HC Deb 17 February 1958 vol 582 cc863-987

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £5,459,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1958, for the salaries and expenses of the Department of the National Assistance Board and of certain Appeal Tribunals; non-contributory old age pensions, including pensions to blind persons; assistance grants, &c.; expenses of reception centres, &c.; the maintenance of certain classes of Poles in Great Britain; and the maintenance of Hungarian refugees in hostels.

3.39 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Miss Edith Pitt)

The first Supplementary Estimate we have to consider is one for the National Assistance Board, and it may be for the convenience of the Committee if I give some details of the items.

The gross sum is £5,609,000, but receipts for Appropriations-in-Aid are now expected to exceed the original Estimate by £150,000, so that the net total now required is £5,459,000. The gross sum, £5,609,000, is made up of the following items. One is Subhead A.1. "Salaries, &c.", £410,000. The "&c." covers wages to the weekly paid staff, overtime payments, transfer grants to servants of the Board on moving from one area of the country to another, and the employer's share of National Insurance contributions. The additional money required here does not cover the staff employed in hostels for the Poles, which is a declining service, or hostels for Hungarian refugees, a new service about which I should like to say a little more later.

Several factors have contributed to the increase over the original Estimate under this subheading. The engagement of temporary staff is one. Considerable overtime working is another; and this was required for the revision of assistance grants consequent upon the recent increases in National Insurance benefits and assistance. As hon. Members will remember from our debate last November, each assessment has to be worked out separately, and that has involved overtime. The main cause under this subheading is the increase in Civil Service salaries and wages granted last summer, but effective from the beginning of the financial year.

The next subheading is A.3 "Telephone, &c., services." £35,000, about which I think a brief word will suffice. More money is required not only because of increased telephone charges but also because of the new arrangement under which Departments pay the Post Office for the use of the telephone service, which was started the previous financial year. For some time not sufficient information was available for a close estimate, but it is now known that the original Estimate was insufficient; therefore, more money is required.

Next we come to Subhead B, which is concerned with the increase required for non-contributory old-age pensions. This is occasioned mainly by the increase of 2s. 4d. given to non-contributory pensioners to make good what is commonly called the tobacco token but more properly the Tobacco Duty relief. It was a grant to all non-contributory pensioners whether they had tobacco tokens or not. Also, the numbers of these non-contributory pensioners are declining rather more slowly than experience suggested when the original Estimate was framed.

The next item in the Supplementary Estimates is the major item of assistance grants. I want to leave that to the last and first dispose of the more minor items.

I now come to subhead C.2 "Reception centres, re-establishment centres, &c.", £55,000. Some hon. Members may not be familiar with the purpose of these centres, so perhaps I might give a word of explanation. The "re-establishment centres, &c." refers to a centre run by the Board itself in the Midlands, at Henley-in-Arden—accounts of its work have been given in several of the Board's Annual Reports—and three other centres run by voluntary organisations. The Board has arrangements with the other centres to assist with the cost where they provide a service which is much the same as that at the Board's own centre.

The purpose of this service is to prevent the drift into permanent idleness and permanent dependence on public funds of men who, because of temperament, background and history—we all know the causes—are in that danger. The service has had a considerable measure of success, about which hon. Members will have been interested to read in the Board's Reports.

The reception centres are still run mainly by local authorities on behalf of the Board. These were the old casual wards before the National Assistance Act transferred them and gave responsibility to the Board for them and the people who were cared for there. These people, who used to be called "tramps," more politely "casuals" or even, at times, "the gentlemen of the road," are now officially called "persons without a settled way of living," but more often they are still referred to as "casuals."

In a special report which it made some years ago the Assistance Board attempted to define what was meant by the term. Hon. Members will be interested to know that few of them are really tramps. The once commonplace feature of the countryside—the tramp—has almost disappeared. The casuals are mostly men—they include a few women—who spend their time in one particular town or getting lifts from one town to another, and they need help in settling down to a normal life. The job of the centres is to provide that help.

I am glad to say that the numbers of these people are relatively small, much smaller than before the war. In December, 1957, the number accommodated at the centres averaged about 1,750 a night compared with a peak figure of nearly 17,000 in May, 1932.

More money is required for this service mainly because a number of the claims from local authorities for reimbursement of the expenditure which they had incurred and which were expected in the year 1956–57 were not received in time, so they fall to be met in the year 1957–58.

I now come to Subhead E.1 and Subhead E.2, the service to which I referred earlier, the maintenance of Hungarian refugees in hostels, for which there is a Supplementary Estimate of £159,000 under the two subheads. As it is now some time since the Board undertook this additional work, it may be desirable to recall the circumstances in which it did so. As the Committee will know, the refugees from Hungary who arrived in this country in substantial numbers—about 21,000 altogether—a little over a year ago were looked after by the British Council for Aid to Refugees and other voluntary organisations financed mainly from the Fund raised by the Lord Mayor of London. These organisations did very good work both in providing for the immediate needs of the refugees on their arrival and in helping the great majority of them to find a settled place in the British community in a remarkably short time. They are still making a great contribution to the work of resettlement.

It became apparent during the summer, however, that voluntary funds would not be sufficient to see the job through unless they were relieved of the heavy cost of maintaining the refugees still in hostels, and that public funds would have to take over. The powers of the Board and of local authorities under the National Assistance Act might together have been sufficient for the purpose, but, clearly, a local authority could not be expected to bear the cost of providing temporary accommodation for refugees from abroad, who, moreover, were in its area only by chance in that one of the vacant camps or hostels to which they were sent happened to be there. It was, therefore, decided that the Board should take over the remaining hostels. I am sure that the Committee will agree that the cost should be borne directly by the Exchequer, and this Supplementary Estimate makes the necessary financial provision for the current year.

There are now only about 1,500 refugees left in the hostels. There were not very many old or disabled persons among the refugees who came here, and the great bulk of them have not been difficult to settle in the British community. Many of the relatively few refugees still in the hostels are family groups who cannot be so readily resettled, but, even so, the service needed here should be of no more than a temporary character.

Next we have Subhead Z, which is, "appropriations in aid". This item consists of the receipts of the Board which are set against the gross expenditure. These come in a number of ways but mainly from husbands in the case of broken marriages where the wives apply to the Board for assistance. They relate also to the recoveries made under Section 13 of the National Assistance Act from the National Insurance Fund for grants which were made pending the award of pension or benefit, subsequently paid with arrears.

Both these are running above the original Estimate, so that they will contribute £120,000 of additional receipts. Another £30,000 is expected to cover the period October-March from the payments by the Hungarian refugees in the hostels, that is to say, those who are working and able to make contributions to their maintenance.

Now I come to Subhead C.1, "Assistance grants, &c.", £4,600,000. This subhead provides for the Board's chief duty and by far the greatest part of its expenditure. It provides for the payment of allowances to persons who are without resources to meet their requirements, or whose resources (including benefits receivable under the National Insurance Acts) must be supplemented in order to meet their requirements". The Supplementary Estimate itself explains the additional sum. It reads: Additional provision required for increases in grants to provide for rent increases and to give effect to the higher scales prescribed by the National Assistance (Determination of Need) Amendment Regulations, 1957. The additional costs will be offset in part by savings from 27th January, 1958, in consequence of increases in old age pensions, national insurance benefits and war pensions. So the three major features affecting expenditure are identified by that statement, two of them increasing and one tending to reduce.

Mrs. E. M. Braddock (Liverpool, Exchange)

May I ask whether this Supplementary Estimate includes the increase of 7s. 6d. per person to local authorities for the maintenance of people in the hostels for aged persons arising from the increase in pensions? I should also like to know the date on which local authorities will receive the additional 7s. 6d.

Miss Pitt

I take it that the hon. Lady is referring to Part III accommodation—

Mrs. Braddock


Miss Pitt

—where the charge used to be 32s. 6d. and has now gone up. I cannot give the answer at the moment, but I will endeavour to obtain the information so that my right hon. Friend may give it in his speech.

It is not possible to attach precise figures to any one of the three factors to which I have referred. The Board is never in a position to estimate precisely the total of any one factor affecting assistance expenditure in terms of money because of constant changes in the individual circumstances of people coming to the Board for help; and also because of the rapid turnover in the register—the "ins and outs," to use a colloquial expression—people who come on assistance for a short time and then leave and whose places are taken by new-comers.

For instance, the figures published in the Annual Report of the Board, for 1956—the last Report available—show that overall grants increased for the year by 44,000, but in that year no less than 782,000 fresh grants were made, which substantiates what I said about the substantial turnover in the number of people coming to the Board for help.

Increased expenditure is occasioned by the increased National Assistance rates which came into operation last month. Against this there will be an offset caused by the increased rates of National Insurance benefits which came into operation at the same time. These increases operate for about nine weeks of the present financial year. The third factor is the increase in rent; and rent, for assistance purposes, includes rates.

Miss Margaret Herbison (Lanarkshire, North)

Can the hon. Lady tell the Committee what is the saving for those nine weeks?

Miss Pitt

It is almost impossible to estimate. The hon. Lady will remember that these figures were given when we debated the Regulations and the Act last November. The figures showed the estimated additional expenditure would be £26 million a year, and the estimated saving £34 million. How much of that one can relate to nine weeks would be only a problematical figure, even if it were possible to get further details, but I will make inquiries.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

The figures we have here have been arrived at on some calculation. Surely the hon. Lady will give the figures on which the Supplementary Estimate has been arrived at.

Miss Pitt

I am sorry, but it just is not possible. I have reminded the Committee of figures which were estimates, and the Board is now estimating for supplementary allowances needed to cover items under various headings, and it is not possible to put a precise allocation for each head.

Mr. R. E. Prentice (East Ham, North)

The hon. Lady said that the estimated increased cost was £26 million and the saving £34 million. Does it follow that the third factor, the offset, is probably bigger than the second factor, the increased benefit? Therefore, it would follow that the increases due to the Rent Act are probably higher than the figure of £4,600,000.

Miss Pitt

The figures I gave deal with a full year and we are considering only nine weeks.

Mr. Prentice

But it is a reasonable inference.

Miss Pitt

I think it a reasonable inference that increased expenditure on National Assistance scales is offset by the saving from benefit, but there are other factors which must be taken into account. If I may develop my speech, I hope to refer to some of them.

The third factor is the increase in rent, and for assistance purposes rent includes rates, as I was saying before the hon. Member intervened. Rate increases affect every householder applicant, not only those who are rent payers but those who own their own houses. The Report of the Board for 1956 showed their number—that is, of house-owners—to be 147,000 at the end of that year. Similarly, increased rates affect indirectly recipients who are tenants of local authority houses or flats, or tenants of privately owned houses. I understand that in 1957–58, of 1,467 rating authorities in England and Wales, 1,369 increased their rates, 39 reduced them and 59 made no change. But the very large number of authorities who increased their rates must have had a considerable effect on the expenditure of the National Assistance Board.

There have also been increases, often substantial, in the rents of local authority houses. Then, of course, there are increases in rents of private dwellings arising from the Rent Act, 1957. But the point should be made that, whereas most of the rent increases or rate increases—apart from those under the Rent Act—have applied throughout the financial year which we are now considering, the Rent Act increases could not have any effect until the second half of the year; and because these increases have come along gradually, many of them have applied or will apply only for a very small part of the financial year. From March to September, 1957, that is, before the Rent Act could have had any effect, the prices index for housing rose by more than 5 points, from 105.4 to 110.5.

A good deal of information has been given today about the effect of the Rent Act increases on assistance, but for reasons which have been explained the precise additional cost of assistance on this account cannot be reliably estimated. From what I have said it will be clear that there are a variety of factors which have given rise to the additional expenditure on rent.

Finally, there is one other factor of considerable significance which is reflected in this Supplementary Estimate and which can be identified. It is the continuing growth in the use made by the Board of its discretionary powers to provide for special needs. Those are to help sick people with the cost of special diets; to help sick and old people to meet the cost of laundry when they are unable to do their own washing and of domestic help which is given when they cannot do their own housework. There are many more which I will not take up the time of the Committee by enumerating.

All these varieties of individual circumstances and needs, which a scheme of assistance based on need has to be flexible enough to meet, are, in part, responsible for the Supplementary Estimate, because it is estimated that expenditure on this account is now running at the rate of over £13 million a year—a rise of more than £1 million over the previous year.

As I said earlier, the Act puts on the Board the duty to provide assistance for those whose resources do not meet their need. In discharging this duty the Board has incurred additional expenditure, but it means that it is carrying out the job that Parliament has put upon it, of maintaining a reasonable standard of living for those who come to it for assistance.

Mr. Frederic Harris (Croydon, North-West)

Could my hon. Friend say what is the number of people, including old-age pensioners, receiving National Assistance in one form or another in any given week?

Miss Pitt

I can certainly obtain for my hon. Friend the latest figures for the latest week. I was trying to recall what the figure is. I think it is about 1,600,000, but I will check. I would not like to say categorically from memory, but I think that the figure is in that region.

Mr. John McKay (Wallsend)

May I have an explanation on the point relating to rent? Can the hon. Lady say what is the formula which governs the rent allowance where the district allowance is, say, 14s. and the actual rent paid is 30s.? How is the difference regulated in a case where, for instance, there are two workers in the same house? If the rent is 30s. and the rent allowed is 14s., is there a specific regulation to say how much rent should be paid, or is it merely a discretionary figure?

Miss Pitt

If I have understood the hon. Gentleman correctly, when rates go up the increase is added to the inclusive rent, as authorities are entitled to do. In that case, if there were a single household the Board would meet the increase by an increased assistance rate. I am not sure if the hon. Gentleman was referring to two people in the same house; he referred to two workers. In that case, I should not imagine that they would be on National Assistance. If there were two persons in a house—say, a son and daughter at work—I think the Board would say that working sons and daughters, provided their earnings were in the normal range, would be expected to make a contribution towards the increased rent.

Mr. Ross

Can the hon. Lady give a figure for the increase for which she is asking in relation to discretionary payments?

Miss Pitt

No, I am very sorry. Just as we are unable to give a specific figure for rent increases, I am not able to do so for discretionary payments. Hon. Members must realise the enormous job which the Board has to do. I went to some trouble to explain how many casual cases came up during a year. To try to keep figures in every pigeon-hole would give the Board an administrative job which would be almost insuperable, and would certainly cost a great deal of money.

Mr. Ross

But surely the hon. Lady realises that she is asking Parliament for an additional sum of money. Therefore, we have every right to ask her to tell us, so far as she can, how the Department has broken down this sum with respect to the different items. It is not fair to the Committee to carry on in this way.

Miss Pitt

I am sorry. This is not my Department; I am reporting on behalf of the National Assistance Board.

Mr. Ross

The hon. Lady's Department is responsible for it.

Miss Pitt

The Board does not keep these figures and I cannot give them in detail to the Committee. But I believe that the explanation is reasonable and that the Committee has sufficient information before it on which to discuss this Supplementary Estimate.

Miss Herbison

The Parliamentary Secretary insists that the explanation is reasonable, but we have not had that explanation today. Here is this huge sum of £4,600,000. The hon. Lady has been asked by various hon. Members on this side of the Committee what was the estimate for this, for that, and for the various items of which this huge sum consists. Each time, the hon. Lady has said that she is sorry but that she cannot give us the answer. Are we being asked to vote this money on a mere guess?

Miss Pitt

We are being asked to vote this money in exactly the same way as we have voted money to the Assistance Board in all the years since the Board was established. The system is no different.

Mr. R. J. Mellish (Bermondsey)

That does not make it right.

Miss Pitt

The method of arriving at the amount must be subject to the fact that there are constant changes, and it is almost impossible to allocate money under particular headings. Hon. Members who have studied the Board's Report must have noticed how, over and over again at the end of a particular analysis, one sees "Result of a 2 per cent. sample taken in November", or "Result of a 10 per cent. sample taken …" somewhere else. It has always been the pattern. There is nothing different in what we are asking the Committee to do today.

Mr. George Chetwynd (Stockton-on-Tees) rose

The Chairman (Sir Charles Mac-Andrew)

Mr. Chetwynd.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering) rose

The Chairman

I called Mr. Chetwynd.

Mr. Mitchison

That was entirely a mistake on my part, Sir Charles. I Thought you were going to put a Question, and I was waiting for you to do so.

The Chairman

No. I do not mind who speaks so long as I know who it is going to be.

4.6 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

I should like to congratulate the hon. Lady the Joint Parliamentary-Secretary on the remarkable success that she and her Department have had in getting round the Treasury. Her speech, and the Questions and answers earlier in the day, throw a lurid light on the way in which figures appear in Estimates. The hon. Lady was wholly unable, and so was her right hon. Friend, to give any account whatever of how the largest sum in this Supplementary Estimate, over £4½ million, was arrived at, how much of it was attributable to increases of rent, and how much attributable to increases as a result of the changes made under the new Regulations. She was equally unable to give any account of the offsetting factor to which she referred.

I am bound to say that my congratulation is a little tempered because I really cannot believe that "Salaries &c." includes a roulette table with which the Department was able to strike out and arrive at the figure of £4,600,000. A little more than that must have been done about it. When the Committee is debating a Supplementary Estimate at, as usual, the behest of the Opposition, I think it is right that we should be told what this amount means, how it has been arrived at and, broadly speaking, to what it is attributable. Nothing whatever has been forthcoming.

One can treat the Committee like that if one chooses, of course, if that is one's idea of the way in which Parliament should be run and Estimates put forward and discussed. There it is. For the moment right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite are in power. I can only say to them that I regard this sort of refusal as a sheer abuse of power. It is, in fact, a matter which obviously they know much more about than they have been willing to tell us, and which, for some reason or another, they do not want the Committee to know.

I am particularly interested in the question of rent increases. Let us see what we can and what we cannot talk about. These increases are mainly the result of the Rent Act. We on this side of the Committee have our own opinions about the Rent Act. All I need say about it today is this. It is a piece of legislation, promoted and passed through by the party opposite, which enables public funds to be used for the payment, through the tenant, to the landlords of considerable sums of additional rent. It is, therefore, a remarkable piece of legislation, for I know of very few cases in which public funds have been used for the benefit of the landlords so obviously and so directly. For that reason, it is right that we should examine closely what is happening in respect of that Act and the consequences of it, to which I have referred.

The National Assistance Board's Report for 1956 shows about 1,656,000 weekly allowances, the greater part of them to old people of pensionable age and the greater part of them also to householders. The householders number 1,276,000. Sixty-one per cent. of them were tenants in what used to be controlled houses. Some of those houses no doubt will be in course of decontrol under the Rent Act. The majority of them probably remain under control. Of the total, 26 per cent. were council tenants and the remaining 12 per cent. were not affected because they were owner-occupiers or were occupying free of both rent and rates, or only paying rent.

I fully realise that for the purpose of the Assistance Board "rent" includes rates and, where owner-occupiers are concerned, it also includes payments on outstanding mortgages. I think that I had better get that part disposed of now. I regret deeply that these payments are necessary in these cases. They are, of course, the result of the financial policy of the Government.

Mr. Raymond Gower (Barry)

Would the hon. and learned Member similarly object to the payment from a public fund to a person who received National Assistance simply because that person was going to use the payment to buy an overcoat in a privately-owned shop? Would he describe that as infamous because it was to the benefit of the man who kept the shop?

Mr. Mitchison

This seems to me to be a quite different case. It is rather foolish when a payment is made to a tenant by way of rent under the special arrangements about rent—which have always prevailed in the administration of these funds, and when the tenant would at once get himself into serious trouble if it were used in any other way, and it goes from the tenant to the landlord—to regard it as anything but what, in fact, it is, a payment out of public funds, by way of increased rent, to landlords.

Returning to rates and to mortgage payments, I say no more than that I regret that they have become necessary because of the financial policy of the Government both as regards the raising of the current rates of interest and Government measures which have made it necessary for local authorities to increase their rates. I mention only two of those measures.

One is the restriction on borrowing and the higher interest rates local authorities have to pay. The other is the special concession of 20 per cent. to shops and offices, which went for the benefit of the large banks and insurance companies, put up the rents of the people with whom we are now dealing, and thereby called for extra expenditure by the Assistance Board. It is, indeed, a remarkable Government which gets the Assistance Board to contribute towards the Prudential, but they have succeeded in doing that. That, no doubt, is Tory policy and Tory philosophy.

I now turn to such information as we can drag out of the Government about the increases of rent. With great difficulty we have discovered that there have been 262,000 increases due to the Rent Act. Those I take to be increases on houses remaining controlled. I shall have something to say later about decontrolled houses. I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman some questions about this matter. In the debate on 27th November, 1957, the right hon. Gentleman referred to and read a statement he had made on 1st August. The right hon. Gentleman said: I am able to tell the House precisely the way the Board intends to handle this question of rents. I am informed that, except in cases where accommodation is shared by a son or daughter or other person in employment, and in a position to meet some of the increased rent, it is the intention of the Board to provide in an assistance grant for the full amount of any permitted increase in a controlled rent; and for any reasonable increase where the rent is not controlled."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st August, 1957; Vol. 574, c. 1613.] He went on to say: That certainly does not mean that it would be the Board's duty to subsidise indefinitely payments of rents illegally or unlawfully claimed."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th November, 1957; Vol. 578, c. 1246.] We may, therefore, take it that the Board considers it to be its duty, and the right hon. Gentleman considers it to be the Board's duty, to investigate the legality of claims for increased rent.

I turn for a moment to another document, the leaflet A.L.18—printed, as I deduce, from some curious marks on it, last month—which shows something which is not quite the same as what the right hon. Gentleman said. In page 3, paragraph 7, that leaflet says:


Where the applicant is living alone or is a householder the amount to be added for rent is usually the net amount of rent he pays. If this is substantial, however, the extent to which it is reasonable to provide for it will be decided by the Board's officer in the light of recommendations made by the local Advisory Committee for the Area."

This A.L.18 is the document that the man who wants to collect something from the National Assistance Board gets and reads. Presumably, it is the document upon which the officers of the Board act. It does not say the same thing as the right hon. Gentleman said in the course of the debate. Since it was printed after that debate, I think it is his duty to make clear that what he said then overrides the more limited provision which has been circulated subsequently in this leaflet.

What are the recommendations made by the local advisory committees in the areas? I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will elucidate that. I find, in the 1950 Report of the Board, a series of figures embodying these recommendations about rent and I find a reference to them in 1954. Here is another reference in this leaflet. At that time, in 1950, the average figures were 12s. for a single man and 14s. for a married man. They were higher in various places, the top being reached, for instance, in Hampstead, where the amounts were 17s. and 20s. There may be some other figures. I can only say that I have searched diligently for them, but have been quite unable to find them. If there are such figures, then, if this is to be persisted in, I think they should not only be announced today but should be made public.

There is no doubt that the Board can go beyond these figures, but it is in the light of them that the Board's official has to take the decision. When one takes a decision in the light of a figure, one usually varies the figure only in exceptional cases. No one in the Committee will deny that if these figures still persist they are much too low and that if they do not persist then the modern figures and the changes from the old figures ought to be made public.

I turn from that to some other points. What about the legality of these payments for rent? Let us look for a moment at what is happening. Taking the 1956 figure, which is the latest we have, we find that among the 773,000, about one person out of three has been receiving an additional allowance by way of rent increase. I should like to know what has happened. It is possible that the claimants themselves, the people entitled to these allowances, have not claimed; that is always possible in these cases and I do not rule it out.

I know old people—and I am sure the Minister will bear me out—who, in my opinion, wrongly, but very naturally, are reluctant to claim some of the allowances to which they are entitled. Nevertheless, I do not think that that can account for much of this state of affairs.

I have never said that all landlords are bad, or, for that matter, that all tenants are good, and I will not begin to say it now, but let us consider what may have been happening here. The right hon. Gentleman himself called attention to the smallness of the figures in answering a Question today in relation to the total. Have we to deal here with the kind landlord? Kind landlords, of course, might be kinder than the Tory Party.

The Tory Party has enabled landlords to be enriched out of public funds by this increase in rent. Some landlords, stricken with a little more conscience than that which animates the Conservative Party, may have felt that it was not right to claim this increase, and I feel certain that some of the cases where the increases have not been allowed for are attributable to that.

