HC Deb 05 March 1971 vol 812 cc2087-184

11.6 a.m.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

I beg to move, That this House, noting the long-term growth of poverty in Great Britain, deplores the fact that the Government's economic and social policies will accelerate the spread of poverty in this country; repudiates the further proliferation of means tests which will exacerbate social divisions; and calls upon the Government to demonstrate action, not words, in its pursuit of One Nation. The poor, we have been informed on the highest authority, will always be with us. What is less of a revealed fact, but tragically true, is that the number of persons living below the State poverty line, already huge, so far from diminishing under the lure of affluence is growing fast before our eyes and that Government policies, far from reversing this trend, inevitably must cause poverty on a major scale. Indeed, there are clear signs that a permanent under-class is being created in Britain and that the avenues of escape from hard-core poverty, so far from widening, are in fact contracting.

It is one of the most deep-seated mythologies of modern times that all we need is growth and that then poverty will wither away, like Jack Frost dancing in the sunshine. It is sad that this comforting dream is complete illusion. I have reworked the figures calculated by Professors Townsend and Abel-Smith in their book "The Poor and the Poorest" and related them to further data derived from two official reports, "Circumstances of Families" and "Circumstances of Retirement Pensioners". The picture that emerges is one of profound secular upturn in the numbers living below the State poverty line throughout the last two decades in each of the main categories of social need.

In 1953 there were half a million retirement pensioners living below this line, together with 130,000 persons in families similarly deprived where breadwinners were unemployed or sick, and 170,000 where the breadwinner was in full-time work but earning less than his family's entitlement to National Assistance scale rate plus rent. By 1960 each of these totals had risen to some 600,000 retirement pensioners, 380,000 in households where the head was unemployed or sick, and 300,000 where he was a low wage earner. By 1966 the number below the State poverty line had grown again and now appeared to total some 400,000 elderly persons, together with 550,000 where the breadwinner was unemployed or sick, and 900,000 where he was earning a low wage. Thus, between 1953 and 1966 the number of people in Britain living below the line beneath which nobody was supposed to fall had more than doubled and must now today embrace more than 2 million people—one in every five of the population.

More dramatically still, within this total it is the wage earners subject to a full week's work, but nevertheless unable to command even a poverty line wage, who have increased fastest of all. The numbers in their families, on the available evidence, appear to have grown to the staggering degree of almost 10 times over the last two decades.

But it is not only those who are living below the State poverty line—where, I repeat, no one is supposed to be living—who are relevant here. Those living on the line—that is, those claiming National Assistance or supplementary benefits, or if not claiming or not eligible to claim, no better off—are also relevant and must be taken into account because they are equally afflicted with all the pains of poverty. If they are added, as they must be, then the total army of the poor can be seen from existing information to have risen from about 4 million in 1953 to about 7½ million in 1960.

In view of the evidence which I have given about the continued growth of poverty throughout the last decade, one can only reasonably assume that this overall total may well now exceed 10 million persons. That is one person in every five of the population living on or below the State poverty line. So drastic and disquieting is this conclusion that no doubt many will feel tempted, or impelled, to seek refuge in some other explanation and not to accept these grim facts.

In case it might be argued that my figures are artificially inflated by the regular upgrading—I see the Parliamentary Secretary nodding here—of, first, National Assistance, and then of the supplementary benefit scale rates, man cannot live by the nineteenth century alone. The poverty line is clearly a standard which moves upwards through time, for it is a comparison with the standards not of one's forefathers that concerns us but those of our neighbours here and now.

I call in support for the words of Adam Smith, who is not usually remembered for his Socialist propensities, who felt nevertheless moved to say this: By 'necessaries' I understand not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without. On this basis the regular upgrading of the supplementary benefit level can be seen as no less and no more than an attempt, however crude, to keep abreast of rising community standards, and its use in this context cannot therefore be reasonably refuted. If, then, the supplementary benefit line is acknowledged to provide a not unsatisfactory moving index, as the State-accepted poverty line, it must be squarely faced that within this country, and perhaps within most or all advanced industrialised societies of the West, there are profound and deep-rooted forces polarising yet further the inequalities inherent within capitalist systems.

These deepening gulfs between the "haves" and the "have-nots" have been carved into the structure of our society, not only because men have been heedless of the consequences of undirected or unbalanced national growth, but at least sometimes despite their anguished concern. It is only by recognising the fullscale and gravity of the problem, only by understanding that any talk of mere pockets of poverty, is misleading as it is irrelevant, only by appreciating that economic growth, so far from solving a problem, can make it worse—only then will a wide-ranging set of policies be seen to be necessary to heal this scar in our society. Only then will the political will to see through the consequences be finally grasped.

At least two basic reasons stand out for the huge enlargement of the reservoirs of poverty. One is the long-term disproportionate increase in the numbers of those unavoidably dependent on State benefits, the elderly, the chronically sick and disabled, and probably also fatherless families—although we have less information about them. At present none of these groups receives benefits as of right pitched above the State poverty line, and consequently fundamental demographic changes reflecting the above average expansion of these dependent groups must inevitably swell the statistics of poverty.

A much more alarming array of causes, however, surrounds the precipitate increase in the number of low paid workers in full-time employment though earning less than their family's entitlement to supplementary benefits. It has been amply demonstrated by the two Incomes Data Services reports at the end of last year that the total of those workers was rising fast—it still is—not only because they obtained smaller wage awards than higher paid workers but because the time span between wage increases was very much greater for the lower paid workers.

It has meant, for example, that workers in laundering, narrow fabric, the fur trade, retail newsagency, baking, bespoke tailoring, licensed establishments, unlicensed places of refreshment, and industrial and staff canteens received in 1970, each of those, an average annual gross increase of a mere 4 per cent., during a period when prices were rising at about 8 per cent. Taken in conjunction with the fact that very many lowpaid workers have been moving up into the standard tax range, because inflation has been forcing up the money value of their wages, this means that several hundreds of thousands of workers at present are actually suffering a cut in their standard of living amounting to one-twentieth or even more of their normal livelihood.

They are caught, if I may use the phrase, in a classic in-built double scissors movement. Wage increases both reduce their qualification for benefits and enlarge their tax liabilities, while, if their wages are held back, sharp price increases undermine the value of any means-tested assistance that may be given. If, on the other hand, they strive for wage increases at a level to carry them clear of the restrictions imposed by tax increases, loss of benefits and price erosion, they suffer the full weight of the Government's disapproval for their inflationary aspirations. Yet this is despite the fact that inflationary wage claims are now necessary even to preserve one's position against the inroads of price and tax increases and the loss of welfare benefits over the last decade.

This is made devastatingly clear by the latest issue of Economic Trends, a few days ago, which shows that the average family of two parents and three children, net of all taxes and social service benefits, retained 103 per cent. of its original gross income in 1961, but only 96 per cent. in 1965 and 94 per cent. in 1969.

Perhaps even more worrying still is the extent to which the growing difficulties of escaping from low-wage poverty are consolidating the existence of a permanent under-class in our country. For low pay is all too often linked with poor housing, which is often associated with a poor school in a poor neighbourhood, at which the child of the family is all too likely to attain a poor educational performance and to leave early, and consequently to go directly into a low-paid job, and then the generational cycle of low-paid poverty starts all over again.

I would add in this regard that since educational achievement is becoming increasingly crystallised as the central avenue of advancement in our society, it is deeply disturbing that the official educational reports of the 1960s, especially the Newsom Report, noted that low educational performance was so closely associated with such obvious manifestations of poverty as low height and low weight of the child and low occupational status of the father.

Conclusions of this kind pose radical problems and demand radical solutions. I move, therefore, to a brief review of those policies of the present Government which bear on this issue.

Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)

Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, perhaps he will comment on this point. If one takes the supplementary benefit level or any other form of minimum income guarantee as being the poverty yardstick, then, clearly, every time that one makes the supplementary benefit level or minimum income guarantee more generous, by definition one increases the number in poverty. Is the hon. Gentleman's answer to peg down these benefits, or does he say that he will not use measures like supplementary benefits, or what?

Mr. Meacher

I have addressed myself to this point already, and I made it clear that the supplementary benefit level standard was and should be a moving standard through time. It is the comparison with one's neighbours, those on average incomes, those improving their standard of living in our society, which counts. A poverty standard must be one which moves through time, and one which is linked with average earnings is probably the fairest that can be achieved. What we need, therefore, is a set of policies to ensure that people are placed securely above the line and that we do not have an increasing army of people within the standard or even below it. I move, therefore, to a brief review of the policies of the Government which bear on the issue. Far from reversing these trends, there are several counts on which the Government cannot be exonerated from the charge, whatever may be their ulterior motives for their policies, of actually creating further poverty.

Firstly, by concentrating their tactics of de-escalating wage claims exclusively on the public sector, where the low-paid are disproportionately found, the Government are placing on the weakest shoulders the whole weight of their anti-inflationary drive. It is no use the Government saying that they are helping the low-paid, who are hardest hit by price rises, because they are tackling the problem of wage-cost inflation if at the same time it is the low-paid who are being specially selected as involuntary pawns to bear the chief cost of securing this goal. There is no solace in assisting to reduce prices if one's wage claim is cut back to the point where one is still earning below the family's entitlement to supplementary benefit. Yet increasingly this is what is happening. If the 280,000 railwaymen, whose claim may come next, with a basic £15.20 were to obtain a 10 per cent. rise, those on basic rates would still be in poverty if they had four or more children.

Secondly, by letting prices rip through the withdrawal of price restraints, inevitably the Government are hitting the poorer families hardest. More generally, the commitment to make a general switch towards indirect taxation, especially with the expected introduction of the value added tax in the Budget, will accelerate the trend.

Thirdly, through their policy of monetary squeeze, it is widely feared that the Government may be pushing the total of unemployed towards the million mark and even perhaps beyond. In some parts of the country, the unemployment rate of specifically unskilled workers may already be around the 10 per cent. mark.

Fourthly, the Government's proposals to raise council rents to "fair" levels—that is, virtually to cost—price levels-were conjoined in a statement by the Secretary of State for Environment on 3rd November last with an intention also both to reduce housing subsidies and to increase slum clearance. If all these goals are compatible, which I doubt, it can only mean that the rents of millions of poorer families will be pushed up faster than ever before, since within the proposed budget a system of means-tested rent rebates could not offset this trend more than marginally. In case any hon. Member doubts that it will be distinctly poor families who will be made poorer, let me add that the recent Report of the National Board for Prices and Incomes on local authority rents showed revealingly that, at the end of 1968, fully half the tenants had a joint husband and wife income of less than £20 a week, while a further two-fifths were either pensioners or dependent on supplementary benefit or sickness or unemployment benefit.

Fifthly, the imposition of extra health and welfare charges in the mini-budget of 27th October will cost the average and below-average paid family an extra £1 a week. I appreciate that the family income supplement was introduced at the same time, but that only offsets the extra £1 burden at extremely low income levels.

Sixthly, the Government have not refused to bring forward the upgrading of the retirement pension before November, 1971; they have also rejected specific benefits for old people like heating allowances as of right. As a result, if inflation gathers pace slightly in the present year, as many fear, pensioners may be left in a relatively worse position towards the end of the year than at any time since 1948.

The seventh feature of the Government's programme which bears on the general question of poverty is the discouragement that has been given to council house building. Apart from the indirect effects that this must have on those in the three million or so recognised sub-standard dwellings, this policy inevitably must force up the numbers of homeless, with all the unimaginable misery that this causes.

Yet another point is the way in which the effect of last year's Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act is being emasculated. If the Government send out to local authorities the memorandum prepared by the County Councils Association and the Association of Municipal Corporations, they will be clearly obstructing improvements in the welfare of handicapped persons by requiring relatives to be means-tested in a manner neither envisaged nor intended by the original Act.

Ninthly, I call to mind the decision to substitute the family income supplement for the clear electoral pledge to raise family allowance with simultaneous claw-back tax adjustments. I am well aware of the problem of the tax threshold, but this could be obviated by making all or part of the family allowance increase tax free. Depending on this and also on how many of those eligible finally claim family income supplement, the Government are hereby reducing by perhaps five to 10 times their promised contribution to relieve family poverty.

My tenth and last point concerns the proposal to enter the Common Market. Willy-nilly, the Government are thereby commiting themselves to rises in the prices of staple foods such as meat, butter and sugar which must heavily cut back or even entirely exclude such items from the budgets of poor families. This is quite irrespective of the fact that the same policy may have a devastating impact on the unemployment rate in the depressed regions.

These are 10 counts by which I believe that the Government stand condemned for their responsibility, directly or indirectly, for extending the areas of poverty in our society. Of course I recognise and would be the first to point out that the picture is balanced by the introduction of the family income supplement, the over-80s pension and the constant attendance allowance, though I doubt whether the balance is a very even one. The total annual expenditure on all three anti-poverty schemes combined will not even equal the cost of building 1½ miles of one of the four London motorways to which the Government have committed themselves. Alternatively, expressed as a proportion of the total social security budget this year, these three measures represent together a mere third of 1 per cent., and, however welcome they might be as elements in themselves, I do not believe that even the most hard-nosed opponent of public expenditure could regard the expenditure of such tiny sums as more than a mere sniff at the real problem of poverty.

I am equally sensitive to those who are so enured to the slogan that the poor have become poorer under Labour that they might feel tempted to utter it again. To those who may succumb, may I inform them that I have two witnesses to bring forward whose credentials in this regard I am sure will be universally regarded as utterly impeccable.

I refer, first, to the Minister of State, Department of Employment, who in reply to my Adjournment debate of a fortnight ago, said: I can say, however, that the studies to date provide no evidence to support the conclusion that there has been an increase since 1966 in the number of wage-earners whose families are living below supplementary benefit level."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th February, 1971; Vol. 811, c.1572.] My second witness is none other than the Secretary of State for Social Services who confirmed the same point in a letter to the Director of the Child Poverty Action Group on 26th February.

If still more evidence is required beyond the testimony of these most eminent witnesses, whose credibility in this context is surely unimpeachable, I draw attention to the size of the increase of the retirement pension in February, 1965, as a result of which the pension maintained its purchasing power, in relation to the rise of national average earnings, till the end of each two-year period between reviews, which had only been achieved by previous Tory Governments at the start of each two-year period.

The spotlight, therefore, in my view, about the poor getting poorer must move back to the present, especially since we are about to see a proliferation in the spread of means tests. Such tests, so far from reducing poverty, may actually deepen it. Certainly they exacerbate social divisions, for the stigma of admitting poverty, which, in our society, in effect, means admitting failure, makes people shamefacedly feel second-class citizens. Hence, it is not surprising that millions who are eligible for just such benefits will not claim them. In virtually no case do more than half of those eligible claim, and the more usual proportion is between 10 and 20 per cent. only. In some cases, such as free welfare foods and prescription charge refunds to unemployed men, it is known that only 4 to 8 per cent. respectively of those eligible for the benefit in question actually claim it. As a means of delivering social service benefits, means tests are therefore probably the most inefficient vehicle ever conceived by the wit of man.

Furthermore, since there are already over 3,000 means tests in operation in Britain today, of which 1,500 are unique, unlike any other, and since the relevant claim forms are often not available in post offices, where they should be, what is needed is a massive simplification of this bureaucratic chaos, not an intensification of it.

Yet the Government are bent on introducing two big extensions of this ramshackle system in their proposals to means test low-paid workers and council tenants. I predict that this will provide little relief to these two groups, though it will certainly badly aggravate their sense of inferiority.

Nor are means tests necessarily so cheap in terms of public expenditure as is often thought. Since abuse is always possible, checks must be instituted against fraudulent claims, and the cost of checking can be substantial. In the six months following September, 1968, for example, it is known that £1,900 was spent in clerks' wages in checking for fraudulent claims for free prescriptions in the Manchester area alone. It may be of interest to add, as one of the more diverting sidelights into the means test world, that 6,600 forms were checked and the total return to the Exchequer on behalf of the taxpayer was a mere £8.

Nor does the question of costs stop here. Means tests also involve the claimant—this is often overlooked—in a number of often forgotten inconveniences and not insignificant extra costs—penalties which the poor are least able to bear.

I am reminded here of a cartoon which I saw in the Daily Mirror, which I have looked up. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will not think it incongruous if I quote it in full. It shows Andy Capp's wife running towards the hero and saying: If yer want yer suit out of pawn I'll be needin' ten bob, an' if yer want yer application for National Assistance postin' I'll need the stamp money, an' if I'm goin' on t' collect yer dole money I'll need the bus fare. To that, Andy Capp, with his pockets hanging out, replies: There's nothin' wrong wi' bein' poor—but nowadays it's a 'elluva job to afford it! I think that there is a point in that story.

The crucial argument, however, against the further enlargement of the means test empire is that it will completely undermine the precarious system of incentives for low-wage earners. For already a man, with two children, earning £17 a week who raises his pay, by dint of hard work or by other means, to £19 will, taking account of extra income tax and the loss of free school meals which would be involved, gain only 40 pence. In other words, his marginal tax rate in terms of benefits forgone is 80 per cent. If he had also previously enjoyed, as he may well have done, the school uniform grant for his children and a rent rebate, then his marginal tax rate would rise to over 100 per cent. To superimpose on top of this the family income supplement and means tested housing allowances is to make an already unsatisfactory situation frankly ridiculous.

Even a man earning £50,000 a year who earned an extra £3 a week would not be subject to a marginal tax rate of more than 91 per cent., which is certainly high enough, and would still keep 5s. 3d. after income tax and surtax.

Thus, getting out of poverty today is rather like getting out of a well. Unless one can jump right to the top, one is all too likely to fall back to precisely the point from which one started. The accumulation of means tests, therefore, by building up further the side of the well, so far from assisting the poor, actually increasingly blocks the escape route from hard-core poverty.

Nor is it only by extending means tests that the Government's policies reveal a two-nation split. Whereas the family income supplement will offer a maximum £7 million a year to the very poor, it is difficult to see this as the right balance when the non-aggregation rule—a surtax concession the reintroduction of which at the next Budget has been confirmed to me in a Parliamentary Answer—would give £25 million by direct Government action to the very rich for the private education of their children. Similarly, low-paid workers have been told by the Government that large wage claims are inflationary, even though they might still, after getting an inflationary wage settlement, be left earning below the State poverty line. Yet the Government have refused to prohibit advertisements which actively encourage tax avoidance on a massive scale which lose the Exchequer about £750 million each year in estate duty alone.

