HC Deb 06 February 1963 vol 671 cc595-614
Mr. Houghton

I beg to move, in page 17, line 13, after "appoint", to insert: not being later than 1st February 1963 in the case of Section 1 (3) and (4), Schedule 2 and Schedule 3, Part II". This is the last Amendment on the Notice Paper, and it is one of great importance. This Schedule empowers the Minister to fix a date by Order on which benefits under this Bill are to come into operation. He is allowed to appoint different days for different purposes. He is in fact given considerable room for manoeuvre of effective dates for the various benefits under the Bill.

The Minister has told us that subject to the passage of the Bill through the House he is proposing to introduce the increased benefits for unemployment and sickness on 7th March, and the rest of the benefits—retirement pensions mostly of course—on 27th May. The Minister has declared his intention of how he will use the powers given to him in the first paragraph of this Schedule. The Amendment proposes to restrict the freedom of movement of the Minister by providing that the date he shall fix under this Schedule shall be not later than 1st February in the case of the various benefits referred to in the Amendment.

The Question is, how long do we have to wait to get the money? There has been a good deal of feeling expressed on this all over the country. This Amendment really is for the prevention of cruelty to retirement pensioners, widows, the unemployed, and the sick, because they are to be kept waiting weeks, or in some cases several months, for the benefits which this Bill will bring.

I know of very few occasions on which, when improvements in conditions are agreed, there is not some measure of retrospection by agreement, and if a forward date is fixed, that is aways by agreement. In this case the Committee is asked to impose on the beneficiaries a waiting date to which it does assent, and which in our view is not justified. It is intolerable when the Government announce increases in benefits and people are kept waiting for so long to feel the benefit of them. We all agree that when a decision is taken to do something, especially something of this kind, speed is of the essence. We should like to bring the money to these people within a matter of days, not weeks or months after the announcement was made.

Does the Minister question the merits of the case for immediate payment? He is not taking a decision to pay on conditions in the future; his decision is on conditions as they are when he decides to make the payment. I have never heard a Minister say in regard to paying benefits that the forward date is part of the bargain. The forward date may be a part of the bargain in a wages settlement in the same way as a retrospective settlement may be a part of the bargain. I have never heard a Minister say, "We are going to give them something, but we don't think they are entitled to it just yet, so we shall keep them waiting far the money." I have never heard a Minister say, "Although I am announcing an increase now, the case for it is so largely a matter of discretion that we are justified in delaying the operation of the increase."

I have not heard a Minister say any of those things; what I have heard is about the difficulties of administration. I presume that if administration permitted the Minister to bring the increases into effect immediately after his announcement, as in the case of the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Budget Day he would say, "These are to take effect from 6 o'clock tonight," or from tomorrow, or next week—something bearing a close relationship to his announcement. In this case administration is always the Minister's explanation why he cannot bring relief earlier than the date specified far the operation of the new benefits.

What is the difficulty of administration? Order books, mechanisation, clerking, calculations and clerical work connected with getting this enormous operation launched? While acknowledging that all that has to be gone through, does it really affect the date upon which the benefits could start? Surely it would be possible to issue with the order books vouchers for the arrears in each case, which could be paid out at the time the increases come into operation? Is there any real administrative difficulty or is the Minister reluctant to do it until he can get the contributions, get the new stamps printed and all that sort of thing?

The Minister should be absolutely frank with the Committee on the question of the effective date. Every newspaper and every letter which hon. Members receive says, "Why have we to wait t, why can't this be done more promptly? Look at the gap between the announcement of the increases and the date when people will get the benefit." It could be argued, although it would be callous to do so, that these people do not need the money to live on because they are living without it. They do not need it to get them through the blizzard because they are getting through without it. No Minister would be so callous as to say that. Retrospective payment would be a great boon to these people. It would enable them to make purchases of domestic goods to meet needs which probably remain unsatisfied. There is more in life than buying the bread and the butter. Clothing, blankets, domestic appliances of one kind or another, would be more easily obtained if there was a degree of back pay.

