HL Deb 21 July 1966 vol 276 cc561-77

4.3 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Third Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time. I do not want to say a great deal about the Bill to-day, but I should like, first, to thank noble Lords in general, on both sides of the House, for the constructive comments that have been made. Particularly, I would thank the noble Lords, Lord Drumalbyn and Lord Windlesham, not only for the way in which they have helped us in the consideration of the Bill at large, but for enabling us to improve its provisions in certain limited, though none the less important, respects.

The purpose of the Bill is one that we must all applaud. The new non-contributory benefits scheme will mean extra benefits for those who are now receiving National Assistance—people who by definition are among the less well-off members of the community. Then the new scheme is to be administered within the Ministry of Social Security, and this will mean an end to the separate and distinct nature of non-contributory payments, so that, in the long run, there will be a single pattern of offices dealing with the whole range of social security payments. Perhaps above all, the new scheme should—and we all hope will—mean that those old people who in the past have declined to accept National Assistance, though they could have had it, will in the future have no reason for holding back from claiming what is theirs by right, because the new supplementary pension to which they are entitled is so clearly set out in the Bill.

This Bill constitutes a thorough job of reform in the field of means-related benefits, but, as I have said, it will be an effective job of reform only if it removes, once and for all, reluctance and prejudice against claiming such benefits when one is entitled to them. This is why the new Ministry will be doing all it can, by means of an extensive publicity campaign in the national Press and elsewhere, to encourage old people to claim supplementary pensions. But Press publicity needs to be supplemented by the personal endeavour of all who are in touch with old people who are not so well off. I would therefore urge noble Lords, in the same way as did my right honourable friend in another place, and as I did at an earlier stage of the Bill, to take every opportunity to explain to the elderly in the months ahead what they can obtain as of right under the Bill.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Lord Bowles.)

4.6 p.m.


My Lords, I hope that I may be pardoned if I use the Third Reading of the Bill to ride a hobbyhorse of mine for a minute or two. I was unable to be present in your Lordships' House during most of the Committee stage of the Bill, and I was not here for any part of the Report stage. Therefore, it is only recently that I came across two words in the Bill that caused me some concern. They are on page 9, at line 33, and the two words are "illegitimate children". I am not concerned this afternoon to go into the principles of the Bill: I am completely convinced, as your Lordships all seem to be, that this is an extremely good Bill; and all of us who have represented constituencies in another place know the great value it will be to many of the poorer people in the community.

But with regard to these two words, my concern is that they are creeping into what will be a new Act of Parliament. My concern is that we continue in our country to use the term "illegitimate child". I have looked up the Oxford Dictionary, and I find that among the definitions of "illegitimate" are "not authorised by law"; "improper"; "abnormal"; "not born in lawful wedlock"; and the last definition, "bastard", has now become a swear word in our ordinary vocabulary. I cannot for the life of me see how, in this enlightened day, we should regard any child in our community as "not authorised by law". It may well be that the actions of the parents have not been authorised in a lawful way, but to tag this term on to any British child to-day seems to me to be a complete anachronism. I see nothing improper in the existence of a child who might have been born out of lawful wedlock.

In recent days we have had the Report of the Committee on the Law of Succession in relation to illegitimate persons. That very distinguished Committee, under the chairmanship of Lord Justice Russell, has indicated that it is desirable, in the case of a test of parents, that illegitimate children shall be considered for the inheritence. I understand that legislation is to be enacted to cover that point. This proves that going through the minds of many people to-day is the thought that we ought to tackle the question of these two words. I read the other day (I think in The Times newspaper) that in one of the Scandinavian countries the term was to be completely abolished in reference to the children of that country. I am concerned about the stigma which is constantly attached to children whom we call illegimate, and I believe that it is wrong that that term should be associated with any child to-day.

