HC Deb 08 February 1955 vol 536 cc1857-64

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

10.10 p.m.

Mr. Ralph Morley (Southampton, Itchen)

The question which I am raising tonight has been raised many times before in this House, more particularly on Adjournment debates, and I may be accused of wearisome reiteration in raising it again. Perhaps, to some hon. Members, I appear to play the part of the importunate widow, but I am prepared to do so until we get some justice for these unfortunate people, the railway superannuitants.

I want to be as brief as possible tonight, because, in the first place, I am here strictly against my doctor's advice, and, in the second place, because I know there are Members on both sides of the House who wish to take part in this debate. I want to give them an opportunity for so doing if they are fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker.

The people to whom I am referring, the railway superannuitants, belonged mostly to the clerical and supervisory grades in the railway service when the railways were still under private ownership. They were debarred from contributing to the National Insurance Scheme, 1912, so they did not fall to be beneficiaries under State pension schemes. But they had a contributory pension of their own. They contributed between 2½ per cent. to 8 per cent. of their salaries towards those pensions. They naturally hoped that when they drew the pension, with the help of some small savings that they may have been able to make, they would have some degree of modest comfort in their old age. Alas, that was not to be. The war came and then the postwar years with the inevitable inflation, which is always a concomitant of war and post-war conditions.

The pounds that they are receiving today in pensions are only equal in value to about one-third of the pounds which they contributed, and today many of them are in a state of real indigence and are suffering from undoubted poverty. We have had three Pensions (Increase) Acts, one in 1944, one in 1947 and one in 1952. Those Acts were passed by a Coalition Government, a Labour Government and a Conservative Government. So both parties in the State recognised that it was their moral duty to attempt in some way to cushion their pensioned servants against rapidly rising prices of the last 15 years.

But the railway superannuitants were left out of all increases under the Pensions (Increase) Acts. They were left out in the cold like the betrayed maiden in a Victorian melodrama. In 1953, representations were made by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Sir F. Markham) and other Members in this House to the then Minister of Transport, now the Secretary of State for the Colonies, who did make a concession. It was a very small concession and it was to apply to too few people. In making the concession, the right hon. Gentleman said it would apply to about 6,000 people out of the 34,000 superannuitants. It has, however, applied only to 2,900 people, and not to 6,000 people.

Most of those to whom it has been applied are receiving very small increases, amounting to only £5 or £10 a year. It really meant that sums have been transferred from the National Assistance Board to pensions. The main reason for the smallness of the concession was that the ceiling was fixed much too low. The ceiling beyond which there could be no increase in pension was fixed at £84 for the single man and £140 for the married man. That was very much lower than the ceilings fixed in the three Acts dealing with increased pensions, which apply to other public servants.

In addition, there was no disregard. In the Acts dealing with increased pensions there was a disregard of other income earned by the pensioner when assessing the ceiling. In the first place, the disregard was £52 a year and in the last Act it was raised to £104. The ceiling was pushed up by means of the disregard to a fairly reasonable height and brought a large proportion of public service pensioners within the ambit of the increases granted. That has not been the case with the railway superannuitants. Many of them are now suffering from extreme poverty. Many are having to do what they never dreamt they would have to do—go to the National Assistance Board for supplementation of their meagre pensions. Some in their mid-70s have been forced to go to work to get a little extra to ensure a living for themselves.

We hope that this evening the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to announce a further concession. The Transport Commission has just given increases, quite justifiable increases, to its acting workers. It has been working on a big scheme of capital expenditure and we have been told this evening by the Parliamentary Secretary that £400 million capital expenditure is to be paid from the reserves of the Commission. The Commission has also introduced a pensions scheme for its acting servants. All those things are very good and we all heartily approve of them, but we do think the Commission might round off what it has so well commenced by giving some further concession to its old servants, now passing their old age in very considerable poverty. The cost would not be very great. It would be like a small drop in a large ocean, compared with the expenditure recently incurred. It will be a diminishing liability because nearly all these pensioners are between 69 and 80. In the natural order of things they will not have very much longer to look upon the sun.

