HC Deb 18 February 1963 vol 672 cc30-96

3.30 p.m.

The Minister of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. Niall Macpherson)

I beg to move, That the National Assistance (Determination of Need) Amendment Regulations 1963, a draft of which was laid before this House on 6th February, be approved. The purpose of these Regulations is to increase National Assistance scale rates, for the tenth time since they first came into force in 1948, and the eighth since October, 1951. These proposals were recommended to me by the National Assistance Board, and, after I had approved them, they were submitted to Parliament in the form of the Regulations now before the House.

What is here proposed is to raise the National Assistance rates by 6s. for a single householder and 9s. for a married couple. These increases will bring the main National Assistance scale rates to 63s. 6d. for the single householder and 104s. 6d. for a married couple, to which, of course, a rent allowance is added, normally the actual amount of the rent paid less an assumed contribution from any adult other than the householder's wife.

The House will be aware that while National Insurance rates have already been increased three times since 1952, assistance scales have been increased six times. As recently as last September, assistance scales were raised by 4s. for the single householder and 5s. 6d. for the married couple. Those increases were more than enough at the time to compensate for the rise in the cost of living since April, 1961, when the last increases were made. Indeed, they actually covered the rise in the cost of living between April, 1961, and last month.

There are some who contend that National Assistance scales should be increased not only at the same time as National Insurance rates, but by the same amount. It will not have escaped their notice that the combined effect on the single householder rate of last September's increase of 4s. and the 6s. now proposed is to raise it by the same amount in all as the National Insurance rate for the single person.

Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)

Not for the married couple.

Mr. Macpherson

I will come to that in a moment.

I would be surprised if they were to complain that part of the increase in National Assistance scales was given before the winter. I am sure they would not have wished us to delay that part merely in order to increase National Assistance scales now by the same amount as the National Insurance increase. Nor would it be reasonable to suggest that the National Insurance single rate should have been raised by 10s. last September, only seventeen months after the previous increase and when the cost of living had risen by the equivalent of only 3s.

Of course, when National Assistance scales increase by less than National Insurance benefits, people receiving National Assistance supplements are inclined to forget that they have had an intermediate increase and to complain, or at least to feel, even if they do not complain, that they have been somehow cheated of the full increase in National Insurance benefits—the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) talked about giving with one hand and taking away with the other when I announced these proposals. But that is not a complete description of what happens.

What actually happens is that a person receiving a payment from the National Assistance Board to supplement his National Insurance benefit receives a National Insurance increase which, under the 1948 Act, must be taken into account by the National Assistance Board in calculating what is due to him by way of supplement, which means that he loses that amount from his supplementary payment. However, the increase in National Assistance scales is then added, so that almost every person receiving a supplementary assistance payment will be better off to the extent of the increase in National Assistance scales. In other words, it is true that what is given with one hand is taken with the other, but the other hand then gives.

May I remind hon. Members that last November they were complaining that the number of people receiving National Assistance to supplement National Insurance pensions and other benefits was too high and that the reason was that National Insurance pensions and other benefits were too low. If we increase National Assistance scale rates by the same amount as National Insurance benefits, the number getting supplements would not fall, but increase, because the higher National Assistance scales are in relation to National Insurance the more people apply for supplements.

Since hon. Members opposite were complaining last November that the number receiving assistance supplements was too high, I hope that they will not now complain that the result of these proposals and the provisions of the National Insurance Bill is that some people will cease to need assistance. How many will they be? The Board tells me that it is difficult to predict with precision, but that it will be about one in 50—not many compared with the 2 million or so recipients of assistance. These people will be better off than they were.

I should add that if a person comes "off the Board's books" as a result of the combined effect of the pensions and assistance increases he will be informed that he may still be eligible for refund of prescription and other health charges, and he will be advised to get in touch with the Board's officers if necessary.

The increases now being made in the other scale rates will follow the same pattern as last time. The House may like to be reminded, however, that those for dependants will bring the assistance for a family, even of a quite modest size, up to a sum which compares not unfavourably with the earnings of many unskilled workers. For instance, a man and his wife who have three children aged 12, 7 and 4, and who are paying 28s. a week in rent, will have their income, apart from 18s. in family allowances, brought up to £9 5s. a week. A widow with three children of similar ages and paying a similar rent will have her income brought up to £7 4s., plus 18s. in family allowances.

There are some who will get no immediate benefit from the increases. They are those who are affected by the so-called "wage-stop", which prevents a person from receiving more in assistance than he would have been earning in his usual occupation at present. I stress "at present", for he is not held down to what he was earning when he was last in employment. It is what he would have been earning if he were now in employment in his usual occupation. This provision derives from the principle embodied in Section 9 of the National Assistance Act, 1948, which says: An assistance grant shall not be made to meet the requirements of a person (including requirements to provide for any other person) for any period during which that person is engaged in remunerative full-time work … Evidently, it was felt then, and it is felt stilt, that it would not be appropriate that a man should be better off without any work than when working. For that reason, the Labour Government of the day introduced the wage-stop in the National Assistance (Determination of Need) Regulations, 1948, and the Board has had to operate it ever since. That provision does not prevent the Board from meeting cases of exceptional need. The Board estimate that about one in eight of those unemployed at the December count was affected by the wage-stop. Of this number about half were receiving relatively small amounts in supplementation.

Whatever may be said about this duty which has been imposed on the Board, it is certainly not right to suggest that the Board is impoverishing these people. They are maintaining about the same standard of living as they were when the breadwinner was in work. The reason that wage-stop cases have increased is not that the Board is applying the provisions more harshly. It is not. It is because the standards of National Assistance have been rising more quickly than wages as a deliberate act of policy to relieve the lot of the poorest members of the community.

The hon. Member for Sowerby said that the married rates had not been raised relatively as much as the insurance married rates. That is so, and this is following the same pattern as before. In comparison with the 1948 rates, the increases have been very much the same. Perhaps I might give the House the figures. Compared with July, 1948, the new scale rate will represent an increase of 164.6 per cent. for a single person against an increase in the retail prices index of 70.6 per cent., while the new married rate represents an increase of 161.25 per cent., so they are very much in line. The married rate was, in fact, rather higher than the married rate of benefit under the insurance scheme before this increase, but the difference is now the other way.

May I now say a word about the timing of the payments. It is obviously better to synchronise the dates so that everyone will get some benefit at the same time. There are over 2 million cases to be individually assessed, and, clearly, the task is more complicated when pension and benefit increases are being made at about the same time, as the changes in them have to be taken into account in reassessing each case affected.

For the great bulk of those affected. which is about 1¾ million, including retirement pensioners, other old people and widows, the increase in assistance scales will come into effect on 27th May, at the same time as the main benefit increases. For the much smaller and more fluctuating number of unemployed and sick receiving both benefit and assistance, if the National Insurance Bill, which was given a Third Reading by the House on 7th February, becomes law, the improved assistance rates will apply at the same time as the benefit increases take effect in March.

The House will expect me to say a word about the cost to the Exchequer. The gross cost of the proposals, if they were unaccompanied by the National Insurance increases, is estimated at £35 million, including about £1 million for increases in the allowances to people in Part III accommodation and the pocket money of those in hospital, which are consequential on the insurance benefit increases, not on the scale rate increases. As against this, insurance benefit increases totalling £45½ million will go to recipients of National Assistance and will have to be taken into account by the Board.

These proposals have to be considered alongside the intervening assistance increases of September, 1962, the cost of which, on the basis of cases now current, may be put at roughly £22 million in a full year. The combined cost to the Board of the two increases will thus be between £11 million and £12 million in a full year. The cost of assistance payments in 1963–64 will amount to well over £200 million—more than four times the cost in 1949–50. The overall effect of the two sets of assistance increases and of the insurance increase will be that recipients of National Assistance will be receiving about £57 million more.

As I informed the House in reply to a Written Question last week, there were just over 2 million National Assistance allowances in payment last December—2,007,000 to be exact—and the January figure is 2,084,000. Some received only small supplementary payments. Others were entirely dependent on National Assistance. But in all these cases it was the scale rates which determined their eligibility for assistance, and that is why the scale rates are so important.

Miss Margaret Herbison (Lanarkshire, North)

Would the right hon. Gentleman give us the actual increase in the actual cost to the National Assistance Board, and hence to the Exchequer, if the September and present increases were taken together? The right hon. Gentleman referred to £35 million, and to £22 million. I take it that £35 million was the gross figure, and £22 million the net, or perhaps it was the gross, if there had been no increases at this time in the benefits? What will be the real cost to the Exchequer?

Mr. Macpherson

The figure of £22 million was the net figure, because there was no increase at the time in insurance. What one has to do is to add £22 million and £35 million, which would be the cost of the present increases in assistance if there were no insurance increases, and deduct £45½ million, which is the cost of the National Insurance benefit which has to be taken into account.

It seems to me that people are rather apt to confuse two categories. There are those people who are living not much above the National Assistance level, and there are others who are eligible under the scale rates for assistance but do not apply. Some do not apply because, although they are eligible, they do not feel that they need further assistance. For example, mothers living with reasonably well-off children may not care to apply for supplements to their National Insurance pension. Others have capital or other resources which would be disregarded if they applied, but they prefer to remain independent as long as they can.

It is perhaps significant that less than one-tenth of supplemented retired pen- sioners are living as members of someone's household. It may well be, therefore, that many more would be entitled to a small amount of supplementary assistance, but do not apply because they do not feel that they really need it. It is a paradox that, while some people refrain from applying to the Board through pride, others apply to the Board through pride because they do not want to be wholly dependent on their families. If I might put it ungrammatically, it really depends who or what people want to be independent of.

Of this, at any rate, I am sure. One reason why the numbers receiving assistance has grown is that gradually the reluctance to apply for assistance is thawing, largely, I think, because of the reputation which the Board's staff have acquired over the years for carrying out their duties in a sympathetic and considerate way. The idea that before an applicant could get regular assistance he or she would have to endure a catechism in a public place is virtually dead. Of course, in a case of emergency, one has to go to the "out-patients" department of the Board, to its public offices, bat in the ordinary way an inquiry made by filling up and posting a form brings a visit from an officer of the Board to the home of the applicant.

The regular tours of home visiting are a very important part of the service, especially during a hard winter like this. It is inevitable that in some instances the Board's staff have been unable this winter to complete their tours. On the one hand, sickness and snow have reduced their numbers—occasionally, many have not been able to get to work at all. On the other, the number of applications for assistance has greatly increased, largely because many people have been stood off from work owing to the severity of the weather. During the six weeks to 29th January the Board received 101,000 more applications—an increase of 30 per cent.—and gave 173,000 more interviews at its offices—an increase of 26 per cent—than in the corresponding period a year ago.

In spite of reduced staff and increased inside work—including, since I made my announcements, preparations for the increases in benefits and allowances—members of the staff have made over 50,000 more home visits during the six weeks to 29th January than in the same six weeks last year. I have heard it said that such visits are sometimes unwelcome, even resented. Like other hon. Members, from time to time I visit constituents. Hon. Members will probably, like myself, have had the experience when calling on constituents of having been mistaken for an officer of the Board. I tell the House frankly—and I doubt whether my experience is unique; I certainly hope not—that when I told the householder who I was, he or she seemed more often disappointed than relieved. That is not to say that I was not welcomed. It is, rather, to say that the staff of the Board are generally welcomed.

Those who receive National Assistance have come to recognise that the officers of the Board are there to help and that it may very well be that in the course of their visits they will notice some want which they can and do meet without even being asked. In this way they have to exercise their discretion—an important part of the raison d'être of the Board. There has been some tendency of late to complain of lack of uniformity on the part of officers of the Board in exercising their discretion. The fact is that rigid uniformity and reasonable discretion are incompatible. I am sure, however, that the Board tries to achieve uniformity of approach—a common attitude of sympathy and helpfulness.

There cannot, however, be complete uniformity when judgment must be exercised by several thousand officers in relation to two million recipients varying widely in their individual circumstances. Certainly, no other approach could deal so effectively and flexibly with a great variety of special needs, varying from small occasional payments for minor household services to regular payments for an expensive special diet.

I hope, therefore, that no one will suggest today that there should be codification—not even for fuel. I appreciate keenly that in this exceptionally severe winter many poor people have been cold. I know, too, that the cost of coal has gone up—in some places more than in others. The increase in National Assistance scales which was made last September, of 4s. for a single householder and 5s. 6d. for a married couple, should have helped to meet the higher cost of fuel. People tell me that there should have been special increases in the scale rates to meet the extra need for fuel due to the hard winter, or that there should have been a special bonus of some kind; say, a lump sum. But these suggestions confuse the purpose of scale rates with that of discretionary payments.

The scale rates are the same all the year round. They are intended to provide for the various needs and charges that arise at different times throughout the year. Where exceptional needs arise in individual cases, they can be met by discretionary payments. It may be said that a particularly hard winter bears heavily on all old and sick people alike and that, therefore, provision should be made for them all. But that is not so. Many old people—for example, those living with others—do not themselves have special expense for fuel. But where there is exceptional expense the Board uses its discretionary powers to help, and is at present doing so in more than 400,000 cases.

