HC Deb 03 July 1962 vol 662 cc284-90
The Minister of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter)

I will, with permission, make a statement about National Assistance.

I have received from the National Assistance Board proposals under Section 6 of the National Assistance Act, 1948, for further increases in the current rates of National Assistance which came into operation, as the House knows, on 3rd April, 1961. I have accepted the Board's proposals and have made draft Regulations accordingly. These have been laid today and together with copies of an explanatory memorandum by the Board are now available in the Vote Office.

These draft Regulations require the approval of both Houses of Parliament by affirmative Resolution.

Subject to this approval being given, the Regulations will provide for the weekly rates for a single householder to be increased by 4s. from 53s. 6d. to 57s. 6d., for a married couple by 5s. 6d. from 90s. to 95s. 6d., and for adults living as members of somebody else's household by 2s. from 49s. 6d. to 51s. 6d. Appropriate improvements are also proposed for young people and children.

As the House will see, when hon. Members have had an opportunity to study the draft Regulations, the Board has on this occasion felt that rather more proportionately should be given to the single householder than to other people.

I should add that broadly proportion- ate increases are also proposed in the special scales relating to blind and certain tuberculous people. The rate for a married couple of whom one is blind will, for example, be raised by 7s. 6d. to £ 6, and for a single Mind person by 6s. to 82s. All the rates I have quoted are, of course, exclusive of rent, for which separate provision will continue to be made.

Subject to the approval of Parliament it is proposed that these new improved rates will be paid from 24th September. On the bases of the present numbers of cases their additional cost will amount to about £ 20½ million in a full year.

Mr. Houghton

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this will be welcome news to nearly 2 million people who are still living on National Assistance? Is he also aware that these amounts are still too small and long overdue? Does he suggest that £ 2 17s. 6d. a week exclusive of the rent is any sort of living in Britain today for a single person who is a householder, or £ 4 15s. 6d. plus rent for a married couple? Does not he appreciate that the cost of living has gone up seven points since the last increase in April, 1961, and will he tell the House how much is included in these miserable amounts for the rising prosperity of the country? Is this the mark of an affluent society? Cannot the right hon. Gentleman bring this small increase into operation earlier than 24th September? Finally, when is it proposed to debate this matter in the House?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The question of a debate, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but prior to coming to the House for affirmative Resolution the Regulations will, in the ordinary way, have to go before the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments.

On the substance of the hon. Gentleman's question, the amounts, these proposals of course continue the process, of which this is the seventh example under the present Government, of not only maintaining, but improving, the real value of these allowances on which, as he rightly said, the poorest section of our community has to live. I should have thought that the substantial cost of this increase— £ 20½ million in a full year— was the best possible indication of the determination of the Government to maintain their standard.

The final result. if the House approves these scale rate improvements, will, on the basis of the 1948 scales, be that whereas the Index of Retail Prices will have risen since then by 70 per cent., the new figures for householders will amount to an increase of very nearly double that figure— about 139 per cent.

The date is very much in line with the time between announcement and coming into operation on a good many previous occasions. I hope that the House will think that the choice of a date which is really at the beginning of autumn, when, as hon. Members know, the colder weather imposes particular difficulties on the poorest of our population, is socially sensible.

Lord Balniel>

While warmly welcoming these increases to those with the greatest need, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether these figures bring the assistance rates up to the value of the 1961 increases? Further, can he explain why he has placed this tremendous emphasis on the single person as opposed to the married couple?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

First, these proposals will, in the case of the single householder appreciably, and in the case of the married couple by a smaller margin, more than restore the values which the scale rates which came into operation in April, 1961, then had.

The greater emphasis on the single householder is effected because, in the view of the Board, which I wholly share, previous increases have been weighted rather more in favour of married couples. If I might recall the figures I quoted a moment ago, the net result will be that in terms of the original 1948 scales the single householder's increase will be 139. 5 per cent and the married couple's 139 per cent. In other words, on the basis of the original scales, this practically brings them back into line.

Mr. Grimond

While welcoming the proposals, may I ask two questions? First, will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider the date, if it is possible to do so? I agree that the proposed date is when the colder weather comes along and that many of these people then need extra fuel and clothing, but much of this fuel and clothing can be obtained more cheaply in the next two or three months.

