§ 3.3 p.m.
§ BARONESS SEEAR rose to call attention to the problems of low-income groups in the United Kingdom and the effect on them of the economic condition of the country; and to move for Papers. The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my 688 name. I take full responsibility for the wording of the Motion, and I do not like it. Perhaps especially in your Lordships' House, we should be aware, in discussing this matter, that we are not talking about groups, or classes, or types, or cohorts, or any of the other terms so beloved of my scientific colleagues in another institution: we are talking about men, women and children who lack the means of an ordinary decent life, interpreting an ordinary decent life "in very modest terms.
§ This is a vast subject, my Lords. For the purposes of examination and discussion I should like to divide it into two main groups: the problems of low incomes among people who are either in employment or unemployed but seeking to get into employment, on the one hand; and, on the other, the problems of the large number of people of varying kinds with very small incomes who are not in the labour market or seeking to get into it. It is not only a vast problem, it is also an immensely complex and difficult problem. Only a very naïve person would imagine that there is a simple solution; or that many suggestions could be made which can profoundly alter the position in a short period of time. What I am attempting to do this afternoon is not to propose revolutionary changes, but to consider particular changes or adjustments which could be made in a short period of time and which might make a practical difference to the circumstances of a certain limited number of people in very great need. If, at the end of the day, it is possible to say that even a dozen people are better placed as a result of it, your Lordships' time this afternoon will have been very well spent.
§ Let us consider first the people in the labour market, in employment but very low paid. This problem of the low-paid workers has always been with us. At any given time it is a fact that those on the lowest level of employed paid persons are getting little, if any, more than half the average national earnings in the country as a whole. This leaves many men and their families at a standard below that which would be the accepted standard for social security. How then can we tackle this problem of the low paid? I believe. as the Liberal Party is on record as believing, that sooner or 689 later we shall need to have, not a national minimum wage, which creates perhaps as many problems as it solves, but a guaranteed minimum earning figure, an altogether less inflationary concept, and an earning figure which I believe would be best calculated on a regional basis.
§ I hope that before long we shall explore in detail the possibility of developing a system of this kind. I do not imagine that we are going to do this through the months of the winter. We have, however, an instrument which we could use to make some impact on this problem here and now; the instrument is already in being. Many of us believe that the time is coming, if it has not already arrived, when we should not continue with the system of wages councils which, in one form or another, has existed in this country since 1909. The wages councils that we have at the present time, and their decisions, affect the pay of about 4 mil-lien people in the low-paid groups. Their decisions are diverse and follow no clear-cut policy. Is it too much to suggest that, as the winter deepens and before the situation of the low paid becomes too acute, the Government should have consultations with the chairmen of the wages councils and suggest to them that, whatever the attitude of the Government may be about norms for pay increases above this level, for the lower paid it is desirable and acceptable that a higher level should be introduced by the action of the wages councils?
§ I realise, of course, that there are difficulties about doing this. It can be done only in consultation and agreements with the trade unions. If the trade unions insist, in all negotiations, that a rise given at the lowest level sets the pattern for all subsequent increases, at whatever level the existing earners are now drawing their money, this suggestion is inflationary. But, my Lords—and I say this particularly to noble Lords on the Opposition side of the House—the tradition of the trade union movement in caring for those most in need must surely lead them to believe that it is not always necessary to insist that differentials must be rigidly maintained; and that they could surely give their support to the idea that in respect of people covered by wages councils it is reasonable to deal with those apart and not to use the 690 system of differentials as a reason for subsequent claims based on the same scale. Of course, my Lords, we know that many of the most badly paid, for whom the problem is most serious, are men with families; and for these the Government have produced the family income supplement. About this there has been a great deal of discussion. All I would say is that we know it is not being taken up by a number of people who are entitled to claim it. May we ask that there will be even more intensive propaganda to get over to the people who need them and who are entitled to them, that the supplements are there for the asking?
§ While on the subject of the family income supplement I should like to address myself not to Her Majesty's Government but to the various Members of your Lordships' House of different Christian communities. I think that it is a shame to find among the people who are taking up the family income supplement a noticeable number of ministers of religion. May I suggest that all those in any way connected with the Churches should go back to their congregations and find out whether in fact their Churches are (I will not mince my words) so negligent of their Christian responsibilities that they are prepared to leave their ministers in a situation in which it is necessary for them to take the family income supplement. Poverty may be a virtue, my Lords, but it is not a virtue we should encourage in other people.
§ Not only are the low paid in employment a serious problem at the present time. There is another special aspect of those in employment to which I wish to draw your Lordships' attention. In many parts of the country people who are still in employment are working on short time, and it has been the custom where short-time working is going on for that to be arranged in such a way that it is possible for people to work for perhaps four days a week and draw flat-rate unemployment benefit from the National Insurance. Section 3(1) of the National Insurance Act 1966 lays down that this can be paid only after six days of unemployment, and this waiting period must occur on each occasion before the benefit can be drawn. Obviously this is intended to encourage people to leave industries in which there is no future for 691 them and go into industries which are expanding and to which movement is in their own and in the country's interests. In general terms, there is much to be said for this.
§ This particular section in the Act has not yet been in operation, but I understand that the Government intend to make it operative from January 1, 1972. I suggest that this is a singularly unsuitable moment to be bringing this section into operation. I ask the Government once again—I say "once again", because I know that they have been approached on this matter from a number of quarters—to consider whether they could defer bringing this section into operation in those parts of the country where the unemployment rate is above average. There is little point in encouraging people to move in areas of the country in which there is no other industry into which it is possible for them to move.
§ I should not like to forget one category, the most low paid of all—that of women in employment: women whose skills, despite the ultimate prospect, perhaps, of equal pay, are earning them on the average about 60 per cent. of the male average earnings. I know that the Equal Pay Act has been passed and that by the end of 1975 it should be in force; but I also know that progress towards that end is not very swift. As your Lordships will remember, under Section 3(3) of the Act the Secretary of State has powers to bring forward the date on which collective agreements must contain only one base rate, the same for men and for women, if he is not satisfied that progress towards equal pay is advancing sufficiently fast. In order that something may be done about the many very badly paid women in this country, I suggest that the Secretary of State should say as soon as possible, certainly early in 1972, what degree of progress he will regard as essential, if he is not to bring that date forward, when he has powers to do so, in 1973. Would it be too much to say that by the end of 1972 in all collective agreements the women's rate must be at least 90 per cent. of the men's pay rate? In many cases progress towards this point is very nearly reached, but there are many cases in which it is lagging very much behind. I would 692 remind your Lordships that women in employment are by no means all second breadwinners. Single women do still exist—although we are a dying race. Some of these single women are looking after not only themselves but also dependants who, if those women did not look after them, would be a considerable charge upon the public authorities. Bringing this date forward would do a great deal for the worst-paid women, who are trailing far behind the low rates paid to men in many industries.
§ So much for those who are in employment, who are in the labour market. How about the unemployed, seeking to get back but unable to do so? I do not intend to embark on a long discussion of that problem, which has been discussed before and will be discussed again. I wish to make only one point, which I have made already in a previous speech and which, I warn your Lordships, I shall make again. Now is the time to embark on training some of the unemployed, whom we shall need very badly when reflation starts again. It must be possible for the Government to tell what workers will be in short supply once the economy is looking up, and to begin here and now on an ambitious scheme of training so that these people are ready when the opportunities come along.
§ On this subject I should like to make two points. The first is that we need not have extensive and expensive new Government training schemes or expensive expansions of existing Government training centres. Why cannot we do what is done, for example, in Sweden and have the public authorities who desire to get a group of people trained in a new skill go along to a corporation, public or private, which is running its own training programme, and buy training places on those courses? There are plenty of training departments up and down the country which at the present time are slack because they are not taking on new people. They have the premises, the equipment and the instructors, and all the public authorities need to do—and this can be done almost at the drop of a hat because all the facilities are there—is to ask for places on the courses and pay the cost of the training that will be undertaken. In Sweden, two or three years ago, in Stockholm alone the National Labour Market Board was buying up 693 training places in 172 different establishments. It would be quick and economic, it would get a move on the training of people we are going to need, and it would make some contribution to relieving the problem of some of the unemployed.
