§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 5.44 p.m.
§ The Minister of Pensions and National Insurance (Miss Margaret Herbison)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
All hon. Members will regret that the time for debating the Second Reading of the Bill has been cut down drastically. Because of that, I propose to reduce the length of time that I would otherwise have taken over my speech. While I appreciate that there will be many points which hon. Members would have wished me to have dealt with, I hope that they will feel that some of them may be raised in Committee when, I hope, we will have a longer time in which to discuss the matter.
When the Government were returned to office in 1964 they began a thorough review of our social services. We gave priority to considering the existing benefits and this led to the largest increase that had ever been given in these benefits—in the National Insurance, war pensions and National Assistance benefits—and they were given in 1965. After that, we reviewed the short-term benefits for unemployment and sickness and widows' allowance and, as a result of that, in the autumn of this year earnings-related supplements will be paid on top of the flat-rate benefits.
Today, we have before us what marks the completion of a further stage of the Government's review. The Bill before us provides a better deal for those who are among the poorest in our community. The survey of retirement pensioners is completed and the preliminary findings of that survey have been announced. We have found that there are about three quarters of a million old people apparently eligible for National Assistance, but who, for one reason or another, have not made application for it. Twenty out of every 100 of these people said that it was their pride that would not let them apply; that they disliked charity. About one-third of them said that they were managing, and it might 336 well be that among that one-third were quite a number who were also prevented from applying because of their pride.
On the other hand, a great many of the old people who were interviewed just did not know, or misunderstood, their rights to National Assistance. One of the things that distresses me most—and will, I am sure, distress the House—is that of the three-quarters of a million, in about a quarter of a million households there were old people appreciably below the National Assistance standard. This is a matter of very great concern, since these old people must be suffering real deprivation. Alongside these old people there are, of course, others in all age groups—for example, the chronic sick and fatherless families—to show that there is, indeed, poverty in this country.
It seems to the Government that the proper long-term way of tackling the problem of poverty in old age is a new scheme of national superannuation which will be earnings-related and which will give on maturity to everybody a higher standard of living upon retirement than the present scheme can possibly give. It is the Government's intention to bring in such a scheme within the lifetime of this Parliament, but this does not dispose of the immediate problem of the old people who are with us today.
The Government's answer to this problem is contained largely in this Bill, and it is threefold. It is, first, to establish a new administrative framework for social security within which the contributory and the non-contributory benefits will be jointly administered without the sharp distinction which exists today and which is itself responsible for keeping some people away from the help that they should have.
Secondly, the aim is to establish new and clear rules for awarding noncontributory benefits, as of right, to provide a form of guaranteed income for the elderly. Thirdly, the aim is to improve the level of benefit available to the elderly and others who need help over a long period without detailed inquiries into their particular needs, inquiries which, as hon. Members know, sometimes cause resentment.
The main features relating to the new administrative structure are contained in Clauses 1 to 14 and, for the benefits, the 337 very important Schedule 2. Because of the limited time available for discussing the Second Reading, it will probably be most helpful to the House if I focus attention on these main provisions.
The first two Clauses of the Bill set up the new Ministry, abolish the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance and, in due course, abolish the National Assistance Board when non-contributory benefits are to be paid. When the Bill comes into operation, on, we hope, 6th August, with the help of both sides of the House, the Minister of Social Security will be formally appointed and the Minister, in turn, will appoint the Commission to adminster non-contributory benefit in preparation for the appointed clay for these benefits to be paid before the end of this year.
There are a number of reasons for creating the new Ministry. One is to co-ordinate policy for all social security benefits by investing responsibility for such policy clearly in the hands of one Department which will bring together the skill and experience in different fields which now exist in the two Departments. Secondly, as a result of unification, further steps will be taken to ensure that people who have claimed contributory benefits, retirement pension, sickness benefit, and so on, also get any help by way of non-contributory benefit to which they are entitled.
Thirdly, the new Ministry will develop a new comprehensive service for the public so that inquiries across the whole range of social security benefits can be dealt with at one point of contact. I put considerable stress on that. The fourth objective is to end the sharp distinction we have today in separate offices for the administration of contributory and non-contributory benefits in order to meet the feeling, which I am almost certain exists with some people, that a non-contributory benefit is inferior in kind and savours of charity.
The pace at which integration can proceed must necessarily depend on the practicability as well as on the desirability of making changes. As I see it, the first essential is to ensure that the two new schemes, that for earnings-related supplement and that for noncontributory benefit, get off to a good start and that the other business of the 338 Ministry, which must go on, is carried on as effectively as at present. The scope for administrative changes in the local offices will also be limited. It will be limited by the need for adaptation of premises and reorganisation of staff and procedures. But every effort will be made to achieve as rapid progress as possible and to make the concept of the Ministry of Social Security a reality in local administration.
The point has been made by the Opposition and others outside the House that bringing the Ministry of Health into this new scheme for re-organisation would secure better consideration of the welfare needs of our old people. We do not agree with that. To achieve this does not require a further combination of the health Departments with the Ministry of Social Security. Nor does it require further legislation. This does not mean that the Government are complacent, or that they believe that anything like sufficient is being done to detect welfare needs, particularly those of our old people. At present, we are very actively engaged in examining the best means of detection of the welfare needs of our old people.
What is obtaining at present? We know that standards vary greatly over the country, but we also know that some local authorities and voluntary organisations do much to detect and to cater for these needs. The job of welfare detection is one which is being done very effectively for nearly 1½ million old people by the officers of the National Assistance Board. We ought to express our appreciation for the work these officers do, not only in dealing with the financial needs of old people, but also in finding out about their welfare needs. This work of detection will be done for even greater numbers under the new scheme by the new Ministry.
The combined staff of the two existing Departments will join within the new Ministry high standards of skill and service to the public. This high standard of skill and service has justly earned a good reputation for both efficiency and humanity. The Government's expectation is that the combination of the staff's skill with the attraction of the new scheme of benefits will certainly achieve success in the development of the social services, particularly for old people.
339 I want to say something about the Commission. Within the Ministry there will be a Supplementary Benefits Commission, one of whose main tasks will be the administration, under regulations made by the Minister, of the non-contributory benefits. All the decisions for example as to the award of benefit and the conditions under which it is awarded, the adjustments to deal with various kinds of situation and exceptional circumstances and the kind of benefits to be paid will be made by the local officers acting under the direction of the Commission. The Commission will thus have a directing and adjudicating function.
I do not mind telling the House that at first I was against having a Commission, but the more I examined the problems the more I came to realise, as did the Government, what an important and worth-while part a Commission could play in the new Ministry. Responsibility for determining awards of benefit should not be vested in the Minister but in a group of independent people with an extensive knowledge of the kind of persons with whom the new scheme is concerned. Such a body with its discretionary powers to deal with exceptional circumstances is the best means of ensuring that the administration is responsive to particular individual needs and to the variations of the changes in social climate. It is important in any field where questions of social policy are involved to be able to draw on the knowledge and experience of people of distinction outside the Government service. The Commission, I hope, will provide that knowledge and that experience.
It has been suggested in some quarters that we were resurrecting the National Assistance Board, but that is not so. First, it is a deliberate step to establish within the Ministry independence in adjudication of the new benefit and wisdom in guiding its administration through that group of knowledgeable people. The Commission will not constitute, as the Board does today, a separate Government Department. Responsibility for the main lines of policy and for the standards of benefit will be the Minister's. 340 The second thing I stress is that we intend that the members of the Commission shall cover a wide variety of interests, that they will be a source of advice to the Minister on many social problems, and that, in particular, they will assist the Minister's programme of research into those problems. I think everyone in the House and, I am sure, most people in the country would agree that research into social problems until fairly recently has been largely neglected. The Commission can be a power house of ideas in this and other fields.
The two principal benefits conferred by the Bill are described in Clause 4 as supplementary pensions for those over the minimum pension age and as supplementary allowances for others. Finding names both for the Commission and for these has been very difficult indeed. These are the best that we could find. We have considered many. If anyone puts forward better ideas in Committee, we will be very glad to consider them and, if we think them better, to accept them.
The distinction between pension and allowance is a deliberate one. The elderly person will almost always require a payment over a long period—often, indeed, for the rest of his life; whereas many of those below pension age will require a benefit only to meet some unforeseen or unforeseeable emergency of a temporary nature. Therefore, for this latter group the title "pension" would certainly not be appropriate. But for the old the word "pension" is obviously the most acceptable. The term "supplementary" has been chosen to describe both benefits, because it can properly be used regardless of whether the claimant has a National Insurance benefit.
It will be seen that Clause 4 is written in terms of entitlement to benefit. This sets the tenor for the rest of the Bill. What the Government wish to get across to those who have been reluctant in the past to apply for the additional help for which they were eligible is that under the new scheme there is a clear statutory right to benefit for anyone who fulfils the conditions set out in the Bill. That is why, in respect of the supplementary pension, the White Paper speaks of a person qualifying for the pension as being assured of a guaranteed income.
The rules for the assessment of benefit are set out in detail in Schedule 2. The 341 basic principle of assessment is simple. The claimant's resources are set against his income requirements and, if there is a deficiency, benefit will be paid to make up that deficiency. For this purpose, the claimant includes his dependent family living with him, so that their resources and requirements are aggregated with his.
There are some modifications to the basic rule. First, should the deficiency of resources below requirements be less than 2s., no benefit is due. Most of us have had experience of an old person making application to the National Assistance Board and getting a book of orders for 1s. a week. Most of us know the resentment, and sometimes the bitterness, which has been caused because of that. This will no longer obtain under the new rules.
The rate of income requirements are set out in Part II of Schedule 2. They incorporate one feature to which the Government attach great importance, and a feature which is entirely new. That is the long-term addition of 9s. a week for all people over retirement age and for all people below pension age, other than the unemployed, who have been continuously in receipt of the new benefit, or previously of National Assistance, for at least two y ears.
The purpose of this long-term addition is a simple one. It is to remove in these cases the need to inquire into the small day-to-day expenses for which the bulk of the discretionary allowances are now made. Under the new scheme no special inquiries will be necessary in long-term cases, unless there are indications that there is chronic ill-health or disability giving rise to such heavy expenditure that further provision is necessary. Thus, one of the features of the existing scheme which has both made it difficult for the elderly person to estimate what he would be likely to receive if he applied and which has been a source of embarrassment and dislike to those who have applied will be eliminated.
There will be the added advantage that, when dealing with claims by old people, the officers of the new Ministry will be able to spend more time on ensuring that the claimant fully understands his rights and, above all, on ensuring that welfare reeds, particularly of the old, are not overlooked.
342 With the long-term addition, the basic guaranteed income for a single householder will be £4 10s. a week, exclusive of rent. Therefore, a pensioner living alone and paying a rent of, say, 30s. a week will have an assured income of £6 a week. If he has nothing but a retirement pension at the standard rate of £4, he will be entitled to a supplementary pension of £2 a week.
Similarly, for the married pensioner the guaranteed rate, with the long-term addition, will be £7 2s. for the couple. Therefore, a couple with a rent of 30s. a week will have an assured income of £8 12s. a week. If the couple have nothing apart from the standard rate of pension of £6 10s., they will be entitled to a supplementary pension of £2 2s. a week. It may be that they have considerable resources apart from the retirement pension but they might still be entitled to supplementary pension at these rates because of the quite extensive disregards of certain forms of income and of savings. I will deal with those later.
At present, the National Assistance Board pays full rent and rates in about 99 per cent. of cases. Only in the very exceptional cases is the full rent not paid. Under our new provisions this will also obtain, but we are doing something different for the non-householder—that is, the person who is living, possibly in a relative's household. In future all such persons will get a flat-rate allowance of 10s. a week, instead of, as at present, a variable allowance of not less than 2s. 6d. a week and not more than 15s. based on his share of the householder's rent, which is the current National Assistance provision.
There are several important reasons for making this change. A variable rent allowance of this kind bears no relation to the normal domestic arrangements, which will usually be that the person pays what he can afford for his keep in that kind of household. Another important factor is that it bears hardly on large families living in low-rented accommodation who very often have made the greatest sacrifice in providing in their own home a place for a frail or for an old parent. This is an important change, because under the present rules a very small sum is given for rent in those cases.
There is something else which we shall avoid. At present, detailed inquiries have 343 to be made of such an old person regarding the rent the householder is paying and the number and ages of the other people in the house. This will now be avoided. I know that hon. Members have had experience of the resentment which this inquiry into the circumstances of other people in the family can cause.
Now, the treatment of resources. The aim in constructing the new rules for treatment of resources has been twofold: first, to achieve straightforward and clear rules, and equity between one person and another; second, to strike a balance between the principle that, for a means-tested benefit, all resources should be taken into account and the need to avoid penalising thrift, voluntary giving or part-time work. The income rules have, therefore, been devised so as to allow some disregard on all income other than National Insurance benefits, family allowances and maintenance payments.
For the rest, the broad effect is that part-time earnings will be ignored up to 40s., disability pensions also will be ignored up to 40s., and the existing disregards of part of pensions paid to war widows and industrial injuries widows and part of widows' children's allowance will be preserved. Other income will be ignored up to 20s. provided that, apart from part-time earnings, the total to be ignored in any case does not go beyond the 40s.
I come now to the capital rules. These provide that the first £300 of savings and the income they produce will be totally ignored. This compares with £100 under National Assistance at present. On the next £500, 1s. a week will be taken into account in respect of each complete £25, and on capital over £800, 2s. 6d. a week will be taken into account in respect of each £25. It will be seen from what I have said that there will be no fixed limit to the amount of savings a person may have.
The point at which capital rules out payment of benefit will vary according to a person's liabilities and the extent of his other resources. All of us have had experience of the resentment which the fixed limit of £600 has caused. We have had, for example, the case of someone with £598 who could have an allowance from the National Assistance Board while 344 another with £601 could have no allowance at all. What we propose will do away with that kind of resentment.
The other novel feature is that income taken from capital will qualify for the 20s. disregard on income in general. The effect of this is that a person with no income other than his retirement pension will be able to have a further £500 on top of the basic £300, that is, £800 in all, without his supplementary pension being affected. A person with an annuity or occupational pension, of which 20s. is ignored, will have only the basic £300 completely ignored. This brings a measure of equity between people who have savings invested in different ways.
It will be seen that the tariff income from capital is higher than the income which the savings themselves can be expected to produce. But this is intended to be so, because it is only right that, when a person has substantial savings, he should be expected to draw on them to some extent for his day-to-day living expenses. The basic disregard of £300 ensures that no one is expected over the years to draw on all his capital.
The new disregards are more straightforward and fairer than the existing ones. At most points, too, they are more generous than existing ones, and, if any case should arise in which they prove less favourable to a particular individual, the transitional provisions ensure that no one shall receive a lower total from the new benefit than he does now.
I come now to the provisions which deal with exclusion from benefit, and I shall deal with only one category, that is, the man in full-time work. He is excluded. It follows from this that there still needs to be a wage-stop provision to ensure that the unemployed man is not better off financially when out of work than when he is doing his normal job. At present, about 15,000 of these men are affected by the wage stop.
But I stress to the House that these 15,000 form only the tip of an iceberg, The Ministry of Labour estimates that there are between 200,000 and 300,000 families in which the father is in full-time employment to-day, but whose incomes fall below the National Assistance Board scales. The Bill does not make any contribution towards solving the problem of achieving a reasonable 345 standard of living for the low wage earner with a large family, that is, the low-wage earner whether he is in work or out of work.
This very serious problem of the low-wage earner has been with us for a very long time, and I assure the House that the Labour Government have no intention of shelving it. Evidence of our desire and concern to overcome the problem is the survey of the financial circumstances of about 2,750 families with two or more children which is to be undertaken by the Ministry this summer. We hope to gain information from that survey which will guide us in the decision which must be taken to help these people.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Croydon, South) rose——
§ Miss Herbison
There is not much time. I should like to get on.
§ Mr. Winnick
It is just one point with reference to the survey. My right hon. Friend has spoken of a survey into poverty. We know that there are many people affected by the wage stop who are living in very poor circumstances. Does not my right hon. Friend agree that continuation of the wage stop will mean that the children of these families are cursed because the father, when in work, is not in a position to earn a very good income?
