HC Deb 11 July 1955 vol 543 cc1707-16

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Colonel J. H. Harrison.]

10.11 p.m.

Mr. F. H. Hayman (Falmouth and Camborne)

I have been fortunate to be able to open the Adjournment debate tonight, and I want to speak about the harshness of some National Assistance Regulations. This is not the occasion for a complete review of the work of the National Assistance Board; indeed, it would not be possible to make one within the compass of an Adjournment debate, but I want to tell the tale of an aged couple in recent weeks. Both these people were in the late seventies. They lost a son in the First World War; another son died in early middle age, during the 1930s; and the husband was stricken by unemployment during the mass unemployment which afflicted the country during the 1920s and 1930s.

He was a very capable workman but found himself unable to get a job, as so many millions found in those years. To him and his family it was heartbreaking, but there was nothing he could do about it. As time went on he became crippled with rheumatism, and yet he carried on work in a small way in order to supplement his meagre income. He was plucky in adversity, and so was his wife. They knew no comforts. She had suffered from ill-health for many years, probably as the result of privations in her youth and early womanhood, and also when she was older and had to face all the severities occasioned by her husband's unemployment.

I have know them for many years. In recent years they have had no wireless and no daily newspaper, and yet they were intelligent and literate. He, as an amateur gardener, has practically no equal in the West of England. He is outstanding in that field. They were a devoted couple. I should like to think that they represented all the best in our English character. Through no fault of their own, but through the severities of unemployment and poverty, they had to go to the National Assistance Board for help.

Gradually, as the result of ill health and poverty during almost a lifetime, the old lady worsened. The doctor did all he could, but the authorities could not provide any domestic help. The crippled husband, once a man of splendid physique, did the washing, such cooking as he might be able to, and other household chores. He gave his wife the half-pint of milk which was their daily ration, and he drank his tea without any milk. That is the state of society for a great number of our people.

Eventually, the W.V.S., which administers the home-help service as representative of the local authority, was asked to send a home help. It had no home help to spare. After years of ill-health, and a prolonged illness, the old lady died. In the week before she died, a home help came to clean the house. The husband, old, crippled and worn out with the attention he had given to his wife over the long years of illness, still did the washing.

Many years ago, like many poor people, this old couple took out an insurance policy to provide for the old lady when the husband died, and so that she need not have a pauper's funeral. Those of us who know the working class will be aware that a pauper's funeral was its great nightmare a generation or two ago. It was on that feeling that the great insurance companies built their huge empires.—[An HON. MEMBER: "And made its profits."] Yes, immense profits.

The sons had died, and could no longer pay the costs of the funeral. Although the husband was unemployed he had at one time increased the premium so that the policy might provide £20.

When the old lady died, the husband arranged for the cheapest burial. There were no fancy fittings to the coffin. There were no cars. The husband was too crippled to go. The old lady had been fond of flowers, and he had been a clever gardener. Out of the £20 he spent 25s. so that the old lady could have a little gift of flowers from him when she went into the grave. How many hon. and right hon. Gentlemen have spent far more than that in taking a gift of flowers to their wives, perhaps for a birthday or on some other domestic occasion, and have thought to themselves how very fine it was to be able to do it. Let us consider the vast sums that are being spent tonight to decorate the tables of hotels and other places in London where expensive dinners are being eaten. We have a great flower industry. I have spoken in this House many times in support of it, particularly in my own county of Cornwall.

Surely it was a very natural thing that this old gentleman should want to give a few flowers when his wife was buried. He was more extravagant even than that. He actually spent 35s. on some underclothes. The undertaker's bill, as small as it could be made, amounted to £26 17s. 6d.

They had an insurance policy for £20. He had spent £3 on flowers and on some underclothes for himself. He paid £17 on the undertaker's bill, leaving himself in debt there to the amount of £9 17s. 6d. One would have thought that the National Assistance Board could have helped. But no, the N.A.B. could pay nothing. The strange part is that if the old couple had not tried to be provident the N.A.B. would, or could, have paid up to £20. I should like to ask the Minister when this sum was fixed. Was it fixed in 1948? If so, why has no application since been made to increase the amount because of the present lower value of money?

There is another interesting item in this story. I said that a son had been killed in the First World War, but there was a disability pension of 5s. a week. That was made over and paid out to the wife, so that, should the husband have died first—as so often happens—she would have had no difficulty about getting it. As it was she died first at the age of 78. The money, it is true, has been transferred to the widower, and the N.A.B., thanks be, cannot lay hands on that 5s. That is protected, but the N.A.B. suggested that it might be used to clear off the debt to the undertaker.

This is the story of an old couple in Great Britain in 1955. I am accused from the benches opposite, and in the country of harking back to times past, but tonight I speak, not of times past, but of this year of grace, 1955, when the nightmare of dire poverty still persists.

In page 6 of the National Assistance Board's Report for 1953—the latest available—is written: The total number of old people for whom provision was being made through assistance allowances at the date of the sample was 1,400,000. On a sample date in 1953 1,400,000 old people were receiving National Assistance, and if the National Assistance Regulations apply to them as they have done to the old couple of whom I am speaking we should be thoroughly ashamed of ourselves.