Why should the retirement pensioner be the only person in Britain who never gets any back pay, because that is what it amounts to? I am as conscious as anyone of administration and all its difficulties. I am constantly reminding hon. Members on both sides in other connections of problems of administration, but there are times when they must be overcome. In these days there is more machinery for overcoming them than ever before. We all know that the graduated pensions scheme would have been impossible without electronic computers and such aids. The amount of clerical work involved would have been beyond the capacity of the Department. There would have been no means of storing up records. Cards with the graduated deductions on are being microfilmed. All this para- phernalia is going on up at Newcastle at present. There is a giant computer up there absolutely spewing out the chits which we are now receiving telling us how many stamps we have to our credit. There is simultaneous printing of the chit, the name and the number. This is one of the wonders of the Ministry. The Ministry is so proud of it that people come from all over the world to look at it.

Yet we are told that these benefits cannot be paid out before 27th May, because the difficulties of administration cannot be overcome. This is fantastic. The difficulties involved here are chicken feed compared with the graduated pensions scheme which the Ministry is tackling at Newcastle at present. The Ministry has taken on several thousands of extra staff—clerical officers, higher executive officers, senior executive officers—who are all poring over the graduated pensions scheme. But the Ministry wants three months to do this job. The Minister is a new broom who is obviously going to sweep clean. He has already done two things which we did not expect. This is an opportunity for him to see what the problem is of bringing the payments to the recipients more promptly.

The Minister is bringing forward the date for payment of unemployment and sickness benefit. He is doing this partly because he is under pressure from the Chancellor of the Exchequer or from the Cabinet as a whole. He has been told, "Get the money out, Minister. We want money in the hands of the unemployed especially, because unemployment is affecting particular areas. We do not want them to have to wait. We want to bring more money to the unemployed. There are too many of them for our political comfort, so let us get on with it".

The Minister has been able to bring the date forward for those benefits because, as he said the other day, he is not encumbered with the order book problem in connection with unemployment and sickness benefit to anything like the extent he is in connection with retirement pensions and health benefits. I believe that there are order books for some forms of sickness benefit, particularly thirteen week order books, but order books are certainly necessary for all retirement pensions. These order books are only a sort of postal order, books which are put in the hands of the pensioners, which they cash on the due dates at the local Post Office. Is it beyond the capacity of the Department either to get the order books out earlier or, if not, to provide something in the order books which will enable the pensioners to draw the arrears of pay?

Mr. Macpherson

It is not a question of getting them out. It is a question of getting them in.

Mr. Houghton

Getting them in where?

Mr. Macpherson

In, in order to change them.

Mr. Houghton

The Minister means the printing.

Mr. Macpherson

No. Order books valid for a whole year are sent out throughout the year in batches of a week at a time. The whole system is worked on that basis. To change them over, they have all got to be brought in, to the local offices on this occasion, and over-stamped. That is done over a period of weeks.

12 m.

Mr. Houghton

Then the Ministry can stick an extra page in stating the arrears. I do not see what the difficulty is. The right hon. Gentleman may have to get them in, but when he has got them in and overstamped them can he not insert in them something which will entitle the people concerned to the arrears?

Mr. Macpherson

I hope the hon. Member will forgive me, but the trouble is that he has been arguing along one line and has been asking why we cannot make the payments sooner. He has suddenly changed his ground and is asking why we cannot put.in something to deal with the arrears. That is an entirely different matter.

Mr. Houghton

The Minister said earlier that he had to do two things at the same time. That is all I am doing. If he cannot get the books out earlier then there must be some back pay, probably more for some than for others. I think the best way out of this difficulty would be for the Minister to come along with all the equipment in his hands and tell us just what are his difficulties. There are plenty of hon. Members with experience of these matters who could advise him and overcome those difficulties.

However, I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman does not want to pay out another penny in advance of the increased contributions. We are well aware of his difficulties in regard to new stamps, and so on, but there would be nothing to stop him drawing on the National Insurance or Reserve Funds to tide him over, especially for a special occasion like this. I can assure him that there is strong feeling in the country on this matter. It baffles the man in the street why, in this day and age, it is impossible, for administrative reasons, for him to get the money in the hands of the people sooner.

The people concerned will certainly not view with any degree of patience the kind of explanation the Minister is giving. It was pointed out earlier that the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) once said. "If something is difficult it can be done at once, if it is impossible it may take a day or two longer." It should not take the Minister more than a day or two to get over the difficulties surrounding this matter.

