§ 3.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Thomas Fraser (Hamilton)
I beg to move, in page 1, line 10, to leave out from "Schedule" to the end of line 17.
As the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance said in his winding-up speech on Second Reading, the Ministers responsible for the Legal Aid Acts are the Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Scotland. The words which the Amendment proposes to omit provide that the regulation-making powers which at present reside in the Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Scotland will be given to the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance in consultation with the National Assistance Board.
The changes which are being made here will affect in some measure, albeit a small measure, the contribution made by people who are in receipt of legal aid. I think that in 1949 Members of Parliament expressed a little concern that the Ministers then responsible—the Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Scotland—were even going to use the National Assistance Board as their instrument and to use the disregards that were set out in the National Assistance Act as the disregards to be 468 inserted in the Legal Aid Acts and the regulations made under the Legal Aid Acts. However, Parliament acquiesced in what was then done. But I think Ministers have to justify at this time taking away this regulation-making power from the Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State and vesting it in the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance.
May I say, in passing, that I was interested to notice that the National Assistance Bill had to be reissued because the name of the Chancellor of the Exchequer had been left out from among the supporters of the Bill in the first place. The Bill was, therefore, reissued with this small Amendment. But I found that even after the Amendment had been made, the Secretary of State for Scotland, whose 1949 Legal Aid Act is being amended by this Bill, and who is a member of the Cabinet, is still not among the supporters of the Bill, which is passing strange because he seems to me to have more responsibility for this matter and must have more responsibility for the administration of the Act than has the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
§ The Minister of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. John Boyd-Carpenter)
A sum of £32 million is involved.
§ Mr. Fraser
The Minister interjects to say that £32 million is involved. He heads the Ministers who introduced the Bill to the House. He does not find the £32 million. The Chancellor of the Exchequer does. The Chancellor obviously came in as an afterthought, but the Secretary of State for Scotland is not in yet.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
Perhaps I may intervene to say that this is a point which I cleared up in the main debate on the regulations. I believe that the hon. Gentleman was not there. My right hon. Friend's name was on the Bill from the very beginning, but, owing to an error made by the authorities of the House, it was not included in the first print. That is all.
§ Mr. Fraser
The amount set out in the Legal Aid Acts that are most in need of Amendment—and this was brought out clearly in the debate in the House on 24th February—are the upper 469 and lower limits of disposable income. To change the amount of the disregards—and that is what is now proposed—is like leaving the National Assistance scales at the level at which they were in 1949 and merely altering the disregards. That is exactly the position. To make this Amendment is to alter the disregards without doing anything at all to alter those basic scales. The figures of £156 and £420 which were used in 1949 are totally out of date at the present time. In spite of what the Attorney- General said on 24th February—
§ The Attorney-General (Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller)
On a point of Order, Sir Charles. May I ask for your guidance? The hon. Gentleman is now referring to the financial limits of the Legal Aid Scheme, which come nowhere within the Bill and are not affected by this Amendment. The Amendment does not touch on them at all. The limit above which legal aid is not available and the lower limit do not come into the scope of the Bill. All that is under consideration now is the Amendment moved by the hon. Gentleman, to leave out from the Bill certain words which relate merely to bringing certain provisions of the Legal Aid and Advice Act, dealing with disregards, into line with changes that may be made as to disregards' by my right hon. Friend.
There is nothing in the Bill which has anything bearing on the financial limits of the Legal Aid Scheme, and, in my submission to you, Sir Charles—and I should like your guidance upon this point—it is out of order for us, on this narrow Amendment, to debate the scope, extent and application of the Legal Aid Scheme which was debated recently on a Supply Day.
§ Mr. Fraser
Before you give your Ruling, Sir Charles, may I submit to you that it is in the best traditions of the Committee that an hon. Member, in moving an Amendment, is given some freedom in showing why the Amendment should be considered by the Committee? My reason for asking the Committee to consider this Amendment is that the Legal Aid Acts need amendment and have been promised amendment, and that this Amendment seems to be a fitting one. I submit that what I was about to say would be in order. 470 What I was about to say would be in order—not what I had said.
