HC Deb 13 November 1978 vol 958 cc127-63

Order for Second Reading read.

8.14 p.m.

The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Stanley Orme)

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

This is a very short Bill, but one which I am very pleased to introduce. Its purpose is to pay a bonus of £10 to over 10 million people. The Government have decided that, despite limited resources and other competing priorities, it is appropriate to pay a bonus this year.

The Bill provides, in effect, that the payments will be made this year to the categories who received last year's bonus in accordance with the provisions of the Pensioners Payments Act 1977, the only difference being that the relevant week for determining entitlement will be that beginning 4th December 1978. As before, the Bill extends to Northern Ireland. I am confident that this wholly beneficial Bill will receive support on all sides of the House and that hon. Members will afford it the swift passage necessary for the payments to be made promptly.

More people than ever before will qualify for the bonus—over 10¼million retirement pensioners and other people under pension age. I am glad that so many people will be able to receive this extra payment just before Christmas. To qualify for the bonus, a person must be living or resident in the United Kingdom or a member State of the EEC at some time in the week beginning 4th December and be entitled, or treated as entitled, to payment of a qualifying benefit for at least one day in that week.

The Bill provides for payments to people receiving retirement and invalidity pensions, including non-contributory invalidity pensions; supplementary pensions; widows' pensions under the national insurance, industrial injuries or war pensions schemes; attendance allowance; invalid care allowance; or unemployability supplement or allowance. The bonus will also go to war disablement pensioners who have reached pension age—60 for a woman, 65 for a man—and can be treated as retired, or have attained deemed retirement age—65 for a woman, 70 for a man. Generally speaking, where a married couple are both over pension age they will receive £20. As I have said, these categories of people are those who received the bonus last year.

The vast majority of payments will be made by post offices, and it is appropriate for me to express here my gratitude to the staff of the Post Office and to sub-postmasters, who are prepared to carry out this additional work at a time when normal Christmas pressures are beginning to build up. I am also grateful to the staff of my own Department, who will be arranging for payment in cases not covered by the Post Office. The great majority of people entitled to the bonus will receive it in the week beginning 4th December, and nearly all payments should be made by Christmas.

The bonus payments will cost about £106 million, and this will be met out of moneys voted by Parliament and, in respect of beneficiaries in Northern Ireland, from the Consolidated Fund of

8.18 p.m.

Mr. Robin Hodgson (Walsall, North)

I feel that I should begin by saying that this is the second non-controversial measure that we have discussed today but in view of the fact that, for some four hours, hon. Members on both sides of the House have criticised the provisions of the Nurses, Midwives and Health Visitors Bill—the Briggs Bill—I hesitate to make such a confident forecast on this Bill. However, the Conservative Opposition welcome the Bill. Christmas is a family occasion, an occasion for the giving of gifts and of enjoying a little luxury. If this measure gives albeit modest aid to some of the needier sections of our society, we welcome it.

We welcome the Bill not only from the practical but from the psychological point of view. Many elderly people feel lonely and neglected by society, and this payment in the weeks before Christmas is evidence that they have not been forgotten, and it perhaps gives them a psychological lift and a sign of encouragement that society does care about the elderly who are left alone, very often, in their old age.

The fact that the payment is a lump sum, as opposed to 20p a week, or whatever is the exact equivalent, is also welcome. Those of us who have received tax rebates know how encouraging it is to receive a lump sum that can be spent immediately, and perhaps on a rather larger item than one could afford to buy out of weekly income.

We welcome the payment for psychological and practical reasons and also partly because of the joys of parenthood, as the original measure was introduced under a Conservative Government, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph), in 1972.

Although in the early years there was some criticism from Labour Members, I think that they have come to see its value and its importance and the way in which it is welcomed by all sections of the community. One sees from the Official Report of last year's debate how often the measure was referred to by Labour Members as the "Ted Heath bonus". For this additional reason we welcome the Bill, as partial parents.

The payment is always referred to as the "Christmas bonus" as well. The press release from the Department of Health and Social Security, issued on 2nd November, was headed: Christmas Bonus Bill Laid Before Parliament and it described the payment throughout as a Christmas bonus.

The constant reference to Christmas can perhaps blind us to the fact that Christmas occurs in winter and that winter is a time of difficulty for the old, the handicapped and the elderly. While there is nothing wrong with helping people over Christmas, it should not blind us to the fact that such people need more heating, more lighting and more clothing, and often should be having more food if they are to avoid wasting their strength and becoming more prone to disease.

Therefore, when we pass the Bill tonight and consider it as providing a Christmas bonus, we must consider the modesty of the sum involved and the difficulties that the disadvantaged sections of the community, the ones to whom I have just referred, face not only at Christmas but throughout the winter. We should not become drunk on the spirit of our own charity on such an occasion as this.

That brings me to two specific points that I wish to raise with the Secretary of State. The first concerns the coverage of the payments. I know that certain specific groups have been excluded, and I dare say that some hon. Members will wish to mention them. There is, for example, the case of the man aged over 65 with a wife who is under the age of 60.

But the first specific question that I want to raise arises from the debate in the other place last year and concerns war pensioners. Lord Boyd-Carpenter said: I understood him"— he was referring to Lord Wells-Pestell— to mean that war pensioners below retirement age were not to share in this payment." —[Official Report, House of Lords,22nd November 1977; Vol. 387, c. 766.]

Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you confirm that it is not in order to quote from what has been said by a Member of another place unless he or she is a member of the Government?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

The hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr. Hodgson) is quoting from a previous Session, which he is entitled to do.

Mr. Hodgson

Winding up that debate, when last year's Bill went through another place, Lord Wells-Pestell said: but certainly most war disablement pensioners, and war widows of all ages, will receive the bonus."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22nd November 1977; Vol. 387, c. 775] I should be grateful if the Under-Secretary who winds up the debate will define what is meant by "most". A particular case that I have in mind, and other hon. Members probably have in mind, is the young widow whose husband has been killed, perhaps in Northern Ireland, and is financially very disadvantaged as a result.

So much for the coverage of the pay, ment. The next matter to which I turn is the direction of the payment. Here we come to the question of need. The present scheme is a blanket scheme. Clearly, there are some very needy recipients, people for whom £10 is hardly significant in enabling them to face up to the great financial difficulties in which they find themselves. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those for whom an additional £10 is not a significant sum because they have adequate financial resources of their own. It would be useful if the Minister could tell us what thought, if any, has been given by his Department to finding ways of concentrating payments on those really in need.

I accept that there would be administrative costs in any such exercise, but it would be interesting to hear whether any work has been done in the Department and what conclusions have been reached in an effort to focus the money available—the £100 million that \ye have been told the Bill will cost—on the most disadvantaged sections of the community. The point has come up in previous debates. Has any thought been given to it in the past 12 months?