§ But if we are going to do this, we must look at retraining in a totally different light. We want the unemployed to regard retraining as an opportunity and not as the last resort. Why could we not move in the direction of the scheme that the European Coal and Steel Community adopted a number of years ago, in which they were prepared to support the pay of men in retraining by between 80 to 100 per cent. of their previous earnings and continue to make up the difference for two years after the training programme? That puts the training on a completely different plane, and presents it as the opportunity that it should be.
I turn now from people in the labour market to the many groups outside who are not seeking to get work but who are suffering grievously from rising prices, and increasingly suffering as winter descends. In particular there are the old, still, by far, the category of people in this country who are suffering most from poverty. It is here, and with regard to them, that we can recognise across 600 years the poorer man of Langland's day:
going breadless to supper, and in winter it is yet worse for wet-shod wanderers, frozen and famished.
§ That is not a very exaggerated description of the old in these days of hypothermia. This subject was debated at great length in another place only last week. I would only add my plea to the Government that at least they will consider doubling, or if they cannot double substantially increasing, the long-term assistance paid from social security to people who have nothing but their pension payment and have to live on that alone. If we are wanting to increase purchasing power in this country—and we are—then surely this is a way in which we can be certain that extra money will be spent, and will be spent by those whose needs are greatest.
§ But not only must we consider the problems of the old. There are in our community, and always will be, whatever we strive to do, people who, for one reason or another, are handicapped, un 694 able to compete or unable to cope with society as it is to-day. There are, first, the registered disabled persons, who appear on the register of the Department of Employment. When times are bad, as they are to-day, it is the people at the bottom of the pile who always find it hardest to cope with the problem that gets tougher. There is no doubt that the disabled are to-day feeling the pinch of rising unemployment. In the twelve months between August, 1970, and August of this year the numbers of the registered disabled unemployed rose from, in round figures, 72,000 to 621,000.* That is a very substantial increase indeed. And in the areas where unemployment is highest, the rise, as one would expect, is greatest. Along with this we have the fact that there are a substantial number of employers who are still not fulfilling their obligations under the 1944 Disabled Persons Act to employ 3 per cent. of registered disabled people. I think the time has come when the Department of Employment should put the screw on those employers to see that they reach their statutory obligation. I know that the Department of Employment, quite rightly, have dealt by persuasion, rather than by force; but as the figures of the registered disabled out of work rise, surely it is time to take a rather tougher line, if persuasion fails, with these employers who are not fulfilling their statutory obligation.
§ Finally, I would consider the people—inadequate if you like, for whatever reason—who simply are unable to keep going in society as it is to-day: the mentally ill, the alcoholics, the drop-outs of one kind and another. I think it was in 1968 that we had the high-sounding idea of introducing community care and getting people out of institutions. I am all for getting people out of institutions, but I thought at the time, and I still think, that we thought too little about what community care really involved: the cost that was going to be involved to the community and the degree of care that was going to be required from individuals. The fact of the matter is that community care was largely a fine phrase, and as we moved people out of the institutions we did not match the change with the wherewithal to make community care a reality. What is the result at the present time?
§ * See correction in col. 740.695
§ The result is that those voluntary institutions which are striving to cope with the problem, which rises as the economic situation gets worse, are almost overwhelmed in their attempts to deal with people who simply cannot cope with life as it is to-day: such organisations as the Salvation Army, whose hostels are full of men who drift into them, whom we encourage not to be in institutions but to leave them, but whom society has not reabsorbed, or to whom we have not given the community care of which we talk.
§ I suggest that the time has come when we should investigate the reality of community care—I know that this is a longterm suggestion—not with the intention of getting people back into institutions but with the intention of making this something which really works. We should no longer be content to leave it to voluntary associations, who have great difficulty in coping with the size of the problem as it is now becoming. Perhaps, too, there are ways in which in the short run we can give some additional assistance to those voluntary organisations which are shouldering the burdens for us.
§ I have attempted merely to bring forward a few practical suggestions to deal with some of the larger problems and some of the most important groups of people with small incomes. I have not considered the longer term, the wider questions which arise when we are considering this matter. I should like for a moment, before I sit down, to stand back and look at some of these more long-term issues. I believe that we have lost our way in our attempts to deal with the question of poverty. I believe, for one thing, that it has been a great mistake to make the issue of selectivity or universality a matter of principle. I believe that we should tackle these problems with common sense: that selectivity is often not right, and universality is not always applicable. Certainly it cannot be right that the application of the principle of selectivity, which has been so dear to Governments past, should have led to this mushroom growth of means tests of one kind and another, ridiculous in themselves, bureaucratic, time-consuming and expensive, but, above all, a system of selectivity which is positively discouraging people from earning. It seems to me extra 696 ordinary that a Government who believe in encouraging independence—and I am not going to make cheap remarks about "standing on your own feet"—encouraging people to work and to provide for themselves, should be building in disincentives in the form of means tests as they stand to-day.
§ There cannot be many Members of your Lordships' House who do not know of cases—I certainly do—where it simply does not pay a man to do the work and earn the money that he capable of doing and of earning. We still consider the size of the cake and its distribution. What sense can there be in a system of selectivity, means test and taxation combined, which possibly keeps people from doing work to maintain themselves? Surely, in saying this, I am appealing to the deepest instincts of the Conservative Party. Equally, I do not believe that universality is always right. I think there are many things which would assist, and that in many cases people should pay for them if they are capable of doing so. Can we not forget this ridiculous argument between these two so-called principles and look at the problem of poverty anew?
§ I believe that over the last two decades we have been greatly confused in tackling the problem—confused in part because we have confused the problems of equality and poverty. I am not saying that either of them is unimportant, but I am saying they are not the same. I believe that in this matter to-day we arc reaching the situation in which it ought to be possible even to abolish poverty. I know it is difficult to define it. I do not accept the ridiculous definition given to me once in another institution that in a society in which some people have a Jaguar it is poverty to have an Austin Seven. That seems to me to be quite absurd, and that is what I mean by confusing the problems of equality and poverty. It is within our means, rich as we are despite our economic troubles at the moment, to get rid of poverty. But we must look afresh at the problem and get rid of the shibboleths of the past two decades. We can do it if we try; and then it will be possible to say, after 2,000 years, that the poor we no longer have with us. I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.31 p.m.
§ BARONESS PHILLIPS
My Lords, I am sure we are all deeply grateful to 697 the noble Baroness, who has introduced this Motion in, if I may say so, such a masterly fashion. I am very proud to be a woman when I have the pleasure of listening to somebody like the noble Baroness. She has relieved me of making a number of points which I had already prepared, since she has already dealt with them so adequately. I have of course been an admirer of the noble Baroness for many years. I have listened to her in conferences, have used her writings and quoted from them, and still do—always, I may say, acknowledging the source.
It is nearly two years since we in this House had our last debate on poverty, which was then introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. I re-read it, because on that occasion I had to reply for the Government. I noted the remarks and the requests that were made by the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, and the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, on behalf of the Opposition, and I am still checking to see whether the requests which they made to the Government of that time have been granted by the Government of this time, in which they have a much more powerful hand. I am able to tell the Minister that I shall not subject him to such a list of questions on this occasion as that to which I was subjected on the earlier occasion. No doubt my beneficence will not extend to another debate.