§ Miss Herbison
That is the point I was trying to make. I referred to the 5,000 and added that there are between 200,000 and 300,000 men in work whose families are suffering in the same way. We regard this as very wrong, and this is why we have announced that the survey will be undertaken.
§ Mr. Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)
This is a very important point. Can the right hon. Lady say when the results of this survey are likely to be in her hands and when they might lead to action?
§ Miss Herbison
No. We hope that the survey, that is, the work which has to be clone in visiting the families, and so on, will be started and completed in June this year, but there will then be quite a bit of work to do. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are not just waiting on this survey, but are doing a great deal of 346 other work which should complement the work which the survey is intended to do.
I had intended to deal with a number of other matters, but I must now cut them out. I take next one of the provisions in Part II of the Bill. Clause 16 provides generally for the abatement of certain payments where non-contributory benefit was awarded pending the receipt of those payments, the principle being that only one payment from public funds should be made for one contingency.
Subsection (1) does this for National Insurance and industrial injuries benefits and family allowances, and subsection (2) for rate rebates by providing that a rebate is to be reduced to the extent by which the non-contributory benefit actually paid exceeds what it would have been if the rebate had been available to the ratepayer at the time.
Part IV of the Bill has the heading, "Miscellaneous and Supplemental". That indicates that it is largely concerned with the consequential changes which must result from dissolving the National Assistance Board as a separate Department. Because of time, I shall draw attention to only one Clause in this Part. Clause 27 contains the provision for local advisory committees. These new Ministry of Social Security committees will replace the existing separate local National Assistance and National Insurance Advisory Committees, so that, instead of each locality having two such committees, it will have only one. There will be a unified network of local committees whose concern will be both with the administration of National Insurance and with non-contributory benefits.
Now I come to the question of cost. The Financial Memorandum indicates that the additional cost of the proposed benefits is expected to be about £51 million in the first full financial year for existing beneficiaries and that, if a further 250,000 people claim, this will add another £13 million approximately. Of this £65 million addition, £40 million represents real improvements and £25 million—for the 5s. increase in scale for the single person and 7s. 6d. increase in scale for the couples—represents the cost of the scale increases. I am sure that we all agree that the £40 million, which represents real improvement, will be well 347 spent in helping the poorest in our community.
The financial provisions for the new Ministry and the new benefits in the current financial year will entail some change in the Estimates to be placed before the House. The House's approval to these changes and to the additional expenditure involved will be sought through the winter Supplementary Estimates. In the interval before these Estimates have been voted, the intention is to draw on existing votes for the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance and the National Assistance Board.
So far, I have dealt with the provisions in the Bill. Now I wish to say something about the changes in the administration of the benefits because I regard this as of considerable importance. These changes have been outlined in the White Paper. First —and this change will come into effect as soon as the benefits become payable—anyone over pension age who wishes to do so will be able to submit a written statement of his financial circumstances instead of having the necessary form completed by an official in his own home. There will have to be an interview afterwards for confirmation, but, again, the applicant will have the choice either of having the interview in his home or in one of our offices.
I am told that experience has shown that most old people like to be dealt with at home and, of course, our officers will very gladly bring the service to their home. On the other hand, some prefer otherwise because of the feeling that they do not want an officer to be seen at their door and the new arrangements will meet the wishes of these people.
The second administrative change is that the supplementary pension is to be paid on the same order book as the retirement pension. We cannot do this immediately the new benefits begin to be paid, but will do it as quickly as possible. The pensioner will then have only one book to present at the Post Office and it will be the same kind of book whether or not he is receiving a supplementary pension. This will do away with the embarrassment and the hurt to pride which many old people experience when presenting their supplementary allowance books at the Post Office.
348 Thirdly, awards for people over pension age will normally be reviewed annually instead of every six months as at present, and, in the absence of any change in financial circumstances, a person will have a guaranteed income for the whole year ahead.
Finally, the Ministry will be taking measures to ensure that, as soon as possible on retirement or on subsequent widowhood, every pensioner is made fully aware of the supplementary pension scheme and either makes a claim or gives a definite indication that he does not want to claim. Any pensioner who does not respond to the written request will be personally contacted. Again, this is important to ensure that all pensioners, widows or old persons, realise what is theirs if they will only make application.
The Bill and the changes in administration should go a long way to overcome the reluctance on the part of some old people to claim what is theirs by right. Our aim is to ensure that the benefits will be regarded as a completely acceptable part of our social security provisions and that they are paid to all people who have a title to them.
The Bill is a genuine attempt to ensure that none of our old people need lead a life of deprivation after retirement. The Government sincerely believe that these provisions will ensure this by giving them a form of guaranteed income in such a way that their dignity and self-respect will be maintained. All of us in the House would want to do that.
Earlier, I touched on some of the aspects of social security that still will have to be improved. I want, finally, to say to the House, as I say to every meeting that I address in the country, that we can have worthwhile, comprehensive social security only if the nation wills the means for it. Higher production and higher productivity will solve not only our economic problems but will go a long way to solving some of the human problems with which we are so concerned-human problems which, if left unsolved, will continue to cause misery and deprivation.
The Government have introduced many Measures to make increased productivity possible and are determined that the results of the increase will be justly 349 distributed. What we must never forget is that many of the people with whom all of us are concerned today are those who experienced the hungry 'twenties and 'thirties, with little opportunity to make adequate provision for their old age. Today, I ask the House and the nation to give us the means to make this provision for them and to give us the means also to make it available to all the others who are still deprived.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Miss Mervyn Pike (Melton)
I should like to ask the indulgence of the House, not because this is the first time that I have spoken from the Dispatch Box, but because it is the first time in my life that I have spoken when wearing spectacles. I have very strong reading glasses and if I can see my notes clearly and correctly I find that hon. Members opposite are indistinct and blurred. On reflection, I have decided to see my notes clearly and I apologise if I fail to recognise any hon. Members opposite.
I should like, first, to make the complaint that the Bill is being taken today. It is one of the most important Measures which we have had or will have in this Parliament, and we have had our time for debate cut short very severely. We know that the right hon. Lady has cut a great deal out of her speech. I undertook not to interrupt her, so as not to make her task even more difficult, but we still have only a very short time. After all, the Government must have known that there would be a debate on the Whitsun Adjournment Motion today, so they must take full responsibility for the cut in time. I should like an undertaking, which I am sure the right hon. Lady will give us, that in Committee we can have as full a discussion of these matters as possible and that there will be no attempt to cut us down in any way.
I do not want to take too long this evening, because there are many hon. Members on both sides of the House who want to speak. Although the right hon. Lady looks somewhat indistinct to me at the moment, we are grateful to her that there was nothing indistinct in her description of the Bill's provisions. I must confess that I was very puzzled, when the Bill was first presented, that her name was not on it. I thought that she 350 must have decided to deny all parentage of a Measure whose only distinguishing feature was that it embodied part of the constructive social security proposals of my right hon. Friends.
However, I am glad that we can congratulate the right hon. Lady on her rôle of stepmother of the Measure. I remind her that stepmothers are not by nature usually wicked or unfeeling, but that very often their shortcomings stem from a lack of understanding and a sense of envy that the parentage is not wholly theirs. I hope that the right hon. Lady will not suffer from that.
Although the Bill does very little beyond changing the name and redefining the parentage of the National Assistance Board, we welcome it because it is a step forward to bringing greater social security and greater social justice into our national life. These are things about which all of us are deeply concerned and we on this side of the House propose to do all we can to help the right hon. Lady and her hon. Friends to be wise guardians in this respect and as far as possible to expedite and improve the Bill. Of course, any Bill which proposes to give something over £60 million to those in need must be welcomed in the House and in the country as a whole.
Nevertheless, with much of last year's increase in benefits already eaten away by the present rate of inflation, the financial provisions of the Bill will be judged by fair-minded people as no more than a necessary act of justice which goes some way, and only some way, towards relieving the increasing financial burden of those least able to protect themselves. I do not need to remind the House that although the Bill increases the scale rates for those receiving supplementary allowances, other than in the long term, by 5s. for a single person and 7s. 6d. for a married couple, the value of last year's increase has already been cut by more than 3s. and 5s. respectively and that inflation is still going ahead rapidly.
Nor need I remind the House that we on this side of the House have a very good record about keeping benefits well ahead of rising prices and well in line with rising standards. This record gives us the right to press for the real value of social benefits to be constantly increased.
351 The right hon. Lady has given us a very full account of the proposed changes in the scales of payment, new forms of discretionary benefit for the elderly and the long-term cases and the changes of the assessment of resources. These changes are welcomed so far as they go. In the circumstances of our curtailed debate, I shall not delay the House by going through them with repetition and nor at this stage shall I make Committee points, but I wish to re-emphasise that we hope that our request for a very full Committee stage will be granted.
Although the country's present economic position is such that it would be irresponsible to press for larger increases, it should be clearly recognised that the Bill still fails to meet the needs of many of those who are most deserving of the nation's assistance. I wish to ask the right hon. Lady some specific questions. The first is about the assessment of resources, the disregards. The object of sub-paragraphs (1) and (2) of Schedule 7(4) appears to be that nobody will be worse off as a result of changes in the treatment of savings or the ending of the former non-contributory pension. I must confess that the Bill is far from clear on this point and raises certain doubts. The Minister should, therefore, make a categorical statement that the Bill will ensure that everybody now getting benefits will, without exception, be better off.
My second question is concerned with the provision for the old and the longterm cases, the chronic sick. The Bill makes special provision for these to whom a special allowance of 9s. will be payable. However, that 9s. compares with an average discretionary allowance at present of 10s. a week. If 1 million or more people are now getting an average of 10s. a week, we must know from the right hon. Lady that the intention is that they will get better treatment, and that is not clear from either the Bill or the White Paper, if a flat-rate discretionary allowance of 9s. is to be paid in future.
I turn now to some of the things which the Bill has not done, because this, of course, is one of the greatest opportunities which we have had of doing so. The right hon. Lady has talked a great deal about present-day need, but so much of what she has told us today 352 and so many of the Bill's provisions are the same old things hashed up, perhaps given new clothing, but going very little further than before.
For example, what about the disabled? We are glad that the special rates for the blind will continue, but surely the Government have missed a most important opportunity to examine the whole range of disablement to see whether there are other illnesses or other disablements which could rank for equal treatment with blindness, for instance, those people who have to live in iron lungs, or those with multiple sclerosis, or others who in one way or another are suffering severer disablement and who are now getting special treatment. The Government have reproduced the greater part of the Assistance Act of 1948 in the Bill and they could easily have taken this opportunity to bring some of those other provisions up to date.
It may be due to an oversight, but why is there no mention of special rates for tubercular persons who are at present provided for by the National Assistance Board? These are matters which we shall want the right hon. Lady to clear up either today or in Committee.
Most important, and the matter on which the right hon. Lady laid the greatest stress, is the issue of the problem families. As the right hon. Lady said, the Bill makes no attempt to deal with these families in which the earnings of the father are below National Assistance level. She has given us the figures. We calculate—and I am sure that she will agree—that there are about 500,000 children who are living in families with an income below the National Assistance level. She explained that in June another small survey was to take place to see what could be done in this regard and that the Government were thinking hard about ways of meeting this problem.
I must remind the right hon. Lady that when they were in opposition the Government poured scorn on the wage-stop in speech after speech. Indeed, the right hon. Lady spoke of thousands and thousands of decent families penalised by the wage-stop. This was in 1963. But nothing has been done. Another survey is being made and another look at the whole problem is being taken. Most of us would accept that it would be wrong to pay a man more when he is out of work 353 than when in work, but this is a category which must be tackled with vigour and imagination. It is a category which really needs a special priority on social as well as on humane grounds. Most of these cases occur where there are several children in the family. Surely we can examine ways of tackling the problem through the family allowance system.
The Government have adopted a great many of our ideas and there are still a great many more which we hope to see them adopt. We do not mind how many of our ideas they adopt, as long as they are used to help solve the real problems of the nation. We shall not adopt a "hole in the corner" attitude about these things. I will tell the hon. Lady how she can do this, without waiting for her survey and for any more consultations. It should be possible to add a supplementary family allowance to those whose income is below a certain figure. The right hon. Lady has already told us of the numbers she already knows. There are others, about whom she does not know. Let us help the people about whom we know. These children who are growing up will probably be 20 or 30 before ate hon. Lady has made up her mind what she intends to do.
Let us tackle those we already know. It should be possible to add a supplementary family allowance to these people. This figure would have to vary with the number of children, but this is already an arrangement under the rate rebate arrangements. The Government have copied our ideas here because as hon. Members opposite will remember, it was my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) who, at the 1963 Conservative Party conference, first put this proposal forward. We were glad to see it later, incorporated in a Government Bill. We do not mind how many of our ideas are copied. Here is one idea which the right hon. Lady can adopt. I suggest that she looks at this with urgency.
There may be other ideas that my hon. Friends have, which they will put forward in this debate. These families are not only centres of misery and misforutne. That is bad enough, but all too often they provide the breeding grounds for delinquency and crime. All too often they generate those things in our society which lead to so much weakness and misfortune. We really must act with the 354 greatest imagination. We hope that in Committee we will be able to press the right hon. Lady to be more imaginative in this connection.
What about the non-pensioners? I have been reading the right hon. Lady's election address—I hope that she has read it herself, because in her 1964 address she said that she would do something about these non-pensioners, or that is how I read it. Nothing has been done except for those who come within the old National Assistance scales. The majority of these people are over 80. There are about 150,000 of them at present, but the number is dwindling the whole time.
These people have a very special claim upon our help. Many of them will be helped by the Bill as a result of the increased provisions and the higher scale of benefits, but a very great many of them, no doubt a very large majority of the remainder of these, are just marginally on the wrong side of the borderline enabling them to get this increased help. They have had their savings eaten away by inflation and rising prices. They have had their standards diminished by all kinds of changing circumstances and an opportunity could be taken now to do something for them.
There are other categories which could have been looked at. For example, there are the widows. I feel particularly strongly about this, because my mother was left a widow before she was 50, with myself at school and my brother just entering university. This was at the most expensive time of our lives, and it is difficult for a woman at that age to reenter employment after she has been away from it for some time. I had hoped that an opportunity might have been taken to make some worth-while changes in the National Insurance scheme on this subject. We can soften the rigid barrier for the widow of 50, and this was an opportunity for doing so. We on this side have promised that we will do this, and we shall certainly press the right hon. Lady to see whether something can be done along these lines.
Again, what about the earnings limit? There is an unanswerable case for raising the earnings limit for the retirement pensioner by £1, from £5 to £6. The limit was last raised by a Conservative 355 Government and since then average earnings have considerably increased and are still increasing. I expect that the Minister will say that the whole question of the earnings rule is being reviewed by an advisory committee. Much as we like advisory committees to look at these things, all of us recognise this problem. Surely the right hon. Lady will not continue to use this excuse.
Security in the social sense means more than money. We must recognise the special problems of retirement—the sudden realisation of a sense of uselessness and loneliness, and a loss of status. Anything which can ease this and enable people to acclimatise themselves, through part-time employment, and by part-time earnings to readjust themselves in society, gives them a greater sense of social security than a slight increase in benefit.
These are the questions which we shall be pressing upon the right hon. Lady later. I am sure that the House will accept that the real importance of the Bill does not lie in its financial provisions. The Beveridge scheme, which is the bedrock upon which all our present social security system is built, was created, whatever we like to say in the heat of election time, with the co-operation of all parties and in an atmosphere overshadowed by prewar unemployment and widespread poverty. Today, poverty no longer coincides with social class or with types of employment.
Need is increasingly a matter of circumstance. We are on the way to becoming a middle-income society, provided that the economy can sustain the onslaughts of the present Government. On present trends, by the end of the century, the average male wage earner will have a buying power of about £80 a week at present-day prices. In these circumstances, it does not make sense and it does not help us to meet rapidly changing circumstances, to remain in an attitude of mind that can only recognise the prejudice. the injustice and the bitterness of the 1930s.