The Amendment would fix the operative date at 1st February, and no later. If that were accepted by the Committee the right hon. Gentleman would have to find ways and means of overcoming his difficulties. The right hon. Member for Woodford is also reputed to have said to some of his officials, "Take it away and do it; and I do not want to hear about your difficulties." The same applies in this case. If 1st February is made the date we can say to the Minister, "We do not want to hear any more about your difficulties." We have before us the final opportunity in our discussions on the Bill for the Minister to show that although "Super Mac" may have gone out of the Government, a super Minister of Pensions has come in.

Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn)

I support the Amendment. Clearly the ideal solution is for the payments to be made as quickly as possibile. It is a refined form of cruelty for us to say to people who are hungry—extra hungry because of the cold weather, shivering in front of inadequate fires in below freezing temperatures and in need of warmer clothing to keep out the north wind—that the additional money cannot be made available to them sooner.

It is clear from what the Minister has said that we are going to be treated tonight to a long list of administrative difficulties about getting these payments made earlier. My hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) has dealt effectively with some of them. I want some better reasons than we have yet been given why we cannot make the payments retrospective as soon as the administrative arrangements have been made.

One of the purposes of the Amendment is to make 1st February the operative date for entitlement to payment. It is then up to the Ministry to put the actual payments into effect as soon.as possible—and I suggest that if the entitlement date were taken back to 1st February, some of the administrative difficulties about making the actual payments earlier than May would be discovered miraculously to have melted away. This argument about administrative difficulties is often used simply because the Government do not want the entitlement to operate earlier, so this would be a very good spur to those responsible for putting the administration into effect.

When I and some of my hon. Friends asked on Second Reading why, at any rate, the old-age pensioners should not get a lump sum payment of the arrears to 1st February, we got two conflicting answers—first, from the Minister and then from the Parliamentary Secretary. I remember interrupting the Minister quite early in his speech to ask whether the old-age pensioners could be paid retrospectively when the necessary administrative arrangements had been made. His reply was: No. We have considered the dates very carefully indeed and I do not think that it would be proper to pay a pension of this kind retrospectively. Pensions are, after all, payable from week to week. I do not think that it would be proper to pay what would be a lump sum retrospectively in that way."—(OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th January, 1963; Vol. 670, c. 606.] That was an objection on principle. But when, at the end of the debate, I interrupted the hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary on exactly the same point, I got a different answer. When I asked whether the payment could be made retrospectively, she said, rather tartly: Certainly not, because we should have to keep account throughout the whole of the interim period of the precise amount paid out in each week and the orders, in the meantime, would have been cashed."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th January, 1963; Vol. 670, c. 703.] I must admit that that was a piece of scientific jargon that completely dazzled me. I sat back, and thought "There must be some meaning behind that—but I'm dashed if I can find it." Of course, the orders would have been cashed in the meantime; what are these people exepcted to do in the interim—live on air? Frankly, I am at a loss to understand the meaning of those words. But I want to have one thing made quite clear: do the Government intend to oppose this Amendment on grounds of principle or on grounds of administration? Let them have the honesty and the decency to make that clear. The Minister opposed the idea on grounds of principle, and then the hon. Lady was brought in to find an administrative fig leaf for the nakedness of his inhumanity.

The arguments may he administrative ones. Clearly, the administrative considerations will vary according to the nature of the benefit. The Minister has already said that it is different if there is an order book rather than a claim for unemployment or sickness benefit. All right—do not let us have an omnibus administrative reply to a problem which differs in its administrative nature from one class of beneficiary to another.

I do not in any way underestimate the needs and difficulties of the unemployed or the sick, but I do suggest that in those cases the administrative difficulties involved in making a retrospective payment are much less than in the other case because, quite clearly, in the case of old retired people, there are not the complications created by the presence of dependants, some of whom might have grown up in the interim period. The calculations, therefore, are bound to be much simpler, because there is no dramatic change in circumstances from week to week for an old person who has retired. The only change of circumstances likely to occur in that case is death. Therefore, I should have thought that the administration was simple.

I cannot see why the overall 10s. increase should not be given in a lump sum anyway. We are told that a small minority might have a little less than the standard pension because there is a contribution or two short, but the overwhelming majority will be clearly on standard rates and they have no dependants to complicate the situation. I wonder whether the real reason is that the increase in the scales of National Assistance is lower than the increase in the old-age pension and that it is the supplementation factor that is complicating matters here. But if we had had an increase in the National Assistance scale identical with that which there is to be in the basic pension that need not have bothered us, because we could have made the National Assistance increase retrospective too and we should have a very simple situation to deal with.