§ The Attorney-General
May I make my point clear, Sir Charles? You will have heard the hon. Gentleman, in his last sentence, admit that what he had just said was out of order, but that what he was going to say would be in order.
§ The Attorney-General
May I return to the point? This Bill refers to the Legal Aid and Advice Act. It refers to particular provisions in that Act dealing with disregards. Perhaps you will be good enough to read the words, Sir Charles:… and if the said paragraph 5 "—that is, in the Second Schedule of the National Assistance Act, 1948—is for the time being reproduced in the Second Schedule to the Legal Aid and Advice Act, 1949, or to the Legal Aid and Solicitors (Scotland) Act. 1949, or, in pursuance of subsection (5) of section four of either of those Acts, in any regulations made under that section, any such order amending that paragraph"—that is, the Order amending the paragraph of the Schedule in the National Assistance Act—shall also amend that Schedule"—that is, the Schedule in the Legal Aid Act—or those regulations in the like manner.All we are dealing with here is the intention to make the effect of an amendment of disregards under the National Assistance Act apply to the disregards under the Legal Aid and Advice Acts.
This being so, it is a very limited matter. It is not, in my submission, in order to discuss, as the hon. Gentleman was, the financial limits of the Legal Aid Scheme and the question whether those limits are right or wrong or to what extent they should be altered. A few moments ago, the hon. Gentleman referred to the upper limit in the existing scheme and said that criticism has been made of that. That may well be, but, in my submission, it is wholly out of order on this narrow Amendment.
§ The Chairman
Of course, the marginal note is not part of the Bill, but it is generally intended to make the matter clear to ordinary people. According to the marginal note, the only thing the Clause deals with isPower to increase certain disregards".That is, therefore, the scope of the Clause.
§ Mr. Fraser
I am obliged to you, Sir Charles, and I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman now feels that he has been very properly put in his place. I had not discussed the upper limit or the lower limit. I had mentioned the upper and lower limits, but I had not discussed them. I think that I was not out of order in anything I had said, and I hope that I shall not be out of order in anything I shall say.
The Committee will be aware of all that was said on 24th February and will be aware of the Resolution then passed by the House, on the advice of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney-General. The House then, with its eyes open and with all the advice the Attorney-General could give, took the view that the financial arrangements in the administration of the Legal Aid Acts should be altered as soon as circumstances permitted. I think that I am entitled to ask whether this is the alteration then promised. Is this the alteration promised on 24th February? If it is, it is a rather poor and fiddling little alteration.
The real hardship is caused to litigants or would-be litigants, poor people who are denied the opportunity of litigation because of other weaknesses, the other limits which we cannot discuss at the present time. It seems to me, none the less, that Ministers, in amending the Legal Aid Acts—particularly the Ministers responsible for them—should use the appropriate instrument to alter the Acts in toto rather than alter the disregards while leaving the basic scales untouched.
Will the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland tell me whether he and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State are satisfied with this alteration of the Legal Aid and Solicitors (Scotland) Act, 1949. Is his right hon. Friend content to advise Parliament at this time to take from him, the Secretary of State for Scotland, a regulation-making power to 472 govern the administration of legal aid in Scotland and vest that regulation-making power in the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance?
§ Mr. George Chetwynd (Stockton-on-Tees)
I do not think that we can discuss the effect of these disregards unless we relate them, however briefly, to the main Section of the original Act, the disposal of income Section. As the law now stands, there is a free limit up to £156, and then there is a graduated payment up to a maximum limit of £420, and the man who is assessed for charges pays half the difference calculated on the basis of his disposable income. This has been the subject of complaint from time to time. Last February, we were promised that, when circumstances permitted, there would be modifications.