It is because the Conservative Party has recognised that what is needed is a dynamic approach, which is more humane and more flexible, and more efficient in its use of scarce resources, that we have adopted a policy which seeks to concentrate future help on the 356 needy. This policy has been widely distorted, for political purposes, by the party opposite as a return to the means test State. For my own part I am not afraid of words and of using them precisely. I am prepared to use either the phrase "means test" or "test of need", because these phrases seem to mean the reality that is a blend of hard-hearted common sense, compassion, understanding and financial responsibility, which is essential if we are to approach this problem properly.
Those of us who really care for social justice see the importance of the Bill as a valuable step forward in the evolution of our nation's social policy, because it marks, for the first time, the rejection of one of the most damaging pieces of Labour mythology ever to retard the social progress of the nation. The right hon. Lady will be more relieved than any of her colleagues that, at last, she has been able to exorcise this particular demon from her subconscious. I think that she will accept that I like her and respect her enough to believe that she has a very lively moral conscience. She must have had nightmares when she remembers how, in the House, where we do not really believe in the hobgoblins of her own folklore, she finally rejected the 1964 minimum income guarantee scheme, with its avoidance of a personal test of means.
The right hon. Lady will recollect that occasion, on 7th March, when she said:We have never hid that the income guarantee would be based on means. This scheme will also be based on means. We have never tried to hide that."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th March, 1966; Vol. 725, c. 1731.]Yet three weeks later, in a party political television broadcast, she sought to frighten those who are most vulnerable by one of the most cruel pieces of political scaremongering.
In the original proposals for an incomes guarantee, it was suggested that a single Income Tax form could be used. No doubt the right hon. Lady has seen the Income Tax form which the Chancellor of the Exchequer has sent out, the one with 24 pages. I hope that we have at last got away from all this scaremongering about means test and the means test state. To be relieved of an evil spell, one has to find the magic formula. In this case, I suggest that the right hon. 357 Lady has found it by substituting the words "a form of guaranteed income" for "minimum income guarantee". Do not let us have any more double talk about this being a wicked Tory device.
There is no doubt, as the Minister has that the Bill increases the number of people entitled to help on a needs test basis. At present, about 2,024,000 people are means tested under National Assistance. Taking account of their dependants, this means that 5 to 6 million people are covered by the needs test. The right hon. Lady said in the same television broadcast in which the right hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Cross-man) spoke about the "wicked Tory scare" that nearly 7 million people would be covered by the Bill. This is the nub and core of the Bill. We welcome it, because at last we shall be able to use our resources efficiently, humanely and in the best interests of the people who need them most.
As our social service policy has evolved, a great many inherent disadvantages have become increasingly apparent to all of us. First, there has been too little recognition of the fact that in most cases care in the form of meals-on-wheels, home helps, home nursing, chiropody and hearing aids is very often more important than cash. This is one of the reasons why we are so anxious to bring the responsibilities of the Ministry of Health under the umbrella of the Ministry of Social Security and thereby make absolutely certain that matters of care and cash are under one roof.
Secondly, as the right hon. Lady has said, a social stigma has attached to the old National Assistance. Many people do not claim the benefit to which they are entitled. We all recognise from our constituency work that this is a real disadvantage. But the Bill goes only part of the way towards remedying this defect. There will no longer be a separate organisation dealing solely with poverty and this will remove some of the stigma, but we have to go much further than the right hon. Lady indicated in giving the local offices of the new commission a very positive duty to seek out those who need help, either in cash or care. I am sure that the right hon. Lady hopes that they will do this, and I feel certain that the intention is that this should be done, but she will recollect that in the Conservative 358 Government's Children and Young Persons Bill, in 1963, we made it a positive responsibility that this should be done.
The most important battle is the first step of getting people to apply for help. We want that first step to be taken by the Ministry. The Minister says that the officials might visit or invite the pensioners to visit them, but a register of old people must be built up as quickly as possible in the local offices. There will be staffing problems, but, as the right hon. Lady said, staff will be made available because of the new arrangement. If the register is built up quickly, it can be kept up to date from the pension book. This is one of the most important things, and a positive responsibility to do this should be written into the Bill. There are far too many people—the old, those who are lonely and sick and those who are badly in need of help—whose needs never see the light of day because nobody finds out about them until it is too late. Here is a chance to make certain that we do something about them.
Thirdly, we believe that a great opportunity has been lost because we do not have an inspectorate of welfare. I do not like the word "inspectorate". Call them "welfare surveyors", or what we will, but we must have some body of well-intentioned and well-informed people who will have the task of improving the co-ordination between the local authority health and welfare services. There is a tremendous lack of skilled people to do this work. In our society there will always be a tremendous scarcity of really well-trained social workers. Women are marrying younger. They are having larger families. Therefore, there will probably be fewer women in this type of full-time employment. There is, however, plenty of scope for the part-time worker.
There must be in our social welfare work the most efficient use of everybody who is working. There must be no overlapping. There must be the greatest possible co-ordination. We must ensure that the best standards are the uniform standards. We all know that in some areas the standards are good, but that in a borough on the other side of the street they are considerably lower. This type of inspectorate could ensure that there was the greatest possible co-ordination and uniformity of the best standards. We want something more than a vague assurance that this will happen under the Bill. 359 A positive duty should be laid down by the Ministry of Social Security.
Finally, it is important to stress the tremendous and vital need to have a Ministry of Social Security which is competent to take a comprehensive view of the whole field and which can initiate research. It is impossible to overemphasise the importance of continuous research which is designed to pin-point the changes in social needs. We recognise the need and meet it and forget how quickly circumstances change. We live in an age when society is changing more rapidly than ever before. Irrespective of party, we recognise that our system of social security is becoming out of date very rapidly. We must realise that to bring it up to date is not a once-for-all operation but a continuous process and that we shall constantly have to adapt our social policy to keep in tune with modern needs.
This is why it is essential to have a research unit able to indentify the changing needs and circumstances which will not only draw its knowledge and expertise from within itself but freely seek expert advice from the universities, industry and other social workers in the field. We shall press the Minister to make this a positive commitment in the Bill rather than hope that research will be carried on by the over-burdened and busy people who are already working in the field.
These problems, which reach into every corner of our everyday life, call for something more than the meagre proposals in the Bill. The Minister said that the Bill was a first step. But we want to go forward quickly and not with hesitant steps, as is the case at present. We must have a unified social strategy. This is why we on this side of the House believe passionately that it is important to bring in not only the National Assistance Board and the Ministry of Pensions, but the Ministry of Health, so that we can have a unified strategy which commands the respect of everybody working in the field.
I have tried to show why we believe that the Bill to some extent falls far short of the need. Recent circumstances and events have dramatically highlighted the need for this unified approach. The Chancellor of the Exchequer's recent proposals for the Selective Employment Tax 360 will hit the same group of people that the Bill is attempting to help. We all want to see better health and welfare services and better care. Yet under the Selective Employment Tax arrangements local authorities will, in the first instance, have to pay the tax and then wait for the refund. They will be forced to make an interest-free loan to the Government in providing these services, so the tax is bound to hamper the employment of the disabled and will be a big blow to charities.
All of us accept that in this field the voluntary organisations bear a tremendous responsibility in trying to meet the needs of the people we are trying to help. Surely a strong Minister of a unified Ministry of Social Security, with a really powerful voice in the Cabinet, would never have countenanced this tax, which inevitably will have far-reaching and damaging effects throughout the whole welfare field.
I have tried to explain some of the main reasons why we cannot share the right hon. Lady's great enthusiasm—her somewhat uncritical enthusiasm—for the Bill. In our social policy we must seek to safeguard the weak, to reward the thrifty, to try to prevent misery and misfortune wherever it happens, and try to encourage self-reliance. The Bill meets very few of those requirements. We recognise that it is an essential act of justice to many who are suffering from the growing burden of inflation and indiscriminate taxation. The right hon. Lady said that what is needed is a bold and imaginative Ministry of Social Security. We see nothing bold or imaginative in the Bill and we regret that it is such a hesitant and inadequate step on a road that must be tackled with determination, humanity and courage.
§ 7.2 p.m.
§ Mr. William Price (Rugby)
I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me an opportunity of making my maiden speech and ensuring that I can go away and enjoy the 15 days' holiday as the Recess has been described by some hon. Members opposite. Time is short, and I do not propose to say much about my constituency, other than that it gave its name to the rather curious game of Rugby football. It all started when a youngster called William Webb Ellis broke the 361 rules by picking up the ball for some unaccountable reason and running for dear life.
I make no secret of the fact that I am one of the tea-room warriors who regard the activities of this House as equally curious. I only hope that if the need arises I shall be able to run as fast with my Order Paper as Webb Ellis did with a ball in 1823. The plaque at Rugby School says:With a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, he took up the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game.One of the first organised matches took place in 1872 between Rugby and Lutterworth. A local reporter wrote that Rugby played below their normal form because of the nonsensical rules. It might well be that there is a moral in that story. The following week an irate gentleman from Lutterworth wrote to the Rugby Advertiser stating that the rules were not nonsensical and that Rugby had been supplied with a copy five weeks earlier and should have understood them. I can appreciate only too well their dilemma. I have been in this House for five weeks, and I am just as mystified by the rules and the procedure as my predecessors in Rugby must have been all those years ago.
I had nothing in common politically with my immediate political predecessor Mr. A. R. Wise. Indeed, I found many of his views repugnant, but he treated me at all times with sympathy and understanding. He looked after his constituency in a way that earned the respect even of political opponents, and that might well be one of the reasons why he took so much shifting.
One thing above all else that impresses me about my constituency is the tremendous amount of charitable work carried out on behalf of the elderly, the very young, the sick, and the disabled. They will regard this Bill as yet another step towards an egalitarian society in which vast riches—and they still exist—and dire poverty will be abolished for good. I welcome the Bill, and I am delighted to hear tonight that the Conservative Party has found its social conscience at last.
Let us not forget that even now there will be millions of people trying to live 362 on £4 10s. a week—the price of bed and breakfast at some of the illustrious sleeping houses frequented by hon. Members oposite during Epsom week. As we spend hundreds of millions of £s on the means of destruction, let us not forget the old and the lonely, the incurably sick who cannot be found a hospital bed, and the children with no parents, and let us remember the 2 million widows. I declare an interest, for my mother is a widow. Luckily, my father worked for long enough at the coalface before his death to ensure that she had a £4 a week pension. The alternative at that time was 10s. a week, perhaps the biggest social scandal of our generation. The position has improved, but the treatment of widows remains a national disgrace.
I recently dealt with the case of a young woman who lost her husband in the most tragic circumstances and who was left with two children, a pile of debts and an income of £8 a week. What did I advise? I advised her to beg a pittance from the National Assistance Board, or alternatively to employ somebody to look after the children, go out to work, and get taxed as a single person.
I am not interested in making party points. Whatever the reasons, and whoever is responsible, there is abject poverty in Britain today. No one on either side of the House can deny that there are far too many people trying to live a decent life on far too little money. The time is coming when society will have to face its responsibilities. There can be do doubt that there are some individual members of society who are lacking in responsibility. There are, sadly, far too many people who have grown up and have then discarded the parents who made their lives and prosperity possible. This is a field in which long-term education is needed, but in the meantime we must exercise a greater degree of humanity on their behalf.
I wish to deal with just one other point, which sometimes causes criticism from the elderly ladies of the Primrose League. We hear a lot about the people who are too idle to work or who find it convenient not to work because they can get more money from the State. No doubt this criticism will increase as we improve social security. I do not deny that the odd cases exist—undoubtedly they do—but let us get this in perspective.
363 In many parts of the West Midlands, the unemployment rate is well under 1 per cent. If one takes out the disabled, the sick, those moving between jobs and those who are genuinely unemployed, there are not many idle people left. I am satisfied that during the next five years we shall see a significant advance towards the social revolution which the country so badly needs. I look forward to a society in which people need no longer dread old age or sickness. The Bill makes a significant contribution to that end. It goes a long way towards removing the stigma of the workhouse which prevented so many people from applying for the National Assistance to which they were fully entitled.
I referred earlier to those in my constituency who do so much charitable work, and I hope that it will continue. Let us, however, ask ourselves whether it is right that children in Dr. Barnardo's Homes, ex-Service men and women in the care of the British Legion, the crippled, and so on, should have to depend for a few luxuries on people who are prepared to go begging at street corners.
The time is coming when we shall stop using those admirable charities as an excuse for not facing our duty to the weaker members of our society. Let us, perhaps for the only time, forget party politics and continue planning a just life for the 8 million people who have fallen by the wayside. The Bill represents a real start. It is, one might say, the bread to carry us on the rest of the journey.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I remind the House that the debate has been severely curtailed? I hope that hon. Members who have the good fortune to catch my eye will think of others who are also waiting to catch my eye.
§ 7.13 p.m.
§ Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)
It gives me the greatest pleasure, for the first time duiing the seven years or so that I have been in Parliament, to follow a maiden speaker. I have heard a number of hon. Members say this during the last few weeks; I guess that there are so many new hon. 364 Members on the benches opposite that it is now becoming common practice. It gives me, however, a particular pleasure.
I was interested to hear from the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. William Price) about the background to his constituency and the game of Rugby. I was a little concerned at one stage lest he might consider breaking the rules of the House and pick up the Mace and run out with it. The hon. Member follows a colleague on my side of the House who was held in high esteem on both sides because of his independence of mind, because he was not afraid to be controversial and, as the hon. Member for Rugby has made clear, because of the great work he did in his constituency.
I am sure that the hon. Member would not expect me to say to him that I hope he will be in this place as many years as was his predecessor, because we would wish that his predecessor was back. Nevertheless, I hope that the hon. Member will enjoy however long he is in this place. We will certainly look forward with interest to hearing him in the future. He has been non-controversial today, he has spoken on a non-controversial subject and we all enjoyed immensely the speech that we have heard from him.
We on this side broadly agree with the Bill. We do not really think that it is in line with the Government's great scheme for modernisation. We wonder whether that is still to come and when the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will have finished his review, which we have been promised for a considerable time. The Bill may seem a fairly massive, expensive stopgap in social security, but I doubt very much whether it will be—certainly, in our view, it ought not to be—the last word on the pattern for social security in the future.
The Bill sees the end of the National Assistance Board. It would be proper—and, at least, I would wish—to pay tribute to the work of the Board over the last few years. There is no doubt that most hon. Members who have from time to time interviewed constitutents who have been assisted by the Board would recognise that it has done its work of help and service in a quiet, efficient and generous manner. My only doubt on the Bill is whether, when we set up a Commission and bring it within the direct responsibility of the Minister, the 365 taking away of the independence of the Commission will not bring the assistance required so much within political controversy as to be a disservice.
I hope this will not happen. I hope that the Commission will be encouraged to have the same flexibility as the National Assistance Board has exercised during the last few years. The discretion of this body is an important factor in dealing with those cases which go beyond the fixed sums laid down and the allowances set out in the Bill.
Throughout her speech this afternoon, the Minister seemed to lay great emphasis on old people. I would certainly be the last to say that in a Bill of this kind the House should not concern itself very largely with old people. They are a growing population and they will concern any Government and any Ministry of Social Security very much in the years to come.
There is, however, a great danger should we imagine that poverty and difficulty reside wholly with the elderly among our population. As my hon. Friend the Member for Melton (Miss Pike) has said, one of the things that the Government have not done for the old people is to help them more to help themselves. There are a great many old people who want to help themselves because they want to work beyond the age of 65 and earn a little more. If trey are fit and well over that age, this is something that we should encourage.
We should not accept the view that because someone is beyond that age he is a problem entirely for the Welfare State. This is something that such a person would certainly deny himself. The Government have to recognise that, and I am not sure that it was entirely recognised in the speech that we heard from the right hon. Lady.
There is, however, a section of people who suffer from extreme poverty because of the way in which they were born into the world. Time does not do it; it is simply an accident of nature. They are born disabled, blind or mentally ill. There are others who acquire those disabilities through accidents of one sort or another. The Bill does not do enough for them.
