§ 3.57 p.m.
§ Debate resumed.
§ LORD AMULREE
My Lords, I would wish in the first place to join in offering a very warm welcome to this Bill. I would like also take this opportunity of thanking the noble Lord who has introduced it for his kind references. The Bill is undoubtedly a good one, and I foresee that some fine work will be done under it. Before I make one or two comments I would like, if I may, to pay a tribute to the work of the many Public Assistance officers who in past years have been running so extremely well and competently what was once known as the Poor Law, and what finally became known as Public Assistance. The great difficulty which they have encountered, 1122 I believe, has been due to one main fact: they have been hampered by being obliged to use ungainly and enormous groups of buildings, into which they have been forced to admit everyone who wished to be admitted, or who was in any way destitute, with no possibility of making any classification or segregation. Even so, these officers have contrived to carry out their work in a kindly and humane fashion, and I think it is only right, now that their work is coming to an end, that there should be some public recognition of it. I am pleased to have the opportunity of paying this well-deserved tribute.
Although, as I say, I regard the present measure as a good one, and one that is warmly to be welcomed, and although in my view the old Poor Law was deplorable in many respects, there were nevertheless one or two principles of the Poor Law which were rather good and which I should like to see carried on in the work foreshadowed by the present Bill. Those principles do not seem to be specifically mentioned in the Bill, but I do not doubt that they are there if only one could find them. I want merely to bring them for ward now so as to secure an assurance that the Government will not lose sight of these rather valuable principles. One of the great things about the old Poor Law was that people who were destitute (by that I do not necessarily mean poor; they could be destitute in other ways) had the right of admittance into a Public Assistance institution. I am not saying that that institution would necessarily be a good one; in many cases it was an uncomfortable and cheerless place, but it was an establishment where people who were in difficult circumstances, through no fault of their own, could be admitted as of right—where they were entitled to a bed, food and a certain amount of nursing. That principle was rather shaken by the passing of the Local Government Act of 1939, when some of the Public Assistance infirmaries were transferred from Public Assistance to Public Health. There was a tendency then to make them too good, and to turn them into general hospitals rather than places where destitute people could be taken. It was not so simple then for destitute people to claim by right entry into these institutions—which were, after all, built for these people by the ratepayers in that particular part of the world. I should like to see something in 1123 the Bill, or to have some kind of assurance from the noble Lord who is to reply, that that right to admission will continue—or, at all events, that the matter will be kept in mind.
The second point I should like to mention has already been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Altrincham, who referred to the 24-hour service, or the round-the-clock service. That was a vital point about the old Public Assistance. You must have a 24-hour service, because most catastrophies occur not during office hours but during the night, and during the week-end. I think there is a perfectly clear and proper reason for that. During the light, people feel that they can carry on, but when it gets dark they get frightened, and it is then they want someone to come and take care of them. The other reason is that the majority of people get paid on Friday, and if there is any difficulty about father walking off with the money, or spending it all by going off and sleeping with somebody else, it is at the week-end that it occurs. And it is then that the family need care and attention. The 24-hour service has been made possible by the fact that under the Poor Law there are a large number of medical relief districts possessing a relieving officer with a staff. So far as I can make out, there are 1,500 of these relief districts in England and Wales, employing about 4,000, though it is hard to get exact figures.
Under the present proposals, the Assistance Board, which have done extremely good work, will try to run that service with 300 local officers. That must mean, I think, that people in those offices cannot be in such close touch with the Poor Law officers, and it looks as if the 24-hour service will be more difficult to maintain under the new conditions. I know that it was said in another place that some arrangement would be made to have an official on the telephone, but the person who suddenly becomes destitute is not the person to telephone. Such people are accustomed to going to their relieving officer. They know where his house is, and can go to him. It means that they have to go to some other place, and that someone else has to do the telephoning. I may be pessimistic about it, but I do not think the service will work so well. In the 1,500 relieving districts, 1124 a good deal of visiting is done by the individual relieving officers. They have time to get round the area and know generally what is occurring. If we are to have the same amount of country covered from the 300 area offices, it will not be so simple for people to get round.
Then we are told that perhaps that difficulty can be overcome by giving people who are being helped by the Board a series of franked postcards to send if they are in trouble and want a visitor. I do not think that is so good as having a personal visit. We know what will happen to the postcards. They will be put in a drawer; the people will forget where they are; they will not want to bother. Perhaps they will feel they can carry on a bit longer. These people are extremely uncomplaining and they put up with a great deal. If the obligation is on them to send a postcard, it will be much more difficult to give help than if visitors go round to call on them. That attitude may be accepted as a general human quality.
The noble Lord, Lord Altrincham, also asked what was to become of these efficient relieving officers. They will not easily be fitted into other jobs. They are people of extremely specialised training who have carried big responsibility, and I hope the Government will be able to deal generously with them, and will help them as best they can. I will say no more about that because I know that the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, has something to say about it, and he knows much more about it than I do. I should like to refer to another type of Poor Law officer—the medical staff. The Poor Law areas are served by district medical officers, who are practitioners living in that part of the world. They are not paid a big sum. They are paid on a part-time basis, but they are not quite part-time officers because they are on call for twenty-four hours. At present, on the ground that they were part-time officers, it is not proposed to compensate these people. I wish to mention this matter, but I do not want to stress it now; I believe it is rather a point to bring up on Committee stage.
The third point I want to make, is the question of hostels or homes. The point is not an easy one to explain, and I will illustrate it by telling the story of an experience that I had the other day. I was visiting a town near London where 1125 there is a Public Assistance hospital, run on extremely good lines, with an extremely good medical officer and matron. In conjunction with the hospital there are also two hostels—a fairly big one, four miles away, with something like sixty beds, and another one, not so large, with twenty or thirty beds, which is nearer. The great advantage is that they are all run by the same matron. A large number of people, after they have been treated in hospital, are not well enough to go to their own homes, either because they are too frail or because there is no one to look after them. Such people, who would otherwise have to be kept in hospital, occupying beds required for people who were really sick, and using up the attention of doctors and nurses, are sent to these hostels. The authorities find that by having the two sorts of buildings they can get a bigger flow through the hospital, and save the hospital beds for serious cases.
What I fear will occur under the new proposals, when the hospitals go to the regional hospital boards and the hostels to the local authority, is that there may be an administrative barrier to the easy transfer of patients from one to the other. Of course, I am speaking from a special case, where there is a good matron. What I would suggest—I do not know whether it is possible—is that some form of committee should be set up to function between the Board, who are caring for the chronic sick, the old sick, or the infirm, and the local authorities, who are taking care of healthy people, so that there should be no administrative difficulty in transferring people from the one institution to the other. Unless it is made very simple indeed, old people will not be persuaded to go to hospital. They cannot bear to go to hospital because they feel that once they have gone in they are finished; they feel that they are going to die, and will never come out again. Their journey must be made simple, and the best way to do it is to have a sort of shuttle service between the hostel and a hospital. When the old people see lots of their friends going away and coming back again, they will be greatly encouraged. That is one of the things that the Poor Law was able to do, because in many of these dreadful institutions there were both a house and an infirmary. During the winter months, many old people were transferred from the house to the infirmary, 1126 where they received more attention, and in the spring they came back again. That is a Poor Taw principle which, if possible, I would like to see carried out under this Bill.