I suggest that we are leaving too much to the voluntary societies. Only last week, in another room of this Palace, it was stated that in the City of Leicester there were 25,000 people over the age of 65 and that arrangements had been, or were being, made for a voluntary agency to supply some of them with food. The total help that can be arranged was said to be 180 meals a week. I know, of course, that a great proportion of those 25,000 will not want anything, but I am quite sure that the Minister will agree that 180 meals for so many people is really ludicrous.

I hope, therefore, that the Minister will ask Parliament for powers to enable local authorities to provide more meals directly for these people. The local authorities can do it. They have the school meals service and they have other institutions operated by them which can provide these meals very easily.

We all agree that institutional provision is not a satisfactory solution. People want to remain in their own homes, and I suggest that the Minister should exercise more imagination and initiative to provide more help in the homes, to provide meals in the homes for the aged and the handicapped, to deal with laundry, and to enable local authorities to cope with these problems by assisting them with grants up to 100 per cent., or at any rate, very substantial grants. I ask for more help in the matter of bedding, clothing and so on. I fear that the National Assistance Board is still taking second-hand gift clothing which accumulated after the great floods of the spring of 1952.

Children whose parents receive National Assistance sometimes win places in the grammar schools. Are they getting a grant to enable them to obtain the clothing which is necessary when they transfer to those schools, so that they will not be laughed at as children coming from very poor homes? I had to fight such a case two years ago, and a grant was made. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to tell me that this is now the general practice.

10.27 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. Ernest Marples)

I am sure that the House is grateful to the hon. Member for Falmouth and Cam-borne (Mr. Hayman) for raising this matter. I have been interested in his description of a particular family over a period of about twenty-five years.

It is customary, but not obligatory, to give a Minister some idea of the subject to be raised. I think the hon. Gentleman had been in a little difficulty in that respect, because this Adjournment debate was impelled upon him rather suddenly, but it does not enable a considered and precise reply to be made to the hon. Member and, of course, through him, to his constituents. If I fail to answer all the points which the hon. Gentleman has raised, I am sorry; I do not complain, but I am sorry for the hon. Gentleman and for his constituents, because I cannot give him the reply which he deserves. I cannot make my reply more detailed and precise, because I have not received all the details of this case, as I should like to have had. I therefore ask him to forgive me.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of points. First, he referred to the harshness of the general Regulations, and, secondly, he mentioned an individual case. I should like to have details of that case so that it can be gone into, chapter and verse, by the officers of the National Assistance Board and myself.

Mr. Hayman


Mr. Marples

I think that that is not unfair in the circumstances.

Mr. Hayman

Perhaps I should say, on the matter of the funeral grant, that I have been in touch with the Chairman of the National Assistance Board, and it is because the Board seems unable to do anything that I have asked for this debate in order to refer to the harshness of some of these Regulations.

Mr. Marples

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not write to me or to my right hon. Friend, because we are responsible to this House for the National Assistance Board. If the hon. Gentleman by-passes me and goes somewhere else, he cannot expect me to be responsible. It is only fair to say that I am entitled to notice of the question which the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise.

Mr. Hayman

I am not sure whether the Department referred me to the Chairman of the National Assistance Board.

Mr. Marples

The hon. Gentleman was calling me to account in an Adjournment debate, and all I am saying is that if I had had from him details of which he has spoken tonight, I should have gone into the matter and done what I could.

The hon. Gentleman talked about hardness in administering National Assistance, about home helps in Cornwall, funeral grants, and clothing and bedding for the old and crippled. The home help service is not provided by the National Assistance Board or by my right hon. Friend. It is a service provided by the local authorities under the National Health Service Acts. It is a grant-aided scheme. It is up to the local authorities to administer it. A local authority may make a charge, but the National Assistance Board would certainly hope that the means test of any authority would not be such as to require a payment from any person receiving National Assistance.

Where the home help was obtained by the applicant under a private arrangement and not under a local authority's services the Board would see that the applicant could meet the cost. So I think that the Board is "in the clear" on the question of home helps.

Mr. Hayman

Am I right in understanding the hon. Gentleman to say that if the National Assistance Board refers an applicant to the home help scheme, and the scheme fails, the Board can arrange for provision to be made, and to pay for the help directly?

Mr. Marples

Yes. I will repeat what I said so that the hon. Gentleman has it correctly.

I said the local authority may make a charge. This service is grant-aided. It is the local authority's duty, laid on it by this House. The failure of a local authority in that duty is a matter for another Minister. The duty is laid on the local authority, not the National Assistance Board. The local authority may make a charge, but the Board would certainly hope that the means test of any authority would not be such as to require a payment from a person receiving National Assistance. Where the home help was obtained by the applicant under a private arrangement, not under the local authority service, the Board would see the applicant was in a position to meet the cost. I think that is clear, and puts the National Assistance Board in a very reasonable light.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned funeral grants. It is difficult for me to reply to that, because under Section 50 of the National Assistance Act the responsibility for providing burial where no other arrangements can be made, is placed on the local authority, and I cannot answer for the local authorities, for I have now moved from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. It is not part of the Board's functions to pay for funerals, but where a debt has been incurred by a person receiving National Assistance, the Board is sometimes prepared to help, if that is the only way of avoiding hardship.