In recent years, the nation has not recognised the responsibility that it has to do more for these people. The 366 Bill gives a plus amount for those who are blind, but what about the very disabled who are looked after by local authorities and private organisations? Those local authorities and private organisations will be given support by the new Ministry of Social Security, as they have been by the old Ministry. But there is nothing in the Bill which says that a greater emphasis should be laid on the support given to those people.
A great many disabled people are working, yet they come out of the workshops with only about 15s. or 16s. a week pocket money. The rest of the money which is provided by the Ministry goes to pay for their board and lodging. It is true that these people are not so productive as others who work. They could not justify earning the kind of money that I saw mentioned in the Press the other day, where it was reported that at one of our large motor works the average weekly income over a certain number of weeks had been £37. They cannot make that sort of money, because they are disabled. But they are working, and it is the responsibility of Government to see that from the many millions of pounds that are provided for welfare the work of those people is recognised and they are given a much greater incentive than they are at present.
There again, in terms of what is provided for disabled people in private homes through private societies, there is something missing in the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Melton mentioned the Selective Employment Tax. One of the greatest troubles with the Government and the party opposite is that one Minister does not seem to know what another Minister is doing. No doubt just about when this Bill was being produced the Ministers concerned with it were somewhat embarrassed to find that the Budget did much to destroy the value of what was to be done.
Unless we on this side can persuade the Chancellor to change his mind, the Selective Employment Tax will be a charge on many of those private societies who seek support from this Bill. This will affect their ability to assist people they at present support with the help of the National Assistance Board and, in due course, with that of the new Commission which is to be set up. I thought 367 that my hon. Friend asked a very pertinent question when she asked the right hon. Lady whether she had anything to say in the Cabinet about the imposition of the tax in that context.
Then we have the savings limit of £300. I would not have thought that that was a great encouragement to people to save. It is true that it is considerably higher than before. Nevertheless, although any income from savings up to that amount is disregarded, this concession is contradicted by the fact that anything held above £300 will be taken into account each year when the allowances are fixed. I hope that in Committee we may seek a higher amount than £300. We have to consider the matter in the long-term on the basis of whether or not we encourage people to save. If we are to encourage them to save, we should, when we come to look at the amount to be fixed under the Bill, be a little more generous than we have been in the relevant Clause.
The right hon. Lady said that the nation can only have the social security which it wills. There is a fundamental difference between social security under the party opposite and social security as we on this side want it to be. The party opposite believes that social security is something which should be provided almost entirely by the State. We believe that the State should be the catalyst, that it should be the main provider, but that encouragement should be given to industry, to private organisations and to individuals to provide for their own social security.
We believe that it will be the better for that, first, because there is a limit to what the nation will pay in taxes. If encouragement is given to individuals, to companies and others outside the State to provide a plus on top of what is provided by the Ministry, that will help towards the raising of standards in social security throughout the whole population.
Now is not the time to go into that theme, but that is the fundamental difference between the two sides of the House. In the long run, I believe that the country will come to see that we are right.
§ 7.28 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael McGuire (Ince)
I, too, welcome the Bill as a further step in 368 my party's programme of real social security based on social justice.
I do not want to follow the hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Kenneth Lewis) too far into what he said, but he mentioned one point with which I fundamentally disagree when he implied that perhaps we should encourage people to work well beyond the present retiring age.
Before I came into Parliament, I was a branch secretary in the mines. Most of the miners would say that what they want to do is finish work much earlier and finish after their labours on a good pension. They do not want to be troubled with going to what will become the Social Security Office and what was the National Assistance Board office.
When we discuss this kind of Bill, fundamentally we are talking about a working-class problem. Theirs is the problem of acquiring enough money to live on decently. It is a problem which, in the main, is one for those whom we call the working class—my kind of people. They are the people who finish work today on the railways with very little. They are the people who finish work in the mines with £1 a week.
It ill becomes hon. Gentlemen opposite to talk about thrift, because any day of the week I can pick up what are called the quality papers—I shall not mention them by name—and see advertisements for jobs which, as an inducement, offer what are called top-hat pensions. People who take these jobs do not have to worry about receiving National Assistance at the end of their working lives. The problem will remain with the working classes until my party abolishes the biggest swindle ever perpetrated on our people by the party opposite, the graduated pension scheme, and brings in a proper one.
When this National Assistance Measure, or social security Measure as it will be, becomes law—we all like euphemistic terms these days, but I welcome this Bill—our people will get a good pension, and social security, or National Assistance as it is now, will revert to what Lord Beveridge intended it to be, a safety net for those who for the minimum amount of time fall between all the stools, so that they can get the social security pension.
369 Unlike the hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford, I do not want to encourage people to go on working after retiring age because they need more money to supplement their meagre pensions. I do not want the old people to have to work as petrol pump attendants, and so on, and be a form of cheap labour. I believe that work is a curse visited on man. The sooner I can retire with a good pension the better I shall like it. I shall acquire sufficient expertise in the art of retirement. The trouble with working-class people is that they have always had to work. They have not had opportunities for leisure, with the result that people say that when their working days are over they do not know what to do with their time. Our party will help these people.
My mother was one of those unfortunate people who, before the war, were the recipients of the Tory idea of social justice. The Tories have, however, since been converted to the idea of social security. Every Thursday morning my mother—and a number of other unfortunate people—had to present herself to receive Public Assistance. She was made to feel that she was getting Public Assistance. When I debated this matter with my Tory opponent, he talked absolute claptrap, because it is the fact that the Tory Party is identified with belittling the dignity of ordinary people. My mother had to present herself to receive Public Assistance, and the people in authority applied the rules very vigorously indeed. I hope that I shall not be misunderstood as being intolerant if I say that they do not now have to worry about the central heating failing.
Our party gave ordinary people a little dignity by one simple measure. We said to them, "You do not have to come here every week and present yourself, come hail, rain, or snow. Fill in this form and we will give you a pension book". That simple measure gave these people the dignity which they had never had under the Tories, and in this Bill we are taking the process a stage further. I believe that the supplementary pension, which we now call the National Assistance pension, will be available on one book together with the contributory pension which people are entitled to draw.
370 I welcome, too, the option which the individual will have of saying, "I should like the officer who will be responsible for carrying out the investigation"—because, obviously, there will have to be some form of investigation—"to come to my house, but if that is not possible I will go to the office and make an appointment to see him". Everything will be done with dignity. This is a further improvement which our party has always had in mind.
We want to restore dignity to people who do not want to receive this kind of assistance, whatever euphemistic term we may use for it. They want to be like the top-hat people. They want a proper pension, but if they must have this kind of supplementary assistance, let it be given with the greatest possible dignity. It is this party, and this party alone, which has regard to that aspect of the matter.
I regard it as brass-faced impudence on the part of hon. Gentlemen opposite when I hear them say that this was a Tory Bill. They say that the Bill is a good one, and that my right hon. Friend has stolen another of their good ideas. We have heard this time and again since the 1964 General Election. According to them they had enough good ideas to sink a battleship. Perhaps I should say to sink an aircraft carrier—the one they promised to build, but did not.
The trouble is that the ideas remained ideas throughout the time when the Tories were in omnipotent power. They failed to bring in the social legislation which we finally brought in, even though we had an extremely small majority in the House. We must continue to remind hon. Gentlemen opposite that they could have done all these things during the 13 years that they were in offce, but did not do so. That is why I say that it is brass-faced impudence to say that we have stolen Tory ideas. We are continually coming across the spectacle of Tory hearts bleeding for ordinary people. The trouble is that the bleeding started only when they found their backsides on those benches.
§ Mr. Gwilym Roberts (Bedfordshire, South)
Would not my hon. Friend agree that the reason why hon. Gentleman opposite have no concept of this problem is that this is basically a working-class one, and they have no concept of the working classes?
§ Mr. McGuire
I tried to make that point earlier in my speech, and my hon. Friend has reinforced what I said.
Because so many hon. Members wish to take part in the debate, we have a duty to be brief in our speeches, and I think that it will be agreed that, generally, I have observed that dictum, but there are one or two other matters to which I should like to refer before sitting down.
Mention has been made to-day of non-pensioners. I have a great deal of sympathy for these people, but I have more sympathy for the old workmen's compensation cases, the people who, in spite of my right hon. Friend's attempts to bring social justice to those who were receiving a certain amount of the old workmen's compensation benefits, will remain outside this scheme. The reason I have more sympathy for them than for the non-pensioners is that many non-pensioners did not join the scheme when they had the opportunity to do so.
On the other hand, many of the old workmen's compensation cases have not benefitted even from my right hon. Friend's generosity, and only last week I sent her a letter dealing with such a case. The kind of person about whom I am thinking is the man who, as a young boy, lost a leg, but because of the system of assessing wages received no compensation.
Some of these people have had to go through life with tremendous disabilities. Some have lost an arm, or a leg, or perhaps been even more severely injured, but have received not a copper coin as compensation. There was nothing that they could do about it. I sincerely hope that when there is this comprehensive investigation into providing a real measure of social security a way will be found to deal with this problem, and to accord these men some measure of social justice.
I hope that great publicity will be given to this measure so that it will be clear whom we intend should benefit from it. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend's efforts in the Press, on television, and so on, to let people know what benefits are available to them. We should pay great attention to this matter. If possible, we should try to express it in simple language. Most hon. Members agree that they often have the greatest difficulty in understanding legal jargon—though if they were asked to express various provi- 372 sions in more simple language they would find that just as difficult.
The Sunday newspaper the People recently boasted, quite justifiably, that, through its organisation designed to help ordinary people to get their just deserts and rewards, it had obtained £1,400 on behalf of a woman which she would not otherwise have obtained. I want to pay a tribute to all the daily and Sunday papers which have a special department to help ordinary people receive their just rewards and all the benefits to which they are entitled. They do a good job and we should acknowledge it.
In the case to which I have referred the officers of the Ministry were not aware that the various changes which had taken place meant that the woman was entitled to a benefit from which she had been previously debarred. I hope that my right hon. Friend will reinforce my plea that we should do away with the need for such a newspaper to boast that it has obtained a certain sum on behalf of a woman who was not being paid it because of a lack of knowledge in the Department concerned.
I hope that we shall soon have the reports of the various Commissions—and especially the Royal Commission on Labour. I hope that this will do something to alleviate the distress we feel at the fact that Section 10 still penalises many people, in connection with labour disputes. I hope that this matter can be examined.
With those remarks I welcome the Bill.
§ 7.42 p.m.
§ Mr. Marcus Worsley (Chelsea)
The hon. Member for Ince (Mr. McGuire) said something which, whatever he thinks about hon. Members on this side, will be echoed by all hon. Members, namely, that the purpose of the Bill is to increase the dignity with which people can receive money from the State. The hon. Member is wrong in his appreciation of the Conservative attitude to these matters. He is also wrong in regarding this as a working-class problem. He should know that as a result of inflation the incidence of hardship falls not simply upon the working class.
We have had one or two "firsts" in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Melton (Miss Pike) said that this was the first time that she had addressed the 373 House while wearing glasses. From the speech she made it is evident that she saw her notes very clearly, and we hope to hear more from her in similar circumstances. Also, the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. William Price) addressed the House for the first time. I cannot claim to be doing that. Nobody can claim to be in that condition twice. But I can claim that I am addressing the House for the first time as Member of Parliament for Chelsea. I hope that I may be excused for saying what an immense honour it is to represent such an historic and charming part of London—a constituency which is well know throughout the world far a lively way of life.
I follow a man—Captain Litchfield—who was liked and respected throughout the House. He was a sailor, and a man of complete integrity. He devoted himself to the welfare of his constituents and was well known for the personal care which he took. He is very much missed. He will be pleased that I addressed the House for the first time as the hon. Member for Chelsea on the subject of personal welfare.
Like many of my hon. Friends I regard the Bill with somewhat mixed feelings. Clearly the increase in the real benefit—all of which goes where it is needed—is welcomed, but the Bill purports to be more than this. The right hon. Lady made that clear. For years there has been a great build-up about the radical changes which were to take place. The Minister without Portfolio has been sitting there, slightly ominously in the seat of the Patronage Secretary, listening to the debate and looking inscrutable. He has not joined in. I wish he would.
Some years ago the right hon. Gentleman went up a mountain into a thick cloud to contemplate. We await from him a new dispensation. This is supposed to be the first instalment of the new dispensation. To my way of thinking, it is not so much a question of the tablets of stone as a chip off the old block. There has been a great deal of renaming, but the function and powers of the renamed Ministries and boards are not very different from what they were.
The people who will be invited to go along will not be taken in by the difference in the names. The hon. Member for Ince spoke of the importance of simplicity, and pointed out that the age at which 374 many people are confronted with the problem that we are discussing this afternoon is the age when they find it a little more difficult to understand new ideas. It is critically important that in all we do in this matter we should make the provisions as simple and as intelligible as possible. It does not help simply to change names. I would have welcomed such a change had it really signified a radical rethinking of the kind that my hon. Friends and I have been pressing for, but many people will merely be confused.
I echo the tributes which have been paid to the officers of the National Assistance Board. The Board is at least well known, and we must realise that in changing its name in this way we will create confusion. I know that there are compensating advantages, but I hope that someone will take up the challenge and produce less of a tongue-twister than the Supplementary Benefits Commission. I should like to see a much more comprehensive Ministry. The right hon. Lady answered, to her satisfaction but not to mine, the general point that the subject of health should be dealt with in this extended Ministry. Her arguments were shallow. The case for this is a very strong one, and I hope that the Minister who winds up the debate will have more to say about it.
It is essential that local authorities should be regarded as being in the forefront in these matters, but it would be infinitely more efficient if behind all the activities of local authorities there was one comprehensive Ministry which carried out a really constructive form of research across the whole field—a Ministry of People, perhaps.
I reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Melton said about the family whose earnings, including family allowances, are below the scales of National Assistance. I should have thought, as did my hon. Friend, that it would be possible to produce a system of variable family allowances for such people. It is regrettable that the only action taken by the Government so far in this matter is to impose a Selective Employment Tax which will make the employment of these people particularly difficult. It is a negative and destructive attitude to take.
I end on a note of personal prejudice. I do not know whether it will in any way commend itself to the House. I 375 should like to ask the Government on what basis the present differentiation between single and married benefit or pension is based. Is it based on careful research into needs, or is it—as I suspect —based simply on precedent, on the principle that this sort of relationship was laid down in the years after the war, when the National Insurance and National Assistance schemes were devised on pre-war conditions? I should like to know whether there has recently been any research into whether this relationship is right.
My guess is that it is wrong. My experience has always been that hardship most affects single people living alone. After all, common sense tells one that the expenses in a household of a single person are not so immensely different from those in the household of a married person. A great range of expenses are the same. Perhaps a higher expenditure on fuel would be needed by a single person living on his own. I am told by people better qualified to know than I am that to produce a meal for two does not cost exactly twice as much as to prepare a meal for one.
I believe that the relationship between these two figures is wrong. I strongly suspect that, if serious research were carried out—this is the sort of task which a comprehensive Ministry should be undertaking—we should find that the relationship between these two scales should be altered. I hope that we can be told tonight, before we give the Bill a Second Reading—as I hope we shall—what the relationship is.
There are many other issues which many of us would like to discuss and I hope that we shall have a really extensive Committee stage in which to discuss the Bill's provisions so that the time which we have lost today—it amounts to two hours—may be amply made up.
§ 7.52 p.m.
§ Mr. Hugh D. Brown (Glasgow, Provan)
I do not intend to follow in detail the speech of the hon. Member for Chelsea (Mr. Worsley). He has reached a staggering conclusion that it is cheaper for two to live together than for one to live on his own. I do not know whether or not this is radical rethinking, but I honestly cannot understand what he meant by a Ministry of People——
§ Mr. Worsley
I should not like there to be any misunderstanding. What I was querying—no more than that—was the relationship between single and married benefit. The hon. Gentleman is misunderstanding me if he thinks that I was suggesting that it is cheaper for a single person. I was suggesting that, if we examined the matter carefully, we might want to narrow the gap.
§ Mr. Brown
I had better accept some of the blame for any misunderstanding. What I meant was that the hon. Gentlemen's conclusion was that it does not cost twice as much for two people. That is not a very staggering conclusion to reach and does not need much research.