This is the first time that we have been told by the Government that people on National Assistance are to be allowed to have a greater share in national prosperity, and it is my contention that the same should apply to those who are being assessed for contributions towards legal aid. The National Assistance Board is the machine through which the assessment is made. I should have thought, therefore, that we could make passing reference to the main purpose of the Assistance Board in assessing scales and then judge against that just how far the disregards were to be taken into account. That was my main purpose.
If you refer to Clause 1, Sir Charles, you will see, in line 10, the words "for the time being", and again, in the following line, the words, "for the time being" appear. What we really want to know is this. We are amending by this means the Legal Aid and Advice Act itself, for the time being. Are we to anticipate, therefore, that, very soon, there will be an actual amendment of the Act, or a reintroduction of the Act itself to amend the main scales? Otherwise, what is the point of putting in "for the time being"? Those words, to my mind, presuppose that there will, very soon, be a major change in the Act itself.
I come now to the point at issue on the disregards. I understand that the Assistance Board, according to its last Report, made 32,000 assessments in the relevant period. Of those, roughly 29 per cent. resulted in no contribution at 473 all, 54 per cent. of applicants were assessed on a graduated scale, and 16 per cent. of the applicants were excluded completely from assistance, principally because of the £420 upper limit. The £420 upper limit has a value of only £280 today and, if it is to have the real value we intended it to have in 1949, it ought to be £650.
I take it that the actual disregards in question at present are the 10s. 6d. a week from friendly societies, trade unions, etc., and the 10s. 6d. a week from any superannuation or pension payments. As I understand it, they are to be raised to 15s. In future, instead of 10s. 6d. being disregarded in these cases, the amount will be 15s. We put down the Amendment to give the Minister an opportunity of explaining how these different disregards will benefit an applicant in the future.
Exactly what will be involved in these changes? In her winding-up speech on 24th June, the hon. Lady the Joint Parliamentary Secretary dealt with the position on the increase in the children's scale. May we be told exactly how it will work: out in practice?
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Miss Edith Pitt) indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Chetwynd
I see the hon. Lady shaking her head, but she did deal with it, perhaps very vaguely, and her words are reported in c. 1327. Because that was so vague and did not give us very much information, I am asking now that the Government should say exactly how the disregards will work.
I have in mind cases where an assessment has already been made and someone has been excluded because his disposable income is too high or he has, perhaps, been assessed on the fifty-fifty basis at a certain figure and payments are being made. Will such cases be automatically reconsidered by the Assistance Board and a reduction given? Can people who fall outside the scope of legal aid now be brought in? Are the new scales to work only in respect of applications after the appointed day?
I have in mind a case which I have mentioned on a number of occasions, which concerns a man in receipt of sickness benefit and unemployability supplement 474 who is being charged 10 guineas for a legal aid case and who is paying at the rate of 17s. 6d. a month. It seems to me that these disregards may make a slight difference in his case. Will cases which have previously been assessed now be brought within the scope of the scheme so that such people may have benefit from it? In other words, can the benefits be made retrospective for existing cases?
That is the main point which I want to raise. If we could have a better explanation as to how the scheme will work, then I think that the Amendment will have served its purpose.
§ The Attorney-General
In replying to the debate, I should like to draw the attention of the Committee to the scope of the Bill. The Bill starts off by giving the Minister power by regulation to amend paragraph 3 or 5 of the Second Schedule to the National Assistance Act, 1948. That is a Schedule which states that here will be certain disregards in dealing with applications for National Assistance. When the Legal Aid and Advice Act was passed in 1949, Section 4 embodied word for word the same paragraph of the Second Schedule of the National Assistance Act.
Under the Legal Aid and Advice Act it was required to be set out for the guidance of those who had to operate it in regulations made under the Legal Aid and Advice Act. Paragraph 5 appeared in four places, namely, in the National Assistance Act, the Legal Aid and Advice Act, the Legal Aid and Advice (Scotland) Act and in regulations made under those two last Acts.
§ The Attorney-General
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. Five is the correct figure.
