HC Deb 15 June 1959 vol 607 cc34-42

3.30 p.m.

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

I should like, with permission, to make a statement.

Her Majesty's Government and the National Assistance Board have decided that the standard of provision for the least well-off members of the community should now be in some measure improved in order to give them a share in the country's increasing prosperity.

Since 1952 the Board, with whom, as the House knows, the initiative in proposing increases in the scale rates of National Assistance has been placed by Statute, has been able, with the cooperation of the Government of the day, to maintain the scales of assistance at levels somewhat better than those originally fixed in 1948. That is the position today. On the other hand, the various amounts of income and capital which the Board is entitled to disregard in the assessment of need—the so-called "disregards"—are still at the level in cash terms at which they were fixed in 1948.

The National Assistance Board has recommended, and the Government have accepted, a proposal to increase the scale of assistance for a single householder from the present level of 45s. a week to 50s. and for a married couple from 76s. to 85s. a week, with appropriate increases in other rates.

It is also proposed to make a substantial change in the arrangements where a recipient of National Assistance has in his household an earning member of his family. At present, the rent taken into account by the Board in these cases is normally that fixed some years ago on the advice of local advisory committees, in many cases less than the actual rent. There is also a contribution of 7s. a week towards the general expenses of the household assumed to be made by the earning member. It is proposed in future normally to take account of the full rent, to abandon the concept of an assumed contribution to general household expenses and instead to assess National Assistance on the basis that the earning member of the household and the recipient of assistance each contributes his own share of the total rent.

It is proposed to make increases in the disregards of capital, other than war savings, and of income of the order of 50 per cent.

The increases in National Assistance will apply generally to recipients of assistance, including those who draw it as a supplement to retirement pension or to unemployment or other National Insurance benefits, as well as to those who rely solely on assistance, either for long or short periods.

It is sometimes suggested that an application for National Assistance can involve some loss of self-respect. This is quite wrong. In our society today, assistance when in need according to the provision made by Parliament is the acknowledged right of the citizen. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House, and people outside, will join me in expressing the hope that all those who are in need will make use of the State provision to which they are entitled. As has often been emphasised in this House, there can be complete confidence that the National Assistance Board and its officers administer this form of social service humanely and sympathetically. We are considering with the Board whether the terminology used in order books and other documents can be improved so as to obviate any possibility of misunderstanding.

Legislation will be needed to enable changes to be made in those disregards which are fixed by Statute, and I am today giving notice of presentation of the necessary Bill. I have also today laid the necessary regulations to give effect to the improvements in scale rates and other changes. A White Paper setting out the proposals in full will be available at the Vote Office at 4 o'clock this afternoon.

These proposals will cost about £32 million in a full year and, subject to the approval of Parliament, it is proposed to bring them all into operation together early in September.

Mr. Marquand

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that on this side of the House we recognise with pleasure the belated recognition by Her Majesty's Government that there are in this country already more than one million old-age pensioners in receipt of National Assistance? This is a belated recognition of a fact we have often emphasised from this side of the House, that these are the worst-off people in the country.

The right hon. Gentleman drew attention to the fact that normally the initiative for any increases of this kind lies with the National Assistance Board. On what date did the National Assistance Board inform the right hon. Gentleman that there were these large numbers of people receiving insufficient incomes? On what date did the Government receive the recommendation from the National Assistance Board?

Is it not a fact that it is as a result of the policy of Her Majesty's Government that it is now necessary to compensate millions of our fellow citizens for the increase in rents which the Government have imposed upon these unfortunate people? Further, how many additional people will be obliged to resort to National Assistance as the result of the proposals which the right hon. Gentleman has just announced? Already more than 1 million retirement pensioners, and very many more recipients of unemployment and sickness benefit, are on National Assistance. Will this not mean a vast extension of the system of the family means test which was so detestable during the period of the great depression?