Next, there are the slow landlords. We were told by the right hon. Gentleman earlier today that these claims were coming in rather slowly. I know quite well that a considerable number of landlords have been slow to claim rent increases partly because they found the Rent Act so incredibly complicated that they quite honestly did not know what they could claim and partly because they were frightened of claiming a rent increase because they thought it would be met with a counter claim that they should do some repairs.

Considering the matter as best I can, in the light of the very scanty information available to us, my conclusion is that, since those whom we are trying to help live, by and large, in the smallest and worst houses, the reason why only one in three people have claimed is that the landlords have been afraid of a counter claim for repairs.

It is, therefore, extremely important to see what happens in these cases. First, the landlord sends in a prescribed form, because this is one of the hundreds of things which are prescribed from time to time by this Government, not least in the Rent Act. The landlord sends in a prescribed form, and he often fills it in wrongly. We have had several mentioned in the House already. We have to know a little about it to see what is wrong. The date may be a day out. I had such a case. The landlord may have omitted the notes on the back, or he may have some information which is incorrect. The majority of these are not cases of wilful error, but they are none the less illegal demands because they are made in an illegal way.

We are told that the Board is not an expert—I quite accept that—and that all it does is to try to help, but I should like to know how the Board informs itself if it is not an expert. Let us have an expert opinion from the right hon. Gentleman's right hon. Friend, the Minister of Housing and Local Government. It was on the Third Reading of the Bill that the Minister of Housing and Local Government said: What I would say is that both tenants and landlords will be wise, when this Bill comes into operation, to take professional advice, if they are not themselves professionally qualified, as to their position under the Bill and as to the actions which they are taking under it. The Minister went on to take a particular case: … tenants ought not to sign new agreements the moment they are put before them without taking advice from solicitors, surveyors, citizens advice bureaux, or their own town halls, all of which will be well qualified to guide those who are affected by the Bill, because it surely must be the wish of the whole House that when a new Act comes into operation everybody affected by it should have the fullest opportunity of discovering how they stand under it. The professional organisations can play a most valuable part."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th March, 1957; Vol. 567. c. 1472.] Those are remarkable suggestions from a Minister introducing a Bill which is to affect the majority of people in this country and certainly to affect those who are least skilled in all these various matters.

I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman to explain to us how inexpert the officers of the Board are in these matters. Suppose one of these tenants follows this advice, goes to a local solicitor, and takes advice about the sufficiency of the form. Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to pay for that advice? I ask that question in all seriousness because it seems to me that from what he has told us he is quite logically bound to do so. He declares that he will not support illegal payments. He does not know what payments are illegal. The tenant in question desires to find out and follows the course recommended by a member of the Government. Why should he be refused the means of following that advice? Or is this merely another case of Tory freedom, which means that one is free to do anything if one can pay for it but not otherwise?

Next, I want to refer to council houses. I do not think that much of this increased sum will have been due to increases in council house rents, for two reasons: first, the council house increases, which are due to the Government's financial policy, as I mentioned earlier, have been smaller; and, secondly, councils have been continually pressed to introduce rent rebate schemes and a great many of them have done so. I have no liking for differential rent schemes, but a rent rebate scheme, which enables a concession to be made to a man who cannot afford to pay the rent, has always seemed to me to be on a different footing.

I shall be surprised, if and when these figures are analysed, to find that any considerable part of the sum being paid out in this matter is due to increases in council house rents. Not only are the numbers affected smaller and the increases smaller but, whereas councils are always, in my experience, kind to people of the type for whom National Assistance is required, I am sorry that I cannot always say the same about landlords. There it is.

I turn from those cases to another matter—the houses that are being decontrolled. They are being decontrolled, of course, in two ways: first, by the decontrol on rateable value limits, which will not come into operation until October of this year, but which is already leading, as it was intended to lead, to new negotiated agreements between landlords and tenants; and secondly, on new tenancies, for any new tenancy now is decontrolled.

The right hon. Gentleman dealt with this in the answer to which I have referred, but which I shall repeat again. He said that the Board would provide … for any reasonable increase where the rent is not controlled."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 1st August, 1957; Vol. 574, c. 1613.] Of course, he was immediately heckled as to what he meant by "reasonable"—and I am not surprised. This was his escape: I am not, in the technical sense, learned"— to which I would say to him that he very nearly is, but let us leave that out: I leave to the House the untechnical aspects of the matter, with due modesty. Later, he explained that The Board's general attitude is one of helpfulness to tenants, but it is not expert in the law of landlord and tenant. That is just what I have been saying: It has many other obligations and duties imposed upon it. Therefore, I can only say, in reply to the right hon. Gentleman, that each case will be looked upon on its merits, from the point of view of the desire of the Board to be helpful."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th November, 1957; Vol. 578, cc. 1246–1249.] Those statements convey precisely nothing to me. Let us see what exactly is to happen. A tenant entitled to National Assistance is threatened with eviction. In those circumstances, he has to come to some new arrangement with his landlord. He has been told by the Minister of Housing and Local Government that he must not do so without expert advice—he must have the solicitors, the surveyors, and so on. What happens? He goes to the Board, whose staff are the people who have to pay out of public funds for any increase in his rent, and the only indication usually given is that they must do what is reasonable. I must say that that seems to me to be completely insufficient.

I turn again to the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Housing and Local Government who, on the 11th of this month, being hard pressed by sundry questioners that day, said: Tenants, if they are in doubt, should take expert advice and should refuse to pay more than what they are advised is a reasonable market rent having regard to the conditions of the property."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th February, 1958; Vol. 582, c. 177.] What is reasonable? The right hon. Gentleman's Ministerial colleague himself recognises that that is a matter for expert advice. Is the Board to pay for the expert advice?

I come now to the condition of the houses, a matter which, in my opinion, is almost certainly responsible for some delay in these claims coming forward. The provisions of the Rent Act about certificates of disrepair are quite incredibly and unnecessarily complicated. I defy any hon. Member to get, from a first or a second reading, a clear conception of how the provisions work, both as to the extent of the disrepair and as to the consequences by way of a decrease of rent.

These are matters vital to the tenant. All we were told by the right hon. Gentleman today, in reply to a Question, was that "in appropriate cases, the officers of the Board advise tenants to take remedies for disrepair". How do the officers know what is or what is not an appropriate case? Do they look at the house? Are they qualified to judge when they get there? Do they understand the full workings of this Schedule of the Rent Act? If they do, they had better get called to the Bar at once on the strength of it.

That really was an evasive reply. The fact is that these people whom we want to assist are not getting, and cannot get expert assistance about repairs from the Board's officials, because the Board's officials have neither the special expertness nor, indeed, the time and opportunity to go into these cases. I ask the right hon. Gentleman again: in cases of this sort, is he prepared to pay for the expert advice which these men ought to have before they take, or fail to take, steps which will involve a charge on public funds? It is not proper administration that they should be denied that expert advice, and that the bill—the country's bill—for the Rent Act should fall upon public funds with increased weight as a result of it.

I sum up for the right hon. Gentleman the questions that I have asked. The first is: was his statement about paying rent increases on controlled property in full, correct—and wholly correct? If it was, will he make clear what is the meaning of the different statement that appears in the pamphlet AL.18 and, in particular, will he explain, in addition to what he said and to what the pamphlet says, what this local advisory body's recommendations are at present, and why they are not published? Will he undertake to publish them?

The next question relates to expert advice. Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to say that expert advice will be allowed for—and paid for—by his Department in matters of claims for rent increases, in matters of repairs, and in matters of new agreements to be negotiated with landlords on the decontrol of property?

When he answers these questions, will the right hon. Gentleman please bear in mind that this is just the beginning; that these claims are increasing. We are still in the period of the first 7s. 6d. There will be more to come after that. The decontrol by reason of high rateable value can only just have begun. More and more will the cases of decontrol by new tenancies crop up next year and in succeeding years.

If we look closely at the item that appears in these Estimates today, we do so in an attempt not merely to save the right hon. Gentleman from undue extravagance, but also to give full and proper protection to the people who have to call for help from National Assistance in order to pay the increased rents that the Tory Party has allowed the landlords to charge them.

4.30 p.m.

Vice-Admiral John Hughes Hallett (Croydon, North-East)

At the beginning of his speech, the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) made a great deal of play with what he thought was the tenuous nature of the Treasury's control over a Supplementary Estimate of this type. As one who is interested in public economy, I can only say that I am delighted that this peculiarity of the National Assistance Board's Supplementary Estimates should at last have sunk into the minds of the Opposition. I shall be curious to see whether the Opposition's new-found passion against extravagance is carried into the Division Lobby, and whether they will vote against this Supplementary Estimate or not.

Mr. Mitchison

I can reassure the hon. and gallant Gentleman on that at once. Of course we shall not vote against this Supplementary Estimate. We do not think that these people are getting too little; we want to ensure that public funds are properly administered, and that these people get more, by way of assistance.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I somehow felt that there would be limits to this passion for Treasury control and economy.

In my view, my right hon. Friend should be acquitted of any failure to calculate the Estimates with sufficient accuracy in advance. Indeed, I do not consider that anything whatever would be gained from the point of view of Treasury control, if thousands of civil servants were added to the strength in order to provide all the statistics which have been asked for. What would be necessary would be an amendment of the basic Act. I am not suggesting for a moment that this should be done, because I am sure that the present Act—passed, incidentally, by the Labour Party—is correct in that the Board has a statutory obligation to relieve need, and it is the impossibility of forecasting the exact extent of the need which makes it quite impossible to forecast these figures with the degree of accuracy which might be expected in the ordinary Supply Vote.

Mr. Mellish

These figures are very important. It is ludicrous to suggest that we should need thousands of civil servants to produce the information. In page 7 of the last Report of the Assistance Board, we find figures showing the number of people living alone, living in one room, in two rooms, and so on.

Mr. Mitchison

May I explain a slip of the tongue? I said just now that we did not think that the recipients were getting too little. I meant, of course, too much. I think that that was quite understood.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

To the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish), I reply that the difference is that the Annual Report is compiled in retrospect, and the figures which have been asked for will, in due course, no doubt, become available. It is very different to ask for them concurrently.

Since we are discussing staffing for a moment, I have a question to put on Subhead A.1. I quite understand the reason that salaries have gone up by £410,000, and that this is not the moment at which one could possibly press for the increased rates of salary to be balanced by reductions in numbers; but, looking a little farther ahead, I should like to ask my right hon. Friend whether he is satisfied that the fullest possible advantage will be taken of new automatic processes in his Ministry and in the administration of all this great business of assistance, with a view to reducing the clerical staff as much as possible.

What brought me to my feet was this. I wanted to say a word about the extraordinary argument we have heard over and over again at Question Time, and again this afternoon, that there is something inherently wrong in paying public money—

Mr. Mellish

To the landlords.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

—to landlords in respect of increased rent. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I can only imagine that the Opposition's bitter hatred of landlords as a group has completely blinded hon. Gentlemen to the illogicality of the argument. After all, this Supplementary Estimate is supplementary to the main Estimate which, I see in page 172, is about £133 million. The major portion of that £133 million is paid to relieve the need of the recipients of National Assistance, and we can be perfectly certain that they, in turn, spend it, as to the overwhelming majority of it, with private traders.

The point was made briefly by my hon. Friend the Member for Barry (Mr. Gower), but I want to develop it. How can right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite criticise the paying of money, to landlords in the particular case of rent while, at the same time, saying nothing whatever about the payment of the same money, probably in very much larger quantities, to, shall we say, the Cooperative societies? The argument is really absolute rubbish and nonsense, as far as I can see.

A great deal of play was made also, both since we have been debating the Supplementary Estimate and at Question Time on several days, about the alleged duty of the Board to satisfy itself of the legality of all the increased payments. Do right hon. and hon. Gentlemen really suggest that not one penny of the £100 million or more paid out in National Assistance is spent on an unlawful purpose? I will not waste the time of the Committee by using my own imagination in thinking of ways in which some of that money is, no doubt, spent. Do they really suggest that it is the responsibility of the Assistance Board to check all these things? That is what we have a police force for, and, in the particular case of rent, what we have local authority powers for.

Mr. E. Fernyhough (Jarrow)

I myself have investigated cases where landlords have charged more than the legal rent. If such a case is brought to my notice, I advise people what they should do. It is obvious, where those seeking National Assistance have had rent demands, that numbers of demands have been illegal. Should not the Assistance Board satisfy itself that a landlord is not asking for an illegal rent before it pays it?

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

Not beyond the extent indicated by my right hon. Friend earlier at Question Time today. Of course, there will be illegal demands made; I have not the slightest doubt about it. If I may say so, without wishing to be patronising, the hon. Gentlemen performs a useful public duty in bringing these matters to the notice of the public authority. That sort of thing is bound to happen.

The point is: should the Assistance Board have an absolute obligation to check the legality of rent demands and, if it comes to that, every other kind of expenditure indulged in out of the funds paid to the recipients of assistance? I cannot see that that is their primary duty. [HON. MEMBERS: "The Board does."] However, I leave that now and return to my original point.

It is suggested that there is some difference between paying money in the form of supplementary rents which go to landlords and the spending of other forms of National Assistance money with private trading organisations. This argument is absolute nonsense. I am sorry to have to say it, but the whole of the Opposition's argument strikes me as being political humbug and a waste of the Committee's time.

4.38 p.m.

Mr. George Chetwynd (Stockton- on-Tees)

The second time of asking, Sir Charles, is luckier than the first. I quite understand the position, and, after the very factual speech of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison), I feel that it was obviously much better for the Committee that he should speak first.

The hon. and gallant Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett) tried to extricate his right hon. Friend from one or two difficulties, once in regard to the accountancy and the figures and once in regard to the principle involved in the paying of the extra rent, which is the main concern of the Supplementary Estimates. He leaves me quite unconvinced on both points.

After all, it is not impossible for us to have reasonable statistics at this stage. Every applicant who brings forward an application based on an increase in rent has to take with him the form from the landlord specifying what the increase is. It is not beyond the power of modern adding machines to add all the figures up for one town or one area or for the whole country and give us some figures now. I suggest this very slipshod accounting ought to be looked into. The Board should call in an organisation and methods group to study the matter so that we may have the figures for our next debate or, at least, for the Annual Report.

What is clear from the figures we now have is that the National Assistance Board is not the body we set up originally. It is no longer a marginal service; it is now a basic service in helping the social services of the country, which was not, I am sure, the original intention when the Board was established. We are dealing now with vast sums of money, even in the form of assistance grants totalling £117 million. We are discussing an increase of £4,600,000 on that Vote alone. Consequently, we need to prepare very carefully to make sure that we are getting the right value for the money being spent and that all the people entitled to it are getting their proper desserts.

I wish to deal with the question of salaries. Here I do not object to the increase. We should take this opportunity to congratulate all those hardworking officers in the National Assistance Board who worked so long and so hard to adjust the allowances when the scales were increased. We owe them a considerable debt. They get a number of kicks when things go wrong; and for doing their duty in that way so magnificently we should compliment them.

I should like to turn to the rent increase, which is the major item. It comes under two heads, as my hon. and learned Friend put so clearly—the controlled houses and the decontrolled houses. The basic point is not that we are fighting the battle of the Rent Act on this Supplementary Estimate. Unfortunately, the Rent Act is in being, and we have to operate within its provisions, much as we dislike them and much as we intend to change them. There are hundred of thousands of tenants afflicted by the Act and something must be done to assist them.

The only means at the moment for those in receipt of National Assistance is, of course, the Assistance Board. We must make sure that this additional money being paid by the Board in relief of rent is for an increase properly incurred and that it has to be paid. The primary reason for that is that it is public money. The Assistance Board has the job of making sure that it is paying that money correctly.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Croydon, North-East said that it was not the duty of the Board to find out where irregular payments were being made. That is absolute nonsense. Every week the Press reports instances where the Assistance Board has brought a case against someone for fraudulent application and use of money. They have a staff to deal with that problem. But it is now paying what I reckon must be more than £4,600,000 on rent, and it has the obvious duty of advising the applicant, when he brings Form A along, how he must go through the necessary channels to obtain a certificate of disrepair if necessary. Surely we do not expect the National Assistance Board to rubber stamp, as it were, every Form A coming in from a landlord.

Where it is paying the money—and in some respects it will be the whole rent because a rent allowance will be in existence already; this will be the addition—surely it is the job of the Board to satisfy itself that the house is in a state of good repair, or, to put it negatively, that it is not in a state of disrepair. Only a cursory visit to one of these houses is needed to know whether it comes within the scope of the Act or not. One does not need to be an expert. Instruction can be given about how to fill in Form G, and it is the obligation of the Board to follow that through all its channels until a final certificate of disrepair is issued.

My hon. and learned Friend seems to think that only a small number of people have applied so far. It is clear from the figures that of those in receipt of a rent allowance now, before the raising of the rent, already one-third have had to apply for an increase. That is a considerable number and it is one which will grow as the facts become more and more known and as the hardship becomes more and more pronounced. It cannot be said that this is a small matter. At the present rate, over the whole year it means that about £20 million will have to be borne by the Board in the relief of extra rents.

So much for the question of controlled houses. I should like to ask about a small point of detail. Where the applicant is in receipt of an increase to meet the increased rent and then a certificate of disrepair is applied for, is it the normal practice for the Board automatically to pay the half-a-crown for the certificate? Again, is it not the job of the Board to follow through? Obviously if a certificate is issued later the tenant has the right to deduct from the rent the over-excess he has paid hitherto. As that is money that the Board has paid, surely it makes the case stronger for the Board to look into the matter so that it can be reimbursed. I do not know whether that point has cropped up yet, but it is one that should be watched carefully.

Now I come to the decontrolled section. We are here at the mercy of the word "reasonable". The dilemma arises when we come up against an unreasonable landlord. How can a tenant protect himself? What action can the Board take where it is prepared to make only a reasonable payment and the landlord is not prepared to take a reasonable payment? What, in the view of the Board, is a reasonable payment? We ought to have figures of what is happening to show whether in all these cases the Board is paying the whole increase willy-nilly or leaving the extra burden still upon those in great need.

That is all I wish to say at the moment about rent. It is the most significant feature, and it is one that will grow and which we shall have to watch carefully. We should like better figures from the Minister when he replies to the debate.

I want to turn to the normal working of the higher pension scale. It is obvious that some people will go out of National Assistance because they will be in receipt of the higher pension. May we have a closer account of that to see how many people are on the margin, so to speak—in one minute and out the next? They are the most difficult cases to assess. There is the regular who is always on National Assistance because he has been out of work or sick for a very long time. We can have figures to account for people like that. It is the person who comes and goes who creates the difficulty. We all run into trouble in our constituencies every weekend with the man who does not go to the Assistance Board until Friday, when he is told that he has to wait until the Monday. It is becoming more and more difficult for emergency payments to be made in these cases. I do not know how we can get over that problem. One way may be by keeping extra staff on duty at the week-end. It is worth while to consider that. In view of the pile-up of work on the Assistance Board, it may not be possible to visit on Monday or Tuesday but on Wednesday, so almost another week goes by before a person can receive assistance.

I now come to my final point which concerns discretionary powers. There is no mention anywhere in the Supplementary Estimate of the extra cost caused by increased prescription charges. It may be that many old people and people on supplementary allowances are being deterred from getting prescriptions because of the rather complicated procedure to be gone through to get repayments. I should be grateful if we could have some idea how much of this extra charge is the result of demands for increased prescription charges.

Those are the major points that I wish to raise. I do not think we can let the Supplementary Estimate go as it is without further probing. I am sure that many of my hon. Friends will have had examples from their constituencies which will bear out the need for a much more careful check on the rent increases.

5.0 p.m.

Mr. Raymond Gower (Barry)

Listening to the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison), I found it difficult at times to know whether he really wanted these amounts paid. He assured us at the end of his speech that he wanted them paid and, if possible, more generously, but the whole tenor of his speech, and, indeed, of the many Questions asked recently on the subject, made me wonder whether such was the case.

That impression was borne out by the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd), as will as by the hon. and learned Gentleman who spoke about this money being supplied from public funds for the benefit of the landlord. Of course, the hon. and learned Gentleman knows perfectly well that if an allowance is made by the National Assistance Board to meet the rent of a person living in a council dwelling, that money is not for the benefit of the local authority. The hon. and learned Gentleman knows quite well that the money is given to enable the recipient to purchase that accommodation provided by the local authority.

Mr. Mellish

The real difference between us is that where the tenant is being given an increase by the National Assistance Board it is then being passed on to the landlord—especially in a constituency like mine—who is giving no extra value to the person concerned in the way of maintenance of the house, and so on. The difference between that and the local authority, and the private trader selling goods, is that the recipient of that National Assistance payment is at least getting some value for the money. We are objecting to large sums of money going to landlords who are not improving their properties.

Mr. Gower

That argument has been advanced again and again—

Mr. Mellish

It is a good one.

Mr. Gower

It may, or may not, be a good one.

To my knowledge, in some cases, prewar houses let by private landlords have been far better bargains at the price than post-war houses let by local authorities. Indeed, I have on occasion asked individual constituents, "Would you like a council house?" The reply I have received in many cases has been, "Certainly not," the reason being, of course, that with a rent controlled at an extremely low figure the house owned by the private landlord has, in many cases, constituted a far better bargain. However, I would not carry that point too far. I do not want to be dogmatic about it, although hon. Members opposite have been extremely dogmatic on this issue. In some cases, no doubt, the accommodation offered by a private landlord is not nearly so good.

The hon. and learned Member for Kettering pursued this argument to the point of saying that the money was being paid by the National Assistance Board for the benefit of the landlord. He then went on to say that from his own experience—I think he said in his own constituency—he was advised that many landlords were not making application for rent increases because they feared, in effect, that the cost of repairs would be an insuperable handicap to them. To the hon. and learned Gentleman, that probably seemed to substantiate his case. I should have thought it was a double-edged argument, that it really showed that in many of these cases the rent which the landlords had been receiving for many years had been so completely inadequate that they had been unable to maintain the houses in a proper state of repair.

Mr. Mitchison

That is not quite what I said. I said quite clearly—at any rate I certainly meant to say it—that some landlords had not applied for the increase because it would not be worth while compared with the repairs they might be called upon to carry out.

Mr. Gower

I do not think that that in any small degree disproves what I said. Indeed, I think it rather strengthens my argument.

Again from my own experience, I have known of many houses where the rents were so very low that it was inconceivable that any adequate repairs could have been carried out. Quite recently, I came across the example of a row of terrace houses, the rent of every one of which was under 8s. a week. Those houses had been standing for quite a long time, but they were in an extremely good condition in the sense that they were built of stone on very dry foundations. I am pleased to say that the tenants of those houses have been able in every case to purchase them at a very reasonable figure.

I submit that when money is paid by the National Assistance Board, whether paid to a person living in a local authority house or in a privately-owned house, it is paid not for the person who provides the house, but for the benefit of the person who occupies the accommodation, however that accommodation may be supplied, whether by a private individual, a company, a local authority or a housing association. That, I think, illustrates the fallacy in the arguments that we have heard adduced today both in this debate and at Question Time.

Similarly, as was pointed out in an intervention, these grants are made for the benefit of many people—I also pointed this out to the hon. and learned Gentleman in an intervention—who spend their money in all kinds of establishments, some owned by societies and some owned privately. It would be ludicrous to suggest that in such cases public funds were being used for the benefit of shopkeepers.

Mr. Fernyhough

But, surely, in every such case the man buying the service has a choice, whereas here he has no choice.

Mr. Gower

In the other case, the man buying the service might go into a shop and buy something quite valueless. It might be contended, on the fallacious argument put forward today, that it would be wrong for the National Assistance Board to make a grant to that person.

Mr. Mitchison

Let us get the matter clear. In the case of the ordinary weekly allowance, the man buys what he chooses and what he needs. In the case of the rent allowance, the man has to spend the money on rent, and the landlord, though providing nothing more, gets an additional payment out of public funds.

Mr. Gower

Of course, and, similarly, if a rent is increased, the local authority which is providing nothing more gets an additional sum from the National Assistance Board. That is quite a fair argument following upon the intervention of the hon. and learned Gentleman. The Board is properly fulfilling its function, and we on this side of the Committee feel that it is right and proper that it should pay these sums.

Mr. Ross

Is the hon. Gentleman aware—he should make it perfectly clear—that where there are rebate schemes in operation, the National Assistance Board insists that those in receipt of assistance and who are covered by a rebate scheme do not pay additional sums to the local authority?