I admit that when we give the old-age pensioner 10s. with one hand and take back 4s. with the other, because he is on National Assistance, we get into complicated administrative waters. It only goes to show that crime is its own penalty. I hope that the Government will not urge that complication as an excuse. There are old people who are outraged by the fact that their right to this increase is recognised now but they are not to get it until the winter ends. It would certainly warm them as they sit by their half-empty grates, waiting for the fuel allowance from the National Assistance Board which never comes, to know that at any rate in May they would get a lump sum which would enable them to have a sense of expansion and warmth and hope which they have never had hitherto. This is why I support the Amendment.

Mrs. Thatcher

The hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) and the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) have given me a formidable task in replying on two different bases to the Amendment. I am sorry if the hon. Lady thought that I had dealt with her tartly. There was no intention to do so, but I might have been following her example when she interrupted me on that occasion.

I would point out to the hon. Member for Sowerby that never before in National Insurance have we had retrospective increases. There would perhaps have been one case when such retrospection was most urgent on the ground of hardship.

That was the time when five months elapsed between the announcement of the increases and the implementation of the benefit. During those five months the cost of living rose very substantially—by 6.8 per cent. I refer, of course, to 1951. There was no question then of retrospection, even though between that increase and the last increase there had been a very sharp fall in the value of money and over the five months period there was a sharper fall than there has been this time between the announcement of the increases and their operative date.

12.15 a.m.

Mr. Houghton

Which shows how long the Ministry's officials have been bossing the Minister about.

Mrs. Thatcher

Nonsense. The hon. Member will forgive me if occasionally I say "Nonsense" to him; I am sure he will take it in the right spirit. Nevertheless, I meant it.

On this occasion, my right hon. Friend objected to the proposal on grounds of principle, saying that the National Insurance Fund is for benefits on a week-to-week basis and is not suitable for sudden lump sum payments. There may be overriding factors which for the time being outweigh that argument, but on this occasion we do not think that there are overriding factors on grounds of principle.

That brings us back to the administrative arguments, which are formidable. My right hon. Friend is doing an extremely good job, with the co-operation of the House of Commons, in getting the increases through in one of the shortest times, bearing in mind that the number of pensioners—6½million—is more than ever before. Except for one occasion when there were not nearly as many beneficiaries, this is the shortest time in which the operation has ever been completed, assuming that the Bill is passed in time for the dates we propose to be honoured.

That is no small feat. It can only be done by working to the maximum the local offices who have to carry it out. If we took them off this operation, we could not introduce the increases on 27th May for the long-term benefits or on 7th March for the short-term ones. We have done our best by separating the two short-term benefits—unemployment and sickness—from the long-term benefits. Once we take people off the job of uprating, which they have to do on an individual basis of contributors' records, we cannot get the increases through in time.

If, as the Amendment requires, we made the increases payable from 1st February, when we have completed the uprating operation from the dates announced by my right hon. Friend we should have to go back over the records and payments week by week of 8¼million beneficiaries, some of whom had gone out of benefit. For example, a large number of those unemployed would no longer be in benefit and would be in work and a large number of the sick would have returned to work. Thus we would be dealing not only with people who were in benefit when the retrospective increases were given, but with people who had gone out of benefit. Unemployment benefit is dealt with not through our offices, but through the employment exchanges. We would have to start that on 27th May. It would be a colossal operation to go back over every payment made week by week and it would occupy several weeks. The lump sums would not be available until long after 27th May and they would not go to people who had been sick or unemployed until long after their return to work.

I am sorry to give a catalogue of difficulties, but there is probably no similar scheme in the world which pays benefit, as we do, on a weekly basis and which operates such a magnificent administrative system with so little going wrong. We should pay tribute to it now and then. Even retirement pension benefits can vary from week to week. They can vary with earnings or with hospital inpatient reductions. It is not, therefore, simply a matter of giving a specific increase over the whole period. It would have to be done by checking week by week.