I turn next to the value of the payment. The bonus has been £10 since 1972. In last year's debate my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) said that the equivalent in purchasing power of £10 at 1972 prices would be £21 in 1977, and that to match purchasing power in 1974—when the present Government took office—the payment would have to be £16. The argument is still the same. Only the numbers have altered. To match 1972 purchasing power, we should now have to pay nearly £25, and to match 1974 prices we should have to pay nearly £18.

I said that the numbers had altered. I was not correct in that, because only most of the numbers have altered. The most critical number—the payment of £10—has not altered.

I should like to take this point a little further. As I understand it from section 125 of the Social Security Act 1975, the Secretary of State is required to increase benefits by the more advantageous of the amount by which earnings or prices have increased. The section appears to be quite clear on that. The Secretary of State is quoted in today's issue of The Times as having said: Pensions go up by nearly 111 per cent., well above the rise in prices since November last year. He did not mention earnings, yet between November 1977 and August this year earnings rose by 10.8 per cent. on the old series and by 9.5 per cent. on the new series. That is a very fine margin of error compared with the 11½ per cent. that the Secretary of State mentioned.

What will happen if the prices or earnings index rises by more than 11½ per cent. in the period up to November? In an interview published in the autumn 1978 issue of New Age, the Under-Secretary who is to wind up the debate was in no doubt about what should happen. He said: In terms of a fixed formula, that is ideal, because it has a ratchet effect. That pensions are automatically going to increase with earnings is mathematically certain, either at the same rate or at a higher rate. This is a formula we are happy with. The hon. Gentleman was presumably speaking as a member of the Government. I notice that a footnote said that the Under-Secretary in his comments was speaking on behalf of the government rather than the Labour Party. I thought that that was an interesting distinction.

Can the Under-Secretary confirm that the Government have a statutory obligation to increase pensions and benefits by the higher of the rate of increase in earnings or prices; that the Secretary of State is using a November to November year; that he is using existing prices and earnings indices; and that if when the index for the period to November is released—say, in January or February it is found that earnings or prices have increased by more than 11½ per cent. the Government will introduce amending legislation?

Mr. Rooker

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I apologise for the fact that my earlier intervention was incorrect.

Can the hon. Gentleman make the Tory Party's position on this matter clear, as he is speaking on behalf of the Tory Party? What is its position on uprating benefits? Would it uprate them on the basis of prices or wages, whichever are the higher? There is some doubt about that.

Mr. Hodgson

The section in the Act—

Mr. Rooker

That is our Act.

Mr. Hodgson

Section 125 of the 1975 Act is clear. It says for the purpose of determining whether those sums have retained their value in relation to the general level of earnings or prices obtaining in Great Britain". Then subsection (2) says: shall have regard either to earnings or prices according to which he considers more advantageous to beneficiaries".

Mr. Rooker

Do the Tories agree with that?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We are not having sedentary interventions.

Mr. Hodgson

The Opposition welcome the Bill, and we shall do all that we can to ensure that it has a swift passage through this House. However, one awful thought occurs to us. In April 1977, the Secretary of State said that it would not be advantageous to introduce a Christmas bonus for that year. He said on 29th April: A bonus payment is bound to be arbitrary in coverage and to exclude many deserving groups."—[Official Report, 29th April 1977; Vol. 930, c. 462.] When, six months later, legislation was brought forward to introduce a Christmas bonus after a lapse of two years, the right hon. Gentleman said: It would have been extremely unfair if we had made tax concessions but not taken pensioners into account. We therefore decided to pay the bonus on that basis."—[Official Report, 17th November 1977 Vol. 938, c. 912.] He was using the fact that there was an autumn Budget to justify the late introduction of a Christmas bonus. I hope that this proposal does not presage an autumn Budget on this occasion. With that proviso, the Opposition welcome the Bill.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. Max Madden (Sowerby)

I intend to intervene only briefly. I want first to welcome the substance of the Bill and then the announcement that the Christmas bonus will go to the same number of people who received it last year.

However, I share the disappointment of the TUC, the pensioner organisations and many others that the amount to be given this year is not more than £10. This year is an appropriate time for the money given at Christmas to be increased. In my view, it should have been increased substantially above the £10 which is to be given this year. That should have been done. Certainly it was pressed for by all sections of the Labour movement. I am sorry that the Government were not able to respond by giving a larger amount. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to give the House more information about the financial considerations which went into arriving at the figure of £10. We should have more information than has been given to the House up to the present.

Although hon. Members in all parts of the House welcome the so-called Christmas bonus, I think that none of us accepts that it is a substitute for satisfactory and proper pensions being paid to all pensioners throughout the year. Therefore, again I urge the Government, whenever they can, to consider generously the retirement pension. We all know of cases of retired people who find it extremely difficult to exist, let alone to make ends meet. Therefore, despite the increases which are taking effect this week, there should be no complacency about the level of retirement pension which we pay to our retired people.

I, too, want to take up a point made by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson) and ask the Minister to make it crystal clear to all retired people and to the public in general exactly what is to be the position for pensions in the coming weeks and months. We have always understood the position to be that the pension is related directly to prices or earnings and that the pension will be adjusted to whatever is the higher figure.

It is clear that the pensions to be paid after this week represent an increase of little more than 11 per cent. on a November to November basis. It is also clear that the increase in earnings over that period is likely to be in the region of 14 per cent. and therefore that our pensioners are losing out on this week's pension increase by 3 per cent. and possibly more.

The House is owed a clear and categorical assurance that, given that that is the case, on the basis of earnings figures which will be known a little later this year all retired people will be told what is to happen and how their pensions will be adjusted, if the earnings figures substantiate that the earnings increase on the November to November year has been 13 per cent. or 14 per cent.

Mr. Orme

Quite frankly, what my hon. Friend is now saying is not relevant to this Bill. In raising the general issue of pensions—and the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson) is also guilty of this—my hon. Friend is going beyond the Bill. We shall not know the figure to which he refers until January 1979. My hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Madden) quoted the figure of 14 per cent. That is the figure that was applicable from July to July. We still do not know what the figure will be November on November. It is known that the Government were absolutely spot on last year in their forecast. We hope that we shall be correct this year, but obviously, if we are not, we shall have to consider the position when we know what the figures are. I urge my hon. Friend not to take too much notice at this stage of the 14 per cent.

Mr. Madden

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend and I hope that DHSS officials are more accurate in their forecasts than their colleagues in the Treasury apparently are. I am grateful for what he has said. I think that most people will assume from what he said that, if the earnings increase is larger than the 11 per cent. or so which has been given in the pension increase this week, the pension will be adjusted accordingly. That is certainly how I take what he has said and I feel that will be the general assumption in the House and in the country.

I understand, or fear, that I may be straying from order in my next remarks, but I will take my chance. It would, in my view, be very regrettable if television licence fees were increased substantially in the next few weeks and if the Christmas bonus became a bonus for the BBC. It would be a tragedy if a large chunk of the Christmas bonus was taken by Sir Michael Swann and his colleagues in the BBC to prop up that shaky organisation for the next two or three years.