I do not think anyone will quarrel with the idea of building hostels for old people. Such hostels should not be too large, and should be run on the lines of the admirable Ministry of Health circular which came out last year, laying down a series of rules for the guidance of local authorities. I suggest that more encouragement should be given to local authorities to contribute to hostels, or to voluntary organisations running hostels. Cause 30 of the Bill says:A local authority may make contributions to the funds of any voluntary organisation whose activities consist in or include the provision of recreation or meals for old people.Cannot that be extended to board and lodging, or whatever it may be termed, as well as to recreation or meals? It would be necessary to encourage as many voluntary bodies as possible to establish homes, because, with the number that can be constructed under the Bill, it will take a very long time before the whole country can be covered. I saw somewhere that it was proposed to establish homes for about 20,000 or 25,000 people. I believe that that was mentioned in the debate in another place. That will not get us far, because, according to the Nuffield Report, the number of old people—that is, people of sixty or sixty-five—will increase by more than 300,000 between the years 1949 and 1954. If there is to be that increase in the number of old people, and if any appreciable number of them want to come into these hostels, 20,000 beds will not get us far.
There is a further point. I think the voluntary homes have a certain advantage over the local authority homes. It is no fault of the local authorities, or of the State, but anything run officially is bound to become a little standardised. No one is to blame for that; I think it is inevitable. But in dealing with these places for old or infirm people, or people who cannot look after themselves, it is not desirable to have the hostels too standardised. There should be wide variations to cope with all sorts of people. People will obviously have to be grouped together under their own cultural heading, so to speak. It is difficult to find a better word. It will be necessary to 1127 group people so that similar types of people are found in these small hostels. Another reason why I have a weakness for voluntary homes, as opposed to local authority homes, is that a local authority home is bound to be run with one eye on the local treasurer and the local auditor, whereas in the voluntary body there is that little scope, not for extravagance but for extra comfort. Those are two reasons why I should like to see more encouragement to local authorities to help the voluntary organisations. There is also the question of the rather curious treatment given to people suffering from tuberculosis, but that is a matter best left to be dealt with on the Committee stage. I am afraid that I have appeared rather critical and ungracious about what I still consider to be a very good measure.
§ 4.17 p.m.
§ LORD CROOK
My Lords, I crave the indulgence which your Lordships extend to those who address this House for the first time. I am encouraged to speak this afternoon as one who was for some years a Poor Law officer. When I first left school, some thirty odd years ago, I went into what I thought was a nice, quiet, comfortable office in local government. Needless to say, as a young lad I knew little about the living conditions under which I was to find the people with whom I was to deal. It was for that reason that within a couple of years I was helping to form a trade union of those who were working under wicked conditions inside the Poor Law service, was joining the Labour Movement in the post-war world, and was speaking at street corners, attempting as a youth to take some small part in the reform of the Poor Law. Although I had no vote and could play no more active part than speak, I tried to take some share in the first Guardians' election that took place after the 1914–18 war. I found, to my intense astonishment, that the majority of the people who were standing as candidates had as their only qualification the fact that they had served as Guardians for many years, some of them for as long as forty years—in other words, they were serving as Guardians before the year 1880. And purely on that basis they went to the very limited number of people who bothered about the subject for their suffrages. The experience I gained as a 1128 young and impressionable lad was of living with and in a service which was relying on a past age.
I remember that one of my first tasks in dealing with the wages books of the Poor Law staff was to work out the amount of beer allowance to be paid on the monthly salaries. I hardly understood what a beer allowance meant, but in the years that followed, when I toured most of the workhouses and infirmaries of Great Britain, I was to learn that, although the more enlightened authorities were paying beer allowances, the actual serving of the beer was still taking place to staffs of workhouses and infirmaries under the old traditional system. I saw that as late as 1924. Picture the scene. There was a well-scrubbed table, with no tablecloth, and a well-scrubbed bench on which the staff were sitting, and the alleged "nurses" (if you were writing the word you would have to put quotes round it, because they were no more nurses than are some people to-day in some of our infirmaries) coming in with their quart jugs of beer. That was part of the wage system of Poor Law service. I mention that, not because it is completely germane but because it paints a picture of a Poor Law system which we have been trying to live down, and the funeral of which we are hoping to witness as a result of this Bill.
The second thing which greatly impressed me in those early years was the awful clothing of the inmates. The only time I had seen clothing anything like that which I saw on the backs of inmates of the institutions with which I was concerned, was in ancient photographs in the family album at home, and they related to the previous century. As recently as twenty years ago I saw women in skirts trailing in the dust and made of material sufficient to make four present-day skirts. Those women had old-fashioned straw hats of 1890 on their heads. I admit that administration has improved considerably in some counties, but in a large number of cases it still remains true that anybody looking at a group of people for whom the Poor Law are responsible will know at once where they come from. I welcome the assurance given by the Minister in another place that one of the improvements will be to stamp out the issue of distinctive clothing.
1129 A third task upon which I found myself engaged was that of chargeability in county asylums. The inmate was brought in chargeable to one Poor Law union, the books were duly adjusted, and then a chargeability order—or adjudication order, as it was called—came in, changing the chargeability from one union to another. Accordingly, the bill had to go to a second union. Three months later a third adjudication order was made, stating that the person had not only moved from A to B in our county, but, only a few months earlier, had arrived at A from a place 200 miles away; therefore the chargeability was passed on to another county. Because the chargeability was placed on another county we charged the "out-county" rate, which meant that we were charging twice the money it cost to keep the inmate in the local asylum. And so the person was duly taken 200 miles by a relieving officer and nurse—incidentally in a public vehicle. The first that the relatives (who were still living near our institution) knew about it was the receipt of a card that it was my duty to cause to be sent, notifying them that because of the law of chargeability, the law of settlement, their loved one had been sent 200 miles away and thus was unable to be visited.
It is perfectly true that the reduction that has been made from the large number of boards of guardians to the smaller number of county authorities has made the size of this problem somewhat smaller than it was in those days, but it still remains a complete anachronism in a country in which this kind of service should be a national charge. Therefore I welcome the fact that under this measure the law of settlement disappears. Indeed, I welcome it, too, because of my intimate connections with the Ministry of Labour. There must be a huge saving of manpower, and very skilled manpower at that, from the chief settlement officers and general relieving officers down to the skilled clerks who had to be employed on this kind of work.
I welcome, too, the change in another matter with which I was concerned—namely, the law of chargeability to relatives. Imagine a position in which a man had not seen his son for over twenty years. Then it was found that that son had deserted his wife and two children. The grandfather, who had never met the wife and children, was nevertheless liable 1130 in law for costs. In my view, such a state of affairs was completely unconscionable. I welcome the fact that this. Bill sweeps up chargeability and, in Clause 41, defines clearly that the limit of responsibility lies with a husband for his wife and child, and with a wife for her husband and child.
Another matter which I never liked was the fact that destitution was the criterion upon which relief was based. In other words, it seemed to me that poverty was made a crime. I hated, too—and I am sure many of your Lordships who have had experience of it hated it also—the way in which relief was given in kind, with tickets which could be used in only a limited number of shops—usually the shops anxious to get trade and who were serving some of the worst goods that were available. I resented, too, the way in which poor wretched applicants were made to expose their underclothes to the view of the members of the committee and general relieving officers before leave was given them to go to a poor quality shop to get a replacement. I am glad, therefore, that as a result of this Bill, relief in kind—except for certain penal clauses, which I am certain we all understand may be necessary—disappears, and that destitution will no longer be the test to be applied.