I had thought of trying to put down an Amendment to delete these words from the Bill. I confess that I was at a loss to find an alternative. I wondered whether it would be better to use the term, "born out of wedlock". But still that would stick, although I do not think it is nearly so bad as the term, "illegitimate". Because of my failure, which I confess, to find an alternative word, I must content myself, but I would ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in the compilation and the drafting of future legislation, where this term might arise, they could search, through the activities of their learned draftsmen, and use the knowledge of Ministers of the Crown, to find some different term, so that these two words may cease to be part of the vocabulary of our country. Your Lordships will forgive me, but I feel rather strongly on this matter. This term, I think, is completely out of date in the second half of the twentieth century and I appeal to my noble friend to suggest to Ministers who may be concerned for the future to proceed along the lines I have tried to indicate.

4.13 p.m.


My Lords, I do not intend to detain your Lordships for many moments this afternoon. But there are one or two matters appropriate, I think, to this stage of the Bill about which I should like to say something before we finally part with it. In a sense, this Bill represents something like a turning point in the administration of this service; indeed, I think it is not too much to say that it represents a turning point in the administration of the social services as a whole. The Bill recognises that it is not possible to administer this service without some form of means test, however disagreeable a means test may be.

Noble Lords on the opposite side of the Chamber, and their friends, long entertained the view that it was possible for a basic scale rate to be adequate to meet the needs of everybody. That was an illusion which we inherited from Lord Beveridge. In this Bill we take leave of Lord Beveridge for good. The needs of individuals vary so widely that it is not possible for a uniform scale rate to meet the needs of all as we expect them to be met today. The scales which were recommended by Lord Beveridge in his Report were, as he said, scales which aimed at subsistence level, and nothing more than subsistence level. To-day, we have moved a long way from that. To-day the public would not accept a basic scale rate which aimed only at a subsistence level. We aim at something—and, indeed, have achieved—a good deal more than that.

But it is not practical administration to aim at something better than subsistence level unless the additional payment is paid after a means test. As I say, everyone to-day accepts the means test as an unavoidable condition of meeting adequately the needs of the poorest section of the population. Our task now, as the noble Lord said a moment ago, is to reconcile the public to the means test. Indeed, I hope that all of us will use such influence as we possess to induce persons who might otherwise be reluctant to do so to apply for the assistance to which they are entitled.

In achieving that result we might, I think, have had more help from some sections of the newspapers than we have had. When I was at the Assistance Board I used to read newspaper cuttings very freely. There was the case of a man who was charged with some trivial offence in the police court, and when the magistrates had convicted him and asked the police for the man's record, the police officer began by saying, "He is receiving National Assistance." It was not surprising that people came to look on National Assistance as something which was reserved for the work-shies, the "corner-boys", and all the rest of them. We did our best to disillusion them, and I think we achieved a measure of success. But it would have been a much easier task if we had had the help and assistance of some sections—and I emphasise "some sections"—of the newspapers. To-day, of course, a means test outside the field of this particular service is a very common thing. I suppose that all of us pass through a means test every year when our income tax is assessed. There is a means test for education grants and, if the Minister of Housing and Local Government has been correctly reported, there will soon be something very like a means test for municipal houses.

I welcome the proposals which the Bill contains for administering the means test. It will be possible for people to make an application in writing, if they desire to do so. No doubt there will be some who will prefer to apply in this way. The present method of obtaining the information by a personal visit was introduced for the express purpose of meeting the difficulties that many people experience in filling up forms. However, there it is; and if it helps to overcome the reluctance to apply for help—and I hope that it will—I think we should all welcome it. Then they may have an interview at the Board's local office. That has always been possible, and many people to-day go to the office rather than have an official call at the house.

If this Bill facilitates applications, it will be a useful contribution to the successful working of this service, but I do not myself believe that it is the application for assistance, or indeed the name "National Assistance", as is so often said, which prevents people from making application. I think the fundamental reason is that the payment is made after a means test. I believe there is some support for my view in the experience which the local authorities are having of administering the rate rebates which it is now possible for them to make. I have been told that the local authorities have found that only about half the persons who are probably entitled to rate rebates have made any application for them. Rate rebates, of course, are given after a means test, and I am afraid that to some extent supports my view that it is the condition of the means test which discourages people from applying for help. I hope I am wrong in this, and I am glad to hear the noble Lord say that the Department concerned—the new Ministry of Social Security—will pursue those methods of publicity which I tried to follow when I was there, and that they will overcome the objection to the means test and perhaps lessen the feeling which I believe to be present to-day among persons who refrain from applying for the help to which they are entitled.