Where, say, an additional half-hundredweight of coal a week is needed, the extra allowance made is about 5s., but there is no fixed amount. The Board's officers consider cases individually and the amount may be larger or smaller according to need. The Board has given and is giving help with the cost of extra fuel which has had or needs to be bought on account of exceptionally cold weather wherever the applicant would otherwise suffer hardship. The Board has asked its officers to be on the look-out for cases of hardship and local old people's welfare committees and other voluntary organisations—for example, the Citizens' Advice Bureaux—have also undertaken to bring cases to their notice. Where a special need is found to exist additional help will be given where appropriate; for example, where an unusually large electricity bill must be met.

I feel that the House will welcome this evidence of co-operation between voluntary organisations and the Board. I am sure that, as time goes on, this co-operation will grow. The staff of the Board keep closely in touch with difficult cases and visit them regularly. But the officers cannot always know of new cases unless they find them or they are brought to their attention. They are bound to rely to some extent on the co-operation of good neighbours to bring cases of need to their attention.

Mr. James Dempsey (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

How are these additional payments advertised to the recipients? Are there special forms by which the old folk can apply, or does the Board rely solely on someone informing it that an old person has no coal? What are the mechanics of this, because I understand that such allowances for really needy cases are not made known in the leaflet which I have studied. This is an important matter and the Minister should make the position abundantly clear.

Mr. Macpherson

On the first point, the National Assistance Board has been in operation for quite a long time and it is generally known that its function is to meet cases of special need. On the second point, the Board's officers regularly visit the difficult cases and then try to keep in touch; and they encourage voluntary bodies to do the same, and to bring special cases of need to their attention. The Board is bound to rely, to some extent, on that kind of co-operation, and, as I have said, during the course of their inquiries social workers inevitably come across cases of hardship. I hope that they will bring such cases immediately to the attention of the Board—not, if I may say so, in a censorious spirit, but in one of helpfulness and co-operation. Some social workers have done so and their co-operation has been greatly appreciated by the Board and by those who have benefited as a result.

The new rates, if the House approves them, are designed to help the poorest members of the community. Following on the increase made last September to take account of the rise in the cost of living, they represent a clear improvement in their standard of living, and I commend the Regulations with confidence to the House.

3.58 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)

The Minister has had a most agreeable duty this afternoon and I am sure that the House will wish to congratulate him on having had such a successful term of office so far. The right hon. Gentleman has done very little except introduce improvements; improvements in National Assistance and National Insurance benefits, improvements in war disability and comparable benefits have been announced. This has all been a nice experience indeed for any Minister of Pensions and National Insurance.

The House will be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for having gone over the ground of the Regulations so carefully and for giving hon. Members an interesting description of the present activities of the officers of the Board to deal with the exceptional conditions which are confronting many of those who go to the Board for help. National Assistance is a large social service and the Minister referred to the number of allowances current at the January count; and I wish to say a few words about numbers.

As I understand, all references to numbers are references to the numbers of allowances and not necessarily to the numbers of people. That is a pitfall for a number of people, and even The Times the other day fell into the error of referring to the number of people receiving weekly allowances when the number was the number of allowances. In the case of married couples and others within the same household there is one allowance.

Mr. Hilary Marquand, when he was spokesman for this side on pensions matters, was constantly impressing upon the House that the number of allowances was smaller than the number of people. I always understood from him that we had to write up the number of allowances by about 25 per cent. in order to get at the number of people. I do not know what the number is, but if the Minister has information it would be interesting to know how many actual people—as distinct from the number of allowances—are receiving help from the National Assistance Board.

It is desirable that the country should know the full measure of the work of the National Assistance Board, and not be misled into thinking that 2,084,000 allowances in payment at the end of January represents 2,084,000 people. It is more than that—considerably more than that—and it would be a good thing to know exactly what the number is——

Mr. N. Macpherson

If the hon. Gentleman would like it, I can give him the figure. It is rather more than 25 per cent. The January figure is not yet available, but in December there were 427,000 wives and 541,000 children.

Mr. Houghton

There we are—we have the figures. And they are impressively greater than the number of allowances.

The central issue that these Regulations present to the House is whether National Assistance scales should be improved at the same time, and by the same amount, as National Insurance benefits. In theory, no, but, in practice, I think that the difficulties there are, and always will be, if National Insurance benefits are raised without some increase in National Assistance benefits at the same time represent common ground between us. When there has been any gap between the two, there has been a great deal more trouble even than there will be at the present time.

We know, and the Minister has again reminded us today, that National Assistance scales can and do go up at a time when National Insurance benefits are not being increased. The Minister has told us that since 1952 National Insurance benefits have gone up on three occasions and National Assistance on six occasions—and, indeed, of the ten times that National Assistance has been increased, four have been at a time when National Insurance benefits have not been increased at the same time.

We are, therefore, in the position that although National Assistance scales can be improved even when National Insurance benefits are not being raised, National Insurance benefits are never raised without some increase in National Assistance. That, of course, is happening again now.

Whatever may be the theory of the matter, the practical considerations are that as long as National Insurance and National Assistance remain as closely related as they are in cash value, and so closely associated in the public mind as doing much the same thing, we are likely to have to continue adjusting both at the same time. As long as the benefits under both National Insurance and National Assistance jostle each other on the border of poverty they will never get separated in our thoughts about social security.

Many people believe that both are related to minimum standards of living, and that the difference between them is that they are paid for by different methods. If any Government could carry the nation into a really substantial measure of social security, and get it to accept all the conditions for providing a retirement pension of, say, £10 a week, as of right, without means test, it would by no means follow that National Assistance would have to be increased by a corresponding amount. It is the proximity of the two levels of benefit that keeps them so closely tied in people's minds.

In theory, National Insurance is what the nation decides it can afford out of current resources to give guaranteed benefits, as of right, without test of need, in certain eventualities—sickness, unemployment, old age, and so on—and although these benefits may be below subsistence standards, or above, it is the national choice in guaranteed benefits by virtue of contributions. By ourselves paying contributions towards the benefits to others now our own benefits in due course are underwritten by those who follow on. That is what National Insurance is all about at the present time, on a "pay-as-you-go" basis.

National Assistance, on the other hand, is a safety net to take care of those who have slipped through the National Insurance scheme, or have fallen out of it, or have never been covered by it—and there are about 26,000 deserted wives in that category.

But, having looked at the difference in theory between National Insurance and National Assistance, the two things still cannot be separated. National Assistance is too much a substitute for, or supplement to, National Insurance to be regarded by people as something separate and distinct.

If, then, National Assistance is to be linked in practice with National Insurance, the question is whether it should move up by the same amount. I think that it is agreed, by what the Minister is now doing and by what has been done on every previous occasion, that, when National Insurance goes up, National Assistance must go up. The question is not whether it goes up at the same time—because it does, and has done—but whether it is to go up by the same amount, which it sometimes has and sometimes has not.

Here, again, the theory of the matter is easier than practical experience shows, because improvements in the level of National Insurance benefits have so much to do with minimum standards, and come so close to National Assistance standards, that the two things become almost indistinguishable. We have at present an increase in the National Insurance rate for a single person from 57s. 6d. to 67s. 6d., but the current National Assistance scale for a single person is 57s. 6d. People therefore ask," If the National Insurance 57s. 6d. is going up to 67s. 6d., why is not the National Assistance 57s. 6d. going up to 67s. 6d. at the same time?" That is the question.

I know that the Minister will say that the National Assistance 57s. 6d. is subject to a rent addition, whereas the National Insurance 57s. 6d. is not. That is true, but the two amounts are associated in the public mind. The present National Insurance benefit for a married couple is 92s. 6d. National Assistance is 95s. 6d.—3s. a week more, plus the rent addition. On the face of it, one would expect the new National Assistance rate to rise at least to the new National Insurance rate of 109s. Many people say that it should increase by the same amount—16s. 6d.—to 112s. That is the view that hon. Members on this side of the House take on this occasion.

I am fortified in this view by no less weighty an opinion than that of the Halifax Courier. Hon. Members opposite may not attach as much importance as I do to that newspaper, but there is one hon. Member opposite who does-the hon. Member for Halifax (Mr. Maurice Macmillan). We both attach great importance to the weighty and reasonable opinions of the editor of this most estimable journal. Not only is that editor saying that the two rates should go up by the same amount and at the same time; he is expressing the hope that the sheer weight of numbers in this Chamber this afternoon will give the Minister a jolt severe enough to make him think again. There may be enough of us to provide the sheer weight of numbers to encourage the Minister to think again.

I have a letter here which was handed to me by my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram) and which ably expresses the point of view of the ordinary person—especially the person receiving national assistance. It says: May I quote my own case. I worked in the docks all my life and, as you are no doubt aware, had no opportunity to qualify for superannuation. Because of this, I tried to continue working until my 70th birthday. Unfortunately, I was forced to retire just about three months short of this and applied for the pension. My wife and I were awarded a joint pension of £6 a week and on application to the National Assistance Board were granted a further 25s. a week, making a total of £7 5s. a week. Out of this we pay £2 11s. rent; £1 2s. per week coal; a minimum of 14s. per week electricity and 7s. per week gas, making a total of £4 14 per week. We are, therefore, left with £2 11s. to cover food, clothing, shoe repairs, washing, renovations, etc., which I think you will agree does not permit any but the most meagre living conditions. Thus, the full 16s. 6d. increase would be a great help. I have been a good citizen and worked all my life paying all taxes and have, fortunately, been free from illness. Thus, I have not been a drain on the Insurance scheme for either sick or unemployment benefit, but as things appear to be moving now I am not to be allowed to enjoy the full benefits now because I have not been fortunate enough to work for an employer who supports a superannuation scheme, or one of the privileged people with a private income. That is how the position strikes the ordinary person on National Assistance. He is not able to distinguish between National Insurance benefits, which are given, as of right, in return for contributions, and National Assistance, which is not—because these two things are inextricably bound together in any thinking about social security at present. When one rate does not rise with the other there is a cry that there is a catch in it somewhere.

There is a suggestion in part of the Press that when the Minister announced an increase in National Insurance benefit and said that the National Assistance Board would make proposals for increases in National Assistance at the same time, those who heard the news thought that they would get the benefit of a full National Insurance increase, although they were on National Assistance. It does not turn out to be so.

There is a further point that the Minister must bear in mind in this connection. The increases that he is proposing in these Regulations have to be looked at in economic, not to mention electoral terms, as well as in terms of social advance. These better National Assistance scales were no more initiated by the National Assistance Board than by the man in the moon. They represent part of the boost to consumer demand. I said before, and I firmly believe it to be true, that the present Minister of Pensions is the only one who has been summoned to the Cabinet Room and instructed to increase his benefits.

These increases must be looked at in conjunction with the reductions in Purchase Tax, the release of another £40 million in post-war credits, the easement in hire-purchase conditions, the reduction in the Bank Rate, and the rest. These new scales are part of an unprecedented increase in public expenditure between one Budget and another. They represent one means of raising the purchasing power of over 2 million of those who can afford to buy very little. Therefore, there is a case for improving the position of these people by more and not by less than those on National Insurance—certainly not by less. So, on these quite pragmatic grounds, we support the view that the increases in National Assistance should be at least as great as the increases in National Insurance.

The Minister said very little about the basis upon which these increases are proposed. He told us that the increases of last September covered increases in the retail price index up to last month. That was to show that the increases now being proposed are a bonus. They are over and above the rise in the cost of living. They are something extra. They are a windfall. This confirms my belief that the windfall is part of the economic measures being taken by the Government in present circumstances.

I do not know whether it is a coincidence, but this happens to be the fourth time upon which the married couple has received an increase of 9s. a week. There seems to be some magic about that figure. It has been the amount of the increase in National Assistance scales on four occasions out of ten. The Minister did not tell us what, in his opinion, was the change in circumstances which had taken place since last July which led the Government to make these proposals at this time. He was very vague and ambiguous about the reason for the increase, and for the amount proposed.

The right hon. Gentleman threw a little light on the question why the increase for the married couple—taking last September's proposals and the new proposals together—was 2s. a week less than the 16s. 6d. by which National Insurance benefits are to be raised, but I am sure that he will not expect those who feel a grievance about this to be satisfied by his saying, "To give a full explanation of this discrepancy I must take you back to 1948", which is what he did. He cannot take the September increase with the current ones, add them together and say, "There you are; they are the equivalent of National Insurance increases", when one of them manifestly is not.

In any case, the Minister was making proposals last September independently of any increase in National Insurance benefits. Therefore, his predecessor was presumably making an objective judgment of what the increases should be, having regard to the circumstances of that time and ignoring any change at the same moment in National Insurance benefits.