The Committee should realise that all that the latter part of the Bill seeks to do is to ensure that the disregards for legal aid assessments shall keep in line with the disregards for National Assistance. If the Amendment were carried, the effect of it would be disastrous, because the National Assistance disregards would be raised by Order or by Statutory Instrument put before the House by the Minister and the disregards for legal aid assessments would be left where they were.
475 The provision which the hon. Gentleman seeks to leave out ensures that that does not happen and that, whatever changes upwards are made in the disregards for National Assistance for the purpose of assessing National Assistance, there shall be the same disregards as there has always been up to now for the purpose of legal aid assessments.
That is all the Bill does in relation to legal aid assessments. It is obviously desirable that it should do that. If the Bill did not link this particular feature of legal aid with National Assistance, it would mean separate legislation to amend the disregards, because there is no power to amend the Legal Aid Act in this respect by Statutory Instrument. I hope that the Committee will agree with me when I say that there is no case at all for the acceptance of the Amendment.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether this was the alteration which was promised on 24th February, when we discussed the Legal Aid Schemes and when I moved an Amendment which was endorsed by the House and which read as follows:endorses the introduction by Her Majesty's Government of a scheme for oral legal advice; welcomes the announcement of the intention of Her Majesty's Government to implement the provisions of Sections 21 to 23 of the Legal Aid and Advice Act, 1949, relating to legal aid in criminal courts, and the provisions of Section 5, relating to legal aid in matters not involving litigation; and recognises that it is desirable to modify the financial provisions of the Legal Aid Scheme when circumstances permit.I do not depart one iota from the words of that Amendment. There is a strong case for altering the financial limits "when circumstances permit", but that is not under discussion today.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this provision in the Bill, for the reasons which I have given, is not put forward as an implementation of what was said on 24th February. It is purely a machinery provision which I hope I have now been able to satisfy the hon. Gentleman is desirable. It will operate when regulations are made increasing the disregards for National Assistance. It will obviously automatically operate when regulations are made which affect the position of those who have applied for legal aid.
§ The Attorney-General
I will deal with that point in a moment. The hon. Gentleman knows that applications for legal aid are frequently reviewed under a change of circumstances. I have had many cases brought to my attention where, on further investigation, it is shown that, owing to non-disclosure of a material fact by an applicant or a mistake being made in some of the figures, too high an assessment has been made, and that will be varied. Similarly, I apprehend that when the disregards are increased it will be possible to get the assessments adjusted. I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's point about existing cases positively, because one does not know the state that a case will be in when the regulations come into effect. I am not trying to evade the hon. Gentleman's question. I am trying to answer it, but I cannot give an answer—
§ Mr. Chetwynd
Usually, people pay so much a month towards the assessment. Regardless of what has happened in the case of past payments, will it be possible to review future cases?
§ The Attorney-General
A review can always take place, as is the case at present. I do not think that there will be any difficulty about this. An existing case might have finished before the regulations come into force. I cannot give a positive answer to the hon. Gentle- man, for, as he knows, assessments are reviewed from time to time when there is a change of circumstances, and if the disregards are increased while the case is being dealt with that would be a change of circumstances.
I hope that I have dealt satisfactorily with the point which has been raised, but again I do not think that it really arises under the Amendment. However, I am glad to have had the opportunity of answering it.
§ Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)
I am not anxious to continue the discussion on this Amendment, but I think that we are all anxious to be of assistance to the old people and to those on National Assistance in helping them to understand the meaning of the Bill. Being so anxious, we should have a little more clarification from the Attorney-General.
May I call the right hon. and learned Gentleman's attention to paragraph 7 of 477 the White Paper, "Improvements in National Assistance"? Under the heading "Capital and Income Disregards", it is stated:Any Order made under the power which is being sought to increase the amounts of resources disregarded under the National Assistance Act will also make corresponding increases for the purpose of the disregards to be applied in deciding applications for legal aid, in so far as these are governed by the National Assistance Act.In practically 99 per cent. of the disregards the amount is stated, but in the case of an applicant for legal aid the amount is not stated.