The low-income groups have to be defined. I take the point made by the noble Baroness, that we too easily slip into the phraseology of different categories; but one definition of poverty which has been given was in relation to Supplementary Benefits Commission rates: the minimum guaranteed to the retired, the sick, the handicapped or the unemployed. That at least is one definition that we can take; and within that it is not very difficult to identify the low-income groups. One of these is the elderly, of whom the noble Baroness has spoken so eloquently, and I should like to underline all her remarks. When we had our debate on retirement pensions I begged of Her Majesty's Government that there should be an annual review of pensions. I would again repeat this plea. We have long passed the period when we can deal with anything on a two-yearly structure. I find it quite extra 698 ordinary that the whole of the pension book has to be collected and reprinted in order to give an old lady a few more pounds. Surely in this day and age of science we could find a quicker way of giving people money. If I may reiterate once again, I would point out that when British Railways want to increase fares they have no difficulty in doing this overnight. I cannot see why, if we are going to give extra money, we cannot be a little more rapid about it.
We have the one-parent families, the single women, the handicapped and the sick; but perhaps we do not always entirely appreciate that there are thousands of people in full-time work who will still remain in this low-income group bracket. I have to-day received from the Department of Employment the latest figures of the distribution of full-time earnings for adults, and it is interesting to see that 10 per cent. of the total still earn less than £19 per week. In this bracket—and this bears out what the noble Baroness has said—women earn 10 per week. Of course, I would heartily endorse all that she said about the need for speed in this direction. So, my Lords, if we are talking of no larger proportion of the population than 10 per cent., we are still talking about a very large number of people, men and women.
When the National Board for Prices and Incomes discussed the general problems of low pay they made this very splendid statement:Although poverty must be regarded as a relative concept it is more than a concept for those who experience it. Inquiries into the circumstances of some 50 families carried out as part of an official study…show what is entailed for families whose net income is less than the supplementary benefits level. Out of the families studied, about one-third said that they could manage on their income, two-thirds thought either that they could manage but only just 'or with a struggle'.They also said that they could not have managed if the mother had not been a very good housekeeper and if the husband had not kept his own expenditure to a minimum. The family could manage without actually getting into debt or squalor only by supreme exercise of self-discipline. Half the families had arrears of rent, and two in five of them had other debts. Fuel bills caused them worry. Most of them used clothing clubs: otherwise they would have been unable to buy 699 clothes, shoes or bedding. Food was adequate but lacked variety.
The Board's statement continued—and this is the appalling point:All in all the impression derived was not so much one of grinding poverty in any absolute sense as of one of unrelieved dreariness with, in some cases, little hope of improvement in the future.If people are in that group they are obviously much more likely to fall into debt. Thackeray said many years ago that, "It is easy to be moral on £2,000 a year"—and when Thackeray quoted £2,000 a year it was a very different proposition from what it is today—while a more recently quoted commentator has said that, "There are two certain ways to find oneself in court: one is to be a motorist and the other is to be poor."
I have been studying the Report of the noble Lord, Lord Crowther, on Consumer Credit and there we discover the fact, which of course we knew all the time, that the further down the scale you are the more it costs to get credit. Those of us who are fortunate enough to keep our bank accounts at a certain level will never know what it is to have to go to a moneylender and borrow money that has to be repaid at a very high rate of interest. In his Report, Lord Crowther also makes a comment which is very relevant to the question we are discussing to-day when he says:In general, low-income consumers are more likely to default than any other income groups because they have such a little scope for dealing with unforeseen changes in their financial circumstances. Consequently, the more people living in poverty the greater the problem of default.Then, answering the question of how far poverty is still a social problem in this country, he says:We must remember that poverty is a relative concept and that people are regarded and regard themselves as poor when their income, even if it is adequate for survival, falls markedly below that of the rest of the community.My Lords, there is little doubt that many of the people we are talking about this afternoon have incomes which are only just about adequate for survival. As a result, they fall into debt, and rent may be—in fact it is most likely to be—the first casualty, because other creditors are more vociferous in demanding their money. The next step is eviction, and the third step is that they become 700 homeless. Many years ago, Wordsworth wrote:And homeless near a thousand homes I stood,And near a thousand tables pined and wanted food.Some of us live in London, the capital city of a country which is rich and powerful. It is short of 150,000 to 200,000 homes. Nearly 6,000 people were admitted to temporary housing accommodation last year in England and Wales. Who are these people? Before we write them off as the people who get into debt because they are drunken or profligate let us look at the facts, for these people are the group we are talking about. They are the people who get into rent arrears (the highest percentage); who suffer mortgage breakdowns; or marriage breakdowns (those of us who sit in the domestic court can understand that), and in the process of becoming homeless these families have tried every other means before they ultimately come into the care of the local authority. They have tried to share with relatives and friends, and they seek the services of the welfare authorities only when they have spent every other opportunity to find an alternative.
Not far away from this House there is a block of flats which was built in 1890. There is a sink, with cold water, between every two flats. The flats have no bathrooms. This block is being used for temporary housing accommodation. I will refer to one family who are there: a young man, his wife and one child. The reason they are there is that they were told to leave their furnished accommodation when the child was expected. Your Lordships may say, "Why could they not find something to rent?" Possibly they could; I see advertisements for flats in Chelsea. I see advertisements for houses for sale—at £30,000 for a three-bedroomed house. But whatever one is buying, it is necessary to raise a certain amount of money for the initial deposit. This young couple could not do that. The young man is earning a wage—a low one—and he does not want to remain in that block. How is he to get out? Not far from my office in Bedford Square is that obscene monster known as Centre Point. This has been my bile noire ever since they started building it. It has stood empty for over five years. I understand that it is occupied by 20 dogs and 701 two men—surely the most expensive dog kennel in the whole of Europe.
What is wrong with us that we permit buildings of this kind to stand empty in the capital city while young people are forced to live in sub-standard accommodation because we do not build enough houses? Why is progress so slow? I ask Her Majesty's Government this because I know that the Minister is somebody who cares deeply. This is a blot on the capital city. I will not attempt to refer to other cities, though I am equally sure that the same would be true. There is another curious phenomenon that has arisen in connection with the low-income groups; namely, that the burden of taxes paid by the poor is heavier than the burden of taxes paid by any other section in the community. If you are on supplementary benefit your payments are tax-free, and they carry with them other provisions: rebates for rents, rates, free school meals and milk, and possibly free payment of prescription charges. This is right, and no one would question this. But there are others who are living on roughly the same income levels and they are liable for National Insurance contributions, graduated pension scheme contributions, and possibly taxation.
Their costs of travelling to work, if they travel by public transport, are the same whether they earn £20 a week or £20,000 a year. There is no special rate except perhaps for retirement pensioners. Their rent, rates and mortgages all cost the same in the kind of market in which they have to deal. There is another curious anomaly—and I hesitate to use the word "anomaly"—in the assistance which this group can obtain. I feel sure that the Minister will tell us about the family income supplement. If a person is in a low-income group the income limits for assistance vary. The rent-rebate schemes are so different that there are as many different ones as different authorities. If you are unlucky enough to live in an authority that does not have a good scheme then you do not have much opportunity of getting a rebate.
Then, all the means tests have different income levels. I will not go through all of them, but will take the rate rebate. "Income" means the whole of a person's gross earnings and family allowances, 702 whereas in a rent scheme family allowances are generally not included. I will take as an example of some of the others: the health and welfare means test, prescription charges and so on. The limits here are what are known as real resources, with the family allowances included, but deductions are made for tax, national insurance, housing and travel. Your Lordships can see why people get into trouble when they go to claim some of these benefits. They claim too much and then are accused almost as if they were criminals. The present system of means tests is a confused and utterly illogical patchwork with different income limits, different definitions of "income", different variations according to family size, different rates of graduation and covering different ranges of income.