I greatly hope that the Minister and his colleagues in the DHSS will campaign vigorously over the next few weeks to ensure that there is no substantial increase in the television licence fee, as that would be a very significant burden for all retired people to bear. Something must be done to protect the retired and other under-privileged sections of the community from the undoubted effects of increasing the television licence fee substantially.

I would also welcome any assurance that the Minister can give, in winding up, that his Department is involved in this matter. In successive replies to all sorts of interventions, questions, letters and deputations, the Home Office says that these matters of the retired are entirely for the DHSS and are taken account of when pensions and other benefits for the retired are calculated.

I should like to know the DHSS's attitude to any increase in the television licence fee and what representations it has made to the Home Office.

Mr. Rooker

Does my hon. Friend accept that if the television licence fee were transferred to income tax, it would put 0.6 of a penny on the income tax? Just over a halfpenny on income tax would permit us to abolish television licences totally. If 95 per cent. of homes have television licences, the old argument that only those who have a television set must pay for the licence does not apply any more.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

Order. This is extremely interesting and I am sure that the whole House is absolutely riveted, but it does not have direct reference to the matter that we are discussing. I know that Second Reading debates may go wide. but this one has gone over the limit.

Mr. Madden

I am most grateful for your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I shall not pursue that point further, although I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) has made a most perceptive point which he and others will be making to the Home Secretary later this week.

We welcome the amount in the Bill. We should have liked to see a much larger amount and certainly we do not want any Government Department, particularly the DHSS, to see this bonus as any substitute for a proper, satisfactory and fair level of pension for all retired people all the year round. We hope that the Department will make sure that, if the retired are owed anything because of movement in earnings over the next few weeks, pensions will be adjusted properly and fully.

8.40 p.m.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

I have no doubt that all hon. Members know what a popular measure this is. For a number of years my wife has run a village post office in my constituency. I have, therefore, met people as they pick up this bonus. My wife ran the post office for some time before 1972 and we know how popular the bonus was when it was introduced. It is still popular.

For many people Christmas is the only time of the year when the household has anything that approaches a substantial sum of money which is not already allocated. At the least it tends to take the edge off the mid-winter heating bills.

However, there is an irony in this debate. Much criticism has been levied at the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph). In real terms he was more than twice as generous in the Christmas bonus as the present Government. I find that disgraceful. I should have thought that Labour Members would have been ashamed of that, bearing in mind their remarks about the right hon. Member in the past few years.

A parliamentary answer showed that to maintain the 1972 purchasing power the bonus should be £22.50 this year. If one wishes to round off the figure, the bonus should be £20. It is a disgrace that the pensioners' bonus is not that sum.

My only other serious criticism is that we must go through this charade every year. Everybody speculates whether the bonus is to be paid and we must pass a separate Bill each year that it is paid. I do not know why the provision cannot be included in permanent legislation which is reviewed biennially. One wonders whether the payment of the bonus is picked out of the bag by the Department whenever it is considered that there will be an election. I suspect that the Department thought that there was to be an election this year.

Why cannot the bonus be made part of permanent legislation? In view of what Labour Members have said about the official Opposition, how can they justify a bonus of only £10?

8.42 p.m.

Mr. Mike Noble (Rossendale)

I shall be brief. I congratulate the Secretary of State on maintaining the bonus. In my constituency and in many others at this time of the year, the bonus forms an important part of pensioners' conversation. They will welcome the Bill.

I was amazed by one part of the speech by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson). If I have misunderstood him I apologise, but he seemed to suggest that the Christmas bonus should be means-tested. That is an amazing attitude. I know that the Opposition's general philosophy is that benefits should be means-tested. But to suggest that the Christmas bonus should be means-tested is beyond the realms of comprehension. It takes one back to the Dickensian days of Scrooge.

I cannot imagine that even the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) would agree with that proposition. I want to know whether a future Conservative Government—if there should ever be such a Government—would means-test the Christmas bonus.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Madden) raised an important matter—the question of the television licence. That topic has been ruled out of order, but I hope that it is possible to consider what pensioners will be doing when they think about how to spend the Christmas bonus. I am sure that when they sit with their friends in their clubs and in the pubs pensioners will discuss Christmas spending. I have no doubt that many will think that it would be nice to buy some extra Christmas fare with the bonus. But many will contemplate the newspaper speculation that they might have to give some of the bonus back to meet an increase in the price of the television licence. Pensioners not in sheltered accommodation particularly fear an increase in the television licence fee. They also know that pensioners in sheltered accommodation will have £9.95 of their £10 left after having to spend only 5p on the television licence, while even with a black and white set they themselves may have to find money in addition to the Christmas bonus to meet the cost of the licence.

Every pensioner who is not in sheltered accommodation knows of someone who is and who benefits from the 5p licence, and considers this to be a grave anomaly. I am amazed that Home Office Ministers cannot comprehend the extent of feeling that exists among old-age pensioners on this issue. It strikes home at this time of the year when they are faced with the possibility of an increase in the licence fee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) raised a pertinent point about the cost of the licence in terms of income tax. I am certain that pensioners in my constituency would be willing to forgo a small part of their Christmas bonus through an increase in VAT if it meant that the television licence was funded from the tax increase. Such an increase would be only small. That would put an end to this grave anomaly. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench will press that point on Home Office Ministers in an attempt to solve the problem.

Is the £10 bonus taken into account in calculating the pensions index? When the Department is calculating the overall increase in pensions compared with the increase in prices and earnings, is the bonus included or excluded? My hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby made a telling point on this question of comparing the increase in pensions with the increases in prices and earnings and on what will happen when the November index is known.

It was unclear from the remarks of the hon. Member for Walsall, North whether his party is committed to repealing the legislation relating pensions to the general increase in earnings and prices. He quoted the legislation as though his party had introduced it, but it was my party that introduced that safeguard for pensions. We would like to know the Opposition's attitude to it. Will they repeal it, if they get the chance, or are they committed to maintaining the relationship between earnings and prices and the pension to ensure that the pensioner gets the best deal? That is something that my pensioner constituents would like to know. Perhaps we will be told when the Opposition Front Bench winds up tonight.

8.50 p.m.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I, too, welcome this short Bill. At the beginning of his speech—I think I am right in saying that it was his first from the Dispatch Box and, if that is so, we warmly congratulate him—the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson) said that this was the second non-controversial Bill to come before us today. The Minister for Social Security will not have failed to notice that it is also the second Bill today which applies directly to Northern Ireland. As a former distinguished occupant of a post in the Northern Ireland Office, he will know that this is a development which will bring great satisfaction to the people of Northern Ireland, in that we are being dealt with here on the Floor of the House under a United Kingdom Bill and not in a Standing Committeee on an Order in Council, or on some other measure dealt with on the Floor perhaps at 3 o'clock in the morning. I hope that that is an indication of things still to come.