Incidentally, I welcome the fact that the method of payment will now be controlled—a matter to which the noble Lord, Lord Rushcliffe, referred. Within the last twenty years I have known a county borough, when making orders for payment to unemployed people, require them to walk from the centre of the city to a but which had been deliberately built in a chalkpit two-and-a-half miles away. That was done solely in order that the county borough in question might make clear to the unemployed that the drawing of money was most unpopular so far as those in charge were concerned. I am sure your Lordships will join me in feeling that it is good to note that under this measure the iniquitous system of relief by way of loan will disappear. I have always felt it was most amazing that when we found somebody down and out in this country, we lent him the money and loaded him with a debt which would keep him down and out for ever. Under this Bill, that system goes.
1131 I would also say how much I welcome the abolition of the casual ward. Not long after the First World War, trying to investigate some of the conditions of the workpeople with whom I was associated in this country, I took my place in a queue—for the first time in my life. It was a queue outside a country workhouse. People waited in the pouring rain for the rules to operate. We were soaked to the skin until the arrival of the sunset hour allowed the casual ward door to be opened. I draw a veil over the picture I found inside. I draw a veil—if that is the right expression—over the smell of the steaming clothes of casuals herded together, under iniquitous conditions, inside that workhouse. D.D.T. powder had not been invented in those days, and we were far less fortunate in the casual ward than some of the "Tommies." The food was almost non-existent; and what there was was deplorable. Until the campaign to abolish it was successful, we had absurd tasks to perform—even stone-breaking, for no other purpose than that of making a man break stones.
I took part with one person whom I should like to recall to the House to-day—our dear old friend George Lansbury—in some of the campaigns to do away with that particular iniquity in the Poor Law. I welcome a Bill which says that instead of making people move on from place to place, making their squalor the worse, some attempt should be made to rehabilitate them. There are other persons whom we would like to mention. May I say how much we associate ourselves with all that the noble Lord, Lord Altrincham, said about Sidney and Beatrice Webb? I am sure we all regret that only a few days before this Bill made its first appearance in another place, Lord Passfield passed on, and so was unable to see this crowning step in his life's work. I always think of this couple, and those associated with them, with great affection. I feel that we always see behind them the ghosts of Charles Dickens and Charles Kingsley; and them, too, we might well remember in discussing a Bill of this kind.
I have said that I visited workhouses all over the country; and I want to say, in fairness to the counties, that county administration has taken away a great many of the sins and errors which I saw 1132 in certain places twenty-five years ago. But county administration cannot change buildings, and it cannot change the general system; and there are many other things which have not yet been done, which we hope this Bill will succeed in doing. I have sat down at the meal table with inmates to eat their deplorable food, oft-times badly cooked, because inmate labour was, and is, relied upon to help the only experienced cook. The food was brought on open trolleys, along corridors, to the feeding rooms. I have eaten this food when the only milk contributory has been tinned milk watered down, because that is cheaper than cow's milk. That these things are to go brings a glow to my heart. During the last few years I have seen workhouses where at long last the inmates have had butter, not because anybody desired to give them butter but because rationing meant that they had some butter; hitherto, they had had to rely on margarine.
I think also of the common rooms into which the old people go after they have had their food. Some of these long halls that we see to-day are magnificently clean and highly polished; indeed, it sometimes seems to me that a little less cleanliness and polish might make the rooms look a little more friendly. Old ladies sit in straight-backed chairs, trying to fit their backs comfortably. They sit with hands clasped, with nothing to do. The windows are built high in the walls, but even if the inmates could look out of the windows they would see nothing but the walls across the compound. I want to see all these things swept away, and I hope that in the next ten years, as a result of the measure so ably introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Henderson this afternoon, we shall see them swept away. I am sure we shall see a better life altogether opening out for the old people. These old folks do not want to sit in bare rooms with long tables and straight-backed chairs; they want their own small fireplace, and some of the little bits and pieces that mean so much to them. They may be poor little bits and pieces, but they mean to these old folks something of the normal life to which they have been used.
The noble Lord, Lord Henderson, referred to the difficulties of priorities in building. I quite appreciate them, but I suggest that this matter might well merit a fairly high priority in a few years' 1133 time, because it will, in fact, be a real contribution to the housing of this country. We are suffering from a condition in which far too many old people are living with young people; and we know that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred this does not work. The building of these hostels would be a benefit not only to the old people but also to the younger people, whose homes would thereby be relieved. It is important to start fairly soon. There is a good deal of truth in what the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, said about the increasing numbers of old people. We know from the Beveridge and other Reports that the number of aged people in this country is growing to such a pitch that it is forecast that in 1970 one person in five of the population of the country will be aged. The problem is growing all the time.
There is another reform in the Bill, a reform in principle which I particularly welcome; and that is the abolition of assistance to the unemployed, given merely because they are unemployed. One of the scandals of the relief system in the past has been the way in which the unemployed have been segregated in this matter. As a result of this Bill the unemployed man is to be treated just as any other member of the community is treated. Noble Lords this afternoon, and members of the other place, have referred again and again to the need for good administration. As one who has for many years represented civil servants in a trade union, may I say how much I agree that humane administration is essential? But humane administration by civil servants turns on the degree of humane administration of those who give them directions. Harshness which is adjudged against civil servants has nothing to do with the heartlessness of civil servants; in its roots, it lies entirely in the political direction which the civil servants have been given. Let me give a typical example in connection with unemployed men going for benefit to employment exchanges. I have seen miners who have drawn benefit for seven years, but only because there were no pits working in the locality. At the end of the seven years, under an administrative decision taken politically, they were summoned before courts of referees and struck off benefit as "not normally being in insurable employment"—notwithstanding that employment had never been there. The civil servants fell into 1134 bad odour because of the heartless decision arrived at in Whitehall.
There are many other provisions in the Bill which I welcome, but there is one word I would particularly like to say. I have had something to do with one small section of the community which is little known and little understood—I mean the deaf blind. This Bill deals with both the deaf and the blind, and I want to say this word for the deaf blind. Only those who have seen the tragedy of those who are born blind and deaf, and therefore dumb, can realise the plight of these people. Even the most progressive county councils have never tried to deal with this particular problem I hope that special attention may be given to it in the future. I welcome the Bill. I think the Minister of National Insurance was quite right when he said in another place that this is the coping-stone to be placed on the great structure which we have been trying to complete. I feel that in discussing this Bill this afternoon we are making a gesture to the people of the rest of the world. It is a wonderful thing, while the eyes of the world are centred on the introduction by the Chancellor of the Exchequer of a difficult Budget, at a time of great economic difficulty for this country, that this ancient House can be discussing a measure such as this for ameliorating the lot of the poor people of the country and concerning itself with a change for the good in the fundamental conditions of their lives. I thank your Lordships for the kindly attention you have given to one who is addressing you for the first time, and I commend this Bill to your Lordships' House.
§ 4.39 p.m.