Let us take the case which the noble Baroness dealt with, of the man who would lose if he earned more. This is a useful example. Here is somebody who would probably be receiving the family income supplement, a council tenant with three children. He would be earning £19 a week. If his income increased by £1 he would suffer the following deductions: his tax would be more; he would have less of a rent rebate or rate rebate, and his National Insurance contribution would increase. At the end of the day he would be 30p worse off because he had increased his wages. That is what is known, I believe, as an "Irishman's rise"—and I have had several of those in my lifetime. I know that the Minister will tell us that the family income supplement was introduced to help the lower-paid worker, but if the average wage-earner earning just a little above that level is faced by the full force of policies which bring down his average wage, it means that we are creating more and more poor. The gap between the very rich and the poor is widening. This is something about which we, as Christians, cannot be complacent.
My Lords, if you will bear with me I will introduce something which is irrelevant, though I hope related. I was touched by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton, when, in the debate on the National Health Services she spoke about the ingredient which must never be neglected, "T.L.C."—tender, loving care. This seems to me to link very much with an article that I read in a 703 newspaper last Sunday, headed: "When security grows as cold as charity." In this the writer said:Perhaps just doling out money is corrupting. Readers who have never had to sign on or fill in a supplementary benefit form may have experienced a similar chill disapproval from a bank manager sitting in his refurbished office while they were in the red in a credit squeeze.I watch retirement pensioners in the big post office that I go to to buy my stamps collecting their pensions each week. Nobody is actually rude to them; but neither is anybody particularly kind or welcoming. If I cross the road and go to my bank, where I am doing exactly the same thing, drawing out money, I am received with courtesy, kindness and friendliness. In a world in which everybody needs some kind of love and attention, "T.L.C." must never be allowed to be in short supply—and this is equaly true of our Government and our local government services.
§ 3.50 p.m.
§ THE MINISTER OF STATE, DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND SOCIAL SECURITY (LORD ABERDARE)
My Lords, I find it very daunting to have to speak after the very able speeches of the two noble Baronesses who have opened this debate. I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, for giving us an opportunity to discuss this immensely important subject. I would say to her with great respect how much I know the House has admired not only the way she delivered her speech but also the very constructive suggestions she made in it. I was relieved to hear her say that she recognised the wide scope of the subject and the fact that there was no simple solution, but I should like to say to her in reply that I will certainly ensure that the suggestions she made are given the closest consideration.
The noble Baroness expressed deep concern, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, for those living on low incomes whose living standards are hit hardest when prices rise and who are least able to protect themselves against the consequences of changes in the economic conditions of the country. We share the concern she has expressed for those who are living on low incomes. We fully appreciate the anxiety and hardship which inflation inevitably causes them, and the 704 measures we have already taken during our period of office indicate clearly our determination to take effective action. There are two main ways in which low-income groups can be protected. The first, and in my view by far the more important, is through the achievement of a healthy economy. The second is through appropriate increases in social security and other social benefits. Undoubtedly, the best solution is a healthy economy, free from inflation and with adequate employment opportunities for all. The economic policies of Her Majesty's Government are all directed towards the achievement of these objectives, and over the coming year the outlook is for rapid growth with improved prospects for employment and an increase in real disposable incomes. But it will take time for the reflationary measures fully to work through to activity and employment. We are determined to bring help to those on low incomes, not only in times of good economic growth but also in difficult times.
Although for some purposes it is convenient to talk in broad terms about the problem of low-income groups, there is a danger that this may lead to over-simplification. Neither the groups nor their problems are homogeneous: those on low incomes include the old, the physically handicapped, the mentally handicapped, the sick, one-parent families, and people with particularly heavy family responsibilities or housing costs. Measures to help one category may not be appropriate for others. Moreover, some people are particularly capable managers and may through their own skill achieve a higher standard of living than others on similar incomes. By contrast, there are, unfortunately, a minority who find it hard to cope and whose lives are difficult, however much financial help they receive. Such people we hope will benefit from the recent reorganisation and improvements which have taken place in the social services and it would be wrong to leave these services out of account when considering the problem of poverty.
I should like briefly to remind your Lordships of what the Government have already done to help people on low incomes. I do not intend to go into any detail because your Lordships are already familiar with the legislation that has passed through this House. We have 705 raised the rate of pension for a single person by 20 per cent., from £5 to £6 a week, and for a married couple from £8.10p to £9.70p. In addition, for the first time ever, we have provided for the special needs of the very elderly by an age addition of 25p for every person over 80. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State pointed out last week in another place:The last uprating represented the first occasion on which any Government increased benefits substantially without raising contributions for low wage earners."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, 30/11/71; col. 267.]We provided 20 per cent. more in benefit with no increased contribution from the low paid.
The noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, pleaded once again for an annual up-rating. As she is aware, both the last Government and we ourselves have been thinking in terms of an uprating every two years. We shall continue to watch the situation, but there are benefits if we can keep our uprating to two-yearly intervals, although as she appreciates supplementary benefit is considered, or has been recently considered, on an annual basis. We have also increased the rates of supplementary pensions at the same time as those of the ordinary retirement pensions, and for the over-80s we added also the special addition to supplementary benefit.
We accept the value of some universal benefits. May I say to the noble Baroness that we do not believe in selectivity as an end in itself. But we hold the view that the additional expenditure in cash and services that we can find at present should be concentrated selectively on those in greatest need, and it would be at the present moment wasteful to provide benefits and subsidies for people who do not need them. We are guided, if I may say again to her, by common sense; and it was common sense which in fact influenced us to introduce the family income supplement rather than increase family benefits. It was when we had the benefit of looking at what we could do by one means or the other that we came down at that time in favour of the family income supplement. But although entitlement to some selective benefits is assessed on a test of income, we have 706 also provided additional help without means testing for certain categories of people. I have mentioned the over 80s. We have also improved pensions for younger widows, introduced a new range of invalidity benefits for the long-term sick, and brought in an attendance allowance for the very severely disabled.
For the first time we have taken special steps to give effective help to low paid workers with children who are living below supplementary benefit level, even though the breadwinner is in full-time work. Payments under the family income supplement scheme have been made since August this year. This is a new form of family support which concentrates help where need is greatest and, unlike family allowances, benefits the family with only one child. If I may quote my right honourable friend once again, he said recently:Obviously if it fails to reach the majority of those entitled to it the Government will have to find better methods of helping those people. I doubt whether it will mean withdrawing the scheme but it may mean refining it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, 3/8/71, col. 1313.]At the present moment over 60,000 families with low earnings are drawing a family income supplement and average payments are about £1.70p a week. About one-third of these are single-parent families for whom the scheme is particularly favourable, and the average weekly payment to these families is well over £2. At the last count an additional 25,000 families were getting increased supplementary benefit because of the effect of family income supplement on the wage-stop. The present rate of expenditure on family incomes supplement and additional supplementary benefit, if maintained for a full year, would amount to over £6 million, or more than three-quarters of the original estimate, and I would assure the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, that we shall certainly continue with our efforts to ensure that all those who are eligible for this benefit should apply for it.
But this is not the only way in which we have shown our concern for families with low incomes. Twice this year we have raised the exemption limits for health and welfare charges, and these increases have more than compensated for the rising cost of living. These have 707 covered school meals, welfare milk, prescription and other National Health Service charges, and more people than ever are now benefiting from these remissions. The campaign that we mounted has been very successful in increasing the take-up of these benefits, and by October welfare milk, for example, was being issued free to 150,000 low-income families (apart from families receiving supplementary benefit) which compares with 2,000 families before April.
We are also tackling the problem of high housing costs for poor families. The proposals contained in the new Housing Finance Bill for a national system of rent rebates and rent allowances and a major overhaul of the whole system of housing subsidies represent the biggest reform of housing finance for more than half a century. We are concerned that only a small fraction—about one-eighth—of the rapidly mounting cost of housing subsidies is giving help with the rent to tenants in need. The remainder is being used to reduce rent levels for all council tenants regardless of their ability to pay. The proposed system will mean for the first time that help towards rent will be available nationally on a common and realistic basis, redirecting subsidies to the tenants of unfurnished accommodation who most need them. The noble Baroness was somewhat critical of the different rates of rent rebate which exist at the present moment. This will be rectified in the Bill, and I am sure that we can count on her support when we discuss it.