Mr. Gower

I do not doubt that the Board takes every reasonable precaution not to pay excessive sums—I am quite convinced that it does—but I do not think that the Board should be expected to carry a very extensive staff to act as legal advisers on very abstruse points of law. I think that the Board should take reasonable precautions to ensure that the public money for which it is responsible is not being paid out wrongly; but to suggest that it should act as legal adviser to its applicants is, I think, carrying the matter too far.

The next point upon which I wish to address the Committee is the question of disregards which was raised by the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough) at Question Time today. This is a matter which I should certainly like to see examined, not merely as it affects these grants, but on the whole question of disregards as they affect National Insurance pensioners, and, of course, I should like that examination to include disregards as they apply to persons in receipt of National Assistance.

The reason I put forward the argument is that, if it has been found right and proper by many successive Governments progressively to increase the pension rates by quite substantial sums, I cannot see how it cannot be reasonable similarly to review the disregards which were deemed appropriate when pensions were at a much lower level.

I recognise the validity and force, in part of what my right hon. Friend said in reply, which was that if these disregards were increased he would be tending to help people who had more means than the persons in receipt of National Assistance. I stress the point with my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary—and I hope that she will stress it to her right hon. Friend—that it is my conviction, in which I believe most hon. Members will agree with me, that persons who are just above the National Assistance line are often in a worse position than people who are in receipt of National Assistance. They are the people who, by dint of their own thrift, have saved a modest amount and have put it into a small Post Office account or some other form of investment, and they suffer silently. They are the people whose needs are most poorly catered for.

The person on National Assistance receives in many cases a grant, a supplementary allowance for rent, a supplementary allowance for nourishment, and so on. The person who is just above the National Assistance line will receive his pension and he then has to eke out his incredibly small savings. I believe that Parliament could, at a not extravagant cost, after proper examination, provide for the needs of some of these people simply by reasonably increasing the disregards and thus bringing them into some sort of accord with the higher scales of pensions which now prevail.

The National Assistance Board continues to fulfil its excellent functions and no hon. Member on the Government benches will begrudge the amount asked for. I agree that it is not easy, and indeed I do not think it is practicable, to have the fully classified accounting which hon. Members have asked for at the time when this sort of Estimate is put forward.

The hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) pointed out that a similar sort of classification appears in the Reports of the Board, but on reflection I think he will recognise that those documents are published a very long time after the event and that it is not feasible for such detailed information to be provided at this stage, particularly when, as my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary pointed out, most of these things are fluctuating from month to month and sometimes from week to week.

I hope that the Committee will agree with this Supplementary Estimate.

5.15 p.m.

Mr. A. Blenkinsop (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East)

We have heard some extraordinary remarks in the course of this short debate. I welcome what was said by the hon. Member for Barry (Mr. Gower) about disregards. We need to go back to clear up this issue of the right of this Committee to ask for all proper information before leaving these Supplementary Estimates.

I quite understand that we have to wait for final, detailed and accurate figures until the completion of the year. We all understand that. What we do not understand is that we have an overall Estimate and are told that there is no means of telling us how it was arrived at. That is obviously impossible for us to accept. We are not asking for complete detailed figures such as we get in the Annual Report. I have a Report with me here, and we know the kind of completed figures with which it presents us. We are asking the Minister responsible for the National Assistance Board to tell us how it arrives at the figure in respect of additional assistance for rent, and so far we have not had a reply.

Mr. Mellish

I do not know whether my hon. Friend has a suspicious mind, as I have. Would he think it possible that the Government have the figures but just do not want to disclose them?

Mr. Blenkinsop

I have a very suspicious mind about many of the things done by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the Committee. Anyone would be somewhat wanting intellectually if he did not have suspicions. We are told that it is a fair assumption that the advantages to the National Assistance Board by virtue of the higher general insurance rates might very well more than cancel out the extra basic rate being paid as assistance. Therefore, it was an equally fair deduction that the extra sums required because of rent increases might be larger than the figure given in this Supplementary Estimate, more than £4,600,000.

I am glad to see that the Parliamentary Secretary apparently agrees with me. We have managed to find out that the figure is even larger than the general public might assume. The general public might assume that only part of this figure was due to rent increases and part was due to basic increases in National Assistance, but we find that that is not so. We find that there is already, either by design or just because it happened that way, a false impression among the general public on this matter.

This Committee is interested in that particular figure. What is the figure that we pay because of the extra rents imposed by the 1957 Act? Of course, we are interested, and we have a right to be interested in that item. It is curious—or is it curious?—that whenever extra payments to landlords are referred to it is like touching a raw nerve of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on the Government benches. There is no kind of concern about other cases, but the landlord must get away with his increase without any challenge from this side of the Committee.

Let me explain another reason why we are anxious about this figure. It is not that we do not want the old people and others to have these increased allowances. Of course we do. We are very concerned with their position after they have got no more than a few shillings out of this transaction. Some are lucky if they get that. We are concerned whether this process is encouraging landlords to get increases of rent without doing repairs. That is the point and it is not new. It was raised in relation to the 1954 Act and the consequential increases at that time.

It is natural that people do not want to go through all the difficulties and forms in trying to ensure that repairs are carried out, but very many tenants are afraid of what their landlords will do to them. Whatever advice we give, they are still not satisfied. The great bulk of ordinary tenants, particularly the more elderly people, are very fearful of their position and however much we may try to reassure them about their security of tenure they are still fearful.

When people know that they are to get their increased rent refunded by the Assistance Board, not many of them are likely to want to bother to go through the complicated processes which, according to them, will put them in jeopardy. Unless the Assistance Board is in a position to follow up these cases and to act, as it were, for the tenant, landlords are in many cases being allowed to get away with increases in rent and the public are paying—we are paying—for that increase for property that should never have it charged under the Act. That is the point.

The tragedy of the present situation is not that tenants are being refunded extra rent—we want to ensure that they are. What is tragic and serious, and the matter of which we should certainly take note, is that there is apparently no way in which the Assistance Board can satisfy itself that the property is in such a condition that the rent should properly be increased. That is our argument. Hon. Members opposite are merely trying to spread a false scent, because they are very touchy on this whole issue—and no wonder.

Mr. Gower

Is the hon. Member suggesting that in some way the Assistance Board is now producing its accounts in a different way than when the hon. Member's party was in office?

Mr. Blenkinsop

I am not saying anything of the sort. I am saying that because there is here a serious problem that this Committee has every right to investigate, we should know the financial size of the problem that we are dealing with. While we are not expecting the complete figures that will be available only at the end of the year, we are asking for the best estimate that is available.

Obviously, to produce the present figure, the Assistance Board and the Minister must have had estimates, unless they simply shut their eyes and used a pin. If the Minister shut his eyes and used a pin, he had better let us know. Obviously, the Minister and the Board must have had some figures on which this estimate is based. All we are asking is to be given information on how the figure is made up. It is an elementary question. It should be quite possible for the Minister to say, in general terms, whether the estimate of the cost for the remaining period is £5 million, £6 million, or whatever other figure it may be. It is something more, probably, than the £4,600,000 which is all we have been able to get so far. The Minister should certainly be able to give us some satisfaction about this.

Another serious problem which is being caused by the changes in the scales is the position concerning refunds of Health Service charges. We know that very large sums are being refunded. The last Annual Report of the Assistance Board gave the figures of refunds for prescription and dental and other charges for 1956 as amounting to £1¼ million. That figure was presumably higher last year. For one thing, there has been the extra prescription charge, which is now imposed upon each item on a slip instead of the old 1s. charge for the complete slip. Presumably, therefore, there has been an increase in the amount paid out.

The higher general insurance payments have resulted in a number of people who previously had refunds of their Health Service charges now being just above the scale. It was such cases that the hon. Member for Barry might have had in mind. What is the position of these people? Are they automatically ruled out for any refund, or has their case to be re-examined each time they have a prescription? Does the position now mean that there will be a group of people in and out of assistance, sometimes being able to claim back 1s. or 2s., sometimes 6d. and sometimes nothing, according to whether, if they are chronic cases, they have to make a large number of visits to the chemist?

It may be that if some of these marginal cases are having to pay, perhaps, 3s. or 4s. a week to the chemists, they may be able to get a refund of 1s., whereas if their total payment is only 1s. or 2s. they may be unable to get any refund. Do these cases have to be examined every time, every week? There are a number of marginal cases of that kind in my constituency, as, obviously, there must be all over the country.

Must there be these frequent reviews to decide whether the odd shilling or two is to be paid? This is the absurd result of the Government's insistence upon the maintenance of these charges and of the system of refunds which they have had to work out. If we are to believe the accounts that we read in the Press—we do not, of course, know how accurate they are—the position might well become even more serious. We are told that new charges are to be imposed. Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us whether that is correct. Again, we would have the problem of refunds being claimed, this time of a larger amount, by people who are ill.

Right hon. and hon. Members opposite are imposing upon their own administrative machine more and more financial problems in the examination of individual cases, many of them marginal cases. It is not as though the Government are able to make decisions that will last for any worth-while period. Because of their actions, they are imposing an inquisition into people's conditions almost every week because of the nature of these regular charges which people are having to pay.

Not only has the Minister a responsibility to give us figures to justify the Supplementary Estimate, but it is high time that he and his Parliamentary Secretary made more of a fight against whichever Chancellor of the Exchequer may happen to be in office for the sake of their own Department and to protect it against this kind of tomfoolery, which has gone on too long.

5.30 p.m.

Mr. Frederic Harris (Croydon, North-West)

This discussion has centred upon the National Assistance grants, and I suppose that that was to have been expected, as of the supplementary amount which is being requested some 82 per cent. is for the allowances. At the end of her speech, I asked the Parliamentary Secretary what was approximately the number of people receiving National Assistance in one form or another, and she very kindly indicated that at 28th January the number was 1,645,000, of whom, if my memory serves me aright, about 900,000 are usually old-age pensioners.

Realising that, I think that what most of us would wish to do would be to join the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) in paying a tribute to the staffs of the National Assistance Board who carry out this work. Of those on this side of the Committee who have spoken so far in the debate, two-thirds of the back benchers are Members for Croydon, and I am sure that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett) would wish to join me in saying that certainly in Croydon the National Assistance staffs carry out an absolutely first-class job. I am sure that the staffs in the rest of the country do so, too. Theirs is a job which is carried out in very difficult conditions, as many of us know. It is not one which we normally would envy them.

What we ought to endeavour constantly to make clear to the public is that those who unhappily have to come for one reason or another for National Assistance come as of right. They are entitled to expect, within the limits laid down, whatever National Assistance they may be requiring. Unhappily, as the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison), who spoke first for the Opposition, said, we know that some old folk find it very hard to apply for what is their entitlement. In my constituency, I endeavour constantly to put across to the public that they should take advantage of the facilities which are there in order to ease their day to day burdens. I presume other hon. Members of the Committee also do so in their constituencies. It is very important that we make that abundantly clear.

There seems to have developed in the debate a general attack once again by hon. Members opposite against the landlords. I do not know why it is that hon. Members on the other side say these things about landlords, but they certainly cannot pretend they love them very much, to put it very mildly; and yet when one speaks to hon. Members individually one finds that the majority of them readily agree that it has not been possible to maintain properly a large number of houses because there has not been enough income to do so, and the tenants of those properties are the sufferers in the end.

Mr. Mellish

If Sir Gordon is good enough to call me next, I will explain to the hon. Member our viewpoint about that.

Mr. Harris

I thank the hon. Member very much. However, I think that hon. Members on this side know the view of the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) and his colleagues.

If it is agreed that some houses have to be maintained better than in the past, unless they are to crumble, as some of us know has been occurring, what is the Labour Party's view about it? It is difficult for us on this side to understand what they are advocating. For instance, if the tragedy were ever to occur again that the Labour Party were the Government, what would it advocate? The hon. and learned Member for Kettering said he blamed the rates in many cases; he blamed increased rates for much of the trouble. Is the Labour Party expecting to be able to bring the rates down to the extent that it will be able to stop these supplementary payments? Is that the Labour Party's plan? Or does it expect to have to go on granting supplementary payments, as we are being asked now to do?

Presumably the Labour Party will let those who unhappily have to seek certain relief know where they stand in this matter, for if it is recognised that such increased rents have to be paid to maintain the properties it must also be submitted that the money has to come from somewhere, and if these tenants are the sufferers and are in great difficulty, presumably they are entitled to National Assistance.

Yet anybody who has listened to this debate from the start will presume that the Labour Party thinks such money must not be paid. As I understand it, it thinks such money should not be paid because in some way it goes to the wicked landlords. It is all right, apparently, in the Labour Party's view if it goes to the local authorities, but it must not go to the private landlords. Hon. Members were not very backward, however, in awarding themselves an increase in pay because they felt that that was a necessary and fair return. Surely, a landlord is entitled to a fair return to maintain his property?

Mr. W. Griffiths (Manchester, Exchange)

Does the hon. Member not understand that as things are at the moment the landlord of an old-age pensioner in receipt of supplementary assistance is getting through the National Assistance Board extra money arising from the Rent Act and has not put his house in order, and is, therefore, swindling the taxpayers?

Mr. Harris

Is the hon. Member saying that no hon. Member of this Committee is swindling the taxpayers in the same way? Is it suggested that all Members give 100 per cent. the same time and service?

Hon. Members must not assume that all landlords are wicked landlords. In my experience, a large number of landlords are doing a first-class job of work. If we expect them to go on doing a first-class job of work which is of benefit to the tenants, who want to live in accommodation which is as comfortable as possible, then surely we must recognise that rents have got to be paid accordingly. There is no reason on earth why landlords should be the ones not to get a proper return.

Mr. W. Griffiths

Provided the houses are put in order.

Mr. Harris

The debate today has also been a sort of debating party against the Minister because of non-provision of certain information which everybody knows in his heart cannot be provided in great detail. The suggestion is put across by hon. Members opposite that the National Assistance Board is fiddling the accounts in order to see that the Minister does not disclose information which hon. Members would like to have. That is the inference which we on this side must assume. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I am glad to hear it is not so, but hon. Members opposite know only too well that this is an annual sport for hon. Members when Supplementary Estimates come before us. It is general good fun on the part of hon. Members opposite.

Mr. Ross


Mr. Harris

Oh, yes, it is. It is an attempt to make it seem that there is something sinister behind these figures. We all know there is nothing sinister at all behind these figures. I for one—and I am sure this goes for my hon. Friends, too—am well satisfied with the explanation which the Parliamentary Secretary went to some trouble to give us.

Mr. Blenkinsop

We did not have any.

Mr. Harris

Yes, we did. We had an excellent explanation. I am not sure that the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Blenkinsop) heard it all. Perhaps he did. He, for one, is in a position to know that my hon. Friend gave us accurate and fair information.

If one went to the length of providing the staffs which would be necessary in order to supply the immediate answers which some hon. Members want to some of their questions, those hon. Members would be the first to criticise that further waste of expenditure—expenditure on the staffs which would be involved. We have here an increase in wages and salaries of nearly £500,000. While we recognise that that must be because of the tremendous amount of additional work being carried out and because of the supplementary staff already necessary, none of us wants to see these figures going up.

The hon. and learned Member for Kettering said that, in the main, undoubtedly much of this trouble caused by requests for additional National Assistance in respect of rents was the result of the Government's financial policy pushing up the rates. I know that in Croydon we are fortunate in having a most able council whose one task in this difficult period of inflation is to try very hard to cut down the rates if at all possible. If that authority can achieve that result, it is an example which should be followed by others throughout the country.

I and, I think, my hon. Friends on this side of the Committee are therefore well satisfied with this request for a Supplementary Estimate. We see the need for it, and we pay great tribute to the staff which has carried out this work so excellently. My only plea is that we should make sure that those who unhappily have to request this help are made to understand clearly that they are entitled to it.

5.41 p.m.

Mr. R. J. Mellish (Bermondsey)

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. F. Harris) in his remarks. Both he and the hon. and gallant Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett) gave great praise to their Government. I cannot blame them for that, because the Government want a few loyal supporters opposite in their present awkward situation. The Liberal Party may be persuaded not to put up candidates in Croydon but, in any event, I believe that the Tory seats in Croydon are in great danger.

I join in a tribute to the staff of the National Assistance Board, who have done a magnificent job. It should be clearly understood that any criticism that we on this side of the Committee make about figures or the non-availability of figures is not a criticism of the Board but of the present wretched Government Front Bench. I am sure that if the figures which we have demanded could have been shown by the Front Bench opposite to be in the Government's favour in the argument about rent allowances, they would have been produced. I am sure that the reason why we did not have these figures produced earlier was that the Government did not wish to reveal them.

Last week, we were told that it was estimated that 465,000 more applications had been made for increased National Assistance in respect of rent increases. That gives some idea of the numbers involved in this rent problem. I agree that it is now well after the end of the year concerned, but the Annual Report of the National Assistance Board for the year ended November, 1956, contains an analysis of all the people who are receiving allowances in respect of rents of from 5s. to 10s., 15s. and 30s.

I cannot believe that these figures are assembled at the end of the year, and I am sure that if I had anticipated that this trouble with figures would have arisen in the debate the local office in my constituency would have provided me with figures for the purposes of the argument here. According to the figures in the 1956 Report, the vast bulk of the 1,254,000 householders who were receiving rent supplementary were people with rents of from 10s. to £1.

You have been very good, Sir Gordon, and you have allowed a wide discussion on the Rent Act, but I will not abuse the privilege except to make something of a constituency speech because, unlike hon. Members who represent Croydon, I am not troubled about the next General Election. Even if the party opposite were doing well, which it is not, and even if two Liberal candidates were put up in my constituency, it would not matter to me.

One in five of the tenants in my constituency are old-age pensioners and two-thirds of the property involved is privately owned and one-third is owned by the Council. The vast bulk of these old-age pensioners are already in receipt of full National Assistance. Two-thirds of the private property was subject to the 1914 controlled rents when the Rent Act came into operation. The increase in rents applied for by landlords, which is a first instalment only, was 7s. 6d. last October. That has been the general case with those living in privately rented property. Over 6,000 properties are involved, though there are many more tenants since many of the properties are let off in flats.

I have no doubt that the sum represented by these increases is part of the figure of £4,600,000 shown in the Supplementary Estimate, but this is not the end of the story. In April, there will be another increase in rent under the Rent Act. Indeed, many of the rents are to go up by another £1. Therefore, the tenants will have to go back to the Assistance Board for more help. They have already received 7s. 6d. and now they must ask, in April, for more to meet the further increase, which will be twice and, in some cases, three times the amount asked for in October. This applies to the vast majority of the people whom I represent.

If the tenants were getting value for money, and if the landlords had been looking after the property and had been carrying a burden which they could no longer carry, I would agree that it would be right to say that the State should provide help for the old-age pensioners and so help the landlords. I am not one of those who say that all landlords are bad. I know that there are some, though they are very few, who are good. But in an area such as I represent, the tenants are not receiving value for money and the greater part of the property is in a state which is a disgrace to the country.

Most of this extra money is being paid to landlords, who have done nothing for their tenants. The property has been paid for in rent over and over again, and now the landlords receive an extra 7s. 6d. a week plus, in some cases, a further £1 in April. When we on this side of the Committee point out these facts and say that it is immoral that the State should help such landlords, hon. Members opposite say that we are playing party politics and that we do not like landlords. Does the hon. Member for Croydon, Northwest really believe that that type of landlord is entitled to the extra money?

Mr. F. Harris

I certainly do not agree that they should receive it, but I say that they are a very small percentage of the total. There are rotters in every walk of life.

Mr. Mellish

We now have the concession from the hon. Member that the Rent Act, which makes this Supplementary Estimate necessary, gives some people money from the State to which they are not entitled. I know that there are some decent landlords, but in my constituency I cannot find many of them, and the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West knows my constituency well. It may be that I am in a peculiar position compared with other hon. Members in this respect, but, in the main, the landlords in my constituency have not done the kind of things that any decent landlord would have done.

Mr. Harris

Would the hon. Member not also agree that other National Assistance payments are often paid immorally, in the sense that those receiving them would not always be entitled to them, and that this is one of those things that cannot be prevented?

Mr. Mellish

There would not be many people receiving National Assistance improperly, but there is no means test on the landlord. No matter what profit the landlord makes and no matter how many hundreds of times over the property has been paid for in rent, he obtains his increased rent. We know the argument about the safeguard of the certificate of disrepair, but that is always difficult, because the Act requires that the condition of the property and its situation must be taken into account.

Therefore, it seems unlikely that many will get a certificate of disrepair in my area. It is probably easier in Croydon. But I will not play off Croydon against Bermondsey, because we shall get Croydon soon. This is why I am so bitter. The hon. Gentleman said that the argument was unfair and asked whether, if a person received help from the National Assistance Board and spent that money in a private shop, that was wrong. The answer is that at least he has a selection and is getting value for money.

Over one-third of the people in my constituency are council tenants. All the accounts of the council are subject to a district audit which is available in the town hall to any ratepayer who takes the trouble to read them, whereas the accounts of private landlords cannot be seen. To the best of my knowledge, our local council will be compelled to increase rents. Why? Will it be because of their own bad policy, or because of their own negligence, or because of the way they have run the council? No, it will be because of the policy of Her Majesty's Government. Without any difficulty it can be traced to the direct action of this Government. I am thinking of the increased loan charges, and so on.

As a result, maintenance costs have increased enormously, and so a further rent increase will be demanded. But at least the council tenants get some value for the increase, because their homes are maintained once every three years. I know that as a Member of Parliament, because the first person council tenants come to if the work is not carried out is to me, as their local Member. I have to take the matter up with the town hall if the place is not in a decent condition. So, if one compares the council tenant with the private tenant, I say frankly that the former gets his place repaired and that his rent is still reasonable considering the state of the property.

What about the other poor people who, at the end of the day, have to go to the Assistance Board, the owner-occupiers? Many house owners today are in serious trouble. We on this side of the Committee have never said that we object to people owning their own homes. We want to encourage it, and I believe that one of the first things a Labour Government will do when returned to power will be to ensure that people can borrow 100 per cent. of their requirements at cheap interest rates. Indeed, if it were practicable, I would encourage people to buy council flats.

Today, many of these people are in serious trouble and, because of high interest rates, they have had to go to the Assistance Board. This is the Government of the property-owning democracy. These are the people who are supposed to look after property owners. The whole of this Supplementary Estimate is an indictment of the Government. Look at it. We are asked to agree to £410,000 for extra salaries. I hope we shall not be blamed for that, having been out of power for six years.

We are asked to agree to an increase of £35,000 for telephones. We cannot be blamed for that. We are also asked to agree to £4,600,000 for assistance grants. The Government, through lack of policy more than anything else, have let everything go. They believe in all the rubbish, "May the best man win," all getting crushed to death going up the ladder and at the end of the day the standards of the people I represent and others like them have gone down instead of up.

We shall, of course, agree to this Supplementary Estimate. We must. If it were practicable, I would oppose it because I believe that the Minister ought to say clearly what he expects will happen. Has he any figures showing what he thinks the position will be in a few months time? In the sense that this Supplementary Estimate is for a short period, after April it will be much larger than the £5 million required. If my constituency is any indication of the state of affairs in the country, the Estimate will be three or four times the amount required for the Assistance Board which will be paid into the pockets of the landlords, who are not worthy of a penny of it.

5.55 p.m.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

I have listened with a certain amount of regret to the debate this afternoon, because I like on an occasion such as this to try to make constructive suggestions for bettering the conditions of those who often, through no fault of their own, have to rely to some extent on National Assistance in order to live. Although often in the past we have had most interesting and constructive debates, somehow this afternoon a different tone has been introduced. Indeed, while listening to the opening speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison)—

Mr. Mitchison

Not right honourable.

Dame Irene Ward

Not right honourable? No doubt the hon. and learned Gentleman will be if the party opposite wins the next General Election, because he works so hard for the Opposition. While listening to the hon. and learned Gentleman I was filled with apprehension, because it seemed to me that if, through any misfortune, the Opposition were to win the next General Election—[An HON. MEMBER: "No misfortune."] Of course it might not be a misfortune to hon. Gentlemen opposite, but it would be a misfortune for the country. While listening to the hon. and learned Gentleman, it seemed to me that the attitude he took up in his opening speech seemed to indicate that in the future those dependent on National Assistance would be unlikely to receive supplementary allowances in respect of their rent because, to a large extent, rent allowances have always gone to the private landlords. If, therefore, the policy of the hon. and learned Gentleman is to remove any allowances in respect of rent being paid to private landlords, then I am afraid that the position of those on National Assistance will be very serious indeed.