It would be interesting to hear from the Joint Parliamentary Secretary what is at the back of all this. If my interpretation of the present situation is not correct, what is the real explanation? The figures that we think should be included in these Regulations would give only a very modest total of National Assistance. We would give to a single person a scale benefit of 67s. 6d., which with the average rent addition would produce a total of £4 9s. 6d. for a single householder. There is nothing outrageous about that. For a married couple the National Assistance scale of 112s. with a rent addition of 22s. would give a total of £6 14s. There is nothing outrageous about that. So what we are proposing in terms of subsistence will be demonstrably moderate in the eyes of all who understand the meaning of these figures in terms of domestic expenditure and the current level of the cost of living.

We are sorry that the Minister has not returned to the practice of devising a new special rate for blind persons. It is true that he is giving them proportionate increases, but there is an especial feeling of sympathy for and understanding of the problems of blind persons, so much so that in the Finance Bill last year, after many years of unsuccessful representations to the Government, a special Income Tax relief was introduced for the first time for blind persons. I think that it would be the wish of the House that we should be especially generous in providing for the welfare of blind persons, which these scales do not do.

The Minister referred to the very large number of people who would get benefit under the Regulations, although he said that some people would not get full benefit or any benefit at all. He referred to discretionary grants and to the discretionary grant for coal. A good deal that the Minister said about the work of his officials during this very severe winter was, in a measure, reassuring. It is good to know that the Board's officers, despite the terrible conditions in which they had to get about, have gone round to see whether people were suffering hardship and to do what they could to relieve it.

I am sure that the Minister was right to give a special word of praise to the voluntary organisations, because I know that in my constituency and elsewhere the old people's welfare organisations have come together in an emergency programme of visitation and of providing relief for old, disabled and sick people who would otherwise be suffering acute hardship in this bitterly cold weather. We assume, therefore, that in cases where the fuel grant was not enough it could be increased. Could we have a tam assurance that in so far as it is thought possible all those who have wanted extra money for fuel have had it, so that there have been no empty grates and people going to bed in the middle of the afternoon because they could not afford to keep the gas fire going for a reasonable time?

Can we be assured that we need have no visions of that kind of disgraceful destitution? I know that this has meant that officers of the Board have had to get about under difficult conditions, but I think that all Members feel acutely uncomfortable about the plight of many people during the recent cold weather and wonder how they manage to get by. We wonder whether discretionary grants could not in general have been increased of late so as to give many people who need extra assistance still more help in time of difficulty.

The Minister also referred to the wage-stop and there is now apparently growing interest in its effect. It is true that the higher the National Assistance scale, the more the wage-stop is likely to affect people on unemployment benefit and that the more people there are on unemployment benefit the more they are likely to be stopped under this rule.

There was an article in The Times this morning on this subject and a very reasonable article about it in the News of the World. Mr. Kenneth Barrett, who writes on this subject in the News of the World, covers what I call the more responsible part of the News of the World and his comments on the effect of the wage-stop were, I think, reasonable and to the point. The Minister has now told us that about one in eight are stopped. This is a very difficult question. It operates only in the case of unemployment, and the Minister has explained that it would not be desirable to have people getting more money when unemployed than when they are at work.

It might also be argued that it would not be desirable for them to have more money when they are sick than when they are at work. This kind of thing can be carried too far. The assumption is that an unemployed person would prefer to remain unemployed to get the benefit of higher National Assistance scales than go to work and get a somewhat lower wage. I think that all these cases want looking at on their merits. In the case of very large families it may be that the family allowance system is not doing its job, or it may be that fathers of not so large families, who are able to earn only low rates of pay because of ill-health, or loss of skill or from other special reasons, are not able to earn anything like the average wage for adults.

I think that the House will not be happy to hear that families are likely to be suffering privation because of the stop on account of the wage limit. I think that the Minister said that where there was exceptional hardship—I do not like the word "exceptional" in this matter—additional allowances could be granted. I feel very doubtful about the justification for continuing the wage-stop in the present circumstances. I think that it is better to deal with this problem not by cutting National Assistance but by finding those concerned different work, or better work or seeing that they get work. The wage system may be failing, the family allowance system may not be doing its full job in the case of large families, but to cut National Assistance seems very harsh in individual cases.

The Minister did not mention the disregards. They do not figure in these Regulations. But some people will find themselves docked of same of their National Assistance on account of an increase in the war disability pension. That is because the disregard will come into operation. Is not it time to remove entirely the limit on the amount of war disability pensions? Since when has a war disability pension been money to live on?

The war disability pension is a pension for loss of faculty. It is some compensation for permanent injury or damage, or because the capacity for the enjoyment of life has been affected. To regard it as part of the living expenses and to put a limit on National Assistance for that reason is particularly unwarranted under present conditions. The total disregards, as we know, are 30s. But the disregard for a war disability pension is also 30s. To some people it seems that they are caught by the disregard when the pension is increased.

Another aspect of all this is that only 16 per cent, of the applicants for National Assistance appear to have more than £100 saved. Many of those who come for National Assistance may have slender resources. But there is no doubt that a lot of them suffer greatly when the National Assistance Board suggests that they should draw on that capital in order to supplement their current resources. Most people regard what bit of savings they may have as something standing between them and complete dependence on the State, or upon friends, or upon charity.

Now I come to the question of the operative date. When the Minister made his announcement I described the delay as "cruel", and I have no reason to alter that word. It is cruel to keep people waiting until the end of May for something they desperately need now. This has been the worst winter in living memory. I have no doubt that all the persons on National Assistance who have gone through it have suffered acutely from privation and hardship. It seems that the National Assistance Scheme, on a national basis, fails to respond to the urgent need for general improvement. National Assistance has now become the prisoner of the order books, like National Insurance. Cynics may say that the whole operation has been carefully stage-managed by the Chancellor. Some people would say that the Chancellor has to have regard to the fact that already he has a supplementary Estimate for over £20 million for National Assistance increases last September, and he has probably said that he does not want another one.

All this is timed to take effect in another financial year. That suggests to me that even though it had been possible to bring this relief earlier the Chancellor did not want it done before the beginning of another financial year. Otherwise, it is a strange commentary on the National Assistance Board that while it can keep its officers on call for 24 hours, weekends included, in order to relieve hardship in emergency cases, when it comes to the relief of hardship generally it takes four months to do so. I think that a sad commentary on the problems of administration and in this respect the national scheme responds less quickly than did local schemes in bygone days. None of us would, want to return to those days, for all sorts of reasons, but we want a national scheme capable of responding more quickly to the needs of the poorest in the land.

In general, these Regulations, while acceptable so far as they go, show up once again the big problems of the relationship between National Assistance and National Insurance. I see that some current opinion on this matter suggests that a more satisfactory way of supplementing National Insurance benefits should be found. We are in search of that. I have no doubt that hon. Members opposite are also in search of it. I see that the noble Lord the Member for Hertford (Lord Balniel) is in the Chamber. On a number of occasions he has suggested that benefits to older persons should be increased as of right, because on the whole they are the people who have to go to the National Assistance Board. But increases for older persons as such can be just as unselective as increases for everybody else. In the present circumstances we are all looking for means of supplementing standard benefits under the National Insurance Scheme in a way which would be acceptable to those concerned, and which would not bear the unpalatable label which "National Assistance" is in the minds of so many people. It will be for the future to see what may be made of this problem. Certainly, National Assistance is not a satisfactory way in which to do this job.

The Minister has rightly paid tribute to the sympathetic approach and consideration of all the officers of the Board. I give them the highest praise. With other hon. Members, I am in a position to see the work of the National Assistance Board at quite close quarters, and I am aware of the trouble they take. We appreciate their understanding of the needs and feelings of individuals. In a recent case I was astonished at the way in which the Chairman of the National Assistance Board went out of his way to conceal from some proud person that she was actually receiving National Assistance. If assistance is called a "pension" or even a "supplementary pension", it is acceptable. But as National Assistance—no.

These are difficult problems, notwithstanding the best will in the world being shown by the National Assistance Board officers towards those whom it is their duty to serve and to help. I believe that there are other ways in which this matter could be tackled, but this is not a suitable moment to discuss alternative schemes. I am clear in my own mind that the whole country is looking for some way other than National Assistance. I know that our industrial history and the history of the Poor Law, even today and so long afterwards, bedevil the approach to all matters requiring a test of means.

Other countries have been free of that. Australia and New Zealand find it possible to impose a means test without the kind of "hang-over" which we have from the bad days of the Industrial Revolution and the cruel and crude methods of the Poor Law. But we have to live with our own history. We cannot take over the history of Australia and New Zealand. We must have regard to the feelings of people, which are important in these matters—conspicuously important—if we are to have a contented public opinion about our schemes of social security.

I hope that the endeavours of all concerned will continue in an attempt to solve the great problem of finding a different way to supplement pensions than by the National Assistance Board. As I say, we are not in the least detracting from the work which it does. Indeed, the praise which we bestow on it is sincere and is renewed every time we debate Regulations of this kind. But this way of doing things is not in accord with the conscience of British people and we wish to find a better way. Meantime, we thank the Minister for bringing forward these Regulations. We had hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would have removed one source of widespread discontent, the disparity between the increase in National Assistance benefits compared with National Insurance.

4.48 p.m.

Mr. Charles Curran (Uxbridge)

Like the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton), I am reluctant to look this "gift horse" in the mouth. With the hon. Gentleman, and, I suppose, everyone else in the Chamber, I welcome the increases so far as they go. All the same, now that we are being asked to approve these increases—it is the tenth time since National Assistance began that we have had to do this—I think that we should look rather narrowly at what is involved in our doing so.

I know that within the limits of his office the Minister can give an explanation for the discrepancy in the increase of insurance benefits compared with National Assistance. It is an explanation which, taken in a vacuum, is credible—I will not say plausible. But I also agree emphatically with what was said by the hon. Member for Sowerby about it. No matter what explanation may come out of the Ministry, ordinary citizens find it completely incomprehensible that one lot of benefits should go up by X and another lot by X minus Y. No matter what explanation the Minister gives, or what explanation any of us gives, I do not believe it will carry any conviction.

I urge the Minister to see whether it is possible to bridge this gap. I invite him to consider this. When it was decided to increase the retirement pension by 16s. 6d. a week for a married couple, why did we do that? The plain answer is that we thought that a married couple deserved a standard of living which could be obtained only by an increase of 16s. 6d. That was basic, human reason. If that is a good argument for a couple on a retirement pension, why is it not a good argument for a couple on National Assistance? How can it be argued that an increase which is regarded as necessary for one couple should be denied for another? The Minister's reasons, which may be valid in an economic vacuum, make no sense as soon as we get outside Westminster.

I suggest that these dilemmas and anomalies which constantly confront us here and elsewhere in the social services are all particular illustrations of the great general fact that we are the captives of what was done in 1948. I am not going back into ancient history. Nor do I impugn the motives of those who created the National Insurance Act of 1948 and set up the National Assistance Board. Fifteen years later, however, it is perfectly plain that their basic assumption—flat-rate universal benefits, the assumption that people's needs can be measured out in equal sums—has not worked. The fact that today we are approving further increases in National Assistance surely conclusively demonstrates that all the assumptions of 1948 have turned out wrong.

As we all know, the Beveridge basis was that National Insurance benefits should be enough by themselves to enable anyone to live without other resources. That basis does not work. It never has worked from the beginning. It is not working now. How much longer are we to go on pretending that somehow or other it can be made to work and that all we have to do is to supplement it from time to time by putting up National Assistance scales? We have been doing that year after year for fifteen years. It is time that we overhauled the whole structure radically.

Are we to continue indefinitely with the scheme enacted in 1948, and to keep on plugging the holes in it year after year by putting more and more money into National Assistance? National Assistance has now become permanently necessary in order to keep the National Insurance Scheme afloat. So far from being something which would wither away, it has got bigger and bigger. The fact that we have now to increase for the tenth time suggests that we must reexamine the basis on which we tried to create national insurance in 1948.

Next, I want to look at some of the implications of these Regulations. I listened attentively to what was said by the Minister and by the hon. Member for Sowerby. I endorse all that was said by them about the humanity, the sympathy and the kindly energy of the National Assistance Board officers I have not the slightest desire to speak about the Board in any language save that of eulogy. Nevertheless, I wish to ask some questions about how these discretionary powers of theirs are used. We heard the Minister's explanation about the discretionary grant for fuel. We heard why it is not given as a matter of right.

Can we be told more about these discretionary powers? I take it that regional officers of the Board receive from headquarters in London some instruction about how the discretionary powers are to be operated. Is there any reason why those instructions should not he made available to hon. Members? Is there any reason why we should not see the formulas which the Board provide for its officers? We are today making a decision which affects so many of our fellow citizens; and we have a right to know exactly how these discretionary powers are applied.

I repeat that I am not making any imputation at all against the energy, the kindliness, the sympathy or the administrative efficiency of the Board. Not at all. But as Members of this House we ought to know in detail what the instructions are. I hope that when the Joint Parliamentary Secretary replies to the debate we shall be told that they will be made available to us so that we can see exactly what they are.

Now I want to press the Minister about the operation of the wage-stop as it applies to men who have large families. Subject to correction, I understand that the wage-stop is operated by reference to a list of disregards which does not include family allowances. I understand that when the Board imposes the wage-stop on a family it looks at the net earnings and includes the family allowances in them. I am open to be contradicted, but I understand that the rule derives from regulations made in 1948.