The wider application of the fair rent principle and a national system of rent rebates and allowances form part of our basic policy to promote personal responsibility where help from the State is unnecessary, and to provide real help to those who, through no fault of their own, are unable to maintain a reasonable standard of living. Our concern is not confined to the provision of improved benefits or subsidies. We are also determined to improve standards of care. As I told the House on November 22, we have decided to allocate a further £118 million to speed progress in some of the most vulnerable sectors of the health and personal social services over the next four years. Taking into account the extra allocation which we made last year, this Government have now made available 708 additional resources totalling about £250 million at present prices, particularly to help the elderly, the mentally ill and the handicapped. Those three categories were particularly mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, and the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, who have already spoken.
Those who oppose selectivity in social benefits often urge upon us that family allowances should be increased, and that the increases should be recovered from those families which pay tax by means of the claw-back system introduced in 1968. Unfortunately, there are several problems involved in this. First, it does not help one-child families; secondly, it means a transfer of resources from the pockets of the husbands to the wives, which might perhaps appeal to the noble Baroness opposite; thirdly, if the increases were substantial, the situation would be reached where the larger a man's family the lower the wage level would be at which he would start to pay tax; and fourthly, the Government would be paying out large sums of money simply to recover them again through the tax system. It sounds simple, but there are indeed massive problems.
Another attractive idea which we have by no means finally dismissed is negative income tax, but the schemes that we have so far examined present formidable practical difficulties. It is also tempting to think in terms of a national minimum wage, but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, acknowledged, there are many problems in this, too. But I took note of the point she made about the wages councils and I will see that it is considered.
Low pay is a cause of poverty, though not the only one. But any attempt to cure poverty by wage adjustments is imprecise and non-selective, since wages are related to work done and not to the family commitments of the worker. Moreover, there is no absolute level of low pay. Low pay must be a relative concept—the pay of those at the bottom of the earnings league table compared with that of higher paid workers. This year the National Board for Prices and Incomes produced a Report on the General Problems of Low Pay which indicates from experience in this and in other countries that it is extremely difficult to improve the levels of low pay in 709 relation to the pay of other workers. Indeed, their investigations show that the relative position of low-paid workers has remained fairly constant for nearly a century. Even when special efforts have been made to improve the relative position of the low paid, as was done under the Labour Government's incomes policies, nothing has been achieved in practice. On the other hand, the Report showed that the relative incomes position of the low paid has improved significantly since 1938 through tax and social security arrangements, and economic growth has enabled the living standards of the low paid to rise considerably. It is therefore through the tax and social security system and, above all, through economic growth that we must look for the most effective way of improving the relative position of the low paid.
The reason for the failure of attempts to improve their relative position appears to have been that higher paid workers were not prepared to see a narrowing of pay differentials and a consequent deterioration of their relative position. Above average percentage increases in pay for the low paid have tended to be followed by identical settlements in percentage terms for the high paid. Such a leap-frogging process is inflationary and leads to no improvement in the position of the low paid; indeed it can worsen their position, for they are hard hit particularly by rising prices. It is therefore very much in the interest of the low paid that we should continue to make progress in curbing the wage/cost inflation from which the nation has been suffering since 1969.
My Lords, I have been speaking of the past and the present. What about the future? First, we have recently published a White Paper, Strategy for Pensions, in which we set out our proposals for future pension policy. Our objective is to provide everyone with the opportunity of an earnings-related pension through the growth and expansion of occupational schemes—with a State reserve scheme for those without such cover. Secondly, we are engaged in a thorough-going review of family poverty and we are continuing to study the problems of poor families to ensure a sound basis for the further development of our policies, and I believe that this debate will be a useful contribution to that review. Thirdly, 710 the committee set up under the chairmanship of Mr. Morris Finer to consider one-parent families is hoping to report towards the end of next year, and when the report is received we shall give immediate and careful consideration to its recommendations.
The noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, mentioned the problems of the homeless. As a result of the Greve Report, on the homeless in London, my right honourable friend set up a Working Party, and as the noble Baroness will know their first Report, which dealt with families with children, was published on May 27, 1971. The Government and the London Boroughs Association endorsed the recommendations, and the London Boroughs Association have asked their members to report back on what action they propose to take. Later reports from the Working Party will deal with adult couples and single persons, the revision of records and statistical returns, and the need and scope for further research. The position outside London is being considered by another Working Party, also set up by my right honourable friend, to study, in the first instance, the Glastonbury Report on Homeless in Wales and the South-West. Neither the problem nor the definition is necessarily the same outside London as it is inside, and we shall need to await the Working Party's recommendations.
My Lords, in a debate on such a very wide-ranging subject it is inevitable that I have referred only briefly to the many difficult and in some cases controversial matters involved, but it should be clear from what I have said that the Government are neither ignorant of nor indifferent to the plight of low-income groups, and that we have already taken and will continue to take effective action both to achieve a healthy economy, which we put as our first priority, and to make the best use of available resources to mitigate the effects of poverty.
§ LORD GARNSWORTHY
My Lords, I did not want to interrupt the noble Lord in full flood, but he referred to the increased number of persons receiving free benefits such as school meals. Can he tell the House to what extent these increased numbers are due to the increased incidence of unemployment? I think that would be very helpful.
§ LORD ABERDARE
My Lords, I do not think even the noble Lord would expect my knowledge to be quite so complete as to give an off the cuff answer to that question, but I shall be speaking towards the end of the debate, if I have the leave of the House, and if I have any information then I will be able to impart it to him.
§ LORD ROBBINS
My Lords, may I put this point to the noble Lord. In the course of his speech he made many observations, which seemed to me very wise and timely, concerning attempts to diminish poverty by operating directly on rates of pay. But when he spoke of proposals for a negative income tax he dismissed those in a single sentence. I do not know what to think about a negative income tax, but I think it would be very interesting indeed if Her Majesty's Government could see fit to issue a Green Paper or something of that sort, something completely tentative, in which the arguments for and against are set out in an orderly way so that reasonable people can give more attention to them.
§ LORD ABERDARE
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Robbins. I am sorry if I dismissed this subject rather quickly because there is so much that I could have said, and I think it is something that all of us are interested in; but as there are so many different forms of negative income tax the difficulties are formidable. But I will certainly see that the suggestion of a Green Paper to be published at some point is considered; it is a useful suggestion.
§ 4.14 p.m.
§ LORD BURGH
My Lords, I wish very briefly to share with your Lordships a note of cautious optimism on the subject of this debate. I very much enjoyed the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Seear. I think she has come to grips with many of the key issues in this question. I will follow up one point she made, and say that people now seem of their own accord to be doing something for themselves when they find themselves hard up; in other words, when for some reason they become members of a low-income group they start to do something about it. Purely by applying simple arithmetic, if you find it is hard to make ends meet when living by yourself in a bed-sitter, you put two 712 and two together and with a number of people you can on your current resources do much better. People are getting into this situation, it appears, at quite a rapid rate; they are pooling, as a minimum, things like shelter, accommodation and food; many people are pooling a great deal more. They are finding that this makes life easier financially, and a great deal more rewarding. The question is rather one of finding a way not just of living within their means but of using their means to live in tile best way available to them. So people are pooling themselves together into groups, so far as I know, in all the major centres in the country. Some support themselves by the money they earn, or were earning before they decided to start doing this. They also tend to support themselves by doing craft work, making leather work, jewellery, candles, clothes. Another quite common field of interest, though it cannot bring in very much money, is the general field of education and social service.
What are these groups like? Can one characterise them in a general way? I do not think one can, except that they are consciously or semi-consciously, formally or informally, pooling themselves together, usually to overcome some financial difficulty. Internally the people who are doing this sort of thing are very diverse. They may be doing it from all sorts of reasons. They have all sorts of interests, some very united, some very much more diffuse. They are mobile in the sense that groups seem to form and dissolve. They form and find that things are not going satisfactorily and so they dissolve. In many cases other groups form from the remnants. They tend to be international. A group in, say, England may well contain members from Germany or the United States, and vice versa, and there is no feeling of international barriers in these cases. They are coming together because of some common interest or because it is cheaper to eat well when you eat ten round the table.