The question which I want to ask the Attorney-General is this: will the disregards applicable to an applicant who makes application for legal aid be the same as the other disregards mentioned in the White Paper? That is a very important point. If the Attorney-General can answer it, it will assist considerably old people who have had the misfortune to have to apply for legal aid in understanding their exact position.
§ 4.0 p.m.
§ The Attorney-General
The disregards that come under paragraph (5) of the Second Schedule of the National Assistance Act will be the same as the disregards that are given for legal aid assessments. This provision is intended to ensure, and does ensure, that there will be the same disregards for both. No matter what changes are made under National Assistance, the amount of the disregards under that part of the National Assistance Act will also be applied with regard to legal aid.
§ Mr. T. Fraser
I wonder whether the learned Attorney-General would turn his mind to another question, relating to the position of the person who got his legal aid certificate, had his assessment and then, perhaps three months—
§ Mr. Fraser
The learned Attorney-General seems to be electing himself Chairman of this Committee. He tells me that I am out of order. The question asked was about the person whose assessment has now been made, with contributions to be paid over twelve months. If there is, say, six or nine months still to run, can that assessment 478 be looked at again in the context of regulations, when made?
§ The Attorney-General
If the hon. Gentleman had listened he would have heard me answer the question asked by his hon. Friend and, I think, to that hon. Gentleman's satisfaction. I answered at some length, and the answer was "Yes".
§ Mr. Fraser
I am grateful. If the Attorney-General says that he answered it, and that the answer was "Yes", I withdraw what I said, and apologise. I thought that in his previous answer he was concerned with the case where an application had been made but no decision had been reached. However, I accept that reply.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman also said something that showed that he has been reviewing cases that have been sent to him. He said that he found that sometimes the assessment was too high because some material figure had not been disclosed; that this had been brought out after he himself had considered the case, that an adjustment had been made and the contribution reduced.
I think that I have all the right hon. and learned Gentleman's supporters with me in that, so I want to tell them that on 22nd June the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland wrote to me about a case, saying:The Secretary of State has no power to review the Board's decision and I am sure you will appreciate that it would not be proper for me to comment on how they had reached it in any particular case.I had written about a constituent who was asked for a contribution of £1 a week for the next twelve months. This constituent could not afford £1 a week out of a wage of less than £8, and with a rent of 20s. or 30s. a week. Because he could not make the contribution, his wife, who was the litigant, found that the doors of the court were closed to her—this poor woman who was making a claim for damages, and had a legal aid certificate. She will never be able to use her hand again.
The Joint Under-Secretary wrote that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has no power to review the Board's decision, but if he has no power to do what the learned Attorney-General said that he has done—
§ The Attorney-General rose—479
§ Mr. Fraser
The right hon. and learned Gentleman can get up only when I sit down. I am perfectly willing to give way, but he must learn to show a little courtesy, instead of just pushing in and trying to browbeat. I give way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman.
§ The Attorney-General
The hon. Gentleman did not catch correctly what I said. I have no power to review the decision of the National Assistance Board, and never said that I had. I cannot review those cases. It is not within my power, nor is it within the function of the Secretary of State for Scotland. However, hon. Members do write, quite naturally, drawing my attention to particular cases—as, in Scotland, no doubt, they do to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I then bring the facts of those cases to the attention of the Board. All I was saying was that in some of the cases brought to my attention, and which I have referred to the National Assistance Board, the disclosure of new facts has led to a revision of the assessment.
If the hon. Gentleman heard that part of my answer, I really do not understand why he did not hear the other part, when I said that assessments are changed from time to time as circumstances alter, and also in the light of fresh discoveries as to relevant facts. And I really do not know why the hon. Gentleman should get so annoyed when I try to correct him on that. I have no power, and never have had any power at all, to review assessments made by the National Assistance Board. I hope that I have made that clear to the hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. Fraser
Yes, the right hon. and learned Gentleman has made that clear to me, but he did not do so in his original speech. What I am trying to make clear to him is that when the Joint Under-Secretary had from me the kind of complaint that the Attorney-General has had from other hon. Gentlemen, the Under-Secretary has written to tell me that he has not the power to take the action that the Attorney-General has taken. I leave it to the Under-Secretary. He has not referred this case—or, if he has, he has not told me—to the National Assistance Board. He has told me, politely but quite clearly, that when the Board makes up its mind it makes up its mind, 480 and that he has no responsibility for making any assessment.
