HC Deb 01 March 1955 vol 537 cc2012-22

10.1 p.m.

Mr. Harold Finch (Bedwellty)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the National Assistance (Charges for Accommodation) Regulations, 1955 (S.I., 1955, No. 109), dated 20th January, 1955, a copy of which was laid before this House on 25th January, be annulled. The Minister of Health has powers conferred on him by Section 22 of the National Assistance Act, 1948, whereby he can fix the amount chargeable by local authorities for the accommodation of persons who go into homes provided bythe local authorities. We know that county councils and county borough councils provide homes for many of the more unfortunate members of the community—those who are sick, disabled, or suffering in old age and without any friends in the world. The local authorities make provision for their maintenance and an amount is charged by the local authorities. That amount is 32s. 6d., and set against the £2 which is the maximum amount which can be obtained as a retirement pension or sickness benefit, that 32s. 6d. is too high.

These rates vary from time to time. In 1952, the charges were increased. When the rate of sickness benefit and retirement pension was 32s. 6d., the amount charged for maintenance in a home was 26s., which left the person providedwith accommodation with 6s. 6d. That represented a fifth of the insurance benefit. In 1948, the proportion was also approximately one-fifth.

Now the rate is £2 and the amount charged by local authorities is 32s. 6d., which leaves 7s. 6d. pocket money for the person who is being maintained. To make a proportion of one-fifth the 7s. 6d. should be increased to 8s. Hon. Members may ask, "What is in a 6d.?" They might say that it is a very small amount, but it would help to provide an extra ounce of cheap tobacco, help to buy stamps—many of these people write to relatives—or help them to get a haircut. What can they do with this miserable amount of 7s. 6d.? I cannot understand why the proportion should have been lowered. If it was 6s. 6d. before, it should now be 7s. Why the reduction of 6d.?

I submit that the local authority, or the Ministry, should allow an extra 6d. to these people who are in unfortunate circumstances. More than 60,000 adults are maintained and over 18,000 of them are without any means of subsistence at all. In my own constituency, in South Wales, many of these people are ex-miners who have spent a life-time in the industry and are now sick or disabled. By the measures taken by local authorities they have been provided with homes. They are men who have made a great contribution to the economic life of this country. Now, in their old age they are feeble, sick and penniless. I think it mean and niggardly to take this 6d. from them and to rob them of those little amenities which provide for their happiness. Sixpence is a great deal to these people, and I hope that, as a result of this debate, the Government will at least alter the proportion.

Many ex-miners in South Wales come under the old Workmen's Compensation Acts, and they were paid off because the colliery companies went into liquidation. The companies could pay only 6d. or a Is. in the £, and these men were paid off with £25 or £50. But they were incapacitated and had no other means of livelihood, so they were provided with accommodation. I cannot understand why the Minister should not have given the same proportion to these people as was given in 1952.

There are persons who came under the provisions of Section 62 of the old National Insurance Act. Their unemployment benefit has expired. There are others who have contributed since 1912. I hope that tonight we may have an undertaking from the Government that this amount for pocket money will be increased and a little extra money provided for these old men and women.

10.7 p.m.

Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)

I beg to second the Motion.

It fell to my lot on 26th October, 1952, to second a similar Motion because at that time we believed that the 6s. 6d. conceded for personal allowances, or pocket money, was inadequate. I cannot bring myself to believe that the Ministry has given the consideration to this problem which it warrants. There would appear to be a great deal of guess work—"give them a bob, give them Is. 6d., give them half-a-crown "—instead of ascertaining what these people need.

I am not blaming the right hon. Gentleman, nor his Parliamentary Secretary, for I believe that they have a great deal of sympathy for these unfortunate people. I must be careful, because I may be misunderstood, but I think that the "nigger in the woodpile" in this niggardly, parsimonious policy is the Treasury. The Treasury seem to aim at making it difficult for the poorest of the poor to enjoy the eventide of life. I beg the Minister to take back these Regulations, and if it is of any help, may I say that we do not intend to divide the House on this matter? We do, however, intend to voice our opinions very strongly as we have voiced them previously. The 6s. 6d. then given was insufficient, and the 7s. 6d. which the Government propose to give on 25th April, 1955, is insufficient. If I had my way, it would be nothing less than 10s. a week for the short time that is left to these unfortunate people to live.

