that is so—or if the hon. Gentleman thought that that was so; and he said he knew it was so—I should have thought that he ought to bring the facts to my notice at the earliest opportunity and without any further delay.
I do not want to weary the House, but there are two or three other points which the right hon. Gentleman invited me to deal with, and I will deal with them as shortly as I can. Several hon. and right hon. Gentlemen mentioned the subject of disregards. Disregards are really a little outside the scope of the debate, which deals with Regulations increasing the basic Assistance scale. The system of disregards is a very elaborate matter 504 indeed and, as to nine-tenths of it, it is embodied in the Statute, in the Second Schedule to the Act of 1948. It is a most intricate matter.
The disregards of capital, I think, are pretty generous. A married couple on National Assistance can, in certain circumstances, have between £1,100 and £1,200 in capital without completely forfeiting a grant of National Assistance. So far as income is concerned, there is £1 a week in casual earnings allowed to the man, and £1 a week in casual earnings allowed to the wife, and there is up to £1 allowed in various forms of income from other sources. It is an elaborate structure, and on some suitable occasion we might discuss it further, but it is outside the scope of this debate. I would much rather spend what money is available on raising the standards of those on Assistance, the poorest of the poor, than devote a considerable part of the money to widening the scope of assistance in order to give more money to those who are not ex hypothesi in such great need as the majority of the beneficiaries under the scheme.
One word on the question of rent allowances in payment by the Board. The hon. Member for Ince said that it should not go out from this House that the rent was paid in full. In all but a small proportion of cases, and those are mainly cases where the household of the recipient of Assistance is one which is shared with some other wage earner who has an income, the policy of the Board is to pay the rent in full. If hon. Members know of any cases where rent is not being paid in full under the existing conditions, I hope that they will communicate either with me or with the Board.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
The right hon. Gentleman will remember that I raised this matter in an intervention earlier in the debate. Is it not the case that where a high rent is paid above the district average, and the applicant has other resources, the excess over the average is not provided for in the supplementation?
§ Mr. Peake
No, I do not think it would be quite correct to say that. As I understand, where there is someone else living in the house there is a contribution. That is the ordinary case where payment of 505 full rent is not made by the Board. The other very exceptional case is where the person in receipt of Assistance is paying a very large rent for accommodation which the officers of the Board consider unsuitable, and where alternative accommodation may be found at a more reasonable rent. I do not think that any hon. Member would wish the national resources to be wasted in paying exorbitant rents for unsuitable premises.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
I agree that it depends on the cases, and no complaint can be made about that. But if the right hon. Gentleman would inquire into the first type of case which I have quoted, I think he will find that some clarification is needed from the area officer, or else he has been misinformed.
§ Mr. Peake
I will certainly make the inquiry, but if the right hon. Gentleman knows of such a case, or cases, I would ask him to communicate with me or with the Chairman of the Board.
The hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. B. Taylor), for whom I have a high respect, made an error over the question of the payment to those who are getting board and lodging paid by the Board. He asked how could anybody nowadays, paying for board and lodging, exist on an allowance of 40s. a week. The answer is that no one has to. Where a recipient of Assistance is paying for board and lodging, the National Assistance Board pays whatever a reasonable charge may be and gives an allowance of 12s. a week to the recipient in addition to the payment for board and lodging.
§ Mr. Peake
So far as I am aware, but again, if hon. Gentlemen come across cases where that is not so, I hope that they will communicate with me.
My hon. Friend—if I may so call her—the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward), who sits behind me, and sometimes attacks me from behind, spoke about the desirability of a chiropody service for old people. That is a matter with which I have a good deal of sympathy, but as it lies outside the scope of my Department, I invite her to transfer her question to the Minister of Health. The 506 hon. Lady also mentioned the question of what are called "home-helps." She asked whether home helps were provided or allowed for by the Assistance Board. I am informed by the Board that in those cases where there is no local authority Home-Help Service, or where the Service is inadequate, the Board make discretionary additions to the weekly payments to persons on National Assistance to enable them to find home-helps for themselves.
I think that I have covered the important points in the debate, but if there are others to which I have not replied I will look through the OFFICIAL REPORT tomorrow, and, if necessary and desirable, write a line to the hon. Member concerned. These increased payments are a matter of interest and concern to no fewer than 2½ million of our fellow citizens. I should like to join in the tributes which have been paid on both sides of the House to the work of the National Assistance Board, to its various chairmen, and, moreover, to the top civil servants who have served the Board so well in the years gone by.