I do not want to continue this discussion unnecessarily. I think that I raised a reasonable point on this Amendment, and I also think that it is quite clear that a function that did previously lie with the Lord Chancellor and with the Secretary of State is being so altered as to take from the Secretary of State the power to make regulations to amend a Scottish Act, and that that power is being vested in the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.
§ Mr. George Lawson (Motherwell)
This Clause deals with the disregards. We welcome the fact that the disregards are being raised, but I should like to know to what extent that will affect the amount of money a person is allowed to spend out of savings. I cannot recall this having been mentioned at all, but it recalls rather vividly to my mind a case brought to my notice of a man who had not reached retiring age but who was so badly crippled with arthritis that he was no longer able to work. He had saved a little money, and was making desperate efforts to make himself again fit for work. To do that, he was spending some of the money he had saved on special treatment that he could not get from the National Health Service—I neither praise nor condemn that.
The local National Assistance office put a very strict limit on the amount of the man's own savings that he would be permitted to spend, and regularly scrutinised his savings book to see that he was not spending more than the sum laid down. This was his own money that he had saved. He told me that on two occasions his National Assistance money had been docked because he had spent rather more than the permitted amount. On one occasion he had spent a little money, not on buying his wife a new coat—he could not rise to that—but on having his wife's coat cleaned and repaired. Because of this additional expenditure his National Assistance money was docked. I must say that immediately I intervened with the local manager that decision to reduce his National Assistance money was wiped out 481 and he was paid the money he had been previously paid.
I do not know whether or not there is a rule—and it is this I want to have cleared up—which lays down that if a person has a certain amount of savings, which is disregarded, he shall be permitted to spend only a certain amount of that money. Is there a rule which says that? Is this treated in this way? Is it that he is allowed to spend 10s. 6d. or 15s.? Or is this a matter for local decision? It would certainly seem to me that if this practice is engaged in in some parts of the country—and I know that it is or has been engaged in in my own constituency—there should be some uniform method of dealing with this.
The case I have mentioned was that of a very genuine person making a really desperate effort to get himself into a fit condition again for working, and who had to suffer what we have so often been told it is very much against the policy of this Committee a person should suffer, namely, the humiliation of being told that he was not permitted to spend what was a matter of almost a few shillings, or else the money he had been receiving from the National Assistance Board would be reduced.
Is there or will there be a rule which says that a person who has a certain sum of money saved, and is drawing upon that money to supplement National Assistance money he is receiving, will be permitted to draw a certain sum only per week? Or is this a matter which is left for the local manager or the local officials? It certainly seems to me that this is a matter which requires clarification, and I should like to hear what the position is.
§ Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)
In the White Paper the Minister has been good enough to give the Committee a preview of the changes in the disregards which he proposes to make when the Bill becomes law. I am not sure whether it will be permissible in this debate on the Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," to comment on the use which the Minister proposes to make of these powers when he gets them. If it is I should like to suggest to him that while there is still time to consider the actual changes in the disregards he 482 should consider whether they go far enough.
The 10s. 6d., for example, from vocational pension schemes which is in the existing disregards and which he proposes to amend to 15s. seems a small increase when looked at in the ratio between the 10s. 6d. as it originally was and still is and the maximum amount of Assistance which could be granted to a married couple in 1948. The 10s. 6d. then was about one-quarter of the maximum Assistance given to a married couple. Under the proposals which the Minister has outlined in the White Paper. 15s. will be nearer one-sixth of the total amount which may be granted to a married couple.
