HC Deb 03 December 1956 vol 561 cc856-61
10. Mrs. Castle

asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance what steps he intends to take to increase old-age pensions in view of the further rise in the cost-of-living index.

16. Mr. Shurmer

asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, in view of the increased price of bread and milk and increased winter coal prices, what action he intends to take to help old-age pensioners meet these increased prices.

18 and 23. Mr. Hector Hughes

asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance (1) if he is aware that the present high cost of living inflicts great hardships on old-age pensioners; and in view of this, if he will take steps to increase old-age pensions to an extent comparable to the present cost of living;

(2) if he is aware that the rise in old-age pensions since 1946 is much less than the rises in the cost of living, in the index of rates of wages and in the average wages of manual workers, and that the old-age pensioners are penalised by these disparities and especially by the higher cost of living; and if he will now take steps to increase old-age pensions to parity with the present cost of living.

20. Mr. D. Howell

asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance what steps he proposes to take to enable pensioners to meet the recently announced increases in the cost of living.

22. Mr. Allaun

asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance if, in view of the increased prescription charges, the removal of bread and milk subsidies, higher living costs due to the war in Egypt and the forthcoming rent increases, he will consider raising old-age pensions.

24. Mr. Hunter

asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, in view of the fact that it is now 18 months since the basic rate of old-age pensioners was increased, and in view of the increased cost of living during that period, if he will take early steps to increase the basic rate of old-age pensions.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I would refer the hon. Members to the reply given by my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) on 23rd October, to which I have nothing to add, except in reply to the hon. Member for Birmingham, All Saints (Mr. D. Howell) to invite his attention to the fact that the recently published figures of the retail prices index for mid October, 1956, is the same as for mid-April, 1956.

Mrs. Castle

Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that, since the latest increase in old-age pensions in April last year, the cost of living has increased steadily and has now risen by 7½ per cent.? In view of the fact that the increase in pensions given over 18 months ago was designed to meet the previous increase in the cost of living, and old-age pensioners are equipped with absolutely nothing to meet this disastrous and steady rise in the cost of living, will he not announce a policy at once?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The hon. Lady knows very well that it was recommended by the Phillips Committee that changes in the rate of retirement benefits should be made fairly infrequently. As for her suggestion that a rise of about 7 per cent. in a period of 18 months is a conclusive reason for an increase in the scales, I am bound to remind her that the late Government waited for five years until the percentage increase in the cost of living was 22 per cent.—and, even then, increased the rate of pension only for some pensioners and to a level less in real value than the present level of the benefits.

Mr. Shurmer

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it is no use talking about the price index in this connection? Old-age pensioners are able to buy food only, and it is the prices of food that have risen? Is he further aware that the value of the old-age pension is now 3s. less than it was at the time of the last increase? How much longer are the Government to turn a deaf ear to the needs of these poor unfortunate people who are living in semi-starvation? Let the right hon. Gentleman try the pension himself for a month and see if he can live on it?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I agree with the hon. Member in his view that food is the matter on the index which is of major importance to the retirement pensioner. In those circumstances, I am sure he will be glad to know that the food elements in the retail price index, which stood at 106 in April, stood at 101.8 at the last assessment.

Mr. Hughes

Does not the Minister realise that he should take into account, not only the rise in the cost of food and things of that sort, but also the legislation which the Government are bringing in to increase rents, fares and public health services; and that it is utterly wrong, unjust and invidious to increase those things without increasing old-age pensions?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman that those matters must be taken into account, as must the other changes in prices. On the price question, what we are clearly concerned with is the general effect on prices. It is quite misleading to pick out particular items.

Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux

Would my right hon. Friend agree that this spate of questions comes badly from the party opposite who, during the six and half years when it was in power, increased the retirement pensions only once, and that only a few weeks before the General Election? Would he further agree that when hon. Members opposite talk about the price of food, they should remember that the retail price index for food alone rose 32 points while they were in power, and that the only increase which they gave, just before the General Election, was 16 per cent., only about half the amount by which food prices had risen?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I am glad to say that, as my hon. and gallant Friend has said, whatever the difficulties at the time, and without under-rating the difficulties of the people concerned, it is a matter of some satisfaction that we have been able to maintain a much better rate of benefit than were right hon. Gentlemen opposite.