For the past six hours we have been talking very glibly in this Chamber about the expenditure of £4,000 million to protect, and at the same time to destroy, life. We are asking that something should be given to those unfortunate people who have played their part in life, who are heavily handicapped and many of whom are bedridden. Surely, this nation has not become so poor that it cannot afford a little money with which to provide additional amenities for these people.

I recall reading a statement made by a well-known Prime Minister of this country in which he said that the nation only finds its soul when it cares for the aged poor, and the unfortunate and the heavily handicapped. I know that the hon. Lady has not lost her soul, but I think that her Department has when, in the year 1955, it proposes Regulations under which the 6s. 6d. is only increased to 7s. 6d. Surely, we can do a little better than that.

A few days ago I picked up a book which was published only last year. Perhaps the hon. Lady has read it. It is written by Dr. Trevor Howell and is entitled "Our Advancing Years." Dr. Howell has spent many years dealing with old people living in institutions of various kinds in this country. In the concluding paragraph of the preface to the book we find these words; I quote: My whole viewpoint is that of a physician whose daily professional work lies mainly among the aged and the chronic sick. I am anxious to help those who are growing old themselves, those with elderly relatives and some with no relatives at all, and those who have to care for the aged.…After considerable thought, I have ventured to mention by name some of my colleagues whose pioneer work in this branch of medicine deserves recognition. I pray pardon for disturbing their modesty, but I feel strongly that until their works are better known and more widely applied, the old people"— and this is the salient point in the preface— of this country will be denied the care, the comfort and the happiness which they richly deserve. Those words are expressed by a man who for many years has devoted the whole of his energy, talents and working life in an endeavour to bring about some happiness and comfort to the aged and the chronic sick. He goes on to say in the preface: Until the work and the conditions of these people are more widely known, they will not get what they richly deserve. I do not wish it to be thought that I am criticising the older institutions or the hospitals that have to care for these unfortunate people. There has been a remarkable change over the last 30 years in the amount of care and attention given to old folks, and I hope that the position will go on improving year after year. The Regulations raise what we have come to regard as pocket money from 6s. 6d. to 7s. 6d. Bless me, 7s. 6d. is the price of a meal paid by some of us in this House, yet we are asking these unfortunate, heavily handicapped people to be satisfied with 7s. 6d. a week. That amount falls far short of their requirements.

It is very important to remember that the personal allowance was first fixed by Statutory Instrument No. 1385 in 1948, when the amount of 5s. was granted. That became effective upon 5th July of the same year. The amount was increased by Statutory Instrument No. 1100, in 1952, to 6s. 6d. as from 16th June of that year, and it is now proposed to increase it by another 1s., to 7s. 6d. Why was it raised by 1s. 6d. in 1952 when it is now proposed to raise it by only 1s., when there is conclusive evidence that the cost of the little amenities purchased by these people has gone up considerably? There is no justification for increasing the allowance by only 1s. in 1955 when it was increased by 1s. 6d. in 1952. Over a period of seven years the increase has amounted to only 2s. 6d.

Surely the Parliamentary Secretary cannot justify that meagre increase. I appeal to the hon. Lady to have another look at the Regulations, and also to consider the increase in the number of people involved. In 1949 there were 47,931 people receiving institutional and accommodational treatment. In 1950, the figure was 51,122; in 1951 it was 54,354; in 1952 it was 58,119;in 1953 it was 62,131, and the last year it was 65,933. Of that last figure, according to the report issued by the Ministry, 4,445 were children. Therefore, if we deduct the number of children receiving institutional accommodation treatment from the 65,000, there are over 60,000 people in this country in institutions.

In passing, may I say how glad one is to see the decrease in the number of children received into the institutions? That is a very hopeful sign. The number has fallen—I know that this is not relevant to the question under discussion—from 1,594 in 1949 to 244 in 1954. I think that the hon. Lady will agree that is a very hopeful sign. I hope that the decrease may continue because it will reduce the number called upon to receive accommodational treatment.

One could go on for a very long time giving illustrations born from experience in dealing with these old people and chronic sick people. I have in my division a large general hospital. I feel that it is my moral duty to visit that hospital occasionally. What do I find there? I find handicapped people who have given of their service to industry, particularly in the mining, engineering, and steel industries. Many of them have been crippled, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Finch) said, have been denied the compensation to which they were entitled because in certain circumstances they were prohibited from receiving it, and are now ending their lives in these institutions.

