HL Deb 08 December 1970 vol 313 cc799-804

3.47 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, after that little interlude, I am disillusioned in my idea that many of the noble Lords in the Chamber were waiting to hear what I had to say on this Bill. I realise now that some of your Lordships were waiting for the Statement. Nevertheless, the first thing I want to do is to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Ilford. Whatever I may say in criticism—and I hope that it will not be strident and cacophonous—I think it my duty, as one who has worked as a Minister in the Ministry of Social Security, to pay tribute to the humanitarian work the noble Lord did during his period of chairmanship of the National Assistance Board.

I should like to pay a second tribute. I had proposed recently to go to the Ministry of Social Security office at Longton, Stoke-on-Trent, in the Five Towns of Arnold Bennett fame, but found that they were moving office. I rang up the manager, who helped me; and once again, as I always found when, during my period as Minister, I visited local offices, I feel that I cannot pay too high a tribute to the men and women in the social security service who are in the fronk rank of this work. They have to meet men and women who need these benefits; they have sometimes to deal with the "corner boys", and other types, and have to treat them roughly. These young men and women are in the forefront of social security, whatever may be done by any Party when it gets the luck to be in Government.

I come to what I have to say about the Bill. I think we should eradicate from our minds the idea that Britain has ever led the world in social welfare. Even when my right honourable friend Jim Griffiths introduced the National Health Scheme in 1948, together with the late Aneurin Bevan and others, as part of the Welfare State that was being established, New Zealand, Norway, Denmark and Sweden were at least no worse than we were. The comprehensive free health service, which has been tampered with—to be accurate, by a number of Governments—in the transition period, now tends to be only a shadow of what we meant it to be when we had the Christian idea of the Good Samaritan, of being able to help our neighbours.

The present Bill has to me a sinister streak in it. I remember, as a boy on my grandfather's little farm in the mountains, that the gipsies used to come and camp there. Sometimes I would sneak up to the camp and sit at their fire. When the rain fell it used to sizzle on the fire with a hiss like the hiss of this Bill, because it only partially does the job it was meant to do, and in a higgledy-piggledy way. For the first time since 1795 it proposes to give a grant to a family whose income is below a certain level but whose chief breadwinner, whether it be granny, or the mother, or the single woman with children, is in full-time work; and the grant is to be graduated according to need. I was glad to hear the point about differentials in rent brought out by the noble Lord, Lord Ilford. That is one of the problems that we have to face in the country. The new grant of family income supplement, as it is called, whatever has been said—I heard the Peenhamland logic of the noble Lord who has just sat down—puts Peenhamland on its head. Whatever we may say, the principle was discarded many generations ago, and until now the Supplementary Benefits Commission have always been debarred from giving regular assistance to persons in full-time work. The National Assistance Board, who preceded the Supplementary Benefits Commission, were also debarred, and so, too, were the Public Assistance Committees which existed before the National Assistance Board, and the Poor Law and the Guardians before that.

I have brought with me, because it is so symbolic of the age in which we live, this glorious pamphlet, priced one penny. I looked in my library the other day and took the trouble to read about the economic crisis of 1931. This pamphlet produced by the dear old beloved Daily Mail, is entitled: The Economic Crisis, Foretold by the Daily Mail." Let me take the banner headlines, big enough for the Second Coming, even in those days: Killing Trade"; "High Wages"; "Alarms and Strikes"; "Still wasting Money"; "More demands on the taxpayer"; "When is it going to Stop"; "Keep out the Socialists"; "Mussolini's five years of power". What is the truth? Is it not time that mankind got down to the fact that there is something wrong with the acquisitive society when you reach such a pitch that a sophisticated Conservative Government admits that the acquisitive entrepreneur in our industries is not able in modern competitive times to pay a living wage to a man who works in industry, but he has to be subsidised? What logic can contend that fact? It is an arrogant assumption.

We are making a terrific dichotomy in our society. Once again we are reviling a group of people whom too many people think are lumpen. But I have known, and so has many a countryman, hedgers, ditchers and ploughmen who, if we take the connotation of the word "illiterate" in its real sense, may have been illiterate with letters, but they were wise in the way of the Lord and the ways of living, and were worth their weight in gold to the farmer or the local authority who employed them. Yet we are now, in this Bill, denigrating that type of person, who may not have been blessed with the I.Q. of a John Davies—a fellow Welshman—who stands up and says: National decadence is the consequence of treating us all, the whole country, as though we were lame ducks … the vast majority lives and thrives in a bracing climate and not in a soft, sodden morass of subsidised incompetence."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, 4/11/70; col. 1212.] We know all that. But what was the man trying to imply in that phrase? That is the point. There is nothing wrong with what he said, but the implication was that there is a band of people who are taking advantage and acting as "corner boys". There are "corner boys" in the highest ranks of society, as well as in the lowest ranks, who lack decency. They would like decency, whether they were rich or whether they were poor. This is not a thing for a Government of the calibre of this Conservative Government to be saying in these days. It seems to me to be the regular pastime of people whose money is young to utter pejorative, disparaging and scornful remarks about those people who in the so-called affluent society ask for the generous application of money to the subtler problems of personality, social adjustment, education, welfare and health, so that we can raise the quality and the standard of our people in the environment in which they live. That should be the centre of our social policy.