§ LORD ADDINGTON
My Lords, my first and most pleasant duty is to extend, in your Lordships' name, our hearty congratulations to the noble Lord who has made the maiden speech to which we have just listened. That speech is based on wide personal experience, and that, surely, is a good rule for all of us who venture to speak in this House to follow. His speech showed a great depth of human feeling with which we are all in sympathy, on whatever side of the House we may sit. I would also add to that my satisfaction at the end of the Poor Law system. The noble Lord has given us a very gloomy picture of it. I hope that some of it is now out of date. There 1135 are many of us who in the last twenty years have been doing our best to change the conditions which he described. In many cases we have gone a long way in so doing, and have made conditions more like those which the noble Lord would like to see. Those far-sighted local authorities on whose behalf I wish to make a few remarks have for a long time been anxious to escape from the institutional atmosphere of the Poor Law and from traditions, continuing from days long past, which prevent some of the most deserving persons from taking advantage of the services offered.
We hope, also, to see the end of the clogging restrictions placed upon us by the provisions of the Poor Law as administered by the central Department. We are grateful for the improvements made to this Bill during the course of its passage through another place. We look forward with confidence to being able, under this Bill, to render great services to the elderly. The task allotted to the local authority, as to the Board, to which the noble Lord, Lord Rushcliffe, referred, is one of considerable magnitude. The noble Lord referred to the growing numbers. Some of those who need medical care and attention are quite unsuitable for social life (as one knows well) in any kind of hostel, however differentiating towards the needs of varying classes of people it may be. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, that we will do our utmost to fulfil the obligations of the task that has been allotted to us.
I should like to take the opportunity of paying a heartfelt tribute to the work done by the relieving officers, to whom both the noble Lord, Lord Altrincham, and the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, have referred. They have given advice, guidance and assistance to all those in any kind of need. As has been said, there has been a twenty-four hours' service at all times. These officers have been readily accessible, and they have paid frequent visits to the homes of those with whom they have had to deal. They can appreciate with real knowledge and anxiety the needs of those persons for whom they make recommendations to the Public Assistance committees. I trust that the local services being provided under this Bill will be made equally available, and 1136 will be equally sympathetic to the new spirit to which the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, has referred. When it comes to action, I hope they will develop widely and efficiently.
I have a few general points to bring forward at this stage, and I will deal with them as briefly as I can. No doubt, there will be others that will arise in Committee. First, I want to make strong objection to the fixing of October 31, 1947, as the material date under sub-section (2) of Clause 27. I would urge most strongly that this should be backdated to March 7, 1947—the date on which the Ministry of Health issued circular 47/1947 to which the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, has already referred. This urged the counties and county borough councils to acquire and adapt premises available for aged persons. Paragraph 4 of that circular reads as follows:The Minister trusts that Authorities will find it possible to resume the process, interrupted by the war, of establishing small homes for the aged, and he will be prepared to consider schemes for the acquisition and adaptation of suitable premises for this purpose, even where priorities or compulsory purchase are involved. A number of such schemes have in fact already been approved.It is the premises that were acquired, or the construction of which was commenced in consequence of such a scheme, which I would urge should be eligible for contributions under Clause 27.
Then there is a point which I had to raise before in this House about the audit (under Clause 57) of the accounts of councils of county boroughs. The Association of Municipal Corporations are most anxious that the privileges which have been given by Act of Parliament to the county boroughs under General Acts should be retained by them. They point out that district audit has a cramping and limiting effect. District auditors have been inclined to insist upon a restrictive and legalistic interpretation of the statutory provisions which determine the legality or otherwise of expenditure. This, however, is not calculated to enable local authorities to carry out their functions in a progressive and generous way. It is a fact that many of the recent advances in local government, which have ultimately received Ministerial and often statutory recognition, have been started as a somewhat bold and progressive interpretation of statutory powers. This has been possible because of the local audit of the 1137 particular accounts. Professional auditors, as well as elected representatives, professional treasurers and town clerks, are surely perfectly competent to fulfil the function of avoiding illegal expenditure and preventing any extravagance to the detriment of the ratepayers. I trust that in this case, at any rate, His Majesty's Government will feel that it is possible to allow the county boroughs to retain the professional audit in respect of these accounts.
Again, I would urge that associations of local authorities should be given this statutory right of consultation on all regulations to be made under this Bill which affect local authorities. It seems to me that they will be very wide and numerous, especially those that come under Clause 34. Perhaps there are rather more of them than the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, indicated to us in his very able speech. Such consultation has been expressly provided in the Fire Services Act, 1947. If it is intended that the associations shall be consulted, surely it will be wise to insert in the Bill a statutory provision to that effect. The danger is that at some time a practice that is not given statutory recognition may be forgotten; and, even if it is observed, the same weight is not likely to be attached to any representation made by local authorities.
Further, it seems to me again that the provisions of the Third Schedule are unnecessarily detailed, and that more scope might be left to the local authorities for working out their own machinery, in committees and sub-committees, when they submit (as they have to submit) their scheme for carrying out their functions under Part III. It is by that scheme that they can best arrange to continue the services and the duties of local sub-committees to which the noble Lord, Lord Altrincham, has already referred. Finally, I want to raise one point of technical detail which arose at a recent meeting of the Public Assistance Committee of the Buckinghamshire County Council which I attended.
We were considering the position of the Public Assistance officers whose services we wished to retain to the county council, either in respect of the duties under this particular Bill or in respect of some other duties that will remain with the county councils. I understood then that the Ministry had expressed the opinion that 1138 all existing contracts of employment of all such officers would terminate automatically on July 5. The matter was, however, still under discussion and we were hoping that a definite ruling would be obtained from the Ministry. That has not been received. I received the particulars before me only on Saturday, and I regret that I could not give the noble Lord opposite any longer notice of my point. I do not expect I definite ruling on this point to-day. I regret that I have to attend a meeting in the country tomorrow morning, and therefore I may not be able to hear his reply. I undertake, however, to read it with special interest.
It is suggested that Section 38 (2) (c) of the Interpretation Act of 1889, which gives this right of the officers to notice, is not affected by the repeal of the Poor Law Act of 1930, or any other Act, under this Bill, It seems to me vitally necessary that there should be no doubt about the position of these officers, and no possible claim by any one of them in respect of notice which might have been given. I believe that certain senior Poor Law officers are entitled to three months' notice under their terms of engagement. No doubt there are conditions in regard to a shorter term for other officers. I would, therefore, be grateful if consideration could be given either towards settling this point in the Bill itself or, at any rate, towards issuing an authoritative or reasoned statement at an early date.
§ 4.52 p.m.
My Lords, I would like to join my noble friend, Lord Addington, in the welcome he gave to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Crook. It was a contribution to this debate which we should have been very sorry to have missed, and I cannot help feeling that the sympathy he aroused in me should lead him to sit on this side of the House rather than on his own. There is one point I would like to make about his speech, with which I entirely agree. While local government was responsible for expenditure under Poor Law, the Settlement Law, or something like it, was almost essential. I lived in a parish which had a humane parish council, and where the inhabitants enjoyed what was practically free food and, if they were not too particular, almost free lodging for the greater part of the 1139 year. It was a herring fishing community with fishing of a very prosperous character. The result was that everybody in the countryside who was destitute or was not too particular drew into the community, and, without the Settlement Law, we should have been broke.