This has been an interesting debate. I always find it fascinating to hear two hon. Lady Members battling it out from the Front Benches. I have had a long acquaintance with my right hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) and I am well aware of her personality, charm and ability. I must confess that this was the first occasion on which I have heard the hon. Lady the Minister for Melton (Miss Pike) speaking in the House and I found her most attractive. In case that reads badly, I had better say that this applies not to her attraction as a sex kitten, but to her ability to present a rather doubtful case.
She did extremely well with her glasses. It is a pity that she did not enjoy the benefit of the stimulation which she might have received if she could have seen some of us on these benches, or perhaps been provoked by us, as she would say. Hers was the traditional argument of an Opposition. She said that she was concerned about old people becoming used to the uselessness and loneliness of old age. I would suggest that she will have plenty of time to get used to the loneliness of the benches opposite—[An HON. MEMBER: "Look at yours."]—I was not talking about the relative emptiness of the opposite sides of the House, but about the position in the next four or five years.
I did not find the hon. Lady's speech particularly constructive. I was disappointed. It is true that some of the ideas in the Bill were mentioned in the Conservative Party's manifesto, but that 377 is a very dangerous line to take. Figures for 1963 show that even then, after 12 years of Conservative rule, the gap between the poorest section of the community and even average wage-earners had widened. To put it another way, it was well known in 1963 that about 7½ million people were living at or below at National Assistance Board scales. It is no wonder that hon. Members opposite are laying themselves open to charges of hypocrisy, when this fact was known after they had had 12 years of complete power.
It is no good begging the question and making slick Parliamentary debating points to the effect that we are not doing enough in the shortest possible time——
§ Miss J. M. Quennell (Petersfield)
Could the hon. Gentleman give the source for the figure which he quoted of 7½ million known in 1963?
§ Mr. Brown
Yes, the source was the Ministry of Labour's survey of household expenditure for 1963.
Nevertheless, it now seems to be accepted that there is a tremendous problem. Of course, this gives rise to all sorts of social problems. Inequality always breeds aggression. Whether it is in the Rhondda Valley or in Rhodesia, one can expect trouble if people have a sense of injustice or inequality or feel themselves inadequate in any way to the rest of the community. Different people take different steps to escape from the realities of the life which they find difficult to accept.
I was amazed by the speech of the Leader of the Opposition at Birmingham, in which he discovered that the poverty in our midst would take a long time to abolish in a world which we had been led to believe was full of opportunity and plenty for everyone. Apparently, he had only just discovered the problem. I do not want to be too hard on him because we can all sometimes become prisoners of our own slogans. Such a slogan is the phrase "means test", or the necessity to use some kind of examination of need before dishing out public money.
This is a very dangerous philosophy for hon. Members opposite, because it strikes me as being subversive, Marxist- 378 Leninist thinking to use the phrase, "To provide most care for those in need". They never finish that phrase by quoting Lenin properly and saying, "From each according to his ability". They always boggle at the unpopular line of perhaps making charges on the community. The hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Kenneth Lewis) said that the community would not stand for increased taxes, which is what we mean by finding the will to solve some of the problems which we know exist. In this context, we must all welcome the Bill.
There are, of course, practical difficulties. There is always the danger that this could be regarded as our having just changed the name on the notice board which hangs outside the National Assistance Board's office or the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance office. However, the public are quite intelligent about such a danger and time and the way people are handled——
§ Mr. Simon Wingfield Digby (Dorset, West)
§ Mr. Brown
I am not being patronising but suggesting that the public are intelligent enough to realise that just changing the name of a Department does not necessarily mean that everything that goes on inside has also been changed. However, genuine improvements are made by the Bill, including the different scales, the disregards, the method of keeping capital resources, the additional people who will be receiving benefits for long-term sickness, and so on, and the new way in which people will be treated when they make claims. These are all important steps forward and the public will recognise that something worth while is being introduced.
However, we are breaching the real basis of a contributory scheme and I counsel my hon. and right hon. Friends not to be too hasty about coming to conclusions when we might need to face up to a complete revolution both in our thinking and in the administration of such schemes in the future. We must consider whether it is worth while spending enormous sums on staff and so on when we have now breached the contributory basis for making allowances and when, therefore, this is the time to take a long, cool look at possible developments in the future.
379 Whatever ideas may come out of the new Department or from the Commission, in the long term the men and women working in the new offices will determine the respect which the Department obtains from the public. The National Assistance Board unfortunately has a bad record in the sense of having to employ a high percentage of temporary staff simply because it is not a popular Department in the Civil Service. I should like to think that in future a scheme will be introduced whereby people in the Civil Service who have genuine concern for the human problems with which this Department deals will have an opportunity to transfer to it and work on solving these social problems.
I should equally like to think that the managers of these offices will give more talks to local organisations. I am aware of their commitments, but in last year's Report we learned that they gave only 1,400 talks covering more than 400 area offices. This means that each manager gave three or four talks a year. I am not criticising them for this, but merely pointing out that this is a public relations sphere, which could be of great importance.
The Appendix to the last Report of the National Assistance Board gave an indication of the new thinking and approach that is afoot—the genuine concern that comes out of even official blue books. We see the greater awareness that exists of the needs of the unfortunate people with inadequate personalities, those who are maladjusted, physically or mentally, and the many others who need help and who are in our midst. I am confident that the Bill will be welcomed by most thinking members of the community, who will realise that it makes a genuine contribution towards solving some of the problems that exist.
§ 8.4 p.m.
§ Miss J. M. Quennell (Petersfield)
I am sure that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Hugh D. Brown) will forgive me if I do not comment on his main argument. However, he hit on one matter—the difficulty of obtaining statistics and data which enable one to arrive at an overall picture of the real need that exists in our society today—and I will return to that later in my remarks.
380 The hon. Member for Ince (Mr. McGuire) made a statement which should, perhaps, be corrected immediately. He said that, as a result of the Bill, the National Assistance officers would be treating with far more dignity those who required assistance and sought it from the Board. He said that it would be possible for officers to interview applicants in their homes and that greater discretion would be possible. It should be pointed out that these facilities already exist and that members of the public who wish to do so may be interviewed privately.
In my experience—from talking with people who have sought these facilities—in each case satisfaction has been expressed, as well as gratitude for the officers who, I have been told, have shown tact and discretion. It is appropriate, since this debate is, in effect, presiding over the demise of the National Assistance Board, to pay a tribute to the Board's officers and staff for the thoroughness, tact and discretion which they have employed. It is proper that the House should acknowledge that in many cases they have had an unenviable task to perform.
Not always have those who have applied to the Board for assistance been entitled to it. The officers have, therefore, had to use great tact and discretion when deciding between genuine and alleged need. Only in those cases where claims have not been genuine has rancour been expressed by applicants who, I believe, have often made allegations of a most disgraceful nature. Thus, the Board's officers have had a far from enviable task, which, nevertheless, they have performed with tact, patience and humanity.
Although a genuine welcome has been given to the Bill, every speaker today has expressed certain reservations about it and I, too, have some to express, and in very much the same vein. For example, the Measure places no responsibility on the State to seek out those areas of poverty in the midst of busy and prosperous parts of society. There seems to be no attempt—if there is, I have been unable to discern it—to establish a national or State research unit which will sensitively and flexibly seek out changing social needs, remembering 381 that we are living in a rapidly changing society.
The Bill will not be of help to the very senior citizen. I cannot think of a better phrase for them. Apart from the 9s. a week, it will not be of great assistance to them. Another group totally overlooked by society until now, to whom it will not be of great help are the handicapped and incapacitated married women. The children of these women who are living on amounts below the National Assistance Board's scales have already been referred to and we have been shown how the Bill fails to help them, in addition to the very old.
If we take the definition of "poverty" as the National Assistance Board scales, we see that there is some confusion about the number of families with children who are living on income below the Board's scales. The Minister said that her right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour reckoned that there were between 200,000 and 300,000 families involved here, but the Minister of Labour has a persistent hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Oldham, East (Mr. Mapp), who, on 22nd February of last year, asked him what estimate he had made of the numbers involved. The Minister's Answer was guarded and cautious, for he said:The only figures at present available to me are based on a very small sample and are subject to wide margins of error"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd February 1965; Vol. 707, c.2.]He then gave the figures of between 100,000 and 200,000. His persistent hon. Friend asked a similar Question on 26th July of last year and received the following reply:… the figures available"—the Minister was equally guarded on this occasionare based on a very small sample and are subject to wide margins of error."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th July, 1965; Vol. 717, c. 5.]On that occasion the Minister gave figures which indicated that the numbers had gone up. He said that there were between 150,000 and 250,000 such families. What is of importance is the very guarded nature of the Minister's Answer. He thinks that there are wide margins of error possible and this is perfectly understandable. This reveals the necessity for more actions of a positive nature.
382 The right hon. Lady says that the figure has perhaps gone up to 300,000, but in both Answers the Minister reckoned that the number of children involved in each family was about three. We might have a very large proportion, getting towards 1 million, of children living below National Assistance scales. We do not know. This is the weakness of our position, because we do not know the size of the problem with which we are dealing.
Of the special problems I can touch on only one, that of the handicapped housewife. No one knows how many of them there are. The Minister of Health has been most co-operative and helpful when I have questioned him; so has the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, but we cannot get the information to examine this problem constructively. We have to rely entirely on private foundations providing small random surveys of all sorts. One is taken aback when the Minister tells us that the survey of 2,750 families to be started and completed in June will provide sufficient information. I wonder how she knows which families to start with.
The handicapped married woman, handicapped either through disease or disaster, is in a parlous condition. She is never entitled to National Assistance. It is not available to her, nor to her husband. No matter how severely disabled she is nor how sadly her family's circumstances decline, she cannot ever claim the subsistence. She can receive no other form of State benefit except medical treatment. She is not eligible for State insurance unless she becomes gainfully employed outside her home and then she is eligible only for Class III insurance. Private insurance is almost impossible for her. Insurance-wise a married woman is looked upon as a bad risk.
If her husband claims his full entitlement to fiscal relief, I believe he can obtain an allowance of £35, but it is estimated that the cost of maintaining a handicapped woman at home is £650 a year. If his earnings do not put him in a position to claim the full allowance, the husband cannot go to the National Assistance Board for help. These families are in a very difficult position. No wonder that the Oxford Regional Hospital Group survey of chronic sick beds 383 in Northants County Borough revealed that 34 per cent. of the chronically sick and disabled could return home if suitable social provision were available for them. We have a situation in which perhaps one in three chronically sick beds could be vacated and their occupants returned home if suitable provision were available and could be afforded. But we do not know the size of the problem.
The weakness of the Bill is that it does nothing to ascertain these needs. The State requires a weapon whereby we can discover poverty in our midst. Most unfortunately, this Bill does not provide one. There is no additional instrument to detect areas of hardship. This is a critical weakness. It seems absurd that in this day and age in our sophisticated society the state has still to rely on private foundations doing surveys to give a hint of what we should do to help society. It is necessary for the data to be fully and freely evailable centrally. Any hon. Member who has tried to get information of this kind, which should be available, retires frustrated and nonplussed because we simply do not know how to get the information.
It is possibly available, but not centrally in one Ministry and there is no way of collating the information available in various Ministries. Yet the amount of information available to the Registrar-General must be incredible. There are critical weaknesses because we need a national research unit to inquire into our national needs. We have a mobile society, our social pattern is changing rapidly; a nationally sensitive apparatus is necessary for the State to detect developing areas of hardship before they become established and formidable. It is very likely that we shall have formidable problems to tackle before we know where they are.
I have had to gallop through this speech and I apologise for the rapidity of my delivery. I welcome the Bill and hope that we shall have time to go into it in more detail in Committee. It has been rather unfortunate that today we could not spend more time over it. With these provisions and reservations, I welcome the Bill and hope that the right hon. Lady will be able to give answers in 384 Committee if her hon. Friend has not time to give them tonight.
§ 8.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Eric Moonman (Billericay)
I am grateful that the hon. Lady the Member for Petersfield (Miss Quennell) galloped through her speech. I shall try to emulate her performance, or at least, her speed. The Bill is impressive because it reflects a great deal of important thinking by research workers and practitioners in the social service field who have been concerned with social problems for a number of years. It also introduces structural changes which are very necessary and which stem from that thinking.
It deals with the question of poverty and hardship and there can be no more important issue we can debate in this House than the state of the under-privileged in this country. I regret that we have not had sufficient time to debate this fully. It is a pity that hon. Members on both sides of the House have not been able to itemise their criticisms and the points which they believe important in the Bill. Nevertheless, it is a subject which divides the House in the approach of hon. Members to it.
I remind hon. Members opposite that in February we had a statement by the Conservative Party which perhaps suggested exactly where it stood on this important issue of poverty. It said:Whenever possible, people should be encouraged to make provision for themselves rather than lean on the State.It may be that this is a view or philosophy which hon. Members opposite now wish to discount. Certainly, there has been some withdrawal from that type of thinking in some of the speeches we have heard today.
The hon. Member for Melton (Miss Pike), as she said, is a hard-headed realist and she is concerned that we should refer again to the means test. These are strong words, but she was prepared to justify them. The words underline the important differences in attitude towards this subject. I would object to any suggestion that a means test is a viable proposition in a modern State. What we are trying to do in the Bill is to relate the National Assistance Board to something which has already formed an integral part in our society, namely, that of National Insurance.
385 The statement from the Conservative Party which mentions individual responsibility contrasts vividly with the first paragraph in the introduction of the Explanatory Memorandum prepared by the Ministry, which says:The purpose of the charges is to eliminate those features of the existing scheme which are misunderstood or disliked, while preserving the humanity and efficiency of its administration. The Government believe this will ensure that the elderly will have no hesitation in claiming the new benefit to which they are untitled and which will be awarded with dimity.This is a very important difference. The Labour Party is proud to pursue this difference.
The question of the dignity of the individual is all-important. The National Assistance Board and all the agencies which preceded it were doomed to fail. How could it succeed when many of those who were entitled to claim National Assistance had been nurtured and encouraged to think in terms of the way that charity vas apportioned in the last century?
This is why the figures presented by the Minister at the beginning of the debate will cause grave concern. She disclosed that many people who were entitled to claim assistance, but who failed to do so. If I had the time I could give several case studies from my own constituency. Briefly, I would mention one widow who was fully entitled to claim assistance yet did not do so because she felt it would be like begging. Her circumstances were quite dreadful. In another case, an elderly spinster, who was in great distress, felt that she could manage quite well, and yet she was fully entitled to obtain assistance.
We have not been able to overcome the difficulties. It is not just a difference of semantics associated with the 700,000 people who could claim but do not. Clearly the National Assistance Board carried with it features of the label of "the parish" and this was an unpleasant experience for many people that I knew in Liverpool in the 'thirties. I believe that the Bill will go some way towards overcoming these obstacles.
I am very glad that the Minister said that the nation must be prepared to pay for these improvements in the social services. I hope that this will be spelled out in all sorts of ways. We cannot think in 386 terms of having improvements in the social services, unless we are prepared to pay for them. Unless the Government are able to convince the nation that these improvements will depend on extra effort and initiative, we shall fail in improving the fabric of our social life and this would reflect on the Bill.
Structure is important. I hope that there will be further attempts in other Ministries to draw together related work. This is the sort of game which could be played if there were time, but the mind boggles at the amount of work which is certainly not logically drawn between Ministries.
I have some reservations here. This is a new concept and a striking one. I believe that we still have not gone far enough in the Bill nor was it stated in the Minister's remarks that we understand the problem of poverty. There are difficulties about assessing the exact figure. I support the previous speaker's references to the difficulties involved. We could probably use the National Assistance Board's references to poverty —where income is less than that laid down by the N.A.B. scales.
Whether we accept one figure or another, we are dealing with one particular social problem, namely, those children of poverty families. The figure involved is half a million children and I am concerned because such condition and poverty affect their diet, the sort of education they get and their environment.