I want to make one or two points which will probably arouse great wrath from the Opposition. Before doing so, I had better put myself in the right by saying that two hon. Gentlemen opposite made substantial points with which I found myself in some agreement, and about which I will say something in a minute or two. I am referring to the hon. Gentlemen the Members for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Blenkinsop) and Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd).

In considering the problem of rent and the condition of houses in which many people who draw supplementary allowances have to live, although I have strong reservations about the Rent Act, I have felt that at least the landlords who, through increased rents, undertake rent repairs are making some contribution to the comfort of people who, for many years, have been living in bad property with no chance of getting any repairs done. In this rather unpleasant and controversial discussion, I would have felt much happier if hon. Gentlemen opposite had at any rate pointed out that some people will benefit by the payments made by the National Assistance Board, in that they will have, I hope, more comfortable homes than they have had in the past. There is hardly anything which is done in central legislation that does not help some sections of the community, and not to recognise this is a great mistake.

Now I turn to the collection of statistics. If by any chance my right hon. Friend the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance is to provide us with any further statistics in the future, I want to enter a request from my own point of view. I should like to know how many of the landlords who receive additional National Assistance in respect of rent are themselves living or trying to live on small fixed incomes. Of course, in respect of small properties, which is the type of property mostly remaining under control, there are thousands of small landlords who are living at a very marginal rate indeed. I should like to give one instance to illustrate the point I am making.

I have in my constituency an old-age pensioner of 80 who came to seek my advice the other day. She receives her old-age pension and she owns a small property, which is not situated in my constituency, though she herself lives there. She had been receiving 12s. 6d. a week in respect of that property, and she had asked the agent whom she employed to collect the rent to deduct the very pathetic sum of 1s. 6d. per week in order that some attention might be paid to the property.

When the application for the increased rent was made the tenant applied for a certificate of disrepair. Inquiries were made, the necessary repairs were listed and the list sent to the old-age pensioner. I give that only as an illustration of the fact that there are very many small landlords in that position. When I went into this case, I found that the old lady had not even made an application for a National Assistance grant. I am glad to say, however, that the whole matter was put in order. The repairs to her property are to be done, out of her increased rents, and she is now receiving a National Assistance grant.

There are thousands upon thousands of small landlords who are living at a very marginal rate and who, quite genuinely, have not been able to carry out repairs to their properties. I think it is just a little hard for hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite to condemn those living in controlled houses owned by small landlords to live in unrepaired houses simply because they object to the increased rent, out of which proper repairs can be done, being paid by the National Assistance Board to the landlord. I take very great exception to that, because I can see that by this means some of these unfortunate people will probably get some repairs done to their properties, which will make the properties more watertight and the homes of the tenants a little more comfortable and, therefore, happier.

I move from that subject now to make one or two other points. I thought the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East raised a point of substance. I can very well see that people who are entitled to draw National Assistance grants in respect of increased rent may well not take the trouble, for a variety of reasons, to take steps to get their properties put into a reasonable state of repair. This is a very difficult problem to deal with.

It seems to me, looking at the case of a borough which is under the control of a progressive local authority, that there is a very wide field of contact between the welfare services operated by the local authorities and the visits paid from time to time by officers of the National Assistance Board to those who draw their allowances. I hope we shall maintain the contact between the local authority welfare services and National Assistance Board officials and those who are called upon under the Rent Act to pay increased rents.

I know that in the part of the world to which the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East and I belong, there is a close co-operation and feeling of friendship between one section of the community and another. When these visits are paid, either by welfare officers under the local authority welfare service or by officials of the National Assistance Board, to see the condition of the property in which these people are living, there will usually be some discussion and contact between these different services which may be of real benefit, as a means of giving advice, to the people concerned. Very often, these people do not wish to be troubled with all the paraphernalia of making an application and having their houses put into a proper state of repair, but they could be helped by these officials to take the necessary steps.

A great many tributes have quite rightly been paid to officials of the National Assistance Board, and I should like also to pay my tribute to the staffs of the housing departments of local authorities. Of course, in this whole set-up, they have to play a very large part in looking at properties when the repairs have been carried out or in issuing certificates of disrepair. Several hon. Members, particularly during Question Time today, were pressing my right hon. Friend with Questions arising out of the payment of these supplementary allowances to landlords. I think it is only fair to say that a great deal of expert advice can be asked for, and is indeed given, by housing department officials to people who seek their help.

It certainly is not always necessary for people who want advice to go to a solicitor or surveyor. I think I am right in saying to the hon. Gentleman opposite that at the very introduction of the Rent Bill, the Corporation of Newcastle-upon-Tyne established a first-class citizens' advice bureau for the very purpose of giving advice to people who were worried about their properties and wanted guidance and expert advice on the operation of the Act.

Therefore, excepting in very unfortunate circumstances—and I know that these cases can arise—I do not think there can be many people who cannot obtain free guidance and assistance if they need it. I am sure that the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East will agree with me that both he and I have a large number of people who come to us and seek our advice, and though this adds very considerably to the work we have to do, we know the ropes and know the officials to whom we can refer these troubles. We know that this is done regularly and with the greatest goodwill in the world.

Mrs. Lena Jeger (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)

Could the hon. Lady help me on this point? Would she not agree that there is a certain disincentive to these old people in taking the trouble to find out about these difficult cases? For instance, I know a blind old lady who has said quite clearly that she is not going to bother about the rent increase because the National Assistance Board will pay it. She asks why should she go to the town hall and get the sanitary inspector in and get forms filled up. Is it not very dangerous, and might not the feeling that the rise in rent is to be paid automatically by the National Assistance Board act as a disincentive to people who are old and frail and who find this kind of undertaking rather difficult?

Dame Irene Ward

The hon. Lady is so full of charm and initiative that I should be very surprised if she could not persuade her constituent to take the necessary steps. I do not know what kind of welfare services operate in her constituency, but in my constituency we have an admirable service with a first-class welfare officer who would immediately be put in touch with such a case. The hon. Lady has a point with regard to the disincentive, and I do not disagree with her about it, but even if one gets an occasional case of that type, that is not to say that on the other side there will not be a large number of people who will get improved living conditions. I would not deprive those people of any good fortune which might come their way merely because some people are as unfortunately placed as the hon. Lady's constituent.

As so often is the case, the important thing is to balance the advantages against the disadvantages. There is nothing that we can do in life which can ensure that everybody has equal treatment; things just do not operate that way. The fact that some people are unfortunate in life is no reason why other people should not have the full advantages which they can derive from a sound and logical administration.

I should very much regret it if an old, blind, frail lady in the circumstances quoted by the hon. Lady did not get some advantage but looked upon the provisions in respect of National Assistance as a disincentive, and I should do my best to remedy the situation; but I should not deprive everybody else of the advantages which they might obtain.

The hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees made a substantial point when he said that there might be occasions when the National Assistance Board might be paying a grant in respect of increased rent when increased rent was no longer being paid by the person concerned. It does not, however, seem to have occurred to hon. Gentlemen opposite that officers of the Board have a great deal of wisdom and that if there was reason to believe this and there was something which required attention, the Board could easily and would make inquiries.

In cases such as those mentioned by hon. Members, where houses have come out of control and high rents have been imposed by the landlords, it would be possible for the Board to get in touch with the local authorities. There is very close co-operation—at least, there should be—between local authorities and the Board. During the very long time that I have been connected with matters of this kind, I have never met any difficulty in respect of that relationship. If a person comes to see me about a problem and I am in doubt about it, I telephone the Board and discuss the problem with the appropriate officer, and then the Board may discuss the case with the local authority. When cases come before the bench, the magistrates get in touch with the appropriate department of the local administration in order to obtain all the facts. Hon. Members opposite underestimate the co-operation which exists or is possible between all the services connected with these problems.

I support with very great pleasure the point which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Barry (Mr. Gower) about disregards. I have always felt that my right hon. Friend recognises the righteousness of the case which has been made for an extension of disregards or, at any rate, an examination of the situation.

Mr. Ross

I am trying hard to follow the hon. Lady's speech. Will she tell me under which heading this subject comes?

Dame Irene Ward

The hon. Gentleman has not been here all the afternoon and perhaps did not hear the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Barry. What my hon. Friend said was accepted by the Chair as being in order, and I am sure that I shall be allowed to continue with my point in this respect.

I want to ask my right hon. Friend whether he will make a point of raising the matter of disregards with the Cabinet, because I believe that the disregards offer a means of helping those who are living on small fixed incomes and find it very difficult to make ends meet. I expect that my right hon. Friend has been bored by the number of occasions on which I have asked for departmental examinations—which includes his Department—to see what can be done to help these people. I make no excuse for returning to the subject today, because it is of vital importance.

I have often been told by my right hon. Friend, by members of the Government and members of the Cabinet that it is extremely difficult to find ways and means of helping people living on small fixed incomes, but the case has been very well put this afternoon by my hon. Friend the Member for Barry, and I think that we have an opportunity here to help people by extending the disregards. Here, at any rate, is a means of helping some sections of those living on small fixed incomes.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will deal with this matter in his reply. I find that sometimes occupants of the Government Front Bench enjoy "riding off" a problem. I have been in the House a very long time, and I have noticed the different way in which points are sometimes dealt with by Ministers today compared with Minister in the 1930s. We rarely get direct answers to questions from individual hon. Members. I am a realist, I am an individualist, and when I ask a question I like an answer. I wish to know whether my right hon. Friend will give me an assurance that the question of disregards, as it relates to those people ekeing out an unhappy existence on small fixed incomes, will be regarded by him as a matter of honour; and that he will point out to the Cabinet that this is a way of helping that section of the community. I feel that we shall make some progress if my right hon. Friend will do that.

I support these Supplementary Estimates. As we continue our efforts to improve the lot of those who, for various reasons, are not so fortunately placed as are so many hon. Members of this House, I hope that we shall be able to do something to ensure that their lives are made happier and more secure. Because there are items in the Supplementary Estimate which will help to achieve that, I commend the Estimate to the Committee.

6.21 p.m.

Mr. Harold Finch (Bedwellty)

This Supplementary Estimate does not give us any detailed information about the administration of the National Assistance Board. I make no complaint about that. We are dealing with an Estimate involving considerable amounts of money, which is a good reason why we should be given some information about how the grants are made up.

The Committee is being asked to pass a revised estimate for assistance grants amounting to £117,600,000. That is a considerable sum. Surely it is not too much to ask that we should be told how this figure is arrived at, though I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Blenkinsop) that we cannot expect detailed information. We cannot break these figures down to the last £1.

Hon. Members opposite pride themselves on being businesslike. There is not a business undertaking, board of directors, or body of shareholders who would agree to the spending of such sums as we are considering without more information than we have been given. The Committee is being asked to find sums of money out of taxation, so we are entitled to know. It should not be difficult to provide us with information. A great deal was published in the Board's Report to the Ministry, and we had a discussion on National Assistance a few months ago, so that the Minister must be in a position to give us some information.

When we are called upon to approve this Supplementary Estimate we have to judge the working of the Assistance Board. The hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. F. Harris) wanted to know how many old-age pensioners received assistance grants and some information was given by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. In addition, there are discretionary special allowances and we should like to know how much money for such allowances is contained in this Supplementary Estimate. The provision of discretionary special allowances is an excellent feature of the work of the Board and the amounts have increased compared with last year.

My attention has been drawn to several cases to persons who are blind, or suffering from tuberculosis, who get a special rate to bring their income to somewhere about the subsistence level. Frequently, they need a special diet and the cost of their laundry and cleaning has to be met. Immediately they apply for additional assistance in that direction the special rate is taken into consideration before any allowance is given. That is harsh treatment. I could cite a number of cases of people who have been seriously handicapped and who are suffering from tuberculosis who do not get the discretionary allowance. I should like to know what instructions are issued regarding the provision of an allowance. There are, of course, many people entitled to the allowance who, through ignorance, do not apply for it.

There are thousands of miners who are suffering from pneumoconiosis and who are seriously disabled. Many of them are incurable and I wish to know whether special allowances are made in such cases where the suffering is equally severe as in the case of tuberculosis victims. If special allowances are not paid, I wish to know why. It will be said, of course, that many of these men who suffer from pneumoconiosis receive some form of compensation either under the old Workmen's Compensation Acts or the industrial injuries legislation. Incidentally, many do not receive any payment, because they commuted their claims years ago. We know that £1 of this amount is taken into consideration; it is disregarded. The figure of £1 was fixed in 1947 and it has never been raised.

Mr. Fernyhough

It was fixed in 1943.

Mr. Finch

According to my information it was 1947.

Mr. Fernyhough

No, it was 1943.

Mr. Finch

If that be so, the position is much worse, but I am informed that it was fixed in 1947.

Rates have been increased, special pensions have been increased and other increments and allowances have been increased. Yet this figure of £1 remains the same. The miner's pension has been increased from 10s. 6d. to one guinea, but every penny over 10s. 6d. is taken into consideration as income into the home, and assistance is reduced. Miners who have been contributing out of their weekly earnings to pension funds are beginning to wonder whether there is any real value in doing so under those circumstances.

Hon. Members opposite have asked that we should do everything possible to encourage small savings of that kind, but despite that, this disregard figure remains at £1. I wish to remind the Minister that as far back as 1904 it was possible to disregard sick benefit from a friendly society to the extent of 5s. We have not made much progress since then and I think that the right hon. Gentleman should give us the benefit of his experience and tell us what he considers should be done. All the other items under the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance have been increased or adjusted. These remain as they were, and they are causing a great deal of dissatisfaction among those in receipt of pensions and workmen's compensation.

I now come to unemployment benefit. I should be glad to know from the right hon. Gentleman how much is being paid by way of National Assistance to the unemployed, particularly to those whose unemployment benefit has expired. Hon. Members will remember Section 62 of the National Insurance Act. Under that Section an unemployed person could, by periodic attendance before a tribunal, get his unemployment benefit extended from time to time, and unless the Ministry of Labour were able to say that a suitable job had been found for the man, he continued to get unemployment benefit. That Section was abolished by the Government and replaced by a method of paying unemployment benefit, standard benefit, followed by an extended period of benefit, at the end of which the benefit ceases. People whose benefit ceases then go on to National Assistance.

I urge the Minister to tell the Committee how much is now being paid in National Assistance to those whose unemployment benefit has expired. I am interested particularly in how disabled men are affected. I would remind the Committee that reorganisation is taking place in the mining industry, and it may well be that those fit only for light work will find themselves in difficulty as time goes on. They will be unemployed, and after the passage of some months they will be without any benefit at all. Therefore, I hope the right hon. Gentleman can give us some information about extended benefit in relation to the abolition of Section 62.

Other Members wish to speak, but I should like to raise one other point in connection with the right of appeal against the refusal by an officer of the Board to pay discretionary allowances. These allowances are not always known to the applicant. This applies particularly when an application is made verbally to an officer of the Board, either in one of the offices of the Board or during one of the periodical visits which are made to all applicants. Refusal is not always justified, and the local appeals tribunal has a duty to consider hardship arising out of this type of case just as it has to consider cases of refusal to pay the standard rate.

Scores of persons have told me that they were not aware of this right of appeal, and I feel that when a person applies for National Assistance and completes the necessary form he should be given a leaflet explaining the general principles on which National Assistance is paid—the rules, the conditions, the right of the applicant to appeal and his rights in resepct of special rates, so that he may be fully aware of them. Many people believe that the house they own is taken into consideration for National Assistance purposes. Hundreds of people do not apply because they are not aware that there has been a change since the days of the old Poor Law system. The right hon. Gentleman would do a good service if he could issue to every applicant information about the main principles of the payment of National Assistance.

I hope the right hon. Gentleman will bear in mind the special plea that has been made from both sides of the Committee in connection with disregards, the 10s. 6d. which remains as it has been for many years, as well as the £1 in respect of compensation. In any event, I hope that we shall get some information on how these National Assistance grants are made up.

6.35 p.m.

Miss Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

I fully sympathise with the point made by the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Finch) about tuberculosis patients. I have on previous occasions taken up this matter with the National Assistance Board because I feel that an exception should be made now, owing to the new cures for this disease. I have met many people who would have spent more time in hospital but for the fact that their attendance in hospital would lower considerably the standard of living of their families; and, therefore, the full cure is not taken.

A further point on which I would support the hon. Gentleman is that of pensions paid by other organisations. I am thinking in particular of Service pensions. I have met a number of persons who do not know that they are entitled to receive some additional assistance from the National Assistance Board if they happen to be receiving a Service pension. I would add my plea to that made by the hon. Member for Bedwellty that when people receive Service pensions they should be given a leaflet informing them where they may apply for supplementation.

I heard the other day of a widow of 74 who had a pension of £110. She was a naval pensioner's widow. I visited her quite by chance. I thought she was living in rather poor circumstances, and I got in touch with the National Assistance Board where I found that she was entitled to 43s. a week extra for her rent, laundry, and extra nourishment.

The hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) quoted from leaflet A.L.18 and said that it was printed some two months ago. By chance I happened to have that leaflet with me and I was, therefore, carefully following what he said. I turned to the place bearing the printer's mark to see when it had been printed. I found that it had been printed in January, 1955. I therefore suggest to the hon. and learned Gentleman that he was reading from a reprint. He quoted the part of the leaflet which states: … the extent to which it is reasonable to provide for it will be decided by the Board's officer in the light of recommendations made by the Local Advisory Committee for the Area. That has applied for some considerable time. The point is that the leaflet quoted is reprinted as and when the amounts are changed.

Mr. Mitchison

I cannot be far out in my date. At the end there is a reference to the 1957 Regulations, so at the latest it was printed in December or later. The printer's mark is "1/58" which looks like January. It must have been printed since the end of November.

Miss Vickers

My copy was printed in January, 1955. The same passage as the hon. and learned Gentleman quoted appears in my copy and on the same page. Therefore, there is no difference in the policy. That is what I was trying to point out. The hon. and learned Gentleman said that the Minister now had a different policy. This leaflet is reprinted from time to time as and when different figures come into operation.

Mr. Mitchison

I do not want to interrupt the hon. Lady again, but if the Minister says something different from what is stated in the leaflet, what are we going to do about it—listen to the Minister or read the leaflet? The leaflet is what people see.

Miss Vickers

All I am saying is that the policy as quoted by the hon. and learned Gentleman, and as stated in 1955, is the same this year. What the Minister says is something for which I cannot be responsible.

I make this point on the question of National Assistance and rent. In my constituency 72 per cent. of the houses will be decontrolled under the present Act. I am not saying that every house will automatically be decontrolled, because some will be divided into hereditaments, but there are more decontrolled houses than there are in other areas. Therefore, I have a particular interest in this matter. When people are unemployed, or old or for some other reason cannot pay rent, they get in touch with the National Assistance officer and he visits them. I suggest to hon. Members opposite that the National Assistance tenant probably has more protection than any other tenant. That is because he has a visit from the officer.

The Board certainly will not pay increased rent, after a period of about six months, if the property is not repaired. Therefore, the tenant has additional protection compared with the ordinary tenant, who perhaps, may not understand the working of the Act. The National Assistance Board certainly would not pay for property which was not in good repair.

Mr. Fernyhough

What will happen if the house is decontrolled and the Board does not pay the rent because the house is not in a state of repair? How long will the landlord allow the tenant to remain there if the rent is not paid?

Miss Vickers

In a controlled house the rent can be put up to 7s. 6d. now and increased again later. If repairs to that type of property are not done, the Board can withhold the rent. In the case of decontrolled houses there is the right to ask the sanitary inspector to come in to see whether the repairs are done. Although the Board cannot force an individual landlord to do repairs, there will in many cases be a three-year agreement. The tenant in such a case is in a better position because he has the National Assistance officer behind him.

I was interested in some of the points raised about the proper expenditure of public funds. For some time I have been very disturbed by this matter. I propose to make a suggestion which may not be wholly welcomed, but it is one about which I feel strongly. I am thinking of expenditure such as that when money is given for a specific object, for bedding, sheets, clothing and so on, and which is not spent on those things. By chance, I have a letter with me, dated 14th February, which came by this morning's post. I had applied for help for a constituent. It was a tuberculosis case and I had been in touch with the National Assistance Board through whom I knew the family was receiving an allowance. My constituent came to see me because the family wanted some bedding. I asked the Board about this and received the following reply: It is confirmed that a grant was made to enable—so-and-so—to obtain some bedding but my officer reports that unfortunately the money was not used for this purpose. When one is living on a very low income there is a great temptation not to spend the money on something for which it is really needed and for which it has been given. Although I do not want to stop individuals getting the type of goods they would like, I suggest that in future my right hon. Friend should arrange for vouchers to be given for this type of goods.

Mr. A. E. Hunter (Feltham)

Years ago boards of guardians used to give grocery tickets instead of money. We condemned that system because there was no freedom of choice.

Miss Vickers

Yes, I was on what used to be called the Public Assistance Committee of London County Council, where that kind of thing was done in a rather different manner. I am suggesting that these people should be able to go to shops with a voucher and the bills should be sent to the National Assistance Board. Sometimes the money is given to the husband and the wife may not know about it. She would have no opportunity to buy the goods. I feel very strongly that more protection should be given to people who need this help. In that way the spending of public funds, referred to by hon. Members opposite, could be protected.

On the question of rents, I have put this point to my right hon. Friend before. I suggest that the Board, when it has to pay the whole of the rent, should pay it directly, either to the local authority or to the private landlord. Often people have been evicted simply because the rent has not been paid, but there is a great temptation not to pay the rent when one has so little money on which to live. In many cases if this were done, the wives and children of the persons concerned would be protected. I hope I shall not be out of order, Mr. Hynd, in referring to the Standing Committee which is considering the Maintenance Orders Bill. In discussion in that Committee we found that the National Assistance Board has no right to pay maintenance allowances direct to a wife. Some hon. Members opposite felt so strongly about this that when we voted on the matter they agreed that the money should be paid to the wife concerned. Therefore, I think I am on good ground in this Committee in putting forward this suggestion.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider these points as being a means, not only of saving public money, but of protecting the individuals for whom the money is meant. Then I think better value would be obtained for the money. Instead of having to give individuals money for certain commodities on which it is not spent, the Board would be able to do something which would be of real help to these people and their families.

I should say with regard to the £4 million that probably in future the amount will go down because we shall know within a very short time the extent of the increases required by private landlords. The increases which we are likely to have will come through local authorities. In a constituency like mine there is a differential rents scheme whereby the Board is forced to pay extra every time the rent goes up within the local authority's housing. The rents go up on a scale which begins on the same level. In other words, in a block of flats where the lowest rate charged by the authority is 30s., the person who is on National Assistance is charged on this level, and the person who is earning begins at 30s. and pays extra rent according to his income.

I wish to pay tribute to the National Assistance Board officers in my area; from what I have said it will be seen that they have a big job. I also wish to refer to the question of rehabilitation of individuals. A great deal of work is being done in helping individuals both British and foreign to get on to a better standard of living in teaching them some form of work. Money spent in that direction has been well worth while.

6.49 p.m.

Mr. R. E. Prentice (East Ham, North)

I listened carefully to the speech of the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers). I found some of the earlier part of her remarks acceptable, but I think that most of us on this side of the Committee found a great contrast between the care with which she examined the spending of money on extra bedding, and that sort of thing, and the ease with which she accepts the voting of these large sums of money which are to go, through the National Assistance Board and recipients, as a public subsidy to landlords. The hon. Lady seems to follow the line taken by many hon. Members opposite in wanting to be extra careful about relatively small sums while ignoring the main core of the Supplementary Estimate before us this evening.

I want to make a brief reference to previous speakers on the other side of the Committee. As a loyal citizen of Croydon, I am very glad that two Croydon Members swelled the ranks of those who spoke. I cannot find anything in what either of them said on which to congrautlate them, but I can at least congratulate them on having taken part in the debate, because the last time we debated National Assistance there was only one speech from the back benches on the other side of the Committee. There has been an improvement at least in number, if not in content.

