§ 6.15 p.m.
§ Debate on Second Reading resumed.
§ LORD HASTINGS
My Lords I was just talking about the question of the definition of hardship, and there was one point remaining which I wish to clear up. The noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, suggested that people would not claim because they would be very reluctant to submit themselves to any sort of means test, and he pointed out that people, even now, owing to this element of pride, are reluctant to claim National Assistance. One of the things that my right honourable friend is most insistent upon is that people shall be able to retain their anonymity when making these claims. It has been suggested to local authorities that they can deal with these matters simply by putting a number against a person, his name not being revealed.
1278 That brings me on to a point of a slightly different nature, but relating to the same problem, raised by my noble friend Lord Auckland, who pointed out that it might be impossible, especially for elderly people who are not physically strong, to go along to the local authority office and make their claims. Of course, these matters are essentially for the local authorities themselves; they are not the responsibility of the Government. But in point of fact, there is little doubt that claims, not only for the physically limited, but all claims, will be submitted in writing in the first place. Obviously, the local authorities, where necessary, will, as they do now, send along somebody to interview the person, especially if that person is not able to move easily from his or her house.
I come now to a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Douglas of Barloch, although I do not want to follow him at any great length in his animadversions on the general defectiveness of the rating system. Nevertheless, I think he said that everybody knows that rates are regressive, and that the Allen Committee is unnecessary. It is, however, a fact that we do not know nearly enough to generalise in that manner, and I must make it quite clear that the Government certainly disagree most strongly with the noble Lord's opinion. We shall have to wait and see what the Allen Committee reveal in their Report, and then we can really get down to business, in conjunction with the review of central and local government finance.
My noble friend—if I may deem somewhat nervously to call him that—Lord Molson, raised one or two points and was very dissatisfied indeed with Clause 1. It seems to me that the major attack on the Bill itself has been in relation to Clause I. The noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, even suggested that it was going to benefit only those who do not need relief. He mentioned industrialists, and feared that none of it would be distributed to people suffering from hardship. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, thought that this was a bad clause, and could not see what relationship it had to the criterion necessary for judging hardship. He also pointed out that there was no actual obligation written into the Bill to distribute this money. Admittedly the provision is in the nature of a general grant and is not tied 1279 specifically to the distribution of payments in relief of hardship; but I pointed out, when I opened this debate, that it was devised as a means of preventing the other ratepayers from having to pay a very considerable proportion of the relief grant to be meted out to those who required relief. It is devised in that sense.
I think we are able, first of all, to rely upon the honesty, integrity and efficiency of the local authorities. We really cannot tie their hands too tightly in these matters, and we have no reason to believe that local authorities will not operate the scheme in the intended manner. Secondly, the reason why Clauses 1 and 5 have been split and there are these two different forms of grant is in order that local authorities should examine the necessity for relieving hardship carefully, and should make sure that they are being neither unduly mean nor unduly generous; and they should continue to exercise their discretion with a sense of financial responsibility towards their ratepayers. If the payment of grants under Clause 1 were made conditional upon the distribution of all the money made available to people who were eligible for relief, it would mean that the authority would have to distribute that money whether in fact there were sufficient people in their district requiring such a payment or not, and this could lead to waste of Exchequer money.
In point of fact, we believe that there will be few cases where the balance of payments, taking the two clauses, 1 and 5, into consideration together, will be in favour of the local authority. In other words, there will mostly be a small balance to be found from the general rate levied upon the ratepayers. There may be a few cases—there will, I think, be a very few cases—where the balance will come out in favour of the local authority. But we do not think that that is sufficient reason to vitiate the whole purpose of these two clauses when seen in relation one to the other.
I think that really covers most of the points or the more important ones we have gone into this evening. There is the accusation that this Bill is nothing else but a panic measure, and one or two speakers, including, I regret to say, one of my noble friends, have even sugges- 1280 ted it might have something to do with Conservative landladies in Blackpool or Bournemouth, and something to do with the General Election.
§ LORD HASTINGS
The noble Lord says it is not impossible, but I do not follow the logic of this reasoning, because either we are faced with a situation which demands that certain individuals should be relieved of unusual hardship or we are not. And to suggest—and this is following the argument to its logical conclusion—that because there is going to be a General Election soon we should not give any relief to people suffering hardship is surely not the intention of my noble friend on my right or noble Lords opposite, because I have not heard anybody this afternoon deny that there are cases of hardship worthy of relief. I hope, therefore, that I can dismiss that argument with the reasonable measure of contempt—without rubbing it in too hard—that it deserves. I hope noble Lords on all sides of the House will agree that this interim measure will serve a useful purpose, however much they may dislike it on general grounds of principle: and I hope, therefore, that they will now give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.