I am not disputing the general principle of the wage-stop. I agree that we cannot use public money for the purpose of making people better off when they are not working than when they are working. But inside that general principle—I hope the Ministry will give us a sympathetic hearing on this—I draw attention to the unemployed man with a large family. He receives quite a substantial sum in family allowances. Therefore, he comes against the wage-stop.

Why should not family allowances be treated as a disregard? There may be a reason. If there is, I should like to hear it. But I cannot see it.

The worst poverty in this country is not so much among old people as among large families where the father has a small wage. It was for the purpose of tackling poverty in that kind of household that the family allowances system was invented. I ask the Minister to recognise that by reckoning family allowances for the wage-stop he is penalising children.

Let it be said honestly that if we exclude family allowances from consideration of the wage-stop we will undoubtedly give some money to idlers who have large families. It is true that the possession of a large family is not necessarily a guarantee of social virtue. If we consequently treat the allowances as a disregard, some people with large families will get a financial inducement not to do any work. But I suggest that this is a risk which we must run.

When we are administering the Welfare State, and, in particular, when we are administering National Assistance, we cannot afford to surround the conditions of payment with too many restrictions. We cannot afford to put a labyrinth of barbed wire fencing around National Assistance to keep out the occasional cheat and skrimshanker. We must accept a certain amount of cheating, false pretences and skrimshanking. It is better to put up with that than to penalise people who need help and will not be getting it.

It is certainly better to put up with a certain amount of that rather than penalise the children. Whatever we may say about the father who dodges work, the children are in no way to blame for him. We have no right to visit our disapproval of him upon his children. But unless we treat family allowances as a disregard, that is what we are doing.

Family allowances are another example in the social services of the folly of universality, the folly of giving money evenly and uniformly to everybody with no reference to their need. Obviously some families need the allowances desperately. Equally obviously, other families do not. I know that it can be argued, and always is argued, that since the allowances rank as part of the family's income, the rich family pays back the allowance in taxation. That seems to me to be no defence at all for universality. The money which is taken back in taxation ought to be going to the poor families who do not pay tax and who ought to have that money.

When we reconstruct the Welfare State and stop this process of patching, when we apply ourselves, as one of these days we must, to rearranging our ideas about welfare so that people who need help get it, and get it generously, then we shall ensure that in helping them we are not obliged to limit our generosity by spreading it over people who do not need it.

Obviously, the Minister cannot undertake to reconstruct the Welfare State this afternoon. But I hope that, within the limits available to him, he will give us satisfaction on the two points which I have raised—details about the Board's orders in respect of discretionary allowances and an assurance that in future he will exclude family allowances from the determination of income for the wage-stop.

4.55 p.m.

Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn)

I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Curran) on the robust way in which he supported our criticism of the discrepancy between the increases in the basic pension and the proposed increases in National Assistance. I entirely agree with him that we should not remain prisoners of the Beveridge Report for the rest of our political lives. That is why we on this side of the House have carried out some of the basic rethinking and the radical overhaul of our ideas about insurance which are reflected in our new national superannuation plan.

Some fundamental long-term planning is necessary to avoid a perpetuation of this living on the brink of poverty to which so many people have, unfortunately, become accustomed. I am only sorry that the Government did not follow our example in making that radical overhaul, but, instead, put before the country a graduated pensions scheme which was a mockery of ours and the success of which, in the Government's eyes, lies in the fact that a large majority of those entitled to join it have, in fact, contracted out.

Lord Balniel (Hertford)

We are eagerly awaiting this radical reform, When will it be published?

Mrs. Castle

It was published well before the last General Election in massive detail, explained on the wireless in great detail by our spokesman and explained by me at street corners endlessly, at the same time as I exposed the confidence trick which lies behind the Government's substitute of the graduated pensions scheme.

Lord Balniel


Mrs. Castle

I will not permit the hon. Gentleman to interrupt again. I will gladly send him a copy of the scheme at my own expense, but this is not the moment to debate it. I merely made the reference in passing and in reply to the hon. Member for Uxbridge.

None the less, I agree with the hon. Member very much in the plea which he made to the Minister to reconsider once again, in the light of the realities of the present situation, the proposal which he is putting before the House that the increase in the National Assistance scale should be less than in the increase in the basic pension. I do so for the reasons which he advanced; the Government's action may sound logical within the walls of Westminster, but it is totally incomprehensible to the ordinary pensioner who has been waiting so long, and has still to wait for months, for the much- needed increase in National Assistance scales, and to whom this appears like an operation in which the Government give with one hand and take away with the other from the people who most need help.

I am sure that in the last months hon. Members have had case after case of people on National Assistance whose scales were clearly totally inadequate. These were people in all sorts of circumstances. I have had them in my political surgery month after month. They came to me almost distracted, asking, "Could anybody possibly live on this sum?" One has had to admit that it was impossible to live on it. It is ludicrous for any of us to pretend that we could even begin to live a civilised life, or a life with the minimum comforts, on such a sum.

To these people it has come as a shock and a blow to find that the Government are repeating the process of addition and subtraction which to them seems like a refinement of cruelty. I have in my hand a letter which reached me before the new National Assistance scales were announced. It reads: Will you kindly answer the following question: is the new increase we are to receive at the end of May genuine or will the supplementary pensions people step in as they did on the last increase and take part of it? I remember the last increase. I received 12s. 6d. for myself and wife. Immediately the supplementary pension was dropped by 7s. 6d. My increase was 5s. which meant that I was still 5s. worse off than I was when I had to retire through sickness at the age of 65 in January, 1960, as the cost of living had risen by 10s. That is how it appeared to the ordinary pensioner, and I have had many letters on similar lines. I am sure that this is the experience of every hon. Member. We can only repeat to the Minister the plea that he should reconsider this point.

I know very well that some basic pensioners who are not in receipt of National Assistance feel rather differently about this. Some basic pensioners have written to me and said, "Is not the right way to deal with this to give us all an adequate basic pension and then there would not be the need for all this argument about National Assistance scales and supplementing the pension?"

There is a great deal in that. I have sympathy with that point of view. However, we have not as yet got a basic pension that is adequate to live on. Until we do, the National Assistance scales will remain the criterion of adequacy. I repeat that even with these increases inadequacy will remain, and it will be all the more difficult to bear and all the more bitter in the minds of the recipients because their hopes were roused by an announcement of a 10s. increase.

I support what the hon. Member for Uxbridge said about discretionary payments. We know that local National Assistance Board officials for the most part do an excellent job, but they are working to a policy laid down from above. I listened with particular interest to what the Minister said about the fuel allowances, a question which I raised in the House when we discussed the National Insurance Bill. I was glad to see from the amount of time the Minister devoted to the question of fuel allowances in his speech that some of the points I raised have clearly gone home. Once again, he has attempted to answer them. Once again, he has claimed that there are 400,000 discretionary fuel allowances in payment at present.

The right hon. Gentleman reiterated his argument that the National Assistance Board is eagerly on the look-out for cases of hardship. He even said, I hope that voluntary organisations will draw the attention of the National Assistance Board to these cases. I hope that the officers will get round wherever they can and look for some old person who has not got enough fuel in the house to keep him warm and will leap to meet the need. We hope that other people will tell the Board's officers where this situation arises."

That will not do. It is, admittedly, the same answer as I received from the Chairman of the National Assistance Board when I wrote to him on this matter. He replied to me in these terms on 6th February: I am very conscious that many old people will have had to buy extra coal during the very cold weather. As I explained in my letter of 14th January, our officers have been asked to be specially alert to recognise cases of hardship and I may add that local old people's welfare committees have also undertaken to bring cases to notice. Where a special need comes to light, an additional allowance will be given … That all sounds very fine and dandy, but how does the curious fact arise in my constituency that, as I have told the House before, when the Mayor of Blackburn launched an appeal for funds to provide old people with extra fuel and extra food, and got all kinds of organisations, including the school children in the borough, with the W.V.S. and every type of voluntary organisation, going out and bringing to her attention cases of need, she was able and, indeed, obliged within one week to issue 950 bags of coal? This was in the first week. Since that time, as funds have continued to come in, another large issue of bags of coal has been made.

If the National Assistance officers are specially alert, why was it ever necessary for this to be done out of charitable funds, particularly as appeals made in neighbouring boroughs in Lancashire have not been as generously responded to as they have in Blackburn? If they had been as generously responded to, these voluntary bodies would presumably have found just as many cases where in the discretion of those operating the scheme an extra bag of coal ought to be issued. There is clearly a very different standard in the mind of the Chairman of the National Assistance Board from that which exists in the hearts of the warmhearted individuals of Lancashire who, out of their own pockets, have been prepared to meet a need which they saw but which the Assistance Board did not.

I repeat what the hon. Member for Uxbridge said. There must be a failure here in the operation of discretionary allowances. That is why I have asked—and I repeat—that in winter weather of any kind, let alone the severe weather we have had this year, it ought to be part of the spirit of the current administration of the Assistance Board that an immediate instruction is issued by the Chairman for an extra issue of coal to be made, on the obvious and logical argument that we are all burning more coal, we all are burning more electricity, we are all burning more gas.

There is not an hon. Member whose fuel bills have not been doubled in these winter months. The electricity bill I received in January was exactly twice as large as the one I received in January of last year. That takes no account of the extra expenditure on coal or on gas. The bill I shall receive in March will probably be even worse. Can any hon. Member honestly say that there is any old-age pensioner drawing National Assistance who is not automatically entitled to extra bags of coal? How dare we say that this should be left to discretion, since we do not use such a criterion to decide our own standards of comfort and endurance during these terrible winter months?

The necessary lead is not being given from the top, in the Assistance Board, to authorise officials to go out and do this job of looking after the old people in the way in which it ought to be done. I suggest that one of the reasons why there is not that spirit is that the spirit of cold financial calculation still guides the Minister's own policy and is summarised in these Regulations. It is a spirit of calculation which says, "Yes, 10s. on the basic pension, but only 6s. on the National Assistance scale". Is that the right or humane approach in a situation where prices of basic necessities are rising and where the prices of essentials have been increased this winter as never before?

I have here a letter I have received from a widow aged 64. She lives alone. At present she has a pension of 57s. 6d. a week, plus rent paid by the National Assistance Board. She writes in this way: On the 30th January my Is. (two units) slot meter was changed to 2s. (one unit), which means I have to pay four times as much for what I use. This came as a shock to me, as I am not in a position to live a normal life and get out and associate with people (and buy newspapers, etc.) and I have no one belonging to me here … I understand we are to get an increase of 10s. a week, less 4s. National Assistance in three months' time, but meantime I have to find about 14s. a week or more for electric alone. This is for using one 100 watt light, a little wireless … There must be hundreds like me … Is there anyone in the House who would even contemplate beginning to try to live on 57s. 6d. a week, with 14s. for electricity alone? She is totally alone in the world and unable to get out or about. She adds: Is it justice that those not having to apply for assistance … should get 10s. but those who need it only actually get 6s.? What answer can we send to a woman like this? What answer could any M.P. with a heart send to a woman like this, except to say that he has got up in the House of Commons and protested against the failure to give women like this a fuel allowance, protested against the delay in bringing in these increases, and, not least, protested that when these increases come in the Minister has taken back 4s. from a widow like that?

5.10 p.m.

Lord Balniel (Hertford)

I am very glad to have this opportunity of following the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), because I, also, should like to say a word about these discretionary allowances, although I do not think that she will expect me to take exactly the same view about them that she did.

I should like to refer to that part of the hon. Lady's speech, but, before doing so, perhaps I should apologise for interrupting her speech so impolitely when she was talking about the great new radical reform which is being thought over by the hon. Lady and other hon. Members opposite, because, before she answered my question. I had not realised that she was referring to the old pension scheme which was laughed out of court and rejected by the electorate at the last election.

I thought that the hon. Lady was referring to the scheme which we have been led to understand by the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton), the hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) and the right hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) is to be published before so very long. I am afraid that I misunderstood the point when I asked the hon. Lady when this new reform was to be published.

Mrs. Castle

The extensions of that scheme to other beneficiaries, such as unemployment and sickness beneficiaries, has still to be considered, but the basic principles on which we think insurance should proceed were laid down by the National Superannuation Scheme, which was certainly not laughed out of court and which will certainly be welcomed by the electorate at the next election.

Lord Balniel

I do not want to take this argument too far, but it is interesting to note that the basic principles of the old scheme are to be reiterated in the new scheme.

The first point I wish to make is the one to which the hon. Lady referred, about the very long time which persons on National Assistance have to wait for their increase. I think it right to comment that this is the shortest period during the entire history of the National Assistance Board before the increased benefit was paid. Indeed, it is not only the shortest period but is the shortest period by well over a month.

I wish to say, of course, that I welcome the general tenor of these Regulations, and I welcome, in common with other hon. Members on this side of the House, the fact that this is the eighth increase which has been made since the present Government came to office. I also welcome the fact that in money terms the National Assistance scale rates are now 110 per cent. above what they were in 1951 at a time when the cost of living rates have increased by 52 per cent. and average earnings have increased by 91 per cent.