The main part of the policy of those on these benches since 1951 has been to rebuild the insurance system and to improve other sources of income so that fewer people may be driven to turn to the National Assistance Board in misfortune or old age. With this object in view, there have been increases in National Insurance pensions and benefits and encouragement given to occupational pension schemes of all kinds and in all fields, both for manual and non-manual workers in both nationalised and non-nationalised industries.
Measures have also been taken to do the fair and just thing by public service pensioners of all kinds, and the effects of our efforts can now be seen in some slight degree. At any rate, we may congratulate ourselves that there are today 200,000 fewer allowances, covering 300,000 people having recourse to National Assistance, than there were twelve months ago. While continuing to provide reasonable standards for persons in receipt of National Assistance and while sharing the hope of the hon. Member for Sowerby that we can, as the years go by, continue the improvements which we have already made in those standards, we believe that the policy which we have 507 pursued of trying to bring about some reduction in the numbers having to go to the National Assistance Board is in keeping with the love of independence which is a characteristic of our people.
§ 10.24 p.m.
§ Mr. John McKay (Wallsend)
In intervening in this debate, I presume that I am not overstepping the bounds of custom. I have not just come into the House; I have listened to the debate for a long time. I have been very interested in this subject for many years and have made a speciality of it. On many occasions, I have found that things could have been a little better than they were so far as official investigation in certain cases was concerned.
I quite agree that the ordinary area officers and district visitors have earned the popularity which they enjoy, but I have found on several occasions that some district visitors in certain areas could have shown a little more tact and could have got a little nearer to the reality of the family needs than they actually did. I am not merely expressing an opinion about that; I am expressing facts, because I have had complaints made to me on this score. I have visited the families concerned, examined the conditions and reported on what I found, and on several occasions something more has been done. That indicates that there is a need to alter the methods adopted by officers in various parts of the country so that they can find out what are the real needs of the people.
When I came into the Chamber today the House was discussing whether the improvement in the rates had increased purchasing power. It is not my intention to go into that question; I am even prepared to admit that there has been some improvement. Even so, we should not adopt such a complacent attitude as we seem to be adopting. Are we satisfied that we are doing all that we should do? If we are, we must be of the opinion that 67s. is sufficient to keep two people in clothing, food, furniture, coal, gas lighting, and all the other needs of a family. I am not satisfied about that, and it is because I am so interested in this matter that I intervene now.
508 I do not like to detain the House, but there are occasions when one must go beyond one's own modesty in order to express an opinion. This debate should not end with any feeling of complacency on this subject. Does not the fact that we have been arguing whether there has been any real improvement indicate that, compared to the rest of the community, we have not done justice to this section of it? The Tory Government improved the standards of these people a little in 1952, when they raised the allowance for married couples to 59s. The scale given in the Monthly Digest of Statistics, based upon 1952, is now increased by 13 per cent.
That is not a very great improvement. We are standing practically still. We must bear in mind the fact that the average wage has risen by 24s. a week, while we are increasing the subsistence level of these people by only 8s. a week. In the same period, production has risen by 15 per cent. and personal consumption by 28 per cent. Bearing all these things in mind, the national wealth of the country has increased to a far greater extent than the proportionate improvement which we are giving to these people. When we consider the question of small incomes we must remember that the people concerned have no capital behind them. I believe that the majority of hon. Members are concerned about the situation, and I am not satisfied that we are doing justice to this section of the community.
It is all very well to say that disregards should not be interfered with, but to make no concession when a pension worth 20s. in 1948 is halved in value is to undermine the standard of living of the poorest section of the community. We in this House should emphasise that, while we accept these additions at present, we do so with a feeling of uneasiness, a feeling that something more should be done, and that the National Assistance Board should once again examine the question thoroughly to see whether we can, by a unanimous decision, improve the standard of living of this section of the community, the poorest in the country. When that is done, we shall have an easier conscience.
509 I have intervened in the debate merely to say that we are not satisfied; we believe that some improvement should be made, and made at an early stage.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That the Draft National Assistance (Determination of Need) Amendment Regulations, 1955, a copy of which was laid before this House on 28th November, be approved.