I do not believe that these are entirely disconnected phenomena. Such examples could easily be multiplied. For example, a Budget which made concessions to business expense allowances and to unearned income could not, in the name of justice, be regarded as compatible with the introduction of value-added tax with its imposition on the poor. I believe, therefore, that, because means tests are grossly inefficient, because they are destructive of incentives and, above all, because they are socially divisive, we should seek actively to be rid of them as a high priority of policy.

In my view what is needed for the relief of poverty is an entirely different series of interlocking policies.

First, I believe that the gradual phasing out of means test should be achieved by the establishment of benefits as of right pitched above the poverty line for persons in each category of social need, particularly the elderly, the sick and chronically disabled, and single-parent families. This would be financed by proportionate social security contributions.

Secondly, we need an easing of the tax burden at the bottom of the income scale, together with a smoother progression in the middle and upper ranges. The other main requirement for the conquest of poverty, both absolute and relative, is a built-in redistributive pay policy which would embrace a wealth tax and gifts tax and include salaries, fringe benefits and all other forms of income in its terms of reference. Whilst this policy was in action, a standing commission on inequality should be set up to monitor changes in income distribution as they gradually occurred.

To ask for such a wide-ranging group of measures which would entail such fundamental implications is, I readily concede, not a little ambitious on my part. My only defence is that to seek a less ambitious programme would be tantamount to admitting defeat from the start. No less than a comprehensive programme is required, for, with repeated tinkering, poverty still survives on a major scale—indeed, it actively thrives.

Sir Winston Churchill used to say that one could tell how civilised a nation was by its treatment of an elderly person or a convicted criminal. By these criteria, I suppose that we have at least made some progress, but I now contend that the test of our magnanimity, of our imaginativeness and of our determination must in future be our capacity and will to break the association which has hitherto bound together higher growth and increased poverty. It is a target worthy of our resourcefulness as a nation and one without which we will not be able to achieve wealth without guilt.

11.42 p.m.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

The three Motions before the House today are interlocking and have an affinity with each other. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) mentioned housing, with which the other two Motions are concerned. In calling … attention to the increase in poverty … he tried to block any counter argument by quoting to us two witnesses—the Secretary of State for Social Services and the Minister of State, Department of Employment. In doing so, perhaps he hoped to conceal the fact that, in the Economist on 19th December, 1970, the charge that the poor had got poorer under Labour was made by Labour academics who had been in at the beginning of the preparation of the full-scale attack by the Labour Party on all the social services. Their statement gave a body blow to the Labour Government. The Child Poverty Action Group could not have picked a worse time for the aspirations of the Labour Government in the General Election, but their statement was given great credence by the fact that, in 1965, a group of Labour academics were in support of the Labour Government but by 1970 had become a splinter group ready, for the sake of truth and honesty, to put their own party in jeopardy.

Mr. Brian O'Malley (Rotherham)

If the hon. Gentleman proposes to use quotations from the Economist, whose impartiality on this and other subjects many of us doubt, one can easily quote back at him what New Society said on 28th May, 1970, in giving a view diametrically opposed to that which he is quoting.

Mr. Hill

This is quite common in politics and journalism. I quoted from the Economist because I thought that this point ought to be brought out. It is understandable that the hon. Member for Oldham, West would like to bring this side of the House into some disrepute by his claim that we have neglected this social problem in our first few months of office. The weakness of his argument is that at no time did he convince me that he had defined poverty. He skated around that. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) asked a Question in the House regarding definition of the poverty line.

Mr. Meacher

The hon. Gentleman has challenged me on the question of the definition of poverty. I made it unequivocally clear that I defined poverty for my purpose as the condition of those who are enjoying a standard of living at or below the level of the supplementary benefit scale rates plus rent allowance, whether or not they are claiming those supplementary benefit scale rates. That is a precise definition.

Mr. Hill

I pass on from the point so that other hon. Members can take it up. One of the hon. Gentleman's other statements was that the Government had, by some diabolical means, concentrated completely on the public sector, trying to depress the lowest-paid workers. The facts do not bear that statement out. Quite the contrary. The Government have at all time tried not to pick out any of these difficulties being experienced between employers and employed. At no time have they forced or coerced or tried to influence the employers to carry through a depression of the lowest-paid workers.

Mr. Meacher

May I have just one more word, since the hon. Gentleman is specifically challenging an argument I used? Would he deny that the Government have laid extremely strong emphasis by word and whatever action is possible because of their commanding position in the public sector, on the de-escalation of wage claims? Would he deny that, as a result of this policy, very large numbers of workers—probably hundreds of thousands—find that, when they have obtained wage awards, they are still below the poverty line? For example, those among the lowest-paid of the 200,000 co-operative workers who achieved a 20 per cent. increase within the last eight months were still below the State poverty line if they had three or more children.

Mr. Hill

Again I must refute the supposition that the Government have in any way exerted pressure. They have, as we all know, put forward the supposition that the national interest must be taken into account in all these negotiations, but that, as far as I am concerned, is all the pressure that this side of the House has ever brought into any of these disputes.

When he referred to housing, the hon. Gentleman suggested that the subsidies under the system to be introduced by the Government would cause increased hardship and bring more poverty into the council house sector. That is utterly wrong. The subsidies are to be changed from homes to individuals. Perhaps then the argument will be that this is a further means test.

In regard to means tests, one method of finding out a person's income could be via the income tax authorities. Therefore, a means test as such, which is a dreadful word left over from a bygone age, is only right. However, the subsidy should also be extended to the private sector. I am sure that no householder in the private sector would take affront if a means test allowed him to get rent or rate rebate. The privilege is accorded to the public housing sector that they may receive rent and rate rebates, but it is well known that the majority of the poverty-line poor are in the private sector.

I have a feeling that the relief of poverty has become a fashionable political cause. As with most fashionable political causes, it is in danger of meaning all things to all men. Can we this morning try to define "poverty"? Are we just thinking of keeping everybody from falling below the subsistence standard where their health will be in jeopardy, or do we mean simply the removal of inequality?

It was said earlier—and is, I suppose, accepted—that the poor will always be with us. Does it make sense to speak in such emotive terms about poverty in Britain and to compare living standards with, say, millions of people in Asia, Africa, Latin America or even in some parts of the United States? Why should there be poverty in rich, sophisticated countries, in societies such as Sweden and America? They have a residue of families which fall into what are called poverty groups.

The categories of poverty as I see them are as follows. The first category involves poverty due to too many children. Surely statements by the Secretary of State about increased amounts to be spent on family planning clinics and equipment are helpful. The second category involves families in which the mother or father is dead. The third category relates to families where the main breadwinner is either unemployed or works at a job the income from which is insufficient for the maintenance of the family. The fourth category, which has already been mentioned, is the family with bad medical health or disability which thereby reduces its income.

Perhaps in part we are dealing with subsistence poverty. Perhaps there is grave malnutrition, although Professor Mackenzie of the Queen Elizabeth College has stated that it is extremely difficult to be sure exactly how much of what food people eat and it is equally hard to know the minimum they ought to consume taking account of sex, age, leisure and occupational activities. With regard to diet below the basic nutritional standards, many problems may be attributed to poor management on the domestic scene or to personal tastes rather than to direct poverty. I am merely putting forward these arguments in order to get on to the main problem of the definition of poverty.

There is evidence that the consumption of protein and calcium in a number of households is below the minimum and is falling. This is a great problem. It is relative poverty that is the cause for most concern. This came out strongly from the speech of the hon. Member for Oldham, West. May I submit that poverty is not simply a question of inequality. People are poor, and to quote Professor Townsend of the Child Poverty Action Group, it is not just because they have low resources, but also because they are unable to have the right type of diet to participate in certain activities and to have living conditions and amenities which are customary in that society. Therefore, it is difficult, to my mind to try to define poverty by certain aspects.

We all accept that poverty means lack of adequate food, lack of clothing and lack of warmth. There is also the category of lack of housing. Poverty cannot be related purely to cash payments. Children who live in squalid conditions, who are in danger of losing opportunities in life, and who are stunted in growth from the beginning, may have more to gain from improved facilities in housing and teaching and perhaps a few extra shillings would not make a great deal of difference in the position of the poverty line.

Perhaps the best help for the overburdened mother may be provision of a day nursery or nursery school, particularly if this allows her an opportunity to take a job to bring in a little extra money.

The elderly are crying out for help. What sort of help do they need? Is it not essential that hot meals should be delivered to them and that they should be visited to ensure that they are in touch with life? I am not suggesting that cash payments should not be increased as and when possible. I submit that there is an argument for balancing the help given by the State as between cash and services, and certainly that more encouragement should be given to voluntary bodies who do such good work. Their voices tend not always to be heard by local councils or by the Government.

It is time that we talked of poverty of the mind and spirit as well as poverty in a material sense. One of the greatest forms of poverty among the old is loneliness. This can be eased by State help. May I suggest that the Churches or even the trade unions could have a greater social conscience on these matters?

I should like to turn to the question of housing, which I was hoping to discuss a little later. Poverty can be exacerbated by substandard accommodation and all the evils associated with it, which create apathy, hopelessness and health hazards. Poverty and problems of the home are linked. Poverty is associated with bad human habitation and with inadequate maintenance of property, and we know that many houses are on the point of collapse. Then there are the grave problems of dampness and insanitary conditions and the poor level of health which results, as we know from many of the Shelter documents.

I should like to say a word or two about Shelter. It would do many hon. Members of Parliament good to read these documents and to learn that one of the main causes of bringing people below the poverty line is the fact that by living in substandard accommodation their health suffers. A breadwinner's bad health, and therefore his inability to keep a job, can be attributed to poor housing.

Another matter which we must consider in any civilised society, and certainly in our society, is that in regard to the housing situation we must look to the needs of those who most required help. At present we create a compulsory purchase order on a clearance area. These clearance programmes must be carried through with greater humanity. All of the services necessary, all of the environments necessary for civilised life, must be maintained while the clearance is taking place. There must be a much greater scrutiny of the timing mechanism so that these areas are not blighted for years in advance. Even if various local authorities move the residents on to new housing estates, these buildings, if they are not demolished, are filled again with the sort of people about whom we are talking.

I would like to suggest that perhaps the provisions of the Housing Act, 1969 are sometimes too cumbersome—

Mr, Speaker

Order. I must warn the hon. Member that he is getting perilously near to discussing his own Motion. He should not do that on this Motion.

Mr. Hill

I apologise. I should not like anyone to think that I had risen to speak because there was doubt that I may not be called later in the day. The imperfections and delays not only in improvement areas but in the granting of discretionary grants may be creating further sub-standard housing. Action here will assist in bringing people above that poverty line, giving them a greater emphasis in life and maintaining their spirits above the line below which they ought never to go. The greatest difficulty arises when people lose hope. They immediately degenerate and need more assistance from the State and local authorities. My submission is that we should do more for housing, which will help to cure the overall problem of poverty.

12 noon.

Mr. Dick Leonard (Romford)

Like the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. James Hill), I had hoped later to initiate a debate on housing. Like him, I will do my best to avoid being called to order. Although I want to speak mainly on housing, I will not touch on the aspects mentioned in my Motion but instead will touch on two particular aspects of the Government's housing policy which, in my view, would have the effect of accentuating the trend towards the poverty referred to by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher).

I am not speaking of the Government's plans outlined by the Secretary of State for the Environment on 3rd November to save between £100 million and £200 million in housing subsidies, which is bound to lead to a catastrophic rise in council house rents. As I understand it, the details of these policies are still being discussed between local authority associations and that well-known social reformer, the Minister for Housing. The legislation which will arise from that is unlikely to be introduced this Session.

Although the long-term effect, for better or worse, on the problem of poverty is likely to be considerable, it is possibly more timely to concentrate today on two other measures which may take effect very speedily. These are the proposed ending of controlled rents in the private sector and the decision of the Government, announced on Wednesday in a Written Reply to me by the Minister of Housing, to allow the Government's power to regulate council house rents to lapse in June of this year.

The number of people affected by the proposal to change from controlled to regulated rents in the private sector is considerable. The Francis Committee says that there —are still something approaching 1,400,000 controlled tenancies in Great Britain. The House was told last year that at the end of 1969 there were an estimated 1,300,000 controlled tenancies in England and Wales amounting to no les sthan 40 per cent. of all privately rented tenancies. though amounting to less than 8 per cent. of the entire housing stock.

In Greater London, controlled tenancies, which in December, 1969, amounted to 300,000, made up a markedly higher proportion of the housing stock. The G.L.C. estimate that there were in 1960 some 2½ million dwellings in London. If my arithmetic is correct, controlled tenancies made up about 12 per cent. of households in the Metropolis.

What sort of people are living in these controlled tenancies? Hard information about them is remarkably difficult to come by and I sincerely hope that Ministers will institute detailed inquiries into the likely consequences of decontrol before embarking on their new policy. Although the tenants survey sponsored by the Francis Committee collected a great deal of useful data about the characteristics of tenants as a whole, it did not distinguish between the personal circumstances of controlled and regulated tenants. As far as I can establish it, the most recently published information is contained in The Housing Survey in England and Wales, 1964, published by the Ministry of Housing in 1967.

Three striking facts which emerged from that survey were the long periods of time for which the majority of controlled tenancies had lived in their homes, their high average age and their low average incomes. In 1964, of all controlled tenants, 70 per cent. had lived in the same house or flat for 17 years or more compared with only 27 per cent. of all households. A total of 51 per cent. of the heads of households of controlled tenancies were aged 60 or over, compared with 32 per cent. of the heads of all households. Only 5 per cent. of controlled householders had a weekly income in 1965 of more than £20 per week, compared with 16 per cent. for all householders; while as many as 23 per cent. had incomes of less than £5 a week, compared with 13 per cent. for all householders.

In short, a high proportion of the people living in controlled properties would be especially vulnerable to any sudden change in their status resulting in sharply increased rent demands. Let us not be in any doubt that sharp increases would result. The Minister of Housing told the House on 25th November last year, that in a sample analysis of 430 dwellings decontrolled in 1969 and 1970, the average rent rose from 22s. 6d. to 50s. 6d. a week.

On 3rd November the Secretary of State for the Environment said that all controlled tenancies would be converted into regulated tenancies and the Francis Committee has since recommended that this should take place irrespective of whether the dwellings concerned possess the standard amenities, are in good repair and are otherwise fit for human habitation—the three conditions at present required under the 1969 Housing Act before this change in status can be permitted.

It seems extraordinary that the Francis Committee should make such a recommendation, especially on the grounds that landlords have insufficient incentive to improve their properties. To suggest that the incentive can be increased by removing any requirement as to the minimum physical condition of the building concerned is, to my mind, to stand logic on its head.

The Francis Committee says on page 96, referring to tenement buildings in Glasgow: It seemed to us that it would be quite impracticable to install bathrooms in the smaller houses without depriving the tenants of essential living accommodation, and also to carry out the work of installing a bathroom, even if there was spare living accommodation, except at enormous cost. This may well be an argument for modifying the conditions laid down by the 1969 Act, with suitable safeguards. But to argue that the conditions should be swept aside altogether is to let the baby out with the bath-water. The case for ending rent control, except in conjunction with the improvement of the property involved, has not effectively been established, either by the Francis Committee or by the Government. I ask Ministers to ponder its consequences very seriously before embarking upon a course which could lead to a significant increase in hardship for a great many people.

Of course, if Ministers can give the House a categorical assurance that the proposed rebates for private tenants will be on so generous a scale that my fears are unfounded, no one will be more delighted than myself. But until they see the colour of the Government's money, controlled tenants cannot but face the future with trepidation.

I will put my second point very briefly. Ever since 1968 there has been some control by the Government over the freedom of local authorities to raise the rents of council houses—first under the Prices and Incomes Act, 1968, and more recently under the Rent (Control of Increases) Act, 1969. This control has not been very popular, to put it mildly, with Conservative councillors, and it was criticised with some vigour by the Conservative 1970 Election Campaign Guide.

But the Secretary of State for the Environment seems to have accepted in principle that some control is necessary. He indicated to the House on 3rd November that under his new housing finance proposals there would be a limitation on the rent increases which could be imposed in any one year. Yet last Wednesday the Minister for Housing and Construction told me that the existing powers under the Rent (Control of Increases) Act will be allowed to lapse. There will then be a nasty hiatus between the lapsing of these powers and the coming into force of the new legislation, during which time local authorities will be completely free to impose any increases which they wish, however large and however indiscriminate.

The plea which I earnestly make to the Government is that they should reconsider their decision to allow these powers of control to lapse next June and should seek to extend them at least until the new legislation comes into effect. If they fail to do this, they will be abdicating responsibility for a vital sector of the campaign against poverty.

12.12 p.m.

Sir Brandon Rhys Williams (Kensington, South)

When rising to speak on a favourite subject, Members are in some difficulty. We might repeat arguments which we have advanced before. We perhaps have to say again the things which have been totally neglected and try to avoid saying those things which have made our friends and opponents feel that our arguments have been repeated ad nauseam.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) on his choice of subject. It is an immensely topical and very important subject. It exercises the minds of right hon. and hon. Members on this side of the House just as much as it does the minds of Members on the Opposition side. I listened with interest to the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I shall certainly read and ponder all the points he made. However, I felt that he was over-egging the pudding. There was a great deal of truth in the figures he gave. No one should seek to minimise or question the veracity of the figures he quoted. Yet I cannot help reflecting, particularly on the question of child poverty, how things looked in South Wales as I remember them before the war. With all the problems that we have today, things are not so bad or so desperate perhaps as the hon. Gentleman would have us believe. But that is no reason why anyone should be smug or content with the persistence of situations which are intolerable in a civilised society.

Before going on to the meat of the Motion, perhaps I can say in passing one or two words about parts of it into which an unnecessarily partisan element has crept. The Motion deplores the fact that the Government's economic and social policies will accelerate the spread of poverty in this country …". Now that the Government have been in power for three-quarters of a year the nation is beginning to see clearly the outlines of Conservative economic and social policy.

Possibly the most significant event where the Exchequer has been concerned was the mini-budget at the end of last year, the emphasis of which was on the reduction of taxation. Hon. Members opposite fall into the danger of regarding a reduction in taxation as a social evil. Although there were elements in the mini-budget which naturally they did not like and which many people did not welcome, they must admit that, for instance, the change in the treatment of school meals will not or should not affect the people most in need, because of the provisions which the Government are making to ensure that they do not suffer. It may be that the introduction of a means test is controversial, it may be wrong, but it does not necessarily accelerate the spread of poverty.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South-West)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that taxation can be reduced in many ways? Let me give two: by cutting the standard rate of tax, which is what the Government chose to do, and by cutting at the bottom end of the scale the number of people on the taxation level. The Labour Government chose to do the second. The mini-budget did the first. Of the two, taking people completely out of the taxation bracket is the most conducive to reducing poverty.