Mr. Dempsey

They are not the real terms.

Lord Balniel

That is exactly the point that I was about to make had the hon. Gentleman listened.

A quick mathematician would have worked out that in real terms the National Assistance scale rates are about 50 per cent. above what they were when the present Government were returned to office. I am not raising these figures in order to claim any particular credit for the Government in this field; I am doing so because I want to relate the argument to that advanced as the central point of his speech by the hon. Member for Sowerby. The hon. Gentleman criticised the fact—and I understand his argument—that the increase in National Assistance scale rates on this occasion is less than the increase which is currently being undertaken through the National Insurance Bill in insurance benefits

When commenting upon the announcement last week the hon. Gentleman said: Is not this the occasion for the right hon. Gentleman to announce increases in National Assistance equivalent to the increases in National Insurance.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th February, 1963; Vol. 671, c. 242.] This was much the same point which the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn made during the course of her speech. But if both the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Sowerby, instead of taking a microscope and scrutinising these figures, were prepared to take a slightly broader perspective they would see that the increase in National Assistance scales since April, 1961, is exactly the same as the increase in insurance benefits since April, 1961. This seems to me, therefore, to meet the point which they were both making.

I personally did not follow the hon. Member for Sowerby in the argument which he advanced that National Assistance scale rates and insurance benefits should march in step and hand in hand. What I do think—and this is not, I believe, accepted by the Government—is that the National Assistance scale rates should march automatically in step with increases in the average industrial earnings in the country. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] In fact, this has happened almost consistently since the war. The increase in National Assistance scale rates rather more than echoes the increase in average industrial earnings, and I should be interested to hear the arguments against linking the National Assistance scale rates with the average industrial earnings in the country as a whole.

I wish to make one or two small points, and the first refers to the discretionary allowances commented on by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Curran). Of course, these allowances form only a small part of the total National Assistance. They amount to, say, £19 million out of a total of about £200 million. As the House knows, the discretionary allowances are paid for fuel bills, laundry, domestic help and such like. They are an extremely valuable element of the National Assistance system because they give it a flexibility which we in the House of Commons can afford to give to the National Assistance Board owing to the fact that we have complete confidence in the integrity, fairness and humanity of its officers.

I agree with my right hon. Friend that the very essence of these discretionary allowances is that they should be discretionary. I entirely accept his view that we should not try to codify and consolidate them. Flexibility enables officers of the Board to bring the greatest help to those in the greatest need, but there is no doubt that more and more comment is being made by those interested in this field that there has been no overall study of the practice of the Assistance Board in awarding these discretionary allowances. There appear to be quite considerable geographical and regional variations.

I believe that I am right in saying that a study of the matter was undertaken in 1954, and I am not suggesting that there should be an outside review of discretionary allowances. What I am saying is that I think it is probably time that the Assistance Board itself undertook a review of its practice in awarding discretionary allowances. I, like other hon. Members, received a letter today from the London School of Economics asking that further information of a statistical nature should be published in the Reports of the National Assistance Board. This, I feel, sure would be widely welcomed if it could be done.

The second point I wish to make is with reference to the supplementary allowances for rent which are paid by the Assistance Board when people enter hospital or a residential home for old people. The practice of the Assistance Board when a person enters hospital is to continue to pay the supplementary assistance to meet rent for a period of twelve weeks. On the other hand, if a person enters a residential home, the practice of the Board, understandably, is rather different. In some cases, I understand, people are led to believe that the Assistance Board will not continue to pay supplementary allowances for rent. In other cases, and indeed more usually, the Board is prepared only to pay supplementary allowances for rent for a period of between three and four weeks.

These first few weeks when an elderly person enters a residential home are very difficult. These people are changing from a private life into a life led in a communal atmosphere. Very often they are ill. During those first few weeks when they are ill and they are confused by their surroundings they have to take a decision which will affect them for the rest of their lives. They have to decide whether they will remain in the residential home for the rest of their lives or try to return to their own homes within a few weeks or a few months. Should not the Board grant supplementary allow- ances for rent for a rather longer period than for three or four weeks so that this decision by elderly people can be taken at more leisure instead of in a rather hurried and perhaps unsatisfactory way?

Hon. Members have frequently emphasised that everyone who has the misfortune of falling below subsistence levels, as defined by the Assistance Board, should claim the National Assistance rates to which he or she is entitled. We have all, on both sides of the House, urged people to claim the assistance to which they are entitled. Among the old people who have memories of a different form of administration it is absolutely essential that there should be a sense of confidence in the fairness, the humanity, the friendliness, the integrity and high order of administration of the Assistance Board. These qualities are extremely difficult to quantify. All we can do is to give a personal judgment, and in common with other hon. Members I have my own personal judgment as to the quality of Assistance Board officers.

But I read in the Evening Siandard of 7th February, in a leading article entitled "Social Stigma", the following words: It must also be added that some National Assistance officers have a reputation of being extremely unpleasant to new claimants. There is no possible excuse for their conduct, and this must be remedied before the present Board can take its proper place as an essential and universally respected branch of the Welfare State. I admit that my personal experience of National Assistance is confined to my constituency and is limited, and it is quite possible that the writer of that article is better informed than I am. But I should say that my personal experience—and it is borne out by every authoritative report I have read on the subject—is absolutely categorically opposite to the views expressed in that article.

At a time when it is most essential that we should encourage elderly people who are entitled to supplementary pension to apply for it, an article written in that frame of mind is completely deplorable and harmful to the interests of elderly people and those who are in the greatest need in our society.

5.25 p.m.

Mr. James Dempsey (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

I was interested in the Minister's attitude towards the nature of the increase. He knows that we all welcome an increase, no matter how small. It is more than welcome in the homes of many old folk at the present time. My anxiety was to try to point out to the Minister how inadequate it is. After listening to speeches like that of the noble Lord the Member far Hertford (Lord Balniel), in which we were treated to an exercise in mental gymnastics in making comparisons between sets of pensions and between the 1940s and the 1960s without mentioning the hole in the and the fall in its value, I can only say that we are liable to be misled in dealing with the situation.

The people with whom we are concerned do not live on statistics nor on comparisons between the 1940s and the 1960s. They live on food, shelter and clothing. The question posed to hon. Members is whether we honestly believe that the Minister's suggestions are adequate to meet the present day needs of old folk. I have interviewed them and their organisations, and I have not met a single retirement pensioner or an organisation or any of the associations but protests about the inadequacy of this increase. I decided during the weekend to visit some of the old folk and I made the following note of the weekly budget of an old lady of 73 years of age, living in Scotland.

The weekly charge for each item was as follows.: 7s. for gas; 7s. for electricity, which is quite modest; 1s. for insurance; two bags of coal at £1 0s. 8d.; one dozen briquettes, 2s. 8d.; one packet of fire-lighters, 1s. 5d.; one gallon of oil, 2s. 4d.; ½1b. of tea. 3s. 10d.; 1 1b. of butter, 3s. 7d.; half-a-dozen eggs, 2s. 6d.; two loaves, 2s. 3d.; ½ 1b. dripping, 1 1d.; ½ 1b. ham, 2s. 6d.; milk for the week, 6s.; two packets of tea biscuits, 2s.; matches 4d.; milk puddings, 1s. 6d.; butcher's meat, 5s. This makes a total for that weekly budget of £3 12s. 6d., and it ignores soap, powders, fruit, potatoes, vegetables, clothes, shoes and all the other incidentals. I have also not mentioned the mutuality clubs to which payment is made for some of the household effects which are essential at that time of life.

The ladies whom I interviewed do not smoke or drink and had not been to the cinema for over twenty-five years. They do not even buy or read the papers. They sit and knit for most of their time as pensioners. I am talking of pensioners who are excellent managers in their homes and not of people who are inclined to be wasteful. They are elderly people who are extremely frugal in every aspect of expenditure.

When we examine the increase suggested by the Minister we should relate it to the actual living costs of old folk and we should not trouble them with a bundle of wearisome statistics. This increase is inadequate to meet the needs. We have said that we welcome it, because it is better than the present rate, but the Minister should not indulge in smug complacency and tell us that all in the garden is well and that the old folk have something to look forward to for the rest of the year. They are sot even to receive the increase until the end of May and, as I have said before, by that time we shall discover that thousands of them will have died and will not have received one half-penny of the proposed 6s. What is most humiliating is to give them an increase with one hand and take it back off them with the other. Such will be the fate of probably 1¾ million old-age pensioners. This sort of treatment is humiliating and nauseating to most public representatives.

It is fair to say that since the 1940s there have been very few occasions when the increases in National Assistance did not correspond to the increases in retirement pensions. In the majority of cases the pension increase and the National Assistance increase equated each other. The Minister should realise that this request is not impossible; it is quite feasible. It has been practical for many years, and there is no reason why that practice should not be continued. As I tried to point out, the pensioners with whom we are concerned are the poorest people of all in our society. To deny them the additional 4s. is a very niggardly act indeed.

I hope that the Minister will pay attention to this matter. He should realise that we are dealing with one of the most challenging and serious problems of all time, the problem of the old folk. I am sorry, but I cannot agree with him—I should like to do so—that the discretionary payments in respect of coal are going as well as he maintains. I have had a long association with the Assistance Board, and I know that this is something which has always been fobbed off. I am willing to accept the right hon. Gentleman's statement that in some cases a 5s. allowance has been made, but I come from a place where the cost of a bag of coal is 10s. 4d., not 5s. Therefore, he is still not meeting the need of old people for fuel by his discretionary payments when they are being made.

It is upsetting, to say the least, to find that local people who are interested in the old folk are promoting dances in their towns to which the admission is not money, but a bag of coal. When the bag of coal is deposited, it is taken to an old pensioner in desperate straits. That is what is happening in my part of Lanarkshire. If the old folk were aware of the generosity of the Assistance Board in helping them over the fuel crisis, there would be little necessity for this sort of thing.

Because of the weather that we have had, the problem of the old folk is more acute than ever. I have never met so many people who are really and truly touched by the present plight of the old people. Only yesterday collections were taken outside the churches to try to raise money to help the old people in their plight at this time of the year. This is unusual. I have never known it to happen before. It is indicative of the fact that people are alarmed at the plight of the old. There is no doubt that the weather has spotlighted it. Far too many people have up to now been indifferent about the problems confronting the old, but the elements are compelling them to sit up and realise that this is a very serious and vexing problem.

Many old people do not have a fire in the hearth. They are doing without a meal. They are living at starvation level. How the Minister expects to overcome this serious state of affairs by offering them another 6s. a week or less is beyond my comprehension. He must realise that this increase is totally inadequate. He should make up his mind to come back here very shortly and propose an additional increase of 4s. to ensure that National Assistance recipients will receive the same increase as other pensioners. They are pensioners and have to pay the same price for food and other commodities which pensioners who receive the 10s. weekly increase. So long as the pension and supplement are synonymous, it is in the interest of the Minister to ensure that increases, when granted, should correspond in both respects.

I should be the last to detract from the difficulties of the Assistance Board. I know that its officers do a wonderful job in my constituency and in other parts of Lanarkshire but we have black sheep among its officers. We have them everywhere. It appears to me that as a result of some of their human weaknesses interviews can result in some old people being treated better than others, although such could be exceptional.

I see no real difficulty—I say this in all sincerity to the Minister—in granting an allowance for coal during the winter to old people in receipt of National Assistance. Where there is a will there is a way. We could overcome many difficulties by deciding that the plight of the old people shall be the primary consideration and not the administrative difficulties which might arise. In dealing with the problem of exceptional needs, I should like to see something more than the bald statement which appears in the appropriate form under the heading "Treatment of other income."

I should like the Minister to consider the possibility of giving an annual grant to old-age pensioner recipients for exceptional needs. I should like him to make it abundantly clear that the receipt of the extra nourishment allowance does not prejudice entitlement to a fuel allowance. The National Assistance provisions are so complicated and generalised that sometimes people in receipt of the extra nourishment allowance are ineligible for receipt of exceptional need grants for other purposes. I should be very pleased if the Minister would clarify the situation and state whether the extra nourishment allowance having been granted prejudices the right of a person to receiving a fuel allowance or some other allowance which the Assistance Board's officer is convinced is necessary.

In my own home town we have had to run cinema shows for years to raise money to provide old pensioners with a bag of coal at Christmas. I have done it for twelve years myself. I did not realise that the Assistance Board was willing to come to the aid of old people and give them a coal allowance. I have discovered that I have been subsiding the Board with my efforts for about twelve years. This scheme is not widely known, nor is it generally publicised. I could give the Board names of very dignified pensioners who have never been visited with a view to ascertaining whether they required fuel. There is need for clarification here.

As I say, the shocking weather has spotlighted the coal shortage facing old pensioners. I am sure that the House would be glad of some distinct statement of policy about what the Assistance Board's attitude is to the question of making a fuel allowance. It should be made clear whether a person is eligible to be considered for a fuel allowance, if he is in receipt of the extra nourishment grant. I cannot emphasise too often the importance of this matter, because it raises a vexed question in the management of the Board's services in most parts of the country.