I have very little more to say. I would say a word about the survey of the financial and other circumstances of retirement pensions which is being produced by the Ministry of National Insurance with the assistance of the National Assistance Board. I think there is some misunderstanding in people's minds about the numbers of persons who are entitled to assistance but who are refraining from applying. The survey shows that although there are 710,000 households, representing something like 850,000 pensioners who have some title to assistance, they are not all, by any means, without resources or living in poverty. From this figure of 710,000 households there has to be deducted those for whom the gap between their needs and their resources is bridged by some other form of resource. It may be a disregarded source; or it may be, again, that they are living with relatives who supply many of the things which the householder would normally have to purchase himself; or, again, it may be, as the report shows, that many of them possess some small capital resources and are not making application until those resources are exhausted.

When account is taken of all those classes of person, the report concludes that the actual number of persons who appear to be living on the pension without assistance and to have no other resources is only 85,000. Of course, 85,000 is a large number, and we should like to see those 85,000 persons, if they possess no other resources, assisted by the new Ministry of Social Security. But out of the very large number of old age pensioners in the country to-day, I think the authorities have not done too badly if they have reduced the number of those who possess no resources except the pension to a figure of 85,000. All sorts of figures have been mentioned, and I regret to say that when the Election was in sight the number tended to increase. Indeed, I read one speech during the Election in which it was claimed that over a million persons were living on the pension without other resources. That certainly was an exaggeration. I think the noble Lord himself mentioned a figure of 200,000 in the Second Reading debate. It is important to appreciate what this survey has actually disclosed, and I think that, on the whole, the authorities are not to be blamed if the numbers have been reduced to as low as 85,000.

That is all I desire to say. I welcome this Bill; I hope it will succeed. I hope that in the rather dismal forecast which I have made about some aspects of it I shall be proved to be wrong and that this Bill will overcome those tantalising and difficult problems with which I struggled when I was at the National Assistance Board.

4.25 p.m.


My Lords, I think the House is fortunate to have the benefit of the advice of the noble Lord who has played such a distinguished part in meeting the need: I refer to my noble friend, Lord Ilford, who for ten years was Chairman of the National Assistance Board. This Bill, of course, spells the end of the National Assistance Board. As the noble Lord, Lord Bowles, has said, the Bill is designed to meet need in a new way, and we welcome that very much indeed.

There have been many lengthy debates on various subjects in the course of the passage of this Bill through this House, and for my part I would only repeat one or two questions which I asked and which, if I may say so, have not been fully answered. The first of them is this. I asked whether Clause 17(3) was still considered to be apt for its purpose. That is the clause which says: Where it appears to the Commission that it is necessary for protecting the interests of a claimant or of his dependants that the whole or part of the benefit should be issued to some other person, or where the claimant so requests, they may determine that it shall be so issued. I gave my reasons for thinking that it might be held that the clause did not cover every case where a payment of this kind might be made by the Board direct to some other person. This arose out of the debate on payments to landlords. The noble Lord gave me an answer then, but I think it was his intention at that time to look further into the matter, and I hope that, after the further consideration which has no doubt been given, he will be able to give me a further reply on that point.

The second point I wanted to raise arose out of the debate which we had at the end of the Committee stage, when we were talking about the payments to be made by persons in residential accommodation. I would ask whether the local authorities have the power to accept voluntary payments from a person in residential accommodation over and above the amounts existing under Section 22(5) of the National Assistance Act and in accordance with Part III of Schedule 2 to this Bill. I have come across cases where people have been anxious, for conscientious or generous reasons or other reasons, to make payments over and above their legal liabilities, and it has been found that such payments cannot be accepted. That is why I asked this question, because I think that in some cases people in residential accommodation who feel that they can afford to pay the full amount might wish to do so.