Sir B. Rhys Williams

The hon. Gentleman has touched on points with which I propose to deal. I do not necessarily agree with him that it is right that people should be excluded from the tax system. If we are talking about one nation—as we are in the Motion—it is wrong that we should create two nations —taxpayers and beneficiaries—as totally distinct classes. I shall return to that point later.

I have often said that one of the effects of universal suffrage has been to promote the interests of the average man and that insufficient attention has been given by the House in this century to the need to protect minorities who are unlikely to be influential at election time in any constituency and yet should be either a burden on our conscience or one of the prime cares of society. On other occasions I have argued—and it would not be appropriate to argue it today—that we are damaging too much the interests of the minority at the top of our society by surtax and other measures. But as we are talking about poverty, I wish to allude to the problem of the minorities at the bottom of society—not necessarily those who are in greatest difficulties as to income, but people who are handicapped, particularly the physically handicapped.

Referring to the ways canvassed recently for helping people at the bottom of society, I should like to refer to the inquiry into a national minimum wage published by the Department of Employment and Productivity in 1969. This document has received far too little attention. I cannot say that I have seen a copy of it in the hand of any right hon. or hon Member. It is so relevant to the problems we are nowadays discussing that I hope that attention will be directed to it, either officially or through the Press, so that the extremely interesting analysis the working party prepared and particularly its conclusions, will become more widely known.

I should like to quote two paragraphs from the summing up in the inquiry which are specially germane to our discussion. In paragraph 169 the authors say: …to satisfy the minimum requirements of those with the greatest need a national minimum would have to be set at a level which would involve a substantial addition to the national wage and salary bill, and would be likely to carry with it the risk of consequential effects elsewhere. One of the major causes, I suppose, of the increase in family poverty is the rise in the price of food. When the cost of living changes, it may be that the item which has changed—say, a television set …is common to families large and small; or it may be one of which a large family is likely to be a much greater consumer than a small family.

We are using only a superficial index of cost of living changes when we simply refer to percentages in the way which we do today. What one should look at is the cost of basic family or individual living in terms of pence or £s per week. It would then become apparent that there are some changes in the cost of living which are relatively acceptable to families consisting of a large number of people, and there are other changes which can be acutely damaging to the interests of the family. To lump all the changes together under a percentage does not convey this meaning and a far more penetrating analysis of the shifts which are taking place as between single people and those with family responsibilities should be undertaken.

Coming back to paragraph 169. Since this was printed, opinion has rightly moved towards the concept that employers should give equal pay for equal work. No doubt it was a survival from nineteenth century or even medieval thinking which led employers to pay more to a man because he was likely to have family responsibilities than to a woman for the same work, because it was thought that the woman would probably be looking after herself alone, whereas the man would be looking after more than one person.

We have rightly abandoned the idea that it is up to the employer to socialise wages by taking the earner's responsibilities into account. We look to him now simply to pay a fair wage for a fair day's work. When food prices are rising rapidly as one of the elements in the cost of living, the problem of the family man is accentuated—yet we have decided that it shall not be the employer who shall help him out. So someone else must do it.

The second paragraph which I should like to quote from this report is paragraph 170: A national minimum is likely to be a less efficient means of relieving poverty than selective social benefits related to individual needs. This word "selective"—and selectivity in general—are very vexed questions. Part of the problem is that everyone who uses the word "selectivity" has a slightly different meaning in mind. Do we mean by "selectivity" income-related benefits or status-related benefits? In our social services, one can find obvious examples of both kinds.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West feels a particular antipathy to a means-test-related benefit. I should like to see the growth of status-related benefits—for instance, of the kind which we have just introduced for the most severely disabled. The Government are to be congratulated on having introduced an attendance allowance which will not be subject to tax nor dependent upon the income of the person or the family of which the severely disabled person forms a part. This is a far more satisfactory type of benefit, in that there need be none of the humiliation which is inevitably associated with incomes-testing or resource-testing of various kinds.

I do not know where the figures are derived from, to the effect that 3,000 individual means tests are now being applied or 1,500 means tests of a unique character, as I think the hon. Gentleman said—but there are many, too many means tests being undertaken in our society, at any rate for the sake of efficiency. I have often said—I hope that the House will excuse me if I say again—that the income tax should be the means test to end all means tests. Once society has ascertained a person's income for the purpose of taxation the data should then be deemed to he available for any other aspect of the social services, and it should not be necessary to go over the same ground again and again. I have often said that I should like to see the complete integration of the cash relationship between the individual and the community, and I believe that there are three particular reasons why this would be the right line of advance for the present Government. First, I have just referred to efficiency. If we look at this cash relationship between the individual and the State from the point of view of business efficiency, we must be aghast at the double accounting and incomprehensibility and obsoleteness of our procedures. If the pay-as-you-earn system which we have today did not exist, it would have been impossible to invent it, because it would be beyond the wit of man to devise a system so remote from concepts of business efficiency, so utterly incomprehensible, costly and disincentive.

Let us look at this procees of means tests. We are moving towards earnings-related contributions for national insurance. Apart from the means test which has to be undertaken for the purposes of income tax, a means test needs to be undertaken for the purposes of calculating earnings-related national insurance contributions as well.

It may seem to hon. Members that I am omitting to mention that earnings-related national insurance contributions can be and perhaps will be collected through the mechanism of pay-as-you earn; but there are large numbers of people, certainly millions of workers, who are not caught for taxes under the P.A.Y.E. mechanism, but who presumably will be expected to make a contribution to National Insurance. So the pay-as-you-earn system, with its incomprehensible and costly procedures, will have to be extended down the income range to catch all the people who are expected to make a contribution to national insurance, but who are currently below the tax horizon. I say that one assumes that this will happen; but will it?

Will the Inland Revenue say to the Government, "Earnings-related contributions to National Insurance be damned", because the mechanism is already so overloaded that some excuse will be have to be found for creating a second class of citizen for National Insurance purposes—those who are at too low an income for their contributions to count. I cannot imagine a more devisive or unsatisfactory expedient than to say to perhaps millions of people and, of course, to a very large number of self-employed people, "Your contributions to society are so paltry that we simply cannot be bothered to go through the labour of collecting them." This is an aspect of one nation which hon. Members opposite may not have dwelt upon or may not wish to dwell upon, but I dwell upon the necessity for a man's self-respect to feel that the benefits which he is receiving are part of the society to which he is contributing and that he is a member of it, even if he can contribute only two mites.

We have, too, the whole apparatus of means tests associated with the administration of supplementary benefit. I must pay a tribute to the fantastic devotion and insight of the much overworked staffs of the thousand or more offices of the Department of Health and Social Security. There are, of course, occasional cases which are brought to hon. Members' notice, in which there has been inhumanity or too much haste—or delay—in dealing with an absolutely genuine request for help. But let us remember all the tens and tens of thousands of cases which are dealt with with despatch, mercy and comprehension.

One must be careful not to impose too much on the British Civil Service. We may be making a mistake in piling additional work upon the backs of the Department of Health and Social Security, the same mistake that we made when we piled too much work on the backs of the splendidly devoted, dedicated and alert officials of the Inland Revenue. I have often said—I may have to say again today—some very discourteous things about the Inland Revenue, but not because I do not appreciate the splendid character of the men who work there. It is the system under which they are working which is so deeply unsatisfactory and which has resulted in bringing that great and historic Department to the point at which it is virtually the despair of social reformers.

Let us look, too, at the means tests which have to be operated by local authorities. The particular one which is attracting the attention of the House this morning is in housing. I look forward with the greatest possible interest to the Government's more detailed announcement of their policies for the reform of the subsidy system so that it reaches poor people in relation to their accommodation. I think that everybody who is at all impartial must admit that the council housing experiment has not been an entire success. I personally would go so far as to say that it has been a downright failure, because there are too many cases where people not really in need of help, and who, indeed, by any definition of poverty, are well above the poverty line, are actually receiving money through this scheme from people who are much less well off than themselves.

Mr. O'Malley

Of course, one recognises the nature of the subsidy system which affects the local authority tenant, but the hon. Gentleman should also point out that in fact owner-occupiers also get substantial relief as the result of the working of the tax system.

Sir B. Rhys Williams

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention because I think that the best thing about the policy announcement of the Government is that all families, whether they are owner-occupiers or tenants, will be eligible for benefit in relation to the cost of their accommodation and to their incomes.

Mr. Leonard

Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that whereas with council tenants it is proposed that help will be means-tested that is not proposed for owner-occupiers in their mortgage payments tax relief, so that the better off they are the more they will get?

Sir B. Rhys Williams

Introducing the question of tax relief on mortgage payments is another point. I am rather sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not deal with that in greater detail in his own speech. It is a matter which deserves consideration, but it is not germane to the point I am making, which is that housing subsidies should be paid to families, not to houses and should be a system of assistance to people on low incomes, given in relation to the cost of their accommodation rather than the location of it. Here we must wait upon the Government, but I should like to come back to the question of the means-tests which have to be undertaken. I hope there will be a reference back to the income tax liabilities of families, rather than that we should see local authorities put in a position where they have to institute a new set of means tests in order to pay housing allowances—or whatever they may be called.

A valuable contribution has been made to the thinking of people interested in economic and social matters on this question of means tests in the little pamphlet published last year by Professor Prest on "Social Benefits and Tax Rates". I do not know whether the work he published was entirely original, but it was extremely well presented, and certainly reached a larger audience than previous works published recently. We have come to understand the meaning of the graphic phrase "poverty surtax", which leads us to the next question, which is the whole question of incentives. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Oldham, West dealt convincingly with the problem of the families who increase their income and lose their benefits to such an extent that they are actually worse off than if they had not taken the trouble to increase their incomes. In certain cases where poverty surtax operates it is something near 100 per cent. if not above.

I should like to look at the question of the rate of loss of benefit and try to show that in fact loss of benefit—or withdrawal of benefit—is simply a form of income tax. The family income supplement was introduced in preference to a scheme of increasing family allowances and reducing child dependence allowance in the income tax. It was done in such a way as to make it an entirely a Departmental affair and not a matter involving two quite separate Departments.

The rate of withdrawal of benefit in the family income supplement scheme is 10s. in the £. I cannot help feeling that it will have a decidedly disincentive effect, particularly as members of the public in receipt of family income supplement become more and more familiar with the way in which it operates. It would have been better, in my opinion, to have made a far simpler choice of raising income by increasing family allowances outright and reducing the child allowances within the tax system.

The rate of withdrawal of benefit would then have been found to be 6s. in the £, or at any rate 6s. in the £ after the next Budget when, we understand, earned income relief will bring income tax down on earned income to 6s. in the £. I think that the withdrawal of benefit by taxing the extra £ earned would demonstrably be far simpler, less humiliating, and altogether more satisfactory from the point of view of incentive than the withdrawal of benefit by any other means. I hope that this family income supplement will be recognised as what it was said to be when it was introduced, namely, an expedient for the solution of the immediate problem, rather than a permanent part of our social policy.

Wherever we look throughout the scale of incomes at family spending power, it seems to me that net spending power is derived from a complex balance of pluses and minuses. The minus side factors which most obviously have to be taken into account are income tax and national insurance contributions. On the plus side are the family allowance, and the whole range of direct or indirect benefits such as education, free health, the subsidies on food—or interference with the prices of food—housing subsidies, and so on.

I think that there are few families at any level of income who are not in some way or another suffering the deductions which the community makes from their gross income and also at the same time benefiting from the additions which society makes to their gross income.

The hon. Gentleman, in his Motion, calls upon the Government to demonstrate action, not words, in its pursuit of One Nation. As I know other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate it would be inappropriate to dwell too long on my theme of one nation in taxation as well as one nation in benefits; but I hope that hon. Gentleman opposite will ponder the necessity for everybody to feel himself to be making a contribution to society, and that no one should be in a position where he receives benefit from society but is not in any circumstances required to give anything at all in exchange.

In dwelling upon this theme we are coming perilously near to the sort of debates we shall have in this Parliament on earnings-related contributions for flatrate benefits. I do not want this morning to anticipate some of the things which, no doubt, will be said when that question comes up and will be fully considered; but I hope I shall be forgiven if I repeat a famous phrase to which I am particularly addicted, namely, "From each according to his capacity, to each according to his need".

The third of the three points which I want to allude to in connection with the operation of means tests, and the possibility of simplifying and uniting them round the income tax, is social policy. I mentioned business efficiency; I mentioned incentives; but social policy in its widest sense, is the particular reason I should like to offer to the House why we should think much more deeply about the whole question of the cash relationship between the individual and the State. It ought not to be simply a question of finding money from somewhere to mop up some particular pocket of poverty or tackle some particular problem which has come to the notice of society.

What we need to do as a civilised and mature community is to work out a philosophy of the relationships between the one and the many, between the father and the family, between rich and poor and between the centre and the regions, so that we can build an automatic movement of cash one way and the other which meets the deepest needs of the individual as to the moral relationships he wishes to build between himself and the community.

Hon. Gentlemen opposite may be helped if I say a few words about Conservative thinking in this respect, without I hope saying anything so controversial that my hon. and right hon. Friends begin to wonder just where my ideas are coming from. The thinking of the Conservative Party today stems from the fact that the party is a coalition which was formed in 1931 between people of traditional Conservative outlook and people of the right-wing Liberal persuasion. The traditional Conservative outlook was best exemplified in the speeches and writings, and particularly in the early novels, of Disraeli, and can be seen in the life's work of men like Wilberforce and Shaftesbury and many other social reformers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who had a collectivist philosophy with regard to social reform.

On the other hand, one can see coming in, particularly in the first half of the twentieth century, ideas which are based on traditional Liberalism, namely, the concepts of self-help, the self-sufficiency of the individual and the economic notions of Ricardo and John Stuart Mill as to the necessity for the devil to take the hindmost—or in those days the National Assistance Board.

Many of my hon. and right hon. Friends today draw their social concepts from a blend of these two traditions with regard to social policy. All politics is a question of blending one's allegiance to the many and one's allegiance to the one. Hon. Members on both sides of the House take up their positions somewhere between the extremes of absolute collectivism, which denies the individual any freedom at all, and individualism reaching to the point of complete anarchy, which entirely denies the need for common institutions or traditions.

I should not like to say that any hon. Member has actually been so unwise as to say this, but one sometimes hears Conservative spokesmen say, "We are the party of one nation; we believe in the individual." When I hear or read phrases like that I am tempted to say, "Which do you actually mean? Do you mean belief in a strong, collective, organisational society, where the individual recognises the obligations of service, patriotism and social responsibility? Or do you, on the other hand, feel that the individual should be entirely free to make his own way, to be captain of his own destiny, and that he should owe nothing to anyone except himself?"

If today Conservative social policy is not precisely easy to define in a logical sentence, let it be said that it is very much the same as the social policy of hon. Gentleman opposite. It is perhaps not unhelpful in one of our discursive Friday debates, thinly attended as they are, to look at the origins of thinking on social policy and to try to define the philosophy which goes into the writing of Bills, Motions and manifestoes.

I am relatively happy with this coalition of ideas between collectivism and individualism because in a truly healthy modern society it is vital that every single component should be a person whose self-respect and freedom are intact. It therefore does not jar on me when I hear my hon. Friends placing emphasis on the necessity for the individual to make his own way. This does not necessarily contradict the concept I hold dear of a highly integrated society, in which each person feels himself to be a member of a proud, satisfying and historic group. I have perhaps trespassed too much on your patience, Mr. Speaker, in going into these highways and byways of sociology and political theory.

I am well aware that I have critics who feel that my concepts on the necessity for social reform, in particular for the integration of national insurance and income tax, are very much for the future and not matters which need concern us too much in this Parliament. I hope that one day my critics may say, "How young we were when we rejected the concepts of Kensington man; how obsolete the procedures to which we had grown accustomed when we rejected the concept of radical social reform based on the use of the computer and entirely fresh ideas."I hope that my critics may one day say "How superficial were our notions of the nature of our paper currency and the conspiracy which all members of society employing paper currency must adhere to, if it is not continually to lose value". I hope, too, that they may one day be willing to say that their notions of the social contract were rather unsatisfying.

I referred earlier in my remarks to criticisms which I have to make of the Inland Revenue. I see it somewhat as a fortress, or even a bastille, which sooner or later social reformers will have to storm. Anyone may have the experience as they go down the Strand of hearing groans and screams coming from Somerset House. They know that what has happened is that another new idea has got in there and is being given the Lubianka treatment. It is well enough known that if a new idea has survived in Somerset House for six months it is sent to the Siberia of a Royal Commission, where it is lost for all time and never heard of again.

There are three things which I hope the Inland Revenue will not block permanently, namely, the weekly basis for pay-as-you-earn, earnings-related contributions by the whole of our society—not only by the people who are now tax payers; and a revolution in our tax and benefit treatment of the self-employed. If we could break into this tremendous historic edifice, where all the information is available, or should be, for unifying means tests and wiping out the whole of the humiliating aspects of the means test, then we should be on the way to creating the sort of integrated society which I envisage.

In the meantime, I once again implore my right hon. and hon. Friends who are making the party's plans for social reform to deal with poverty, that they should ask themselves each day, "Who is paying what, to whom, and why?"

12.49 p.m.

Miss Joan Lestor (Eton and Slough)

As one of the politicians who believes that poverty has never been as fashionable a slogan as it should have been, I feel that one of the indictments of us all is that we have been so concerned with saying how well off society is, and talking about the number of washing machines and television sets which people have, that we have forgotten that at the lower end of the scale the gap has been growing between those who over the years have become better off and those who have become worse off.

I share the dismay which accompanied the introduction of family income supplement as against family allowances. When the mini-budget was announced and details of the supplement were given, one got the impression that men in full-time work but earning the level of supplementary benefits, or below, would be substantially assisted by the new scheme. However, an answer which I received to a Question on 23rd February put paid to that idea. I asked what percentage of families living on or below supplementary benefits level would benefit from family income supplement. The answer was: It is not possible to give a precise figure, but the best available estimate is that over half of the families with the breadwinner in full-time work but living on or below the supplementary benefit level will benefit from Family Income Supplement."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd February, 1971; Vol. 812, c. 72.] Clearly, the Government do not know for certain the number of people whose poverty will be eased by the supplement, for if they were sure that it would be more than half the total, they would say so.