The hon. Gentleman is interested in a particular case. I will go into it with the Assistance Board. I understand that the funeral expenses amounted in that case to £26 17s. 6d. and that the gentleman in question was insured for £20, leaving, therefore, a debt of £6 17s. 6d., plus a little extra he spent on himself, making the debt, perhaps, £10 altogether. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will go into it with the National Assistance Board. If there is any particular hardship for the man concerned, I will see if it can be alleviated. That is the question of the funeral expenses.

I cannot go into how the man spent the funeral expenses. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not wish me so to do. I think it would be invidious to compare the use of flowers in hotels or at funerals or at weddings. They are often used at weddings, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that weddings are just as important, and possibly more agreeable, than funerals.

The hon. Gentleman said that large numbers of people were on National Assistance, and that he hoped that they were not receiving the treatment of the couple he mentioned. There is one thing I want to make clear, even though there are not many Members in the House. Time without number hon. Members have spoken of hardship in individual cases. I remember two or three weeks ago asking for details of cases to be sent to me. I have not had a single case. It is difficult to stand at the Box to answer a general case and rebut suggestions of hardship if hon. Members will not send in details of cases. Even a criminal is entitled to know what he is accused of doing. Here the National Assistance Board has been accused of permitting cases of hardship but details of the cases have not been sent in.

A fortnight ago hon. Members raised the question of the 10s. widow and spoke of great hardship. I asked them to send in details, but no cases have come to my notice since then. If hon. Members have cases, they ought to send them in so that we can deal with instances where their constituents are said to be suffering hardship. If they have no cases, I do not think they ought to make a general accusation against the National Assistance Board that the Board is harsh in administering its Regulations or mean in its treatment of people. Hon. Members must produce proof.

The hon. Member mentioned that there were over a million people on National Assistance and said he hoped they had not been "treated like this." I am glad to tell him that 111,000 people went off National Assistance as a result of the increases in National Insurance benefits which my right hon. Friend recently made. In other words, those people now receive their money as of a right and not on a test of need.

The hon. Member also mentioned the clothing and bedding needs of old people. The Board's powers to make grants of clothing and bedding are limited to cases of exceptional need. The reason for that is that the normal weekly allowance of the Board is intended to cover such items as bedding. The Board's policy and practice in this respect were explained in its Annual Report for 1949, pages 14 and 15, and I refer the hon. Member to that Report, which I have read with great interest. There has been no change in the practice since then. In fact rather more grants were made and rather larger sums paid in 1954 than in the preceding year. The normal grant is supposed to cover such items and the Board deal with claims for bedding only in exceptional cases and not as a matter of course.

National Assistance is designed to bring the resources of people with low incomes up to a certain level. People can say that that level is mean, they can say that it is generous or they can say that it is reasonable. But if they use those words they have to answer the question, "Compared with what?" If the present National Assistance scales are compared with anything which this House or any Government have granted in history, then they are generous, because they are higher. Hon. Members cannot say that they are mean compared with the past. They may be mean compared with Utopia, but not when compared with the past. When hon. Members raise the issue of National Assistance, I ask them two questions: first, would they compare what is now being given with what was given in the past; and, secondly, would they please send details of hardship to my right hon. Friend or myself so that we can go into each case?

I have tried to meet the points which the hon. Member raised without having much prior knowledge of what he would say. We always want to look after the poorest of the poor.

Mr. Hayman

Would the hon. Member reply to the point about schools?

Mr. Marples

Exactly the same applies in that case. If anyone requires assistance he should go to the Board. It is not the Board's job to provide clothes for schoolchildren, but if anyone is in difficulty and goes to the Board, the Board takes into account the whole of his circumstances. If there has been hardship in any case, it is up to hon. Members to write to my right hon. Friend or myself and we will see whether it can be put right.

Clothing, bedding and such are really for the local authority to provide, and it is not for the National Assistance Board to provide clothing and bedding for various people. The level of money which it gives should cover that. If it does not, the Board, in exceptional circumstances, will give extra grants for clothing and bedding.

If there is any particular case which the hon. Gentleman has in mind, I shall be most grateful if he will let me have details and I shall go into it. I do not think that at this late hour I can say more than that. I will look into the question of funeral expenses in this case. Secondly, if the hon. Member knows of any case of a school child, or anyone else, who is short of clothing, and he will let me have the details, I will investigate it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be satisfied with those two undertakings, but I do beg him not to raise charges against the National Assistance Board concerning individual cases without first letting me have the details. I hope that, with that, I have met the hon. Gentleman's purpose in raising this matter.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.