I hope we shall get a favourable reply from the Parliamentary Secretary tonight, a reply which will settle this matter for some years to come and will mean that we shall not be forced to raise it again in the House in a future Adjournment debate.

10.19 p.m.

Major Sir Frank Markham (Buckingham)

First, I should like to pay tribute to the indomitable courage of the hon. Member for Itchen (Mr. Morley) who came here tonight straight from a sick bed and has to go back to it. We appreciate the courage he has shown in coming to the House under such difficult personal conditions once again to battle for the railway pensioners who cannot speak for themselves.

The case that the hon. Member has presented this evening has been presented to the House at least four times in this Parliament. On each occasion we have had kind words from the Parliamentary Secretary and on one occasion, owing to the previous Minister's advocacy, we won what we thought was a very respectable thin end of the wedge when the Transport Commission decided to apply an extra £40,000 a year towards raising some of the lower pensions then in existence. We thought that £40,000 was small enough in all conscience, but in practice it has been reduced to £20,000, and no proposal has since come from the Transport Commission with regard to improving the lot of other railway pensioners who will not benefit under the £20,000 scheme.

The condition of railway pensioners and their treatment by the Transport Commission is absolutely scandalous. No other set of men has been so shabbily and shockingly treated. No other firm has dealt with its old respected workers in such a cavalier and almost cynical manner as the Transport Commission has done. On previous occasions I have used words of gentleness and kindness towards the Commission, but my patience is exhausted and we ought to say in this House that we think the treatment of these pensioners is unworthy of the B.T.C. And it is unworthy of this House if we tolerate it any longer.

We have today approved of extending the potential overdraft of British Railways from £275 to £600 million. All of that is to go on capital expenditure. Surely, some part of the Commission's finances could be found, not for capital expenditure, but for what one might call human expenditure. We know that the Commission gives way to the terrific pressure of the unions in other directions. It has never given way to the trade unions on this matter, and the time has come when we want no more kind speeches from the Treasury Bench and no more soft words from the Commission: we want a fair deal for the men who have given a lifetime of service on the railways and who have been denied it far too long.

10.23 p.m.

Mr. Percy Morris (Swansea, West)

It will not have escaped your notice, Mr. Speaker, that this is a matter upon which all parties in the House agree. I am glad to have the opportunity of reinforcing the plea so movingly made by my hon. Friend the Member for Itchen (Mr. Morley) and supported again, not for the first time, by the hon. and gallant Member for Buckingham (Sir F. Markham). All that we are asking for is a true sense of proportion. The super-annuitants of whom we as speaking are the only pensioners—except, perhaps, for those to whom we refer as the "10s. widows"—who have not received additional assistance.

I acknowledge straight away that as far as the Minister and his Parliamentary Secretary are concerned, the difficulty is an inherited one. It was inherited, in fact, from the time of the Labour Government. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton) was Chancellor of the Exchequer, he agreed to receive representations from the unions and the Commission on this matter, but I regret to say that the Commission refused to come on that joint deputation. Had the Commission recognised the need of its faithful servants at that time, the position would be very much easier now. Within the limits of time imposed by an Adjournment debate, I am anxious that other hon. Members should say a word in support of our case.

It is the unanimous wish of all Members of the House that something should be done to lend a helping hand in this matter. If these superannuitants get £80 or £140 per annum, no further concession is made. Who can expect a single man to live on £80 a year or a married couple on £140? The matter requires fresh examination and a proper sense of proportion. If the House can pass a 15-year programme involving £12 million, it would be to our everlasting shame if we refused to recognise the claims of these faithful servants, who worked under most shocking conditions in the earlier days of the service. I beg the Parliamentary Secretary to do something to reinforce our claim.

10.25 p.m.