Figures which have been given to me—and they have been used time and again —show that at the time of the mini-Budget there were one million children whose parents were in full-time work and earning the level of supplementary benefits or below. If the number of breadwinners to be assisted by the new scheme is just over half of that total, there are still 500,000 children whose parents will be earning only that level and who will be left in poverty. That is an indictment of the scheme. We were told at the time that it was only an interim measure, and I hope that we shall watch it carefully.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) dealt with wage increases and the fact that, despite the number of wage increases in certain sections of the community, many people will still be living on or below supplementary benefit level if the present price increase trend continues. I do not want to labour that, but I want to say that I was interested in what he said because my figures are precisely his, and it seems to me that we are now in a spiral of increasing poverty when, so we are told, wage increases will adversely affect the economy and people will be forced to compete for wage increases, although the spiral of prices will push down the standard of living.

The three main points which I want to make relate to families receiving benefits and one-parent families. There is clearly something wrong when families are existing at a level below that which the Supplementary Benefits Commission has said is the level of income on which people can just manage to get by. The figures are that a man and his wife receive £8.50p, and £1.50p is paid for a pre-school child while £2.40p is paid for an older child up to the age of 15. It is no wonder that the children who leave school early are concentrated among teen-age children who are being and have been supported by welfare benefits, because to keep them at school is almost impossible for their parents.

In addition to those benefits, rent is paid. An interesting point about this is that there is an argument between local authorities and the Supplementary Benefits Commission about making up a rent which the Commission regards as too high. My information is that many people have been caught in this argument, because neither the Commission nor the local authority will meet the high rent which has to be paid. I understand that a formula is being devised to meet the problem, but many people will have suffered as a result of it. So will many in private accommodation where there is not the rent rebate which one can get, if not easily, from a local authority. The rent-stop needs careful consideration.

My figures show that the levels of benefits are far too low. One of the worst features of the benefits system is the treatment of the lower-paid worker. If he is earning less than the level agreed by the Commission and then becomes unemployed, his entitlement is automatically cut below the normal, presumably because it is regarded as immoral for him to get more than he would have got if he had been earning. This arrangement is applied even though many people earn less than they would get if they were receiving normal benefits.

That demonstrates what poverty is. In a recent letter to the Guardian, a social worker said that she had been told by an official of the Commission that if someone managed to live on a wage-stop benefit, it was automatically assumed that he was fiddling, because the officials of the Commission did not understand how he could manage. That is a state of affairs which we should end immediately. If we have judged the level at which people can just manage to live, we ought to pay it irrespective of what wages were before entitlement to benefits arose. When we are asked what we mean by poverty, that is what we are talking about.

The result of the application of the wage-stop rule is mentioned by the Commission in its Report. It shows that many families do not have enough money for food on Wednesdays and Thursday, and they are not squandering it on bingo and booze, as an hon. Member once told us. Many people do not have fresh meat more than two or three times a week and often only at weekends. They have difficulty clothing their children, stocks of bedclothes are often nonexistent and many do not have proper bedclothes. They have an inability to find pocket money and money for school outings, cinemas, swimming, watching football matches and the other things which children, even those in the lower income groups, are normally expected to do.

This is living in poverty with actual deprivation, or being forced to be humiliated and embarrassed in a society where the normal standard of living is to be able to expect to have a holiday at least every other year and to be able to pay for one's children to have reasonable pleasures as their friends and companions do. Many families live in circumstances which would horrify hon. Members. As we tend not to live in that sort of poverty and to have friends who do not do so, it is easy to persuade ourselves that these people do not exist, or that they are living that way because of their own fault.

I feel strongly about one-parent families, women living alone and bringing up one, two or three children and often in receipt of benefits because they are not working. I hope that the Government will look into the system by which benefits are suspended for these women when they are suspected of cohabiting with the opposite sex. A very strong case can be made, even if they are cohabiting with the opposite sex and it is therefore assumed that the man, if it is a stable relationship, is contributing towards the upkeep of the household, for looking into whether it is justifiable to give benefits anyway. But at present benefits can be withheld simply on suspicion, before any investigation as to the circumstances whereby a woman may be cohabiting with a man. We say that this is an indictment of the attitude which many people seem to have that if a woman is cohabiting, she must, in some way or other, be being paid for it by a man.

I do not deny that there are many instances in which, upon investigation, it is found that a woman in receipt of benefits has had a stable relationship with a man and that the man has been contributing towards the upkeep of the household. I do not quarrel with decisions taken that the woman should not be entitled to benefit in those circumstances. But there are instances in which on suspicion—this is something that officers of the Supplementary Benefits Commission can do—payment is withheld and then the investigation takes place. The least that one could ask is that the investigation take place before the judgment is made. It seems that we are encouraging inter-sex relationships with the cash nexus, which I should have thought was anathema to anyone who believes in equality and in an absence of money entering relationships of that sort. I hope that instructions will be given that proof has to be established before benefits are withdrawn and that the greatest consideration will be given before this rule is applied. On the subject of stable relationships, sometimes enormous difficulties have arisen, and the attitude of mind which goes with that is not one which we should encourage.

One-parent families, especially women bringing up children on their own, are the victims of some of the greatest degrees of poverty in our society. The Finer Committee, now sitting, is looking closely at all aspects of this matter. Some of the evidence submitted to the Committee and made available to the public shows that there is an overall agreement about some of the main areas of poverty which ought to be alleviated. For instance, maintenance and the payment of maintenance orders for women and children, a subject which has been raised in the House, needs close examination. Some courts now make payments by post, which avoids women having to go to court to claim, but, as we shall find from recommendations made, payments by post or by order book as one claims family allowances, attachments to earnings and that sort of recommendation for women who are in receipt of maintenance are methods which have to be encouraged.

There is a great deal to be said for examining very closely the whole area of poverty whereby the unmarried woman who has a child has the whole onus placed on her, and occasionally harassment put on her, to take out an affiliation order against the man who is the father of her child before she receives benefits, and even if she is in receipt of benefits, in order that society can claim from the father some form of keep for the child. There are instances in which a woman does not wish to do this, or in which she does not, perhaps, know who the father is, and for all sorts of private reasons may not wish her private life to be investigated. It is wrong that any pressure should be put on a woman in those circumstances and that she should be forced to disclose details of her life in that respect in order that affiliation orders may be taken out. She may have a certain relationship with or attitude to the man in question so that she does not want this matter pursued. The attitude and the humiliation which enter into making claims in that respect and receiving the entitlement militate against people getting that to which they are entitled.

Reference has been made to the Conservative Party philosophy on the social services and benefits, and on society generally. I have a philosophy shared by many of my hon. Friends, and that is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West pointed out, that there are so many means tests today, and so many entitlements for which one has to claim, and yet we know, as we heap one on another, that many people never claim them. Yet we continue adding another benefit and another test. I accept that ignorance of entitlement is a reason for not claiming them.

One of the reasons for that is that in our society it seems much more important to catch the person who abuses the system and who may get something to which he is not entitled than to ensure that the person in need receives his entitlement. That may or may not be the idea behind it, but that is how it works in practice. Of the many people entitled to benefits, about 50 or 60 per cent., are not getting that to which they are entitled.

Fundamentally, although one has to deal with abuse and although abuse is wrong, it is far better that a few people should receive that to which they are not entitled than that a family in need should go without. We are erecting a structure militating against those people in need, especially one-parent families, from receiving that to which they are entitled.

Finally, I have been very disappointed not only in the outcome of the announcement on F.I.S.—that about 50 per cent. of families which ought to be benefiting will not be benefiting—but also that the Government have decided not to spend much more money on such problems as the urban aid programme and our educational priority areas.

The families we are speaking about, people living in poverty, are nearly always to be found in our twilight zones, in areas where the schools are poor, the housing inadequate and the amenities usually bad. The children in these areas leave school early, go out to work, usually get the lower paid jobs, and the circle continues.

If we are concerned about poverty and trying to bridge gaps and to create one nation, it is in the areas of urban renewal and putting much more money into things like the urban aid programme—which we began when in Government; it was little enough, but it was a start—that we need to do a great deal more, especially in our educational priority areas, because throughout our educational system we are adding advantage to those that have advantage already, and we do not give privileges to and positively discriminate in favour of those who are in need.

One of the unfortunate factors in the educational system and the idea of the urban aid programme and educational priority areas—which are likely to do much more to alleviate poverty and to raise standards, and at least to introduce some area of equality, than much of the talk about providing more university places, although I am in favour of that—is that one never deals with those at the bottom of the scale. These are areas where we have grave problems of poverty.

We have them partly because we as a nation have concentrated enormously on counting the blessings of the increasing number who have received blessings through the improved standards of life from which so many have benefited. But we forget that at the other end of the scale there are a growing number of people who are increasingly deprived and increasingly living in poverty. We must find a way of helping them. There is little use in counting the benefits enjoyed by our society when large sections of our people are permanently deprived.

1.10 p.m.

Dame Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

I want to support one or two of the points made by the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor). She raised the problem of women who cohabit, and this is a very difficult point. However, it is a point of which we should be aware. At the moment, there are about 50,000 women who cohabit and who do not ask for any kind of supplementary help. Like the hon. Lady, I know of cases in which women have had their benefits stopped purely on suspicion or because of rumours circulating among neighbours. In view of the large number of women who are known to be cohabiting and who do not ask for help, perhaps careful attention might be given to those who ask for help.

I also agree with the hon. Lady about educational priorities. It is impossible for people to pull themselves up in the world if they do not have the right educational chances. Far too many poorer people do not have a single book in the house and get no opportunity to see magazines or newspapers. Their children do not get the opportunity to learn to read before they go to school, though some may at a play school or day nursery. The result is that most of them go to school and, regrettably, very often have to stay at the back of the class for most of their education. The start of a good education is a great advantage. I know people aged 24 and 25 who cannot read or write, and it obviously mitigates against their getting decent jobs.

I look upon Fridays as occasions for private Members to express views and to try to find solutions, and I want to congratulate the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) on his knowledge of his choice of subject. He is rapidly gaining the reputation of being an expert on it, and he is right in his ambition to improve the conditions of people. We should all be similarly ambitious.

Before the war, I worked in the East End of London in Islington and Poplar. I was also in India and Malaysia. Consequently, I have some knowledge of poverty of many kinds. In that connection, I must pay tribute to the work done by our social security officers to help those in need. It is a very difficult job.

The Poor Law of 1834 has merely been replaced by the Supplementary Benefits Commission. The modern Commission has been set up on the same basis. I am fortified in my remarks by an editorial article in the Crucible which says: The object of the Family Income Supplements Act is to increase the income of poorer families by supplementing it when it falls below a prescribed limit. It does not need much knowledge to realise that the historical parallel is with the nineteenth-century concept of a sliding scale of 'relief' and with the social situation described by Disraeli's 'Two Nations', rather than with the Beveridge principle of a universal national insurance which this country has developed in recent years and in which it may take pride as at least attempting to accord with ideas of human dignity and justice. The kind of question we have to ask then is whether such legislation adds to or detracts from human dignity, whether it fragments our society still further or is based on a coherent doctrine of man? If we have no philosophy of human relationships, if we do not question such and such measures, national or local, in the light of fundamental principle, and above all if we remain preoccupied with the national economy as if it were unrelated to the human beings who constitute our society, then our loss in wholeness, health and fulfilment will be disastrous. I hope that hon. Members will not mind my reading that article, as it provides some useful backing to what I have said before about this Act, because I am very worried about the way in which it will work.

I suppose that the groups most affected by poverty are retired men and women, the disabled and chronically sick who, I hope, will be helped by the new Act, the single woman with her dependant, the one-parent family, and low-income workers. I happen to come from an area of low incomes, and I have some knowledge of the difficulties of people in those circumstances.

Many of the groups to whom I have referred could be helped by raising the income tax threshold. That would be of great advantage, especially to retirement pensioners. We have an extraordinary position whereby those in retirement, especially people who have small pensions other than the national pension, like a naval or dockyard pension, have to pay income tax and then qualify for a small supplementary pension. This seems to be quite absurd.

The Rowntree Surveys of 1899, 1936 and 1950 tried to decide what was poverty. They considered a family to be living in poverty if its total earnings were insufficient to obtain the necessities for the maintenance of mere physical efficiency. A few days ago, a Written Answer to the hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Bishop) gave details of incapacity notified for National Insurance purposes in Great Britain in 1970. The numbers of days lost respectively by males and females were 21 million and 10 million as a result of mental, psycho-neurotic and personality disorders, 18 million and four million as a result of diseases of the digestive system, and 37 million and six million as a result of diseases of the nervous system and sense organs. There were 13 other categories, but I will not refer to them because those that I have mentioned prove my point. Most of these are diseases of anxiety or poverty, and they make people inefficient. The Rowntree Surveys have a very good point when they discuss what is real poverty.

I want to read a short extract from an excellent book written by A. B. Atkinson entitled Poverty in Britain and the Reform of Social Security". He gives a table on page 152 which shows the gross earnings required to bring various households up to supplementary benefit level and details of the income tax and National Insurance paid on their earnings. For example, a married couple with no children earning £10 6s. pays 4s. 10d. income tax and 17s. 10d. National Insurance. However, a couple with one child should earn at least £12 6s., a couple with two children £13 5s., a couple with three children £14 Is. a couple with four children £14 7s., and a couple with six children £16 12s. to be above the supplementary benefit level in order to obtain F.I.S.

We know that a great many families are below those wage levels, though I have not mentioned National Insurance and the fact that a family of six children has to pay £1 4s. So we are not asking too much in saying that we want to see the take-home pay of a wage earner equal to that which he would get in supplementary benefit.

To raise the standard of living, I want to see established a minimum income. I also want to see better housing and better family allowances. Earnings are the primary source of income in one-fifth of all households below the poverty line. It is not the fact that they are not working. It is that they happen to have low-paid jobs, which means that they cannot raise their standards.

In 1966, the Ministry of Social Security showed that, with regard to family allowances, of three million families where the father was in full-time work, more than 2 per cent. fell below the National Assistance level then in force. There were 70,000 families with about 250,000 children. How are we considering helping these families? The Government have introduced the family income supplement. However, that will assist only about 184,000 families and about 500,000 children.

Will this mean a further means test? It seems that they will get only between 3s. and £3 a week according to income. Many people are too proud to claim these benefits, especially if they live in tower blocks or on large council estates where everybody knows what everybody else is doing. Mr. Jones does not like it to be known that he cannot keep his family. I know this, because many people come to my office, and when I ask why they have not claimed the benefits, that is what I am told. They say that they do not like to go to the social security office. However, when I write to social security offices I find them extremely helpful and often matters can be put right.

I was disturbed to read this morning in the Daily Telegraph that social security offices are to get 700 more staff. I dare say that they are overworked, but they want another 500 to cope with the extra work involved in Government changes in the Health Service. According to the Daily Telegraph the new staff will cost over £1 million a year, because these will be permanent staff. I understand that two million hours overtime a year has been worked and that social security offices, therefore, need the extra staff. I understand that there will have to be another 240 recruits under a scheme to employ temporary relief. I should like to know what all this will cost. Will it be the £1 million suggested in the Daily Telegraph? I should also like to know for how long these people will be needed.

The article states: The union has been in the forefront of a campaign to increase the number of special investigators to check on social security frauds. I was interested to hear, in reply to a Question, that apparently women are not allowed to be special investigators. This is one of the jobs which they cannot take in the Civil Service.

The article goes on: It argued that unless there was a substantial increase in staff, schemes like the family income supplement would be wide open to abuse. That again proves my point that F.I.S. is not the real answer to what we are trying to do—namely, to improve the standard of living of these people.

My hon. Friend was not present when I started my speech. I said that we wished to have the opportunity of expressing opinions on Fridays and perhaps getting certain things changed. I hope that I am not being entirely critical, and I believe that I have put forward some constructive points. At present we have Social Security offices issuing books, the Post Office paying out the money, and the Inland Revenue collecting it back. We ought to sort out this system.

I am interested in the Common Market. Therefore, I have taken the opportunity —I am on the Health and Social Services Committee of the Council of Europe—of seeing how matters are managed in Common Market countries. In France and the other Common Market countries, with the exception of Germany, the first child is given a family allowance. The allowance for one child in France is £6 12s. 6d. per month. For three children it is £23 3s. 4d. In Belgium the allowance for three children is £23 17s. 6d. In England the allowance for three children is £6 18s. 8d. Germany is the next lowest with £7 16s. 3d. I suggest that we should have higher family allowances.

I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services, in an article during the election, repeated the late lain Macleod's pledge that the Government would increase family allowances. I suggest that a better and cheaper way, needing fewer civil servants, would be to let people pay for everything themselves. I am in favour of people having the opportunity to spend their money as they wish rather than going for this or the other grant or supplementation.

The Common Market countries give a far larger percentage of their gross national income to the social services. The employers, as I mentioned in a previous debate on this subject, also con- tribute more towards the social services. In Germany it is 6.2 per cent.; in France it is 12.7 per cent., and in the United Kingdom it is 2.8 per cent. I think that it would be helpful if we increased that percentage.

With the highest unemployment for 30 years the standard of living of many families will deteriorate. Already many have been living above their income through hire-purchase commitments and so on. Such commitments have to be paid off or the articles will be reposessed.

At the moment one in six families lives in poverty, and there are over 5,000 children in care. I have read in the Press that a headmaster of a school in Portsmouth, Mr. Francis, a member of the National Union of Teachers, has mentioned the "dustbin children"—children who go round raiding dustbins in the City of Portsmouth. I think that school teachers know more about children and families than do many other people. They see them daily and therefore have more knowledge of them, and we should do well to discuss with teachers the problems of families. I understand that Portsmouth is no worse or certainly no better than other places, but the fact, which has not been contradicted, that it has 500 children in care for one reason or another shows that there must be a problem.

I should like to put forward another plea on housing on different lines from those which have been put forward previously. I consider that one of the greatest evils are the slums of any country—I admit that they are far less than they were and that a great deal has been done in the United Kingdom. From the moment a child is born the environment in his home begins to create his character. We know, regrettably, about the increase in battered babies. This is because of the strain of life and the overcrowded conditions in which people live. It has been proved that if we wish to stabilise families we must provide them with good homes. A great number of desertions by men are the result of their not liking their home conditions.

In Common Market countries and other countries in Europe, loans are given at very little interest for individuals either to build or to buy their own homes. I know many young people who would like to buy their own homes. If they were enabled to do so there would be a considerable saving because they would take more interest in having their own house. Therefore, we should consider this question again either through the local authorities or by allowing building societies more money to lend to enable people to get on with finding their own homes. I am sure that we shall find that the housing problem will improve considerably in time if we help in this regard.