Having said that, I wish to ask the Minister to consider a category of beneficiaries who are in receipt of National Assistance. I am talking for the moment only of pensioners. I know that there are people who are unemployed, but we hope that their problem is merely temporary and that they will soon be restored to employment. I am talking of the old souls who will never work again, the poorer section of the community, who are in receipt of supplementary payments. Is there no hope that at some time in the future these people will get an additional weekly allowance of some kind to enable them to overcome their difficulties during the winter?

That kind of assistance has been given before. It used to be given by the local authorities. Prior to National Assistance, it was their practice to supplement the payments given by the former social welfare committees. Would it not be a Christian act, at least, to give to these old men and women during the winter period, the most trying time of all, an extra allowance or ex gratia payment to help them to provide the necessities of life?

When dealing with human beings, we must treat them in the most sympathetic way imaginable. My view is that, in tackling this problem, we should be willing to do so even at the expense of other sections of the community. One has only to knock at door after door to discover the unbelievable conditions in which old folk live. I have been to homes where there has not been a fire for a week. This is a shocking way to treat our old folks, and a poor reward for their past services to the country.

Good Samaritans in the community have asked me whether it is not possible for pensioners to be housed next door to them, so that they can give the old folks a share of their coal. The old folks are depending upon and appealing for charity after a lifetime of work and service to the nation. It should not be charity. It should be their right and their just entitlement to have an adequate allowance upon which to live and with which to purchase the necessities of life, especially during a bad winter such as we have been having.

I should like to know from the Minister whether the long-term sick beneficiary is exempt from the principle of the wage-stop. Because of the unemployment situation in my part of the country, it is extraordinarily difficult for those recovering from tuberculosis, for example, to find employment. Most of us realise, of course, that they receive a special type of payment because they are recovering from a long-term illness. I should like the Minister to explain whether that type of payment is exempt from the wage-stop.

This is another bone of contention. I understand that people are exempted from it in some places, but I should like the Minister to clarify whether these folks, when recovering from such an illness and unable to find employment because of the heavy demand for the few jobs available in the locality, are exempted from the restrictive influences of the wages stop principle.

Like other hon. Members, I am concerned that the increase is not to be paid until May. Now is the time when the old folks need it, when they require additional commodities and services and a warmer standard of life, and yet this is the time when they are denied it. On future occasions, I should like the Minister to consider telescoping the waiting period into a much shorter interval, so that these old people can enjoy the increase that much the sooner. Even though it might be inadequate, it is nevertheless better than nothing at all. Six shillings would mean a lot to them, but 10s. would be much more welcome.

There is one other point which should be considered in connection with the assessing of the living costs of old people. Far too much emphasis is placed upon a cost of living which includes, for example, reductions in the prices of motor cars. The old folk do not benefit from this. My view is that in considering pensions and National Insurance, if it is intended to have some regard to the cost of living, attention should be paid to the commodities which this section of the community is likely to use and on which these people are likely to spend their pensions and supplementary payments.

Old-age pensioners are inclined to feel that these are matters which should be given every consideration. I hope that when the Minister comes back to the House in the very near future he will say that these items, among others, have been given consideration, that we will have a clarified policy and that a system will be operated which assures the elderly section of the community of decent living standards in the twilight of their life.

5.46 p.m.

Sir Stephen McAdden (Southend, East)

I intervene briefly to draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, who, I understand, is to reply to the debate, to a matter which has been brought to my attention only during the past weekend. For that reason, I regret that I have not been able to give details to my hon. Friend in writing.

First, however, I support my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Curran), whose speech must have commanded support on both sides, in saying that the time has come for a fairly general review of the whole question, not only of National Assistance but of the National Insurance Scheme as well. I support also what my hon. Friend said about the importance of trying to get out of people's minds the doctrine of universality, under which unless every- body can have something nobody can have anything. My hon. Friend was quite right in urging us to recognise that problems of destitution and of poverty are personal problems which cannot be settled by a general rule which is meant to apply to everybody, but must have personal and sympathetic treatment.

That having been said, I wish to draw my hon. Friend's attention to a case which now comes before the National Assistance Board, particularly because of the recent bad weather. I know an odd-job gardener aged 76. He has never drawn a penny of pension, because he never contributed for it, or a penny of National Assistance. He has maintained himself to the age of 76 and, given decent weather and the continuance of his physical strength, he will go on keeping himself as Long as he can work without being a burden or a drain upon anyone.

It having been impossible for him to work since the week before Christmas, this man now goes, at last, in desperation—not because he wants to—to the National Assistance Board, whose officials, very properly and generously, come at once to see him and say that they will do whatever they can for him. They make him a generous allowance within the scale. I do not complain about their treatment of him or the allowance which the Board makes, but its officials have to point out that under their rules they can begin to pay him only from the date upon which he made application for National Assistance.

So here we have the case of an old fellow of 76 who wants to go on working. The Assistance Board is prevented from recognising, as everybody knows to be the fact, that nobody has been able to do any gardening since before Christmas. It is not possible for the Board to say, "All right, we will backdate your payments to the week before Christmas". The Board is bound by the regulation which states that payment can be made only from the date of application.

I should have thought that, for personal problems of this kind, it ought to be possible for greater discretionary power to be vested in the Board's officers so that in individual personal cases such as this, which are particularly prevalent during a severe winter such as we have had, they may be able to act outside the bounds of the normal type of regulation. When it is clearly demonstrable that a man like this has lived upon his meagre savings since Christmas and only in desperation has gone to the Board, it ought to be possible to back-date his payments so that he can put back in the Post Office the few "quid" he has had to draw out to maintain himself during this time.

I hope very much that my hon. Friend will have a look at this, because I cannot think that this is just an isolated case. It would be remarkable if I should have come across the only case of the kind of a man placed in such a position as this. There must be other odd-job gardeners who have not been able to do any work since Christmas; there must be many other people doing all sorts of jobs who have not been able to do any work since Christmas—honest, hardworking people who have never made any claim upon the National Assistance Board in their lives.

Not only that, but this man says to me, "As soon as the weather gets better they can have their National Assistance grant back right away. So long as I can earn a few" bob "by doing odd-job gardening I do not want the National Assistance." With such a spirit of forthrightness and determination it does seem a pity that we should be so hidebound by regulations that such a man can be given assistance only from that date last week because that was the date he made application. I hope that my hon. Friend will have a look at this to see whether greater discretion can be allowed through the Assistance Board. We know that the Board and its officers do their job extremely well, and if they are fettered by these rules I hope that some method will be found of easing the rules so that they can deal adequately, faithfully and generously with cases such as that I have drawn to my hon. Friend's attention.

5.52 p.m.

Mr. A. E. Hunter (Feltham)

The National Assistance (Determination of Need) Amendment Regulations which we are debating today determine the standard of living of the poorest people in the community. Of that there can be no question. The right hon. Gentleman the Minister, in the Second Reading debate on the National Insurance Bill, certainly promised to bring in new National Assistance Regulations. He hoped for a bigger increase. The increase is 9s. a week for a married couple and 6s. a week for a single person. We all welcome these increases, but I still maintain that the increases are not sufficient when we consider the cost of living and the cost of the necessities of people on National Assistance.

The great bulk of people on National Assistance are retirement pensioners. We have unemployed and we have sick who, maybe, are on Assistance for a certain period but the retirement pensioners are on for the rest of their lives. I think they number over 1¼ million. The National Assistance supplementary allowance is most important to them.

I want to raise some points with the Minister, and I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, when she replies to the debate, will be able to give me some information about them. I know the National Assistance Board has discretionary powers during this winter to make allowances for heat, to make allowances for blankets, and for clothing. I know from my own personal experience in my own constituency, having drawn the attention of the Board to old people and sick people, that the Board is always most willing to help. My worry is, does it know all of the cases? Does it know all the cases of the old and sick who are cold and who need an extra allowance for extra electricity, coal or gas, or who want warm blankets or clothing?

There could be co-operation with the W.V.S., who, as we know, run so well the meals-on-wheels, and we could bring in also the help of other voluntary associations and also the help of doctors. There is a number of people who will not apply for National Assistance. We all have cases in our constituencies. There may be some needing coal or needing warm blankets. This has been the hardest winter in the memory of anyone in this House—within living memory. We have had nine weeks of this terrible freeze. One needs only to think of one's own electricity bill to know what it is costing. If one simply burns a 1,000-watt fire all day it could cost, I suppose, about 10s. a week. But they also need coal, or they need gas. I have known old-age pensioners who have gone to bed at half-past two in the afternoon—just to keep warm. We can understand the needs of the old people.

It may be said we do not always get these cold winters, but no one can tell how long this one will last, and I think the Minister should assure the House that the Board, especially for the rest of this winter period, has got powers to make allowances—extra allowances—for coal, gas, electricity, warm blankets or clothing. I think that this is most essential. I hope that when the Joint Parliamentary Secretary replies she will give the House that assurance.

Another point I want to make because I think it an important one is this. I know that the scale of the allowances, as set out in the White Paper, includes rent allowance. I have understood from previous debates that in 98 per cent. of cases the Board pays rent. There are parts of London area where rents are very high—far higher than they are in provincial cities, and especially now, after the removal of rent control. There may be an old couple in a place where the rent has gone up considerably and for whom there is no alternative accommodation. We all know the situation of people waiting on long council housing lists.

Have the Board powers to pay high rents of £3 or £4 a week? There is an average set out here in the White Paper Cmnd. 1943 for a married couple living alone paying rent and rates at 22s. 6d., but there may be old people in other houses whose rents have gone up considerably more and who cannot get alternative accommodation. I should like the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to give an assurance on the rent question.

I know that other hon. Members wish to speak in this short debate and so I do not want to speak for too long a time, and so I say finally that we welcome this 9s. a week for a married couple and we welcome this 6s. for a single person, but these amounts are still not sufficient, and I say again, as I have said before, in the National Insurance debate, that the date set for the payments is too late. They have got to wait till the end of May, right till the summer, before the increases are allowed. I plead again with the Minister, as I have pleaded before, that he should look again at the date, and I hope very much that he can bring the date forward from the 27th May to a much earlier date. I hope very much that the Board will keep the needs of the old people and the sick people and the unemployed constantly under review.

5.58 p.m.

Mr. Raymond Gower (Barry)

It has been pointed out from both sides of the House, and particularly by hon. Members opposite, that the increases now planned, and which, we hope, will be passed very quickly, would be better if they were larger. Of course, this is always the case, but I think that the misunderstanding which always occurs in connection with these increases is a corollary of the way in which the Board acts as compared with the increases in insurance benefits. By that I mean that there would be far less misunderstanding if the Board's increases were synchronised with increases in National Insurance benefits.

Some of the speeches today have almost suggested that it would have been better if the increase of last September had been withheld until now so that the same increase could have been given for National Assistance as for National Insurance beneficiaries. If as happened last year the Board proposed to the Minister an interim increase, I suppose it would be a natural corollary that any subsequent increase following fairly soon after would be deemed to be inadequate. I feel that that is one aspect of this rather troublesome question. I agree with hon. Members who have said that this matter is not easily understood by anyone outside those who have studied it with particular attention.

I disagree with all who have suggested that the greatest hardship is always among those receiving National Assistance. My experience has been that the greatest hardship is to be found among those who are just above the National Assistance line. Let hon. Members think for a moment about the comparative position of the two groups. One person receives a National Insurance pension and may have modest savings. The other person, receiving National Assistance, receives a National Insurance pension supplemented by National Assistance, and in many cases receives a rent allowance or an allowance in respect of a mortgage on a private house, and, in addition, may receive discretionary benefits.

Today we have heard many praises in general of the National Assistance Board, but there have been a few criticisms in detail. I remember a speech many years ago when I praised the Board and Mr. George Buchanan, then its Chairman, and those who assisted him. We cannot say too much in praise of the Board. It was set on the right tracks by Mr. Buchanan, and another former colleague of ours, now Lord Ilford, with his present associates, has continued to steer the Board along that very desirable line. The Board has had a wonderful record of administration, but I do not dispute that in individual cases among its officers there may be faults. After all, they are human beings.

As to the discretionary benefits which have been mentioned, I should have thought—and I ask my right hon. Friend to consider this—that the Board should have had a wide enough discretion this winter to assume in all cases that in such severe weather people would be spending more on fuel and light. It did not need to be a matter of assumption; it is a matter of common knowledge that practically everybody has had to spend more on heating and lighting their homes. I should have thought that there would have been a very strong case in the last six weeks for the supplement, to be increased for this reason alone.

I hope that if we ever have such a winter again, this will follow, automatically if necessary. It should not be a case of individual application. Every person living at the National Assistance level would feel the effects of such an extraordinarily severe winter, and, presumably, every such person—there may be a very few exceptions, such as those living with relatives or in institutions—would have to spend more on heating and lighting their homes. Consequently, I hope that there will be no question in future of this having to be left to individual application.