About 85 per cent. of the Supplementary Estimate is under the heading C.1, "Assistance Grants, &c.". That, as we have been told, is made up of three factors—the increased money to be voted because of increases in rents; secondly, the higher scales provided by the National Assistance regulations which have just come into force; and thirdly, the amount which will be offset by the saving from 27th January, 1958, due to increases in the National Insurance benefits. It is completely unsatisfactory not to be told what these three figures are.

The Parliamentary Secretary, in opening the debate, suggested that these were only estimates and that precises figures were not yet available, but we have before us a figure of £4,600,000 and we are told that that has been arrived at by adding together A and B and taking away C. To reach that figure of £4,600,000, figures must have been put to A, B and C, and there is no reason why we and the country should not be told what those figures are.

I can only assume that the reason the figures have not been produced is that C is bigger than B; in other words, the money to be saved by the new National Insurance rates is more than the higher National Assistance scale. The sum going to landlords is, therefore, much larger than £4,600,000, but the Government do not want to admit that that is the case.

In default of better figures from the Government, although I hope that we can be given better figures by them in time, I have been sitting here doing a little sum. If there is anything wrong with my sum, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman or the hon. Lady will contradict me. The estimate was given that the extra National Assistance scales in a year would cost £26 million and that the saving due to higher National Insurance benefits in a year would be £34 million, which means that there is a net saving of £8 million in a year. We are dealing with a period of nine weeks between 27th January and the end of the financial year, and I suppose that we can apportion to that period the sum of nearly £1½ million, which suggests to me—and I should like contradiction if I am wrong—that the net cost of higher rents is about £6 million, mainly due to the Rent Act, although I concede that one or two other factors have entered into it.

I want to say two things about this £6 million. First, it relates only to the first round of increases under the Rent Act, which are limited to 7s. 6d. a week and the full increases under the Rent Act will not come into force until the financial year is over. I suggest that when they do the average rise in rent will be at least twice as much as 7s. 6d. a week and perhaps more. Secondly, this figure relates only to the months since the Rent Act came into force, which is since last October. It is only half the financial year. If we want to calculate the cost in a full financial year we have to multiply again by two, and probably more than two, because some landlords were slow off the mark.

My estimate for a full financial year in which the Rent Act is fully in force is that the cost to the taxpayer would probably be five or six times that £6 million; in other words, £30 million and perhaps £36 million or a figure of that kind. If there is anything wrong with that sum I hope that it will be pointed out. It is what I have estimated from the scanty information which has been given. The fact is that this extra cost to the taxpayer is approaching the figure which caused the right hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. P. Thorneycroft) to resign from the Government.

Putting the case at its highest, it has been said by the Government that if poor people are to be helped with their rent it is better that they should be helped by the taxpayers than by their own landlords. Speaking personally, I would accept that argument, provided that the rent increases themselves were rationally arrived at, provided that they were related to the cost of keeping the house or flat in good repair and provided that there was a guarantee that the money would be spent in that way. Our experience in the question of rent is that that has nothing to do with what has happened under the Rent Act and that, in fact, the rents will not be rationally arrived at until the bulk of the rented property in the country is publicly owned.

In the meantime, this very large sum of public money is going to the landlords at a time of financial stringency and at a time when all kinds of economy in the social services are apparently being canvassed in Government circles. This large sum of public money is going to the landlords, when, as we know, many of these landlords have been receiving rents over the years without spending anything on the upkeep of their property. Indeed, people have come to me, as I am sure people have been to hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, and have said, "The house is in good repair because we, as tenants, have kept it in good repair." Even in such cases the landlords are to receive this money from the taxpayer. This makes it urgent that the extra precautions which it has been suggested from this side of the Committee that the Assistance Board should take in these cases, to check the legality of the rent increases, should in fact be taken.

There is a tremendous contrast between the way in which the landlords have benefited under this transaction and the way in which the recipients of National Assistance themselves I have come out of it. Under subhead C.1 we are also considering the relationship between the higher scales and the National Insurance benefits. I shall probably be out of order if I repeat what was said in the debate before Christmas, but the experience I have had through people coming to see me—and other hon. Members must have had the same experience—is that there is a bitter resentment and disappointment about the fact that the National Assistance rates have risen less than the National Insurance rates.

People read in the Press that they were to get a rise in their pensions of 10s. a week for a single person or 15s. a week for a married couple. It was a small rise and it was inadequate, but they thought they were to get it. First, they had to face the shock that if they had been getting a tobacco allowance that was to be deducted. Secondly, the poorest of all our retirement pensioners, on National Assistance, found that the rise they would get would be very much smaller.

I am not suggesting that National Assistance scales must always keep in step with National Insurance benefits, but I believe that in this instance there was a special case for it. The rises in the National Insurance benefits themselves were very small and they came very late. There was a time-lag of some two-and-three-quarter years between these recent increases and the last increases under the National Insurance Act. For some two years, between January, 1956, and January, 1958, the basic National Assistance scales had been at least the same as the basic benefits under the National Insurance Act; for a single person the figure was 40s. in both cases and for a married couple the Assistance rate was 67s., or 2s. better than the Insurance rate. There was, therefore, a strong case in this instance for saying that the new basic scale for National Assistance should be the same as for the National Insurance rates.

There are one or two smaller points which I want to mention very quickly. First, the right hon. Gentleman told me at Question Time today that about 75,000 retirement pensioners receiving National Assistance had fallen out of the National Assistance scales as a result of the new rates. He could not give a figure at the time for other recipients, but there must be some thousands of them.

I want to reinforce the point of the supplementary question that I put to him. There is a lot of confusion and doubt among these people. They know that since the end of last month they have fallen out of the National Assistance scales. I have had letters saying, "My rent is to go up in April. How am I to cope?" I therefore say that all of us, and particularly the National Assistance officers, must do our very best to remind people that if they have this rent increase in April, or after, they may again qualify for National Assistance, and should not hesitate to make inquiries.

Another part of the Supplementary Estimate refers to the non-contributory old-age pensioners. From the document that we have been given, we see that the number of pensioners has not fallen as much as was expected. I would point out to the Committee, however, that the number of pensioners receiving non-contributory pensions has, for some years, been falling by about 30,000 annually. Although I have not calculated the figure, I understand that it is now well below a quarter of a million. They are all over 70 years of age, and I believe about half of them are now over 80. The number is declining, and most of these elderly people are getting National Assistance grants in addition to this non-contributory pension.

I very strongly suggest that the time is approaching when the remaining few should be admitted into the main scheme. It is quite unnecessary, I believe, for their basic pension to be submitted to a means test. That is something to which these pensioners should not be submitted, and it is also a waste from the administrative point of view.

At the beginning of the statement on the Supplementary Estimate, we are told that the salaries and expenses have been increased, not only for the Board itself but for certain appeal tribunals. I would like to know whether the right hon. Gentleman has yet considered the point I raised in the debate on the Franks Report, that, for recipients of National Assistance, there should be some further method of appeal from the local appeal tribunals to the National Insurance Commissioner. This was a matter, amongst others, that Her Majesty's Government promised to consider—

The Temporary Chairman (Mr. H. Hynd)

The hon. Member would not be in order in pursuing that.

Mr. Prentice

Yes, I realise that, Mr. Hynd. I was skating in and out of the rules of order.

The Supplementary Estimate provides for another £410,000 for salaries, including higher pay, overtime, and the temporary engagement of extra staff. In so far as the overtime and engaging of extra staff are due to extra work caused by the Rent Act, that is another burden put on the taxpayer by that Act, and one that we resent. In so far as it represents increased reward for the officers of the Board for doing their proper work, I am sure that we are all glad that they have had increases, and that all hon. Members would wish to join me in paying a tribute to the work they do in caring for the sick and aged people.

In this country, at present, we have a number of unco-ordinated services. Some are run by local authorities, some by voluntary organisations and some by the State. Very often, there is a lack of liaison between them, and the very good National Assistance local officer does, in fact, act as a liaison officer, and does many things that are outside the narrow scope of his duties to put people in touch with sources from which they can obtain help.

That deserves all the praise and credit we can give to those officers. Indeed, I believe that the Rent Act itself is providing another opportunity for them to give advice. But, with the best will in the world, the staff of the Assistance Board can work only within the framework laid down by Parliament, and this Supplementary Estimate highlights two aspects of Government policy.

First, it highlights this enormous sum of money, to which I have tried to put a figure—and I am anxious to be told by the right hon. Gentleman just what the figure is—which is a subsidy, through the Board, to the landlords. Secondly, the Estimate highlights the inadequacy of the present National Assistance scales. The fact is that 76s. a week plus rent is not good enough for a married couple in these days, and it is the duty of us all to work for more generous policies towards about 2¼ million of the poorest and weakest in our community, to whom we have a special responsibility.

7.5 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Marshall (Bodmin)

The hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd), speaking of staff, said that there was difficulty from time to time in getting National Assistance officers immediately on the spot where their services were needed—at weekends and the like. It is only right and just, speaking from my own experience, to say that in and around south-east Cornwall I have found National Assistance officers ready and anxious at any time, and at all times, to deal with cases of need. I cannot speak for the whole United Kingdom, but in twelve years' experience of them, I have found among these officers some of the very best and most kindly of people, and people prepared to take action whenever necessary and wherever needed.

My right hon. Friend has done much to help in this pattern of life that all hon. Members have wanted to see; that is to say, to see that the "cushion" does not become lower, but higher, as it should when related to our standard of life. My right hon. Friend in relation to pensions and the rest at present provides a cushion higher than it has ever been in this country, and possibly higher than anything of the kind in the world. For that we should pay him a compliment, and this I do.

Having done that, I wish to support my hon. Friends and right hon. and hon. Members opposite on this question of the disregard. I cannot really see the argument against raising this level. If, indeed, the policy of Her Majesty's Government has been—and, I think, rightly—wherever possible to see that benefits, whether they be pension, National Assistance, supplements or the like are raised, then surely it cannot be a right policy utterly to disregard the disregard, because, in like manner, if the disregard figure was correct when it was first started, it cannot be right now.

In this I thoroughly support my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward), who made an excellent and detailed speech on this subject. Action here would help a great number of people who, as all hon. Members know perfectly well, are having a very tough time at present, and have had a very tough time for a great number of years unhder successive Governments of different political complexion.

My last point is one that has already been made, and I hope that the hon. Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice) will forgive me for giving further expression to his views. I refer to noncontributory old-age pensions. In page 173 of the document we have, there is the note: … the number of pensions has not fallen as much as was expected. If this is not just a rash guess, in which case it is valueless, one assumes that to be a good thing—that the health of those referred to has become better, and that their expectation of death—for that is what it means—has not been as high as expected. That is a good thing, but I believe that when the hon. Member for East Ham, North mentioned a figure of about a quarter of a million people that are involved he was about right, and, undoubtedly, as each year passes, this number is diminishing because of age. I should have thought that the Committee would benefit greatly if my right hon. Friend could at some time give us actual statistical information on the point, taking into account National Assistance required in order to make these pensions up to the level we now allow, that is to say, the £14 million raised to £14,350,000, at the same time letting us have the figure of what would be the cost to the nation should the noncontributory pension be by right instead of by National Assistance equal to the present ruling pension.

It is not that I wish to see amounts suddenly granted, in our present economic circumstances, but I am not aware of the exact figure and I should like to know what it is. I have a feeling that the figure might not be so very considerable. On the other hand, I feel that to work all these matters out for National Assistance award and see that they are correctly applied may in itself involve a very considerable sum, and the two figures taken together might present such a case that, provided we could agree to the principle, there might be something to be said for making up by right the non-contributory pension. I accept, of course, that my right hon. Friend cannot give me an answer off the cuff, but perhaps he will be kind enough to let me know what the figure would be, and, if it would interest other hon. Members in the Committee, perhaps he will be kind enough to put his answer in the Library so that it is available for all hon. Members.

7.11 p.m.

Mrs. E. M. Braddock (Liverpool, Exchange)

The matter I wish to raise is very difficult to sort out because of the way in which the Supplementary Estimate has been prepared. I agree with my hon. Friends who have said that it would be very much easier to deal with these things if we had had more detail. I find it difficult to know whether the figures to which I wish to call attention are included, or whether the Supplementary Estimate is insufficient to meet the additional charge on National Assistance which, so far as I can see, has been forgotten.

There are in the country many people, particularly aged people, living in hostel accommodation. If they are pensioners, the local authorities are able to make a deduction from their pensions. Until 27th January 32s. 6d. a week was deducted from the pension, leaving 7s. 6d. a week for the aged person in his own pocket. In respect of those not in receipt of pension and having no income at all who were chargeable to the National Assistance Board, the Board has been paying to the local authority the sum of 32s. 6d. a week, the same amount as was deducted from the pension of pensioners, and the Board has been paying to the individual 7s. 6d. a week for his own pocket. There has thus been no difference, until 27th January, in the amount paid to the local authority in each case and there has been no difference in the amount each has had in his pocket.

I understand that no instruction has been given by the Assistance Board to increase its payment to £2 per week, although local authorities are now empowered to take £2 a week from pensioners, leaving each individual 10s. The Board has arranged that those for whom it is responsible shall have an increase of 2s. 6d. a week so that anyone on National Assistance will have the same amount in his pocket as someone on pension. But local authorities have not been given the 7s. 6d. increase for people for whom the Assistance Board is responsible.

Is this an omission? I do not know whether it is included in the Supplementary Estimate. If it is not included, the Estimate is wrong. These payments have always been the responsibility of the Assistance Board, and it has always been arranged that the amounts paid to local authorities or retained by the individual should be the same whether they were pensioners or people who had no income. I have had difficulty in putting a Question to the Minister of National Insurance, because it was said that he was not answerable for National Assistance. I have had to put a Question to the Minister of Health, though what he has to do with it I do not know.

The Minister of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. John Boyd-Carpenter)

Perhaps I might say a word, to save the hon. Lady a little time. This is a matter which is dealt with by regulations which fall to be made not by me but my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health. No doubt, for that reason, it was suggested that if she wished to raise the matter, my right hon. Friend was the appropriate Minister.

Mrs. Braddock

May I have an explanation about it? It is not the Minister of Health who pays. The National Assistance Board pays. How can the matter be the responsibility of the Minister of Health? Does he make an application to the Assistance Board so that the Board shall pay the difference to the local authority in respect of those in local authority accommodation who are chargeable to the Board?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

My right hon. Friend makes the regulations which determine the amount to be paid to the local authority. I do not make those regulations.

Mrs. Braddock

Who is responsible for the Supplementary Estimate? That is the point? Is it the National Assistance Board which is responsible? If it is, is the figure included in this Supplementary Estimate?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I think I can help the hon. Lady again. The increase to 10s. is dealt with and covered by Subhead C.1. There is no provision for any payment to the local authority.

Mrs. Braddock

The Supplementary Estimate is wrong, then. If we had had details about what the Estimate covered, we should have known what the position was. If the Assistance Board must cover the cost, there should have been some reference in the Supplementary Estimate to what will have to be paid by the Board to local authorities to meet the extra 7s. 6d. a week necessary.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The hon. Lady will surely appreciate that it will be most inappropriate to ask Parliament to vote money in a Supplementary Estimate to implement regulations which have not, in fact, been made. I should have thought that was a matter which would cause considerable complaint.

Mrs. Braddock

I still must argue the point. Who makes the application and who makes the payment? We do not seem to be able to get any information about it. Will the Minister tell us now? I agree that it is a difficult situation; I have had to argue with the Table for some time. Nobody seems to know anything about it, and it seems to be another of these hopeless muddles into which the Government get now and again.

The Minister makes the requirement that £2 a week shall be deducted from the pension of those in receipt of pensions. Also, he makes the request that there shall be an additional payment of 2s. 6d. a week so that those in receipt of assistance shall have the same pocket money as those receiving insurance pensions. Why is not the increase in the amount which should be paid per week to local authorities included in the Estimate here, because the Assistance Board is responsible for covering that?

Does it amount to this, that it will not be paid, that because it is not included here there will be a difference between persons in receipt of assistance and persons in receipt of pensions? Does it mean that the local authority will be able or will be required, or might be asked in certain circumstances, to give less food to the person on National Assistance for whom only £1 12s. 6d. is paid than to the person in receipt of a pension who is paying £2? Does not the Minister see that the thing is lopsided.

The Temporary Chairman (Mr. H. Hynd)

I am afraid the hon. Lady has ruled herself out of order by proving that this item is not in the Supplementary Estimate.

Mrs. Braddock

I did not know that, Mr. Hynd. I am arguing that if the details had been given of what was included in this Supplementary Estimate, some of us might have known the situation better.

The Temporary Chairman

I appreciate that, but the hon. Lady will also appreciate that if it is not under Subhead C.1 she is not in order in arguing it at this stage.

Mrs. Braddock

The only way I am able to find out is by pressing the Minister to reply. He tells me that part of it is in the Estimate. The 2s. 6d. is in the Estimate, but the other is not. There is something wrong with an Estimate that does not give us the opportunity of knowing what the Estimate covers. We are entitled to a much fuller explanation than we have had about the situation, in view of the fact that nobody seems to be able to tell me anything about it. If I ask the Minister of Health, he will probably tell me that he does not deal with the Estimate and, therefore, it is nothing to do with him either. That is a very easy way of getting out of it; but I will pursue this matter until I do get some information, whoever it may upset and whoever gets into difficulty. I suggest that the Minister should have a look at it.

At the moment, the Minister is answering for the National Assistance Board on these Estimates. Somebody must be responsible for answering questions about any Supplementary Estimate. However, I am afraid that in view of the fact that this Supplementary Estimate does not cover it, I will have to leave the point. I have said what I want to say about it. Perhaps, if the details had been given, I would have been in order in making the remark that I made. But the Department must take responsibility for that.

There is just one other matter to which I wish to draw attention. In many instances where increases in rent have been allowed because of the Rent Act there have been difficulties, in my own local authority. Sometimes, because the income going into the house is low, when the tenant receives the additional amount from the National Assistance Board he does not pay the rent with it and he gets into difficulties. I agree with the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward). People do get into difficulties under those circumstances. I have endeavoured, when this situation has been created, to persuade the National Assistance Board in Liverpool to ensure that that temptation is not put in people's way. Then people who cannot pay that amount of rent do not get into arrears and are consequently not faced with eviction. The rent should be paid direct to the landlord or local authority so that the tenant always has a roof over his head. This is important where people are short of money—and they are short of money. They should be made to take the rent book to the Board, and the Board would then give them the amount that should be paid.

That matter needs looking into. We shall have a great deal more of it because of the increases in rent that are taking place. The National Assistance Board ought to take every step to make it, not as hard and difficult as possible, but as easy as possible for the person who finds it difficult to cope with a difficult financial situation. The Board's officers in these circumstances should be given instructions, so that, instead of sending people in a roundabout way to have their rent paid, their rent can be paid direct and their books from the Board be marked direct by the landlord. In view of the fact that I cannot pursue the other matter, those are the two items to which I wished to refer. I hope that notice will be taken of them.

7.25 p.m.

Mr. A. E. Hunter (Feltham)

I am pleased to follow the hon. Lady the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock), because I know that she takes enormous interest in the old-age pensioners, in the unemployed and sick persons. Therefore, in intervening very briefly tonight, I want to raise one or two major points. National Assistance is always of paramount importance because it affects the human needs of the people. Therefore, knowing that so many people are affected by National Assistance, I want to direct the attention of the Minister to a number of points affecting the lives of the aged, sick and disabled persons.

This Supplementary Estimate has arisen because the Board has spent more money. I am sure that a number of hon. Members on both sides are pleased that the Board is spending more money on National Assistance. It is true that a great deal of this money will go in rent increases which will not affect the standard of life of those in receipt of National Assistance. It will go to the benefits of the landlords, but will at least remove the worry of the rent increases from those receiving National Assistance, which includes many old-age pensioners and sick persons.

Special grants were mentioned by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary when she spoke earlier this evening. I regard this as a matter of great importance. Those on National Assistance get a bare minimum standard. They get enough to meet their needs of life plus their rent. One of the great worries, especially among old people, is the replacement of articles and the need at times for new blankets, bedding and new sheets. I know that that point was raised by the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) when she referred to the case of a board making a cash payment but the blankets and sheets were not bought. They are only isolated instances. If one were to pick out isolated instances in other parts of the service, one could always find isolated instances of that type.

There is a need, especially with old people, for the replacement of articles, such as sheets, blankets, and also articles of clothing and shoes and even kitchen utensils. Anybody on a flat scale of National Assistance plus rent will not have much left over for blankets and sheets or for the replacement of other articles I have mentioned. Even two people receiving the top scale of the National Assistance Board would find great difficult in replacing the household necessities they must have to maintain a decent standard of life. Could not the National Assistance Board also pay the fares of old-age pensioners who visit relations in the country or want to go to the seaside for a holiday?

Another point which was raised by hon. Members was the duties and work of the National Assistance Board. Let no hon. Member think that persons rush to National Assistance directly they are in need. My experience has been in my constituency that I have often had difficulty in persuading old people to apply for a supplementary pension, when I have visited them in their homes for that purpose. So let no one imagine that there is a great rush all the time by old people to the National Assistance Board.

The Board does its work very fairly. I have nothing but praise for its work in my constituency. Theirs is a very humane system and their officers show courtesy and kindness to applicants. I can remember a very different system. I can remember when I was a very young man serving on a board of guardians back in 1925. Very often those boards of guardians were not guardians of the poor. They were often very far from that. I have seen a great change. I have seen a humane welfare system brought in by the National Assistance Board. I am sure it will do what it can to help the old people, the sick people, the people in need, within the limits of its powers. We on this side of the Committee have always maintained that poverty is no crime, that poverty often is due only to misfortune in life. Anything we can do to make yet more humane the work of the National Assistance Board will be not only for social welfare, but for the good and the credit of the people of this country generally.

7.31 p.m.

Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Itchen)

I want first to echo the plea which has been made by a number of hon. Members on both sides of the Committee to the Minister to look very closely into the matter of the disregards. It is not a question of principle because the principle of disregards has been accepted from the beginning of National Assistance. We have admitted all along that we want to recognise the thrift of those who have managed to save a little; we have admitted all along that we want to exempt to some extent the income due to some disability. What has happened is that the amount of the disregards has been frozen throughout years of rising prices. In so far as we freeze it we depart from the principle we recognised at the beginning.

I would hope that the Minister in the months ahead would give this matter very serious consideration. Particularly I would suggest that, if he has to narrow the scope of his relief, he should increase the disregard for income which is derived on account of some disability. Hon. Friends of mine on this side of the Committee can tell the Minister moving stories of people who have suffered some industrial disability and who have on that account received a very meagre pension but whose pension has reduced their benefits from National Assistance.

I would remind the Committee of what the hon. Gentleman the Member for Barry (Mr. Gower) and the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward), neither of whom is here at the moment, spoke of—that there are people just above the group with whom we are dealing in this Supplementary Estimate: the not quite so poor who bear the full blast of rent increases and rate increases and inflation on their own shoulders, those on small fixed incomes Where I would disagree with the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth is that I would not include the landlords amongst them. There may be one or two landlords with small incomes. I doubt whether the number of them is very great. No one could include landlords now in the group of those with small fixed incomes because landlords' incomes have been increased by the Rent Act.

We are dealing now in this Supplementary Estimate with the poorest of the poor. I would commend to the Committee the excellent Report last year of the National Assistance Board, the Report which analyses the groups who depend upon National Assistance. I do not propose to go into that in detail now, but I shall make a passing reference to it again in a moment. We are dealing in the Supplementary Estimate with what I may call the 2s. 8d. supplement, because we are giving to the poorest people of the country 2s. 8d. through the Estimate if they smoke; if they do not, 5s. is given to them.

Nobody on this side of the Committee, indeed, nobody in the Committee at all, grudges the Supplementary Estimate. A Minister of Pensions has a very easy task with any Supplementary Estimate in being able to count on the support of the majority of both sides. If we on this side had been in power this Supplementary Estimate would have been bigger. We are pledged to raise the basic pension rate and to raise the rate below which nobody in the country shall go to a higher figure than that which at present is in operation. The least we should have done would have been what we have pleaded with the Minister to do—make the National Assistance scale rise pro rata, at this moment at any rate, with the basic pension. In so far as this Supplementary Estimate does not make the provision that I believe we should have made it is very much less than that which we ought to be considering tonight.