The Daily Telegraph also states that more people are sleeping rough in London, and that about 3,000 people are sleeping rough throughout the country as a whole. Further hostels are needed for these people, and perhaps contact could be made with the Salvation Army to see whether they can help with the problem of people having to sleep out at night.

I should like to end on the problem of one-parent families. I know that it is under investigation now by a Committee, but I should like to address myself to the question of maintenance and affiliation orders. I support the hon. Member for Eton and Slough in saying that people do not like applying for maintenance or affiliation orders. In fact, only one in eight applies. This is because they dislike the procedure of having to put their cases before the court. Out of 1,927 cases, 136 were granted, and these ceased to be paid in a short time. This is very unfortunate for the women concerned. I believe that women would go out to work if there were more day nurseries to look after their children and they could contribute to the payment for these facilities.

I should like to give one or two examples of the low incomes on which these people have to live. For example, a girl aged 19 has social security payments of £5 3s. a week. Her rent and some food total £3. She has £1 10s. for her child and 13s. for clothing. This is her entire income. A woman aged 22, with a three-months old baby, has an income of £5 16s. which is entirely taken up by rent, food, clothing and fuel. A woman of 35 with three children —there is an interesting aspect here in that she has 15s. in charitable trust money—has an income of £11 17s.

Quite a number of women who want to go out to work get supplementation for rent from a charitable trust without being less well off than on supplementary benefit. The Catholic Housing Aid Society, with its Fatherless Family Housing Department, would like very much to see more of the 400 tenants of that department go out to work. Some of them cannot even afford clothing and their only clothing comes through the W.R.V.S. It is a true impression that these women with children of school age feel themselves isolated and outside the community and are conscious that to work is to be integrated into the community again. If that were accepted, if they could do so, a large number of them would go out to work. It has, therefore, been suggested that they should have a fatherless family allowance not subject to means test. This would enable them to go out to work.

Among those mothers who are economically active, the percentage separated from their husbands is about 47.7 while widowed mothers total about 59 per cent. Mothers of dependent children under school age are less inclined to go out to work than those with children who go to school, and 40 per cent. of the mothers are therefore still on supplementary benefit.

In the census, the classification of economically active mothers is fairly broad. It includes both full-time and part-time workers. The figures for the lone mothers, including separated wives, in their grouping of widows, divorcees and single mothers, show that about 32.4 per cent. in England and Wales were full-time workers whereas 22.2 per cent. were part-time. Thirteen per cent. of the mothers with husbands living with them were working full time and one-third worked part time.

The replacement of supplementary benefit by a fatherless family allowance, with the removal of the earnings rule, which it would entail, would be likely to encourage a large number of lone mothers possibly to go out to work full time. It is equally likely that it would encourage a much larger number of women to increase their earnings. At present, about 155,000 are living on supplementary benefit. It is expected, from the survey, that 16,000 would return to work under the scheme I suggest. The level of income of the 155,000 lone mothers would mean that about one-quarter of the money—about £8 million —would return to the Exchequer through 'direct and indirect taxation. That is a rough estimate. It is certainly highly desirable that more lone women should be able to work at least part time, for the sake of their mental health as well as their standard of living.

I think that about 180,000 lone mothers might qualify for the fatherless family allowance. This includes 30,000 separated wives without children. The fatherless family allowance might be seen as an alternative to the supplementary benefit allowance. The mothers would have a choice if the fathers failed to pay. It would be advantageous in the end because, in the longer term—say, 20 years ahead—when the 674,000 fatherless children of today become young adults, their contribution in the 1980s and 1990s and beyond, their capacity as parents and citizens and work people, will all depend on their childhood experience. If they do not live in poverty in their childhood, they are more likely to grow up healthy and be able to play their full part in the future of our country. I believe that it is, therefore, a long-term investment to help these families. After all, once they are adults, these fatherless children, if they pull their weight, will be contributing between £4,000 million and £5,000 million a year to the gross national product.

I hope that the Government will consider this scheme in detail because we want these people to be self-respecting and to give their children a better chance. In any case, it might offer one way of getting rid of poverty and thereby of bringing up a generation with hopes for the future. I hope that my right hon. Friends will give this serious thought because I believe that, through the scheme, we could eliminate at least one area of poverty and give the children concerned a fair chance to be better citizens of the country.

1.38 p.m.

Mr. Thomas Cox (Wandsworth, Central)

Many hon. Members on both sides are waiting to speak so I shall curtail my remarks. I am sure that all of us warmly welcome the opportunity of debating what is obviously one of the most important subjects presented to us in our constituencies. Without doubt, poverty is a very great problem. It affects many people but I want to confine my remarks to the problem of the elderly—a problem we are all familiar with.

So far the debate—and it has benefited from it—has been free from the spectacle of either side seeking to score party political points about which party is more concerned about or is trying to do more for our elderly people. I welcome that and I am sure that, when we discuss their difficulties, elderly people are completely unconcerned as to which party is in power. Their main concern is what help is being given to them to overcome the problems they face. We are right in a debate such as this to ask whether the Government's policy is showing the kind of urgency that it should be about the problems faced by ordinary people.

The greatest problem faced by elderly people is the increase in the cost of living and especially the increase in the cost of food. It is an issue which affects very many people. So far in the life of this Parliament, we have been told by the Government that their policy of tackling inflation and checking the price increases is a long-term policy. They say that the problem will not be solved in the immediate future but that it will take possibly two or three years before they begin to have success on this issue.

While that may be some credit to the Government, it is totally meaningless to the vast majority of pensioners, whose basic concern is with what is taking place now and with the price increases affecting them now, not with what action the Government may take in two or three years. Since the last election, there have been over 5,000 increases in prices, and they have been concentrated among those items especially relevant to retired people —food, heating, lighting, rent and so on.

Earlier this month, I asked what was the estimated amount which a pensioner spent on lighting and heating. I was told that for a one-pension household it was 16 per cent. of the retirement pension and in two-pension households 12½ per cent. This gives some indication of the problem of heating and lighting for pensioners. In the kind of cold weather which we are now experiencing, hon. Members will be receiving complaints from their constituents, if they have not done so already, about the extra money which has to be spent on lighting and heating.

Yesterday morning, I called on one of my constituents, a lady of 90, who lives alone and who suffers badly from arthritis. I asked how much it cost her for heating and light, and she said that at the moment she was spending £2 a week solely on heating her flat because she felt the cold so much and because of her illness. It is easy to understand that if a person has to pay that amount on one item, and to that has to be added the cost of food and rent, there is little left of the weekly pension at the end of the week for the other essential items.

Irrespective of age, a person requires money for clothing, for household items and for the day-to-day necessities which are not directly covered by the State retirement pension. As I was told by this old lady and as many hon. Members have often been told, at the end of the week pensioners are lucky to be left with 2s. or 3s. in their pockets. In a society such as ours, that should not happen. There are more than 7 million retired people and a very large percentage of them have no money left long before the next pension day is due.

The problem of pensioners is the greatest single issue facing us. I have listened to all the speeches so far and I have much sympathy with the comments about poverty in general. When I was in local government I was the chairman of a children's committee and I have much sympathy with what has been said about family poverty, but, in view of the numbers alone, our greatest problem is the care of elderly people.

We are told that later this year there is to be a review by the Government of a possible pension increase. This is something which both sides of the House will warmly welcome. With inflation and the added costs which pensioners have had to face in recent months, this is an increase to be considered as a matter of urgency and introduced far earlier than November.

I hope that the Government will seriously consider making it a sizeable increase. The last increase was 14 months ago, and in the interval the value of the pension must have fallen by several shillings a week. If the increase is not sizeable, it will be meaningless, because by November it will already have been used up by increased costs since the last increase. I am sure that both sides of the House agree that the increase should be substantial.

However, there may be some hon. Members who will say that while they are extremely sympathetic, we cannot find the money. I am convinced that if, as will happen in April, the Government are able to give tax reliefs totalling £360 million, they are in a position to give substantial pension increases. I accept that this is a matter to be discussed in the coming months, but I do not believe that this is the time for tax reliefs although many, especially if they have children, will find that, far from receiving benefits, they will have added household expenditure because of the increased charges which were imposed at the same time as the 6d. cut in income tax was announced.

Making a cut of 6d. in income tax ought not to have been the priority. The Government would have received much credit, certainly from this side of the House and I am sure from the country generally, if they had said that while they would have liked to reduce income tax, their top priority was to see that old people were given substantial increase in pensions, that that was what they were pledged to do, and that was what they intended to do. In that way, the money would have been wisely spent.

I accept that it is difficult to know how many people have to come into care because they do not receive enough money in pension or supplementary benefit to have the kind of food and the kind of heating which is essential to them. Last November, I asked the Department the cost of taking an elderly person into care by a local authority. I was told that that cost a local authority £13 a week. I was told in answer to another Question at the same time that it cost £24 5s. a week to keep an elderly person in a geriatric ward of a hospital. That indicates the cost to local authorities and to the State of taking people into care. Often there is a need for a person to be taken into care but if we were able to make a substantial increase in the amount of State pension paid to a retired person then the numbers needing to be taken into care would be greatly diminished. This would be of benefit not only to the pensioners but to the State.

There is also this problem of low take-up of State benefits by retirement pensioners. Some do not take them up because they do not like the feeling that they have to go through what they call a means test. I am equally certain that many do not take them up because they are not aware that they exist—they are unaware of the facilities provided by the State and local authorities, who do excellent work throughout the country on behalf of retired people.

Can something be done to inform retired people of these benefits, either through the pension book or by enclosing a letter with the new pension book sent annually? This letter could set out the benefits available and tell pensioners how to apply for them.

In April of this year concessionary fares will be introduced in the G.L.C. area, and all hon. Members will welcome this. I am aware that this point is primarily the responsibility of the G.L.C. and the London Boroughs Association, but what troubles me is that so far these concessionary fares will apply from Monday to Friday in off-peak hours but not to Sundays. It is on a Sunday that the vast majority of elderly people wish to travel to see relatives and friends. Not many people travel on Sundays and yet so far no provision has been made, certainly within the G.L.C. area, for the use of these concessionary permits on Sunday. Is it possible for the Minister's Department to contact the G.L.C. about extending this scheme, which is long overdue, to include Sundays?

This has been a worth-while debate touching many of the important issues affecting so many people. On some issues we are told that this is a Government of toughness, not prepared to compromise. When we are dealing with the care and welfare of the elderly and people in poverty, the one thing that is not needed is toughness. What is needed is humanity and above all a sense of urgency. I hope that we will hear from the Minister that this, above all, is what we will have from this Government.

1.55 p.m.

Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)

Yesterday in our debates on the Roskill Report a right hon. Gentleman opposite began talking about the rural slums of Buckinghamshire—the villages of Cublington and so on. I think that he was talking nonsense, but today we have just heard a speech from the hon. Member for Bristol, South—

Mr. Thomas Cox

I am Wandsworth, Central. I share a name with the hon. Gentleman who represents Bristol, South.

Mr. Raison

I am sorry. I think the two hon. Members also share a moustache.

The hon. Gentleman was talking about something which we all know to be at the heart of the poverty problem. He said that the problem of the old is over-riding, and he is absolutely right. What is hitting the old at the moment is the increase in food prices and everything to do with inflation. It does not make sense to enter into a debate now about inflation and why it is happening. That has been discussed here often enough lately. It is a crucial factor, and we believe that we have a way of diminishing it, but I do not think that that is the point now. What we have to do is accept that there is a problem and to hope that we can treat the old as generously as possible before long.

I am still in favour of the idea of the regular two-year review. The late Labour Government committed themselves to this and I believe that it makes sense. I know that there is an urgent problem here and that is why people are arguing for the improvement to be brought forward, but I do not think that in reality the saving in time could be very great, perhaps a matter of a couple of months. The principle of the regular review is beneficial. Looking back, it is fair to say that of the three retirement pension increases brought in by the Labour Government between 1964 and 1970, two were at intervals longer than two years. One of them was definitely shorter.

Recent history therefore lends some encouragement to the belief that a firm commitment to the two-year review makes sense. It is sensible and prudent of the Government to accept it. At the same time, we are aware that there is supplementary benefit as a fall-back, but we are also aware that it does not have the take-up that it should have. That is a problem. As the hon. Member for Wands-worth, Central (Mr Thomas Cox) said, it is partly a matter of pride and partly one of ignorance. These are among the Seven Deadly Sins, but we need not describe them as sins in this context.

Dealing with pride, there is one fact which I should be interested to learn and that is whether, as the years go by, what might be called the "younger old" are showing less of a tendency to be prejudiced than the "older old". In other words, is the stigma of supplementary benefit, which came from National Assistance, which itself came from earlier things, beginning to die away or is it deeply embedded? If we cannot get rid of this so-called stigma, then we are in serious difficulties for a long time to come. It is inevitable that there will be some form of fall-back scheme, and it has to work.

Mr. O'Malley

Would the hon. Gentleman not agree that instead of attempting to get rid of what he described as the stigma of supplementary benefit a more effective way of dealing with the problem would be to try to reduce progressively the number of retirement pensioners on supplementary benefit? Does he recall that that was one of the purposes of the Crossman scheme, yet his Government apparently have no proposal at all to bring about such a reduction?

Mr. Raison

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman in his long-term remedy. I am sure that our Government will put forward a scheme which will meet that point, but my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be able to answer that question better than I. It is true that an effective retirement pension scheme is at the heart of this matter in the long term. On the other hand I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's Government or any other Government can introduce a scheme which will solve the problem overnight. It is in the nature of the problem that it takes a long time to solve it. We must bang away at the problem of pride and the problem of ignorance. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion about enclosing a letter in the pension book was eminently sensible.

I turn to the point raised by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) about the definition of poverty. I intervened in his speech to point out that it is unsatisfactory to use the supplementary benefit level or any kind of minimum guarantee as a poverty yardstick. I was not satisfied by his counter-explanation. If we use this definition every time we increase the benefit with above average generosity, we distort the definition. Every time we increase supplementary benefit by more than the increase in the cost of living, we create a false definition.

Mr. Meacher

My point was that the amount by which supplementary benefit is raised is never over-generous. It never exceeds the rate of increase in national average earnings. It merely keeps on a par with the rise in standards; it does no more.

Mr. Raison

If the hon. Gentleman says that it is reasonable to peg it at the increase in average earnings, why cannot it be done directly? Why cannot the hon. Gentleman take a base line and say that the increase in average earnings is such-an-such and that the effect on poverty is such-and-such? His approach, which goes back to the Townsend-Abel Smith book" The Poor and the Poorest", is essentially fallacious. That book, although interesting and influential, has certain academic limitations. For example, the business of changing the criterion on which they were working between 1953 and 1960 was odd. I had some sympathy with Mr. David Ennals, who was a member of the Labour Government, when he talked of the departure from academic decency on the part of some people whose work emanated from that book. Some of the most ardent propagandists of that view have occasionally been guilty of using figures with an excessive disregard of the case in putting forward their point of view.

The question of the definition of poverty is important. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. James Hill) that we may need new forms of definition. I do not believe that the one which I have discussed is adequate. We should perhaps have a thorough-going inquiry into the composition of poverty. We must always be prepared to ask such questions as, "What does poverty mean among the old?", rather than going for the relative notion of pegging the definition of poverty in the way in which the hon. Member for Oldham, West has proposed. It still makes sense to try to look at the ingredients of poverty or at the sort of level of living to which old people or any other category of people are entitled. In other words, we should devise an updated, more generous form of minimum standard and define it.

We must ask whether every old person should be entitled to a telephone or whether a television set should be regarded as part of the necessary minimum standard. We must consider questions of diet, clothing, housing and heat. There is a good case for looking at the ingredients of people's lives and then trying to work out what they are decently entitled to rather than simply pegging the level to a looser financial scale. I hope that a fresh approach will be adopted to this matter.

Having disagreed with the hon. Member for Oldham, West on that point, I must say that I support to a quite considerable extent his plea for a reduction of means tests. I do not completely accept the way in which the point is worded in the Motion, but the general principle is right. It is evident that there are far too many means tests and, in the crudest administrative or bureaucratic terms, this must be a nonsense. I hope that the Government will make it one of their social objectives over the next few years to try to reduce the number of means tests.

I doubt whether my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington, South (Sir B. Rhys Williams) will see the fulfilment of his dream in the very near future. My hon. Friend talked about the idea of the single system administered through the income tax—in other words, the negative income tax approach. He is a very persuasive supporter of this concept, but substantial difficulties still lie in the way of its adoption. As an alternative, we should set ourselves the objective of trying to concentrate on one major system of help for each of the major areas of potential hardship. I should like to see one big scheme for helping family poverty, one big scheme for helping disability poverty, one big scheme for helping old-age poverty, and so on. I do not mean here the retirement pension scheme for the old, although that is crucial, but a scheme for helping cases of special hardship. We have so many varieties of benefit and forms of assistance that there is a problem of ignorance and inevitably a certain amount of administrative inconvenience. I cannot believe that that is the right way of going about things.

This entails trying to cut back on the proliferation of concessions. There has been reference to the case for fare concessions on buses for old-age pensioners. I concede that in present circumstances there is a good case for it. There is a sharp need and it is a reasonable response to say that it should be met by concessions of this kind. But in the long term it is a better principle to try to ensure that people have an adequate income and, as far as possible, to leave it to them to spend it in the way they want. There is not in logic, or even necessarily in practice, a good case for saying to retirement pensioners, "Some of you can have the benefit of a free bus ride" when others, who may not have a bus service at all, cannot have access to that form of benefit. That is acceptable only as a stop-gap measure.

I would prefer to see bigger family allowances to deal with child poverty rather than a wide range of different benefits for this, that and the other. By "family allowances" I mean, not the flat-rate system, but a single system of providing financial help to families with a certain number of children and whose income level may be variable. Family allowances have moved a step beyond the flat-rate system through the introduction of the claw-back scheme, which was a useful innovation. But I favour the idea of having a single way of coping with family poverty rather than having uniform grants, free meal grants, and so on.

I must face another problem which, I suppose, one could call the problem of the feckless. The traditional objection to putting everything into a single cash benefit is that mum will "blow" it all on bingo or dad will spend it on the dogs. We cannot completely dismiss this, however much we should like to do so.

Therefore, I suggest that it may be reasonable, within the framework of this overall benefit, to have a certain proportion of it which can only be spent on particular forms of expenditure. In other words, one has to have, I suppose, some form of coupon system. Those coupons would be used to help to provide school uniforms, for example, for the children. The general principle of a single major benefit in these areas is sensible.