From those minor points I come to two more significant points. Emphasis has been laid, quite rightly, on the part that the Bill is designed to play in drawing those who are not at present receiving National Assistance although entitled to it into the ambit of National Assistance under its new name. I should like to ask broadly—I admit this is in a way a rhetorical question—whether the measures in this Bill will be effective in getting the great majority of those elderly people who would receive assistance if they applied for it, people who are already past pension age, to come forward and apply for it. This, of course, as I say, is a rhetorical question and a question to which time alone can provide the answer. But I would say it is one thing to confer a right, and it is quite a different thing to get people to exercise it.

We discussed at an earlier stage whether a duty should be laid upon people to take these benefits. I am sure that would not be right. Even if we placed this duty on people, I cannot conceive there would be any means of enforcing it or ensuring that they performed the duty. But there will still undoubtedly be people who, given the other income which can be disregarded, as stated in the report on the financial and other circumstances of retirement pensioners, feel that they can manage on what they have and prefer to do so.

The two measures in the Bill that are designed to encourage people to apply seem to me to be, first of all, the change of name of the present National Assistance allowances to supplementary pensions; and, secondly, the consolidation of the discretionary payments for special need into the addition of 9s. to the basic requirements. I think it is right to ask whether these measures will be effective in getting the great majority of elderly people to apply. There are, of course, the administrative steps, one of which my noble friend has referred to, and there are also the single payment books to cover both contributory and non-contributory benefits, and the steps to be taken to ensure that as everyone reaches entitlement age he or she is told of entitlement to non-contributory benefits if their resources fall below a certain level. To that the noble Lord has added this afternoon a statement that there is to be a national advertising campaign when the scheme comes into operation. That I am glad to hear, and I am sure that everyone will respond to his invitation to encourage people to make application wherever they feel they may.

All these steps are well suited to encourage those who have not yet reached retirement age to claim non-contributory benefit if they are entitled to it; but in themselves, apart from the national advertising campaign—and I am not certain how much that will do—they will do nothing to help those already past retirement age to claim if they are entitled to claim. I would say that we still regret that a clear duty on the Government is not laid down in the Bill to seek out such people. The inquiry into the financial and other circumstances of retirement pensioners by the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance—if I may correct a verbal slip of my noble friend, I believe he said the Ministry of Housing and Local Government—showed that, of retirement pensioners, over one-third did not know or understand they were entitled to help, and that over one-fifth did not apply because of pride or dislike of charity. The only way, it seems to me, to get such people to apply is to seek them out and explain the situation to them. This has to be done by someone, and of course literature distributed to ministers of religion, doctors and to social workers can help a good deal.

At this stage I would refer to the point made by my noble friend Lord Windlesham regarding the literature. One of the most difficult things for people who are very closely associated with the subject is to make a clear statement to people who know nothing about it. This, I think, applies to the staffs of Ministries. It is a good thing for officials in Departments to inform others, intermediaries if you like, expert at dealing with the public, and let them put out the information that they obtain in a manner which can be clearly understood by the public; I commend my noble friend's suggestion to the Ministry. I know this is done to a certain extent, but I think it can be done more than it is.

I would make the point that the people who are covered by the inquiry were all retired pensioners, and I suspect that a much higher proportion of non-pensioners entitled to supplements but not receiving them need to have explained to them that there is no shame attached to an Exchequer subsidy of this kind, especially where their resources have been eroded by inflation. What we have felt, I think, is that not sufficient provision has been made in the Bill to deal with this particular aspect; that is, for those who are not receiving retirement pension, those who are not on the books, of whom there is no record. It seems to me that this is the weak point of the Bill.

The other main question is this, and it is a question which perhaps has not been sufficiently probed, although I referred to it on Second Reading. The noble Lord, Lord Sorensen had a lot of points to answer, and I do not blame him for not giving me an answer at that time. But do the Government regard the relationship between non-contributory and contributory benefit which the Bill establishes to be the correct one? The noble Lord claimed that this Bill is one step of a series of changes designed to bring our social security system up to date; first, the earnings related benefits for the unemployed and the sick; now this. The noble Lord has indicated that the Government intend in due course to introduce the third step in the trilogy, one which had not been planned by the previous Government, unlike the earnings related benefit for the unemployed—that is, the earnings related pension scheme.