It may surprise the House to hear the number of years which many of these people have spent in institutions. Case No. 1, age 65, an inmate for 16 years; Case No. 2, age 74, bedridden for 25 years; Case No. 3, age 83, bedridden for 12 years; Case No. 4, age 72, bedridden for 11 years; Case No. 5, age 67, bedridden for 34 years; Case No. 6, age 72, bedridden for 19 years; Case No. 7, age 83—I visited this inmate on Christmas Day—bedridden for 10 years. Many of these inmates have neither relatives nor friends. They are handicapped in life and have been for all these years. They have had to suffer the heavy penalty of misfortune which has befallen them. They served their day and generation when they were physically capable of doing so. Now they are unfortunately, as I have said, travelling towards the western shore of life.

If any hon. Member of this House, from whatever political party, visited these hospitals and saw these people suffering, as they do suffer, they could not fail to be touched. It would touch a heart of stone. Surely this House which is known to be generous in its approach to many aspects of life ought to go a little further and grant to these unfortunate victims of society more than 7s. 6d. with which to buy the amenities to bring a degree of happiness into the eventide of their lives.

Many of them are miners. Many of us who are ex-miners are often misunderstood and sometimes criticised for putting forward in this House the case of the miners as frequently as we do. We are said to be always pleading for some little assistance over and above the normal assistance. I make no apology for doing so, for always pleading in this House the case of the unfortunate people of this land of ours.

We are not asking for something that cannot be afforded. We are only spending approximately £11 million to £12 million on this service. This afternoon we have been talking about spending £4,000 million on weapons for the destruction of human life. Surely we can afford to spend a few thousand pounds in giving a degree of happiness and contentment to the lives of people who have suffered from misfortunes which have overtaken them along the pathway of life.

10.26 p.m.

Mr. William Keenan (Liverpool, Kirkdale)

Something has been said about incapacitated persons. I want to speak about old people who are not necessarily incapacitated but who have grown old, have ceased to be family people, and have drifted into institutions.

Efforts are made in this generation to take older people from the larger institutions and to put them into places accommodating 20 or 30. This gives them a better life. In my division, a little institution survives. It was formerly known as "Kirkdale Homes" and is now called "Westminster House." In it are a number of men and women. With the exception of some encephalitis cases and a few epileptics, they are elderly people.

Between 80 per cent. and 90 per cent. are able to go out each day when the weather is all right; but they have nothing but the pension they get. The National Insurance pension has gone up by 7s. 6d. It first went up by 2s. 6d. Let me support my hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) by recalling that from 1948 to 1952 the amount of the pension increase was 6s. 6d., of which 2s. 6d. went to these old people as pocket money. Now it has increased up to 7s. 6d.

We all realise that the 6s. 6d. was inadequate. The extra shilling does not mean very much, because there has been an increase in the cost of living. These old folk do not want much, with the exception of cigarettes, but they cannot afford even 40 Woodbines. We are dealing very largely with elderly people—there are some in my constituency—who are in the category described by my hon. Friends, in hospitals which they will never leave because they are senile. They will get only the extra Is.

My plea is on behalf of those I know and see, as well as many thousands more. This amount is neither fair nor justifiable. Surely they merit an advance of more than Is.? I hope that the plea will be noted. Surely we do not want old folks to be dependent on begging help from others, as many have to do? Surely we could have made the amount nearer 10s., if not 10s.? I think that what has been decided is a miserable amount, and I protest at it.

Many of those in the institution in my constituency were probably drawn from different parts of Liverpool. We should provide them with a little amenity and allow them to purchase little things which they cannot get with 7s. 6d., but which they could purchase with a shilling or two more. It would make a great difference.

10.32 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Miss Patricia Hornsby-Smith)

I know that the whole House recognises the sincerity of the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Finch), who moved this Prayer, the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown), who seconded, and the hon. Member for Kirkdale (Mr. Keenan), who has supported it, but I must say that, listening to some of the comments which have been made, one would think that we were cutting the allowance instead of increasing it.

We are accused of being niggardly and parsimonious. When we analyse the amount of standard benefit that has been allowed in the various changes in benefit since 1948 we find that under the previous Administration, in 1948, 19 per cent. of the standard benefit was allowed as pocket money, and in 1952, when the allowance was 6s. 6d., 20 per cent. was allowed as pocket money. On this basis, it is 18.75 per cent., which is a quarter of 1 per cent. less than that provided by the previous Administration.