The point I am making is that the ratio in 1948 between the disregards and the standard rate of Assistance will be less favourable in future than it was in 1948. For instance, consider the amount of 20s. of war disability or industrial injury disablement pension which is in the existing disregards and which he proposes to make 30s. In 1948, the disregard of war disability pension could be one-half approximately of the standard rate of Assistance. When the Minister has increased the 20s. to 30s. that disregard will in future be no more than one-third. There, again, there is an unfavourable disturbance of the ratio between the disregards and the standard rate of Assistance in 1948.
Throughout all the discussions on the payment of post-war credits we were assured that post-war credit repayments would not be taken into account for the purpose of assessing National Assistance. Looking at the Second Schedule to the 1948 Act I saw there, in paragraph 7 (4), what is laid down for the reckoning of post-war credits under National Assistance, and it seems to me that there is no legal sanction for a complete disregard.
Paragraps 7 (4) of the Second Schedule provides that the amount of post-war credits repaid shall be counted as part of war savings. That seems to mean that if a recipient of National Assistance already has the full exemption for war savings then the post-war credit repayment would be reckonable for National Assistance. That seems to me to be the 483 interpretation of the Second Schedule to the 1948 Act.
I rather thought that the Minister had given one of those things which are frequently described as extra statutory concessions. It may be he is so doing. I have no case to bring to his attention where any person has claimed that a post-war credit has been reckonable for National Assistance because he already had the maximum exemption for war savings.
However, I think that before we part with this Clause it is well that the Minister should be satisfied that he has no need to extend the scope of the amendments to the Second Schedule which are provided here. He restricts the powers which he seeks to amending the amounts of the disregards in paragraphs 3 to 5 inclusive of the Second Schedule to the 1948 Act, which excludes paragraph 2 which deals with war savings. He is not proposing to take power to increase the maximum amount of war savings which the recipient of National Assistance may have without worsening the amount of his National Assistance.
§ The Temporary Chairman (Mr. James H. Hoy)
I do not want to interrupt the hon. Member, but I would just remind him and the Committee that, before this can be done, we shall have a Statutory Instrument brought before the House. That will be debatable then, so I do not think that we should let this matter go too wide now.
§ Mr. Houghton
I am very much obliged to you, Mr. Hoy. You have been so generous to me that the point you have now raised relates to my previous remarks, not to what I am saying now.
What I am saying now is that the Clause is probably not wide enough to deal with this point. Nothing the Minister can produce in Statutory Instruments under this Clause can touch the point to which I am referring at the moment as long as the Clause is limited to paragraphs 3 to 5 inclusive of the Second Schedule to the 1948 Act.
I have finished what I had to say. I have drawn the Minister's attention to this. If he can assure the Committee that no difficulties will arise on this matter and that there is no need to do anything about paragraph 2 of the 484 Second Schedule, I am sure that the Committee will be satisfied, but I think that we should be upset if, after the assurances we were given on earlier legislation, we were to let this point go, when considering a Clause which gives power to make concessions, and later found, to our dismay, that persons were placed at a disadvantage in claiming National Assistance because their postwar credit repayments took them over the limit of war savings specified in the Second Schedule to the 1948 Act as it stands now.
§ Mr. E. Fernyhough (Jarrow)
The case which my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) has just made out for further increases in the disregards is made stronger if it is remembered that the present disregards were not fixed in 1948 but in 1943. We must bear in mind, when we consider how far the position in connection with disregards has worsened, that the purchasing power of the £ was much greater in 1943 than in 1948, and again much greater in 1948 than in 1959.
I do not know whether anything can be done about it, but I feel sorry for those working men who subscribe to a sickness fund at work so that their workmates when they become sick and have no benefit except National Insurance can receive, after a month or six weeks of sickness, 7s. 6d. or 10s. or 15s. per week. I know of firms where men are assisted by their workmates in this manner, but those workmates find their generosity penalised by the National Assistance Board not because the local officials want to do that, but because they must bow to the regulations.