This tendency—I do not want to start using the term "movement", because rather than a movement this appears to be a tendency which nobody is pushing or sponsoring—if one starts to think about it throws up a number of interesting implications and ramifications, 713 some of which have already been touched on in this debate. I am thinking particularly about mental health—tender loving care. There are groups in this country who are learning to put themselves into such a position that they could accept in their midst perhaps a couple of harmless "loonies". Violent mentally ill people, no; but harmless people could fit in and could make a great contribution to the group coherence that emerges. It is not only that they would be being helped; they could in a very real way be helping the group they join.
I have touched on the international aspects of this matter. I think these are very real. It is an economical way of life—ten round a table. It is economical, too, not just for the people in the group but for the country as a whole. If ten people share one car a great deal less pollution is caused and resources are used more economically than if those ten each had their own motor bike.
I should like to pursue other implications—for instance, in the field of unemployment extrapolated to automation and leisure. I think these things can also be considered under the same umbrella. In this country I think that this tendency is in its infancy. It seems to have got quite a lot further in the United States; it has certainly taken very solid root in Germany. Experiments such as these are not always successful: groups form, groups dissolve. There are internal reasons for any failures in this field, and these are matters for the people concerned to work out. I think external reasons for failure are much less important. If one feels that these people are doing something worth while, it is not so much a question of helping them in any way. I cannot think of any specific way in which I would ask the Government to help these people. Such ways may emerge. What is more necessary is to be aware that people are doing this; to be aware of the validity of what they are doing, and to be ready in case of need to say, "O.K., we will help you in such and such a way".
The main need at the moment for people who are living in groups (in a sense, developing a new life style which is suitable for their' present circumstances), is independence from undue in 714 terference. If they are proving themselves to be worth while in the community at large, or at least neutral in the community at large, they can be left alone. They also need an atmosphere of approval. It is more a matter of giving encouragement by withholding discouragement; giving encouragement when it is needed, rather than giving a push when none in fact is needed. I feel sure that later specific needs may emerge. Specific uses for people who are starting to live in this way may well emerge in fields such as those I have mentioned, mental health, and so on. At the moment it is a tendency which I feel should be borne in mind, in case at some future time a real need emerges to integrate what these people are doing with what other people in society are doing in the various fields in which they are concerned.
§ LORD RAGLAN
My Lords, could the noble Lord be more explicit? For instance, how old are these people? Are they in good physical health? Do they have children? What other descriptions do they answer to?
§ LORD BURGH
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. I do not know what the statistical breakdown of people who are living in groups would be. I know that the range covers practically the whole of the population. Some are old, but, true, many are young. Some are going into this way of living towards the end of a useful career; some are going into it from a position of a university "dropout. Some have children, and some do not". I suppose the tendency would be for such groups to be composed of those who, for some reason, have not been able to find themselves a satisfactory place in society as it stands now. Those who are unable to cope, for whatever reason, physical or mental, are particularly good candidates for some kind of communal life style.
§ 4.24 p.m.
§ LORD AMULREE
My Lords, I want to confine the few remarks that I propose to make on this Motion to two subjects. One is the problems that are raised by the vagrants and the wanderers, or the "wayfarers", as they were called; and secondly I want to touch on one or two matters concerning the welfare and care of the elderly. May I just go back 715 in history for a short time? Because one of the attributes of the nineteenth century Poor Law—probably the only attribute one can look at with any degree of pleasure or satisfaction—was that it did cover, in some kind of way, everybody in want. For example, there were 600 unions of parishes in England and Wales; each union had a workhouse, and the majority had casual wards which were there for the benefit of tramps, wayfarers, vagrants and other people who wished to go into them.
These casual wards were extremely uncomfortable, harshly run, and most unattractive, because their purpose was solely deterrent. But all I want to say to-day is that there was somewhere that people could go to—always supposing they cared to go there. They got rather simple, uncomfortable accommodation, but they were given a bed, a bath, and I think a meal; and they could stay for two nights before they were discharged. Before they went they had to perform some menial task, such as breaking stones for road-making, for several hours. There was a total lack of discrimination about the people who were catered for, whether they were tramps and vagrants or virtuous wayfarers who were seeking a job. The casual wards were not at all satisfactory and not at all comfortable. Indeed, as we know, many wayfarers would not go into them but preferred to go to the Embankment in London, or to stay in the parks.
In London itself there were, finally, a dozen of these casual wards which had been transferred in 1909 to the Metropolitan Asylums Board, who made them rather more humane and rather more comfortable. When the 1939 war came the population of the casual wards, the number of vagrants, fell enormously because people were engaged in other occupations. By the time 1949 came and the National Health Service Act and the National Assistance Act came into force the casual wards were, quite rightly, closed down.
§ LORD AMULREE
My Lords, that may be so, but they were at one time shut down and finished with. I believe that at the present time, for London it 716 self, there is one large reception centre containing a great many beds—I think round about 1,000—which is somewhere down in the Camberwell part of the world. The number of beds may be correct, but it seems to me that if there is to be somewhere for people to go, it is not enough to have just one large place down in the South-East: what is needed is to have several places to which people can easily go, scattered about the town generally. There are too few of these places available in the country at the present time. I am not quite sure of the total number run by the local authorities, but the Department of Health and Social Security run three.
We read in the papers the other day of the tragedy which befell a Nigerian in a Yorkshire manufacturing town, where I believe there is no reception centre run by the local authority. The nearest reception centre is in a neighbouring town, about 10 or 12 miles away. That may be not very far, but it is quite a long way if you have to wander there when you are sick, hungry, tired and cold. Men like that are forced to take refuge in the crypts of churches. I think there are 50 put up each night on boards in one of the crypts in the town, and there is a dormitory in the Salvation Army hostel which contains one hundred beds; but so full is it, and the beds are so close together, that they are practically touching.
At other hostels where someone could stay for a month, these people were unpopular. They were liable to expulsion if they wetted their beds, if they were verminous or if they were drunk. Quite a number of these people were alcoholics, and it is rather difficult to say whether that was because of their condition or whether their condition was a result of their alcoholism. There were also a large number of drug addicts. But a certain number were people who just could not make it and who had fallen by the wayside. At the present time, they are catered for quite well by a number of organisations, and the noble Lord, Lord Soper, looks after one such place not far from this House.
The National Health Service has now made arrangements for some of its hospitals to take in people suffering from drug addiction, and some provision is being made for the treatment of alcoholism. There are various societies in 717 existence. One, with which I am connected, is called the Cyrenian Society, which has carried out projects similar to those of Shelter, with the aid of the local authorities in a dozen towns. Such societies are run by volunteers and do very good work. I think there may be something to be said for the communities about which the noble Lord, Lord Burgh, was talking. In due course, they might play a part in this work. Perhaps I should know the answer, but I should like to ask the Minister what is the number of reception centres run by local authorities in the country. Secondly, is it possible to increase or redeploy the beds available from Government or local authority sources, so that they would be available to people who needed them? I am assuming that people would be prepared to go into them—because of course one cannot compel them to go in. But one can make beds available and if they were reasonably good and reasonably well administered, I think that many people would in time take advantage of the offer.
Secondly, I should like to raise the question of the elderly. I do not want to go into the matter of pensions which has been raised many times earlier in the debate, although I entirely agree with all the complaints and suggestions that have been made. I should like to deal with two points concerning the elderly. The first is the matter of residential homes for those who require permanent care and attention of a custodial, rather than of a medical, character. The local authorities have never really fully implemented what they were supposed to do under Section 28 of the National Assistance Act. Quite a lot of work has been done, and on more than one occasion I have been told that so many more homes have been opened. My answer has been that, although I have been very glad to hear that more have been opened, there are nowhere near enough and that a great many more will have to be opened.
