§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ LORD SNELL
My Lords, the primary object of this Bill is the improvement of conditions relating to pensions. It is also an attempt to fulfil a promise made at an earlier period by the Government On the 2 17th June last year a private member in the House of Commons moved:That this House, recognizing that the difficulties of old age pensioners and widows have been accentuated by war-time conditions, would welcome an immediate examination by the Government of their present position so that any necessary action can be taken with out delay.That Motion was accepted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on behalf of the Government, and the first step that was taken was an examination of the rates of supplementary pensions and unemployment assistance. The result of that examination was a regulation increasing by 2s. 6d. a week, the amount given in respect of every adult and 1s. for every child whose needs are taken into account. These draft regulations were approved by both Houses of Parliament on the 29th July. The Minister of Labour, replying to the debate, said that the principal matters for further examination concerned widow pensioners under sixty who need assistance beyond their means, and the treatment of capital assets. I ought to mention that the Government examination of these matters has been independent of the proposals of the Beveridge Report. This Bill is designed merely to effect some improvement in the present system, without prejudice to the establishment of a new system of benefits as recommended by the Beveridge Report. It is recognized, however, that time will be required to give effect to the Beveridge proposals, which, as your Lordships know, the Government have for the most part accepted.
3 The present proposals have the advantage that they can be adopted almost at once. What they propose, however, involves the amendment of five different codes of legislation, and it is rather difficult to alter one without disturbing other things. In regard to capital assets, the first proposal is that widow pensioners under sixty should be eligible for supplementary pensions if they have children in respect of whom allowances are at present being paid, and there are also two adjustments in the rules which apply to supplementary pensions, unemployment assistance and financial assistance to the blind. Under the present rule the Assistance Board and the local authorities take into account in full any capital other than War Savings in excess of £300 and treat a smaller amount as equivalent to an in come of 1s. per week for every £25. This Bill proposes to increase this from £300 to £400 and to reduce from 1s. to 6d. the amount which is taken into account as a weekly income for each £25 after the first £25. For example, if the capital is between £200 and £224 19s. 11d. that will be treated as producing a weekly income of 3s. 6d. instead of 7s. and the allowance for supplementary pension will be treated accordingly. Some 230,000 pensioners who are in receipt of supplementary pensions have capital assets of between £5 and £300 apart from War Savings.
Another change is in relation to superannuation payment. Nearly 77,000 pensioners are receiving superannuation payments of various amounts. The amount is 7s. 6d. in nearly 40,000 cases. Under the present rule the first 7s. 6d. is disregarded in assessing resources. It is proposed to raise this amount to 10s. 6d. There are two small changes in relation to non-contributory old age pensions. First, financial assistance by a local authority to blind persons shall not be calculated as part of their income for pensions purposes; and, secondly, there is a small change establishing reciprocity between Great Britain and the Isle of Man. Persons born in the Isle of Man and living in Great Britain will obtain pensions under similar conditions to those which apply to persons born in Great Britain and living in the Isle of Man. In regard to the household means test, which is the only item for which I will ask your Lordships' attention, the Government 4 have given attention to this. The Determination of Needs Act, 1941, abolished this test as applied to supplementary pensions and unemployment assistance, but left it in force as regards outdoor relief under the Poor Law and left it to local authorities to apply at their discretion. The new proposals in this Bill apply the rules of the Determination of Needs Act to both the Poor Law and to the Blind Persons Act.
I need not dwell at length upon the various clauses of the Bill. Clause 1 raises from £300 to £400 the maximum value of the money and investments to be treated as capital and not immediately available to meet the applicant's needs, and reduces from 1s. to 6d. the weekly income deemed to be derived from each complete £25 of capital after the first £25. Clause 2 applies to outdoor relief under the Poor Law and is generally similar in effect to Clause 1 (1). Clause 3 provides for the abolition of what is called the household means test in the grant of outdoor relief under the Poor Law and in the provision of financial assistance for blind persons. Clause 4 makes widows with contributory pensions which include allowances in respect of children eligible, irrespective of age, for supplementary pensions. Clause 5 deals with the question of non contributory old age pensions, blind persons and persons born in the Isle of Man.
The criticisms that have been made of this Bill have been directed not so much to what it proposes to do as to what is left undone, but in principle the Bill has received general support. In another place, on the Second Reading, Mr. Arthur Greenwood said:I intend to support the Second Reading of this Bill, and I would like all my honourable friends to support me in the Lobby …. I support this Bill with certain mental reservations. I appreciate that it is an improvement ….Therefore, my Lords, I commend this Bill to you as useful. Although it does not attempt to solve the general problem, it deals nevertheless with a few urgent matters, and I trust your Lordships will accept it as a welcome step towards a complete and satisfactory conclusion. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.— (Lord Snell.)
