HC Deb 07 July 1967 vol 749 cc2243-55

The Minister shall make regulations in order to provide for the payment of a pension under the National Insurance Acts to any person who was over pensionable age on 5th July, 1948, and these regulations shall specify the amount of such pensions and make any other consequential amendments to the National Insurance Acts which are necessary for this purpose.—[Mr. Neave.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Airey Neave (Abingdon)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

It is, perhaps, only fair to the Committee that I should speak briefly. The principle of the Clause is that the Minister should have power to prescribe a pension where no contributions have been made. This was the point in the original Private Member's Bill that I tried to introduce some time ago, and in other Private Members' Bills which have been knocked on the head by the present Government by constitutional and, in one case, by unconstitutional means. That being the case, I want to refer to the anomaly involved.

I realise that this is not the only anomaly about which we have been talking, but in this case we have the fairly shocking case of 185,000 old people of an average age of 85 who have no retirement pension, being excluded from the whole scheme because they were above the pensionable age on 5th January, 1948. As anomalies go, one would have thought that remedying this one would have been given a very considerable amount of priority. A lot of the old people who write to me are now nearly 90 years of age, and for the House, the Government and both parties to have to confess that they have done nothing to deal with this state of affairs is thoroughly grave and unsatisfactory.

In answering me on many occasions—and I fancy that this will not be the last occasion on which I shall raise the matter—the right hon. Lady has drawn attention to the contributory principle, which we have already discussed. It would not now be in order for me to go wider than to say it is not much good talking about the contributory principle, particularly when these people are victims, as the right hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) would say, of National Insurance mythology. It is not much good talking about the contributory principle when the people concerned have never been allowed by law to contribute. The National Insurance Act, 1946, prevented them from contributing because they were out of age. It is unrealistic to go on arguing that people who have never been allowed to contribute should be excluded from benefit on the ground that contribution is an essential basis of National Insurance, and the suggestion that in some way we are cheating the contributor is not now widely accepted.

There is a growing interest in this problem of non-pensioners. While there have been references to the attitudes of both Front Benches, and particularly the attitude of my Front Bench in 13 years, it is rather a shame that the Front Bench attitude of the Labour Party should still be the same. I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to give some good reasons why this anomaly cannot be dealt with in view of the great age of these old people. Will he also say whether it is the subject of the review which has been discussed, because there is not very much in the point about the contributory principle?

We have agreed today that the whole actuarial position has changed since 1948 and that the amount which anyone receives on an actuarial basis is now very low, and if the State is subsidising the Fund why are not these non-pensioners entitled to the subsidy as a matter of justice? This must be an exceptional case. No rules apply to it and it must be a matter of humanity and an act of justice by the Government.

The original proposal was never for a full flat rate pension. The original proposal made it clear that the Minister should be given power—and she will have that power under this Clause—to pay a reduced pension. One suggestion was that it should be part of the pension not covered by contributions, but after all these years it should be a pension as of right and it should be the full pension. The Clause would give the Minister power to devise a pension which covered the fact that these people had not contributed.

3.0 p.m.

The climate of opinion is changing and there is an aspect of the matter which ought to persuade the Government to consider this issue again and to do justice in this exceptional case, having regard to the passage of time and inflation and so on. This is the right hon. Lady's defence of her inaction in the matter—that because she is bringing more people on to the supplementary benefits, based on a means test, the claim of pension as of right in these cases is answered. But It cannot be answered by the argument that more people are on supplementary benefits because the right hon. Lady's Department does not know how many non-pensioners are covered by supplementary benefits. I asked a Question about this only the other day and the Ministry did not know the answer. The right hon. Lady said: The effect of the generous disregards in supplementary benefits and the different treatment of capital has made it possible for anyone who is really in need, with quite a large sum of capital, to have help. We have done everything possible to help them by the supplementary benefits scheme."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd July, 1967: Vol. 749, c. 1384.] I am sure that she does not want people to go on to 90 and then die off before she does anything about this problem. I am sure that she wants to devise some scheme which meets their needs. Giving me a factual answer to say that there are 400,000 more people on supplementary benefits does not meet the point of the argument and the right hon. Lady lays herself open to the charge of not dealing with the problem. The claim is for a pension as of right.