I assure the hon. Member for Sowerby and the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn that we have considered the matter carefully on grounds of both principle and practice. We consider that the Department has done, and will be doing, an excellent job to make the increases available from the dates announced. I hope therefore, that on this occasion the Opposition will be satisfied.

Mrs. Castle

Before the hon. Lady sits down, would she admit that the large number of difficulties to which she has referred do not apply to retirement pensioners? The fact that the unemployed person might be back at work or that the sick person may be well again would not apply to the retirement pensioners who are in a continuing position interrupted only by death.

Mrs. Thatcher

Some people would come into benefit during that period. The week by week variation in payment applies to a considerable number of retirement pensioners—that is, the variation in what they are getting. We have nearly 150 rates of retirement pension, so that of itself is a very large factor to consider.

Mr. E. Fernyhough (Jarrow)

I do not think that the Committee can accept the explanation given by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. She talks about this gigantic task of having to deal with 6½million people. As she knows, it is very doubtful whether there are more than 1 million of these 6½million to whom the regular benefits would not be paid. Most of these 6½million people—at least 5 million of them—will get this increase, and get it retrospectively, because they are not the people who will have been unemployed or sick merely during the period which the hon. Lady mentioned.

The hon. Lady said that it had never been done before and advanced that as an argument why it should not be done now. But that is what this House of Commons is for. It is to do things which have never been done before. Quite frankly, it astounds me that any hon. Member, any Parliamentary Secretary or any Minister can pretend that this is such a colossal job that it is just beyond the capacity of the machine to do it.

I will put to the Committee one point to bear out what I am saying. Very recently the Home Secretary sent to the clerk of every council throughout the country instructions about evacuation in the event of war. According to the plans drawn up by the Home Office, there will be millions of people to be evacuated should war come. Millions of children will be involved, and the people to whose houses these children are sent will be entitled to some payment from the Government for receiving the children into their care.

Is the Joint Parliamentary Secretary really saying that the people to whose homes in, say, Devon to which children from, perhaps, Bristol will be evacuated will have to wait weeks and weeks for the payment which the Government will make to them for receiving the children? Or is the hon. Lady advancing the argument that if tomorrow the Government and the country were faced with a military crisis which involved the calling up of some 2 million or 3 million National Service men who still have reserve obligations that the wives and children of those men would not be entitled to any payment for weeks and weeks because of the impossibility of settling the individual claims?

Mrs. Thatcher

I was talking about neither of those circumstances but about the National Insurance and Industrial Injuries Funds.

Mr. Fernyhough

Of course, but what we are dealing with is the capacity of the administrative machine to get money to people desperately in need of it in the circumstances which I have outlined. It is unquestionably true that the administrative machine would find the means of getting the money to the wives of Service men who had been called up and to the people who were receiving the evacuated children into their homes. If it did not, what would happen? One can imagine what would happen if 2 million ex-Service men were called up and their wives and children did not receive their allowance books for some weeks. Hon. Members would be inundated with letters demanding that the Government should speed up the distribution of the money to these people.

What the Joint Parliamentary Secretary is saying is, "We must not ask the Civil Service to work overtime. Their hours from 9 till 5 must not be interfered with." I am sure that if the civil servants who have to do this job were asked to put their backs into it and stay behind to make up the books so that these people could get the money, there would be very few who would not realise how much humanity was involved and be prepared to do the work.

I was a trade union official and very often I negotiated wages, as some of my hon. Friends did, for thousands of people. Sometimes we negotiated retro- spective pay to a date much earlier than the date on which we finalised the agreement. The employers never found even half the snags and difficulties in granting retrospective pay that the Government, with all their facilities and machinery at their disposal, are pretending exist. If the will were there, this could be done. If we were faced with a national crisis in which we had to bring succour to millions of people, it would be done. The truth is that the Ministry does not think that this is a really urgent matter. It knows that by postponing payment it is saving money, and they are doing this at the expense of the most unfortunate sections of our community.

I hope hon. Members will not be satisfied. I hope they will rise in their seats and demand, on behalf of the sick, unemployed and aged in their constituencies, that the Ministry faces its responsibility, does the decent thing and ensures that these books are printed—for it is only a question of printing books in the last analysis—and given to the people concerned so that they may be paid much earlier. This is something to which they are entitled, as every decent minded citizen will agree, having regard to the sort of weather which we have been experiencing.