This is no easy matter, this relation of the basic to the supplementary. We have to argue from time to time the need for a higher basic pension as of right. On the other hand, in difficult times like these, when the rise in the cost of living bears heavily, the regret I express is that this Estimate does not contain enough to give to the 2s. 8d. pensioner the full rise envisaged in the basic pension.

I would emphasise that the poor are no better off for the millions of pounds which are to be found through this Supplementary Estimate. As I have listened to the debate there has been ringing in the back of my mind—I wish I could cite the words exactly—an echo of a remark made by the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) in his good old Liberal days sixty years ago when he talked about the Tories putting their hands into the public purse. Most of the money provided by the Supplementary Estimate, far from going to the poorest people, is going to the landlords. The poor are no better off and this is because of deliberate acts of the Government. The bulk of this increase goes to meet a need which would not have arisen if it had not been for the legislation passed by the present Government.

The Minister referred to the increased work put in by the Assistance Board's staff, work which has necessitated a certain amount of overtime. I want to congratulate the Minister and the staff on that extra work on the part of the Department which brought in these benefits of the new scales faster than any which have ever been brought in before in the history of this country. I think the Minister can rightly congratulate himself on the speed with which he brought the new benefits into operation, and if that speed is reflected in the extra work on the part of the staff for which we have to pay, I am certain that this extra money will be regarded by the Committee as worth while.

However, I have also to say again that the bulk of this extra work is because of the policy of the Government. What has given the National Assistance Board people their biggest headaches has been the varying increases in rents and rates. It would have been much easier to have moved the whole of the group and the National Assistance to a given scale, and that would have been done had it not been for the fact that there are all kinds of rent increases and rate increases to meet. Thus for some of the extra work which has been done by the Department the Government are responsible directly.

I want to join in the tribute which has been paid in this debate and in several of our annual debates to the work of the National Assistance Board. I praise especially its kindly and humane use of the discretionary powers to which the Joint Parliamentary Secretary referred and above all, I recognise the great comfort and relief which it has brought and the advice it has given to the poor people who have suffered most from the Government's shocking Rent Act.

I would ask those people who worry about the expense of the Welfare State what would have happened to the worst-off 100,000 families or, from the Minister's own figure, the worst-off 250,000 families had it not been for the protection given by the Welfare State. Whatever we think about the Rent Act, everybody must agree that the National Assistance Board, with its extra expenditure this year, has stood between the poor of the country and the vicious and harmful effect which the Rent Act might have had upon them.

But I think that this shield of the Welfare State and of National Assistance will break down when it comes to people who must be affected next October. It is true that the Board can pay the extra rent which the landlords will demand, but no National Assistance will be able to render anything in the way of comfort to the poor and the old when they are turned out of their houses next October. I suppose that, having been evicted from their homes, they will have to be re-housed at extra rent which will have to be met from a further Supplementary Estimate.

I come, therefore, to the hard core of the debate, which is the impact of the Rent Act on National Assistance. At Question Time today, we heard that the Minister believes that it is right that the State should meet the extra charge to landlords in respect of the poorer people. He argued that, if that is not so, the Socialists want the poor landlord to bear the cost himself of providing charity for the poor tenant. I do not want to argue the merits of the Rent Act

The Temporary Chairman (Sir Robert Grimston)

I am afraid that I should have to stop the hon. Member if he did.

Dr. King

I agree, Sir Robert, although several hon. Members have discussed it at much greater length than I proposed to do.

The House of Commons and the Committee differ about the Rent Act, but we ought to be united about the worst landlords, about whom I want to speak in connection with this Supplementary Estimate. I would ask the Minister how far National Assistance will subsidise legally exorbitant rents. There are three-quarters of a million decontrolled houses for which it is legally possible for the landlords to charge what they like. In reply to the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. F. Harris), who spoke about my hon. Friends' dislike of landlords, I would say that a wicked landlord is the kind who was revealed to me last week by a constituent whose rent has been raised from 31s. to over £5 a week. The good landlord has kept to the kind of figure prescribed for controlled houses.

I want to know how far National Assistance is to meet exorbitant and fantastically increased rent if that rent is legal and if a person who is on National Assistance is in a house which is decontrolled. Are there people on National Assistance, living in decontrolled property, whose increase in rent has not been met? If there are people whose rent increases have not been met entirely, on what basis does the Minister make his judgment as to how far he will pay the increased rent?

The Committee, and certainly the whole of the Opposition, are agreed that we have no alternative but to meet the increased rent charges which poor people have to face. One of my hon. Friends tried to work out how much of the Supplementary Estimate was due to increased rent being met by National Assistance. I tried to work out the problem in another way. If the average increase in rent which National Assistance has had to meet since the Rent Act came into operation is 4s. a week, then the 250,000 people who, according to the Minister's own figures, are having rent increases met by National Assistance, account for about £2½ million a year. If the average increase in rent is 10s.—and it cannot be that yet but it may be by April—the increased rent charges met by National Assistance will be about £10 million a year. I deplore not that any reasonable increase in rent is met but, with all my heart, that the State in some cases is subsidising utterly exorbitant rents which should never have been levied.

I am glad that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary referred to re-establishment centres. I pay tribute to their work and remind the Committee that, accordingly to the analysis made in last year's Report by the National Assistance Board, the bulk of people on National Assistance are the old and the sick, the maimed, the widowed and the fatherless, but perhaps not the blind because they have their own place carved out securely in the Welfare State. As to the work-shy, I am sorry that the hon. Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) is not here, because I would have reminded her that the number of people who misuse their National Assistance benefit is exceedingly small.

Last year's Report breaks down into groups, one by one, the worth-while people who are cared for by the Welfare State under National Assistance. The Report shows that only an infinitesimally small residue, a handful of people only, were really battening or trading on the Welfare State. The re-establishment centres are trying to do what their name implies. I am sure that the Committee wishes them well in their efforts to make worth-while citizens of people who otherwise would be prepared to drift and live on the Welfare State.

I should also like to refer to the help which the State has given through the Supplementary Estimate to Hungarian refugees, and I join in the tributes paid to voluntary associations on the noble work which they have done for them. I take this opportunity of saying, in passing, that I do not think that many people in the Committee share the opinion expressed last week that the United Nations Report on Hungary should be withdrawn. That episode, indeed, was a bitter tragedy in which men and women lost everything because they sought to preserve or regain their way of life in Hungary. We can be proud of what the voluntary organisations in our country did for those refugees, and we congratulate the Minister on his own part in helping those victims of totalitarianism.

It has been pointed out several times in the debate that three factors are involved in the total cost of the Supplementary Estimate. Some people have been turned off the National Assistance scale. It would be interesting to know how many people no longer seek National Assistance because the scale of basic benefits has been raised. What it really means is that all who were getting less than 5s. a week National Assistance at the time of the raising of the basic pension rate automatically come off this scale. Some new people are coming on, and it would be interesting to know how many people the Rent Act has already made partly account for the second figure of new people coming on to National Assistance.

I hope that all poor persons who have had a rent increase know that if in previous times they have been just above National Assistance level, it may be that the first rent increase brings them to the level at which they can be helped, or it may mean that the rent increase coming for some of them in April may bring them in. I hope that those in charge of National Assistance will see that nobody in poverty escapes the help which the State is prepared to give.

I end what I wanted to say about the Supplementary Estimate by saying that, little as we grudge the sums involved here, all hon. Members on this side of the Committee would have been much happier if the entire sum we are spending in this Supplementary Estimate was really going to those in the country who deserve it most, that is, apart from the amount devoted to the normal wage and salary increases and overtime of the Ministry's staff. It is because some of it is going to people who do not really need it that we vote this Supplementary Estimate with regret tonight.

7.52 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)

When Ministers present Supplementary Estimates before the House, we take it that they are short of money and that their Departments have not enough money to see them through the financial year. I assume that this Supplementary Estimate is based on a combination of two factors: first, an unexpected rise in the benefits which have to be paid; secondly, an un- expected increase in the number of persons who are entitled to benefit under the National Assistance Regulations.

I hope that whatever the ingredients of the amounts asked for, they are enough to see the National Assistance Board through to the end of the financial year without a niggardly approach to benefits, and especially to discretionary payments. I hope that the ghost of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Monmouth (Mr. P. Thorneycroft) did not flit across the room when the Minister was giving his final approval to this Supplementary Estimate, because we do not want the Board to be the victim of an economy campaign in payments which will represent the difference between hardship and a tolerable life for those whose interests the National Assistance Board must serve.

I want to comment on the noncontributory old-age pensioners who come in the Supplementary Estimate under Item B. The two reasons for this Supplementary Estimate appear to be, first, that the non-contributory pensioners have not died off as quickly as was expected; secondly, that they are the recipients of the mean-spirited, small addition to their benefits on account of the loss of the tobacco concession. I think we have treated the noncontributory pensioners disgracefully, and that applies to both sides of the House of Commons. We have left their means test on the same basis as 1948, and their benefits the same.

As was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice), there are now only 250,000 non-contributory pensioners. They are dying off more rapidly than new applicants are reaching the age of 70. They are the very aged in the land, 48 per cent. of them being over 80 and 5 per cent. of them over 90. Most of them are denied the contributory pension only because they or their husbands were excluded from the scope of even voluntary insurance before the new scheme of 1948. They were shopkeepers, people in business on their own, retired clergymen and professional men. They are those who have fallen on bad times or whose resources, adequate at one time, are inadequate today to maintain them in any reasonable standard of comfort. It is shocking that we leave them out of improved benefits except to compensate them to the extent of 2s. 4d. a week for the loss of their tobacco concession.

I would not go so far as my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, North and the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bodmin (Mr. D. Marshall), who suggested that we should blanket them into the contributory scheme. That would amount to granting a retirement pension on reaching the age of 70, irrespective of contributions and irrespective of need. I would not go as far as that at this moment without much more thought as to what would be the implications of such a proposal. Yet there is no reason why the level of pension should not be brought up to the present figure, and there is no reason why there should not be some relaxation of the means test, having regard to the differences in the value of money between 1948 and today. I leave that point there.

As far disregards, as they are commonly called—those amounts which the National Assistance Board ignores wholly or in part when calculating need—there again there is a case for review, as several hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have mentioned. The £375 National Savings Certificates which can be disregarded ought now to be at least £550. The 20s. of the disability pension should now be 29s. The amount of capital entirely disregarded should not be the miserable figure of £50 any longer, it should be £75 or more. Indeed, one can translate all the disregards of 1948 into current terms and find that they should be increased substantially to bring them only on a level with the value of those disregards in 1948.

Now I come to the third of the principal issues that we have been discussing this afternoon, the relationship between the operation of the Rent Act and the need for increased National Assistance grants. For the purpose of what I have to say, I shall restrain myself and inflict no emotion on the Committee about the Rent Act. I will express no resentment about it at this juncture. I will accept it as a fact. The Rent Act is law, it is in operation, and we now have to deal with the consequences for the National Assistance beneficiaries.

When a law has been passed which gives landlords generally certain additional legal claims upon their tenants, I do not think we can expect landlords to adjust their demands to whether their tenants are old-age pensioners, retired people, recipients of National Assistance grants or anything else. That is too much to expect of landlords. Their tenants are tenants. The landlords have rights as regards increased rents and I have no doubt that the bulk will claim them.

All right, that is the position with which we have to deal. This is the crucial point of the debate today: how far should the National Assistance Board insist on an applicant or a recipient pressing his rights as a citizen in matters relating to a demand which may have to be met in whole or in part by an Assistance grant? Following that, how far should the National Assistance Board itself pursue the rights of an applicant in the event of the unwillingness or failure of the applicant to do so himself? That is a very important question. It has never arisen in this context on anything like the scale on which it arises now. Various estimates have been made, but my estimate of what the National Assistance Board will have to meet in increased rents is as much as £20 million a year. That is a very large sum for the National Assistance Board to have to meet in demands from private landlords.

In these circumstances, it seems to me that the National Assistance Board has an especial duty to discharge in relation to the public interest. The question has been raised whether a National Assistance grant should be given for a rent increase demanded by a landlord without being satisfied that it is proper, just and legal. Here may I refer to the fact that in making other grants the National Assistance Board has power already under Sections 43 and 44 of the National Assistance Act to the extent to which separated wives are in the increased estimate of £4,600,000. Here the National Assistance Board insists on the separated wife pursuing what rights she has against her husband, or if she fails or is unwilling, the Board has the right to pursue the husband itself.

In regard to separated wives and the maintenance of legitimate and even illegitimate children, the National Assistance Board has the power under the Act to stand in behind the citizen and pursue his or her rights under the law so that an unnecessary charge on public funds shall not result.

What is the Minister prepared to do on similar lines in the matter before us this evening? It is true, of course, that something of the kind has happened before. After all, those in receipt of National Assistance grants occupying pre-1914 houses which were controlled were due to pay a 40 per cent. increase permitted by the Rent Acts during World War I only subject to maintaining the house in a reasonable state of repair. There was always that qualification about the rent increase, even after the 1939 Rent Act. There was always that qualification in connection with the 40 per cent. addition to the pre-1914 rent.

Therefore, the National Assistance Board has always had an indirect interest in granting amounts for rent to those beneficiaries living in pre-1914 controlled houses, but the numbers were probably small, or, if the numbers were not small, the amount involved was not large, or other reasons may have reduced the importance of this matter as an item in the National Assistance Board's payments.

Now, this is a bird of a very different colour indeed, and I think it is necessary now, because these rent increases will be continuous and disputes may arise from time to time on whether a house has been maintained in a proper state of repair. It is important that public money should not be paid out to landlords who are not discharging their legal obligations, through the indifference or unwillingness of the tenant—the recipient of National Assistance—to pursue his or her rights as a citizen.

I realise that this is probably putting upon the National Assistance Board a function which it would rather not have, but, after all, the Board is the custodian of very large sums of public money. It is going to spend more public money—and more in this particular direction—than it has ever spent before. In these circumstances, I think the Minister must seriously consider putting the National Assistance Board in a position to defend the public interest in this matter. It is not enough, I submit, merely to coax the tenant to go to the citizens' advice bureau or such other advisory services as may be available.

Some of these landlords are tough, and they need tough tenants to enforce their rights against them. One has only to study the Rent Act to see the tortuous procedure which a tenant may have to go through eventually to enforce his rights. It is only human nature, after all, that old people, poor people, may feel that they have neither the health, the strength nor the resources to fight the landlord, because if there is a county court action, presumably the National Assistance Board will not come in to pay costs. I think this is a serious matter which the National Assistance Board and the Minister should now consider.

If an applicant for National Assistance produces a small dividend voucher on taxed income, and says, "I get only £2 10s. because 30s. is taken off for tax," would not the National Assistance Board officer suggest that the thing to do about the tax taken off was to claim it back? Surely, National Assistance Board officers are hound to be pretty well informed on all matters likely to affect the lives of those whom they may have to interview, whose affairs they have to sort out, and whose needs they have to determine?

The Minister said that officers of the National Assistance Board are not experts in these matters. That may be, but there would be no difficulty in the National Assistance Board gathering together either in the regions or at headquarters a nucleus of people who are experts. After all, every Government Department has bodies of experts at headquarters, and every Government Department has a solicitor, accountant, actuaries and so forth. I am quite sure that the guidance which local officers might need in this connection could be given from the centre or from the regions. Anyhow, I have laboured the point enough, but I think it is the crux of this debate.

It is no good hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the Committee at this stage thinking that the Rent Act can be adjusted to the position of National Assistance beneficiaries. If it is done that way, it will only be done out of the goodwill and humanity of landlords. Presumably, the law will not be altered, so that we have to deal with things as they are, and the National Assistance Board will meet the rent increases, whether wholly or wholly as far as is reasonable, which is an open point. The bulk of the rent increases will be met by grants from the National Assistance Board.

It is very important that demands should not be made on tenants who are National Assistance beneficiaries which could not be sustained against other tenants, whose own interests, in most cases, would lead them to scrutinise the legality of the demand, the basis upon which it was calculated, and also go into the whole question of the state of repair of the house and all the complicated paraphernalia of certificates of disrepair. I hope that before the debate ends we shall hear something more from the Minister about whether he will equip the Board with weapons for the defence of the national interest in order to protect National Assistance beneficiaries who are tenants from unjust and illegal demands from landlords.

8.10 p.m.

Sir Keith Joseph (Leeds, North-East)

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton). He has made an exceptionally convincing, strong and cogent speech. I apologise to my right hon. Friend and to hon. Gentlemen and hon. Ladies on both sides of the Committee for not having been here for the first part of the debate. I have heard the last three or four speeches. I regret that I was unavoidably absent earlier.

I have three comments and two points of my own to make. First of all, having heard in silence the views of hon. Members opposite about the Rent Act, I hope I may be heard in silence while I quickly give my own views. I and my hon. Friends believe that as there is now more room per head of the population than we have ever had, statistically, before, there will after a short shuffling period be no housing problem in the country thanks to the Rent Act. I believe that the landlords, and any bad landlords that there may be, will shortly be subjected to the discipline of empty accommodation if they try to charge too much for bad dwellings.

Having said that, and I am grateful for the silence in which it has been heard, I wish to comment upon the strong case which the hon. Member for Sowerby has made that the National Assistance Board should not pay any, as he said, legal but extortionate rents. The hon. Member is wishing on the Board a very large administrative burden. He says—if I may say so for once—glibly enough, that every Government Department has its solicitor. That is so, but here we are talking about many hundreds of areas, and it would be a gift to the legal profession if in each area at the whim of every tenant on the National Assistance scale all the machinery of legal action had to be started up.

I wish to put a question of my own to the Minister. I want to know whether in cases where a tenant who is drawing a National Assistance allowance has to move, either because the Board will not pay all the extra rent or for some other reason, the Board will help with the cost of moving the family. If it were known that families had the alternative of staying where they were and meeting part of the additional rent or moving at the expense of the Board to other accommodation where their rents would not be at the same level, I feel that this would bring a certain amount of comfort to people in those very few cases where the rents may rise and it may be questioned, by them or the Board, whether the new level of rent is proper.

It is not proper for hon. Members on either side of the Committee to imagine that the Board has not had plenty of experience of rising rents. I am making no party point when I say that council house rents have been adjusted upwards consistently since the war and there are many families on National Assistance who have had constantly to have their extra rent met by the Board following legitimate council rent increases.

If I am pursuing the question of the proper or improper use of public funds for these purposes, what about councils which refuse to establish differential rent schemes in order to reduce the burden on the poor and old by making those who are less poor and less old pay more? Is not that a burden upon public funds which councils should mitigate?

Mr. Hunter

Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind that many councils have special old people's flats and bungalows at special rents?

Sir K. Joseph

Gladly; but there are many councils which have not yet, despite all the urging, established differential rent schemes.

Mr. Mitchison

Is not the hon. Gentleman aware that the Government have always taken the line that this was a matter for the councils themselves?

Sir K. Joseph

Indeed; I am not questioning that. It is to the councils that I am venturing to speak at the moment. I know that my right hon. Friend does not control them.

I agree with the hon. Member for Itchen (Dr. King), who spoke of the very sad effects that the Rent Act must have on those whose income puts them just above the National Assistance Board scale. I realise that we cannot discuss their position on this Supplementary Estimate, but I wanted to say that I agree with what the hon. Member said.

I turn now to the question of disregards. It is ironically interesting that the argument for stepping up the level of disregards to take account of the changed value of money is precisely the same argument as that used to say that the level at which Surtax starts to be levied should also be stepped up. Having said that, I recognise, as I am sure we all do, that if we desire to focus the public money devoted to National Assistance upon those people who need it most, then there is an argument for keeping the disregards at their present level in order to benefit those who need the money most. I bring this point out only as one side of the dilemma with which the Government are faced in coming to a decision.

Mr. Houghton

Would the hon. Gentleman abolish them altogether in order to save a little more?

Sir K. Joseph

Indeed no. I said this was part of the dilemma. We have to judge the best compromise.

The hon. Member for Sowerby questioned the propriety of "blanketing-in" the tens of thousands of people who cannot take part in the present insurance scheme. He said he was sorry for them and that they had been hurt by the falling value of money, but he questioned the propriety of blanketing them in, independent of their contributions or of their means. It is pathetic that so many tens of thousands of our fellow citizens should see the bargain that National Insurance brings to people some of whom will have paid only £100 in contributions by the time they retire, when they will get what in the commercial world would be worth £2,500. I am not denying that those people should get it, but it is tantalising for those who cannot be included in the scheme.

As to the remarks of the hon. Member for Sowerby about means, we are approaching the time when late entrants—some of them may be millionaires—will receive a pension as of right and regardless of means. I do not follow the hon. Member's exclusion of the people not included in our pension scheme because of their contributions or means. The plain fact is that they have been beaten by the date.

Mr. Houghton

I did not say that I would exclude them. I said that I was not prepared without further consideration of all the implications to go so far as two hon. Gentleman have gone in the debate. I may be criticised for caution, but not for inhumanity.

Sir K. Joseph

I accept what the hon. Gentleman said.

I now go on to make two points of my own. First, I would draw attention to a very admirable book called "Family Life in Bethnal Green" which has just been written by Mr. Peter Townsend. The book throws a good deal of very welcome light on the allegation that many people refuse and will not draw their supplementary pension. We hear it bandied about on all sides that there are people who are so proud that they will not draw their supplementary pension. I freely admit that there may be a few such people.

Mr. Townsend shows that there are large numbers of people in Bethnal Green who would be entitled to their supplementary pension, or so it appears, but they do not draw it because they are getting constant help from their faithful family. I find this a comforting fact. These are people who prefer—Mr. Townsend produces the most moving instances—to use their small capital and to continue the reciprocal benefits that they and their families can get from each other before they go to the Board. This is, surely, as we would wish.

My plea arises from Mr. Townsend's book. I should like to know from the Minister to what extent the officers of the Board can help to combat the enormously increasing misery of loneliness from which so many people who are subject to National Assistance grants suffer. Mr. Townsend's book gives many examples of the scourge that loneliness is. He produces case after case of people who have become almost completely indifferent to money, having sunk so low in the human scale that they are insensitive to hunger and cold—instances are given of this—because they were not rescued from their isolation early enough in life. They are the poorest of the poor, not necessarily financially, but because they have no families close to them geographically.

Can the Minister tell us whether old people are visited by officers of the Board? I realise that these officers are already working overtime in the fulfilment of their normal duties, but I cannot find any details of such visits in the Report. Can my right hon. Friend tell us whether in any of these schemes, such as that for elderly people in Salford, or other schemes run by old people's welfare committees, officers of the Board cooperate in endeavours to root out—that is the wrong expression—to discover, to point out, the lonely before they become desperately sad cases of neglect and illness?

The future for the National Assistance scale is, I hope, that as time and circumstances permit it will draw further ahead of and above the basic pension level. If the National Assistance Board scale plus rent is itself the sole means of support of the family, whereas the pension is, we hope, in many cases only one of the means of support of the pensioner, we must look forward to the National Assistance Board scale reflecting ever higher standards of living for those who need that support.

8.25 p.m.

Mr. E. Fernyhough (Jarrow)

The last few words of the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) have been echoed by hon. Members on this side of the Committee on many occasions. Had the hon. Member taken part in our debates last November, he would have known how hard we pressed the Minister then to do what he hopes will be done in the future. We shall look forward to the support of the hon. Member whenever there are opportunities to press the Minister on this matter.

Hon. Members opposite have tended to regard hon. Members on this side of the Committee as being against the granting of the Supplementary Estimates for the National Assistance Board because we have argued that most of the money is for rent increases which we consider cannot be legally or morally justified. That is far from the truth. The hon. Member for Leeds, North-East apologised for not having been present during the whole of the debate. He need not have apologised. There are 300 of his hon. Friends who have not attended this debate. They seldom grace the Chamber with their presence when we are discussing National Assistance. One or two may pop in and pop out again; but, generally speaking, hon. Members opposite are indifferent to such debates. Today more have taken part in the proceedings than has been the case for a long time. Perhaps that is because some of them are very interested in the prospects and prosperity of the landlords.

The comparison has been made that we have never complained when National Assistance has been increased following an increase in the rent of a council house tenant. That is because we know that the rent charged would be only the economic rent and that the house would be kept in a good state of repair. We have no such guarantee in the case of a private landlord who increases the tenant's rent and makes it necessary for the tenant to seek National Assistance.