Mr. A. C. Manuel (Central Ayrshire)

I also wish to compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Itchen (Mr. Morley) upon raising this subject in such a moving way and to support the remarks which have been made by the hon. and gallant Member for Buckingham (Sir F. Markham) and my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. P. Morris).

I support completely the case which has been put for the class of pensioners of which they spoke, but I want the Parliamentary Secretary to think on wider lines than at first glance may be thought to be the scope of the class of pensioner which we are discussing. Possibly he will remember that in a recent debate my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Collick) referred to railway men who were receiving pensions of 3s. a week. My hon. Friend spoke of one pensioner of 49½ years' service who received only 3s.

If the Parliamentary Secretary and his right hon. Friend are thinking of doing anything about this matter, and thinking of asking the Commission to take some definite action, I ask them most sincerely to put to the Commission for consideration in the most sympathetic manner the position of members of wages grades who are receiving very low pensions and gratuities of 3s. to 10s. a week. The country can hardly believe that, after men have served for from 40 to 50 years, they go out of the railway service with a mere token sum of one or two shillings a week. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will favourably consider raising this matter with the Commission, in addition to those aspects of the subject with which my hon. Friends have dealt.

10.27 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Hugh Molson)

I am not unfamiliar with this difficult and painful subject. Indeed, not many months ago I replied to an Adjournment debate on it initiated by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Buckingham (Sir F. Markham). I should like to join with those who have paid tribute to the hon. Member for Itchen (Mr. Morley), who has come to the House tonight in order once more to act as spokeman here for those unfortunate people for whom he has so deep an understanding and sympathy.

I have always found this a difficult subject. The position is that these railway workers were excluded from the National Insurance Scheme because of special schemes which were arranged for them by the railway companies.

Mr. P. Morris

Contributory schemes.

Mr. Molson

Yes. They contributed to private schemes which were organised by the railway companies. That meant that when those who contribute to the State scheme have from time to time received benefits these people have, not received equal or comparable benefits. It was for that reason that in the year before last, the British Transport Commission was willing to make special concessions in their favour.

When the railways were nationalised the funds taken over from them were insolvent, and at present the British Transport Commission is meeting 75 per cent. of the cost of the pensions that are now being paid. This amounts to the substantial sum of £7 million a year. I understand the argument that hon. Members on both sides of the House have put, that at a time when the Commission is paying higher wages to its present employees, it would be pleasant if it were able to make some increase in the pensions it is paying to retired servants of the old companies.

Sir F. Markham

Pleasant and just.

Mr. Molson

The increase in the cost of living which has been the justification for the increase in the wages can be put forward as an argument in favour of some increase also in the pensions. On the other hand, those hon. Members who sat through the previous debate heard of the financial difficulties in which the British Transport Commission is at present and is likely to find itself for some years to come.

The increase in the State pensions provided for in the Act passed by this House just before Christmas adds a very substantial additional burden to the finances of the Commission. The additional contributions will cost it £2 million a year. This additional burden thrown upon its already embarrassed finances naturally makes the Commission chary of adding to its expenditure, even upon these deserving and retired servants of the old railway companies.

The Commission is conscious of the arguments which can be adduced from the increase that has been made in the pensions paid by the State, and has referred the matter to a committee. That committee is now investigating the problem, of the pensioners on the one hand and of the very small resources of the Commission upon the other, and in due course it will report to the Commission, which will then get in touch with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport.

I am sorry that this is all I can say tonight, but the matter is under careful and not unsympathetic consideration.

Sir F. Markham

Before the Minister sits down, can he tell us whether the committee has been instructed to regard this as a matter of urgency, and whether the Minister can expect the report within a few weeks?

Mr. P. Morris

And will he report to the House?

Mr. Molson

I do not know how soon the committee will be able to report. As soon as it has made its report to the British Transport Commission, it will be made known to us, and I will undertake that the position will be made known at once to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Eleven o'clock.