I wish also to echo the tribute which has been paid to the Department of Health and Social Security, both the one over which the Ministers on the Front Bench at present preside and their equivalent Department in Northern Ireland, which is at present presided over by the Minister's noble Friend. I believe that people in Northern Ireland will agree with me that the noble Lord has shown great humanity and great willingness to be flexible in his thinking, and I am sure that that has been appreciated by people in Northern Ireland whose activities and lives have been affected by the Department in Northern Ireland.

I agree also with what has been said in tribute to the postmasters and sub-postmasters and their staff with reference to the unavoidable coincidence in the timing of both the rush of Christmas work and the payment of the bonus. In the nature of things, that cannot be avoided, and tribute should be paid to those on whom the burden falls.

I leave this final thought with the House. We all have a part to play in this operation. Whether we are in the Government or in the Opposition parties, Front Benchers or Back Benchers, we must do all we can to ensure that pensioners receive all the benefits to which they are entitled. We have all had experiences emphasising this need in our constituencies. Only last Saturday I was confronted by two separate households of pensioners who quite clearly were not being given all the benefits to which they were entitled. This was not the Government's fault. They had not claimed them all.

Although the Government have done their best, through advertising and various forms of publicity, to make known to the population in general, not just to pensioners but to their families, just what is available by way of assistance, I think that a great deal could be done by various voluntary organisations. I hope that the voluntary organisations will not stop at the point where they indicate to pensioners "You are entitled to this if you fill in that form" but will seek to channel much of the generosity to be found in our society, generosity which, despite what some people say about the present generation and especially the younger generation, is still untapped.

This is not a matter of charity. It is a matter of sharing benefits, and if other people, particularly young people in youth organisations, were encouraged—I hope that they will be encouraged—by the Government and all the Departments, I am sure that they would be happy to make their contribution in assisting our senior citizens, who deserve all the attention and comfort that we can provide for them.

8.53 p.m.

Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I shall be brief, but there are some points to be made. We have heard some remarkable speeches from the Opposition Benches. In particular, I thought that the speech from the Liberal Bench, by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon), was absolutely disgraceful. I am prepared to accept that the amount of the bonus has fallen in real terms, but it is disgraceful then to castigate the present Government for their record on old-age pensions. When we came into power, the old-age pension was £7.50. It is £10.50 this week, which is 150 per cent. up at a time when prices have risen by 100 per cent.

Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)

More than 100 per cent.

Mr. Rooker

All right, 104 per cent., but the fact remains that pensions have risen vastly in front of the overall increase in the cost of living, more than taking into account any fall in the Christmas bonus. If the total income of pensioners is taken together with the bonus, it is plain that they are still in front under this Gov ernment. That point ought to be made clearly both in the House and outside. Any other message is a travesty of the truth.

Next, I turn to what was said by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson). He told us that the bonus was introduced by a Tory Government. At that time, it covered only 6½ million or 7 million people, and it now covers 10 million. That has nothing to do with the fact that there are now more old-age pensioners. The truth is that when the Tories introduced the bonus, they did it in a very mean way. A lot of people on the fringes were caught and left outside the scheme, and there were people who were deeply upset when they found that they could not have the bonus because of the mean nature of the scheme introduced by the Tories.

The bonus scheme has been vastly expanded by my right hon. Friends. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friends for reintroducing the bonus again this year. However, I say again that I consider that we are in danger of being accused of "pensioneering". That is not something that I am prepared to defend.

Pensioners have been asking me whether they are to get the bonus again this year. I do not want pensioners to be in the position of having to ask the question. It is extremely dangerous because accusations may be made against both parties. It is true that Labour and Conservative Governments have never had the courage to legislate to make the bonus permanent. The money resolution was rigged so that we could not table an amendment to get rid of the part of the Bill that makes the bonus applicable to this year only.

It was necessary to be in this place between 4 o'clock and 4.30 p.m. last Friday to table an amendment. That was necessary because of the way in which the resolution had been framed for tonight's debate.

It is a travesty that the Government have walked back again from the major step of legislating to get a permanent bonus on the statute book. It is inconceivable that the Government will not be able to pay the bonus next year and the year after, having paid it, not paid it and brought it back again. It is inconceivable that we could block it. I know that we could use the excuse that we have a good record of keeping the old-age pension in front of the cost of living. We have that record, but we are paying the bonus again this year.

Mr. Madden

My hon. Friend is right. Did he note the comment of the Opposition spokesman that led me to believe that, given the chance, the Tories would introduce a means-tested Christmas bonus?

Mr. Rooker

My hon. Friend is right. The chances are that if they paid the bonus—as I understand it, they have not said from the Front Bench that if they were returned they would ensure its payment every year with the introduction of one Act that would apply for ever unless rescinded—they would reintroduce their old measure and leave out three and a half million pensioners who receive the bonus under Labour and who did not receive it when the Tories were in power.

The Front Bench spokesman widened the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, before you took the Chair tonight. He spoke about the uplifting and operating of benefits. I challenged the hon. Member for Walsall, North and all that he would say in reply to my intervention was to repeat what is in the Act. It is a Labour Act and we know what it contains. Payment is linked to prices or wages, whichever is the higher.

The Tories are not on record as agreeing with that. The indications are that they would pay on the basis of the cost of living—namely, prices. If wages went ahead of prices, they would pay only on the prices index. They would go for the lowest index.

Mr. Penhaligon

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that during the year when inflation was at its highest the Government decided to change the premise of wages or prices from the year that had passed to the year in future? As a result, did they not save a great deal of money? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that pensioners' incomes were reduced because of that mean act?

Mr. Rooker

The hon. Gentleman is right. There was an argument and the issue went to court. As a result of changing the datum, £1 a week was lopped off—

Mr. Penhaligon

It was fiddled from the pensioners.

Mr. Rooker

The hon. Gentleman talks about fiddling, but that change took place when the Liberals held the balance in this place. I do not remember any resolutions, amendments or motions being tabled by the Liberals to oppose changing the datum and to attract the support of my hon. Friends. The Liberals took no action.

Mr. Michael Morris


Mr. Rooker

Yes, I will take you all on.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I do not think that anybody should take anybody on. We are straying wide again. Second Reading debates are wide, but we are going too wide. I hope that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) will confine himself to the subject matter.

Mr. Madden

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) is right. When you were not in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson) spoke extensively about the social security legislation of 1975. He quoted from it and raised various questions. He tempted me to stray into that area, although I am always reluctant even to be tempted to stray from order. The hon. Gentleman sparked off the discussion and interest in these matters, and his remarks must be answered.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It is a difficult problem. In the circumstances, I will allow a limited straying from the straight and narrow path, but I hope that hon. Members will not go too wide.

Mr. Rooker

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Michael Morris

I think that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) does a disservice to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon). If the hon. Member for Pery Barr will look at the record, he will find that it was before the date when the Liberal Party held the balance in this House. If he finds that that is correct, I hope that he will apologise publicly to the hon. Member for Truro.