I do not know whether it is regarded as a fair argument—I do not think that it is—but the right hon. Lady said that some of these people were well off. Some people who have contributed and who receive the retirement pension because they were permitted to contribute are well off, and that is not a fair argument in this case. I hope that the right hon. Lady will get to the heart of the problem and deal with it as a matter of justice.

Some of the letters which I receive are pathetic. Old people feel a sense of inferiority when they have no pension and yet live in blocks of flats or houses where others have pensions. Many members of the public are amazed to find that there are still 185,000 people without a retirement pension and yet of more than pensionable age.

Since there is no intention to press this new Clause, I will not make the matter any more unpleasant than it is. Many of these people have died since I first raised this matter, two and a half years ago, with a Conservative Government. Things cannot be allowed to continue as they are. If this matter is the subject of a review will the hon. Gentleman tell us what plans are likely to come forth as a result? In this case, unlike some of the other cases which, although serious enough, do not involve very great age, the old people cannot wait.

If this matter is the subject of a review action ought to be taken very soon indeed. If the new Clause was put into the Bill, the Minister would have the power to deal with this matter. I hope that we shall have a reply which will give encouragement to a very large number of old people who are completely left out of our welfare State scheme.

Mr. Pentland

I want to crave the indulgence of my hon. and right hon. Friends and hon. Members opposite who are sympathetic to the approach of the hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) on this. I am more or less compelled to enter the debate at this stage. As the hon. Gentleman has said, we have debated this problem, upon which he has concentrated for so long, on three previous occasions, and I understand that it was brought up in another place some time ago. This is, therefore, the fifth time that it has been debated, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member's sincerity in bringing up this subject, and for his persistence in continually using every opportunity to do so. We know that this is a matter which is dear to his heart.

The hon. Member's intention is to provide pensions for those without retirement pensions, because they were too old to become insured under the National Insur- ance scheme when it began in July, 1948. The wording of the Amendment is not restricted to those non-pensioners to whom he has been referring, but covers all people over pensionable age on 5th July, 1948. It is therefore defective because it covers all those entitled to pensions in July, 1948 who have been drawing their pension since that time.

There are 175,000 people without pensions, excluded from the scheme in 1948. The position of these people should not be considered in isolation. There are other groups with no retirement pension or a reduced pension. These include those who reached pensionable age after July, 1948 and who did not become insured, for one reason or another, and those who reached pensionable age after July, 1948 with less than a full record of contributions, resulting either in no pension or a reduced pension. All of these cases would need to be considered.

It is flying in the face of facts to say that the Government have neglected those whose age prevented them from being covered by the National Insurance scheme. Quite a few non-pensioners of all groups have already benefited by the new scheme of supplementary pensions, introduced last November. Whatever the hon. Member for Abingdon may think, this scheme gives elderly people a clear and virtually unqualified entitlement to a supplementary pension if their resources are below the guaranteed income level.

Under the Supplementary Benefits Scheme, the fixed limit of £600 which applied to savings under the National Assistance provisions during the time that the Conservative Party was in power has been abolished and it is now possible for a man to have savings of a little over £2,000 and still get a modest supplementary pension provided that he has no other income.

Mr. Higgins

Could the hon. Gentleman tell us what percentage of non-pensioners have benefited from the scheme which he mentioned a moment or two ago?

Mr. Pentland

As my right hon. Friend told the hon. Gentleman at Question Time recently, since the scheme was introduced 400,000 more old people have received supplementary pensions. It is impossible to categorise, but 400,000 people—many of them being those about whom the hon. Members for Abingdon and Worthing (Mr. Higgins) are so concerned—will be receiving this supplementary benefit.

For all groups—non-pensioners included—the supplementary pension is the most appropriate instrument for flexible selectivity in providing financial help. The supplementary pension can always take full account of the varying burden of rent.

Mr. Pardoe

Means test.