In this Bill the Government have raised the basic requirements just above the level of contributory benefit. In practice any pensioner whose resources fall short of basic requirements plus rent will receive a bonus of 9s., as I understand it. I do not think we have ever had from the Government an explanation of why they have raised the non-contributory basic requirements above the contributory level of benefits, or what it portends for the future. I might ask whether they have done it for the same reasons as in the past. National Assistance rates have occasionally risen above National Insurance levels. The reason was that the cost of living had risen since the National Insurance benefits were last increased, and it has often been the practice, in the interval between the increases in National Insurance benefit, to raise National Assistance benefit. That might be one reason. Or do they consider that non-contributory benefits should be above basic contributory benefits? If so, do they intend to increase the disparity in favour of non-contributory benefits, or do they intend to maintain the relationship established by this Bill? Or, quite simply, have they not yet made up their minds?

The Bill throws into relief this question of fixing the level of National Assistance, whatever you like to call it, because under Section 6 of the National Assistance Act it is for the National Assitance Board to prepare and submit to the Minister draft regulations as to the computation of requirements and resources, and for the Minister to make regulations—and I quote: either in the form of the draft as submitted, or with such variations and amendments as he thinks fit. This Bill lays down the requirements and empowers the Minister to alter them by regulations. The effect of the change is, I think, an important one. It is that, at least in form, the calculation of requirements, the fixing of the basic scales, is taken out of the hands of the non-political body and put into those of a politician.

There has in the past been considerable pressure for the minimum living standards to be determined by an outside impartial body in relation to certain price and economic indicators, and of course the same argument has been applied to the National Insurance pension. In practice, the National Assistance level has never varied widely from the National Insurance pension. There was a period, from 1952 onwards, when the National Assistance level was above the National Insurance pension, the National Insurance pension having fallen back in the years prior to 1951. In this Bill the two are brought into line, although retirement pensioners and those who have been out of the employment field for more than two years are, as I have said, given an extra 9s. to cover special needs.

We may disagree about the way in which people should be encouraged or enabled to make provision for themselves in their old age without recourse to the Exchequer, whether through the State-organised scheme or through private provisions of one sort or another. But what I think we all consider a desirable objective is that people should make such provision in some way, and that, to the extent they do so, as time goes on the need for Exchequer supplementation under this Bill should be considerably diminished. What seems important is that we should find some means of avoiding in the future political wrangles as to the level to which increases should be raised by Exchequer assistance. What I am asking is whether the Government consider that the level now reached is the right level in relation to National Insurance, and, if so, how they propose to maintain it. It seems inevitable that for some time to come there should be disagreement about the nature of National Insurance provision, but I believe it to be wholly undesirable that the level of immediate needs should be a matter for vote-catching, because we are all anxious that minimum needs should be met. As standards of living rise, so the living standards should be raised. Surely, in this scientific age we can deal with the problem of that level, and what the level should be at any particular time, in a scientific way.

I would conclude by saying that we have given this Bill a welcome, and we are glad that, despite the economic circumstances, the Government are giving financial help for the poorest and the weakest. I personally still regret that the Government have felt it necessary to do away with the distinction between contributory and non-contributory benefits. I hope that we all share the objective that people should be encouraged to make provision for themselves without recourse to Exchequer supplements. I also hope that we all share the view that those who are unable to provide for themselves a sufficient amount without recourse to Exchequer supplements should not hesitate to have recourse to them. I do not think that the removal of the distinction contributes to that end. I believe that this is a blemish on an otherwise good Bill.

I hope that the noble Lord will be able to deal with these points. I consider that the last point that I have raised is an important one, and his reply on it will give some indication for the future of what are the Government's ideas for the planning of social security services. I have little doubt that, as time goes on, the objectives indicated in our Manifesto, that there should be one broad service looking after social security, to include insurance, other pensions, industrial injuries and health, will all be brought together with suitable provision for their administration. I believe that this is the objective to work for. I believe that the Government are now taking a step in that direction, and to the extent that they are taking that step we welcome it.

4.46 p.m.