Miss Herbison

We would not have had this debate had the Government made their decision in time to raise sickness and unemployment benefits, and particularly the benefits for our old people. Had they made that decision in time so that these increases could have been paid to our old people during the winter, I am certain that this sort of Amendment need not have been moved.

The trouble is that the Government did not make this decision until a short time ago, and now the old people, who have experienced the worst winter in living memory, are being told that there is no possible way of their getting relief until 27th May. I do not minimise the administrative difficulties, but I am certain that the main reason for these old people not getting their benefit till 27th May is that the Government wish to make the payment at about the same time as they get the additional contributions. In other words, this decision and the decision not to accept the Amendment are much more matters of finance rather than of administration.

12.30 a.m.

I notice the Parliamentary Secretary shaking her head as if to say that that is not so. If she really means it, and if the Minister agrees with her, I shall put certain propositions to her. If there are administrative difficulties and it is not humanly possible to make the payment before 27th May, would it be possible administratively to give the old people, if not the others, not only their increased weekly benefit but a lump sum benefit on 27th May? That is my first proposition.

If I am told that even in the case of the old, retired people that is not possible and that it will take the energy, imagination and wit of the Government and the Civil Service administrative staff.to make the payment by 27th May, I make a second proposition. These old people are always needing help. With a lump sum they could replace some of the things in their homes which they find it impossible to do at present. If the difficulty is administrative and not financial, why cannot the few weeks after 27th May be used to work out the amount of the retrospective payments, and why cannot these be given to the old people even after 27th May so that they might be able to buy an extra pair of blankets for next winter and not have to advertise for people to give up their old ones, or so that they might be able to buy a bright new curtain for their home? Just think what the old people could do with a lump sum of a few pounds! If there is no financial difficulty, I cannot see any other reason why the Government should not accept my second proposition and give the people the money even if it is a few weeks after 27th May.

My last point would be to tell the Parliamentary Secretary that I am never the least bit impressed when a Minister tells me "This was never done before". I would hope that we are a forward-looking nation and that we are forward-looking people in this Committee. We should never be hindered by the bogeyman "We have never done it before". That is no reason. It is an alibi, an excuse.

I repeat: if the Minister cannot, because of administrative reasons, make this payment before 27th May, will he consider giving it to the old people and the others as soon as the amounts that they should get are worked out after 27th May?

Mr. N. Macpherson

I have every sympathy, of course, with the average reaction of almost everybody when time and again announcements are made about increases in the rates. The immediate reaction is to say, "But it is an awfully long time for these people to have to wait." That is one of the reasons why I went into this most carefully; and we have managed to reduce the time.

The hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough) and the hon. Lady said they were never impressed with the argument that something had never been done before. But surely there must be a very good argument indeed for doing it now, an overwhelming argument in a case like this. I must say to the hon. Gentleman that he should be careful about the way in which he casts reflection on the civil servants. This operation could not possibly be done without the maximum amount of overtime by people willing to make the maximum effort in order to get these rates into force as soon as possible.

I am bound to say that I am sorry he suggested that this was being carried out in an "easy-osey" way, with no overtime. That is not so. This is only being done in the time laid down because of very great efforts by the civil servants. They are doing the job in a very short time indeed. War pensions have to be dealt with as well by the local offices. Between now and 7th March, they are going to be fully occupied with unemployment and sickness benefits and the associated war pension benefits, and after that they will be dealing with the main war pensions and insurance pensions. It would not be possible to make payments from 27th May if we were to lay another responsibility on them. The whole thing would have to be delayed.

Mr. Fernyhough

Will the right hon. Gentleman please say how, in the name of fortune, the Home Office is able to make payments if his substantial machinery cannot do this job?

Mr. Macpherson

What the hon. Member does not realise is that this is a job which is placed on top of the ordinary, day-to-day work of our administration. It has to go on with its ordinary work as well. Most of these rates need expert consideration. They have to be worked out by the staff over an above their ordinary work. When a Department has a special job—as the Home Office did—it can train a special staff and put them on the job immediately. There is no parallel between the two cases.

Now I come to retrospective payments. I accept that it is not necessarily a good argument to say that a thing has never been done before. My hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary made a good case for the fact that it might have been done in 1951, but I admit that the fact that it was not done then is no reason why a much better Government should not do it now if it were really necessary. But is it necessary?