Sir K. Joseph

Will the hon. Member meet the point I made about a differential rent scheme? Does he think it right that a council should charge the same rent to all its tenants?

The Temporary Chairman (Sir Robert Grimston)

Order. I do not think that we can enter into an argument about the differential rent scheme. It is in order to relate the Rent Act to National Assistance, but hon. Members must not go beyond that.

Mr. Fernyhough

In any case, Sir Robert, there is a simple answer to the hon. Member which I will give to him privately.

I doubt whether a council would be permitted to charge more than the economic rent, but we know that it is possible under the Rent Act for a landlord to charge more than an economic rent and we are concerned that the National Assistance Board should not too readily be the victim of avaricious landlords. We seek to protect public money but not for a single moment are we against these payments. We know that if the rent increases have to be met out of the niggardly and miserable amount represented by National Assistance today, it will mean considerable hardship and almost unrelieved poverty for some people.

My hon. Friends have referred to the question of disregards and I wish to emphasise what they have said. In November the Minister announced, with a flourish of trumpets, that he had given a 15s. increase in the pension of married couples, a 6s. 6d. increase in the hardship allowance and 15s. a week increase for industrial injuries and 100 per cent. personal disability. I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman realises what is happening to men who expected to receive some of this benefit. I should like to illustrate the case.

A man is injured while working in a mine. He was earning £15 a week but straight away he receives only an Industrial Injuries benefit. After six months an assessment is made and the man goes on to disablement benefit. After eighteen months, because he is disabled and cannot get light work, he has exhausted his unemployment benefit and has to go to the National Assistance Board. The hon. Member for Leeds, North-East was talking about being very careful how we increased disregards and I hope he will listen to the details of this case because the number of such cases is growing, as is inevitable, following the refusal of the Minister to extend the rate of unemployment benefit.

A man unable to get a job because of his disability and in receipt of disability pension would get £4 for himself and his wife. As a 50 per cent. Industrial Injuries pensioner he would get £2 and a hardship allowance of 34s., making a total of £7 14s. That sacrifice is big enough for a man who had been earning £12 or £15 a week unemployment benefit. To have his income reduced to half because he is maimed and crippled is bad enough. But what happens when his unemployment benefit is exhausted and he goes to another Department of the same Ministry?

The National Assistance Board says, "You may be getting an Industrial Injuries pension of £2; you may be getting 34s. hardship allowance, but, so far as we are concerned, all that is wiped out except for £1." He gets £1 plus 76s. plus rent. In other words, if he was paying £1 a week rent, his income drops from £7 14s. to £5 16s. I ask the right hon. Gentleman how in the name of fortune he can justify this. Can he appreciate the bitterness that this is causing particularly in the mining communities where most of the men find that there is no light work available and where, having suffered and been maimed in the service of their industry, they find that because of the lowness of the disregard of the National Assistance Board, they get lower down in the poverty scale.

The first real national basis for the determination of need was introduced not in 1948 but in 1943. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) will remember that. I refer to the Supplementary Pensions Determination of Need and Assessment of Needs Regulations, 1943. Those Regulations are little different from the Regulations of 1955. In other words, despite the ever-decreasing value of money, the amounts have remained pretty much the same. It is perfectly true to say that if these disregards were brought into line with those which were first introduced in 1943, the type of man to whom I have referred would be getting more than he is receiving now.

The one redeeming feature of this debate has been the unanimity in this matter, the fact that those Members who have spoken from the benches opposite have reinforced the pleas of my hon. Friends that the Supplementary Pensions Determination of Need and Assessment of Needs Regulations should be amended. In view of that unanimity, I should like to think that the Minister will be prepared to consider the matter. Surely it cannot be his purpose to cause unnecessary bitterness in the industrial centres throughout the country. Every case of this kind which arises adds a little more to the discontent.

These men are in the position of victims of war, who are affected by circumstances over which they have no control. They have been maimed, injured and crippled; their standard of living is reduced when they draw Industrial Injuries benefit, and it is further reduced when, having exhausted their unemployment benefit, they have to have recourse to the National Assistance Board. The numbers will grow and the discontent will grow. I hope the Minister will try tonight to give us a little more reassurance on this matter than he was able to give me at Question Time today.

8.35 p.m.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

The matter we are dealing with is of very considerable importance. The Government are asking this Committee to pass an additional sum of £5½ million in respect of expenditure of the National Assistance Board. At first sight, that is something with which no one could quarrel. I can already hear the voices on the hustings at Kelvingrove saying, "It is just a few weeks ago since the Conservatives went to the House of Commons and asked for another £5½ million to spend on the poorest of the poor of this country."

That is how it looks at first sight; there is no doubt about that. The hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) expressed a certain amount of concern and disappointment at the change of tone in this debate. Usually, when we are dealing with matters of assistance which affect the poorest of the poor, those who through no fault of their own are thrown on the resources of the State, there is ungrudging generosity on both sides of the House. The difficulty the hon. Lady was in was the difficulty which many Conservatives have been in, that they have never looked at the Estimate. With your permission, Sir Gordon, I propose to do that, and to look closely at it.

The first thing the Government have to do is to justify the figures which are given. We are entitled to agree to the Estimate only provided we are satisfied that the figures have been adequately justified and will benefit those concerned. We can only do that on the amount of information we get. I shall have a certain amount of criticism to make in relation to that. Meanwhile, I will say one kind thing about the Parliamentary Secretary who introduced these Estimates. It was an absolute model of introduction of Estimates for every single item except the one that really mattered. She went through them carefully, justified them step by step and broke up the amounts, except for one on which she said, "I will keep Subhead C.1 to the end." It was not a case of good wine being kept to the end on this occasion.

What we have heard has not been a reflection of the generosity of the Government, but a record of the consequences of Tory financial folly and failure. I am not surprised that very few hon. Members opposite have shown their faces here today, because every single item here must remind them of a broken promise to the electorate. We are asked to vote an extra £410,000 as Additional provision required for increases in remuneration because the Government failed to keep down the cost of living as they had promised the people they would. It has nothing to do with the people on National Assistance. Of the £410,000, the unfortunates on National Assistance will get nothing. It is the consequence of a broken pledge and failure by the Tories.

Next, they want an extra £35,000. It was freely confessed by the Parliamentary Secretary that that was due to two things. One was bad estimating. Because of a new procedure referring to charging of the Post Office accounts, they miscalculated. The second was due to an increase in work. This £35,000 is for telephone charges and services. We had a short visit from the Postmaster-General and the Assistant Postmaster-General. It is time someone reminded them that in every series of Supplementary Estimates from Departments, including this, we have had an item for increased costs to the taxpayer, not in respect of private telephones, but of telephone charges for public Departments.

Here we have this £35,000 because once again the Government failed to keep down the cost of living, this time in respect of telephone charges and services. Out of this item the 1,645,000 people in receipt of National Assistance benefit will get nothing. They do not get the benefit of a single halfpenny of this additional expenditure.

Then we come to old-age pensioners—Old Age Pensions (Non-Contributory)—£350,000 more, and we have the frank, brutal explanation that the old folks are living too long. The Government expected that more of them would have died by this time and, because they are still living and still have to be paid, we see this figure in the Estimates. It is not generosity. It is just facing the facts of life.

I hope that, like the Parliamentary Secretary, I may leave C.1 to the end. When we look at the remaining items, such as reception centres and re-establishment centres, we find the same increase in salaries due to the rise in the cost of living and we also see an increase in expenses at hostels, which shows the failure to keep down the price of food. There are also increased expenses, including payment for catering and housekeeping services provided by agents at hostels, amounting to £39,000 more.

I said that this was a record of financial folly and failure, but there is one feature in which we can take some pride and that is that we spent £159,000 on receiving and helping the Hungarian refugees who came to this country. That was a democratic duty and it was the least that we could do, but it has been done well by the National Assistance Board and we should give our meed of thanks to the Board.

Let us come back to the item which matters most—the £4.6 million in respect of assistance grants. We have been given only these items of information: Additional provision required for increases in grants to provide for rent increases and to give effect to the higher scales prescribed by the National Assistance (Determination of Need) Amendment Regulations, 1957. Those are the only two positive items of increased expenditure which are mentioned here.

We also read that the additional cost will be offset in part by savings. It is traditional that in discussing Estimates we cannot discuss savings, although it is rather late in the day to mention what should be discussed and what should not be discussed. Although we cannot discuss savings, it is customary for the Government to put down an estimate of what the savings will be, and the fact is that although we have appropriations in aid, there is no estimate at all of these savings, as there ought to be if the Committee is to do its duty in discussing the Estimates. There ought to be an estimate of what these savings will be.

It is no good the Parliamentary Secretary saying, "I am not in charge; this is a matter for the National Assistance Board." The Minister who presents these Estimates to the House is responsible for them. I remind him that he used to be Financial Secretary to the Treasury, the watch-dog on Estimates for the House. I wonder if the National Assistance Board or the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, when they went to the Treasury for an extra £4.6 million, were able to get away with a statement such as the Parliamentary Secretary made to us, that they cannot tell us how much of this money is required in respect of increased grants for rent increases, that they cannot tell us how much is required to give effect to the higher scales and that they cannot tell us how much is the estimated saving taking into account the consequence of increases in old-age pensions and National Insurance payments.

I refuse to believe that any Government Department got away with this with the Treasury. Now that the Parliamentary Secretary has returned to the Chamber I can assure her that if I were a member of the Estimates Committee of the House, as I was for over ten years, I should insist that this Department appear before the Committee and explain these Estimates. And they would need to do it.

It may be difficult to be accurate. Estimates are, per se, estimates, and the Minister has every right, and so has the Parliamentary Secretary, to give us what information there is available. There must have been some information—otherwise the Minister could not have arrived at the figure of £4.6 million in the first place—as to just exactly how much this will cost in relation to rent increases and in relation to increased payments as a result of the change in scales; and what we expect to save as a result of changes in the National Insurance benefit.

One hon. Gentleman showed what I thought was a greater appreciation of the dangers of loneliness than of the dangers of the landlord. He had a surprising faith in the overcoming of housing difficulties, and great faith in the landlords proving to be the greatest humanitarians of the twentieth century, but that is all out of keeping with the facts, and I want to ask questions about the figure that we should have been given but have not had. If our questions have been detailed today, that arises from the failure of the Department properly to meet its obligation to this House to give full and frank information.

In the past, it has been one of the features of the Annual Reports of the National Assistance Board to give us a statistical table showing weekly rents from 3s. right up to 30s. and over, in steps of about 5s., and showing the number of cases in respect of each rent paid. I should like to have up-to-date information as to the number of cases in each of these divisions. I notice with considerable interest that, even in the years 1955 and 1956, considerable increases have been paid in respect of rent increases, and there has been a complete change in the pattern of rents as shown by these figures.

The number paying rents from 3s. to 15s. has gone down, but the number of those paying rents from 15s. to 30s. and over has gone up. Can the Minister give us up-to-date information as to exactly how this pattern is going on now? I ask because if we take the two Reports, 1955 and 1956, the number paying rents of from 15s. to £1 showed an increase of about 12 per cent. In that same time, the number paying rents of from £1 to 25s. increased by about 25 per cent.

I can give the actual figures, if the Minister wants them, but I think that I am adequately proving that, in this changing pattern, more people are now paying higher rents and that the Board is paying more as a result. In the rent category from 25s. to 30s., there was in that one year an increase of 48 per cent., and the number paying 30s. a week and over rose from 28,000 in 1955 to 44,000 in 1956—an increase of 57 per cent.

Could we have these figures brought up-to-date so that we can see exactly how the pattern is changing? Further, now that we have the sky as the limit in respect of rent increases, I think we are entitled to have that table extended well above the 30s. rent. It is no longer enough to say 30s. and over. We must find out just how far the National Assistance Board is to meet the increases in rent that have been demanded by landlords.

So far as we presently know, 1,217,000 householders were assisted in respect of rent in 1956. I think that was the figure in 1956 or 1955; it may be something more than that. The full rent and rates was paid in over 1 million of those cases. I think I am right in saying that; the Minister will correct me if I am wrong. Is it the intention of the Department to carry on at this rate, paying all the increases which are demanded and which will be demanded by landlords? In other words, is the full extent of it to be covered by the Department?

The hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) said that it was unfair to expect the National Assistance Board to take upon itself the administrative job of examining whether or not what it was called upon to pay was legally demanded. If the Board does not take over that job, it will take over a financial burden which the taxpayers of the country should not be called upon to pay. In case she should be going to Kelvingrove to make a few speeches about how to boil cod or how to live on a few shillings a week, I will tell the hon. Lady the Joint Parliamentary Secretary that she will find that that division is one of the poorest in Scotland. She will find also that there are, among the people of Kelvingrove, some of those for whom we are asking for this additional money, the £4.6 million, and, if she dares to tell them that she is giving them more when all that is happening is that the money is going straight into the pockets of slum landlords, she will find herself in trouble.

The fact is that, in Scotland, having regard to the increases we are estimating for here, a landlord does not need to do any repairs; he automatically gets the 25 per cent. increase in rent without any condition. In Glasgow, the landlords of these working-class houses will obtain 25 per cent. more for doing nothing. It looks as though over £4½ million more is being spent on the poor, but in truth it is being spent, or, rather, given to the landlords. It is a redistribution of the wealth of the country; the money is coming from the taxpayer, but there is no shout from the benches opposite because, instead of it going in family allowances or welfare milk, it is going straight into the pockets of the landlords.

As regards the English problem, the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) is very pertinent. We can see in every Report how far the Department is prepared to go to protect itself against paying money in respect of wives or children who have been deserted. We see it here: persons failing to provide for relatives for whom they were liable, though in a position to do so—number of prosecutions, 373. If the National Assistance Board is prepared to prosecute an erring husband or, indeed, a wife or someone who fails to accept his or her parental responsibilities, for the protection of whose dependants the National Assistance Board comes in with aid, how can the Government, in logic, refuse to accept that the Board should have a right to ensure that any rent increases demanded are legally due to the landlord?

What is here contemplated is a subsidy to landlords. There is no doubt about it. Indeed, we may well be subsidising landlords who are quite well aware that, in respect of over 1 million householders, the full rent is paid by the National Assistance Board. If they get the idea into their heads that the National Assistance Board will pay without quibbling when they have the right—and the Government have given them the right—to raise the rent as high as they like, hon. Gentlemen opposite know that the people who will pay are the taxpayers.

This is the financial folly of this Government. It is a sham to ask today for nearly £5½ million seemingly for the poorest of this country when we discover that little or nothing will go to the poor, but the great majority will go to people who certainly have done nothing in respect of the housing service that is being provided. The Government have not only something to explain, but have still something to be ashamed of in respect of their previous enactments.

8.57 p.m.

Mr. C. W. Gibson (Clapham)

The Committee is justified in concentrating so much of its attention on Subhead C.1 when one realises that, of a Supplementary Estimate of nearly £5½ million, no less than £4,600,000 is due to extra payments which have to be made for increases of rent under the Rent Act, and, to quote the note, … to give effect to the higher scales prescribed by the National Assistance (Determination of Need) Amendment Regulations. The maximum increase which the land-lords can get under the Rent Act is 7s. 6d. However, that is not the average, and I do not suggest that it is. It is quite probable that the average is about 5s. If we take that as the average figure which the Assistance Board has to meet, very nearly the whole of the £4,600,000 is absorbed. For what? It is for people who do not really need it and for people in places like London—where 80 per cent. or more of the rented properties are owned by private companies, all of whom have made good profits since the end of the war—who do not need a settlement from the National Assistance Board to the extent provided in this Supplementary Estimate.

I am struck by the difference between the way in which the Government side of the Committee treats this kind of subsidy to the property owners and the way in which they treat the subsidising of municipal properties to keep rents down in local authority areas. This is all the more striking because at this time a local election campaign is beginning all over the country, and the big issue which the Tories are raising is, "Keep down rates. Do not spend so much on rates to help the tenants in the municipal properties, because if you do then you are subsidising the municipal tenant at the expense of the non-municipal tenant."

What are we doing in this Supplementary Estimate? We are subsidising well-to-do landlords. I do not deny that there are some landlords who are hard up, but they are a very small proportion. The speeches today, so far as I have heard them, have reminded me of the argument we used to hear so many years ago. The poor devil with only one or two houses who is having a job to make ends meet is the one who is always singled out. In the main these properties are owned by property companies of one kind or another, all of which have made quite substantial profits since the end of the war. There have been articles written explaining how valuable it is these days to own what was poorly rented property because of the profits which can be made out of it.

Mr. D. Marshall

If the hon. Member's argument that the majority of landlords are wealthy had substance in it, I suppose he would ask also for details about them and would realise that that income would be unearned income and that consequently approximately 50 per cent. of it would go to the Inland Revenue?

Mr. Gibson

I wish I could believe that. I have looked up the annual reports of property companies in London, and if there were time I could give some details from them. With the exception of one company, all of them were making increasing profits year by year since the end of the war. So the argument that we needed rent increases to enable repairs to be done never was true. We tried to explain that when the Bill was going through, and we said that it was a completely phoney argument, and these phoney companies are to get £4½ million into their pockets, though we were told that the people we were to help were those who needed more money in order to do repairs.

All this is another illustration of the enormous difference between the two sides of the Committee in the conception of values. On the opposite side of the Committee property is the most important thing and not human life. We on this side of the Committee say human beings are much more important. That is why we want good homes for them at the lowest possible rent necessary to cover costs. That philosophy has not been applied by this Supplementary Estimate.

The situation will get worse, because next April all these tenants will be due another stiff increase in rent. If they cannot afford to pay the first 7s. 6d.—and already there are 260,000 of them according to the Minister's reply to a Question today—how on earth will they be able to afford 10s., 15s., 20s. when the next turn of the Rent Act screw is made upon them? Is every landlord of these houses to get all that money from the National Assistance Board? We are entitled to know whether the Minister proposes to apply to these people that the same kind of means test he applies to some of the people who belong to the section of society in whom, I admit frankly, I am most interested.

It is quite unreal to bring forward a Supplementary Estimate like this which provides millions extra for property owners and leaves the old-age pensioners, the non-contributory pensioners, still in want and suffering because no Government have yet dealt with their problem. Even if there were no dire poverty in the land this would be unjust, but at any rate it would be less offensive than it is. However, there is dire poverty, and unfortunately it is getting worse. More and more people are suffering because of the charges which they have to meet, such as higher rent charges and charges for heat, charges which they cannot avoid; and they are suffering inevitably because they cannot afford more food to eat or clothes to wear, and are certainly not able to afford to entertain themselves.

I could give illustrations of this hardship amongst people in my own constituency were it necessary and were there time, but I do not want to attempt to do that tonight. I simply stress again the difference of attitude between the two sides of the Committee on matters affecting property. I point again to the attitude of the Tory Party, including the whole Front Bench, to the giving of a few hundred thousand to enable rents to be kept down through extra rate subsidy. I hope the country will appreciate also the difference between the way in which the Government approach this problem and the way in which Conservatives approach the rent problem at the time of local elections.

It is completely unrealistic and unfair but, of course, it is good, traditional Tory philosophy of the kind that one would expect. Anybody who votes Tory ought to know that he votes for this kind of thing. Obviously, the Committee cannot reject the Estimate, because of the impact that would have on hundreds of thousands of people in our great cities, but I hope that the Committee will emphasise that behind it lies the meanness of the Government's approach to these social problems; and I hope that the time will soon come when we shall throw the Government out.

9.5 p.m.

Miss Margaret Herbison (Lanarkshire, North)

The Minister of Pensions and National Insurance is asking the Committee to vote his Ministry a very sizable Supplementary Estimate of £5,459,000. Some of my hon. Friends have already pointed out that, without doubt, part of the Estimate is due to the Government's inflationary policy. As far as we have been able to discover from the very limited information given to us by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, the largest part of the Estimate is due to the workings of the Rent Act, a Measure which at all stages of its passage through the House of Commons was strongly opposed by all my hon. and right hon. Friends.

We criticised the provisions made in the Supplementary Estimate for increased National Assistance when they were first contained in the Regulations. When we discussed the Regulations, we on this side of the Committee made it clear that we thought the proposed increases were far too small. I am quite certain that we have had plenty of evidence since the passing of the Regulations to prove that the case then put from this side of the Committee was the correct and humane one.

I have had many letters, and I should be surprised if every other hon. Member has not had similar letters, expressing disappointment and sadness, and in some cases bitterness, when the writers found that the increased help given in National Insurance or old-age pensions resulted in a decrease in National Assistance. I have received letter after letter, particularly from old people, expressing astonishment and shock at finding that the increased help amounted to only 2s. 8d. If we on this side of the Committee had been in office, there is no doubt that this Supplementary Estimate would have been much larger, because we should have tried to help those people who are in the greatest need.

I should like to refer to one matter which has exercised the minds of hon. Members on both sides of the Committee. Considerable support has been given to the raising of what are commonly known as the disregards, though different reasons have been given for that support. Today at Question Time I asked a supplementary question to a Question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough). Whenever any reference is made in Questions to Section 62 of the National Insurance Act, 1946, the Minister invariably tells us that that Section was inserted in the Act only for a transitional period of five years. We do not deny that, but it is also true that after five years of the operation of that Section, my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) and all my hon. Friends were convinced that the provisions in the Section should be put into permanent legislation. The result is that in my constituency, and in every other constituency where there is heavy industry, men suffering from industrial diseases or industrial accidents have been losing their unemployment benefit and, as the disregards have not been raised, they find that they are losing a sizable proportion of their income.

I want to add my voice to those from both sides of the Committee and to ask the Minister, as my right hon. Friend asked him at Question Time today, to take this to his Advisory Council and get them to examine the question. Under Section B we see the amount given for the non-contributory old-age pensioners is £350,000. That will not give them any increase. It will merely take care of the 2s. 4d. they are getting instead of their tobacco coupons. We feel strongly that these people ought to have their pension which they get from the National Assistance Board raised to the same amount as other old-age pensioners are getting now.

My next point is that raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock). She was able to get the information from the Minister that in, I think, C.1, provision has been made for these old people to get at least a 2s. 6d. increase in their pocket money. She still does not know, and I do not know if the Minister knows, what will happen to the money which the local authorities ought to be getting by way of an increase from the National Assistance Board. The Minister ought to know whether those regulations will be made by his right hon. Friend the Minister of Health. If they are going to be made, will the payment be retrospective to local authorities and when shall we get the Estimate to cover it?

Now I come to C.1. I have been amazed at the course of this discussion, amazed at the attitude of back benchers on the Government side. Those back benchers always claim that they are great business men. Yet today those wonderful business men are willing to accept this Estimate not knowing what this sum of £4,600,000 is to cover. They have no idea, but they are willing to take it in good faith.

There must be some reason for their accepting this without any explanation. I am certain that if this came forward as an estimate in any of their businesses they would have to know what every penny was to be spent on, but this is public money. This is the nation's purse that it being dipped into, and they are willing that this money should be spent without any explanation. There must be some reason, and the only reason I can find is their extreme tenderness for the landlords. How I wish that hon. Gentlemen opposite had the same compassion and the same tenderness for the old and the sick and the disabled as they are showing this afternoon and this evening for the landlords. I feel that why they are accepting so readily this Supplementary Estimate is because of their desire to cover up the cost to public funds of the increase in rents under their own Act.

The hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. F. Harris) told us that he was satisfied with the explanation of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, and he used the most astounding words to describe that explanation. He said it was accurate and that it was a fair explanation. No hon. Member on this side of the Committee could feel that it was accurate, and, if it were not accurate, it could not be a fair explanation. I can only think that the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West was speaking with his tongue in his cheek.

I just do not believe that the Minister himself does not know what this sum of £4,600,000 is being spent on. He must have had some idea how it was arrived at, and it is no use the Joint Parliamentary Secretary's telling us that this is the estimate of the National Assistance Board. The Minister had to get sanction from the Treasury for the spending of this money, and I cannot imagine the Treasury saying, "It is all right; a nice modest estimate, and you may have it," after all the fuss of the resignation of the former Chancellor of the Exchequer.