The noble Lord, Lord Henderson, in his eloquent introduction of this Bill, certainly came to bury the Poor Law and not to praise it. I was a little sorry that when he spoke of the workhouses he did not pay a small tribute to those local authorities who have tried to make them places of which we could be proud. Some local authorities have done so, and I am sure the noble Lord, if he had had time, would have acknowledged that fact. The Seventh Schedule would tell us, if we did not know before, that the Poor Law was to be buried. I would like to remind your Lordships, however, as Lord Altrincham has done, that the Poor Law provided one thing for which I do not see provision in this Bill. That leads to certain questions which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, will answer when he replies to the debate. The local government relieving officer was a functionary responsible for a duty which can be shortly put in this way—to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, harbour the homeless, care for the sick and bury the dead. That was his charter and it was one of which he was proud. If opinion in regard to the way in which these duties should be discharged has altered with the passage of time, it is important that we should not make him the whipping boy for that change of opinion.
Under the new legislation—and nobody hopes more earnestly than I that it will be a great success—some of our needs and misfortunes are certainly well catered for, but some I do not see mentioned in the Bill. How is sudden destitution to be dealt with? A woman may lose her purse containing all her money and her coupons, and she and her family are left without food; a husband gambles away his money, leaving the family without food; or a man deserts his wife and family, leaving them destitute. As the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, said, for perfectly obvious reasons these things generally happen on Saturday, generally after dinner, and sometimes very late at night. How is 1140 that problem to be dealt with? That is a specific question which ought to be answered by the Government.
Then there is a case that has always been present in my mind, but which has always been dismissed as exceptional. It is the case where a man and his family suddenly find, themselves at a late hour without expected accommodation. I would have said it was exceptional, but there was a case reported in a letter to The Times only a week or so ago. There the family were assisted by the Salvation Army. My noble friend, Lord Amulree, sent a letter to The Times pointing out, perfectly truly, that all relieving officers in the country were charged with precisely that duty, and that they have for a long time competently performed it. The matter is important because such cases are very difficult, and a relieving officer cannot do much just because he is a relieving officer. He must know intimately the householders in his parish who can give a night's lodging, and he must be on sufficiently good terms with them to induce them to give it. Every relieving officer I know is in precisely that situation. That is not a position that can be built up officially; it is a very delicate matter.
Children are not dealt with under this Bill; they have their own special officer. In the past, however, the children of this country have owed a great deal to the Public Assistance officers, who, in the course of their work, tended to develop a rather specialist eye for children and children's ailments when dealing with their relatives. What liaison is there to be between those who visit the aged, and the children's officer, who will be appointed under another Bill? How are those officers to be enabled to develop powers of observation in regard to matters for which they are not themselves responsible? I think that is an important point, and I am certainly a little uneasy about it. I suggest that the provisions of the Children Bill should be as widely advertised as possible, so that everybody in the country may know roughly what is the law in that respect. In administering a new system it is of great help for everybody to have a rough idea of its working.
A real problem of the future which was very well touched on by the noble Lord, 1141 Lord Amulree, is the problem of the aged. I am bound to say I am not completely at case and happy about it. As your Lordships know, old people are liable to rapid changes in condition. The Bill assumes that there will always be somebody to send for a doctor, but I am not sure that there will. Of course, before 1940 that was the regular work of the relieving officer; he had to visit all his old people, and he always did so. To-day that is not so. I have heard it said that old people do not like being visited. Whenever I hear that said I am always a little inclined to wonder whether the visitor who made that discovery is precisely the right kind of visitor. To a person who has no liking for such work, visiting old people is a most intolerable labour, a really heavy task.
I have had a certain amount of experience in Scotland and in England with very competent companions. Sometimes those companions have been amateurs and sometimes they have been relieving officers. I can tell your Lordships that except in a few cases in Germany (into which I will not go) my experience—that is to say, my experience in England and Scotland—has been that I have never paid a visit to an old person without receiving a genuine welcome and being warmly bidden to return. I was always made welcome, and was asked to come again. Although mine has been only a limited experience—and, as I say, I was always accompanied by competent companions—I think it shows that old people are not averse from being visited, and that the postcard remedy is not going to be of great help. In the first place, many poor people do not much like writing letters. When they have to write letters they usually make it a job for a Sunday. Further, a man who is ill usually hopes to get better by keeping quiet, and he is hardly likely to send a postcard in expectation of what his condition may be in a couple of days' time.
My attention was drawn to this matter by a case which occurred only a short distance from my own house in London. An old man was stricken by illness and had to take to his bed. There he died, but it was not until three days after his death that his body was found. Subsequently, of course, an inquest was held. Before 1940 the coroner would have asked the relieving officer about an occurrence 1142 of that sort, and would have questioned him as to what had happened. In this case, the man simply took to his bed and died. He had no one to look after him, and actually no one was to blame. I do not say that at all ironically. There really was not anyone to blame, and I do not see how, under this Bill, anyone is to be made responsible in a case of that sort.
Next I would refer to the question of vagrancy. I must admit that I have a certain sympathy with the tramp. The noble Lord, Lord Rushcliffe, has tried rather to suggest that they are very common in Scotland. Now tramps know a great many things. They know a good many things that I do not know, and often those things are worth knowing. I think it will be found very difficult to deal with tramps. I do not see how local authorities are going to build these temporary homes in anything like reasonable time, and there are very few casual wards nowadays. I would like some information or suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, as to how vagrancy will be dealt with in each locality, and what will be the precise process. At the present time, if in my own parish in London there happens to be a vagrant, he may have to go as far as ten or fifteen miles in order to get shelter for the night. These are merely questions which I raise with regard to problems with which the Bill has to deal. I am not in the least criticising the Bill. No one can be hostile to a Bill the object of which is the relief of distress.
I would like now to turn to a few questions which arise on the Bill itself. The first concerns a little matter of arithmetic. The noble Lord, Lord Henderson, dealing with Schedule II, said that 6d. a week on £25 of capital was 2 per cent. I have worked it out again and again, and I make it £5 4s. per cent. That amount is probably to be taken after deduction of taxes, for many of these people do not recover taxes deducted from interest which they receive. It seems to me rather a high rate to charge people on their savings, and I would be obliged to my noble friend if he would look into that matter. I certainly think that the charge should go down to 4d.; indeed, I would be quite willing that it should go down to 2d.
I have already referred to Clause 22 (2), which relates to people going into a home. 1143 When a person is removed to provided premises, he naturally loses his own home or whatever accommodation he may have been occupying. Now suppose that, under this Bill, he is required to leave the provided premises. His old premises will then have gone. It seems to me that some provision ought to be made—it may be that it is going to be a matter of regulation—to make sure that the person concerned has eventually some place to which he can go. On Clause 20 (8) there arises only a small point which may well be dealt with in Committee. There seems to me to be a confusion between the words "authorise" and "authority," and I think that, perhaps, an alteration in the wording is called for. Clause 40 suggests the question: Where does the nation-wide institution have to register? Would it have to register for each of its branches in each locality, or would it not be better to have a central place where registration could take place in any case? I note that, under Clause 41, a woman is liable to maintain her husband. That has caused a considerable shock in my own family. It is a system which prevails in Tierra del Fuego and in darkest Africa. However, ex Africa semper aliquid novi, and in this case it may be that we are getting our legislation from that Continent. I would like to know if this is an innovation in this Bill.