Mr. Rooker

In certain respects I am in favour of retrospective legislation in this place. If the hon. Gentleman is right, and if during the period of the pact the Liberals wanted to do something about a matter which had happened at an earlier time, I would have agreed with retrospective action being taken. But I did not see any amendments from the Liberals to any of the Bills which came before the House in the last Session.

Mr. Penhaligon

The hon. Gentleman appears to be embarrassed tonight. I can tell him that the year in which we held the balance of power was the same year as that in which the Government brought back the Christmas bonus, after having withdrawn it for two years. Indeed, it was one of the conditions of the Lib-Lab pact.

Mr. Rooker

The Christmas bonus last year was £10. The arguments are—I accept most of them—that the pensioners lost £50 because of the shifting of the datum point. The £10 bonus was a very small recompense for what the pensioners claim that they lost. The fact remains that there was no battle by the Liberal Party over this issue. I did not have the opportunity to go into any particular Lobby over the issue, and it is in the Lobbies that the real battles take place here.

I think that I have made my point and that the speech was disgraceful. The point is about the overall uplifting of pensions—150 per cent. for a cost of living increase of 105 per cent., from 1973 to 1978. No one can deny that the record of the Government in this respect is one of which they can be rightly proud. Nevertheless, we are in danger of being accused of pensioneering. I do not want to see another Bill of this sort before the House. I want to see a clause in the Finance Bill to the effect that there will be an annual bonus payable to old-age pensioners. I will vote for that. I will vote for an amendment to the Bill, from wherever it comes. I will put myself on the line in that respect. That is a direct challenge to hon. Members on the Opposition Benches to put their votes where their mouths are. I know that they will not do it. But perhaps they might after tonight.

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Coventry, South-West)

I remind my hon. Friend that there will, of course, be a social security Bill. Perhaps we can all take the opportunity of putting down an amendment to that measure.

Mr. Rooker

I was delighted to notice last week that there is to be a social security Bill. It is almost miscellaneous. I have been waiting for this for the last two years. Certainly there will be a lot of work to do on that Bill. Nevertheless, there is the Finance Bill, on which the Government are in a dodgy position. Outside the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been threatening to raise taxes, but he cannot do that without getting a vote here. He does not seem to have taken that into account at the weekend. I shall attempt to use the Finance Bill—it will have to be in this Chamber because I shall not be allowed in the Committee—to get a clause dealing with pensioners' payments, so that it will be on the statute book for the following year.

Older Members will remember the days when there was a great deal of pension eering and when "More for the pensioners" was an election issue in order to buy votes. I believe that it is disreputable even to have to discuss this matter, but we have to do so because of the nature of the Bill that is now before the House. I hope that my right hon. Friends will try a little harder to win the battle with the Treasury on this matter. It is an important battle to win. In my constituency, about 28 per cent. of the electorate are old-age pensioners. That is the biggest single group of old-age pensioners in the city of Birmingham. That figure is more than twice the national average for any constituency, therefore I know how much my constituents will welcome the bonus, notwithstanding that it is only £10. But £10 is better than nothing.

However, there is the danger of the cost of living going up ail the time. There is also the problem of the television licence fee. I shall not go into this point at length, but it has been raised. Television licences represent £300 million. In the days when only 10 per cent., 30 per cent. or 40 per cent. of homes had television sets, it was right that those who did not have television sets should not have to pay the licence fee. That was the argument about the licence fee, and I accept it. But now 95 per cent. of homes have television sets. Therefore there is no reason why the television licence fee should not be met out of income tax. I should point out that £300 million represents 0.6p on income tax. In fact, we can lose £300 million totting up a column of figures in the Treasury.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Ormskirk)

Or the Crown Agents.

Mr. Rooker

Or the Crown Agents. It is chicken feed. It is twice as much as the Government spend on bailing out the Burmah Oil Company, on the board of which company sat the husband of the Leader of the Opposition. We are talking about chicken feed.

Two million pensioners are on supplementary benefit. We must get them off supplementary benefit. That means giving them a proper pension. This bonus is no substitute for a proper pension or for linking pensions to earnings. Having got the pension linked and uplifted at the moment of the annual uplifting in line with the rise in earnings or prices, whichever is the greater, we need a breakthrough into hyperspace. We must link the pension to a percentage figure of either earnings or prices, whichever is the higher, and then keep it in line. That is what needs to be done to get pensioners off the means test. It will be the only way that we shall be able to live with our consciences. It will be the only way of stopping pensioners dying, as they still do, from hypothermia or starvation. There are such cases every year. The Labour Party still has a lot of work to do in this sphere.

I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends are in the vanguard of these changes, but they must screw the Treasury. They have to take on the Treasury and hit it harder than they have done to date. If it means changing a few Ministers at the Treasury, or at the Home Office in respect of television licence fees, let us change them. The money is available. There is over £2 billion of uncollected taxes—income tax, surtax, corporation tax and value added tax—of which only £1 billion will ever be collected. Those are the figures from the Treasury—£2 billion in uncollected taxes, of which only £1 billion will come into the coffers. Therefore, there are plenty of resources for these changes—£100 million for the annual bonus and £300 million to get rid of the television licence fee.

We still have to win the battles on these matters. Until those battles have been won, my hon. Friends and I will have to come to this place every day, as we do, and make these speeches. Of course, we applaud the battles which have been won and rightly pay tribute to our right hon. Friends. I know about the battles that they fought to get the Bill. At the same time, we must keep pushing them and give them the backbone to take on the slackers round the Cabinet table who, by their actions in the last four years, have shown that they are not responsive to the Labour movement outside. They have shown that they do not understand the problems of the pensioners and the arguments that we have advanced regarding those who live in sheltered accommodation and those who do not.

We must get rid of the need to use valuable parliamentary time to bring in this annual Bill. At least it has been cut down this year. Last year and the year before, similar Bills contained 2,500 words just to pay the annual bonus. The Bill has now been drafted in such a way that we cannot put down amendments to it. Indeed, you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have rightly taken cognisance of the fact that we need a wide-ranging Second Reading debate, because we cannot debate particular clauses. Neither of the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) has been selected. I was not able to raise my manuscript amendment.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

The Common Market.

Mr. Rooker

My hon. Friend says "The Common Market". If he wishes me to give way, I will do so. However. I do not see the relevance of the point that he may wish to make.

Mr. Skinner

The point that I wanted to draw to my hon. Friend's attention was that another important statement has been made today about the amount that pensioners and all other individuals in this country will have to contribute to the Common Market by 1980—£15 per head—compared with the Germans and others who will have to pay a great deal less. Therefore, pensioners will need more money to compensate for that amount for the lousy Common Market.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That was extremely interesting but even further away than the point raised previously.

Mr. Rooker

I am about to sit down, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I know that my hon. Friend has some good material there for a speech on Third Reading, perhaps.

9.10 p.m.

Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)

Having listened to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), the only thing on which I would take issue with him is the rather churlish nature of his reference to the action of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph). Let us be quite clear. My right hon. Friend and the Cabinet at that time took the decision to introduce the concept of a Christmas bonus. That was welcomed by a majority of the House and by the pensioners of this country. It was a great step forward. No one in the Conservative Party, at any time, has suggested that it should be confined. The extensions that have taken place have been welcomed. I believe that the hon. Gentleman was entirely wrong to suggest that at any time we have resisted these extensions.

Having said that, I, too, would like to place on record my thanks to the Government for reintroducing this benefit this year. As several hon. Members have said, the time has come for it to be a permanent part of the features of Christmas in Britain that this bonus should exist, and that all that we should debate each year should be the amount rather than the principle.

When the Minister replies to the debate, I hope that he will give some indication of those pensioners who objected last year to being excluded from the Bill, if any. If there are no objectors left, it would be helpful to all parties concerned if we knew that there are no residents of pensionable age in the United Kingdom who are excluded from the £10 bonus. That would help the House in its deliberations.

A number of hon. Members have spoken about what they thought they heard my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson) say. My ears must be different from theirs. I heard him ask the Minister whether, if the bonus were to be uprated, any work had been done in the Department on assimilating the pros and cons of a means-tested benefit. But my hon. Friend never said anything more than that. It is absolutely right that any Opposition Front Bench spokesman should extract from the responsible Minister whether background work has been done. It is a simple inquiry and I should have thought that a simple answer could be produced. It is an important point and my hon. Friend was right to raise it as a question—no more, no less.

Has not the time come when we in this House, perhaps through the right hon. Gentleman's Department, should be assessing this range of fringe benefits for pensioners? There is a very wide disparity throughout the country. Mention has been made of the 5p television licence fee versus the present licence fee. That causes enormous difficulty and many pensioners believe that it would be much fairer to have perhaps a 50 per cent. rate across the country for all pensioners. But there are numbers of permutations. There are other areas, such as concessionary bus fares. In some areas travel is free, in some other areas it is at half the fare, and in some other areas there is no concession at all. There are many other areas in which there are concessions of varying degree.

I wonder whether this time next year, or sooner, the House could be presented by the Department with some recommended guidance on levels of concessionary benefits for pensioners, after carrying out some consultation with the local authority associations concerned. The time has come when there ought to be some degree of comprehensibility throughout the country.

In response to the question raised by the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Madden), I must say that Labour Members acquiesced fairly quickly when the Minister said "Oh, well, we have got to wait until January to find out what the wage levels will be and then maybe something will happen." The hon. Member for Perry Barr was, I felt, being pretty trusting. He ought to know that it takes six months to uprate a pension.

Mr. Rooker

There are other ways.

Mr. Morris

There may be other ways, but so far as I am concerned the only way is through the Chamber of this House. That is the proper way. I think the right hon. Gentleman knows jolly well that his current forecast will be wrong. It would have been a little more genuine had he come to the Dispatch Box and said "We reckon that we shall probably be wrong and we are prepared to take action to amend it." But he did not. He said that we shall have to wait until January, which, as we all know, means that it will be next year.

Let us be honest: the Government will do absolutely nothing about it. They will put it off until next year in the hope that the General Election comes in the meantime. It would have been far more honest had the right hon. Gentleman come to the Dispatch Box and said that right from the start.

This bonus is welcomed by all pensioners. It is welcomed by the Opposition side of the House, and by my hon. Friends as much as anyone. I pay credit that the bonus now exists. I hope that both sides of the House will ask that this Bill now becomes a permanent part of pensioners' Christmas benefit and that in future we do not have to spend time each year debating its principle.

9.17 p.m.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Ormskirk)

One does not have to ask who is interested in the pensioners. All one has to do is look at the Benches tonight. It is interesting that there are so many of my hon. Friends present that I cannot count them, yet on the Opposition Benches we have the Opposition spokesman asleep, a Whip who has to be here, one Member each from two minority parties and the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris), who is really here only for the Adjournment debate. [HON. MEMBERS: "That is right."] That is how much interest is demonstrated by the parties opposite. There are only five indolent Members opposite whereas on the Labour Benches there is virtually the Tribune Group in full.

Mr. Skinner

And two more prospective members.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) is quite right. There is a problem with pensioners and their pensions. He is quite right to point out that of all the sections in our community this Government, whatever faults and failures they may have had—and they have a few—have protected the pensioners from the ravages of the international recession and from inflation far more than they have protected any other group in our society, indeed to the extent that penioners are now better off today in real terms than they were when we came into office in 1974. That needs saying time and again.

It is no good the occasional Conservative Member wringing his hands and joining the bleeding heart brigade when his party's record on pensioners is disgraceful and compares by no means with the record of the present Government.

Mr. Skinner

They do not put that on their posters.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

That is not to say that any of us on the Labour Benches accepts that the present position of the pensioners in our society is acceptable. Of course it is not. The present pension, though higher in real terms than it was in 1974, though it buys more today even with a higher level of inflation than it did in 1974, is still not sufficient to meet the needs and demands of pensioners. It is still a disgrace that in a so-called affluent and civilised society many millions of our pensioners and other sections of the community should in effect have to live at a level well below the official poverty level. This House, certainly the Labour side of the House, has a great deal more to do if we are to reach the situation, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr, where pensioners and other groups in society live at a level which we would all accept as reasonable and civilised.

That is the position at the moment. For that reason, if for no other, this Bill and the £10 Christmas bonus is especially welcome. I welcome it enthusiastically and wholeheartedly, as do my constituents. They welcome it with gratitude. That is the point. They should not have to be accepting it with gratitude. It should not be necessary. If we had decent pensions, properly related to either the level of inflation or average earnings, we would not be dealing with these charitable handouts at Christmas.

I am disappointed that my right hon. Friend has not taken the opportunity, which I and my hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr and others attempted to give him last year, of making this a permanent bonus. I intensely dislike the suggestion that every year the Government should hold in their hands until the last moment the decision whether to pay this money.

Pensioners come to us throughout the year asking whether they are to receive a Christmas bonus. There is a good deal of anxiety and resentment because they are kept on the hook, waiting on the whim and caprice of the Government. We all know, because we have faith and confidence in our Ministers and the Government, that they will deliver the goods again this year as last year. But there is no saying what a potential future Conservative Government might do. I do not think that we shall ever have such a Government, but, just in case, would it not have been better to tie their hands by making this bonus a permanent feature, as we tried to do last year? The Minister has prevented us from giving him that chance this year because of the tight way in which the money resolution is drawn. It is important, politically, that we do this. It is important to pensioners generally that they should not feel that they are being given charity, that they are waiting on the whim and caprice of the Government.

Mr. Michael Morris

Is not the reason for the pensioners' concern the simple one that it was the Labour Government who stopped the pension? No other Government ever did that.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

It may be important that it was my Government who stopped the pension. It was also my Government who brought it back. It is not my Government who want to make it means-tested. That was probably the most disgraceful thing that has been said tonight. Labour Members are welcoming the £10, although it is not enough. We want more and we want it to be permanent. Yet the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson) has sugested that the Christmas bonus shall be means-tested. Think of all the extra bureaucracy that would involve. In the year when my Government—and I am proud of them—took off the £10 Chritmas bonus, there were two pension upratings.