We are told that the additional costs are offset in part by savings from the 27th of January, but we are not told what these savings will amount to. My hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) put a Question to the Minister today and wanted to know how many old-age pensioners had had a reduction of 5s. in their National Assistance as a result of the 10s. rise. If I took the figure down correctly, it was 980,000. My hon. Friend also asked how many old-age pensioners had lost their tobacco coupons, and the answer was a million and a quarter.

I have done some calculating on my own, because I feel that it was incumbent on a responsible Member of Parliament to try to break up this sum before passing this Supplementary Estimate. If we take those figures and take into account the nine weeks which this Estimate is to cover, we find that there will be a saving by the National Assistance Board of £3,498,750—about £3½ million. That is at the expense of the old, who have lost their 5s. and have also lost their tobacco coupons, but there are others—the unemployed and those on sickness benefit—and if we add them, the figure would be much more than £3½ million. That is only for the nine weeks until 1st April, so that we can add to this £4,600,000 about another £3½ million, which brings us up to over £8 million.

Miss Pitt indicated dissent

Miss Herbison

I see that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary is dissenting. I am giving what I have tried to work out.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Perhaps the hon. Lady is unnecessarily confusing herself if she brings anything into account in connection with the National Assistance Board on the withdrawal of the tobacco concession. That is wholly separate from it and affects only the Customs revenue.

Miss Herbison

Even if we leave that out, the sum is still a very large one for the 980,000 pensioners who have lost their 5s. It would still bring it up to over £7 million, and we want to know where that £7 million is going. We are almost certain that most of it is going to the landlords.

On the discretionary allowances, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary told us that the estimate was that £1 million more would be spent this year on them. That gives us some little idea, but, even then, part of that £1 million would be in the original Estimate, so that only part of it has to come out of this £4,600,000.

Mr. Ross

It is not even mentioned.

Miss Herbison

Did the Minister just think of a number and go to the Treasury and the Cabinet and say "This is it". I just do not believe it. I beg him to come clean about these figures.

We want to know what control is exercised by the Board before these payments are made. It seems to me from the answers given by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary that no control at all is exercised. The onus is placed completely on the recipient. Who are the recipients of the money paid in respect of rent? This is a very important matter, but so far we have had no answer. They are mainly the old, the sick and the disabled; and they are told by the Minister of Housing and Local Government to take professional advice.

How could such people be expected to know what their rights are? How could they be expected to hunt out professional advice? I am very glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) clearly showed the Committee that already the Board has power to insist in separation cases that those responsible for the maintenance of wives and children should fulfil their responsibilities. If that can be done in such a case, surely it can also be done where landlords are concerned.

The hon. Lady the Member for Tyne-mouth (Dame Irene Ward) wanted to know where the Socialist Party would stand if it were returned to power and whether the old and sick would have nothing given to them in respect of their rent increases. We have made very clear to the whole nation what our housing policy will be. Our housing policy makes clear what our actions will be towards rapacious landlords, and it also makes clear what our action will be towards good landlords.

The burden of our criticism of the Supplementary Estimate is that the Board seems to pay money without making absolutely certain that the amount asked for is legally correct. All we are asking in this respect is that the Government should ensure that the Board directs its attention to the importance of making certain that the public money which it disburses is used in the correct manner.

We have been told that this would require a great many people. If a citizen applies to the Board for a discretionary allowance for clothing, an officer of the Board goes to his home. The greatest care is taken by the Board, on the instructions of the Government, that nothing is given to needy people which is not absolutely necessary. If that is done in the case of clothing, surely it is even more essential that it should be done in the case of rent. All possible help should be given to the old people in this matter.

The attitude of the Government back benchers, the Minister and the Joint Parliamentary Secretary seems to be that all landlords are fair and just, and that if they are not, it may be unpatriotic to take more than they should get but it makes good sense. I beg the Minister to answer the questions put to him and to say exactly on what this £4,600,000 is being spent. I ask him to tell us the amount saved, which is really the additional Supplementary Estimate. Only if we can get these figures will there be any chance of satisfying hon. Members on this side of the Committee.

9.25 p.m.

The Minister of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. John Boyd-Carpenter)

This might have been a more valuable debate had we been able to range more equably over the intensely interesting social work done by the National Assistance Board, and for which the Supplementary Estimate might have provided the Parliamentary vehicle, and if we had not reverted—particularly hon. Members opposite with their almost obsessional reiteration—to this charge of subsidising the landlords. I shall deal fully with that suggestion, but I should like first to deal with the broader and much more important issues which have been raised. I will say at once that the debate almost justified itself by the appearance of the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) in the unaccustomed vestments of an apostle of public economy—in which I am bound to say he appeared to be extremely uncomfortable, and which his hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) made no attempt whatever to borrow from him.

The hon. Lady made an astonishing observation on the subject of the new scales of National Assistance now operating. She must be aware of the great improvements which these represent in real terms over the original value of the assistance scales as laid down in 1948. Since that year the index of retail prices has risen by 54 per cent. and these scales represent an advance above the 1948 scales of 87½ per cent. in the case of single, and 90 per cent. in the case of married, people. I should have thought it would have been both more generous and more realistic if the hon. Lady had accepted that they amount to a very real and useful advance and had she paid some tribute to a Government who in times of financial difficulty have felt able to do this.

I think a similar criticism relates to her suggestion that we should have amended the rate of non-contributory old-age pension and brought it into line with the level of retirement pension. The hon. Lady knows perfectly well that from the beginning this was regarded as an obsolescent benefit. That is why her right hon. Friend in the 1946 Act provided that no more of these pensions should be issued to people who became 70 after 1961. It was an obsolescent and traditional benefit. No doubt for that reason her right hon. Friend when making some increase in the rate of retirement pensions in September, 1951, did not alter the rate of this noncontributory old-age pension and it has not been the policy of the Government to do so.

The Committee knows that these pensions are administered by the Assistance Board and supplemented by that Board where necessary. As they are paid in any event by the Assistance Board there cannot be raised the criticism that if the pensioner requires the supplementation, he is driven to the Board. As a recipient of the pension he is already there. The hon. Lady would have been more realistic had she accepted that from the beginning.

I would not be so impertinent as to decry the value of this debate and of a good many of the speeches which have been made by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee; though I observe that the Liberal benches have been unoccupied, except, as they are at the moment, by hon. Members who accept the Whip of the right hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition Front Bench. I will come at once to what was regarded as the main grievance of hon. Members opposite, the view, which I shall seek to deal with at some length, that insufficient particulars have been given of this Estimate. Indeed, one or two hon. Members paid considerable tributes to my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary and to myself for our powers of persuasion with the Treasury in that connection. In the first place, the Committee will see from consideration of the Estimate that each subhead sets out clearly the figure concerned, and in fact the only criticism of imprecision relates to one particular subhead, Subhead C.1. I must ask the Committee to contemplate what is the nature of the provision made by that subhead.

In my experience, Estimates are roughly of two kinds: those which authorise a certain fixed sum of money to be spent for a purpose—take, for example, a fixed sum to be spent on the building of roads—and those which are designed to cover and support particular scales of benefit where the actual amount expended does not lie within the control of the Department bringing forward the Estimate but depends upon the number of people qualifying for the benefit. That is done over a good deal of the National Insurance and family allowances field, and indeed must be so in large parts of the social services because Parliament prescribes precise scales of benefit to which anyone qualifying is entitled. It is the duty of the Minister concerned to pay those, and, as a result, his estimate can be only an estimate in the true sense, that is a calculation of what he will need to meet those applications during the period. That is the kind of Supplementary Estimate we are discussing at this time.

It has now become almost a convention in this debate that Subhead C.1 should wait till the end, and I will come back to C.1 later and try to give a little more precision to it. I would ask the Committee to appreciate the nature of the Estimate with which we are concerned, and in particular the reason why it has been quite impossible so far to give precise figures of the expenditure in respect of increases under the Rent Act. The Committee will recall that it is of the essence of National Assistance that people are both coming on it and coming off it at the same time in very large numbers. My hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary gave some vivid figures which show, as it were, the rapid turnover.

Therefore, in the course of the year it is impossible, by calculating the number of increases in payments in respect of rent under the Rent Act, to come to a figure that represents either the total cost, or the total cost at any particular time, because just as some people become qualified others cease to become qualified and cease to draw National Assistance at all. I will, however, endeavour at a later stage to give a little more detail, although, for the reason which I have given, I cannot give any precise figures of what is contemplated under that Subhead.

Mr. Fernyhough rose

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I cannot give way now on that point. I will spend some time on it later.

I will pass now to some of the points raised in debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd), to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett), my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. F. Harris) and a number of other hon. Members who have paid tribute to the way in which the Board's staff carry out their duties. I am sure those tributes will give great pleasure and are very well deserved.

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East, with particular reference to Subhead A.1, asked about the introduction of more automatic methods of conducting clerical work. We are very alive to the need for that, and, if I may stray on to the perimeters of order, within my own Department we are making some progress in that direction. It is more difficult in connection with the Assistance Board whose work consists of the paying out of very large numbers of sums of money which vary according to human circumstances. I should not like to hold out great hopes of great savings from automatic methods, but I can assure my hon. and gallant Friend that we are concerned to make such progress as we can in that direction.

There was a great deal of discussion today about the need to secure that rent increases in respect of which the Assistance Board paid would be rent increases made in accordance with the law. Some of the speeches seemed to suggest that the Board was wholly careless and uninterested in whether the increases for which it paid were increases legally made and demanded. As it has not yet appeared in HANSARD, I shall read from a Parliamentary Answer I gave today on this point: The National Assistance Board informs me that before providing for a rent increase its officers confirm that the landlord has complied with the statutory requirements by completing the notice of rent increase in the prescribed form and in appropriate cases it advises tenants to take their statutory remedies regarding disrepair. It is clear that the Board is concerned to see that the payments it makes in respect of rent increases shall be in respect of increases validly made and demanded. I thought it fair to say at Question Time, and now, that the Board is not equipped with the specialised staff to turn it into a body of expert advisers on the law of landlord and tenant. I must ask the Committee to preserve a certain sense of proportion in this matter. At least one hon. Member seemed to contemplate the Board taking on a large expert staff of lawyers and surveyors in order that it should act as Rent Act consultants. That is wholly disproportionate to the amounts of money involved and would add quite substantially and unnecessarily to public expenditure on staff.

The hon. and learned Member for Kettering himself unconsciously supplied the answer. He quoted my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government in the Rent Act debates. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, people unable to afford the expense of going professionally to a lawyer had the advantage of the availability of either the citizens advice bureaux or the local authorities, both of whom are very helpful in giving advice on these matters. There is really no reason at all why a recipient of National Assistance, just as anyone else who doubts the legality of a demand made under the Rent Act, should not take advantage of advice from the source to which his attention has been drawn.

It seems to me that hon. Members opposite are getting the whole matter out of proportion when they suggest that the Assistance Board should be compelled to set up large legal and surveyors' departments for the purpose of vetting applications for increases under the Rent Act. I say this bluntly, the Board has no intention of so doing. It intends, within the limits of what is possible, to secure that it does not pay in respect of demands invalidly made. In an earlier debate, I was pressed as to what would be its attitude in this sort of case. I said, and I repeat tonight, that its attitude would be that it would expect recipients of National Assistance to conduct themselves from this point of view broadly for the point of view of an individual expected to pay these moneys out of his own pocket, to act sensibly and reasonably and to seek the same sort of advice as similar fellow citizens are capable of receiving. That seems excellent advice.

Mr. Mitchison

The right hon. Gentleman's colleague the Minister of Housing and Local Government recommended that they should take professional advice. It is true that he mentioned local authorities and citizens advice bureaux, but he pointed out quite clearly that in many of these cases, including obviously repairs cases, professional advice from people like surveyors was required and, in many others, professional advice from solicitors was needed. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will answer the question I put to him. I did not suggest that the Board could do it. The question was, if the man concerned got that advice, would the Board pay for it, because the Board would benefit by it?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The hon. and learned Member knows perfectly well that, in the passage which he himself quoted, my right hon. Friend said that there are other means of obtaining that professional advice. Examples were given of those who were not in a position to pay fees in the normal way, and I do not see why recipients of National Assistance should not conduct themselves from this point of view exactly in the same way as other people placed in that position. I think that when he reflects upon it the hon. and learned Member will appreciate that the help and advice of local authorities and citizens advice bureaux, which many of our fellow citizens will use for this purpose, is appropriate in this case.

Mr. Mitchison

I am sorry, but the right hon. Gentleman must not say that sort of thing. We are talking of professional advice, of surveyors and solicitors. That is not the same thing as the local authorities or the citizens advice bureaux. The point which we are putting to the right hon. Gentleman is: why should that professional advice not be available when public funds are concerned if it is available to those private persons who can afford to pay the fee?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I do not accept for a moment the hon. and learned Gentleman's suggestion that the local authorities' professional and technical staffs lack the competence of those in private practice. I am a little surprised to hear the hon. and learned Gentleman suggest that. His suggestion is wholly unsound.

Mr. Mitchison

I did not make it.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

If the hon. and learned Gentleman did not make it, then his intervention, as I suspected, was wholly pointless, and I will therefore not waste any more time on it.

Mr. Denis Howell (Birmingham, All Saints)

On a point of order. Is it in order for the Minister, in replying to my hon. and learned Friend, to suggest that local authorities should give free local advice to any electors? Surely that would be against the law and—

Mr. Archer Baldwin (Leominster)

That is not a point of order.

Mr. Howell

The Chair deals with the question whether this is a point of order. Is it in order for Ministers to advise the Committee on a course of action which would be outside the law?

The Chairman (Sir Charles Mac-Andrew)

That is certainly not a point of order. He can advise them as he likes.

Miss Herbison rose

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I am afraid that I cannot give way again. I have given way twice to the hon. and learned Member for Kettering and also to a point of order and I must get on.

Mr. Howell

Then deal with the point.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

If the Committee wishes I will deal with the point for the third time, and I hope that this time the hon. and learned Member for Kettering will understand it.

It has been clearly pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government that people who do not desire to seek professional advice in the ordinary way can obtain it either from local authorities or from citizens advice bureaux.

Mr. James Griffiths (Llanelly)

Who told the right hon. Gentleman that?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to know, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government said so, as did the hon. and learned Member for Kettering, who quoted the statement earlier this afternoon.

People on National Assistance are entitled to make use of precisely those sources of advice to which other people can equally apply.

Mr. Griffiths

May I put a question to the Minister? Let us leave the Rent Act aside and assume that the recipient gets an allowance for rent from the National Assistance Board by supplying false information. If the Board finds out that a man has been supplying false information about the amount of his rent or has been receiving a rent allowance and not paying the rent, it is entitled to prosecute. Assume that after six months the Board finds out that the landlord has charged the tenant a rent which he is not entitled to charge. Can it prosecute in such a case?

Mr Boyd-Carpenter

I do not think that would be a matter for the Board. It would be a matter for the normal prosecuting authorities, for what the right hon. Gentleman referred to is an offence under the Rent Act.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) asked me two questions. He asked, where an excessive rent was demanded and the recipient of National Assistance desired to move away, whether the Board would pay his removal expenses. The answer, in appropriate cases, is, "Yes." He also asked me about the visiting of lonely old people. The answer is that the Board's officers make a special point of identifying these old people and trying to arrange for regular visiting, generally through the machinery of the local voluntary bodies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tyne-mouth (Dame Irene Ward), and other hon. Members, raised questions about the National Assistance—

Mr. Mitchison

Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves rents, I pointed out to him a clear discrepancy between what he said the other day and what his official pamphlet says. Will he explain the discrepancy?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

If the hon. and learned Gentleman will preserve his patience, I am coming to that, but if he persists in intervening so frequently then either he or some other of his hon. Friends will not get the answers that I am anxious to give. At the moment, I am referring to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth, who is just as entitled to a reply as is even the hon. and learned Gentleman himself.

I clearly cannot deal with the question of disregards in the course of the discussion on this Supplementary Estimate. My hon. Friend, who has pursued this matter with her habitual vigour and knowledge, knows very well that the National Assistance disregards, or most of them, are fixed by legislation and, therefore, require legislation to alter them. They do raise extremely difficult questions. The hon. Baronet the Member for Leeds, North-East referred to one aspect of them, but I am certainly not in a position to say anything about them tonight. As my hon. Friend knows, we have, in fact, only just put into operation the higher scales both of National Assistance and of National Insurance benefit. Therefore, at this time we preferred to concentrate what money was available on the main and basic rates with, I think, the general concurrence of the House and of the Committee. As those benefits have only just been put into operation I can say no more than that I have, as I always do, taken careful note of my hon. Friend's observations—

Mr. D. Howell rose

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I am afraid that I have no time now, thanks to earlier interventions.

The hon. and learned Member for Kettering intervened a moment ago to ask about the pamphlet AL.18 which, he told me, was inconsistent with the observations that I made in the House on 1st August, and which have since been quoted. I have consulted the Board, and I am informed that the statement that I made on 1st August has been conveyed to, and is acted upon by the Board's officers. This pamphlet is not, of course, an instruction to the Board's officers. It is a pamphlet for public information, and if the hon. and learned Gentleman takes that view of the wording, I would myself not be prepared to say that he would be unreasonable in thinking that the language used is not exactly the same as I used, and on which the Board is in fact operating. The Board authorises me to say that in the next issue of the pamphlet it is prepared to reconsider the precise wording.

The hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees, and the hon. Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice) raised the question of assistance applicants who go off National Assistance now because of the increased rates of National Insurance benefit, or for some other reason, but who are liable to require National Assistance again in April. They asked whether any indication was given to those persons of the desirability of applying again. The answer is that where National Assistance looks as if it would be payable in April the Board's officer advises the person concerned to apply again in April. That, I think, meets that point.

The hon. Member for East Ham, North also raised the broader question of the desirability of making up the National Assistance scales to the same level as National Insurance benefits. I think that that involves an extremely difficult comparison, which does not necessarily come down to the detriment of the Board's scales. We are not here comparing like with like. Insurance benefits are complete in themselves. The assistance scales expressly exclude rent. Rent is added, where paid, and, on top, there are the discretionary allowances, about which I want to say something if I have time.

In any case, I do not think that hon. Gentlemen can have it both ways. Time and time again at Question Time, before making my announcement of 6th November last, I was pressed to say that the fact that the numbers on assistance had increased was clear evidence that the National Insurance benefits were inadequate. If the two lots of benefit are raised exactly in parallel, there will be no reduction whatever in the number of people on National Assistance. It does not seem consistent with that argument for hon. Gentlemen to press me now to bring the National Assistance level up to that of National Insurance, apart altogether from the question of rent.

The hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Finch) raised the question of the discretionary allowances and asked whether the increase in this item was provided for in this Estimate and whether it was being more generously administered than in the past. The answer to both questions is "Yes". One million pounds approximately in Subhead C.1, which I am now coming to, is in respect of increased provision for these discretionary allowances, and, as an indication of the policy adopted by the Board, I will tell the Committee that, in 1951, 34 per cent. of recipients of assistance were receiving these discretionary allowances and the latest figure, that for the end of last year, was 46 per cent., a very substantial increase.

I come now, as I promised, to Subhead C.1.

Mr. Finch

The right hon. Gentleman will remember that I asked about the treatment of pneumoconiosis cases in comparison with those suffering from tuberculosis and the blind, referring to the necessity to treat pneumoconiosis in the same way as severe cases of T.B. and of blindness are treated. The Minister promised to consider that.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I can say no more now than that I take note of what the hon. Gentleman has said. I had not overlooked it, but I have nothing to say about it tonight; that is why, with his permission, time being rather against me, I wanted to proceed to Subhead C.1.

Under Subhead C.1, there are three elements of substance increasing expenditure and one element decreasing it. The elements increasing it are, of course, rents, increased scales of benefit and the discretionary payments to which I have just referred, and they are offset by the reduction of the number on assistance and the amount of assistance paid to some of them as a result of the increase in National Insurance scales and other social service benefits.

I do not want to repeat what I said earlier about the necessary lack of absolute precision in figures which turn on an exercise of judgment as to what the payment of certain scales and benefits is likely to result in. I am sure that the Committee understands that this is not a matter capable of precise calculation in figures, as my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary so well and truly said. I can, however, give the Committee some broad picture of the size of these elements, on the understanding that I am not committed, and the Committee is not committed, to their turning out to be precisely right.

In the first place, the offset in respect of higher payments in other social services benefits seems likely, for the nine weeks of the present financial year during which they have operated, that is, from 27th January onwards, to save about £6 million. Apart from that, this Estimate would have been not £4½ million but £10½ million, that being, as it were the gross figure. Of that, the increase in scales and the addition to the discretionary allowances to which I referred would probably account for rather more than half, and rents would account for rather less than half.

When one considers the rents, it becomes clear that this year, at any rate, the effects of the Rent Act are much less important relatively than a great many hon. Gentlemen opposite seem to think. In fact, it seems unlikely that this year the increases due to the Rent Act will account for more than—in very round terms—about a third of the total of this rent factor, whereas the remaining part is due to rent and rate increases either in respect of public authority rent and rates or rent increases distinct from the Rent Act. Therefore, a good many of the things which have been said tonight are seen to be based on a complete miscalculation so far as this Supplementary Estimate is concerned. For instance, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) spoke about pouring millions into the hands of the landlords. Hon. Gentlemen really must not think that they can go about the country saying that many millions are being poured into the pockets of the landlords.

None the less, I propose to tackle this matter on its merits. I am not seeking to avoid the argument by pointing out that hon. Gentlemen opposite have exaggerated the figures. I want to deal with the matter on its merits—that is, on the limited part of the Estimate which relates to Rent Act increases. I have assumed that hon. Gentlemen opposite are not quarrelling with the larger element relating to local authority rents or rates, but that they are concerned only with the element that relates to Rent Act increases.

The problem is extremely clear-cut and simple. We all accept that in general the recipients of National Assistance should have their rents made up. It has been the policy since the Board was founded in 1948, that there should be a special extra provision made for rent, over and above the scales. Therefore, the dispute between us comes down to this very narrow point. Where a recipient of National Assistance cannot afford to pay a rent increase that is legally due, then should that increase be paid for him by the State, or should it remain a kind of private subsidy to him by the landlord? That is the narrow point, and it is one upon which I have not the slightest hesitation in saying that it is the duty of the State to accept that liability.

If hon. Gentlemen opposite did not have this almost obsessional feeling about landlords, they would appreciate that no one suggests that the farmer, miner or shopkeeper should make his product available to the recipients of National Assistance at a rate below its economic price simply because those recipients are badly off. The House of Commons has always taken the view that those people who cannot afford that economic price should have the level of their incomes brought up by the State to the point at which they can purchase at the economic price. There is really no reason at all why hon. Gentlemen should object to the same treatment of landlords in modified degree.

Hon. Gentlemen opposite seem to assume, and have assumed throughout, that all landlords are well off. They have entirely failed to appreciate that for many years bricks and mortar have been the form of savings of many humble people. Twenty or thirty years ago it was believed by some that it would be safer to provide in their wills for someone for whom they cared by bricks and mortar rather than by stocks and shares. There are many humble people in our constituencies whose savings are invested in bricks and mortar. I do not see why they should be compelled to subsidise people who may be no worse off than themselves. I see no reason at all why we should operate the curious sort of private subsidy which pays no attention either to the means of the person giving the subsidy or the means of the person receiving it. That seems to carry the doctrine of subsidies to bedlam.

The right thing is to do what we are seeking to do by this Supplementary Estimate and provide not a subsidy for landlords, but a subsidy to enable the tenant to pay something towards the economic rent. In the case of controlled tenancies the tenant can get the advantage of not having to pay that additional rent. If he pays it, it is paid at the expense of the Board and as a condition his premises are put in repair. That is a positive advantage to the tenant, and, in any event, it is a complete misuse of language to say that the State, by helping people to pay rents which are legally due, is subsidising landlords. In other words, I think that the main point raised by hon. Gentlemen opposite is based on a complete misconception and that they have sought to create a bogus mountain out of a non-existent molehill.

9.59 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

The right hon. Gentleman speaks with a lucidity which appeals to the House, but why he should finish with such nonsense I do not understand. He has completely failed to deal with why the taxpayer should be providing National Assistance for landlords. We should like to know why this provision should be made—

It being Ten o'clock, The CHAIRMAN left the Chair to report Progress and ask leave to sit again.

Committee report Progress; to sit again Tomorrow.