The absence of these homes creates an enormous and very expensive strain on the hospital service. It also compels a certain number of elderly folk, who need to be in residential homes, to stay in their own homes too long, with subsequent deterioration of their condition. A week or ten days ago we were told 718 that improvements are in sight, and that, I think, is welcomed by everybody. If we could see the vanishing of the old workhouses, and their replacement by more reasonable accommodation, everybody would be very pleased. I can see some advantage in Health being in the charge of a Secretary of State, with a seat in the Cabinet and having a Chancellor of the Exchequer to work with, because for some time there has been a Minister of Health. That would show up some of the problems.
The other kind of housing to which I should like to see far more encouragement given is what I think is called sheltered housing. By that, I mean groups of one-room flats in towns, or perhaps bungalows in the country, with a warden to look after people when required, rather on the lines of the almshouses which did such very good work in the past. There was a time when I think the Ministry of Health, as it then was, did not quite approve of the principle of almshouses. I never quite knew why, but it did not. But I am pleased to see that that principle is now coming back into favour, because we could do a great deal by taking care of elderly folk in sheltered housing. The housing which is built for old people in some towns is often quite unsuitable. I was reading the other day about large estates of houses for old people, built in a rather hilly town in Yorkshire. Because it was hilly, it was obviously rather difficult to build houses on the level all the time and, at one of the big estates for the care of the elderly, people had to climb 13 steps every time they went up to their house. That meant that a large number of them were confined as prisoners in their houses. So one must be very careful to avoid that sort of mistake in the future.
There has been a great deal of talk about the value of the domiciliary services and no one can deny that they are of enormous value. The number of home helps could probably be increased, but it must be realised that it is not only money which makes a home help. A person has to be suitable to be a home help. There are some people who are quite unsuitable and do not want to do the job and, frequently, one cannot find enough volunteers who are suitable. As regards the other excellent services, the 719 Meals-on-Wheels service is of great value. There one has been most appreciative of the work of the Women's Royal Volunteer Reserve, working under the inspired leadership of the late Lady Reading, and of the very good work done by the Red Cross Society. But there, again, they seem to me to be grossly inadequate. It is all very well to be given a hot meal on two or three days of the week, but if you really want a service like that, I think a meal should be delivered on five or six days of the week. I should like to see one delivered on seven days, though that may be going a bit too far.
I have one last word on the domiciliary services, where the sheltered housing schemes could bring about an improvement. What kind of life is it for a lonely housebound person to be by herself, or himself, in one or two rooms, where the only person who comes is the home help who stays for one hour in the morning, and where, for the rest of the time, they are lonely and by themselves with not a great deal of money and with no one to talk to? Would they not be better in a sheltered housing scheme, where they would have friends next door or around the corner? Those are the two points which I wanted to raise. I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lady Seear for having put down this Motion, which has enabled me to raise those two points.
§ 4.39 p.m.
§ BARONESS BROOKE OF YSTRAD-FELLTE
My Lords, the problem of poverty is one that we cannot study too tirelessly or debate too often or seek too positively to remedy. The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, has done us a great service this afternoon in bringing this subject before us in this form. To try to eradicate poverty is one of the great aims of politics. A Parliament is ineffective as a Parliament if it does not contribute something concrete towards the reduction of poverty. Reduction is all we can hope for, because poverty is relative, and therefore, in spite of the pious hopes that we have heard this afternoon, I maintain that it will never be wholly eliminated.
Poverty may be the outcome of varying, different factors. It is evident in those families or individuals who try to live on low incomes. It may be caused by the loss of the family earner by death, 720 desertion or divorce, by illness, accident or unemployment. It may be caused by personal financial pressures brought about by rising prices of rent, rates, food and clothing, high taxation and an inability to earn one's living adequately because these personal difficulties have come too late in life to enable the victim to train to earn. Those whom we think of in this country to-day as the low-income groups would, many of them, be relatively well off if judged by the standards of a hundred years ago. They would be affluent by the standards of many parts of Asia and Africa to-day. But that is no excuse for us: this is our problem in Britain, and we must face it. And let us never forget, as the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, has already reminded us, that when we talk in general terms of low income groups we are really talking about people—grown-ups and children; black, brown and white; people with too little money to get enough to eat or to pay for an adequate roof over their heads, or to keep warm in weather like this. Over and over again, when we come alive to the problems that stare them in the face, we should gird ourselves on to some effort on their behalf, realising that. "But for the grace of God, there go I".
It is tempting to think that the low earnings could be easily put right by higher pay, but the report on General Problems of Low Pay which the Prices and Incomes Board published the other day and from which we have had several quotations this afternoon (I listened anxiously to hear whether the one I had chosen would be used, and I am glad to say it was not) shows how difficult and intractable these problems are. Their main conclusion had to be—and I quote:that there is no single remedy for low pay since there is no single cause. In any one industry a variety of factors can be at work: the industry may be declining or may be faced with severe competition and falling profits: managements may be slack: the jobs themselves may be ill-suited to modern needs: workers may lack the skills necessary to do better-paid jobs, or they may simply prefer convenient and undemanding work: trade union organisation may be inadequate, and wage systems out of date. Many other things may need attention.One welcomes the family income supplement as a most important step in the right direction. Our duty must be to publicise 721 it wherever we can, so that as time goes on we shall find that it is claimed and received by practically all that really need it.
Another measure which is going to be of widespread value to the people to whom this Motion refers is the Housing Finance Bill, which will be coming before your Lordships later on this Session. Whatever else that Bill does, it is going to help the least well off by reducing their rents and by making relief available to badly off people who are tenants in privately-owned accommodation as well as those in council houses. Many of the poorest families live in privately-rented unfurnished homes, and up till now there has been no help available at all for them. When I was chairman of a borough council's housing committee I brought in a rent rebate scheme on our housing estates in order that our poorest tenants could be helped by our adjusting their rents to their means. Those tenants who could afford an economic rent were asked to pay it. The housing manager and I took immense trouble to explain the scheme to all concerned at meetings on each of our nine estates. I am glad to say that the scheme went through with no rent strikes, and the poorer tenants were given considerable help towards meeting their rebated rents. I rejoice to think of this relief now becoming available to those poorer people who are the tenants of privately-owned accommodation. The family income supplement scheme is not designed to deal with the effect of rents in causing poverty; the Housing Finance Bill is to take care of that. A wave of relief at the benefits promised in this Bill should be experienced by those badly in need of just this sort of help, and once the Bill becomes law it will again be our duty to give it all the publicity we can.
I should like to he confident that the Government are going to be equally realistic about extra heating allowances. We all know what a drain the cost of heating can be; and the picture of elderly people retiring to their beds at mid-day and remaining in them until the following morning because they cannot afford any heating during the afternoon and evening is tragic in its suggestion of hopeless despair. I know that heating is accounted for in the scale 722 rates and also in the long-term additions which are available to retirement pensioners and others who have been on supplementary benefit for a long time; and I know that there are extra allowances for those in need of additional help with their heating. But I am left wondering if the extra heating relief available is anything like sufficient to help those who are eligible for it. I am also wondering whether those who might be entitled to these extra allowances are getting them, or whether they are even aware of their availability. I have heard it estimated that 19,000 people die every year because of the effects of the cold. What a terrible thought! For some years I was chairman of a tuberculosis care committee, and, being aware of this problem of cold, my committee would buy and distribute warm blankets during any particularly cold spell in order to offset the need for additional expenditure on heating. It was often reported to us that those who received them would wrap these blankets around themselves as they sat before their meagre fires in the day time. We helped where we could with the payment for extra gas and electricity, but we could never do enough.