Mr. Hodgson

I did not say anything about means-testing. My point was simply that we have a finite sum of money to spend. I want to see the money going to those most in need.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Perhaps the hon. Member would like to give me another definition of means-testing. The hon. Gentleman doth protest too much. He has made the point clear. He says that he asked a simple, polite question. He has confirmed the point. We ought to make it clear to those in our constituencies that the Conservative Party wants to means-test the Christmas bonus. I hope that the honourable and non-honourable people up there—in the Press Gallery, which we cannot see—make sure that that message goes out loud and clear from this Chamber. It is the most disgraceful suggestion to have been made tonight.

We do not want the Government acting as Father Christmas every year. We should have gone beyond that. We should have better pensions. They are needed. If we are to have a Christmas bonus, it should be permanent and it should be raised according to inflation. It should now represent in real terms the monetary equivalent of what it was when it was first introduced.

I return to the hon. Member for Northampton, South, who is waiting for his Adjournment debate. He talked of all the other things that we should be doing. Why does he not talk to some of the Conservative-controlled councils which do not operate decent concessionary fare schemes? Why does he not suggest that they take a leaf out of the Government's book? As the Government are giving the pensioners a bonus for Christmas, the Conservative-controlled councils could give their pensioners a bonus and let them travel free on the buses for a week so that they could do their Christmas shopping. That would be an easy, sensible, straightforward step that would not put much on the rates but would do a great deal to help the pensioners who would benefit from it. Not one of the two Conservative Members in the Chamber would support such a proposal. They are mean. They want means-testing.

Mr. Michael Morris

The hon. Gentleman knows that not even his own Government recommend free transport for pensioners. It is time that he came to the House better equipped. The same applies to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), who is going to have to make a public apology to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) and myself.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. We have free travel for pensioners in Birmingham under a Labour council which pioneered concessionary fares for pensioners and had them removed by the action in the courts of a Conservative councillor. It was this Labour Government who came back with the legislation that enables local authorities to provide that sort of facility.

Mr. Skinner

It is a good Labour Government.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

My hon. Friend is right. It is a good Labour Government.

Mr. Skinner

Is it the same Labour Government as we had last week?

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

My hon. Friend should realise that the Government's attitude changes from week to week. It depends on what pressure is coming from these Benches. He should join us more often. He missed a Question Time last week.

Mr. Skinner

I was at a Labour Party NEC sub-committee meeting.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

You, Mr. Speaker, must have heard my hon. Friend say before that his duty to the House comes before his duty to any outside organisation, however august it may be or even if he is only newly elected to it and however important it may be to him to reform its archaic—

Mr. Speaker

Order. No doubt the hon. Gentleman is right, but the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is not seeking a pension. We are talking about the Bill before the House.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

I am grateful for your help, Mr. Speaker. We are talking about one of the vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in the community. I welcome enthusiastically the payment of the £10 to pensioners, but I must ask why it is not extended to other people who are no less deprived and disadvantaged than are pensioners. I am thinking of, for example, recipients of supplementary benefit, one-parent families, the disabled and the longterm unemployed, many of whom are even more disadvantaged than are our pensioners. In addition, why does the wife of a pensioner not get the payment if she has not reached the age of 60? It is extremely disturbing that my hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) has not been allowed to move his amendment which would extend payment to the spouses of pensioners. I hope that the Minister will put that right.

Last year, many of my constituents complained that, through ignorance or incompetence, they had not applied for the Christmas bonus at the right time. Is there to be a qualifying period this year outside which people who do not claim—for whatever reason, and some may have very good reasons—will not be able to get the bonus?

I hope that the Minister will continue his battle in the Cabinet to get more resources for pensioners and others and will come to the House, if not in Committee tonight, at least next year—when he will still be in the Cabinet—to make the bonus a permanent feature and to uprate it to take account of inflation so that it is worth in real terms what it was worth when it was first introduced. I hope that we shall also be able to extend it to the disabled, the long-term unemployed and other deprived members of society.

9.30 p.m.

Mr. George Thompson (Galloway)

You were lucky, Mr. Speaker, to take over the Chair when you did. Had you come in rather earlier, you would have been told that this was a non-contentious Bill. Your experience since you came back to the Chair must have led you to think otherwise.

The hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) cast a few remarks towards the Opposition Benches. I am not terribly good at mathematics, but I should point out to him that there was one Scottish National Party Member here at the time. The hon. Gentleman remarked that that was only one out of 11. There were 16 Labour Members present at the time. On a proportional basis compared with that of the SNP presence, that would have suggested a total Labour membership of 176, but, of course, there are far more than 176 Labour Members in the House, when they are all here. The hon. Gentleman's remarks were. thereiore, slightly misdirected.

However, I find myself in much agreement with what the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) said. But I thought that the hon. Member for Perry Barr was less than just to the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), because I recall that she brought the £10 bonus into the pension. Therefore, she cannot be rebuked for having got rid of it. She incorporated it into the pension so that it was paid out over the year. That is my recollection.

I welcome the Bill on behalf of the Scottish National Party, because we are not Scrooges. Perhaps I should take a Scottish character and say that we are not Ebenezeer Balfours of Shaws, because, although "Kidnapped" does not say what he had for his Christmas dinner, I am sure that it was porridge washed down with small beer and that he had the same thing at Hogmanay as well.

This bonus is being given by Parliament, by all parties;indeed, if the Bill means anything it is being granted by the Queen and the Lords Spiritual and Temporal as well. I make this point because I recall that, during the run-up to the General Election of February 1974, when I was canvassing pensioners in my constituency, many of them said that they were very grateful to the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) for having given them £10 at Christmas. I was well aware that out of taxation I paid some of this £10 bonus, and I deeply resented the fact that it was all being attributed to the right hon. Member for Sidcup when I was myself contributing at least a teacher's mite to the total.

I hope that this Christmas bonus will not be used for party political purposes, because it is a bonus from the taxpayers of the United Kingdom, through Parliament, from all of us to the recipients of pensions. I agree with those hon. Members who have said that this should become a regular part of benefits, because, although I agree that we should be aiming at a pension of such a size that people would not require additional benefits, I still think that pensioners are appreciative of the extra money. I think that even if we made the pension up to the rate that it should be, the House would still want to give a little extra at Christmas so that those drawing benefits would be able to join in the celebrations, at least in a moderate way.

I agree that the £10 should have been more. I also agree that it is no substitute for a proper level of benefits all through the year. I do not see how this could be overcome, but I point out that in certain parts of the United Kingdom Christmas costs more. In the northern parts Christmas is colder and often wetter. Food is dearer and, above all, transport is dearer. That applies not only to certain parts of Scotland but to other parts of the United Kingdom. It applies to all the remoter areas and especially to the rural areas.