It would be a great tragedy if, at this important moment in our history, with great technological advances taking place and with great changes in knowledge and individual social behaviour, we approved the Second Reading of a Bill whilst ignoring the fact that about half a million children are in danger of becoming second-class citizens.
There are many things I should like to say. I shall try to gallop along as quickly as the previous speaker did. I hope that in replying to the debate the Minister will say whether he is aware of the Child Poverty Act Group's memorandum, which contains rather important suggestions. One is the proposal to abolish the child tax allowance and to replace the existing family allowance by a tax-free allowance. Another is to channel help to the large family with a 387 low income by the benefit of tax allowances. These proposals will be known to the Ministry. I should like to know whether they are acceptable to the Government.
I also hope that the new local advisory committees will be given the opportunity of meeting senior officials to discuss their new function. One of the great problems in creating a new service is to ensure that we do not simply transplant names and offices without getting at the work which is being done. I hope that, in addition to simply sending members to the new committees concerned, because the composition will be largely drawn from the old committees, that consideration will be given to arranging regional and local conferences at which the members could get together to discuss their new rôle.
There are other aspects involving the social services. One is the new developments arising from industry and some areas of commerce—cost effectiveness and cost benefit analysis. I hope that the Minister will make some comments on this. There is also the additional responsibility of the recruitment of the officers. This has been a great problem for the Board, because it has never been quite clear whether those concerned are meant to be civil servants or case workers. We must be quite clear about what, sort of responsibility they will have in the new set-up. This would be possible if we were able to ignore the specific task under the National Assistance Board, but I do not think that we can afford to now in creating the new Ministry. I should like guidance on this.
Another question is the role of the Commission. I hope that it will be the sort of important centre of the scheme which the Minister mentioned. It will obviously need to look at the other services provided, and it may be that here we must think in terms of widening the basis of the social services. I hope that the Commission itself, especially if it is to include a number of people who are outside government, people who are concerned with the social services in a research capacity, will look at the way in which the social services could be properly integrated, and not simply on the basis of these two Ministries.
I join in the general expression of appreciation of the work done by the 388 National Assistance Board officers. They have done extremely good work. No one who has had any dealings with them could doubt that.
I am a little chary about the desire for more research. It happens in all fields that we are reaching the point, whether in industry or whether in the social services, where there is a natural and healthy desire to become involved in research. My reading of this—I have had some experience in the field of social research, in the particular field that we are discussing now, as well as in industry —is that the problem is not so much to get more research.
The problem is to ensure that we can translate the results of the research into a meaningful form. I put it in this way. There is already enough research material which could well be acted upon by the Ministries. There is a whole series of individual projects going on in London alone which could be taken up. We must ensure that the practitioners are able to use all this as a practical tool.
I hope that the clear emphasis throughout the service will be on preventing poverty and preventing the ills and sicknesses, and that from time to time this whole subject will be considered by the Commission.
§ 8.28 p.m.
§ Mr. John Pardoe (Cornwall, North)
I welcome the Bill as far as it goes, and I welcome particularly the Government's firm acceptance that there is a great deal of poverty in the country. Sometimes, when talking to people in the constituencies, particularly people on the Right in politics, one has the impression that the affluent society has somehow dispensed with all manifestations of poverty. Yet one knows that this is not so. Patterns of poverty are changing rapidly, and there is a great need to keep our welfare services in line with the changing pattern. The Bill goes some way towards doing this.
I come now to certain questions which, I hope, the Minister will answer in order to clarify points of doubt. First, is this a non-contributory pension? The right hon. Lady said that she wanted to overcome the feeling that there was something inferior about non-contributory pensions, that a stigma was attached to them. We all know that this feeling does exist 389 among many people, but I doubt that the Bill really gives the answer to that problem. The answer, surely, is to do away with all contributions. The contributions do not pay for our pensions or for our social security system. The idea of contributions paying for pensions is already a myth. If we abolished the myth of the contributory pension, we should have no real need for the Bill at all.
The right hon. Lady wants people to realise that there is a statutory right to a non-contributory pension. Unfortunately, there is no statutory right. Even after the passage of the Bill, there will not be a statutory right in any real sense. A person will still have to establish his ease to receive the non-contributory pension.
The right hon. Lady said that, if the nation wills the means, we shall have a social security system of which we can be really proud. If the nation is prepared to will the means, we must have a method of financing our social security system which is superior to the one we have now. The present method, which turns us into a nation of stamp lickers, is not a particularly efficient way of financing social security. In fact, it is a poll tax, and, so far as it finances anything at all, a poll tax is inefficient a nd non-dynamic simply because it applies to everyone and has to be set at a rate which can be afforded by the lowest paid.
I hope that we shall work towards a social security tax related to earnings and, therefore, related to levels of earnings particularly in the different regions, a most important aspect of the matter. I should like to see this social security tax cover all the social services, perhaps even bringing the Selective Employment Tax within it, with about one-third being paid by the employee and about two-thirds paid by the employer. This would, in a sense, be taken as a percentage of the payroll.
What about the guaranteed income which the Bill is intended to introduce? Again, I quarrel with the phrasing. It is not a guaranteed income because it is not related to the cost of living. The income guaranteed today will not be a guaranteed income of the same size next year or the year after. It would be far better to link this in the Bill now to 390 rising prices or, better still, to rising average wage rates. Otherwise, we shall have to come back year after year to beg the Government to give us a little more money in order to raise the rates. Why not have this built into the Bill now? It is not in the real sense guaranteed income as now proposed. The right hon. Lady said that awards will be assessed annually, to take account of changes in individual financial circumstances. Cannot we provide in the Bill for annual review to take account of the cost of living and rising prosperity?
Next, the wage-stop. The Minister said that the Bill made no contribution towards solving the problem of low-wage earners whose families live below the poverty line. This is an enormous problem. It may not have been very well researched, but it has been researched to a certain extent. I am sure that the right hon. Lady is aware of certain work of the London School of Economics and Professor Titmuss, which has painted the problem very clearly.
It is a problem particularly in areas such as the one I represent in Cornwall. We have very low wages in Cornwall and, because they are low, our wage rates are closely akin to the sort of rates which people will have under the Bill. There are masses of children living below what all of us on either side of the House must call the poverty line. The right hon. Lady's promise to solve this problem is most welcome, but it will be done only by paying real attention to the giving of proper benefits to wives and children. This is the way forward. I shall not go into detail on the Liberal plans for doing this. There will be ample occasions in future for that.
The right hon. Lady said that many elderly people have not been able to make proper provision for their old age and she hoped that the Bill would help them. That is true, but an enormous number of people, particularly in Cornwall, who are now in employment and who are perhaps only 30 or 40 or 50 years old, still cannot even now make provision for their old age because their wages are far too low. Indeed, wages are far too low in many parts of the country.
In one large rural area in my constituency the treasurer of the rural district council has estimated that 70 per cent. 391 of all ratepayers will be liable for rate relief. That gives some idea of the kind of income level there. Such people cannot make provision for their old age. This is a contemporary problem. It is not only the problem of the old people who could not make provision in the 1920s and 1930s.
The right hon. Lady said that the new Commission will be a source of advice, a power house of ideas. It will also do research. I have grave reservations about the membership. There is the membership of the so-called "statutory women". I hope that the Bill does not limit the number of women who can serve on the Commission. Let it not do that, because a great many of the problems it will have to solve will be of concern to women—particularly problems of widows and of children.
I hope that far more women than just the two proposed will be members of the Commission. It is sometimes said that, if men had babies, abortion would have been legal long ago. To a certain extent, also, it is true that if men were ever widows many of these problems would have been solved a long time ago.
My major reservation is that the basic rate is still far too low—£4 10s. for a single person. Even taking account of rates and rent, it is still an appallingly low level on which to live. I draw the right hon. Lady's attention to the basic minimum requirements stated by the John Lewis Partnership, in its Gazette of 19th February. This is an example of what the partnership accepts as a criterion. The levels are substantially above those in the Bill. For a single person, the criterion is £6 5s. a week.
We in the Liberal Party believe that the criterion should be half the average national wage. I am not saying that we should raise it to that level immediately —I know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has his problems—but that is what we should work towards. If we were to raise the basic rate to that kind of level, we would eventually have no need for these non-contributory pensions.
There will be the problem of the retraining of staff of the Ministry and of the National Assistance Board. They have been using different methods in their work, with different levels of training. Has the right hon. Lady given enough time 392 for the retraining and for the recruitment which will perhaps have to take place?
Another aspect is the accommodation in which the work is to be done, particularly the accommodation to which people will be invited to answer questions. That accommodation should be good. We must give these people the red carpet treatment. They must not have to go to a fusty little office in a back street. They must be able to go to offices that are welcoming and comfortable. I hope that the right hon. Lady has left herself sufficient time to find such offices, or at least to redecorate present offices up to such a standard. With the amalgamation of these two functions, we must not lose the human touch. Many hon. Members have paid tribute to the very good work which has been done by officers of the National Assistance Board. They have done this work magnificently. It has been of tremendous value and we must not lose this value now that we are amalgamating these two functions.
Looking further ahead, we may need some sort of regional welfare board to co-ordinate all the services which local authorities and the Ministry will be offering. The local government basis in many parts of the country is not suitable for standing the strain, which is why I propose a regional basis.
I want, finally, to refer to the Selective Employment Tax which is relevant in the sense that it will provide the Ministry with many extra customers, particularly from Cornwall. There is no doubt about that and I ask the right hon. Lady again to press her right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make sure that it does not happen. There are large areas of the country where there is a great deal of part-time employment and very low wages, and because the Selective Employment Tax is a poll tax and not related to the level of wages in an area, areas like Cornwall will be far worse hit than others.
The Bill comes from the heart of the Labour body politic and that is an organ of that body which I trust rather more than I trust its head, from which no doubt the Selective Employment Tax sprang. There is a song which suggests that the knee bone is connected to the backbone. Any connection between the heart which produced this Bill and the head which produced the Selective Employment Tax is not immediately evident.
§ 8.42 p.m.
§ Mr. Peter Archer (Rowley Regis and Tipton)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister on seizing this opportunity to mitigate, by increasing the amount of small savings which are to be disregarded, what has been a major source of hardship. There are many couples who, by thrift and hard work over the years, acquire a nest egg, only to find in what is sometimes a very short period of misfortune that virtually years of savings disappear.
These couples are models of the kind mentioned by hon. Members opposite. They do not seek to lean on the State, and yet at the end of it they are in virtually the same position as the thriftless and the lazy. These days it is quite properly fashionable to speak of incentives to work. There is no greater disincentive than a means test and this generation and generations to come will have reason to be grateful to my right hon. Friend for this provision about disregards.
I shall briefly invite attention to three anomalies carried over from the 1948 Act into the Bill. I can deal with the first very briefly, because it was mentioned at some length by my right hon. Friend herself and by other hon. Members. It is the position of the 200,000 to 300,000 breadwinners in full-time employment who, to our shame, are earning less than the rates set out in the Bill. I am not sure that I follow the argument that they must not be paid more to stay away than they earn at work. Surely that is precisely what we are doing now, and these people would be better off if they decided not to go to work.
I appreciate that we must not fall into the Speenhamland fallacy of providing employers with cut-rate labour on a subsidised basis, and I have never subscribed to the "less eligibility" theory, that these unhappy people will not work unless social benefits are made less attractive than the worst possible working conditions. I have always felt that this is a theory to suspect, particularly as it so often comes from the same circles as the view that the higher income groups will not pull their weight unless taxation is reduced. The argument appears to be that the rich will not work unless you make them richer, and the poor will not work unless you make them poorer.
394 But having said that, it appears unfair and unwise to provide that a man who is prepared to work for a low rate of remuneration in preference to charging his family to public funds should be penalised because he is doing so. We look forward, we hope at a very early date, to the results of the work which. my right hon. Friend is doing on this subject.
The second anomaly is to be found in Clauses 22 and 23 of the Bill. As I understand, the effect of these Clauses is that a man is absolutely liable to maintain his wife, and vice versa, but whether that liability is enforced in any particular circumstances is a matter entirely within the discretion of the magistrates' court before whom the matter comes. In common law, of course, a man is not liable to maintain his wife if, by her conduct, she has disentitled herself from maintenance.
This has been the way in which the similar provision in the Act of 1948 has ben interpreted by the courts. But, from the judgments in the Court of Appeal, in the case of Lilley v. Lilley, decided in 1959, that this is not necessarily so, and the weight to be given to any particular circumstance is entirely within the discretion of the magistrate's court.
So, we could have, in theory, and might have in practice—a situation where a man, whose wife left him on their wedding night for another man and has never been back since, might find himself ordered to maintain her, if the particular magistrates' court before whom the matter comes, took the view that that met the justice of the case. Similarly, with a wife who has not seen her husband sober since before the wedding breakfast. While I fully appreciate that this was not the intention of these Sections, a great deal of hardship could be averted if my right hon. Friend would give some attention to their redrafting.
Finally, may I invite attention to the anomaly mentioned briefly by my hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. McGuire)? This relates to the provisions of Clause 10, which seeks to provide that a workman engaged in a trade dispute is disentitled from benefit, but he may become entitled if, among other things, he can prove that hedoes not belong to a grade or class of workers of which … there were members 395 employed at his place of employment, any of whom are participating in or financing or directly interested in the dispute.That appears to mean that if one has a hundred men at a place of employment, and one belongs to a union involved in a trade dispute so that, through his subscriptions, he is financing it, the whole of the men at that place of work are disentitled from for benefit.
I know that there are problems here, and I am aware that my right hon. Friend is already looking into the matter, as it was raised in the House in another connection last Session. I follow, too, that the purpose of including the provision in the Bill is to bring the situation into line with the provisions for unemployment benefit. I have raised it so that it shall not be thought that silence from these benches implies assent. I am sure that we can rely upon my right hon. Friend to look into this matter.
I hope that this will not be thought of as carping criticism. This is a first-rate Bill and I have no doubt that it will be recorded in history as a very real step forward. But, when one is dealing with a situation which, by its very nature, concerns itself with people undergoing hardship, anything which can alleviate additional hardship is worth some very real and serious thought, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree.
§ 8.49 p.m.
§ Mr. Rafton Pounder (Belfast, South)
Like everyone else who has spoken today, on both sides of the House, I welcome the principles embodied in the Bill. Like my hon. Friends who have spoken, I have one or two reservations on detail concerning the Bill, which can be discussed and thrashed out when we come to the Committee stage.
I welcome the Bill not merely because of its Title, for the "up-to-dateness" of the name "Social Security" has a certain appealing ring about it. Conversely, there is a harshness to the words "Pensions and National Insurance", despite the very kindly Minister in charge. No one can doubt that in this Bill there has been an attempt at streamlining right from the word "go", but when are we to see the detailed social security review of which this is obviously the administrative precursor?
396 We have waited 18 months. I am sick, sore and tired of listening to "13 years" being quoted in answer to serious questions. I recall a Question which I tabled to the right hon. Lady in November, 1964, in reply to which she said that I should not have to wait very long for the review.
The Second Schedule of the Bill, apart from the interesting fiscal details, seems to indicate a tendency towards a less rigid delineation of the rules and regulations. One of the problems which I have found during my relatively short time in the House has been this. Often when a constituent approaches me with a pensions problem, I encounter a regulation which cannot be circumvented. I do not want anyone to construe that remark as meaning that I am in any way critical of the first-class staff engaged by the Ministry of Pensions and the National Assistance Board; nothing could be further from my mind. If I may refer in one sentence to the area of the right hon. Lady's Department which I know best, Northern Ireland, I have found the staff there extremely sympathetic and understanding at all times.
However, although one can stretch the rules, there comes a point when one cannot stretch them any further. So often one has encountered instances in which the moral justice of a case has been absolutely overwhelming and yet there has been, in small type, a little regulation which cannot be surmounted.
I was particularly interested in the Ministers references to National Assistance and the horror which this often conjures up in the minds of would-be beneficiaries. I hope not only that we are saying goodbye to the National Assistance Board in name, but that the phrase "supplementary pension" or "supplementary benefit" will become current usage. Almost daily I have come across people who, whenever National Assistance is mentioned, say, although they have a first-class case, "I could not accept that. My pride would be hurt", and they are prepared to suffer in silence. We have had the statistics for the country as a whole. I do not know whether it is a fair question to ask the Minister, but I should be interested to know whether she has any comparable figures for Northern Ireland.