Consider the position. The time since the last increase was made is still less than two years. It is a shorter time than between any two increases before, except for the adjusting operation in 1952. In the last increase the single rate went up by 15 per cent. Since then there has been an increase in the retail price index. We are now making an increase in rates of over 17 per cent. The point is that since the last increase there has only been an increase of 6 per cent. in prices and we are well ahead of the change since the last increase.

Nobody could represent this as an emergency. It is said that we are having an exceptionally hard winter, and that it would have been nice if the Government had been able to make these increases earlier. The hon. Lady said that this debate would not have taken place at all if the Government had made their decision in time, by which she means if they had made an increase in the benefits only eighteen months after the previous increase and brought in the new rates in anticipation—by a kind of meteorological wizardry—of a hard winter. Surely this argument cannot stand; and now we are told that we should make a kind of retrospective payment well after May because it has been a hard winter. This argument cannot stand.

Miss Herbison rose

Mr. Macpherson

I shall not give way. The hon. Lady must recognise the implication of her argument. That is not what she said, but that was the implication of her argument. We are in this position. We are providing an increase, as I said when I made the announcement, after the shortest interval since the previous increase, we are doing it as quickly as it has ever been done before, and we are hurrying on the unemployment and sickness benefit payments to an unprecedented extent, and I think that the Committee might be satisfied with the arrangements that we have made. I hope that it will be.

Miss Herbison

It was shocking misrepresentation to say that I had based my case on a bad winter. The Minister is continually telling us how much better off the old people are now, and at the end of his speech he did what his hon. Friend did. He tried to compare what we did five years after the war with what the Government are doing twenty years after it. We hear so much about the affluent society in this country. The very fact that the Government have had to announce increases in National Assistance shows that these basic rates are not sufficient. Therefore, irrespective of whether the winter had been a good or a bad one, there would have been a good case for our old people, particularly those who have no other income and must have recourse to National Assistance, to receive retrospective payments. I hope the Minister will accept that his misrepresentation was necessary to cover up the very bad case that he made.

Amendment negatived.

Schedule agreed to.

Fifth Schedule agreed to.

Bill reported, without Amendment.

12.46 a.m.

Mrs. Thatcher

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

In moving the Third Reading, I shall try not to take longer than the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) would have done in similar circumstances. We have had two long days of argument in which we have disagreed about many things, but I think we all agree that the Bill will bring welcome benefits to 8¼ million people. I thank the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) for his kind co-operation in helping us to get the Bill through Committee so quickly, and the hon. Lady the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) for being such a worthy successor to the hon. Member for Kilmarnock. Neither of them will let any argument of my right hon. Friend or myself get away unscathed, and that, of course, is as it should be. I also thank the hon. Member for Sowerby for not moving two Amendments to which I would have replied. I am sure he will realise that the answers were on my usual theme of "No".

I shall not delay the House longer, but I promise that we shall do our best to speed the Bill on its way to bring benefits to 8¼ million people.

12.47 a.m.

Mr. Houghton

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her very kind references to my hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) and myself.

I wish to thank the Minister especially warmly for his courtesy and the painstaking treatment of our complaints and criticisms. He has maintained a good temper throughout, sometimes under the lash—sometimes, I have no doubt he feels, under unjust criticism. It has been a pleasure to go through the Bill under the direction of the right hon. Gentleman. We also acknowledge the assistance of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. The hon. Lady is much too attractive to become a school ma'am type. She must use the word "nonsense" with great restraint when referring to the interjections which I make.

We welcome the Bill for what it does. It does a great deal, let us acknowledge that. We wish it had done more, but that, I suppose, is one of the congenital desires of all Oppositions. We had views on the adequacy of these benefits in present circumstances which we have expressed in the course of our debates in Committee. We hope now that the work will go on and that everything will be done in time. We on this side of the House do not wish to be associated with any criticism of members of the staff of the Ministry in doing their job. We think they will work hard and do a lot of overtime. I am sure that they will see the job through with their customary efficiency and promptitude. We should acknowledge our debt to them.

We must speed the Bill on its passage to another place and hope that it will reach the Statute Book in the time scheduled by the Minister for the completion of all this work. I am sure that all the beneficiaries will be looking forward eagerly to the day when they will get the extra money.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.