I would like to join with, I think, every other noble Lord who has spoken, in saying a word or two on Clause 58. We are naturally all anxious to know what will be the arrangements to be made under this clause. At first I felt it was a matter of such importance that Parliament should be informed, but now I am not at all sure. Indeed, after careful consideration I think it is probably wise of the Minister to reserve this matter for himself. I am sure he will remember that it will not be a good start for the new chapter we are writing in the history of our social legislation if the men whose work in the past has really deserved the personal gratitude of every man, woman and child in the country should labour under a sense of grievance and injustice. I cannot believe that, as a matter of fact, the specialised and careful work which they do ought to be altogether thrown away. These people have great qualities and knowledge of which we ought to be 1144 able to make use for the purposes of this Bill and of the rest of our legislation of this kind. At any rate, this seems to be a case where we should make quite sure of being generous in order to be certain that we are just.
May I now give your Lordships one further experience of my own? I was asked by the local relieving officer to go with him to interview a man and his wife who had £40 of capital, which they were spending rather than apply for relief, and help to persuade them to seek assistance. The way the relieving officer went about his work commanded my admiration. We both did our best, but we were not even invited indoors—indeed, we were sent away. I left feeling great admiration for the officer and great sorrow that we had failed in our mission. At the same time, I could not help having a great respect for the man and woman who had turned us from their door. Hard as that actual case was, they showed a magnificent spirit. That spirit, I consider, is part of the heritage of the people of this country. So long as this Bill and other measures concerned with the same matter are well and carefully administered, I think that they will prove a great boon to the country; but if we should do anything which saps that spirit of proud independence and makes people consider only what they can get out of the common stock, then I think it will not be a good thing and may lead to even greater disasters than those which we most gladly hope will be removed by the passage of this measure.
§ 5.11 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT BLEDISLOE
My Lords, I ask the indulgence of the House for only three minutes to offer this Bill a very warm welcome on behalf of the National Council of Social Service, of which for many years I was President, and over the advisory committee of which, representing the southern and south-western counties, I have presided during the last few years. What I want particularly to emphasise is the value of the observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, in regard to the provision for aged people of small hostels, each with accommodation for from twenty-five to thirty people. I hope that in setting up this new national body careful observation will be made of the hostels for old people already established, particularly 1145 those in south-western England. We have devoted considerable attention to the care of those old people who have small means of their own but who sadly need the association of others and who sadly want some supervision through the medium, shall we say, of a sympathetic and experienced housekeeper.
I have in mind particularly the case of Bristol. Bristol has been prominent in its care for its old people. They have what is to my mind a model hostel for aged people, which I visited just before Christmas. The old people are completely happy there. They each have a little self-contained flat, under the careful supervision of a most experienced housekeeper, and obviously those people are going to have a much happier life than they would have had living isolated and unattended in their own poor homes. If these hostels are to be multiplied, I hope they will not be situated on the outskirts of some large urban community, but will be not too far from shops and not too far from a. public park or garden where the old people can obtain rest, quietude and access to what I may call elderly people's recreation. With some considerable experience of the value of voluntary work on the part of many most worthy and self-sacrificing people, who have a great knowledge of the requirements of the old and who have been for many years doing this work, I venture to hope that the help of these people will be enlisted by the State in their new organisation. Old people, rightly or wrongly, are suspicious of officialdom and are inclined to resent officialdom even when it is very sympathetic and efficient.
Finally, a word with regard to what should be the interests of the old people when they are accommodated in hostels. I suggest emphatically that there should be due provision for work and for access to religion. When I was Governor-General of New Zealand, where I think all your Lordships will agree there is an advanced and efficient system of social service, largely organised by the State, it was part of my function to visit old people's homes. I found a marked difference between the happiness and contentment of old people who were supported entirely out of the rates and taxes and of those who were accommodated in homes provided voluntarily—it may be by the Roman Catholics; it may be, as it often 1146 is, by the Salvation Army. In these voluntary homes a certain amount of active work, preferably with their hands, was insisted upon, so far as the people were capable of doing it, and access to religious agencies was provided, if possible, every evening, and at least once a week. Wherever work was available and religious devotions were provided, those people were happy and contented. They did not leave on my mind the impression that here were a number of people simply waiting for death.
I am quite sure that those well acquainted with old people's homes will bear me out. Give old people some work to do. I am an old person, and, thank God, I have plenty of work to do. It is work and access to religion which are the material factors in promoting happiness and contentment, and which make old people's homes the sort of Elysium which we would like to see provided for them under this organisation. I offer a warm welcome to this Bill; I am perfectly certain that it is on the right lines. But I desire to enlist the aid of the voluntary services which have in the past done so much for the old people and in other spheres of social activity.
§ 5.17 p.m.
§ LORD CHORLEY
My Lords, it is a privilege to be able to thank your Lordships for the warm welcome which has been given on all sides to this Bill, the last of these great measure which have been referred to in such warm terms by so many noble Lords this afternoon. It is a great pride to me to have the opportunity of speaking even a short word in such an important debate. This debate has been made memorable by a number of outstanding contributions. I am sure your Lordships would like me to refer particularly to that of the noble Lord, Lord Crook. In a speech full of poetic feeling and warm-heartedness, he directed your Lordships' attention to many of the cruelties which were inevitably associated with the earliest administration of the Poor Law and to many of those great social reformers to whose work is so largely due the high standard—perhaps the highest standard in the world—which has been attained in social reform in this country. I am very glad, on behalf of the Government, to join in that tribute and particularly in the tribute paid to the Webbs: they, perhaps, stand out before 1147 others who have played their part in this work.
A number of points, some of considerable interest and importance, have been raised. I thought it was particularly appropriate that this debate should have been opened by the noble Lord, Lord Rushcliffe, whose work over recent years in building up the national assistance service has quite properly won compliments from every side of your Lordships' House. He referred to various Statutes which over the last ten years or so have been passed by Parliament, an array of legislative enactments of which I think we may be proud. He did not go back so far as some of us might have expected. It has always seemed to me that this great legislative achievement really started with the old age pensions, small thing as it was. I was glad that the name of Joseph Chamberlain—who was certainly a hero of my youth—was mentioned. I think that the name of the late Lord Oxford and Asquith ought also to have been mentioned, because he was in fact the pilot of that first Bill—a little Bill at the time, but one which was the progenitor of many important measures. Lord Rushcliffe stressed the importance of administration and complimented those officers who had assisted him to build up this exceedingly efficient piece of administrative machinery. I am very glad indeed to join with him in his compliments to those officers. Those with whom I had the pleasure of working in other connections during the war were certainly men of unusual calibre. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Rushcliffe, would join with the poet Pope, who said:Whate'er is best administered, is best.I am not sure that I would go so far as that, but it is obvious that in all these matters administration is of the greatest importance. And we on this side of the House are well aware of the importance of maintaining flexibility and elasticity in connection with the administration of this Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Rushcliffe, was not the only one of your Lordships to refer—I thought with a slight tinge of regret—to the possible passing of the tramp. I could not help my mind wandering back to debates which occurred, possibly a hundred years ago, in your Lordships' 1148 House, when I am sure this very mellow attitude to the tramp would not have been forthcoming. I am quite sure that it will not go out from your Lordships' House that the profession of the tramp is one of the most honourable. As Lord Rushcliffe said, the tramp obviously sets a difficult problem. I would draw your attention, however, to the fact that during the war years the tramp practically disappeared from the roads and, so far as my own observation goes, on the limited amount of petrol which has been at my disposal, he has not yet come back. I think even the problem of the tramp is one which is capable of being dealt with satisfactorily.