397 One thing which has not been said so far—and I am glad that the words "free benefits" and phrases like it had not been used in this debate—is that the social security benefits, no matter what form they take, are something for which we have contributed during our working lives. There is no question of gift involved. This is not the bounty of a charitable Government. They are something to which we are entitled as of right and for which we contributed during the years when we were able to put something aside by way of state insurance for the unfortunate days that might lie ahead. I know that some people may say, "What is in a name?", but there is not a shadow of a doubt in my mind that the name "National Assistance Board" jars in the mind of the overwhelming majority of people.
We have to accept that there are anomalies in all legislation. That is no disrespect to the draftsmen of this or, indeed, of previous social security legislation. Such legislation seems to be dogged by more anomalies almost than any other type of legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Melton (Miss Pike) referred particularly to two categories—the 50-year age entitlement for widows, and the non-pensioners. I will not discuss the second category, not because they are not important, but because there is nothing new that one can say about them. But the widows who are under 50 constitute a sad anomaly which must be thrown out of the window at the earliest possible moment because, not only is there a strong social case for doing so, but additionally the financial cost involved would not be great.
Some time ago the Minister gave me the number of people who would benefit if the age of entitlement were reduced from 50 to, say, 45. She said that the number of people involved was 60,000 and that the cost would be £10 million annually. To scrap it altogether would benefit 120,000 widows and cost £20 million. I think that I am right in saying that the revenue from a ld. on the Insurance stamp is about £10 million. Surely there is nobody throughout the length and breadth of the country who would begrudge 2d. on the stamp to get rid of this wicked and very unfair anomaly in our social security legislation.
398 It is bad enough for a woman to lose her husband, but to find substantial financial loss coupled with it is quite appalling and extremely cruel. In the Financial Memorandum to the Bill we see that the implementation of it will cost about £51 million. I hope that something can be done for those widows to whom I have referred.
I wonder whether anything can be done, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea (Mr. Worsley) said earlier this evening, about the calculations for a married couple. The argument that two can live as cheaply as one is utter nonsense. There are many old people who would truly welcome the companionship of marriage, but it is just not economically possible because of the drop of about 25 per cent. that there would be in their combined pensions, as compared with that of two single people when equated with that of married couple. Quite understandably, they are not prepared to consider this drop.
Can nothing be done to make the married rate twice that of the single rate, or, indeed, have just the single person as the basic unit and forget the one plus 50 per cent. which is now roughly the rate for a married couple?
I trust that I am right in assuming that the flexibility inherent in the measures outlined in the Bill marks the Government's thinking in all matters of social security and that there will be a greater flexibility than perhaps there has been hitherto.
§ 8.57 p.m.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Croydon, South)
I am in great difficulty because of the limitation of time. I cannot say much of what I wanted to say. I intended to refer to the wage side, on which I made an intervention when my right hon. Friend the Minister was speaking.
I should like to refer to an article in last Wednesday's Daily Mail, which did a great service to the nation in itemising the case of a woman living on National Assistance. This sort of article and other articles that occasionally appear in the Press bring home the tremendous amount of poverty and near-poverty that still exists. One of the myths that has been broken in the last few years is that Britain is an affluent welfare society with just a handful of people living in great 399 hardship. The truth is that nearly 7 million people are living in disgraceful and disgusting poverty.
Poverty such as that in which Mrs. Seller, the subject of the Daily Mail article, lives not only shames and humiliates those who have to endure it, but shames and humiliates their fellow citizens. That is why I believe that the Bill is a step in the right direction and why I welcome it, with other hon. Members who have spoken in the debate, certainly from this side of the House. I believe that this will be considered one of the historical landmarks in social welfare legislation.
Many hon. Members, certainly among my hon. Friends, have campaigned for a guaranteed income for many years. I agree with those people who consider that the figure outlined in the Bill is rather too low, but at the same time I believe that it establishes the principle of a guaranteed income for householders, married and single people, after their rent and rates have been paid. The Minister will have to accept that over a period of time there will be a great deal of pressure, certainly from this side of the House, for the figure to be increased.
We cannot accept, and there can be no justification for accepting, that the figures outlined for married couples and single people will become permanent and a maximum. It is the beginning, the minimum step, and I hope that the Minister will recognise this. I well recognise the economic circumstances and the reason why, to a certain extent, the figure is low, but it establishes a minimum income.
My final point concerns the wage stop. What I hope we in the House of Commons recognise is that the children who are involved in such families—and I believe that nearly 60,000 children are affected by the wage stop—are being discriminated against, not only because their standard of living is so low compared with that of other people in the community, but because they will find themselves being discriminated against and at a great disadvantage when they start school.
This is why I appeal to my right hon. Friend the Minister. She referred to the fact that a great deal of research and 400 surveys will be done to ascertain the hidden amount of poverty which still exists. But we know about these people who are already living in poverty, who are forced to accept less than the National Assistance minimum merely because, when they work, the husband receives a wage which is lower than National Assistance.
I hope, therefore, that it will not be long before we can abolish the wage stop. I do not believe that any Socialist can justify the continuation of the present practice of this kind of discrimination against people who earn a low income. I hope that it will be possible for the wage stop to be abolished within a very short period.
§ 9.2 p.m.
§ Mr. Maurice Macmillan (Farnham)
I thank the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Winnick) for his extreme punctiliousness in keeping to what must, in the circumstances, have been an agonising time limit. I hope that he will have ample time in Committee to develop the various points which he would have made tonight had time allowed.
My first task must be the very pleasant one of congratulating the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. William Price) on his maiden speech and to say hew the House must have appreciated, as I did, the generous tribute which the hon. Member paid to his opponent. The hon. Member referred to the fact that he was not sure that he knew the rules of this House. I was not certain whether he found a degree of confusion between the Rugby League and the Rugby Union, with the former of which I am the more familiar.
It seems that this debate is the occasion of quite a number of "firsts". I had better join them and put on record that this is the first time that I have spoken from the Dispatch Box on the Opposition side of the House.
Those who have welcomed the Bill as a great stride forward showed in their welcome a triumph of faith over reason The Bill is, I am glad to say, a small step forward, but with a considerable pace to one side. I agree that it will go some way to removing what has been regarded as the stigma of National Assistance, going back to the old Poor Law—and a very good thing, too.
401 I join my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Kenneth Lewis) and others who have paid tribute to the work of the officials of the National Assistance Board. Both sides have been claiming some degree of credit for the Bill. Perhaps I may contradict the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. McGuire). I do not agree, nor do I think that any hon. Member whose constituency is in the South of England will agree, that poverty is purely a working-class problem. I hope that we shall not fall into any danger of making false class distinctions, or, indeed, regional distinctions, because real poverty attacks various sorts of people in different parts of the country in different ways and they are all worthy of the help that the State and society can give.
The whole House has welcomed the Bill even if our welcome is on the basis of half a loaf being better than no bread. I do not regard it as fair to call the Bill window-dressing, because its contents go some way to solving a real problem—and there are some genuine goods in the shop. It is true that most of them seem to have been put there by the Tory manifesto. But, no matter. It is also true that, like Government are doing, it is a good idea so many of the other things that the which has been spoilt by being ill-thought out and perhaps rather hurriedly worked through. The measures are inadequate. Many hon. Members on both sides have said that, and the right hon. Lady hinted at it when she talked about practicability. She would have liked to do a great deal more.
If, all the time that the party opposite was in Opposition, it had been planning its schemes to achieve results rather than win votes, perhaps practicability would not have provided such a difficulty now. It was Burke who said:It is a general popular error to imagine the loudest complainers for the public to be the most anxious for its welfare.That must apply to many of the things which right hon. and hon. Members opposite have said and put in their election addresses in 1964 and 1966.
Out of a great mountain of vainglorious verbiage on these sorts of problems. we have the Bill, even though it is a rather poor, "cow'rin, tim'rous beastie."
One on the main points which have been uppermost in the propaganda of 402 the party opposite from time to time is propaganda against what it called the "personal test of means which is so repugnant in the present system of National Assistance." Yet the qualifications in the Bill are almost verbatim those of the 1948 Act. I agree with the Minister that the change of wording shows a very genuine change of emphasis and attitude, and I would certainly hope, with my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Pounder), that it would spread throughout the country and go some way to reassure those who, at the moment, are too proud to seek the assistance which they have earned.
Although it shows a change of attitude, there is no change of principle. The words in section 4 of the old 1948 Act and those in Clause 4 of the new Bill are almost the same. The words in Clause 5(1) of the Bill are actually lifted verbatim from section 5(1) of the 1948 Act. If, as the Minister has claimed, "this Measure is without any form of personal means test other than that accepted by every taxpayer in the land", so were the old provisions which the party opposite said were unacceptable in a free democratic society". My hon. Friend the Member for Melton (Miss Pike) said in the course of her opening speech that these were new words for old things. As I say, in many cases they are not even new words. It is not something about which we on this side should take the party opposite to task in that they are increasing at this stage the number of people to whom National Assistance in the old form and the supplementary pension and allowances in the new form are going to give help. At the end of March, 1964, there were something like 1,960,000 people receiving weekly payments. On 29th March, 1966, the figure was something over 2 million. It is not the Conservative Party which has regarded that as evidence of increasing poverty in the country. We regard it, rather, as evidence of an increasing social conscience. So I think that the country and the Government are right to spend £51 million, or £64 million later, on increasing the spread and increasing the impact of the new supplementary pension and supplementary allowances.
In some senses this is a problem which will never disappear, and in some ways 403 it is a problem which should not disappear, because, if our society is to prosper in other ways, then the rising prosperity of the country as a whole means that we make bigger demands on behalf of the lowest income groups and those who are doing less well in the structure of our society. Thus, if this Measure is designed to deal with what one might call the bottom level of our social structure from the point of view of income, I hope that the problem will be dealt with by increasing the provision of benefits, and by raising the standard of benefit rather than by taking the existence of people using this extra benefit necessarily as evidence of a spread of poverty.
This mean test, this test of need, which is embodied in the Bill, as it was in the old Act, seems to be a rather negative test, and a test of needs in money terms only. The proposals which we put forward in our manifesto, and which we have discussed from time to time since, are for a more positive test of needs, covering the needs particularly of old people, other than purely financial, important as those are. In saying that, I must admit that I think that the Bill does not go nearly far enough, but we on this side are perhaps a little reassured by the right hon. Lady's speech. We are by no means completely reassured, because I think we would all prefer to see these provisions written into the Bill—and I say this without any disrespect to the right hon. Lady, as I am sure she will accept—rather than contained in her speech.
It is not that I suspect that the right hon. Lady—or her Department, or the Government as a whole—lacks the intention, or even the will, to carry out the various ideas which she put forward in her speech. It is simply that as a matter of general principle, and perhaps of caution, on the same argument that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, a Clause in a Bill is worth two or three assurances in a Minister's speech. After all, when the Bill becomes an Act it will be on the Statute Book until it is amended or removed. The Minister will not be there for nearly as long as a Statute.
I said that I thought we need a positive test of needs, but I think that the special problems of the elderly, their financial problems, the problems of health, of providing extra facilities to enable them to 404 live in their own homes where possible, the problems of companionship and so on, all of which are extremely important, should be brought within the compass of this Measure if the old people, and indeed those who are chronically sick or disabled, are to be properly integrated into our society, and not merely set aside in a corner where they do not cause worry, and people feel that as they are properly cared for and looked after financially they can forget them. They have to be brought into our society as a whole.
This involves the local authority welfare services which were covered by Part III of the 1948 Act, as well as those parts covered by the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance and the old National Assistance Board. This is why we on this side of the House would have liked to have brought the Ministry of Health within the compass of the new Ministry of Social Security. This was the point developed by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea (Mr. Worsley).
Even if we accept the argument of the right hon. Lady that it was too difficult at this stage—and I do not accept it—she could surely have gone some way at least to bring within the Bill those local authority provisions, such as welfare services, which were included in Part III of the 1948 Act, even if she could not persuade her colleagues it was wise to integrate the Ministry of Health within a wider and more comprehensive Social Security Ministry. Perhaps the Minister who winds up the debate will let us have his thoughts on this subject.
Part of the reason why this is so clearly important is the necessity to seek out need and to undertake a certain degree of research into the changing patterns of need. An equally important function is the coordination of the efforts of the various welfare authorities in respect of the needs of the old and those with large families, besides those who are not particularly old and do not have large families but are just not competent and cannot seem to manage on their own, no matter what is done for them. These people must still be looked after, even if it can be said that it is their own fault that they are in a mess. This does not excuse society from trying to help them.
It is the co-ordination of these various problems and the question of the different standards which obtain in different parts 405 of the country that make the wider Measure that we would have preferred so important. It would also make the various anomalies easier to deal with and, not least, it would enable the speed of change to be coped with more successfully. Our society is in a very mobile state at the moment, and no matter what our views as to how to cope with this problem, we must all agree that it is not easy to make certain that the efforts of society to deal with these less fortunate members are concentrated always on those whose need is greatest—including people who today are poverty-stricken from origins and the way of life which would not have had that result before. It is not the one-class problem which it might have been some years ago.
There are many anomalies, some created by the 1964 Act, some by the 1948 Act, and others dating even further back. There was one which my hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea suggested might have continued out of sheer inertia, with precedent following precedent, namely, the differential between married and single rates in the assessment of requirements. I do not know whether my hon. Friend is right or wrong but I have found, in dealing with constituency problems connected with Income Tax, that tax allowances paid to married and single people respectively seemed to show too big a gap. The same situation may well exist here.
There are more anomalies, many of which have been dealt with by hon. and right hon. Gentlemen—the earnings rule, the problems created by raising the pension of the 10s. widow to 30s., the problem of the rigid application of the 50- years age limit for widows and the problem of the pensioned widow who has remarried for too short a time—that is to say, whose husband dies before the minimum three years required to enable her to regain her pension. There are also the problems concerned with maintenance.
The anomaly on which I wish to spend most time is that of the wages stop, coupled with the special problems of the low wage earner, particularly with an exceptionally large family. Despite all the strictures of hon. Gentlemen opposite when they were in Opposition about the heartlessness of the wages stop as applied by the wicked Tories, according to the 406 White Paper it is still carried on in the same way, embodying the current National Assistance practice. This has always been rather harsh and it is wrong that this opportunity to do something about the problem should have been let slip.
Surely the present system must inevitably lead to hardship, especially where there are large and in many cases incompetent families. A case was quoted in an open letter to the right hon. Lady in the Sunday Mirror. It was a rather confused article, but one which I am sure she read and understood clearly. It was about a family whose requirements——
§ Mr. Bob Brown (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West)
Surely when the hon. Gentleman speaks from the Opposition Front Bench about the anomalies and hardships created by the anomalies in the 1948 Act, he must realise that his party had 13 years in which to do the necessary researches. Surely this smacks of hypocrisy.
§ Mr. Macmillan
I was expecting someone to make this remark and it is not good enough. We are not now discussing the so-called failings of the Tory Party. We are discussing the failure of this Bill to deal with the problem. It is no good hon. Members opposite saying that they have not had enough time. That excuse has been made before. It is here; it is in the Bill. This is the opportunity. I am not blaming the Government for missing previous opportunities: I am blaming them for missing an opportunity in the Bill which they are presenting to us now as a major item of social reform.
The case quoted in the newspaper concerned a family whose requirements were £14 7s. 6d. If the earner of this family was a high wage earner, he would get the full amount of this requirement plus £2 10s. for his rent, but if he were not a high wage earner and his earnings were normally £12 10s., £12 10s. is what he would get. It cannot be right that he and his family should have £1 17s. 6d. too little, if the rent is paid out of National Assistance or £4 7s. 6d. too little if the rent is not so paid. All that one can suppose is that the party opposite agrees that such a case should be left to private charity, whose task is now of course made more difficult by the Selective Employment Tax.