Mr. Pentland

It is a test of income. If the hon. Gentleman wants to talk in those terms, he and I would disagree about the definition of "means test". I have sad recollections of means tests. In this context we are talking about a test of income in which people have a reasonable income and can still qualify for supplementary benefit. That is entirely different from the conception of "means test" as I have always understood that phrase.

The Amendment would provide a pension indiscriminately for all people in the group covered, irrespective of whether they needed a pension. In the Government's view, it would be unreasonable to use such a very blunt inflexible means of providing pensions when the Supplementary Benefits Commission scheme is already in existence and is doing very satisfactory work.

Mr. Neave

The hon. Gentleman is not really suggesting, is he, that the supplementary benefit based on a means test is a substitute for a retirement pension as of right?

Mr. Pentland

We have argued about this matter time and again. I know how the hon. Gentleman feels about it. Perhaps I am exaggerating, but if we were to do what has been suggested a widow whose husband left her £2 million would be entitled to a pension from the Government, even though she might be 75 or 85, simply because she or her husband had never had the opportunity to contribute to a contributory pension.

Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)

But a widow fortunate enough to have been left £2 million by her husband is entitled to a pension if she is only 60.

Mr. Pentland

Yes, because her husband contributed to the contributory scheme. The people about whom the hon. Member for Abingdon is concerned—I do not blame him for this, and I have already accepted his sincerity in the matter—are those who did not pay the contribution when they had the opportunity to do so—and of course some of them could not pay the contribution at that time. For the many people who are in need we have the Supplementary Benefits scheme. I therefore hope that the Committee will reject this new Clause.

3.15 p.m.

Mr. Higgins

I think the intervention of the Parliamentary Secretary was as inadequate as it seemed premature. He intervened at a very early stage in this debate.

On 25th November, 1964, I was glad to set out in my maiden speech the case for giving pensions to old-age non-pensioners who were left out of the National Insurance Scheme when it was introduced. On that occasion I said: It is a fact that if one tells any member of the electorate that there are people in this country who are over 80 and who get no National Insurance pension, one will not be believed."—[OFFCIAL REPORT, 25th Nov., 1964; Vol. 702, c. 1344.] A great deal has happened since that date. A number of Measures have been introduced, as pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave). The Government have resorted to various practices to prevent any progress being made on this matter, especially in the sordid filibuster in which they engaged when my hon. Friend endeavoured to introduce his Bill.

I stress that I do not believe this is in any way a partisan matter. Governments ever since 1948 have been mistaken in not including this group in the National Insurance Scheme. I do not speak in a partisan sense, but it needs stressing strongly. The situation is largely the same as that of two school children in an examination. If both get the right answer to a question the assumption is that they probably worked it out themselves, but if both get the wrong answer it is likely that someone is cribbing. The Government have come forward with completely spurious arguments. One cannot help but feel that this must have been due to the persistence of bad advice which the Government have received.

It is high time that we had a serious answer to the whole analysis of the problem. I should stress at the outset that it does not seem that arguing for a flat rate pension for this particular group is in any way inconsistent with a view which is gaining wide acceptance both in this House and outside that our pensions and Social Security schemes generally should become more discriminatory and should apply to those in need. However strongly one supports that view, we still feel that a basic National Insurance pension should be provided. There is an equally strong case for giving a basic pension to this group, whatever one feels about the long run trend of social policy.

For this reason the argument of the Parliamentary Secretary was weak. He was arguing that the supplementary benefits scheme should enable more people to be helped. That is true, but it is untrue to say that the scheme helps all in this group of people, yet they are all entitled to a basic pension. If his argument had any validity, he should put forward exactly the same argument for National Insurance pensioners and therefore scrap the scheme. Unless he is prepared to advocate this method, there is no foundation for the argument which he had the audacity to put forward in the Committee this afternoon.