As the Government have refused to make any increase in the retirement pension for old people, why do they now propose to make in September the sort of increase which we have asked for from this side of the House? Why has the date of September been chosen for the inauguration of these increases? Have the right hon. Gentleman and other members of the Government, in considering this matter, had regard to the date of the General Election?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The dates of the various procedural steps will be given in the White Paper, which will be available in a few minutes. On the right hon. Gentleman's concluding question, the time from announcement to date of operation proposed is within two days of what it was on the last occasion in January, 1958.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that rent and rates are dealt with separately from the scale rates under National Assistance and that, therefore, the question of changes in rents is largely irrelevant to a proposal to improve the scale rates.

As regards what the right hon. Gentleman was good enough to call a "belated recognition" of the desirability of making improvements in this direction, I remind the House, first, that to-day the value of the scales is above the original 1948 level, and secondly, that the proposed increase, unlike any of its predecessors, is not necessitated or called for by changes in the cost of living, but is a deliberate decision to improve the standards.

As regards the allegation of reviving the old family means test, when the right hon. Gentleman studies—he has a copy of my statement in front of him—what I said on the question of the assumptions where accommodation is shared with an earning member of the family, he will see that the move is in precisely the opposite direction.

This is not a question of anybody being obliged to resort to National Assistance. It is a deliberate intention to raise the standards, as the statement says, of the least well-off members of the community, and I think that it will be viewed as such.

Mr. Marquand

As the vast majority of recipients of National Assistance are also recipients of National Insurance benefits for retirement, unemployment and sickness, would it not have been better to grant this increased income by way of an increase in National Insurance benefits, thus conferring upon the recipients the right to receive these benefits as of right without a means test?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

This step concentrates this substantial sum of public money on those who almost by definition are most in need of it and includes the hundreds of thousands of people, whom the right hon. Gentleman's proposal would have excluded, who do not have any National Insurance benefit.

Mr. M. Lindsay

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that the statement he has just made will be generally welcomed and that the Government are very much to be congratulated upon it? My right hon. Friend mentioned the possibility of a change in the terminology. Will he consider whether this opportunity can be taken to get away from the phrase "National Assistance", which is difficult for proud people to accept, and to change the name to something like "supplementary means", "supplementary pension", or something of that nature?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for the opening part of his supplementary question. On the latter part, as my statement, I hope, makes clear, we are considering the use of different terminology, for example, such phrases as "supplement to pension" or "supplement to benefit" on the books which are taken to the post office for cashing. This is probably the most fruitful line of approach, though even that, for reasons which the House will appreciate, is something that will take some months after a decision is taken before it can operate.

Mr. Holt

In regard to the 50 per cent. increase in the disregards of capital and of income, does the Minister have any estimate from the National Assistance Board of the number of people likely to be affected by this proposal? Secondly, may we now expect in the near future an increase in the basic pension?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Anybody who has his assistance diminished by reason of his resources of income or capital stands to gain from an increase in the disregards and there will be a number of people—it is impossible to specify precisely—who will become additionally eligible. In reply to the second part of the hon. Member's question, nothing have said this afternoon detracts from the very clear statements of policy which have been made from time to time on this subject, notably by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in winding up the Budget debate.

Mr. Gower

As this represents a substantial increase and also the possibility of increasing the numbers of people who will benefit, will not my right hon. Friend reconsider the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. M. Lindsay) and get rid of the word "Assistance" from the title of the institution? Will he get a different name for this body?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I know that my hon. Friend's viewpoint is shared by a certain number of people. My own view, however, is that the institution itself by the devotion to duty of its officers, is earning an increasingly good name and that although, in suitable cases, we can deal with any unnecessary unwillingness to apply by the sort of expedients I have mentioned, I am inclined to doubt whether changing the name of this extremely well-administered body would itself help to that end.