My Lords, we have had a most interesting Third Reading debate, and I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in it. First of all, may I say to my noble friend Lord Royle, who raised the question of the words "illegitimate children", that, as he knows, this point was raised on Second Reading by the noble Lord, Lord Soper. The difficulty is that this is a rather smaller piece of legislation than the substantive legislation, and I think it would be quite inappropriate in a Bill of this kind to change the wording, as has been suggested. It needs to be looked at in a much wider sense, and probably some general consolidation legislation may in the future be introduced which would cover the point raised by my noble friends.

My noble friend Lord Sorensen whispered to me that the phrase "natural children" is sometimes used. That might be better and less offensive than "illegitimate children" or "bastards". But that is a matter to which no doubt—and I can promise this—the Government will give serious consideration. The noble Lord, Lord Ilford, in his most helpful, useful and learned speech, referred to the means test and compared it with the means test in the old days. I think that if he casts his mind back he will realise that what we really objected to most was the family means test. I dare say the noble Lord will remember that in the old days they used to search around to see whether a person had a sister or an aunt or somebody who could be called upon to keep him, rather than let him have assistance. That is a principle to which we strongly objected, and we still do. But I think we have all come round to the idea that a means test for the individual who is seeking supplementary benefit for himself is at the moment the only sensible and correct test which we can apply and of which I think society as a whole would approve. In those circumstances, I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising the point. I see that he is nodding assent; he rather agrees with what I am saying.

I was interested that he should have read to us the figures showing the reduction in numbers to 85,000 of pensioners who live solely on their old age pensions. As he said, this shows how thoroughly the work of the officers of the Board has been carried out. It also shows, from the figures I gave, and which he also mentioned, that of 850,000 pensioners entitled to assistance, perhaps one-tenth of the households are living solely on their pensions, which shows that these people are really being sought out thoroughly. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, will see in these figures some answers to the points that he has raised and which have been rather worrying him through each of the stages of this Bill. The noble Lord raised the question of Clause 17(3), about which we had a long debate on the last occasion. The Government are satisfied that that subsection is quite appropriate for its purpose. I shall be glad to write to the noble Lord in more detail as to the point he raised about payments to be made to local authorities by people in residential accommodation. I am not at the moment in a position during this Third Reading debate to go into sufficient detail to satisfy the noble Lord's very critical mind.

I must make it quite clear that Her Majesty's Government are as anxious as anybody, and certainly as keen as the noble Lord, to see that the people entitled to supplementary pensions are sought out. In fact, the main objectives of this Bill are first of all to get rid of the words "National Assistance", then to have the one book, and then to get everybody we possibly can to try to draw these matters to the attention of the old people who are not drawing all they are entitled to. We feel that every form of publicity should be given so that they may know their rights, emphasising that there is no shame involved in this and that in fact it is foolish for them not to draw what they are entitled to. The sort of attitude "I am entitled to another 5s. a week, or whatever it may be, but I am not going to take it" seems not like normal human nature. It may well be that in time any sneer or smear in relation to National Assistance will be lost sight of.

I have already mentioned many times the question of publicity; I have drawn attention to the advertising campaign and have made other statements about this at various times. There is going to be a national campaign this autumn; this is the only way we can reach non-pensioners. The noble Lord will be interested to know that it is also intended that every retirement pensioner, whatever his age, shall receive a leaflet in the autumn explaining the new supplementary pension. The explanatory leaflet will be handed over to pensioners when they collect their pensions at the Post Office during a particular week in the autumn.

As to the question raised by the noble Lord about the future relationship between contributory and non-contributory benefits, this raises major questions of policy on which the noble Lord would not expect me to pronounce this afternoon. He made a long speech, and I shall not now try to answer it all in detail. I will write to him on any points that I may have overlooked, because the House wants to get on to other business. But I can assure the House that his speech, as all speeches which have been made from all parts of the House, will be borne in mind when it comes to preparing the next step in the social security legislation. We want to learn from one another in these debates. It does not matter which Party knowledge comes from, whether Conservative, Labour, the Cross-Benches or Independent—whoever it may be, we want as much information, advice and help from noble Lords as possible, so that when we come to prepare the next Bill in the march forward in social security we shall be able to do even better than we have this time.

On Question, Bill read 3a with the Amendments, and passed, and returned to the Commons.