The noble Lord referred to the importance of the voluntary organisations in making payments, and in various other ways; and to the fact that during the debate in another place the Minister ex pressed the intention of the Government to make use of the organisations in every possible way. This was a question raised by other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Altrincham, who in a de lightful speech drew attention to a number of valuable points in the old system which will be swept aside by this Bill when it is enacted, and which has been administered with the skill to which the noble Lord, Lord Rushcliffe, referred. Lord Altrincham did, however, make a number of caveats and, as always, the Government are anxious to listen to the constructive criticism which he and other noble Lords have directed at this social legislation. In particular, he made three suggestions with which I would like to deal. First of all, he was anxious to preserve what he called the local advisory committees, and to make them mandatory. The advisory committees which have been set up to assist the Assistance Board in different parts of the country will certainly be retained. They are referred to in Clause 33, and they will be reconstituted as soon as the administrative machinery under the new arrangement is set up.
The noble Lord asked why we should not preserve the existing relieving officers, and referred to the importance of having a round-the-clock service. He also referred to the question of compensation under Clause 58. These are points which all come together, and which have been referred to not only by the noble Lord, 1149 Lord Altrincham, but by the noble Lords, Lord Amulree and Lord Saltoun. Undoubtedly the relieving officers are men of great experience, and they have attained a high degree not only of efficiency but of good will in the carrying out of their work. Their experience will certainly not be thrown away. I will not say that they will all be engaged in exactly the same sort of work in which they have been engaged in the past, but the Assistance Board and the Ministry of National Insurance are there to engage men with this ripe experience. The local authorities have important duties under this Bill, and will undoubtedly require a certain amount of staff, which they can obtain from any relieving officers left over. Looking at the matter with the information which is available to us, so far as we are able to see, there will be only a small number of these men left to come within the compensation provisions of Clause 58. The noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, spoke almost as if there was no provision for compensation. The small number of these men who will be left without jobs under the new set-up will be entitled to compensation as provided under Clause 58.
§ LORD ALTRINCHAM
The noble Lord will forgive my interrupting. I am grateful for his care in dealing with the point. My suggestion was that the committees which should be made mandatory are those dealt with as committees, and possibly as sub-committees, in the Third Schedule, where the word is only "may." It is not clear, as a matter of fact, that the committee need be appointed at all, or that any sub-committee must be appointed, even if the committee is set up. The case we make here is that there ought to be an advisory committee in every subordinate local government or district or borough. If that were done it would help the administration to combine with the advisory committees which the National Assistance Board are to set up throughout Great Britain, and those committees should have the assistance of the present relieving officers. That would be a means of bringing together the work of the Public Assistance Board and the local authorities, and it would mean that none of these most valuable officers would have to be discharged.
Before the noble Lord replies to that point may I say this, 1150 too? Many of us feel that a job as a clerk with the county council is not a real substitute, and not real employment to offer to men who have devoted their whole lives, and every hour of those lives, to expert work. It would be a disaster to the country, and an injustice to them, if they were squandered in that sort of way.
§ LORD CHORLEY
The noble Lord, Lord Altrincham, is now really combining his second and third points. His third point was that these two advisory committees which are envisaged by the Bill should be combined into one advisory committee, and that the old relieving officer should become a sort of secretary to them. I am not sure that the noble Lord has quite appreciated that the whole construction of this Bill gives certain duties to the central authority—the new National Assistance Board to be set up under this Bill—and certain other quite different duties to the local authorities. It is essential that these two types of service should be kept apart. That being so, surely there must be one advisory committee to advise the National Assistance Board in respect of its services; and with regard to the services which are entrusted to the local authority, they should be left free to set up their own advisory committee as they are given power to do.
§ LORD ALTRINCHAM
Of course, I understand that there are quite separate responsibilities resting upon the National Assistance Board and the local authorities. That is part of the structure of the Bill which we approve. My point is simply that at some point they will have to be combined. They are dealing with the same people; it is the same human task. How much better to be advised by the same people if that task is to be properly carried out!
§ LORD CHORLEY
With great respect to the noble Lord, I think it would be mixing up the two different functions to have the same advisory committee to advise two different organisations to which this work is being entrusted.
§ LORD ALTRINCHAM
I apologise for interrupting, but we attach great importance to this point. I hope the noble Lord is not going to turn it down now, but will be prepared to give consideration to this suggestion. If the noble Lord is saying that the Government will not consider that, we shall have to put down an Amendment and contest it.
§ LORD CHORLEY
The Government are only too glad to give consideration to every suggestion put forward by the noble Lord, speaking from where he does. What I am giving at the moment is the impression which appears to me to be the right one. But, as the noble Lord appreciates, the last word in these matters does not lie with me, and these important suggestions which he has made will naturally be considered very carefully. If I may have a word with him between now and the next stage of the Bill, we shall no doubt be able to discover exactly what the situation may be. As it appears at the moment, I should say that the local authority must be left free to deal with their own part of the administration of this Bill and to appoint their own advisory committee, an advisory committee which will consist partly of members of the local authority and will be in a position to appoint as other members exactly those people who have been referred to as having great experience in this type of social service. To make this mandatory upon the local authority is to deprive the local authority of that very discretion which noble Lords continually assert should be left in the carrying through of legislation of this kind.
Those are the main points which were made by the noble Lord, Lord Altrincham. The noble Lord, Lord Amulree, in a charming speech, was a little inclined, perhaps, to shed tears over the passing of the old Poor Law. No doubt he was inspired with that generosity which many of those upon whose shoulders the responsibility of administering this old law have shown. This was essentially a very hard system, although tempered a good deal by the good humoured and generous work which many of those who were concerned with it, especially in more recent years, were able to give to it. But that ought not to blind us to the fact that it was a harsh and cruel system; and we on this side of the House, at any rate, are very glad that the passing of this Bill will see the last of it. The noble Lord, Lord Amulree, stressed the need for avoiding too much standardisation, and raised a number of interesting and useful points, about some of which he was good enough to give notice before the debate. In the first place, he stressed the need for liaison between the regional hospital boards and the local authorities. I am glad to tell the noble Lord that the Government are acutely 1152 aware of the importance of this. Obviously, it is necessary that there should be this closely worked out liaison, and that every effort should be made to get the old folk out of the hospitals where, as he said, they tend to stay and retain beds which are needed for other people. It is also essential to encourage traffic the other way.
On both those points the Government are at one with the noble Lord, and I am glad to give that assurance to him and to other noble Lords. I think the noble Lord, Lord Altrincham, also made this point and referred to the difficulty of getting these hostels established under the present labour difficulties. I am glad to say that as high a degree of priority as possible will be given to local authority proposals for dealing with this problem. The Minister is only too anxious that this type of hostel, or whatever one should call it, should be erected—and erected as quickly as possible. Already a good deal of attention has been given to the successful experiments to which the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, among others, referred. The Ministers concerned are acutely aware of the good work which has already been done in many parts of the country in respect of that matter.