I turn to a Question which I asked the Prime Minister on 29th June. This is very relevant to the point which the hon. Gentleman made about the fact that we have had a number of previous debates on the subject of old-age non-pensioners. I asked the Prime Minister: whether the public speech by the Chancellor of the Exchequer at Leicester on economic prospects on Saturday, 3rd June, represents Government policy. The Prime Minister answered, "Yes, Sir." I then intervened and asked: Is the Prime Minister aware that the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that, during the next 12 months, there will be a gentle but progressive improvement in the standard of living of every family? Can the Prime Minister tell us how this is to occur in the case of old-age non-pensioners who are not in receipt of the National Insurance pension and are excluded from having the Social Security supplementary benefits? The Prime Minister replied with an answer which I can only describe as evasive. He said: My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer was referring to the impact on all families of the growth rate he was discussing in his speech. There will be opportunity to debate the position of all old people, whether covered by pension or not, on the new Bill to increase the pensions…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th June, 1967; Vol. 749, c. 743.] The point surely is that we must consider this question today in the light of the statement which was made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his speech, and which the Government now assure us is Government policy, namely, that over the next few months there will be a steady rise in the standard of living of everyone in this country. The fact of the matter is that this will not apply to many, if not all, of the people who are covered by this new Clause. It is for that reason that I believe the Government ought to accept it. I believe that if the Chancellor of the Exchequer gives a categorical assurance of this kind, and if the Prime Minister assures us that it is Government policy, they ought to take action which will enable it to be carried into effect. If they do not, we must judge them accordingly. I hope, therefore, that we shall have a further intervention from the Government, telling us that, if they do not accept this new Clause, how it is that the old-age non-pensioners are to share in the rising standard of living which has been promised to them by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and by the Prime Minister. The fact of the matter is that this group of people have been very unfairly treated indeed.

I do hope that we shall not have the hon. Gentleman constantly pointing to the clock. He may remember that on a previous occasion we on this side, who are concerned with the old-age pensioners, were worried about the clock, and I hope there will not be too much preoccupation with time on this occasion.

The point I am making is that, quite clearly, the Government's only defence on this particular matter is that they are relying on what they call the contribution principle—that because certain people have been fortunate in being allowed to contribute a certain amount, then they are entitled to a flat-rate basic pension and to such other increases in that pension as the Government give them out of general taxation or out of the contributions made by those who have in fact not yet retired. I believe very strongly that this is a completely false principle, first of all because people in this group, the old-age non-pensioners, were not allowed to contribute to the National Insurance Scheme, and secondly, as has already been pointed out, because there is no clear and well-defined link which would allow one to call the contributory principle a principle. The fact is that the system is no longer based on any actuarial principle whatever, and the basic National Insurance pension is not coming from actual contributions: it is coming both from contributions, and from contributions of those who have not yet retired, and from general taxation.

To the extent that the National Insurance pension is not covered by the contributions, these people in this group whom we are seeking to cover by this new Clause are as entitled to any increase as is the basic National Insurance pensioner. Of course it is true, as the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, that the increase in supplementary benefits will help some of these people. We do not deny that, but we do say this is no substitute for a pension as of right, because people who are receiving the pension as of right also get National Insurance supplementary benefits if they meet the necessary qualifications. Therefore, it is essential that the non-pensioners, like the pensioners, should have a basic pension and an entitlement to supplementary benefit if they qualify.

We have never suggested that the pension for the old-age non-pensioner should be the same as that given to the contributory pensioner. We are saying it should be lessened by an amount which is covered by contributions of the National Insurance pensioner.

At all events, it is also true, as I well know from interview nights, and so on, that a number of people in this very elderly group—the average age is over 85—do not come along to apply for supplementary benefits. I am sure that many hon. Members seek to get people in this group who come along to them to apply for supplementary benefit. But it is not easy. We can be far from sure that we are reaching them all, and the hon. Gentleman has no information on how many are covered by the supplementary benefit, as was clear from the answer which he gave.

I hope that the Minister will tell us what percentage of the total of old-age non-pensioners has been covered by the increase on which she sets so much store and which she put forward as an argument for not accepting this new Clause. There are some people who are just above the social security supplementary benefit level, but their real income has declined steadily since the war, and this is contrary to what the Chancellor of the Exchequer said in his speech. It is true even of those who are in the very wealthy group of old-age non-pensioners, because they are just as entitled as wealthy people amongst the basic pensioners who get their basic pension as of right rather than being subject to a means test. It is clear that this is something which needs urgent attention.