Hon. Members have referred to the rise in the cost of living from 1948 until now. The rise has been substantially under 50 per cent. and the rise in this allowance is in fact 50 per cent. on the 5s. rate of 1948. Hon. Members mentioned particularly—I think it apposite to draw the comparison—the disabled miner. The industrial injury rate of the disabled miner has risen from 45s. to 67s. 6d.—again a 50 per cent. increase.

Mr. Finch

I was not referring to those receiving that benefit, but to those who are not getting the industrial injury benefit at all.

Miss Hornsby-Smith

I agree.

The point I made was about those who receive injury benefit, and I was saying that in many instances the amount has gone up by 50 per cent. In the particular case before us the amount of the increase is 50 per cent. above what the figure was in 1948. It was not based on guesswork. We believe that, taking into account the index rise in the cost of living and the provision made by local authorities, this represents a settlement which is equitable to local authorities and residents.

Very little mention has been made of what is provided in these homes, and it is unrealistic to refer to these allowances without taking into full account what provision is made in part III accommodation by the local authorities for people living in these homes. The authorities, who will now receive 32s. 6d. of the 40s., meet all the reasonable requirements of their residents so far as they include board, lodging, clothing, extra comforts—such as the supply of magazines, papers, games, wireless, and very frequently, television. Also, in substantially more than half the homes, there is an allowance of tobacco for men and sweets for women.

For this there is a payment of 32s. 6d. from the standard benefit to the local authority from the resources of the resident as a minimum charge towards his or her keep and the supply of these very comprehensive services. That 32s. 6d. is about one-third of the average cost of maintaining one of these residents in a part III home.

The original allowance of 5s. fixed by the former Government, in 1948, was thought to be a fair rate, and the subsequent absence of complaints about that rate confirmed their view, and decided them to hold to it. Complaints about the current grant of 6s. 6d. are conspicuous by their complete absence, and having regard to all that local authorities do and provide for residents in part III accommodation, the new rate of weekly pocket money of 7s. 6d. prescribed by the Regulations is, in all the circumstances, we think, a fair proportion of the total standard rate.

If my right hon. Friend had any real evidence from the many thousands of people who are in these homes that grave or severe hardship was being caused, I know perfectly well that he would be the first to start the most intensive inquiries to see if it was a matter which required further and greater consideration. My right hon. Friend and I visit many of these homes in the course of our duties, and our postbag is not exactly small ——

Mr. Finch

But will the hon. Lady explain why there is a different proportion on this occasion, as far as pocket money is concerned, from what there was in 1952, when the rate was 32s. 6d.? It was then one-fifth, now it is less. Why is there a difference?

Miss Hornsby-Smith

The fifth is nothing sacrosanct. The hon. Gentleman is sticking firmly to the more generous proportion which we gave in 1952 and ignoring the lesser proportion which his Government felt was good enough for six years.

Mr. Finch

It was one-fifth.

Miss Hornsby-Smith

It was not one-fifth, it was 19 per cent. Five shillings is one-fifth of 25s. It is 19 per cent. of 26s. The difference between that percentage and ours is one-quarter of 1 per cent., and the percentage as it then applied was not a sacrosanct one. But it is not unreasonable, in taking into account a 50 per cent. rise in many of the benefits, that the allowances equally should have risen 50 per cent. on the rate which applied in 1948.

It is also fair to point out that between 26,000 and 27,000 of the 69,000 persons living in part III accommodation are either non-pensioners drawing National Assistance grants or non-contributory pensioners drawing not more than 26s. a week in pension which is supplemented by National Assistance grants. In respect of these people the increase in minimum charges and pocket money will fall directly on the Exchequer through the National Assistance Board, and in itself will cost an additional £500,000 a year, of which £70,000 represents an increase in pocket money.

The hon. Member for Ince mentioned long-stay patients in hospitals. The amount of pocket money which, under the National Assistance Act, we are providing under these Regulations is the same amount as that provided for long-stay patients in hospitals under benefits to which they are entitled under the National Insurance Act, and it is necessary that there should be the same allowance for these patients from the standard rate of benefit as for those accommodated in local authority homes. In that respect the allowance provided under these Regulations is in line with that provided under the National Insurance Scheme.

My right hon. Friend feels that there is no evidence which has come to us from cases in these homes that this rate of allowance causes grave hardship. Provision is wide in local authority homes, for which the local authorities themselves deserve all possible credit, and we believe that the Is. increase will bring a little extra margin to those who hitherto have only had the 6s. 6d. allowance. Therefore, we do not feel that the case justifies extending it beyond the limits laid down in these Regulations.

Question put and negatived.

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