I wonder whether, in circumstances of that kind, the Minister could get the Assistance Board officers to turn a blind eye to the ex gratia payments made by workmen to their mates who are suffering from a long illness. If he could help, it would be greatly appreciated by those affected.
The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. W. M. F. Vane)
I think that it would help if I answered questions in the reverse order. First, the question of the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough) is answered by the fact that the point is normally met by the Board's exercise of discretion.
§ Mr. Fernyhough
But that has not been exercised in the case to which I have been referring. It would be appreciated if the Minister could say a word about that.
If the hon. Member will send me details I will take the matter up with the Chairman of the Board. It is extremely difficult, without making a Statute inordinately long, and particularly the Schedule, to cover every circumstance that might arise. In general, the sort of payment which the hon. Member has mentioned is met by the Board exercising its discretion.
The hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) asked two questions. The first was about post-war credits. There have been repayments, of course, over a number of years and, therefore, this is not a new problem which we have before us. There is a certain experience already. The sort of circumstances which he mentioned have been met without great difficulty and, once again, it has been possible where special problems have arisen to meet them generally by the exercise of the Board's discretion.
§ Mr. Houghton
I take the point completely, but I would remind the hon. Gentleman that now, for the first time, we are making repayments of post-war credits to persons who have been on National Assistance for 12 weeks or more and, therefore, we are going right to the heart of the matter.
I realise the problem and that it may become greater in the future. As the hon. Member has pointed out, this is outside the relevant paragraphs in the Second Schedule and, therefore, right outside the scope of the Bill, because we have considered that there was not so much of a problem here as to make it necessary to bring the matter into the Bill.
The hon. Member for Sowerby also asked whether the disregards which we are proposing to raise in accordance with the paragraphs in the White Paper go far enough. I suppose that it is fair to say that whatever figures we offset some people would think that one or other had not moved far enough, or had better be fixed at a different level. But we are raising the real standards by lifting the rates, and we have to bear that in mind when we consider the proposed 486 disregards and compare them with those which applied ten years ago.
These disregards are not applicable to everyone. They apply only to some. Improved though they are, the rates are the really important figures. We are lifting the rates in a higher proportion, and it is not unreasonable to find at the end of the day that the disregards have not moved in quite the same proportion.
The hon. Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) mentioned a special case and asked whether the circumstances which he roughly sketched out were in accordance with any general rule of the Board. I assure him that there is no such general rule. If he is in trouble with any case of the nature he described I should be glad if he would let me have the full details, when I will take it up with the chairman of the Board. I repeat that there is no general rule, which, indeed, would be very harsh. What we are doing is taking power to change certain figures on which calculations are based, and nothing more than that.
§ Mr. Lawson
The point concerns cases where capital is being used as income. The capital has been disregarded, but when it comes to use as income, is it taken into account? I know that it has been taken into account in the case which I mentioned. I discussed this question at the weekend with a new manager, not the manager with whom I dealt previously and against whom I have no complaint. I asked the new manager whether there were any rule or whether he himself took the matter into account. He replied that if the applicant was expending extravagantly that would have to be taken into account. That, of course, raises the question of what is meant by "extravagantly". The new manager seems to have in his mind that if the person is spending capital which has been disregarded that can be taken into account.
I can only repeat that there is no general rule. The capital figures which we are considering now are intended to help in the calculation of entitlement to National Assistance. But, if spent reasonably, I cannot imagine anyone commenting on how a person receiving National Assistance dealt with his own capital resources, which usually are not very great. On the other hand, 487 I can imagine a manager, or any of us who might find himself responsible, commenting on the matter if it were known that a person who by general repute in the village had been spending his resources extravagantly was, at the same time, coming into the office and putting over the counter a poor face on his circumstances. But there is no general rule. All we are doing is changing certain figures on which the well-known calculations are based. With that assurance, I hope that the Committee will accept the Clause.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.
§ Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
§ Bill reported, without Amendment; read the Third time and passed.