Since my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon put forward his Bill, I understand that something like 75,000 old-age non-pensioners have died. It is a diminishing group. It is a group who feel very unjustly treated. It is a group who, even at this late stage, the Government ought to help by removing the sense of injustice which they feel and giving them a basic pension as of right.

For all those reasons, I have great pleasure in supporting my hon. Friend's new Clause.

Miss Pike

I do not intend to detain the Committee for more than a half-minute. We have heard the arguments very well put by hon. Members on this side of the Committee, and I would say again to the Government, please look at this again. Do not regard it as a partisan matter. When we were in office, I took the same position as the hon. Gentleman has now. I ask him to throw away his brief. We have had the courage to say that we were wrong and should have accepted these arguments. They are powerful arguments which should be accepted. Even at this late stage, I hope that the Government will say that they will look into the position and answer the arguments not with the old brief which we have heard so many times before but bearing in mind the social justice which these people require.

Mr. W. H. Loveys (Chichester)

I was hoping that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary would reply to my hon. Friend's request to give us some assurance that something will be done for these people. If only we had been given a little hope, I should have been prepared to tear up my notes, and I should have driven home tonight a lot happier than I shall having heard his adamant refusal to give us any assurance of help for this section of the community.

I know a large number of people in this category who are suffering at the moment. During Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Melton (Miss Pike) referred to many of the anomalies, inequalities and social problems which are bound to be increased by any Bill which deals basically with an overall increase in the flat rate national retirement pension.

No one opposes the basic increase, but the most outstanding social injustice which will be increased is the position of the elderly retired non-pensioner who was over pensionable age on 5th July, 1948, and who is once again left out in the cold.

3.30 p.m.

A great deal has been said today about the need for human dignity for the individual and the need for a decent pension as of right. I should have thought that no one needed it more than the elderly people who get no pension at all. It was most distressing that, during Second Reading of the Bill, neither the Minister nor the Joint Parliamentary Secretary mentioned these people. It was left mainly to my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave), whose interest in the matter is so well known, to deal with the non-pensioners. It was his Bill which was treated so disgracefully by the Government in 1965. When it was talked out the Minister said that there was no need to help these people because a special review was to be undertaken to see what action could be taken to help them. Since then there have been certain disregards, as the hon. Gentleman said just now, in respect of supplementary benefits, and different treatment of capital possessions, but all this is merely an increase in National Assistance, or what is now rightly called supplement to a pension, although it cannot be that for these people because they do not receive a pension.

I was glad that the Conservative Party gave a definite pledge about this at the last election, and I would like to see it renewed from the Front Bench today if possible. I am not sure that it is really necessary to renew it, but, nevertheless, I hope that it will be, so that the country knows our position. It is all very well for the Government to say that a pension is not possible because he scheme is on a contributory basis. We know that the Supplementary Benefits scheme is subsidised by the State, and therefore is to some extent subsidised by the very people who receive no pension. One would have thought that the least that could be done for these people was that the amount of the scheme which was not covered by contributions could be given to them in the form of pensions.

That is all that will say. I know that time is getting short, and I promised to be brief. Many of my hon. Friends have dealt with the matter, and if we do not get any joy today it will have to be brought up again. Next Tuesday being a Supply Day, when we are to debate the problems of the elderly, there may be an opportunity to discuss this further. I know that the Minister is genuinely sympathetic to the older pensioners. I cannot understand why she seems to have allowed herself to be overruled by her Department in respect of these very elderly members of the community who have lived for so long and served the country well in difficult times. They have suffered more than anyone else from inflation over the years. They rightly feel aggrieved and, wrongly suffer hardship by the fact that they have no retirement pension.

Mr. Neave

As my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine) wants to move to the next new Clause, I simply say that in view of the thoroughly unsatisfactory nature of the Government's reply we shall return to the charge very soon, and I have no intention of withdrawing the Clause.

Question put and negatived.