It is also very important to look very closely at the way in which benefits are working out. There is a risk now, with this great proliferation of benefits, that sometimes people with nominally higher incomes may not be in any real sense better off than people with nominally lower incomes. To the true relativist, this may not matter, but it is basically absurd that, if someone gets an increase in pay of £3 and in theory will be that much better off, he will not in fact get any tangible benefit because of the way benefits work out.

I hope that the Under-Secretary noticed in The Times yesterday an item on this. The person whom I am going to quote is Mr. Tony Lynes. Having been critical to some degree of some of the approach of the school to which he belongs, I must at least acknowledge that here what he has said seems to have a great deal of sense, if his facts are right. The article says: Mr. Lynes argues that after April a family with two children living in a council house would be allowed to retain only 24p, 8 per cent., of a £3 increase, taking their income from £15 to £18. 'The reason for the low figure is that the father starts paying income tax at just over 30 per cent. when his earnings reach £15.27. Between that level and £17.80, therefore, an extra £1 a week of earnings produces the following results: income tax, 30p; graduated contribution, 5p; loss of family income supplement, 50p; loss of rate rebate, 12½p; Total: tax plus loss of benefits 97½p. All that remains of the ½1 therefore, is 2½.' This is a formidable point. The article also says: A man earning £23, however, would lose all but 1p of a £1 increase because at that level his school-age child would lose his right to a free school dinner. If these facts are true—I have not tried to inquire whether they are true—it raises a very serious problem. It cannot be right to pay people more money and then to take it away from them because of the way in which our benefits work out. I therefore hope that the Government are looking at this fairly carefully.

I should now like to turn to some rather broader questions of social policy strategy. The terms of the Motion are pretty wide ranging and it is proper in this debate to look ahead at the way in which social policy is likely to develop over the next few years.

I want to say straight away that I believe that it is no good rejecting growth, as the hon. Member for Oldham, West did at the beginning. Of course growth does not cure all our problems—no one could possibly pretend that it does —but it is basically true that, when a country is growing, it will be able to afford more for its social services. To adopt a social policy which will in no way restrict or inhibit growth is to adopt a social policy which in the long term will damage the growth of the social services themselves, quite apart from the growth of everything else. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have a word with his right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) on the broad issue here.

I believe, therefore, that we must bear in mind the need to achieve a buoyant and dynamic economy, which to me means incentives. This is ground which we have covered many times, but I am sure that the good and valid justification for the change in the income tax rate is that it will help to inject some sort of impetus into an economy which has received a great deal of battering and bashing and virtually no encouragement over the last few years.

Mr. O'Malley

If the hon. Gentleman is using the argument that, for example, the reduction of 6d. in the standard rate provides an incentive, would he explain what kind of incentive that is to a man on, say, £900 a year, or even going up to £27 a week, with two children, whose incentive apparently is to receive some increase as a result of the reduction in taxation but who, overall, because of the Government's other measures, finds himself worse off than he was before?

Mr. Raison

It is worth considering these various other measures in some detail. On many of them—for instance, dental charges—there has been a lot of misunderstanding. They seem to have positive features which the hon. Member is not facing up to. But overall there is a good case, I believe, for saying that this is a good way of injecting some much-needed dynamism into our economy. We must recognise that the social services, more and more with every year, are an absolutely crucial part of the whole economic picture.

This is for the obvious reason that the proportion of the gross national product which they are taking up is increasing endlessly. Indeed, one could almost argue that the responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Social Services for the management of the economy are nearly as important as those of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Such a terrific amount of money is being handled by this Department that it is terribly important that it has a social strategy which will take into account economic factors as well as straight social factors.

It is right for the Government to look afresh at the balance between resources and means. The process which was begun last October with the Chancellor's so-called mini-budget was a process which I am certain would have had to happen under any Government and which is bound to go on for a long time yet.

The sort of measures which we will see in future will very much be centred on the question of whether we are meeting the real needs in the most effective way. This means considering new forms of charge. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) has gone, because I want to give one small example of this in a field which interests her—the expansion of nursery school education. We are all agreed on that: I am sure that my hon. Friends are. We all know that this is not really happening except to a small degree in the priority areas. It will not happen unless we are prepared to accept the recommendations of the minority on the Plowden Committee, of whom I was one, who said that the way to finance nursery school expansion in present circumstances is by a willingness to introduce a charge for those who can afford to pay it. It seems that this, at the least, is plain common sense. I would add—not that this is a necessary validation—that at least two of the signatures to this were those of well-known Socialists.

Mr. Eric Deakins (Walthamstow, West)

Is it not a fact that nursery education is needed mainly for socially deprived families and children? What, therefore, would be the purpose of trying to make them pay charges which they could not afford for nursery education?

Mr. Raison

What the hon. Gentleman ignores is that there is a demand for nursery education which goes much wider than that. For example, it is a legitimate demand, say, in the one-child family. Many people will use it who are not in adverse social circumstances and by doing so they would be providing more money, from which those who are in adverse circumstances would be able to benefit.

Mrs. Elaine Kellett (Lancaster)

It would be a great pity if we were to give this type of education only to one type of child. It is essential that children should be taught at an early age to mix with all their fellow children and not with only one class.

Mr. Raison

As always, my hon. Friend speaks very good sense: I entirely agree with her.

Anyway, this is just one of the examples of the way in which we must look afresh at the shibboleths of particularly the Labour Party. I do not, of course, want to run down what the Labour Party has done for the social services, but I think that it has about it in some respects a profound conservatism which really does inhibit development. It is so wedded to certain notions with which it grew up in the past, and which may very well have been valid in the past, that it will not look in the face the need to change its attitudes, and, in particular, to find some new source of revenue.

Mr. Reginald Freeson (Willesden, East)

Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that as a general proposition, which needs to be qualified in detail, of course, the major new changes which have taken place in social policy over recent years have one way or another dealt with issues of social priority areas geographically, where poverty of all kinds is concentrated? It varies throughout the country, of course, but it is in those areas where important developments have taken place. Would he not agree that they have taken place in the last five or six years?

Mr. Raison

I would agree that there have been important developments, but I cannot accept that this is something which is primarily to the credit of the Labour Party. [Interruption.] Well, the last five or six years was a period in which there was a Labour Government. I would agree that there has been positive discrimination shown, for example, in the educational priority areas, and that that is something which has grown up over the last few years. Yes, I would agree with that point.

Mr. Freeson

I was at pains to point out that what had taken place in that period had taken place in developments of social priorities in the field, for instance, of education policy, in housing policy, in health policy, in various ways— community projects priority, projects at a number of levels—which had not taken place before the last five or six years.

Mr. Raison

Well, I think there has been an intensified pressure towards selectivity, and to that extent I would agree with the hon. Gentleman. The point I am making is that there is a major financial problem in the development of the social services in the next decade. This is common ground.

I think it is worth while for a brief moment to try to look at the reasons for this. Undoubtedly the first reason, which has been half touched on already, is the shift in the balance of the population in this country. Possibly the greatest single fact which we have to take in is that the proportion of dependants to the workers or providers or whatever we call them is changing, and that, in particular, we have a very substantially increasing population movement among the old and also an increasing population among the young, and there is that welcome tendency for people to stay on in education longer and this will govern a great deal of social policy, so that in order to stand still we have to run. One estimate of population growth is, I believe, that by the 1980s we shall have an increase of something like 6 million in our population, but an increase of only 800,000 in the working section of the population. Whether these figures are still up to date, I am not sure, but the fact they embody is of crucial significance.

Secondly, we must face the fact that, absolutely reasonably, people are de- manding and expecting higher standards all the time. In areas like medicine, for example, every improvement seems somehow or another to become more and more expensive. Drugs are an often quoted example of this. I believe that the cost of producing one new drug is something like the cost of building a hospital. That has been an enormous strain and pressure on the social services. Then there is the fact that the social services will inevitably remain labour-intensive and will inevitably demand a very high rate of staffing, and that will be a continuing problem.

We know, too, that in days gone by the social services tended to be manned by the underpaid. If one worked in the social services one more or less expected to be paid well below what one might expect to be paid in a comparable position outside. This factor is also changing. We have to recognise this. Doctors, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Dr. Stuttaford) will agree, have made something of a breakthrough in this respect, and they are now, in my view, very reasonably paid. Teachers certainly work very hard to improve their position. Right across the board we are seeing a considerable pressure to get parity of pay for people staffing the social services. They are inevitably labour intensive and these factors will mean a big burden.

As has been said by hon. Gentlemen opposite, we have become more fully aware that there are still some very substantial areas of poverty which need close attention. In particular, apart from the old, whom we have already discussed, there is the phenomenon of poverty, or something much more complex than poverty, the decaying areas of the big cities. This is a very serious problem. We have also become more sensitive to, more aware of, the problems of the disabled, whether they be physically disabled or the mentally handicapped.

Finally, we have to face the question whether we are moving into a period when we shall see more so-called technological unemployment. The expected reduction in jobs has not so far been the case. Advanced methods have coincided with increased opportunities, but there may come a time when we shall begin to see technological unemployment. Equally, we must face the fact that intensified commercial pressures mean that companies may be less eager to hoard labour than they were in days gone by and ask themselves more rigorously whether everybody deserves to remain on the pay roll. We may find considerable unemployment among the middle-aged.

Whatever one's views may be about the economy as a whole, this is one of the factors we cannot completely dismiss. All this seems to me to add up to something like a major financial crisis in the social services and makes it more imperative that we try to work out a long-term strategy, a long-term policy. I do not think it enough simply to think in terms of the process of the perpetual redistribution of wealth. We have to look at something a little more positive.

No doubt, in any strategy there is still a place for voluntary effort. There was a feeling a few years back that the day of the volunteer was over, that the day of the professional social worker meant that we had to shed the volunteer. But that is no longer so apparent, partly because we have the sheer volume of work, partly because the volunteer can bring some human sympathy still to bear on this work and that is still of value, and partly because the volunteer can also benefit from the social activities in which he takes part. I think it is fundamental, even so, that the voluntary contribution cannot achieve more than a certain amount.

The real question we have to ask ourselves is where to draw the line between the State's and the individual's responsibility for individual welfare, I believe that one can draw a line. There is a sharp difference between the economic sphere and the social sphere. In the economic sphere I incline towards the market view. I believe that in the economic sphere we have had too much feather bedding, and I think it is entirely right to apply the laws of the market more rigorously, but there is also the social sphere where it does not make sense to apply these market criteria, and I am to some extent in disagreement with the Institute of Economic Affairs in that, for example, I do not go along with it all the way—and occasionally I get ticked off by it for my infidelities. What we have to ask ourselves, within the broad assumption that there is a difference between the economic and social spheres, is, where to place the various aspects of life and activities which are covered at the moment by the social services.

In broad terms I think one can say are five main social services. There is education; there is health; there is social security, or cash benefit; there is housing; and there is the fifth social service, by which I mean the sort of services which implementation of Seebohm symbolises, which are pegged to social work and provide various forms of advice and practical assistance to people in hardship.

If we look at those services one by one and ask how far we can expect them to remain wholly social services or whether there is a possibility of a shift in the balance, the answers work out something like this. The fifth service, the social work service—and we must work out a good name for it; I do not think local authority personal social service or social work convey quite the right meaning—is by definition a service directed to helping the community. It comes into play only when people are in need, and it is inevitable that it should remain essentially a social service financed out of rates and taxes. In other words, that lies squarely in the social service field.

The fundamental policy for health must remain in the social service field. There are those who argue for a massive switch away from the notion of the National Health Service to various forms of insurance-financed schemes and to various ways of strengthening the private sector. I am all for having a private sector in health, as in education, but fundamentally it is not within the nature either of reality or of desirability to think in terms of a major break-up of the National Health Service. The National Health Service has problems, but I believe firmly that it is the right instrument for our times; its achievements are great and its potential is great. This is largely because the scale of operations of the National Health Service, which so largely depends on the hospital service, is well suited to community financing. We spend enormous sums of money in providing hospitals and other services, and it is right that the community should be prepared to do so. So I believe that health will remain primarily a social service. The same is true of education. This again is partly to do with it being a community service in which heavy capital expenditure is entailed. It has to do with other more idealistic motives as well. We must continue to recognise a State education service as being desirable, and we must strengthen it while at the same time allowing a strong private sector.

It is in the other areas of social security and housing that we can expect to see a real shift in the balance. In housing I am sure that the Government's Conservative policy of gradually building up the private sector is right. The trends are going our way very strongly. The trend towards home ownership is strong, and it is right that it should be. Essentially we should be moving towards the notion that the normal provision of housing is something for which the individual is responsible. A house is very much an individual item. It is sensible that the individual should pay for it where he can, and the role of the public sector in housing should be to meet the areas of special need and special hardship.

The same is true in terms of social security. When we get a proper pension scheme, which I am confident the Government will be bringing forward soon, we shall have the basis in which more and more the individual will be financing his own retirement through the occupational pension schemes, through the private sector, and the State's role will increasingly be confined to the important but, we hope, limited one of coping with special need.

We need to adopt a long term strategy which says that three of these services are essentially State services but in two services we can see a strong if gradual move towards the private sector, restoring them to the economic rather than the social sphere.

This is an important debate in that it has given us a chance to talk about issues which are crucial both to the economy and to the lives of the people of this country. To that extent I am grateful to the hon. Member for Oldham, West, but when it comes to the full terms of his Motion I still have considerable reservations.

2.34 p.m.

Mrs. Doris Fisher (Birmingham, Ladywood)

My points come under the head- ing of economic and social policies which accelerate the spread of poverty. My constituency is a decaying centre in a large urban area, where a "new poor" is being created, the families who are moved from dense slum properties and who cannot afford to live in the properties which are provided for them. This problem arises not only in Birmingham but in Bristol, Camden and in many other areas where local authorities are rebuilding the city centres and are being forced to subsidise the properties which replace the old slum dwellings.

On 3rd March an article in The Guardian said that many tenants who were moving out of slum properties for which they had been paying a rental of about 30s. a week were asked in one fell swoop to find £6 18s. a week rent for a new property. Such a large increase is impossible for the majority of people who are living on incomes of between £20 and £22 a week. The word "relativity" comes into any discussion about poverty. Hon. Members have been speaking about self-help, but how does this apply to lower-paid workers? How will it get them out of the difficulty of low wages?

This week we have seen that the Post Office workers, who are all lowly paid and have been trying by self-help to get themselves out of their difficulties, are now tragically back in square one. It is an indictment of all elected representatives, whether on local authorities or sitting as Members of Parliament, that the lower-paid workers are in the public industries. It is apparent that the notion of elected representatives has some bearing upon the wages that are paid in public industries.

The hon. Member for Kensington, South (Sir B. Rhys-Williams) spoke of being "captain of one's destiny". This all depends on the kind of boat of which a person is captain. A person with a rotten old barge that leaks will not be able to compare himself with the owner of a high-powered yacht, such as many hon. Gentlemen on the Government side of the House.

I come back to the "new poor". Average families in Great Britain with a take-home pay of between £22 and £25 a week are being called upon in Birmingham to pay nearly £7 a week in rent, with heating charges accounting for another £l 10s. and fares another £1. All that is left for food is about £10 a week for a family with two or three children. I am not talking about feckless people, but about men who go to work regularly, draw a reasonable wage and try to keep up with inflation. After paying out almost half their wages in providing a shelter and keeping it warm, there is little left for anything else. Even buying a pair of children's shoes—£2 10s. or £3—becomes a problem to people living on these wages.

A 6d. reduction in income tax means nothing to these families, but an increase in the price of school meals does. The withdrawing of welfare milk has a direct bearing on these people. We must bear in mind the emotive words that people use when referring to persons who derive benefit from what we call public benefits. They are apt to be called scroungers by most people. They are thought of as people who are trying to get something for nothing, but the person who avoids paying income tax is regarded as being very clever.

Many people find it difficult to fill in any kind of form entitling them to public benefits. In three hours' time I shall be taking my weekly surgery, and I am sure that before the end of the evening I shall have filled in about a dozen forms on behalf of people who find the greatest difficulty in reading the small print explaining how to answer the questions—how to deal with Question 1, Clause (a), subsection (2). Some people have difficulty in completing these forms because they do not want to be accused of trying to get something to which they are not entitled.

One of the greatest problems that exists arises because nearly every benefit that a person can claim is counterbalanced by a benefit that he is already receiving. A rate rebate cancels out some other benefit. A rent rebate given by a local authority cancels out almost every other benefit that a person can get. Education maintenance allowances have been wiped out completely just because somebody has been in receipt of a rent rebate.

I was particularly interested in the points that have been raised on education. Hon. Members have said that we need better primary school education in the "stress areas" in large urban cities. My constituency has many schools which provide a high proportion of free school meals because of the problems facing the people in the area. Head teachers and other members of the staff who should be concentrating on the educational process are having to devote their time to dealing with the social problems facing the families of the children who attend their schools. I hope that the Government will consider the situation that exists in schools in these areas and the problems that arise for the families living there.

In view of the great number of families experiencing problems of this kind we ought perhaps to consider whether it would be more beneficial to spend money on providing welfare officers and social welfare workers who could operate inside the schools, so that they would be able to appreciate at an early stage that things were going wrong in a family. If that were done the children might get better educational opportunities, because their teachers would not have to waste time dealing with purely social problems.

It is no good our increasing social benefit rates if those increases are wiped out by rising prices. I am an ordinary housewife, and I am aware of the rise in prices. The prices of as many as 200 items of food and other articles are increasing weekly. Everybody has to pay these increases, whether he be a low-wage earner or somebody earning a high salary, but the effect is felt much more by the person who is on the lower scale of wages.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) tried to put over the point that price increases have a much more direct effect on some people than on others. Some people can ride the effect of price increases, but the average family has great difficulty in coping. The failure of the Government to control prices may encourage industrial unrest, because it creates anxiety among workers. When a man takes his pay packet home on Friday night the problem of making ends meet becomes more difficult each week. A serious problem arises for the man who tries to do his best for his family when his wife says that she needs much more money if she is to keep the home going. Transport costs are rising weekly, as are the costs of heating and electricity. This all makes it more difficult for even the ordinary family to manage.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) mentioned the question of the standard of living. In many homes it depends entirely on whether the women members of the family go to work. There would be a much lower general standard of living if it were not for the fact that many women voluntarily go to work. If they did not do so, many families would be living at poverty level. It is to the credit of members of my sex that they do not mind going to work in offices or factories as well as maintaining the home and caring for the children.