With regard to the future set-up of the Welfare State which has been advocated, I feel that hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House have been overstating the case. They seem to imply that if we had an investigation or reappraisal we could easily, with no greater annual expenditure, arrange for far greater benefits for the elderly. I do not think that is the case. I believe that we have so many contractual commitments under the National Insurance Fund that it would be fairly difficult to achieve that result. Today, millions of people are paying their contributions and they believe that on retirement they will be entitled to a fixed minimum benefit. In view of the vast numbers involved, it will not be easy, following some further investigation, to arrange for a miraculous improvement in benefits.

I hope that the natural passing of time will achieve a great deal of that result. We are today dealing with a generation whose ability to accumulate savings was lessened by the conditions of the interwar years. But soon in most parts of the country we shall be moving into an era when we shall have a generation which since the beginning of the last war has had a much more favourable basis on which to build. Also, we shall in future be dealing, I hope, not merely with the improvement of the superannuation benefits but with a vast extension of private factory insurance schemes and private saving of all kinds. I believe that we shall then be able to make more generous provision for fewer people. Meanwhile, we must pay particular attention to this generation which, through no fault of its own, suffered so much.

That is why I certainly welcome the increases. I agree that we should always like them to be bigger, but, as I said, I believe that to some extent any misunderstanding about this is a corollary of the fact that the Board brings in increases more regularly and at shorter intervals than the increases which we introduce under the National Insurance Fund. I am glad that at any rate this time the increases for pensioners are not to come on different dates, because that would increase the misunderstanding.

I recall an earlier occasion some years ago when everyone enjoyed an increase in pension on a certain date, and then a month or so later some suffered a reduction. At all events, on the date in May everyone will have an increase—some a larger increase than others, but, at any rate, all who are entitled will receive an increase. Therefore, I am sure that the House will be eager to approve these regulations——

Miss Herbison

The hon. Member is making great play of the fact that both increases will be paid at the same time, and says that he is glad. My hon. Friends and I would have been delighted if they were to be paid next week. Is not the hon. Gentleman aware that the National Assistance scales could have been increased much more quickly without administrative difficulties? After all that he has said about old people, would he not have preferred that where help could have been given, it should have been given at the quickest moment?

Mr. Gower

I was merely saying that misunderstanding would have been greater if reductions had followed increases. I was recalling an occasion when that happened. I then received an enormous volume of correspondence from people who regarded it as particularly grievous that after having an increase they had to suffer a reduction. I should have liked both increases to be paid earlier, but I want them to be synchronised at whatever time they come.

I am sure that the House will be eager to pass these regulations so that the Board shall be authorised to make these increases as soon as possible.

6.10 p.m.

Mr. J. J. Mendelson (Penistone)

The hon. Member for Barry (Mr. Gower) made one point with which I agree. It was the only one, for later he seemed to be attempting to make a case for the Government's decision as to timing. Despite his verbal support for the timing, however, I do not believe that in his heart he can bring himself to approve it. It was because of this, I think, that he paid so much attention to the advantages of synchronisation.

The point he made, with which I agree, concerns those who are just above the line which allows qualification for supplementary allowances and payments. I agree that, since there has not been an adequate pension for such a long period, an ever larger number of people have had to apply to the National Assistance Board. A considerable range of people are just above the level which would allow them to receive supplementary payments, although they are nevertheless suffering dire poverty.

In our constituencies, hon. Members on both sides meet such cases practically every week. I drew the attention of the Minister's predecessor to the same position that the hon. Member for Barry has mentioned, and asked him to instruct the Board's officers to be particularly liberal in the application of the rules in such cases. The right hon. Gentleman told me that he could not possibly agree to anything so unconstitutional, that the Board was working in accordance with certain regulations and he could not consider giving it instructions as to how to administer those regulations, and suggested that he would be subverting the constitution if he did. It sounds good, but it does not meet the case.

I believe that the hon. Member for Barry is on to an important point which has to do not so much with this debate but with the general pensions policy of the Government. He has touched upon one of that policy's main defects—that of always lagging behind and not making the pension itself more adequate. It is this policy which leaves so many people in poverty.

Mr. Gower

I thought that the hon. Gentleman nodded agreement with another point I made—that in view of the severity of the winter there might be a prima facie case for increasing discretionary allowances.

Mr. Mendelson

No hon. Member could disagree with that. It is not a controversial point, and that is why I did not deal with it. There certainly will be general agreement on that.

The main weakness of the hon. Gentleman's speech, and the one in which I am convinced, he did not have his heart, was when he talked about the importance of understanding. He said that there would be a great advantage because the increased payments would all start on the same day and that this would avoid a great deal of misunderstanding. There may be more understanding, but there will not be less poverty meanwhile. It is far more important that the Minister should give instructions to the Board to bring in the increase more speedily in order to avoid poverty over a matter of weeks rather than to stick to the principle of synchronisation. In this respect, synchronisation does not matter.

These people are in a very difficult position. It is of the greatest importance that the Minister should hear from as many hon. Members as possible in debates such as this so that he may know how people feel about this matter. I want to quote from a letter I received today from the Stocksbridge Branch of the National Federation of Old Age Pensions Associations. Stocksbridge is near Sheffield, in the steel part of my constituency. The latter is signed on behalf of the branch by the secretary, who has worked for it for many years and is greatly respected by everybody in the community. She writes: Whilst we welcome the pension increase in May we feel that it should have been given immediately. Our old people have had a most trying winter—and do need to build up their reserves if they are to enjoy good health. Surely the poorest of the poor should have the full overall increase of 10s. and 16s. 6d. and not of 6s. and 9s. Concerning the hardships of this long winter the Government could have made the increases retrospective. There are four essential points in that letter, and I want to deal with them one by one. First, there is the reference to timing. The Minister would be ill-advised to underestimate the deep feeling in the country on this. It does not matter to the old people in Stocksbridge and to the rest of the community whether there is tidiness about the starting date. The Minister must meet the argument that it should be possible—we are sure that it is—to start these payments earlier than in May.

What has prevented a decision to pay them earlier? Is the Chancellor responsible? Is the Chancellor frightened of introducing further Supplementary Estimates this financial year? If that is the case, one can assure him that not a single person in the country would be alarmed or upset by a further Supplementary Estimate for this purpose. The Government would be absolutely safe in that respect.

If it is true that tidiness—the desire to have these increases under next year's budget—has played a part, even only a minor part, in the decision, it should be rescinded now. It is completely wrong morally and politically and there should be no difficulty in even now announcing that these increases will start much earlier than the others.

The second point in the letter deals with the scales themselves. The hon. Member for Barry and other hon. Members have referred—the Minister himself made a lot of it—to the fact that there has been a previous increase. But it is impossible to argue merely by adding up two figures. That is not a defensible case. What matters is not arithmetic but the poverty these people are suffering.

There is no validity in claiming that these increases have to do with the cost of living for old people. There is no relation between the normal cost-of-living index and the cost of living for old people. All of us who have made an, independent inquiry into this know that the cost-of-living index is wildly misleading in relation to the needs of old-age pensioners.

Between 1948 and 1950, when I was working for one of the northern universities, together with 12 students, I conducted a very modest inquiry into the lives and expenditure of 148 old-age pensioners in one part of south Yorkshire. Very soon after we had started our inquiry we found that one thing which was almost wholly irrelevant to the outgoings of old-age pensioners was the current cost of living. Since then, the cost-of-living index has been radically changed, and it is now composed by reference to a general increase in the standard of living of the employed population. In many ways, although not in all, the change has been very sensible and the index has been brought up to date, but the partial inquiries which have been made officially from time to time have shown that there are some things which are far more important as part of the general expenditure in an old-age pensioner's home than they are in the average home. While this is always true, it has been heavily underlined in this bitterly cold winter. Therefore, reference to increases in the cost of living are not very important.

The hon. Member for Barry spoke of understanding. It does not greatly matter whether old-age pensioners understand every administrative detail about how some of this things are introduced. What matters much more is whether they can feel that these things are being done justly, in a way which does justice to many people who are in dire need. I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary not to give us one of those steely hard, academic cases, in which most of the figures and the statistics fit together, but from which there is a complete absence of any human approach which would be much better understood among the people about whom I am talking. I sincerely warn her that it will be much better for her office and the work of her Department if she really tries to meet our argument and does not confine herself to a statistically able defence of her right hon. Friend's actions.

The third point in the letter deals with retrospection for these payments. It is well known that, because the National Assistance Board must deal only with current need, past need cannot be given as a reason to justify regular payments and, therefore, there cannot be retrospective payments. However, we are now dealing with a position which is unprecedented in many ways. The letter speaks of building up reserves, but that is putting it rather optimistically. What has happened in the bitter winter of recent weeks is that any pensioner with even the smallest savings has used up everything he could lay his hands on in order to buy the bare necessities to keep him going. This is a perfectly clear case for saying that, although the regulations are reasonably justifiable in all normal situations, the right hon. Gentleman ought to consider retrospection in this instance.

I remember a famous occasion when the then Chancellor of the Exchequer introduced regulations dealing with dividend stripping and other shady financial dealings of the kind which occur in the City from time to time. He made the penalties retrospective. I hasten to add that, having met some of his colleagues in a Committee Room upstairs and after a few hostile articles in the Financial Times, he returned to the House to withdraw those courageous regulations. But the former Chancellor need not be a guide to the right hon. Gentleman in all respects, and if it was possible for the Chancellor to introduce retrospective penalties, the Minister has an honourable precedent when he is dealing, through the National Assistance Board, with fellow citizens who are in difficulties.

If he applies his mind to the problems of retrospection and seriously considers whether, after this terrible winter, additional payment should be made as an exceptional measure, whatever the lawyers may say, he will find that he will have the overwhelming majority of people on his side if he comes to a positive conclusion.

The fourth and last point in the letter concerns the general atmosphere in which the increases are being introduced. I am not worried about whether these provisions are part of a general expansionist policy of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I do not believe that it goes far enough, but the expansionist policy has my support so far as it goes. If it is part of that general policy, the right hon. Gentleman ought to fight the battle and say to the Chancellor, "You may have a number of reasons why you want to stage your expansionist efforts and time them in a certain way, but the need to bring these increases to these poor people is so urgent and fundamental and humanitarian that any staging or timing which you might have in mind ought to go by the board; and I demand that these increases be brought forward as far as possible".

If he did that, he would have the widest possible support. If the Parliamentary Secretary replies to our case only on administrative grounds, ignoring what we have said about urgency, we shall know that the overriding considerations which we are putting forward are not those upon which Her Majesty's Government are basing their actions.

6.27 p.m.

Miss Margaret Herbison (Lanarkshire, North)

This has been a most interesting debate. Much of the criticism from this side of the House has been about the difference between the amounts of the increases in National Insurance benefits and the National Assistance allowances. Hon. Members opposite have made little or no criticism of that, but they have of the wage-stop, with which I shall deal later.

The difference will be 4s. for a single person and 7s. 6d. for a married couple, very important sums for someone living on the bare minimum. I hope that as a result of the debate the Minister will be as generous as he was in our discussions on the old compensation cases, will appreciate that a strong case has been made, and will withdraw these Regulations and bring forward new ones. I can guarantee that there would be no debate on the new Regulations and he would need only to nod his head for them to be passed through the House.

I want to quote an article which appeared in a Scottish newspaper. As has often been done, it compares the circumstances of Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery, who is to receive an increase of 10s., with those of a hard-hit, former private of 70. It says: That's called 'fair shares', The poorer you get—and you have to be pretty poor to draw National Assistance—the more they rub your face in the mud. When they increased old age pensions foe married couples by 16s. 6d. a week, it was clearly because the Government thought the standard of living of the old people should go up by that amount. How on earth can it be argued that they don't need as much if they draw National Assistance? I think that the case that we have made has been completely in line with that article, but what was the Minister's reaction to what he thought would come from this debate?

He thought that the old, the chronic sick, and the long-term unemployed, were inclined to forget that they had received an increase in September. I thought that that was rather patronising, particularly in view of the deputation from the Scottish Old-Age Pensioners' Association which I led to see him last week. I am sure that the Minister could not possibly have listened to what was said by those old people who are living amongst old people and know just how much they are suffering. They told the Minister that during this winter old people were faced with two alternatives. They had to choose between starving to death and freezing, to death, and the Minister must know that that has been the choice open to a number of old people this winter.

The hon. Member for Hertford (Lord Balniel) said that if we were to look at the increases from 1961 to those proposed today in respect of National Insurance and National Assistance benefits, we would find that they were the same—an increase of 10s. for a single person. What comfort that will bring to old people who, on 27th May, will get 6s. and not the 10s. that they hoped to receive!

The Minister's speech and that of the hon. Member for Hertford, who always gives all the statistics he can possibly lay his hands on, show how divorced they are from the kind of life which so many of our old and sick people are living. Many of these people are on the poverty line.