§ LORD NATHAN
My Lords, this Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Snell, has said, 5 is a useful measure though it is small, and my noble friends welcome it for its usefulness however limited in its scope. As the noble Lord has said, this Bill ameliorates the position so far as widows with children are concerned. It has the particular advantage, as the result of amendment after presentation in the House of Commons, of ensuring that widows who have recourse to the Assistance Board whilst in receipt of children's allowances shall not, when their children cease to be entitled to allowances, find themselves, as heretofore they did, with no recourse save to the Poor Law. That is a minor improvement made by this Bill in the existing law which my noble friends warmly commend. Similarly ray noble friends are glad to observe that the tests of the Determination of Needs Act are to be applied in place of those relating to the Poor Law, though, despite the phraseology of my noble friend opposite, I think it is clear that the application of that new provision is limited to persons entitled to old age pensions and is not general to all who may be bound to have recourse to the Poor Law. My noble friend probably intended to make that limitation. I think it is clear from the Bill, and it was made abundantly clear in the speech of the Minister of Health on the Second Reading of the Bill in another place.
My noble friends welcome this further effort which will result in reducing the number of those who are subject to the tests applicable under the Poor Law. That the amount of capital assets to be disregarded should have been increased is also a matter which gives great satisfaction to my noble friends, although they feel that the provision for 6d. per week to be taken into account on each £25 assumes a higher rate of interest than is in fact available even in the most satisfactory investment. Be that as it may, the position to the extent of 50 per cent. is amelicrated in favour of those with small capital savings. My noble friends are also glad to observe the provision as regards blind persons.
I have said that this is a small Bill but useful. It might fittingly be described also as a useful Bill but small. It was with surprise, perhaps, that some have found that this very modest Bill was that which had apparently been in contemplation when, in the gracious Speech from the Throne on November 11 last, legislation with regard to old age and widows pensions was foreshadowed. It 6 may be that at that time the Government were hopeful that they would be able to bring forward by now some more comprehensive scheme, but that hope, if it existed, has been disappointed and we are now confronted with this useful but little Bill. In another place Mr. Arthur Greenwood, making the speech to which the noble Lord opposite has referred, ex pressed the view, which my noble friends here hold also, that this Bill can, in truth, be taken as a fulfilment, as implementing the pledge given in another place by the Minister of Labour, Mr. Ernest Bevin, almost a year ago. Nevertheless, it might have been hoped that in view of the changed circumstances which have come into existence since that pledge was given the scope of the Bill would have been somewhat wider than it is.
It is indeed to be regretted, I think, that it was not found possible to implement that pledge given by the Minister of Labour more rapidly than has, in fact, been the case. For two events of importance have occurred in the meantime, apart altogether from the reference in the gracious speech from the Throne, which I have already mentioned. These are the two events. In the first place, in point of time, the Beveridge Report has been published and has aroused great anticipations with regard to more generous treatment of the old age pensioners. I entirely agree, of course, that there has not, perhaps, up to the present time, been an opportunity for giving legislative effect to such of the provisions as the Government ultimately decide to accept. My noble friends are impressed by the fact that the basic rats of the old age pension, 10s. a week, which was fixed as long ago as 1924, has not moved since. Nineteen years ago that 10s. was the basic rate fixed for the old age pension. It must be almost the only sum by way of pension, or indeed by way of remuneration, fixed at that time, which has not meanwhile been altered by an increase.
It is true that more recently supplementary pensions have been introduced which have, to some extent, ameliorated the position. My noble friends fully realize that it would perhaps be asking too much, and hoping for too much, to suggest that the basic rate should be increased at this time, when more comprehensive measures are, as we under stand, underactive consideration. Never- 7 theless, we should have welcomed an increase in the rate of supplementary pension. That would not raise the difficult questions of policy and law which arise out of any alteration of the basic rate. It is true that some 750,000 recipients of pension at the basic rate are now in employment, and, therefore, it may be assumed that, for them, a supplementary pension is unnecessary. But there are vast numbers of old age pensioners who, even when the supplementary pension is added to the basic pension, find them selves in a position of very genuine want.
The second point, to which I referred just now, is, I suggest, a new and relevant factor to the argument which I am venturing to address to your Lordships. The last Budget increased the prices of tobacco and of beer, and although provision was made both in this last Budget and in that immediately preceding it, to ensure that those in the Forces, being persons having a fixed income, should not be adversely affected by the increased taxation on tobacco, no such advantage has been allowed to the old age pensioner who also is in receipt of a fixed income though of very meagre dimensions.
If the Government were presenting this Bill to your Lordships' House to-day, as embodying their comprehensive proposals with regard to old age pensions—which of course it would be absurd to suggest—my noble friends would have no hesitation as to the line which they would adopt. As it is, they welcome this Bill as fulfilling a pledge given to Parliament by the Minister of Labour. They welcome it because it contains provisions which will operate to ameliorate the situation of old age pensioners, even though not to the degree that my noble friends might have wished, and we have a lively anticipation that, in the not too distant future, a wide and comprehensive measure relating to old age pensions will be introduced in your Lordships' House which will command the general assent of all Parties within this House.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.