As noble Lords know, if we trace back the ancestors of some of the people who speak like that, as well as our ancestors—we Celts—we should find that when they came over with Norman William the Conqueror they could neither read nor write. If one goes into the Library of this House, one can see the illiterate signatures on the Act of Union of 1707, made by many noble Lords' ancestors. What I am saying, in other words, is: build a decent society, generations of good feeding, generations of good education, generations of good culture, and we can make an aristocrat of every man and woman. That should be the aim of a true Conservative Government who want to conserve the best in the quality of this country.

What is this Bill doing? It is tending to make people believe that wages have to be subsidised by the Government. It is all entirely wrong and against everything in Conservative policy. The assumption is that the rich will not work unless we make them richer, and the poor will not work unless we make them poorer. That is the assumption of this Bill; that is the assumption of the society in which we are living to-day. I beg this House to take a little more care, a little more depth and a little more look at the quality and fibre of our people. Despite the acquisitive society in which we live to-day, the highest form of investment is investment in man.

If I may take three or four more minutes of your Lordships' time, without boring the House and without delaying the Statement which I believe has now arrived, I would remark that there are some people who believe that in recent years the Government in this country have intervened too little, and as a result we are already in danger of losing some of our individual liberties. We are developing, as Professor Titmus said, the irresponsible society, and this Bill is the acme of irresponsibility. There have now been generated throughout the world in various States massive concentrations of interlocking economic managerial and self-regarding professional power points, more powerful than Governments. This is a mighty problem, whatever political philosophy we may possess to-day; it is a mighty problem facing the next thirty years of history in Europe and the world. These groups tend more and more towards inequality; towards the restriction of social rights and liberties and the muffling of social protest. The assumption that every extension of State intervention in economic and social life leads to restrictions of individual liberty has never been proved. Sometimes we have to appeal to the State to defend our individual liberties.

Now I come to the last two points that I wish to make about this Bill. It is a retrograde step from Beveridge. I heard Beveridge misquoted in this House—I will not say by which of your Lordships, because one of them has just entered the Chamber. I, with one of my noble friends on the Front Bench, had the privilege of listening to Beveridge many years ago, speaking on the work which he did. It is often forgotten that in his day Lord Beveridge (who was then Sir William Beveridge) believed that the amount of money needed to keep a child should be 31 per cent. of the income of a married couple. This Bill and all that we have done—and by that I include ourselves when we were in power, for I do not want to make a cheap point here—is built on the assumption that only 21 per cent. is necessary. In other words, there has been a retrograde step. If we are praising ourselves on the humanitarian society that we British are building, I would point out that, for 1966, children's grants in New York and in Pennsylvania were 31 per cent. of the income of a breadwinner. They rose substantially for children over 11. In Japan the figure is 40 per cent, as it is in West Germany, to-day.

So we have the wonderful position of the Conservative Government, who promised to spend £30 million on the poor, having now lowered that amount by between £6 million and £7 million. If you ask the pregnant question (and no double entendre is intended): "What is the cost of a child?", we are saving 21 per cent. of a married income, while Japan is saying 40 per cent. Is that something that has been generated to put across the board and solve the problem of poverty? No, my Lords, we have to look again at the system of society in which we are living. When somebody makes the argument, as it was made to-day, that it would be inflationary to take any other action and find £30 million, I would answer, as my noble friend was saying at the Dispatch Box ten minutes ago, that it was easy enough to find £330 million to take the "marvellous, jolly tanner" off income tax. There is not a man in Britain who would not be prepared to leave that sixpence there if we were really solving the problem of our environment and of poverty inside our society to-day. I do not want to quote how much that sixpence will mean to some of your Lordships in pocket money each week, but it would buy more double whiskies than Tommy Lipton has tea leaves for some people. For others it is not worth having. That money could well have been applied to the social uplift of our people by bringing in a real measure that would have been worthy of the true philosophy of the Party on the other side of this noble House, as written in the famous book of the Cecil family that I read over forty years ago, when they said that the call of Conservatism was to have a belief in Christianity. It is not that type of approach. Having said that, I hope that I have not been too strident, or too cacophonic for this House. But surely this Bill is a mouse that is getting the attention of a double elephant.