Then we heard—he is not in the Chamber at the moment—the Government's chief apologist on every occasion, the hen. Member for Barry (Mr. Gower). He told us he was pleased that these increases were to be synchronised. It seemed that he was pleased because his post-bag would be much lighter than it otherwise would be. I am more concerned about how old people live than about any form of synchronisation of increases, because it is a fact, as the Minister knows, that if he cared to do so the increase for those on National Insurance could be paid much sooner than 27th May, and even at this late stage I beg him to bring in an earlier date for this increase in National Assistance.

The hon. Member for Barry said that the people who were worst off were those living just above the National Assistance scale level. It seems that he has not realised that one person out of fifty at present on National Assistance will, with the 10s. increase, be just above the National Assistance Board scale. The hon. Gentleman does not seem to be worried about these people. The Minister hoped that during this debate we would not complain about some people being taken off National Assistance. He referred to a figure of one in fifty. We are complaining not that they are being taken off National Assistance, but that the National Assistance Board scales will not be sufficiently high.

The Government are in a dilemma, and have been for a number of years. Even after twelve years of power they have not found a solution to the problem. The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Curran), whose speech I enjoyed very much, said that the assumptions of 1948 just had not worked out. Perhaps there is some truth in that. He said that they had been based on Beveridge. The fact is that in our social insurance legislation we greatly improved on what Beveridge proposed, though there is no doubt that flaws have appeared. We were turned out of office in 1951 before we could really discover whether the Acts which we brought in would work as we intended, and since then it has been the responsibility of successive Tory Governments to try to find some other scheme which would get them out of their dilemma, because in these days it is not possible, by means of flat-rate increases, to give to the poorest in our country the kind of income that we want them to receive.

The Government's graduated pension scheme, which we have said on many occasions is a swindle, will mean that in twenty years people will retire on a pension below the National Assistance Board scales. This is not much of a scheme, and perhaps I might inform the hon. Member for Hertford, who is very interested in our scheme, that we have one, and that it will be published in a few weeks. When it is, I am certain that the majority of people will be glad to find that there has been some real new thinking on this question of pensions. They will be glad to find that although a Tory Government, after twelve years in office, with all the assistance of their civil servants, could not work out a scheme, we have been able to work out one which will ensure for everyone the kind of life, the comfort, and dignity, which we want every old person in this country to have on retirement.

I turn now to the wage-stop. I agreed with everything said by the hon. Member for Uxbridge. The general secretary of the Family Service Units conducted a survey in 1959. It showed that many of the families attended by the units received no increase in National Assistance following the increase in scales at that time. The Association of Social Workers, and workers in the Family Welfare Association, are very concerned about the effects of the operation of the wage-stop. There are many people today who, because of its operation, are living below what even a Tory Government believe to be subsistence levels. A large number of the unemployed, and a large number of sick people on National Assistance, with more than three children will receive no increase in National Assistance. The Minister said that this wage-stop affected one in eight of the unemployed who were in receipt of National Assistance, but he knows that these numbers are not distributed evenly over the British Isles.

It all depends on the area in which one lives. In many parts of Scotland wage rates are lower than in other parts of Britain. That means that the proportion of those affected by the wage-stop in Scotland is much greater than one in eight who are affected. Because wages are too low the Government say, "We shall have to ensure that even when people have to go on National Assistance they will receive a sum which is much below subsistence level."

I want to give one example of what I mean. One of my constituents had worked as a miner for many years. Because of his health he was no longer able to do so. He had been earning £20 a week. He was examined by the National Coal Board doctor and then by the Ministry's own doctor, and both doctors decided that he could not continue to work in the mines. He was registered at the unemployment exchange as an unskilled worker. He draws National Assistance, but the wage to which that assistance is related is not the £20 that he was drawing as a miner but the notional wage that he would receive as an unskilled worker, doing work that he has never done in his life. In his home the friction has been so great that his wife has left her husband and their small family. That is just one of the tragedies caused by the operation of this wage stop.

I want the Minister seriously to consider this and to do what his hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge suggested. I agree that there are some people who neither work nor want. They exist among the ordinary people as well as among the very well off. But why, because there are a small proportion of these people, should thousands and thousands of decent families be penalised by the wage-stop? If I cannot convince the Minister, I hope that the excellent speech of the hon. Member for Uxbridge will go some way towards doing so.

I now turn to the question of prescription charges and their effect upon old people. Three or four weeks ago a constituent of mine came to see me. She was one of those about whom we speak a great deal—a person who is too independent and proud to apply for National Assistance. I always try to persuade such people to apply. I always find that National Assistance Board officers go out of their way to help these people. My constituent had thought about it, but her family—a working-class family—had been horrified at the idea of their mother having to go to the National Assistance Board.

I talked quietly with her, and finally she agreed that I should write to the National Assistance Board. I did so and received in return a letter from the manager saying that she could have a shilling a week supplementary payment. The real problem of this woman arose from the prescription charges. As I explained to the National Assistance Board manager, she is in very bad health and needs many prescriptions at 2s. a time. She is now receiving National Assistance of 1s. a week, which automatically entitles her to a refund of prescription charges. But on 27th May her retirement pension will be increased by 10s., and National Assistance will rise by 6s., and my constituent will be back where she was four weeks ago, again living on the subsistence level and with no automatic right to a refund of prescription charges. This seems to be a cat-and-mouse way of dealing with decent and respectable old people.

I make this plea to the Minister: the National Assistance Board, which really wants to help these people, knows the old people who are already in receipt of National Assistance, and if the Minister will not accept our plea and raise the 6s. to 10s.—with an extra 7s. 6d. for couples—there can surely be no difficulty in ensuring that those old people who are now in receipt of National Assistance will continue to have their prescription charges refunded automatically. That is a small matter, and it does not give all that we want for our old people, but at least it would be a help.

There is no use in the Parliamentary Secretary's comparing present conditions with those in 1946, 1948 and 1958. At 1946 prices, the new increases mean that a single old person will receive 37s. a week. There is now a new climate of opinion in Britain. People are now saying that it is not good enough merely to bring forward statistics showing that the old people today are better off than they were in 1948 and 1951. We want them all to have a much better standard of Living.

6.46 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

This debate has been outstanding for two main reasons—first, for the number of practical suggestions that have come from hon. Members, and, secondly, for the universal tribute that has been paid to the National Assistance Board for the way in which it discharges its duties. In the short time available to me I want to go through as many as possible of the points which hon. Members have raised, because my right hon. Friend dealt fairly fully with some of the main issues in his opening speech.

I will first deal with the last point raised by the hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) about the prescription charges. Most of those people who were entitled to a refund of prescription charges before the pensions and National Assistance increases will still be eligible for those refunds. In the last year for which figures are available, prescription charge refunds were given to people not receiving weekly National Assistance supplements in 200,000 separate instances, so people not entitled to National Assistance supplements week by week were receiving prescription charge refunds.

Many hon. Members have referred to the discretionary powers of the Board and the need for more information, including my noble Friend the Member for Hertford (Lord Balniel), my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Curran), the hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) and the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle). There is no mystery about the circumstances in which discretionary powers are exercised; they are set out in the Board's annual reports. As many hon. Members know, a laundry allowance is payable in cases where a person is suffering from a disease such as arthritis. There are also window cleaning allowances, fuel allowances and nutritional allowances.

In this debate, as in previous ones, many requests have been made for extra information about these allowances. There have also been requests for extra information about cases in which rent is not allowed for in full. The hon. Member for Feltham (Mr. Hunter), who spoke earnestly, sincerely and practically, as usual, asked about this, and I can tell him that in most cases the rent is allowed in full. Indeed, in the more expensive parts of London up to five guineas is allowed in some cases. That is not always the case, because an officer of the Board may think that suitable accommodation is available at a lower cost. Nevertheless, the fact that the rent is fairly high does not preclude its being allowed in full.

The Board's officers try to visit at least once every six months people who are regularly in receipt of weekly supplements. If people have helpful relatives who always let the Board's officers know of any change in circumstances the visits are not as frequent, but where there are no such relatives the visits are more frequent. In the recent bad weather, with the extra number of applications made, the Board's officers have not been able to visit as regularly as they would like. The Board relies particularly on voluntary helpers and Members of Parliament to keep them informed of any special needs.

I should like to tell the House that the Board, in response to requests for more information, and particularly after the debate that we had on 13th July, 1962, when this was raised, has arranged to collect further information about the exercise of discretionary powers so that fuller information can be given in the Board's next annual report, and I am sure that this will be most welcome both to Members of this House and to those who study these things in the London School of Economics and other places.

It has also arranged to give more details about the cases in which rent is not allowed in full. Concerning fuel, extra allowances are given for fuel usually from the beginning of November to the end of April. They are not, of course, confined to extra weekly allowances. Special lump sum payments can be made where there are high electricity bills or high costs which would result in hardship to the individual person who is receiving assistance. There are the two kinds, extra weekly allowances and the special lump sum grant.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford for pointing out the advantages of a discretionary system. Frequently when dealing with National Insurance cases my right hon. Friend and I have had to write to hon. Members saying virtually words to this effect, "This goes by rule of thumb; neither my right hon. Friend nor I have any powers to intervene or interfere with this particular arrangement". With National Assistance it is different. There is that very flexibility which hon. Members would sometimes like to have in National Insurance, and we should be slow to discard the advantages of this discretionary system, because in more cases than not it results in the officers giving the recipients of National Assistance the extra benefit of the doubt and helping them whenever they possibly can. This is of great advantage to many of the old folk who come to us for help.

The noble Lord mentioned one particular case of older folk who go into residential homes, and he asked if the Board could not possibly pay rent for a longer period. There is no rigid period fixed for this particular circumstance. When old folk decide to go into residential homes it is usually with the idea of staying there, and therefore the rent of the establishment which they left or the home which they left is paid for the period needed to clear things up or, alternatively, if there is some doubt whether they will stay in the home, it is paid until a clear decision has been made. This cannot go on indefinitely, but there is a good deal of latitude in the period in case a person should decide not to stay. Clearly there must be a line beyond which the Board cannot pay; but there is no rigid period and the Board will look at each case on its merits.

My hon. Friend also asked whether it was not possible to link the scale rates to average earnings. We should be most reluctant in either National Insurance or National Assistance rates to link them to any one particular economic indicator, because there would always be circumstances when that would act to the detriment of the recipient of National Insurance or National Assistance. I have been asked not to give too many statistics. I do not usually give them when winding up; it is when opening that I give them. I would, however, like to mention one particular statistic, namely, that had we followed advice and kept abreast of average earnings the scale of rates would not be going up today as we are proposing to put them up. For example, for a single householder the rates which we are proposing are 165 per cent, over the 1948 rates, whereas the average earnings are at the moment 137 per cent. over what they were in 1948. I must in all honesty point out to the House that average earnings are published only twice a year on inquiries made by the Ministry of Labour and these figures relate, therefore, to October, 1962, so we cannot even compare like with like when it comes to the time of a particular economic indicator. On the whole, people do better from the broad things which we take into account when we are fixing increases.

Concerning the operation of the wage stop—and if I am not taken to task for dealing with statistics I think I should take my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge to task for using algebra in his speech—in comparing what a person gets when in work with his requisite National Assistance rates, the equation is that Assistance plus family allowances should not exceed earnings plus family allowances, so the two are, in fact, self-cancelling.

As the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) pointed out, and I am very grateful to him as this is a particularly difficult problem, I do not think that it would be wise or a proper use of public funds for a person to have a higher standard of living when out of a job than he can possibly get by going back to his regular job. If that were the case, he would have a positive disincentive to taking a job and would almost have a positive duty to his family not to take a job. That would not be at all right.

There are 25,000 allowances at the moment which are wage-stopped out of a total of 202,000 unemployed recipients of assistance. I should like to point out to the House that the officers of the Board can, in the exercise of their discretion, watch for any signs of hardship so that they can make special allowances to mitigate that hardship as, for example, where a child is sick or new clothing is needed. They watch very carefully for any particular kinds of hardship. The yardstick used for fixing the wage stop is what the man in an unskilled occupation, or whatever his occupation is, would earn today if he went into his job today and not, as my hon. Friend pointed out, what he earned when he left that same job some time ago.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden) spoke most warmly of a most admirable person aged seventy-six, and what he told us about him was an inspiration to us all. It is quite true that the Board cannot pay weekly allowances for current needs in respect of needs that have already past, so it cannot back-date weekly allowances, but there are cases for special lump-sum payments where perhaps outstanding debts have accumulated or particularly large electricity bills, or something like that, come in.

It is true, of course, that these Regulations together with the National Insurance increases, will bring an increase in total income to many people. The 6s. increase to a single householder is a larger increase than previously given at any one time; and the 9s. increase for a married couple is also as large as previously given at any one time; and eight months is the shortest interval between increases. There have been differences of opinion about the amount that has been given, but I am sure that we all join in welcoming the increases that are to go to people in need. We have discussed the work of the Board in relation to the cash benefits to be dispersed. The Board not only carries out its task with wisdom, sympathy and understanding, but through its officers it has become the friend and helper of many of our people in need. In this spirit I commend the Regulations to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the National Assistance (Determination of Need) Amendment Regulations, 1963, a draft of which was laid before this House on 6th February, be approved.