The noble Lord, Lord Amulree, also stressed the great value of the work which has been done by voluntary organisations, a point later made by the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe. The noble Lord asked whether something could not be done to assist them in their work. I think there is sufficient provision in Clause 25 (6), which says:A local authority may make contributions to the funds of any voluntary organisation providing, or proposing to provide, accommodation for the like purposes as accommodation provided by a local authority under the foregoing provisions of this Part of this Act.I think the noble Lord will agree that that gives exactly the sort of power which he wished to see. The noble Lord was also concerned that the old Poor Law, which provided that every destitute sick person should have some sort of accommodation in hospital, should be continued. In regard to that, so far as it is a question of sickness, the National Health Service will, of course, make provision; and it has already been dealt with in an Act which has been placed upon the Statute Book.
1153 With regard to the question of accommodation, it is really one of providing for people who are not able to provide for themselves. The Bill does this, first of all in regard to the provision of accommodation for old people, and then in regard to the requirements in Clause 20, which provides that the local authority are to make provision for residential accommodation both on a long-term basis and for urgent cases. I think the noble Lord will find that there is sufficient provision made in the Bill itself for the type of case with which he is particularly concerned. There was also the question of the twenty-four hour service which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Altrincham, the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, and other noble Lords. This, of course, is a matter which was discussed a good deal in another place. It has never been a fact that there was, so to speak, a complete twenty-four hour service statutorily laid down. The noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, in stressing this particular matter, pointed out that it is not possible to make what one might call formal legislative provision for this sort of thing.
I beg the noble Lord's pardon. I pointed out that it has existed hitherto, and that I could not see it under this Bill. My local relieving officer never goes away for a holiday; he is always there on the spot every hour of the twenty-four.
§ LORD CHORLEY
I thought the noble Lord was pointing out that while it was not possible to make statutory provision for this, in fact under the old law the practice grew up in such a way that the relieving officer was there to help. The Minister, in the debate in another place, indicated that already arrangements were being made in order to bring about some provision of that kind—that already the Assistance Board are going into the question of having someone who will be available at all times, whose telephone number will be published, and who can be approached at once in any case of urgent requirement. The noble Lord, Lord Altrincham, said that more service of that kind was necessary, and I think the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, asked how many Assistance Board officers there are at the present time. I am told that there are some 300, but that it is hoped that it will be possible to find accommodation in the local 1154 National Insurance offices and that the number will probably be brought up to 1,000. Moreover, the necessary forms of application will be available at all Post Offices, of which there are some 20,000, so that there should be no difficulty at all in dealing with urgent cases. I am quite sure that the noble Lord's mind will be relieved so far as that problem is concerned. I think those are the main points on which the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, made suggestions.
Then the noble Lord, Lord Addington, raised a number of points, of which he was good enough to give me notice. The first of them related to the question of the date as between October 31 and March 7. As the Minister said in another place, that is a point with which the Government have sympathy, but we do not find ourselves able to accept the suggestion made by the noble Lord. As the noble Lord himself pointed out in his speech, the circular from the Ministry dated March 7 referred to the interruption of work of this kind which had been going on in pre-war years, and asked local authorities to take the work up again. That was really all it came to. On that basis it is not possible to give a retrospective application to the Treasury assistance which is provided in this Bill. The best local authorities were doing this work for years before the war, and if the Government were to try, as it were, to catch up with the best local authorities, it would create many difficulties. We have considerable sympathy with the local authorities who will have to work on the receipt of that circular; but it is not possible to give retrospect effect to the grant.
The noble Lord's next point was in regard to the audit of the accounts of county borough councils—a point which he has raised before. I am afraid I am unable to help him in this matter. It is really a Committee point. The recent tendency is against the preservation of this particular type of audit. The present system was adopted also in the Act of 1931, and we shall have to adopt it again. Then the noble Lord was anxious to have a statutory right for the associations of local author ties to be taken into consultation. As your Lordships know, Ministers are only too ready to consult in regard to all matters which are of interest to local authorities. Those 1155 Ministers derive great value from consultations with the associations, but the Government are not prepared to have it laid down statutorily that in every case local authority associations must be given the right of consultation.
The noble Lord also criticised the administrative arrangements as being a little too rigid. If he looks at that point again, I think he will see that these arrangements give considerable latitude to local authorities and establish a reasonably flexible system. Then he raised the question of the position of Public Assistance officers. It is a technical point as to whether the cessation of the old Poor Law will automatically lead to their ceasing to be employed. I am informed that that will be so; that with the cessation of the old Poor Law the work of these people will come to an end; that it will, in effect, be an automatic termination of their employment; and that therefore no notice is required. I think those were the main points made by the noble Lord.
I think I have referred to most of the matters raised by the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, except the question in regard to interest. I think the noble Lord must agree that the Government proposals in this matter are very generous, especially when one looks back at the situation which existed even as recently as the 1930's. Dwelling houses are exempted, war savings certificates are excepted, and the first £50 of other capital are excepted; it is only when capital exceeds £400 that no assistance is granted. It is not unreasonable to suggest that 6d. should be deducted for every £50 between the first £50 and £400. It is true that, worked out on the basis of interest, the figure might be a fraction over 5 per cent.; but that is not the attitude or outlook of the Bill. I am sure that the noble Lord will agree that the provisions in this Bill do, in fact, provide great safeguards for the savings of these people. If the noble Lord cares to take the example of a £400 case, which is the biggest that would arise, he will see that it will take something like fifty years to reduce it to the sum at which it would be excluded. I am sure, therefore, that the noble Lord will agree that this is not a point which he need press and that the provisions made in this Bill are generous.
1156 The noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, said that such a body as the National Council of Social Service, who have done such yeoman service in the years between the wars in all kinds of social work throughout the country, would be pleased with this measure. We are glad to have that commendation. We are, of course, aware of much of the social work which has been done in New Zealand—if I may be allowed to say so, under a Labour Government, a Government of a substantial number of years' standing.
§ VISCOUNT BLEDISLOE
Will the noble Lord allow me to remind him that this social work was initiated before the Labour Government came into power?
§ LORD CHORLEY
I am glad to be reminded that New Zealand has always been one of the foremost countries of the world in connection with all kinds of progressive social legislation. They have set an example and a standard to us in the older world. But I agree wholeheartedly with Lord Bledisloe's view that there is nothing like work for keeping people interested and occupied; and that will certainly be borne in mind. The noble Lord, Lord Henderson, in introducing this measure, said that it brought to an end a long and gloomy period of social history. Undoubtedly it does. At the same time, it is the last item in a long and valuable series of social legislation by means of which this country, the pioneer of the industrial revolution which led to so much of this sordidness and cruelty, has also been the first, or one of the first, of the great industrial countries to do something to put it right. Therefore, this is the culminating point in a long series of valuable Statutes. With that reflection, I commend this Bill to your Lordships' House.
Before the noble Lord sits down, can he say something about sudden destitution, which is very much on my mind?
§ LORD CHORLEY
I thought I had already dealt sufficiently with this question of sudden destitution in describing how we were to have the assistance officers ready at the end of the telephone to deal with such cases; how (under Clause 20) the local authority are to provide accommodation for urgent cases, and how (under Clause 25) regulations are to be made for the purpose of relieving 1157 urgent cases of difficulty. I am not in a position to place before your Lordships on the Second Reading of a. Bill of this kind the precise machinery by means of which that is to be carried out. I hope that the noble Lord will be content that this Bill should be read a second time.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.