Mr. T. Brown

It is obvious that we shall have an opportunity of discussing in detail the statement just made by the Minister. I should like to ask him one question. He has referred to the disregards. Can he give one solid reason why this matter was not attended to eighteen months ago, when we on this side advocated a change in the disregards? The right hon. Gentleman and his Department are fully aware that the disregards were fixed in 1948, eleven years ago, and that they have never been changed until the recommendations which the right hon. Gentleman has just submitted. He has referred this afternoon to the cost of living, which, no doubt, will be discussed later, but can he give one reason why the National Assistance Board did not give consideration sooner to an alteration in the disregards?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

In the first place, most of the disregards are not for the National Assistance Board but, being statutory, are a matter for the Government. It has generally been understood that the disregards ought not to be altered frequently—only a good deal of confusion and misunderstanding would be caused by that—and certainly not as frequently as the scale rates. It certainly seems that the time is now due to alter the disregards and it is the easier to do it effectively in view of the stability of prices over recent months.

Sir K. Joseph

In congratulating my right hon. Friend on this most welcome decision, may I ask two questions? First, will he clear up the assumption made by the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Marquand) that this sum will go almost entirely to the elderly? Surely, by right hon. Friend stated that some of it will go to people who are unemployed, the chronic sick and those in other forms of distress, to whom this help will be particularly welcome.

Secondly, will my right hon. Friend pay great regard to the question of publicity? Some of us believe—[Interruption.] Hon. Members opposite are being extremely churlish about the whole question of helping the poorest in the land. Many of us believe that ignorance rather than pride stops some members of the community from using the National Assistance Board. I hope that every step will be taken to reach those who are entitled as of right but who do not know their rights.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

In round figures, of 1,650,000 regular payments of National Assistance, a little over 1 million are in respect of people over retirement pension age. The substantial balance are, of course, people who are unemployed, sick, disabled, and so on. On the second part of the hon. Baronet's question, I deliberately put words in my statement in which I suggested that hon. Members, on both sides, would wish to ensure that those who are genuinely in need of assistance are encouraged to apply for it.

It is important that there should be no doubt whatever about the right of the citizen in such circumstances and that the conditions on which Assistance is paid should be fully appreciated. For example, our discussion at later stages on the disregards will, I think, bring out clearly what some people even now do not know—that is, how substantial even the existing disregards are—and that, therefore, it is not necessary completely to exhaust one's savings to have an entitlement to National Assistance.

Mr. Crossman

While joining the right hon. Gentleman in his tribute to the officials of the National Assistance Board, may I ask a question about what I consider to be almost unprecedented action in raising the rate of National Assistance while keeping the standard rate of benefit fixed? Would the right hon. Gentleman not agree that, throughout the passage of his recent Measure, he congratulated himself time after time on the number of people whom he had taken off National Assistance and implied that it was the Government's policy to reduce as far as possible the numbers of people who were compelled to go to National Assistance and to increase the numbers of those who could live on the basic pension?

Does this mean that the Government have entirely repudiated the policy of reducing the number of those compelled to go to National Assistance? Does it mean that the Government now have decided not to raise the rate of retirement benefit as far as possible or the benefit for other purposes, but to ensure that they try to use the poor law system where we were trying to get benefit as of right?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

That question is based on a false premise—that it is unprecedented to raise the Assistance scales and not the National Insurance Benefit scales. Since 1948, there have been four increases in the National Insurance and six in the National Assistance rates. On the last part of the hon. Member's question, as I said in reply to an earlier question, nothing that I have said today or which is involved in my statement diminishes in any way the perfectly clear assurance given, not only by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but in paragraph 34 of the White Paper on Provision for Old Age.

Mr. Wigg

As the right hon. Gentleman is responsible for the assessment of National Service grants, would he say whether the concession now made applies to the dependants of National Service men who are serving or who will serve?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

If the question which the hon. Gentleman has in mind relates to National Service grants, it should be directed to my right hon. Friends the Service Ministers.

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