Secondly, so far as these proposals are a recognition of the rising cost of living, can the Government say whether they will also look at other classes of pensions, say, public service pensions and the pensions of other people whose increases have been held down in spite of the increase in the cost of living?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman knows, public service pensions do not come within my responsibility but are the responsibility of right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

As regards the date, the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that making the individual alterations in the 1,870,000 or so order books is a substantial operation which, of course, cannot be initiated until Parliament has had an opportunity to approve, and has approved, the draft Regulations. And, as I said earlier, this is very much in line with some previous occasions. I think that the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the time when the colder weather comes along is when particularly the older people concerned really begin to feel the pinch.

Mr. F. M. Bennett

While also warmly welcoming the increases, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he has contemplated a change in the basic minimum levels at which a person can qualify for National Assistance, either as regards assets or income? He will appreciate that it is not very valuable to raise the maximum level if, at the same time, we still prevent those obtaining assistance who are at present precluded from doing so despite the rise in the cost of living.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

As my hon. Friend knows, the increase in the scale rates of itself makes a certain number of further people eligible for National Assistance because the raising of the scales enables people previously outside to be brought in. We thoroughly reviewed the disregards and very substantially increased them by legislation in the autumn of 1959, and I have no further proposals at this stage for anything of that sort.

Mr. Houghton

Will the right hon. Gentleman inform his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that my hon. Friends will be willing to expedite the approval of these Regulations by the House, especially if that would result in bringing the operative date forward from 24th September? Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that all these percentage cross-references to the past and talk of percentage increases and statistical information means nothing whatever to the people who are living on these National Assistance rates? These rates will be judged by the practical day-to-day experience of those who have to live on them, and—

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member's question is beginning to sound very much like a speech.

Several Hon. Membersrose

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Houghton

I had not quite completed my question, Mr. Speaker. May I complete it?

Mr. Speaker

We must pray the Minister's mercy. I would point out that we have so much to do and that many hon. Members are wanting to ask questions. They will not be able to do so because there will not be time. Perhaps the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) will help me by rounding his question off in a nice, quick way.

Mr. Houghton

My final question is, has the right hon. Gentleman anything to say about National Insurance rates, or shall we have to wait for that until a little nearer the General Election?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The hon. Gentleman will have gathered that my statement related to National Assistance. I am obliged to him for his offer of help in getting the Regulations through. However, they will have to go through the normal procedure of the Select Committee and the House.

As regards his more rhetorical comment, I feel that the people with whom we are here concerned, those on National Assistance, will find that these improvements are of real value.

Mr. Tiley

While the books are being altered and the necessary changes carried out, would it be possible for my right hon. Friend to consult the Minister of Health so that perhaps some form of certificate might be placed in the new books to enable those in receipt of National Assistance and other similar benefits to receive free medical prescriptions? The fact that these people must pay for them is one of the most important defects in our social services.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

That is primarily a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health, but I will certainly; pass my hon. Friend's suggestion on to him.

Mr. G. Brown

Is the Minister aware of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton)? My hon. Friend was pointing out that we would do our utmost to facilitate the passage of these Regulations through the House— if the Minister likes, next week— if he will get on with the printing of the books so that the date of the payment can be brought forward. Will the right hon. Gentleman look into this matter? [Interruption.] I cannot understand the attitude of hon. Gentlemen opposite to this subject. I can assure them that the people on National Assistance will be very interested in the atmosphere on the back benches opposite. If we facilitate the passage of these Regulations, will the Minister look into the question of bringing forward the date of payment?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I am always grateful for mercies, particularly from the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown), in the conduct of Parliamentary business. However, these Regula- tions must go through the normal procedure of the House, including the Select Committee. The question of debating this matter is clearly not one for me, but I must tell the House that the operative date which I thought it right and fair to the House to announce was arrived at after considerable thought. Although we can, of course, discuss the date when we debate the Regulations, my own view— and I must put this frankly to hon. Members— is that this is, not only for administrative reasons but from the more important social point of view, just about right.