407 I agree that this problem cannot be dealt with without dealing with the problem of the low wage earner. It is no excuse to say that it is too difficult at this stage, that reasons of practicality, to get something going, require a solution to the problem to be omitted from the Bill. The Government have had a long time to think this out. If hon. Gentlemen opposite blame the Tory Party for not acting, I would say that they have had all this time, when they have been blaming us, to construct some better plan.
There is no new idea about the low wage earner and nothing has been thought out—because, it must be said, previous ideas were concerned more with propaganda than with dealing with practical problems. I hope that the Minister without Portfolio will deal more effectively with this problem when he produces his long-term review. I do not believe that it is even known with any degree of accuracy how many such families there are, and I am glad that the Minister has undertaken to find out. If, as my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South said, the Bill is to be regarded as a precursor for wider action, I hope that the Minister will consider putting at least some form of mechanism into the Measure to deal with this problem.
I must agree with the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Moonman) who was suspicious of social research and thought that to get the results of research applied more effectively was the greater difficulty. I would prefer a separate organisation to the Commission and I do not believe, as my hon. Friend the Member for Peters-field (Miss Quennell) said, that this type of analysis and application can come effectively from an organisation which is charged with the day-to-day administration of these benefits.
There are a number of curious further anomalies, particularly in relation to the disregards and especially affecting the chronic sick and the disabled. I cannot understand why the opportunity was not taken—it being taken to remove the special place of tuberculosis, presumably because it is, fortunately, no longer such a problem—to see that other problem diseases such as multiple sclerosis and other disabling diseases did not justify 408 treatment exactly parallel to the treatment of the blind.
There are several anomalies concerning the capital disregards, although here I must unreservedly congratulate the Government on what they have done to encourage small savings and investment by removing the fixed upper limit; and here I cannot agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Kenneth Lewis) about this being an inadequate provision. I think that it should be extremely satisfactory indeed.
There is a case—which, perhaps, we may develop on another occasion—for seeing whether the needs and provisions affecting savings and so on should necessarily be the same for supplementary pensions as for supplementary allowances. Is there not a strong case for considering these problems, particularly concerning savings, in a slightly different way?
I hope that the Minister will give an assurance that paragraph 27 of Schedule II—which deals with a person who is deliberately spending his or her money to get higher benefits—does not apply to small savers who are spending their money to lead a more comfortable life and who will, as a result, later get a higher benefit. It would be unfortunate if the Bill hit these people.
In general, the Bill has been met with mixed feelings. We must, of course, welcome any Measure which makes a genuine improvement in the conditions of those whose conditions have the most room for improvement. It is encouraging to find that in social security matters, as in foreign policy, the Government are accepting so many of the ideas put forward by the Opposition. Perhaps the hopes of the right hon. Lady the Minister, that our productivity will rise to make the money benefits increased by the Bill increase in real terms as well, will be more than hopes if the Government follow the Opposition's ideas on economic affairs.
There is inevitably a sense of sadness at the opportunity which has been missed to give real extra help where it is needed, and a sense of foreboding in that here is another example of the timidity, lack of imagination and, in some ways, lack of understanding of modern problems in our society that characterises so much of the Government's present thinking. I hope that we 409 will have ample time in Committee to discuss and improve the Bill.
If I might intervene in what one might call a contest between two ladies, the Minister could do well with the guidance of my hon. Friend the Member for Melton, in addition to other suggestions from this side of the House. We might then be able to say at the end of the day with Shakespeare thatAll's well that ends well.And perhaps we on this side might even be able to misquote Helena from that play and say:What we can do, can do no hurt to try,Since you set up your rest 'gainst remedy:She that of greatest works is finisher,Oft does them by the weakest minister.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. Norman Pentland)
Although the debate on the Bill has been severely restricted, we have had a most interesting and constructive Second Reading debate. There have been many constructive and thoughtful speeches by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Strangely enough, the only niggling political speeches we have had today came from the Front Bench spokesmen opposite.
I took the opportunity of looking at the OFFICIAL REPORT of the debate in 1947, when the National Assistance Bill was introduced. Exactly the same thing happened then. We had very constructive, thoughtful speeches from both sides of the House by hon. Members on the back benches yet the Front Bench spokesmen of the Tory Party, in opposition at that time, were just as niggling and nagging and searching for political criticism as the Front Benchers opposite have been today. I am sorry to have to say that particularly with reference to the hon. Lady the Member for Melton (Miss Pike).
The hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Maurice Macmillan) quoted Shakespeare. I can give him another quotation. I forget who wrote it, but it is very relevant to the Tory Party:Our deeds still travel with us from afarAnd what we have been makes us what we are.We are exactly in the same position tonight, concerning the Front Benches as we were in 1947. However, I congratulate the hon. Member for Farnham on 410 making his maiden speech from the Opposition Dispatch Box. After listening to his speech tonight, I can assure him that for many years that stretch ahead of him he will continue speaking from that Box. I am quite sure of that.
It is in a better frame of mind that I sincerely congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. William Price) on a splendid maiden speech. He not only proved that he was aware of the historic features which apply to his constituency, but that he was fully aware, also, of the great problems facing the neediest section of our community. I congratulate him most sincerely on a forthright and thoughtful speech. We look forward to hearing him many times in our debates on social security.
I shall try to deal with as many points which have been raised this evening as I can, but no doubt there will be many more raised in Committee in the weeks ahead. I also pay tribute as other hon. Members have done to the way in which the National Assistance Board and its local officers have administered the National Assistance scheme over the past 18 years. I make it perfectly clear that the proposals embodied in the Bill to dissolve the Board and to replace the scheme by a new scheme of non-contributory benefits does not in any way cast any reflection on the sterling and devoted work which the Board has done over those years.
Nor do I overlook the sterling work that has been done by our own Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance officers in this field. They have at all times used tact and understanding when offering advice to members of the public on matters affecting National Assistance.
Despite all this, we all know that there is a substantial number of old people who, for one reason or another, have not claimed the help to which they were entitled from the Assistance Board. None of us can feel happy that this situation exists. Therefore, in the Government's view, the only way to overcome the problem is to recast the whole of our provision for those in financial need. That is the real object of the Bill.
Some concern has been expressed today that by retaining a separate body within the Ministry of Social Security to administer the new scheme there is a risk 411 that non-contributory benefits will in time prove no more acceptable than National Assistance is at present. This misconceives the position of the Supplementary Benefits Commission within the new framework. What our old people have disliked is having to apply for a benefit from a different department from that which runs the National Insurance scheme.
Many of them have felt that, while they were entitled to the pension, they were not entitled to the supplement from the Board. What we are doing in the Bill will change all that, because the Commission will operate within the Ministry of Social Security and all local offices will be Ministry of Social Security offices, just as all those working for the Commission will be Ministry of Social Security officers.
Moreover, the Bill makes it quite clear that any person whose financial circumstances warrant it has a right to claim supplementary pension or allowance and that there is to be no question of the Commission reducing the amount of any pension under any discretionary powers. This is quite a new concept. I do not think that the fact that the adjudication is done under the authority of the Commission rather than by a local insurance officer will make any difference one way or the other to the pensioner.
Before I proceed further I should perhaps say a few words about the relationship of these proposals to our public expenditure programme. The National Plan allocated a certain sum to provide real improvements, other than increases to make up for loss of value due to rising prices, in benefits and assistance up to 1970. That part of the cost of the present proposals which represents a real improvement in standards will be contained within the allocation in the Plan. We are convinced that the proposals now put before the House to improve the lot of the poorest of our people must have a prior claim on this allocation.
I turn now to another aspect which has brought disappointment to many hon. Members, namely, that the Bill does nothing about what is generally called the wage-stop provision. Concern has been expressed by a number of hon. Members on both sides. I emphasise that in social security this matter must be kept 412 in a proper perspective. The wage-stop in itself does not cause hardship. The wage-stop ensures only that a man is not better off out of work than he would be when at work. As my right hon. Friend said in her opening speech, this problem has been with us for years and years. In my view, the hardship is caused in the first place by the low earnings which the man is paid at work.
§ Miss Quennell rose——
§ Mr. Pentland
There is not much time. I must get on.
My right hon. Friend told the House that there are at present fewer than 15,000 people all told whose National Assistance grants are limited by the wage-stop provisions. We have to remember, also, that the number reaches this level because we increased National Insurance and National Assistance benefits by such a substantial amount last year. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Of course. Obviously, the higher these rates become in relation to the lower ranges of earnings the more people are liable to be wage-stopped when they become unemployed. That is one of the facts of life.
There is another aspect to the problem. It has been rightly said that the fact that there has to be a wage-stop at all shows that some people in regular work have earnings which fall below National Assistance levels now and will fall below the levels of the new non-contributory benefit in the future. Disappointment has been expressed that the Bill does nothing to help these people, particularly the lower-paid earners with large families, who will continue to have an income barely sufficient to meet their needs. We have been asked—may I have the attention of the hon. Member for Farnham, who asked the specific question—why nothing is being done for the lower-paid workers' families in the Bill.
I assure the House, as my right hon. Friend did, that this is certainly not because the Government have failed to recognise that there is a major social problem here. But, in the Government's view, action must be based on facts, not on hypotheses. As the hon. Lady the Member for Petersfield (Miss Quennell) said, not sufficient facts are yet known. We ourselves have found that we do not know enough about the circumstances of these unfortunate people.
413 Incidentally, it is most remarkable, now that the Opposition tell us that they regard this as one of the most urgent social needs the country faces, that they did nothing whatever to establish the facts during the long years when they held power. Nothing was done. Nothing was done, by the time we came into the Ministry, to ascertain the true facts of the situation. [Laughter.] The hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Blaker) need not laugh. He was not even n the House when the Opposition were in power. I understand that he was in the Foreign Office, so he knows nothing about this. I am giving the facts of life.
It is astonishing how the social conscience has been stirred among Conservatives now that they are in opposition. Yet they try to tell us that we are doing nothing to overcome the problem.
§ Mr. Maurice Macmillan rose——
§ Mr. Pentland
I allowed the hon. Gentleman to continue and did not interrupt his speech. I have quite a lot to say, and I intend to say it.
We regard this problem as one which cannot and should not be shelved. We are doing something about getting the information on which to frame our policy. As my right hon. Friend explained, we are arranging a countrywide survey of the circumstances of 2,750 families with two or more children. When the results of the survey are available, we shall be in a position to take action, just as we have taken action to reconstruct the non-contributory benefits scheme in the light of what we learnt from the retirement pensioners' survey.
Some doubt has also been expressed as to whether or not the Commission will have the same flexible, discretionary powers as the National Assistance Board to meet the special needs of individual claims. There is no need for concern on that score. Through the long-term additions for all pensioners and other longterm provisions we are avoiding the need for detailed inquiries into small items of expenditure.
As the House knows, the Assistance Board has to make these inquiries at present so as to ensure that nothing has being overlooked. The serious way in which the Board takes its responsibilities can be seen from the fact that over 70 per 414 cent. of our old people now have such additions, but most of them, as my right hon. Friend said, are for little items of day-to-day expenditure—having the windows cleaned, sending out the laundry, the cost of extra coal in winter, and so on.
We think that this can be far better dealt with by increasing the income to a level at which we can be confident that there is sufficient margin to allow for such expenses. We all know that no one likes to take his laundry book along in order to obtain 1s. 6d. or 2s. 6d. from the Assistance Board. It is this kind of inquiry that the long-term addition of 9s. a week will do away with.
Nevertheless, I want to make it clear that the Commission will still have ample powers to make additional allowances where there is some really large item of extra expenditure—for instance, heavy laundry bills where a person is incontinent or the extra cost of an expensive diet. The Commission, like the Board now, will be able to make lump-sum grants for such items as bedding and clothing as required.
§ Miss Pike
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that no one will be worse off? Where there is heavy, exceptional expenditure the average is now 10s. a week. In such cases the new provision may be marginal only, but is it a fact that no one will be worse off?
§ Mr. Pentland
I assure the hon. Lady that no one under this scheme will be worse off—no one at all.
The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) asked specific questions about individual rates. I ask the House to consider how far we have moved in the last 18 months, because the impression they gave was that there was not a sufficient increase in the rates now being brought forward, for many of the families we are concerned about in the Bill.
When we came to office in October, 1964, the basic assistance rate for a person living alone was £3 3s. 6d., plus rent. In March, 1965, with the biggest increase ever both in absolute and in real terms, we put the rate up to £3 16s.
Now, little more than a year later, we are proposing to provide a guaranteed income for the elderly, and those who 415 are in need of long-term supplementation, of £4 10s. a week, plus rent. On any count it must be regarded as a major step forward in the standard provided to have moved in two years from £3 3s. 6d. a week, plus some small discretionary allowance, to £4 10s. a week as of right for every old person who is living alone.
There were some questions about the disregards themselves. What we have done is to look again at the whole structure of the disregards and to recast them into what is a more logical and equitable pattern—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Farnham and the hon. Lady the Member for Melton asked some specific questions. I do not know whether I have annoyed them, but if they want to hear the answers to their questions I hope that I can have their attention while I deal with this matter.
I was saying that what we have done is to look again at the whole of the structure of the disregards and to recast them into what is a more logical and equitable pattern. The only indication which the Tory Party gave in its manifesto, with its 131 points of action, was that it would raise the amount of capital which a person could have and still be entitled to assistance.
We have adopted a more radical approach. First, we are removing altogether the fixed upper limit of £600 as the amount of capital which a person can hold. This means, for example, that an elderly non-pensioner living only on his savings and paying 30s. a week rent will be entitled to a supplementary pension unless his savings amount to £2,000 or more, while a married couple in the same position will now be able to have as much as £2,500. These are the people for whom the Tory Party is expressing such concern and about whom hon. Members opposite expressed such concern in the past, but for whom, it must be remembered, they did nothing at all.
Secondly, we are allowing the income taken from capital to rank for inclusion in the disregard of 20s. a week of other income. The effect of this is that any pensioner who has nothing but his retirement pension and some savings will have savings up to £800 totally ignored, no matter how he has chosen to invest them. Thirdly, we have abolished the special war savings provision which gave pre- 416 ferential treatment to money invested in certain Government securities—a perfectly valid concession when it was introduced during the war years, but now quite irrelevant and often the cause of confusion.
At the same time, the income disregards are being revised to make them both more logical and simpler to understand. In particular, as well as raising the disregard on disability pensions from 30s. to 40s., we have introduced a new overall disregard—a personal allowance if you like—of 20s. of the total of income from any source whatever—annuity, occupational pension, charitable payment, trust income and so on.
Time does not permit me to deal with every issue and there are no doubt many which I have overlooked, not deliberately. I know that they will be raised again in Committee.
With the bringing together of the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance and the National Assistance Board to make the Ministry of Social Security it will be possible to ensure that social security policy is looked at as a whole and the distinction in the administration of contributory and non-contributory benefits will begin to taper off. In the noncontributory benefit scheme we have devised a means-related benefit of a different order to National Assistance.
When it was introduced in 1947 the National Assistance scheme represented a great advance on what had gone before. When he was moving the Second Reading of the National Assistance Bill, in November, 1947, our late colleague, Aneurin Bevan, said that the occasion marked the end of a whole period of the social history of Great Britain. So it did. That was nearly 20 years ago and the task we are now engaged in with our review of social security is the adapting and recasting of provisions both for the emergencies of life and for those who are permanently out of the employment field.
With the scheme for earnings-related supplements to unemployment, sickness benefit, and widow's allowance we most certainly wrote the first chapter in the new era of social security. The Bill now before the House is the second chapter of that story. We have aimed at eliminating those features which have caused people, particularly our old folk, to be reluctant to accept the provision which the country 417 wants them to have, and knows they are entitled to have. Throughout the Bill the emphasis is placed under the claimant's right to benefit and in place of what has been to a great extent a discretionary system we shall have a benefit, to which there is a clear entitlement.
I said a moment ago that the Bill represented the second chapter in the new era of social security. We recognise that there is much to be done in this highly sensitive and human sphere of social security. It is with a sense of real pride that tonight I have the opportunity of recommending the acceptance of this Bill to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Harper.]
§ Committee Tomorrow.