The average family does not expect very much. It does not expect two holidays a year in the South of France, or a winter holiday. Most families are content with their weekend at the seaside, in their caravans. What most of them want from the Government is an opportunity to maintain a decent standard of living.

The legislation brought forward by the Government and the level of unemployment, which is gradually rising, are together eroding the standard of living of our people. I can assure the Government that what has been said in this debate will be constantly drawn to the attention of the Government in the months ahead.

2.50 p.m.

Dr. Tom Stuttaford (Norwich, South)

I should first like to apologise to the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) for the fact that I was not present to hear his speech. I am afraid that by the time his Motion was announced I had already arranged to see a patient this morning. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has put down this Motion because, even if I do not agree with its terms, I agree with the sentiments behind it. Though I was unable to hear the hon. Gentleman in person, I was at least privileged to hear him on the radio when driving to the House. I congratulate him on the moderate terms of his language in the programme "The World at One", even if he could not adopt them in his speech to the House.

I believe I have some claim to contribute to this debate since for some 10 years, up to the time I was elected, I was in the privileged position of working in a central area of Norfolk which has more than its fair share of social problems and poverty in general. In Norfolk and Norwich we have a great deal more poverty than is usually realised. The wages mentioned by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Lady-wood (Mrs. Doris Fisher) would be quite beyond the expectancy of most people in my constituency. The peripheral areas are being neglected; there are pockets of the country which are being ignored—areas of relative poverty—because they do not fall within any development area.

The hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central (Mr. Thomas Cox) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) were quite right to say that, in addition to the people who are living in relative poverty, old-age pensioners comprise the biggest group of the poor. They are poor not through any psychological reason or through any fault in their background. They are poor just because they have reached the age of 65. I will mention a little later in this context the relevance of concessionary fares.

Although I would agree with a good deal of what was said by the hon. Member for Oldham, West on the radio today, I feel that his Motion is slightly slanted politically. If hon. Members have worked, as I have, with people who are extremely poor, they will agree that our main concern must be to improve their standard of living. This must be our aim and object. Therefore any scoring of political points by any Motion or remarks may do great harm, first, by damaging what we are trying to do and, secondly, by damaging any organisations through which one is trying to work. This is a valid consideration in these days when there are many charities engaged on work in this sphere, since it is important that they should not be associated with one political party or with one view or another. This is liable to happen and, if it does happen, there is a possibility of alienating a great central body of liberal opinion as to what is the wisest course of action to take in regard to old-age pensioners.

The question of cash could be dealt with in November, if not before, and hon. Members on both sides of the House are insistent that this should be a large enough amount to cover both increases in the cost of living this year and also any which may come next year. We must also think in terms of care and social services. At the moment we must admit, if we are honest, that the Group 5 category of the elderly is inadequate to deal with the social services as envisaged by the Seebohm Report for the future. We have not enough social workers and are unlikely to get them in the near future. As we enlarge the local authority social services we could remove the interest in social medicine which at present exists in general practice to the detriment of the overall care provided. We must improve the care of old people. And how pleasing it is as a worker in this sphere to see at last many of our geriatric hospitals being improved by the provision of more money. In my own area the most wretched building of all has, after eight years' struggle, finally been designated for closure. This has happened within the last few months and is very gratifying. It is a sign that the sums we shall spend on hospitals will begin to get through.

It is not only a matter of cash and care, but is also a matter of an enlightened approach to the elderly. We tend to regard them as senile persons for whom it is a kind action if we occasionally throw them a crumb of charity. We must rid ourselves of this underlying attitude.

We must preserve their personal pride, which is of paramount importance. This can be done in a great many ways and this is where concessionary fares can greatly assist, as has been mentioned by other speakers. Concessionary fares are not just another means-tested hand-out, but something rather different. They provide a way of getting elderly people out of their homes and back into society and are a form of occupational therapy. Such benefit can be measured far above the benefit of the actual cost of the bus fare. I agree with the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central that this idea needs to be spread throughout the country as a whole.

Another very important consideration is the question of clothing, which is related to the matter of pride. There are also great problems for old-age pensioners in regard to heating their homes. It is extremely difficult to get any addi- tional money out of the social services for clothing. Hon. Members who go round to old-age pensioners' homes will see that the standard of clothing is very low indeed. I frequently have battles with the social security services to try to get additional clothing for families and for elderly people, and it is a very hard battle indeed. Yet it is essential to provide decent clothing for old people if we wish to maintain their pride. Nobody can feel pride in himself if his suit is wearing out, if it does not match, or is darned and if he knows he cannot possibly replace it. It is ironical that the only time the State ever provides any clothing is under the National Health Service when if a person dies in hospital he is provided with a shroud. That is the only form of clothing the Government hand out without a considerable battle. I should like to see some further allowance made for clothing so that our olderly citizens may appear before society decently dressed.

Too often we hear about the old or poor watching the television and the argument is advanced, "Well, of course, they all have television sets", as if this is some terrible crime. But for the elderly or poor, television is very much the same as books were for the Victorian poor, and it is as unreasonable to condemn a man for having a television set today as it would have been to oppose Victorian philanthropists who might have wanted to provide a cheap library service. The lives of the poor are not only hard but also extremely dreary. If anything can be done to make them more entertaining, that is all to the good.

The next group I refer to is those who are poor and still working. They form a very large section of the community. I have said that this occurs in peripheral areas. I have no doubt that it occurs in other places, too. The big group here are the farm workers. I was interested to hear the denial of the existence of rural slums. I am glad that they do not occur in Buckinghamshire. They certainly occurred four or five years ago in Norfolk, where basically people were living in medieval surroundings, with outside taps shared in the yard, with no sanitation, and living with and putting up with extraordinary difficulty. At the first confinement I attended in rural practice, we had to move the bed around the farm cottage during the night so that the rain might not fall on the woman who was giving birth. That is nothing out of the way. These conditions exist and they tend to be overlooked by sociologists because it is difficult to plot them.

Mr. Freeson

The hon. Gentleman may wish to refer to the first National Sample Survey of the Condition of Property, which was carried out by the then Government in 1967, I think. This confirmed the point that he is making, and indeed, that slumdom is much more widespread in this country than, up until that date, many authorities and sociologists had thought. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would agree that local authorities ought to give much more attention to this matter, in conjunction with Government.

Dr. Stuttaford

This is certainly so. My experience in practice is that one finds appalling conditions in unexpected places. On tends to think of them as being confined to parts of the industrial North, but they can occur anywhere, even in the most picturesque thatched cottages, as well as in the back-to-back Victorian villas. I take the point made by the hon. Lady the Member for Ladywood about Post Office workers. I repeat that here we have another group which, in the provinces anyway, is underpaid. I looked at the pay slips of a group of workers and their wives about a fortnight ago and found that many of them would benefit by the introduction of family income supplement, if they were prepared to take it, in the summer. It seems extraordinary that we have a group of public servants who will be paid in two ways, partly by the Post Office and partly by the State, with family income supplement.

We must look at the problem of poverty as it affects children. We shall come to this later, but talking to the wives of low-paid workers, one finds that the main source of anger and resentment is the fact that their children do not get the benefits enjoyed by other children living in the same road. One finds that they cannot afford to buy new clothes for their children. Again, this raises the question of the outside appearance and of pride being maintained. They have to go to the jumble sales for clothes. They do not get the holidays, as was mentioned by the hon. Lady. They rarely get holidays at all. These small points make a great difference to the lives of those people who are now taking home probably £15 or £16 a week and bringing up a family on those earnings.

We must also think carefully about the family income supplement, which is an interim measure before we have, one hopes, eventually a standard minimum wage. There is no doubt that it will get the greatest sum of money possible to the greatest number who need it in the shortest possible time.

It is very important that we do not allow underlying political philosophy in any way to disparage it. If we disparage it we shall find that people do not take it up and that it will be a battle to persuade them to do so. All political parties and all people in public service must do their best to see that everybody takes up the particular sum which they will be granted if entitled to it, whether large or small, because it will be essential to them.

When I talk to the more lowly-paid workers, I find that they resent F.I.S. and that they will not take it up. But this will do increasing damage to their families. It is a short, first-aid measure. It is a very foolish patient who rejects his first-aid treatment.

Finally, on the problem of what most people think of as being real poverty, the family living in abject squalor, every hon. Member must have families in his constituency who live in these conditions, conditions in which one would not beleive that any human could possibly exist. They live in them and very often do not seem to mind them, or the parents do not mind them. But, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, the problem of this form of poverty is a recurring one. One generation of misfits breeds another generation of misfits. There is an answer, and it has been referred to already in this debate. It is the method which has been adopted for a great many generations with success by the higher income groups. We have not looked at it clearly enough because, as the Motion implies, we are ashamed of our class differences. For that reason, we have not gone all out to solve the problem of parents who not only deprive their children of cash but also probably deprive them of all love and consideration.

If one gives the children of emotionally inadequate rich parents the advantages of domestic servants at home, nursery schools and boarding education, the chances are that those children will be only slightly scarred by the deprivations and may end up with interesting characters which will serve them well in careers like politics or the Army, where minor variations from the normal are acceptable. The situation is quite different in the case of poor parents who are emotionally deprived. Their children are not only scarred but probably leave school irretrievably wrecked.

The answer is simple. It is to provide nursery school education and even pre-schooling for these children—

Mr. George Cunningham

Is the conclusion to which the hon. Gentleman is coming that poor parents should send their children to Eton?

Dr. Stuttaford

It is quite wrong to bring Eton into the argument. Eton provides a veneer and an accent. The real advantages of life are possessed by those Etonians who have had advantages in their nursery school years. The rest one can do without. They and others like them have achieved stability despite their parent's neglect of matters that no child should have to do without. I do not want to send such children to Eton, but I should like to see all of them have the chance of nursery education, of being taken away from environments which are bad for them, and of having some education from an early age.

We must also think in terms of education in a slightly different way. I do not think that we should concentrate on having children stay on at school for an extra year at the end of their school careers. The additional money which is available should be spent when children are three or four years of age. That is the time to make improvements—[Interruption.] I can see that hon. Gentlemen opposite are becoming a little restive. I will see what I can omit from the speech that I have prepared.

I will content myself with a short summary. There are a number of groups of people who are deprived. We know about the elderly. There are those who are Still working, whom we usually ignore. There are those living in real squalor and who probably have a psychological inability to cope with the stresses and strains of life. For them, we can do little other than provide social security support. We can never solve their problems, but we can ensure that their children do not go the same way by providing some form of education from an early age, when it may have an effect. In my opinion, we would do more for such children in that way than we would by spending money on education in their later years, when it will merely make them restive and more delinquent.

3.10 p.m.

Mr. Brian O'Malley (Rotherham)

I am sure that the House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) for giving us the opportunity to discuss the problems of poverty in this country today.

My hon. Friend defined not only the nature of poverty but the size of the problem. It is indeed a massive problem. My hon. Friend demonstrated that the problem was part of a long-term trend where the total amount of definable poverty in this country over the last two decades had continued to rise.

My hon. Friend said that any Government attempting to deal with and to mitigate even the worst evils of poverty must have the political will to tackle a problem of this magnitude. We on these benches believe that the Government are lacking in that will in their attempts to deal with the problem. Indeed, we despair of their almost total inactivity in their first ten months in office to do anything to help to relieve the problem.

It will be helpful to look at the background against which this debate is taking place today. It is quite clear that there is a spirit of unrest, a degree of bitterness and disillusionment in this land in 1971 which augurs ill for community and industrial relations within the nation in future.

During much of the post-war period the national mood has not been optimistic. On the other hand, the bitter class divisions of former years have become muted. But, within ten months of the formation of this Conservative Government. industrial unrest has assumed a new dimension and the sense of social division is assuming a strength which most of us thought belonged irrevocably to the past.

There are a number of reasons for this. One reason is that many people in this country, including the poorer people, feel affronted because they believe that they are not being treated fairly by the Government.

For example, listening to the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. James Hill) I despaired of what we were likely to get from the Government. Without any malevolence personally towards the hon. Gentleman, but merely to use his speech as an example of the attitude within the Tory Party, it was superficial. it was disheartening, it was full of the platitudes which we have heard over the years, and it was almost an apologia for poverty. The hon. Gentleman seemed to be saying: "The situation is not as bad as it used to be in the nineteenth century. Of course, it is a relative thing."

I must say that even the hon. Member for Kensington, South (Sir B. Rhys Williams), who is closely interested in these matters and whom I regard as a thinking and compassionate man, made a speech which, too, was tinged with a lack of realisation of the magnitude of the problem. The hon. Gentleman indicated that he thought that the situation was not as bad as some people had been indicating.

We have experienced a situation where the electorate—it matters most to the poorest among them—were promised that prices would be brought down, to use the Prime Minister's words, "at a stroke". We shall not let the Prime Minister forget that phrase; nor will the country let him forget it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wandsworth, Central (Mr. Thomas Cox) pointed out the difficulties of retirement pensioners and of poorer families in his constituency, and within the country generally, as a result of the Government not only not carrying out their promises to bring down prices "at a stroke" but allowing them to rise in recent months at an unprecedented rate.

So we have a situation where many of our citizens—seeing within the first ten months of a Conservative Government, on the one hand, masterly inactivity con- cerning their own incomes and, on the other hand, allowing prices to rip forward—sense that they are second-class citizens and in some way part of the deprived of the nation.

Among those people in this country who feel this way are the retirement pensioners. There was a great deal of talk during the election about the needs of the pensioners. The Under-Secretary of State, before the election, spoke about the need to protect pensioners from rising prices. There appears to be no urgency today. In fact, we are getting the same reaction from the present Conservative Administration as we had in an earlier period—for example, in 1959 when we had seen three increases in retirement pensions in eight years. One wonders whether, if there had not been a Labour Government to introduce the system of biennial reviews, the Conservative Party would have committed itself to them.

Prices have been rising, with the result that our retirement pensioners are relatively worse off than at any time since March, 1965. As has been pointed out, if nothing is done for them until late in the autumn, and if prices continue to rise as they are rising, the pensioners will be relatively worse off than at any time since the inception of the National Insurance scheme in 1948. During the period 1965–70, National Insurance pensions rose broadly in line with average earnings, and I believe, therefore, that we are entitled to say strongly to the Government that they are giving the pensioners a raw deal. The last Government brought forward the period from which increased pensions were payable. Why do not the present Government do the same? When, indeed, they do bring the increases in, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wandsworth, Central said, because of the failure to control inflation and the rapid upward movement in prices, they will need to be sizeable.

More than two in every seven retirement pensioners and only one-half of elderly widows are dependent on means-tested supplementary benefits. The last Government introduced the National Superannuation and Social Insurance Bill. a scheme which, over a period, would have led to a progressive reduction in the number of people subject to means-tested supplementary benefits. Not only my hon. Friends but everyone in contact with retirement pensioners knows that the pensioners deeply resent the necessity to have to fall back on means-tested benefits. They believe that, at the end of a lifetime's work and service to the community, they should be able to have pensions as of right, adequate to live on, without other means and certainly adequate without the need to go for means-tested benefits.

The Conservative Opposition opposed the Bill—known as the Crossman Bill—and we understand that we are to have proposals from the Government. One of the criteria by which we shall judge those proposals is the likelihood of a progressive reduction in the number of retirement pensioners who will have to depend on means-tested benefits. We already know something about the Conservative pension scheme. Unless they have completely changed their minds since they have learnt some of the facts of life, they intend to introduce a system of earnings-related contributions for flat-rate benefits, which will be strongly opposed in the country.

We also know—and this is relevant to the question of long-term poverty—that, with the increase in the number of retirement pensioners between 1971 and 1980, the flat-rate pensions which the Government are apparently proposing could not be large unless the contributions were to be put up substantially, which hon. Members opposite, including the Under-Secretary of State, have said repeatedly it is not their intention to do. They say that, in addition to flat-rate pensions, they intend to introduce a reserve scheme. The hon. Gentleman has already let the cat out of the bag in saying, in his typical pleasant way, that it would be a modest scheme. I bet it will. We can do enough costing of the type of proposals the hon. Gentleman has mentioned to know one thing-that their scheme will be a repeat, a Mark II version, of the Tory graduated swindle of 1959.

In the broader context of the debate, what have the Government done? They have introduced the new widowhood and attendance allowance proposals. But those are our proposals. Those were proposals which we put into legislation and which the climate of opinion forced on the Government. This is why they put them immediately into their proposals when they came into office; they had no choice.

But it is not only retirement pensioners who are being neglected by the Government. So are a substantial number of families with low and modest incomes. Here we are talking about cash. Let us look first at housing. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Leonard) and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mrs. Doris Fisher) talked about increased burdens as the result of increased rents following the Government's housing proposals.

It is not only costs. Tory councils throughout the country for the last two or three years since many fell under Tory control have been progressively cutting back the amount of local authority house building which should have been going on in that period. That means that there will be many families with low incomes, many children, who will live in outdated, slum, unpleasant environmental conditions which if it had not been for the policy of Tory local authorities and the policies which we are expecting from the newly installed Tory Government, would have been tackled in a continuation of our efforts to get rid of an unsatisfactory situation.

I turn to the subject of the financial position of lower-paid workers. The Chancellor of the Exchequer decided, presumably on the basis of a record balance-of-payments surplus which the Labour Government left him, that he could afford a 6d. cut in income tax in his mini-budget, a proposal due to take effect after April. He is to release £350 million to give incentives, but the question is to whom it will be an incentive. Certainly it will not be an incentive to the man on £18 a week, or the man who has £27 a week and two children to keep, because what they will gain in income tax remission will be balanced by the imposition in charges for the school milk system and the welfare system and prescription charges and dental charges; they will be worse off, not better off.

Hon. Members opposite argue that some will be able to get means-tested benefits, will be able to get free school meals for their children, and so on. But two things will happen. First, a number of people who would not be entitled to such benefits, a number of children, will simply cease to have school dinners and so on. Secondly, parents who could apply for free school dinners for their children will not do so, for there is always a problem of take-up with means-tested benefits. Therefore, a number of children will find that what they are currently getting in school dinners and milk will decline.

It is not only a matter of taxation policy. All along the range of public policy under the present Government poorer people will be hurt. The system of agricultural subsidies is to be changed and we are to have higher food prices. The Government are talking about a value-added tax. We know what is to happen with fare subsidies in London and we know what is happening to the levels of rates. We know what will happen to the cost of living if the country joins the European Economic Community as the Government and some hon. Members on both sides of the House want.