Many of us living in areas in which concessionary fares are not as handsome as they are in certain other areas with large urban populations are well aware that the cost of transport is greater. For people to visit their relatives at Christmas, which is a family season, is more expensive.

I hope that in due course the Department will try to find a way to make a regional adjustment. It could be done through adjusting the rates, which might be difficult, or through exhorting councils to give benefits that they could give but are not now giving.

Part of the problem is that we have to encourage people who are earning to be willing to contribute a little more through taxation to be spent in these useful ways.

With those words, I support the Bill heartily on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

Mr. Orme


Mr. Noble

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson), who opened the debate for the Opposition, raised two very contentious issues. He twice referred to the question of a means-tested Christmas bonus. On another occasion he was somewhat ambivalent about the relationship between pensions and wages and earnings.

Mr. Speaker

May I ask the hon. Gentleman to come to his point of order? He addressed the House earlier.

Mr. Noble

What I want to know, Mr. Speaker, is whether there is a precedent for a leading spokesman for the Opposition, who is supposed to be winding up, failing to reply to a debate—as is clear from the fact that the hon. Gentleman did not rise—when he has raised such issues and the House expects an explanation?

Mr. Speaker

It is not my job to look for precedents of that sort. I am concerned with precedents about rules of order.

Mr. Hodgson

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I make it clear that my remarks in opening were questions to the Minister and not a statement of Conservative Party policy? They were merely questions to the Minister about the actions of his Department.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Honour is satisfied.

9.37 p.m.

Mr. Orme

The debate has been rather wide-ranging and well beyond the terms of the Bill. Some of the points made by my hon. Friends were directed to other Ministers, who will no doubt read with great interest what has been said and, I hope, take note. I want to deal with the other points and some of the related spin off matters.

I think that the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson) was making his first appearance at the Opposition Dispatch Box. He perhaps found that that position can be a little hazardous on occasions, but we welcome him to that Box.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of war pensioners and asked whether any categories were disallowed. War disablement pensioners who are over pension age and retired, or deemed to be retired, receive the bonus. In addition, war disablement pensioners under pension age who also receive unemployability supplement will receive the bonus. All war widows will also receive the bonus.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about heating allowances and to what extent the bonus would help towards heating costs. I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's concern, but I want to put on record that in heating additions this year the Government will be paying to supplementary benefit recipients and family income supplement recipients about £90 million. In addition, £45 million has been allocated by the Department of Energy to meet a quarter of the cost of certain electricity bills and to make cash grants of £5. This figure is larger than last year's—it was £22 million then—because the scheme has been extended to cover those receiving rent and rate rebates and rent allowances, which my hon. Friends have been pressing on the Government, as well as those receiving supplementary benefit and FIS.

The hon. Member for Walsall, North then referred to people who get the bonus and who perhaps do not need it. I do not think that he can wriggle on this issue. Either we have a means-tested benefit or we pay the bonus to everyone. I accept that many people receive the bonus who have very good incomes—perhaps even unearned incomes—but, frankly, it is not worth the cost of trying to distinguish between them. Where should we start, and where should we stop? My hon. Friends know that many pensioners who are just above the supplementary benefit level feel very aggrieved at times when they are left out of benefits which only those in receipt of supplementary benefit get. If we started to discriminate in the way suggested, it would be entirely wrong. This Government do not believe in means-tested benefits if we can do without them. It is much better to pay these benefits across the board to all categories because then people know exactly where they stand.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Madden) asked why more than the proposed £10 could not be paid. I take his point. The Government would like to have made the payment higher than the sum now proposed. However, we virtually scraped the bottom of the barrel of the Contingency Reserve to raise this £106 million. The Cabinet saw this payment as the priority between now and next April.

Mr. Skinner

The new financial year.

Mr. Orme

As always, my hon. Friend is quite right. We are talking about the period up to April 1979. In a moment I shall be commenting on what the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) said about where some of the money might come from. However, perhaps I shall be allowed to get to that in my own way.

We have heard again and again what the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) did in introducing the bonus in 1972. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) pointed out that we had added 3,500,000 to 4 million people to those entitled to the bonus since 1972. I have also been asked about the rate of pension. Let me remind the House that in 1972 the single person's pension was £6.75. Allowing for inflation, the pension that we shall be paying this week will have increased in real terms by more than 20 per cent. since this Government came to office in 1974.

A number of hon. Members on both sides of the House asked me whether the Government's forecast of earnings or prices increases was correct. As I have said already, we shall not know that until January. But we were not prepared to do that and that is why this Bill is before the House at the moment.

We heard an interesting story from the hon. Member for Truro. I am rather fascinated. He told us that his wife is one of those hard-working people, a sub-postmistress, and he sees pensioners coming in to collect their benefits. No doubt he sits alongside her, smiles and says "Don't forget I voted for this." I hope that he will tell them two things when they come into his wife's sub-post office this December. First, if he and his hon. Friends, with the Conservative Party, had defeated the Labour Government last week there would have been no Christmas bonus this year. Secondly, he might tell them that if he had not voted with the Conservative Party on the Finance Bill to assist top taxpayers to the tune of £500 million, we might be having a higher Christmas bonus. Per- haps the hon. Gentleman will take note of those particular points. I feel that now the pact no longer exists I am free to speak my mind.

Mrs. Wise

I very much appreciate the remarks of my right hon. Friend. Could he also ensure that the Chancellor himself remembers that the top taxpayers have had their money in advance through the action of the Opposition and bear that very much in mind when next year's Finance Bill comes along?

Mr. Orme

That is a very fair point and I shall certainly draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Michael Morris

With the usual effect.

Mr. Orme

I thank the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) for his kind remarks and for his support for this Bill, and not least for what he said about my noble Friend. The point was raised about benefits not claimed. The take-up is exceedingly good and we are pleased about that. I want to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) that if there are any people who have not yet claimed last year's Christmas bonus, they are still eligible to claim it. There is no cut-off. It can still be claimed if people have not picked up that bonus and I hope that that is known.

It is good news, not bad news, that seems to travel very fast and we are delighted with the take-up. The point has been raised again, not least and very forcefully by my hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk and by my hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr, about an annual bonus. They pressed this last year on the Government and very correctly they have raised the point again this year.

The Bill, as my hon. Friends know, is purely to deal with 1978. Obviously I take note of what has been said and no doubt the Government will take note. Possibly in a fresh Parliament, we hope with a majority Labour Government, this matter will be considered again next year. No doubt, my hon. Friends will return to this but they will appreciate that I have nothing further to add. I have taken note of what they have said.

I think I have tried fairly to answer the major points that have been raised in the debate. I hope now that we can press ahead and pass the Bill this evening so that work can start on implementing it. There is no doubt that a lot of people will be watching to see this Bill through. I addressed 300 or 400 pensioners in the Grand Committee Room this afternoon and they were aware that the Government were about to deal with this Bill. I am very pleased they were.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second Time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House—[Mr. Bates.]

Further Proceedings stood postponed pursuant to the Order of the House this day.