HC Deb 19 December 1962 vol 669 cc1273-7

3.43 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend section 4 of the National Insurance Act 1957 in its application to sick or disabled persons, and for purposes in connection therewith. My proposed Bill is a simple, one-Clause Measure. It has been designed to appeal to all sections of the House and it concerns one genuine grievance. Perhaps I could be permitted to explain it in terms which will be audible to someone more than two yards from me.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member is perfectly right. I hope that hon. Members will extend the courtesy to him they would wish to receive if they were doing the same operation themselves.

Mr. Hale

I am obliged, Mr. Speaker.

Section 4 of the 1957 Act was introduced by the former Minister of Pensions and National Insurance largely on the ground that a six-day week had been replaced by a five-day week and that, therefore, it was undesirable that people should draw unemployment benefit for Saturdays when they were not working on Saturdays at all and were not intended to.

That in itself was at least an argument of reason. It is, however, far from being reasonable in practice, as the House will understand when I point out the whole series of complicated regulations which have been amended from time to time. I am not sure that the 1957 Act introduced much in the way of a new principle. Some of the cases to which I shall refer arise under old Orders made in 1948 by the Labour Government as Statutory Instruments, under special provisions which precluded debate.

This general provision that a man's unemployment benefit should depend on what was his normal week has received some extraordinary interpretations. I had intended to refer fairly fully to the case of Mr. Joseph Blakeman, which was heard by the National Insurance Commissioner two weeks ago, on terms that no evidence was called on either side, that the facts were agreed, and that it was purely a question of arguing whether there was any law in the matter.

I had to admit to the Commissioner that there was no decision of any kind in my favour which I could quote. Indeed, there are not many decisions in favour of workmen by this Tribunal as compared with those in favour of the National Insurance officials. It is the practice of the Commissioner to give his decision in writing, and I have not yet received it. It would, therefore, be proper to say in these circumstances that it is still sub judice, but I suggest that there can be no possible objection to my stating, without visible emotion and without adjectives, the facts which were agreed.

Mr. Blakeman, admitted by everyone to be gravely suffering from schizophrenia, had been disallowed a disability pension. The then Mayor of Oldham took an interest in the case and tried to find him alternative employment, for work is essential for any sort of treatment for mental health. The mayor approached the manager of the corporation market and asked him to find Mr. Blakeman a job. The market manager did his best.

The market opens for only three days a week and it has been the custom for most of the employees to carry out maintenance and other work in the market on the other three days. Thus, they made up the six days. It was found that Mr. Blakeman could not be left alone. Although he worked six days for a time, the market manager eventually got him work for three days on market days, and he drew unemployment benefit for the rest of the week.

That went on for some time, and then a National Insurance officer called attention to the 1957 Act and said that Mr. Blakeman's normal working week was three days, and, therefore, he could not get unemployment benefit for the fourth or fifth day because the ambit of his employment was now so restricted that he could not qualify for it. That is one decision.

I am sure that the House never intended that. I do not believe that hon. Members on either side ever dreamed that the interpretation would go in this way. I have obtained chapter and verse to show how these things occur. This all began with a decision in 1951 in respect of a man who was registered as disabled and who was working for only two days a week, on Saturday and Sunday. His unemployment benefit was disallowed. I think that that was a hard decision, but the trouble was that it was also used as a precedent for Case No. 13 of 1955.

This case was that of a totally blind worker who was employed as a bed-maker in one of the institutions provided by the National Institute for the Blind. He had worked five days a week, but for a time, with other blind workers, had been restricted to a four-day week because of the difficulty of finding employment. He was disallowed benefit on a five-day week basis on the ground that his ambit of work had been restricted to four days a week.

In all these three cases it was conceded that the men concerned were definitely anxious to get work and that their ambits were restricted by disablement. Those are the facts. I hope that, if representatives of the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance go wandering round the House on future Fridays, asking hon. Members to say "Object" when my Bill—if I have leave to introduce it—is called, they will remember those facts. Objections raise problems. Objections from one side of the House can be contagious. They are apt to find repetition from hon. Members on the other side of the House in relation to other Bills.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have considerable sympathy with what the hon. Member is saying, but I do not think that it is in order while explaining the principles on which he is asking leave to bring in his Bill.

Mr. Hale

I am obliged, Mr. Speaker.

I did not observe that the hon. Lady the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance was present, presumably on behalf of her right hon. Friend. I apologise to her, but, nevertheless, with some regret, for her presence thus robs me of my peroration.

I recall that the immortal Abraham Hummel, when he had a bad case, used to put in the presence of the jury a charming young lady, to whom he referred from time to time, with a halting voice and bleeding heart, either as a bereaved widow, or a distressed wife, or an orphan girl, or a seduced virgin, as the occasion made proper. While I receive the hon. Lady with welcome, I do so with a considerable amount of reserve.

Some important observations on unemployment as it stands were made in the House on Monday and there was a letter from the hon. Member for Louth (Sir C. Osborne), in a Sunday newspaper, saying that things might be much worse, Which, indeed, they might, though they might also be better. No doubt, we might have the Duke of Beaufort explaining that if he were a workman, he would like to die of unemployment. Nevertheless, I believe that some of the relevant figures for the Act, which was produced in an era of economic mysticism, would surprise the House today.

I put down a Question on 10th December, for Written Answer, which disclosed that the unemployment benefit paid to a single main, in proportion to the adult wages for a single man, was about 32 per cent. in the wicked days of 1924 and is about 18.5 per cent. today, while the Observer reports that German workers get about 90 per cent. of their wages far unemployment pay.

This is a serious matter. It is almost a tragedy if the Ministry is engaged in chiselling off little bits of benefit, and I hope that the House will take the view that this is essentially undesirable. I have spoken, and I think that everyone will be pleased about this, for a much Shorter time than I had intended, partly because that portion of my argument which you, Mr. Speaker, properly ruled out of order was not nearly so much crud of order as that portion which was to follow, partly because the hon. Lady is present, and partly because, as housebreakers broke into my house last night, and I have not yet had time to go home and find out what was taken, I am rather anxious to terminate this discourse.

This is a simple and honourable Measure, which I commend to the House. I was credibly assured same weeks ago by two of the younger members of the acquisitive society that Good King Wenceslas was looking out. If he had been in John Adam Street, he had every cause to look out, and if he had looked out last Friday, he would have been disappointed. It is in the spirit of the time and in accordance with the general desire at this time of the year to do justice to the sick, the maimed and the disabled, that I humbly ask the House to grant me leave to introduce this Measure.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Leslie Hale, Mr. Frank Allaun, Mr. Fenner Brockway, Mr. Fernyhough, Mr. Dingle Foot, Mr. Michael Foot, Mr. Charles Loughlin, Mr. Charles Mapp, Mr. Walter Monslow, and Mr. Sydney Silverman.