There are hon. Members on my side of the House who, over the years, have favoured in some degree or other entry into the European Economic Community, on the right terms, but among them there are those who have a serious doubt. Some of them do not believe that the Government will assist the poorer people who would be affected by some of the transitional changes. They do not feel that they can trust a Conservative Government as they could trust a Labour Government in this respect.

The present Administration have broken a clear pledge on family allowances. With the present tax-benefit structure, including family allowances, the better-off person gets more help from the State to bring up his children than the poorer person, With third or subsequent children, the present rate of family allowance is 20s. a week, for the person not paying tax. That is what he receives in total. With the operation of the tax system, claw-back and family allowances taken together, the standard rate taxpayer with third and subsequent children benefits by 25s. 2d. if the child is under 11, 29s. 2d. if aged 11–15 and, if the child is over 16, then by 33s. ld. The surtax people do best of all. With our present tax benefit structure the poorer a person is, the less help he gets.

The previous Administration were looking at this. We have had a deafening silence from the Government, and even the Prime Minister's pledge about this, in writing, has been broken. What do the Government intend to do about the levels of family allowance, because not only on their pledges, but on the merits of the case, something should be done, and something could have been done by April if the Government had acted in the way in which they ought to have acted. They said that they were prepared to spend £30 million, and yet we have the family income supplement introduced at a cost, we are told, of £7 million.

It compares pretty badly with the total net cost of £47 million in the increases which the Labour Government made in 1966. The truth about the family income supplement is that, first of all, large numbers of people will not receive it because, even at the bottom end, they will not be entitled and, secondly, a lot of people do not apply for means-tested benefits, anyway. The system provides a massive disincentive to employers to put up wages.

It operates at a 50 per cent. marginal tax rate and what has happened—we have evidence of this—is that by pushing selectivity beyond any sensible limits, the Government have produced a situation whereby with tax and loss of other means-tested benefits, some men would actually lose money if they were given a —1 pay increase tomorrow. This was clearly brought out in the article in The Guardian to which the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) referred.

The family income supplement Measure also establishes a new line of poverty, below the supplementary benefit level. I agree with the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) who said that there was a need to raise these people at least to supplementary benefit level. We have these formidable disincentives for low-paid workers, many of them in the public sector. It is in the public sector that the mark minus I version of an incomes policy will hurt most. There are people in the regions who will never get another job because of changes in regional policy, and we are entitled to point out that under the Labour Administration benefits were adjusted broadly in line with earnings.

We have reached a situation now where, since March, 1965, wages have risen by about 40 per cent., and national insurance benefits by 25 per cent. When may we expect to see some help for the unemployed, particularly the long-term unemployed? Their prospects of getting a job, particularly the unskilled, are anything but good in a climate such as the Government have produced, when investment is apparently falling to deplorable levels and when bankruptcy is something to be laughed at by some Ministers in the Department of Trade and Industry, and when regional policy promises to spoil all that was being built up by the previous Government.

I agree with what has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House about means testing and the need to cut back on it. The effect of family income supplement on some wage increases spotlights the disincentive effect of means testing pushed too far. This has been the year of the means test. We have too many means tests. There have been too many piecemeal, ad hoc measures to deal, often ineffectively, with difficult and sometimes almost intractable problems. It makes people feel that they are second-class citizens. While recognising the problems of limited financial resources, public policy should be directed towards pushing back the area of means testing and replacing it with universal measures.

I wish to refer to the future of multipurpose means testing. The Government could do something about this matter. Work on this subject has been going on in the Department for a considerable time and the Government could have been giving advice to local authority associations to get rid of a large number of forms and to replace them with a smaller number and achieving standardisation among local authorities.

Before the General Election the Child Poverty Action Group coined the phrase, "The poor get poorer under Labour". My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West dealt with that charge. But—and the hon. Member for Aylesbury as an ex-editor of New Society will agree—there was a greater shift in real terms in favour of those drawing pensions and social security benefits during 1965–69 than at any time before or since. We have had virtually nothing from the Government. I do not know the people who coined that phrase about the situation of the poor under a Labour Government, but I bet that they would be extremely pleased to see a Labour Government in office today and are very sorry to see the kind of Government we have and the non-policies they are pursuing.

We therefore condemn the devisive policies of the Government which do little to help the poor and which produce greater inequalities of wealth and increase the amount of deprivation and poverty.

3.33 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Paul Dean)

I am sure that all hon. Members would agree that we are having an extremely interesting debate on a very wide range of subjects within the general heading of the social services. The House is grateful to the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) for selecting this subject for debate.

I am sure that Members on both sides of the House and all men and women of good will are concerned about poverty and want to relieve suffering and need. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman should have considered it appropriate in his Motion to make such a wide-ranging condemnation of the Government and that the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. O'Malley) should have followed that line. With the exception of those words in the Motion and the speech of the hon. Member for Rotherham, this has been a quiet, thoughtful, non-political debate, and I am sorry that the hon. Member for Rotherham should have wished to import anything less into it.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington, South (Sir B. Rhys Williams) for the tribute he paid to the staff of my Department. They are always working under great pressure, particularly at this time of year, when there is more sickness about, and in recent weeks they have had all sorts of emergencies and difficult situations to cope with. I am very glad that he mentioned the excellent way in which they have done just that. Of course, the considerable pressure on them will be even greater when the post begins to flow again, because much work which has been held up will then be coming forward.

May I deal first with the figures and the type of picture which the hon. Gentleman painted in his opening remarks? I do not accept that poverty has doubled over the last four years. I do not accept the basis of his figures. Of course, if one counts as in poverty those receiving supplementary benefit, then on that basis both increases in the supplementary benefit scale rates and increases in the take-up of benefits would count as increasing the number in poverty, whereas both kinds of change improve the circumstances of the families concerned. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) made that point clearly. In fact, on what one might call the "Meacher Theory", the more families one helps, the more poverty one has. This is an unacceptable definition of poverty.

What are the figures which we have published and which we have in preparation? We are very anxious to improve and sharpen our knowledge in this area, so that we can help more effectively. First, the latest published official survey on the circumstances of families, the Ministry of Social Security survey in 1967, related to the summer of 1966. This remains a valuable work, although the sample was very small and estimates of the national position are subject to limitations. But one of the conclusions was that, in 1966, about 160,000 families, containing 500,000 children, could not be brought up to supplementary benefit level because the father was in full-time work or wage-stopped.

Second, in order to provide more up-to-date estimates of the numbers of such families, my Department has, for some time, been working on the data collected in the Family Expenditure Survey of 1968 and 1969. This work is necessary, because the survey does not directly provide numbers and characteristics of the families living below the supplementary benefit level. We expect to receive a report on this work by about the end of the month.

Third, as regards the number of families of what has been called the working poor, the Minister of State at the Department of Employment said on 15th February that studies to date provided no evidence to support the conclusion that there has been an increase since 1966 in the number of wage earners whose families are living below the supplementary benefit level.

I endorse his view on the basis of provisional estimates made in my Department from the Family Expenditure Survey data, which has been adjusted to reflected the general movement in earnings and rents up to August, 1970, and also take into account the increase in supplementary benefit scale rates last November.

Fourth, there is "Social Trends", produced by the Central Statistical Office. This, too, is helping to sharpen our knowledge in this area. There is the survey of the adult chronic sick and handicapped living at home. Work on this has been going on for some time, and we hope that the report will be published fairly soon. Fifth, there is the census of residential accommodation for the elderly and handicapped and the work which is going on there.

All this should increase our knowledge of the likely areas of need and help us to channel resources to those who are most in need of additional help. It is very important, when one is following a policy of trying to identify need, that the information should be as complete as possible.

I turn to the second part of the Motion, that part which criticises the Government's economic and social policies and suggests that they will spread poverty. I totally reject this charge—totally reject it. Furthermore, when one looks at what has been done already in under ten months and the difficult situation which we inherited I think it ill comes from the party opposite to put down Motions of this kind.

Mr. Meacher


Mr. Dean

I cannot give way because time is short and the hon. Gentleman spoke for a long time.

He mentioned economic policies and rising prices. Of course rising prices hurt hardest those who are on low incomes. This is one of the things we have been saying ever since we have been in office, and one of the problems we have been tackling, and when hon. Gentlemen opposite criticise us, as the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Rotherham have done, for trying to withstand inflationary wage claims, they have not yet recognised that it is inflationary wage claims which more than anything else push up prices, push up unemployment, and create this problem of poverty with which we are trying to deal at the present time.

It is not only the economy with which we are concerned, but the work which has been done in the field of social welfare. The hon. Member for Rotherham, usually very fair, accused us of total inactivity in this field. Let me remind him quickly of ten things which the Government have done already or are planning to do in social welfare. Already in this Parliament we have done three things in this respect. First, there are pensions for the over–80s who were not able to join the scheme in 1948. That was effective from November last year. Then there is attendance allowance for the very severely disabled, the first of a series of measures to help the disabled. Then there are pensions for widows between the ages of 40 and 50. They will be effective in April, 1971. I concede, as I have conceded from this Box before, that these are two measures which we inherited from the Labour Party. I am perfectly prepared to concede that again. But these are three things which have already been done.

Then there is the heating allowance as an additional help for people in special need of heating, and that is being introduced now. Then there is the family income supplement, providing help for families in full-time work, but below the supplementary level. That will be introduced in August of this year. I assure my hon. Friends who have mentioned this point, and hon. Gentlemen opposite, that that does not rule out an increase in family allowances, but it was the first and most effective way in which we could give help to poor families in need, given the tax threshold which we inherited from the Labour Party.

Sixth, there are improved exemption arrangements for health and welfare charges. Seventh, there is the promise of an increase in pensions, in the two-year review in the autumn of this year. Eighth, there is an extra £110 million for health and welfare services for the elderly and mentally handicapped. Ninth, there is more help to areas of special social need in the urban programme. Tenth, there is more help for housing costs.

There is a comprehensive system of rent rebate allowances for tenants of unfurnished dwellings in both the public and private sectors. It is a national rent rebate scheme. All this amounts to an important major advance in combating family poverty.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. James Hill) mentioned the close connection between bad housing and family poverty, and I quite agree with him. He also mentioned the Housing Act, 1969, and improvement grants. I shall certainly draw my right hon. Friend's attention to his comments on that.

Equally, on the point made by the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Leonard), when he spoke of the lapsing of the powers of the Secretary of State, he will realise, I am sure, that this is a matter for the Secretary of State for the Environment, and I will see that the hon. Member's comments are drawn to my right hon. Friend's attention.

These, then, are, in very brief terms, ten things which the Government have done already in less than 12 months in office to relieve areas of poverty and to tackle effectively the problems which exist. I think that they are eloquent testimony to the good start which we have made, and the work which we shall continue in relieving family poverty in our country.

I briefly mention two points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) and by the hon. Lady the Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) whose speech, I am afraid, I did not hear. They mentioned, in particular, the problem of the one-parent family, particularly of the widow or other woman with children. I should like to assure them that this is one of the points which the Finer Committee is looking at and with which it will be concerned. The matter of affiliation orders is relevant here, and I entirely take the point which the hon. Lady made of the need to encourage women, when they wish to do so, to go out to work, and the point about better facilities for day nurseries. She also mentioned the interesting idea of a fatherless family allowance. These things will be within the terms of reference of the Finer Committee, and we look forward to receiving the Committee's guidance in due course.

The hon. Member for Eton and Slough also mentioned cohabitation. I quite agree with her that benefit should not be withdrawn simply on suspicion. I assure the House that that does not happen. Our officers are instructed to satisfy themselves that there is cohabitation before they act. In considering this, they have regard to all the factors in the relationship. in particular whether it is a stable relationship.

I turn, briefly, to the third part of the Motion, which deals with the proliferation of means tests. This has been mentioned by a large number of hon. Members on both sides of the House. I hope that what I have already said shows clearly that we intend to allocate scarce resources where they are really needed, instead of spreading them thinly over everybody. We are convinced that if we help everybody alike we shall not help the needy enough. It is the pursuit of this type of policy which got hon. Gentleman opposite into the position where, in that famous phrase, they were told by the Child Poverty Action Group that "the poor were getting relatively poorer".

We are up against the harsh realities of cost. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury mentioned this, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington, South. There are built-in growth factors in all the social services, and if we are not to disappoint expectations we have to look very carefully to see that the money goes where it can do most good.

Mr. Leonard

Hon. Members might take the implication from what the hon. Gentleman said that the Child Poverty Action Group holds the view that means tests are a good thing and that this is where the Labour Government went wrong. I do not think he intended this, but that construction could be placed on his words.

Mr. Dean

I fully realise that that is not the view of the Child Poverty Action Group on means testing.

There is not much difference between the two sides of the House on selectivity. "Universality" and "selectivity" tend to be emotion-laden words. In fact, all Governments practise selectivity. The previous Labour Government did. The supplementary benefits scheme in place of the previous National Assistance arrangement was a means-test benefit under another name. I give them credit that it was an improvement on the earlier arrangement. Charges for school meals, with exemptions, and the rent rebate scheme were introduced by the Labour Government on a means-test basis.

There are two types of selectivity, selectivity by group or category and selectivity by individual need or income. The best selectivity approach is by category or group that does not involve a test of need. Examples of that are the war pension scheme, the special arrangements for widows and children under the National Insurance Scheme, the attendance allowance for the severely disabled, which is coming in later this year, and pensions for the very old. These are all examples of selectivity within broad categories within the National Insurance Scheme. There is even an element of selectivity by group within the supplementary benefit arrangement. What is the long-term addition other than selectivity by group within this scheme?

From the point of view of clarity in the development of social policy, it would be better if we had less of this emotion-laden jargon, when it is obvious that all Governments pursue a mixture of universalist and selective policies. I recognise that if the selective approach is to work effectively, first, we must overcome the disadvantages that now exist. The disincentive effect has been mentioned. That is one reason why we introduced the concept of a 50 per cent. taper in the family income supplement. We recognise that problems exist and that we must consider them in planning future policy. Secondly, we must ensure a more effective take-up of benefits. That point was made by the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central (Mr. Thomas Cox), who also asked whether more information could be given in pension books. I can inform the House that pension books now give full information to pensioners as to their rights to supplementary benefits.

The Government are about to launch a major campaign across the whole field of the health services and, later, the family income supplement, in order to seek out those who, through lack of knowledge, reluctance, or for other reasons, are not claiming exemptions to which they are entitled. My right hon. Friend will be announcing plans for this major take-up campaign shortly.

A third disadvantage that has been mentioned by many speakers is the variety and complexity of existing means tests. We are anxious to reduce this complexity. We agree that there is something in the criticisms that have been expressed, and we are trying to amend the situation. One answer might lie in the provision of a single claim form for all the benefits that are administered by both central Government and local authorities. It would not be a simple matter to cut through the complexity, but we are investigating the possibilities.

An important practical step that we shall take is to make the entitlement to family income supplement a passport to exemption from health and welfare charges. This will cover free welfare milk and foods, and reliefs from National Health Service charges, besides refunds of hospital patients' travelling expenses. There is every hope that by the time the scheme starts it will also cover entitlement to free school meals.

I hope that the House will feel that we are at least making progress in our endeavour to overcome the admitted weaknesses in the present arrangements, and that in the short time available to me I have been able to convince the House that the critical Motion is not justified flaying made that controversial remark, however, I want to end by thanking the hon. Member for Oldham, West —and I am sure that the whole House thanks him—for creating this opportunity for such a wide debate on the all-important subject of poverty.

3.54 p.m.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South-West)

In the few minutes that remain I cannot hope to make all the points that I had wished to make. First, I want to respond to some of the claims made by the Minister. He said that we should try to keep politics out of a debate of this nature. It is getting to a curious state of affairs when we try to keep politics out of the House of Commons. Our disagreement arises not because certain Members were born to sit on one side of the House and certain Members on the other—although when I listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Dr. Stuttaford) I was inclined to wonder about that; we disagree about the proper way to deal with certain problems, and it is natural that disagreement should be expressed occasionally in rather emotional terms.

The Minister suggested that all Governments indulge in some form of selectivity in the devices that they employ in the social services. I do not regard the term "selectivity" as appropriate to those benefits that are confined to people like war pensioners. We use the term selectivity to mean differentiation between people on the grounds of income. It is that differentiation which, though acceptable perhaps on a short-term basis for short-term remedies, is not a suitable long-term basis.

This can best be illustrated by quoting retirement pensions. My right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman), who introduced this scheme in the last Parliament, often made clear that his pension scheme could meet only part of the problem. If one did not provide benefits on all-embracing basis, one was saying to the people who were unable to provide for their old age that one would pick them up and at the same time was saying to people who were able to provide for their old age that they should do so out of their own means. That would give an incentive to people not to provide for their retirement. There is no way of getting away from that difficulty except on a comprehensive basis.

The Minister listed 10 matters which the Government had introduced in the few months they have been in office. He well knows that two of those were about to be introduced by the Labour Government. and he knows that the others— some useful and some open to objection on this side of the House—are all small measures. None whatever costs a great deal of money. None will make any significant impact on the problems about which we are talking today.

In the London area the demand for expenditure on housing accommodation is large and is getting larger. We cannot begin to think about poverty in the London area without looking closely at the amount people have to spend on housing. The Government's proposals for rebates in the private sector may go some little way to ameliorate the hardship in that sector, but it is to be noted that they have given no indication of the amount of money which they expect to spend on these rebates. We have not even been told that we may think in terms of £10 million a year, perhaps later of increased family income supplement, or in terms of £100 million. Therefore, we are naturally inclined to think that this will be a small scheme in terms of cost—something of the order of £10, £20 or £30 million a year.

If tenants in private accommodation are not to be able to look for much help from the Government under the new scheme, they will have to look to the stock of council flats and houses for an improvement in their conditions. The Government's proposals in that sector will make worse a situation which is already very bad. Many families in my part of London can hardly afford to live in council accommodation. When they are offered new accommodation, they often ask to be housed in worse accommodation because they cannot afford to go into the best. If they are living on £20 a week with five children they will get such a rebate so that they can perhaps afford to live in good accommodation, but that is not the situation with most families. Even without the Government measure to cut down housing subsidies, council tenants are already in a severely prejudicial position. The present generation of council tenants is obliged to help to pay for the acquisition of land on an outright basis for the use of future generations of council tenants and the acquisition of such land which will be a permanent asset to the community.

The subsidies which they at present receive come nowhere near being equal to the subsidies given to people who are getting tax relief on loans taken out for the building of houses. It is a ludicrous situation that a person in my kind of situation, with my kind of income—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.