§ The Minister of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. Niall Macpherson)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about National Assistance.
On 23rd January I informed the House that I was expecting to receive from the National Assistance Board 241 proposals under Section 6 of the National Assistance Act, 1948, for further increases in the rates of National Assistance. I have now considered the Board's proposals and have accepted them. I have accordingly made draft Regulations and these have been laid today. They are now available in the Vote Office together with copies of an Explanatory Memorandum by the Board. The draft Regulations require the approval of both Houses of Parliament by an affirmative Resolution.
Subject to that approval, the Regulations will provide for increases of 6s. a week in the rate for a single householder and of 9s. a week for a married couple, bringing the householder rates to 63s. 6d. and 104s. 6d. respectively. An allowance for rent is, of course, added to these amounts. There are appropriate increases in the other rates. As the House will see when hon. Members have had an opportunity to study the draft Regulations, on this occasion as on the last the Board feels that proportionately rather more should be given to the single householder than to other people.
Subject to the approval of Parliament, it is proposed that the new rates will come in to effect from 27th May, at the same time as the increases in National Insurance pensions. The House will appreciate that there has been no significant change in prices since the last increase was made in September and that the new rates, therefore, represent a real improvement in standard.
As the House knows, the National Insurance Bill now before us contains a temporary provision to ensure that a person whose unemployment or sickness benefit is supplemented by National Assistance will not get less advantage from the benefit increase in March than he would get if the proposals which I have just announced were in operation at the time.
§ Mr. Houghton
While welcoming the announcement that the Minister has made, because these increases will bring much needed relief—overdue relief—to nearly 2 million of the poorest people in the country, may I ask whether he is aware that the increases he has 242 announced in National Assistance will be 4s. a week less in the case of a single person and 7s. 6d. less in the case of a married couple than the increase proposed in National Insurance benefits?
Is not this the very worst moment to tell the poorest people that something will be given to them with one hand and some of it will be taken away with the other? Is not this the occasion for the right hon. Gentleman to announce increases in National Assistance equivalent to the increases in National Insurance?
Does not this show that bigger increases should have been given last September? What considerations weigh with the National Assistance Board today that were not as relevant and just as strong last September? What has happened in the interval to give the right hon. Gentleman any possible excuse for withholding these further increases through the bitterly hard winter? Does he not agree that having regard to this, these increases should be backdated? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I know that that hon. and right hon. Members opposite do not like it, but they have got to take it.
Should not these increases now be back-dated in order to make some restitution to those who have been denied so long? Will he kindly confirm that the cost of these increases is less than the relief given to Surtax payers with effect from 1st January last?
§ Mr. Macpherson
The hon. Member made four criticisms. He said that a bigger increase should have been given last September, but the increase given last September was more than enough to compensate for the rise in prices since the previous increase. The increase that is to be given now is wholly an improvement in the standards of these people. It ties in with the increase in pensions on 27th May.
The hon. Member asked what the cost of these increases will be. The cost of the increases by themselves will be £34 million, but, taken in conjunction with the increases in National Insurance, there will be a saving to the Exchequer—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—as there always is. Whenever there is an increase in National Insurance which is more than the increase in the Assistance rates there 243 is always bound to be a saving to the Exchequer. What the House has to judge is what the cost of the whole operation is. The cost of the whole operation has already been given.
§ Mr. Macpherson
If the timetable for the National Insurance Bill now before the House is maintained, that Bill will come into effect for those on pensions and like benefits on 27th May and the National Assistance increases will come into effect for them at the same date. But, as the hon. Member will know, the unemployment and sickness benefit increases will come into effect on 7th March and the comparable increases in National Assistance will be timed to come into effect at the same time for those on these benefits. That is the effect of the Bill now before the House.
§ Dame Edith Pitt
Would my right hon. Friend agree that, although modest, these increases represent a real and welcome increase in the standard of living of those among us who are less well off? Would he not also agree that the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) conveniently forgot to mention that in addition to the scale rates for National Assistance beneficiaries the Board meets rent?
§ Mr. Macpherson
Yes, Sir. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. As I have already said, these increases are real and will be welcome to the recipients, even if they are not welcome to hon. Members opposite.
§ Mr. Steele
In view of the fact that wage levels generally in Scotland are much lower than south of the Border—and the Minister has himself indicated that he wants the recipients to have the benefit of much improved standards—has the Board stated how it will apply the wages stop, as much of the benefit will not accrue to the recipients because of the wages stop in many instances?
§ Mr. Macpherson
The wages stop will continue and it will, of course, as at present, ensure that in these cases the 244 benefits are kept in line with the wages which the beneficiary was earning before. That will continue, and is bound to.
§ Sir C. Osborne
Is it fair to assume that these welcome, if modest, increases to the poorest people will remain with them and not be filched from them by increased prices?
§ Mr. Shinwell
Is the National Assistance Board giving special consideration to the increased burden imposed upon the poorest section of the community who have to apply for National Assistance because—apart from any increase in prices—of the excessive and exceptional use of fuel and power attributable to the extremely cold weather, which may continue for some time? Have these factors been taken into account by the Board?
§ Mr. Macpherson
The Board has to give consideration to needs as they arise. It has to take into account that needs will normally be different at different times of the year.
§ Mr. Ellis Smith
The Minister has now announced two increases in the relatively low rates paid to those who have to apply for National Assistance. Is not the logic of this that similar increases should be made in all the disregards, which mean so much to the people who have to apply for National Assistance? Will the Minister also consider, especially in view of the terrible suffering arising from this cold winter, the effect of the Health Service prescription charges? Will he consult the National Assistance Board with a view to the introduction of improvements in all the disregards, including the prescription charges?
§ Mr. Macpherson
Prescription charges are not a matter for me. To increase the disregards would need legislation and could not be brought in with these Regulations.
§ Several Hon. Members rose——
§ Mr. Speaker
No. I understand that these increases require an affirmative Resolution. We ought to go on.