Mr. Howell

Is the Minister aware that at the moment, old-age pensioners are having a much harder time than any other section of society, and that it is quite impossible for them to eat statistics? What does he intend to do, therefore, in view not only of the increases that have just come about, but of the increases that are to come about as economic repercussions of Suez? At what point does he intend to intervene and give to old-age pensioners their very long overdue increase in pension?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The hon. Gentleman really must not take into account certain elements which may force prices up without considering other elements which will work the other way. As I said in my earlier answer, the right approach—and it is the approach which all Governments have taken in this matter—is to view the effect on prices as a whole, as well as the other elements in the problem, apart from prices, which the Phillips Committee recommended.

Mr. Marquand

Is it not really heartless to old-age pensioners, when they know that the prices of goods which they consume, such as bread, milk and coal, are going up very quickly, to draw their attention to falls in the price of goods which they cannot afford?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

In asking that, the right hon. Gentleman cannot have heard my earlier answer, in which I pointed out—and I hope that it gave him pleasure, as I was sure it gave pleasure to the House—that the classes of items which matter most to these people, those on the food index, have shown a decline since April.

Mr. Allaun

Is the Minister aware that, on these December evenings, hundreds of thousands of pensioners, because they have not enough left from their pension to spend on heating, are going to bed at six o'clock in the evening in order to keep warm? Is that the way for men and women to spend the last years of their lives?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Nobody would wish to under-rate the difficulties, not only of the retirement pensioners but of other sections of society whose incomes are fixed and have, therefore, suffered over the years; but it really is no kindness to the people concerned to exaggerate their difficulties. The difficulties are there, and they are real, but the House must take, as it always has taken over the years, a balanced and sensible view of the matter. As I said in an earlier answer, I am carefully watching the movement of prices.

Mr. Hunter

Will not the Minister look into the whole matter again? As is evidenced by the Questions today, there is great feeling on this matter. I have made personal investigations in my own constituency and find that there is great hardship among the old-age pensioners because of the increase in the price of milk and bread. Will he not make an investigation into the whole question?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

There is no need for me to make any special investigation. It is a matter which I keep under the closest review all the time.

Mrs. Castle

On a point of order. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, Mr. Speaker, I beg to give notice that I will raise the matter on the Adjournment.

19. Mr. Hector Hughes

asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance the number and nature of the representations which he has received during the last 12 months drawing his attention to the disparities between the present rate of old-age pensions and the present high cost of living; what replies he has sent; and what steps he intends to take to bridge the gap between the present rate of old-age pensions and the present high cost of living.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I have received a number of representations on the subject of the rate of retirement pensions from organisations and individuals. Some, but not all, of these representations have shown awareness of the fact that the present rates of retirement pension in terms of purchasing power are better than they were during the whole period from 1947 until the increase made by my predecessor in April, 1955. I have generally drawn attention to this aspect of the matter in my replies, while giving an assurance that the value of the pensions and all other relevant matters are being closely watched. On the last part of the hon. and learned Gentleman's Question, I have nothing to add to the answer I have already given him today.

Mr. Hughes

Does not the Minister's policy as enunciated by him today, in his refusal to increase old-age pensions, show that he has not given to this question and to the representations which were made to him the careful, diligent and exhaustive considerations which he boasted a moment ago he was giving to representations? Will he reconsider the data supplied to him and come to the conclusion that the old-age pensioners should be treated just as well as the landlords in this country?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The hon. and learned Gentleman knows perfectly well that anybody in my position would follow this matter closely, carefully and conscientiously. The fact that I have no announcement to make in the sense in which the hon. Gentleman would like me to make it, he must not take as an indication that one has not given and is not giving this matter anxious thought.