The fact about the economic condition of the country that has been hitting these people hardest is the rise in prices. The main cause of rising prices is high wage increases which go right beyond any increase in productivity and efficiency. Those who try to enforce high wage claims may think they are extracting extra money from the employers. What they are really doing is driving down the standard of living of people not as well off as themselves. The militant type of trade union leader tries to conceal this and to distract attention from it. But history will accuse these last few years of cruelty: cruelty by trade unions to the badly off, by forcing price increases; cruelty by the management, who have weakly given in to claims which they know to be unjustified. These are the sufferers—these whom we call in this Motion the low-income groups. Their sufferings would be vastly relieved if only prices could be stopped from going on rising against them. And that could be done, and done quickly, if only those who wield power in unions would give reality to the concept of the brotherhood of man and think how they are hurting those of their fellow men who 723 have the smallest incomes and who therefore can least bear to be hurt.
§ 4.49 p.m.
§ BARONESS GAITSKELL
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, for bringing forward this Motion; and, unlike her, I like the wording, which goes right to the heart of the matter. I congratulate her on her most interesting speech; and I hope that the Government will take up all her practical suggestions. I must say, very humbly. that mine is a more general approach. But before I come to that I must congratulate my noble friend Lady Phillips on her speech, which was the usual trenchant, compassionate and well-informed speech that I am used to hearing from her. Where I slightly diverge from the arguments of the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, is in regard to her strictures about universality. After all, the choice we have to make is between means testing and universality.
As regards the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, I agree with him that the Government have given much relief in the various ways that have been outlined this afternoon, and I congratulate them on what they have done. But, after all, although I do not wish to be partisan, the Government are sitting on the very nice nest egg of the balance of payments—and something had to be hatched out. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, that no Government, Conservative or Labour, has done enough, but I am critical of the means-testing methods which the Government have employed.
My Lords, we are familiar with the spectacle of politicians in dictatorship countries, on pain of death, admitting their political mistakes. But it needed the figure of nearly one million unemployed to turn the Chamber of the House of Commons into a confessional, with one Minister after another, including Mr. Roy Jenkins, confessing the errors of their judgments' and analyses of the economic situation in this country to-day—a situation which is baffling economists, businessmen and Ministers. I must say that it was a great relief to many of us when Ministers stopped making optimistic noises about shakeouts, redundancies, over-manning and so 724 on—which sounded to us rather like whistling in the dark—and began to eat their words and to talk again about public expenditure.
Although I am critical of this Government's approach to poverty, I do not wish to minimise what they have done. All political Parties have a desire to alleviate poverty and to introduce and strengthen social qualities which will bring this about. I do not wish to contrast what has been done by the Conservative Party with what the Labour Party have done in recent years but simply to examine the philosophical approach to poverty of this Government because this does bear on the effectiveness of their measures in the field of pensions, housing, health and education.
First, let us consider the numbers involved. I do not believe that anyone in this debate so far has come forward with the numbers of those who are in poverty. The selective principle, so beloved of the Conservatives, starts by narrowing down the numbers. I have taken the figures from a Paper given by Nicholas Bosanquet, of the London School of Economics, who has been doing research on this subject. He maintains that there are 2 million people whose income is below the supplementary benefit scale. 4 million who are on this scale, and 4 million just above this scale. Thus, at least 10 million people in this country—one-fifth of the population—are in poverty. Who are these people? We have heard about them from various speakers this afternoon. They are the old-age pensioners, the disabled, the unskilled workers and families. I was pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, talked about training for the unskilled workers. None of these groups benefits as much as others from the selective attitude to social policies in the fields of social security. health, education and housing. This means-test approach is inefficient as well as humiliating to the individuals involved.
The crucial problem for modern, affluent societies everywhere—and, whatever we may say, we are one of them—is to raise the living standards of their lower-paid workers in proportion to the rise in national wealth. So poorer people have to be assisted in various ways—for example, in housing, because money spent on education is wasted without decent 725 minimum standards in housing. As for slums and homelessness, they are a constant reproach to any civilised society. Competition seems to be the keynote of Conservative dogma and the logic of this is that someone has to lose out. The noble Baroness, Lady Brooke, said that we should always have poverty. I must say that I do not entirely agree with her there. Where many of us part company with the Conservative doctrine is that we do not believe that one can have cut-price social services; for the purpose of social services to-day is not just to relieve poverty but to provide opportunities in higher education. in better-planned housing and in the overall raising of the quality of life. In fact, I read recently that the trade unions, instead of merely asking for pay increases, would do better to relate them to the better social services which they may get from the Government.
To harp on reducing public expenditure and reducing taxes is to reduce the argument to the lowest common denominator. The trade mark of this Government is the extension of the means test. Underlying the arguments for this is the insinuation that Labour's social policies are wasteful and give help largely where help is not needed. The Conservatives state that economising on these releases funds for the needy. This is completely untrue. Selectivity benefits the better-off more than the poor, if we do not reform taxation. Let us take one small example which pinpoints this fact. I welcome Sir Keith Joseph's change of mind about cost-related prescription charges and other health charges. But what is really amazing is that a compassionate man like Sir Keith Joseph could not have instantly realised that the poorer sections of the community, who suffer more bad health than the better off, would have had to bear the greater charges for prescriptions, the greater burder of these increased health charges.
§ LORD ABERDARE
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt, but the noble Baroness has been criticising my right honourable friend. I must remind her that the exemption limits were raised at the same time, so that those who could not afford the prescription charges could have them paid.
§ BARONESS GAITSKELL
My Lords, I was not criticising Sir Keith Joseph. I, have the greatest respect for him. I simply asked how he could have brought forward these increases when he should have known that this burden would fall on the lower income groups. That is all. But he changed his mind, and I congratulate him.
Perhaps the medal for self-deceiving policies must go to the Government's family income supplement. The Government's anti-poverty programme followed a November Budget which, as we know, increased health charges for drugs, for dental treatment and for school dinners, and reduced school milk. Multiple exemptions were made for the needy—except that they would have to apply for them. There was such a strong reluctance to taking up the family income supplement that the Government have had to spend £600,000 on advertising to tempt people to apply. Is not this a kind of madness? I cannot think that, as some people have suggested, the Government rely for their economies on a low take-up.
During the last Election campaign there was a good deal of propaganda about the burden on the economy of subsidised council housing. The impression left in the mind of the public was that the taxpayer—who was always mentioned with bated breath—was subsidising people in council houses who could afford to pay higher rents. What is the truth about this, my Lords? I have obtained the figures from the Rating and Valuation Association. In 1969–70 subsidies to local authority housing amounted to £124 million. Tax concessions for house purchasers on mortgage interest cost the Exchequer £300 million this year. What is the difference between a subsidy and a tax concession? Surely a subsidy by any other name is just as sweet.
There has been some petty saving, giving with one hand and taking away with the other, particularly in respect of education. If one has to criticise it, the pension plan is orientated towards private pensions and away from Government contributory pensions. This is in contrast to most of the Common Market countries, where the reverse is the case. There is not enough emphasis on the training of unskilled workers, as was pointed out by 727 the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, and we find that only 2 per cent. of the children of manual workers go to universities. Family allowances are given in such a way as to help the better-off more than the poor families.
My Lords, I repeat that modern societies everywhere have so far failed to raise the living standards of their low-paid workers in proportion to the rise in their national wealth. Means-testing ends up by relieving the better off. The present Government, if they mean to have a new style of government, should set out to reform taxes, not to reduce them, with resulting inferior social services. They should embark on a tremendous campaign to educate public opinion about taxation and public expenditure generally. The means-test approach has served to reinforce my belief in the value of the overall giving of help. When help is given in this way it produces the best take-up, as we saw when the Government gave their pensions to the over-eighties. Why has the family income supplement had such a poor take-up? Finally, my Lords, I believe that the explosion of population and the scientific and technological explosions make it inevitable that we shall all be borne along on a tide for more social equality. But this can be brought about only by really good social policies, which will cost money.
§ 5.4 p.m.
§ LORD ILFORD
My Lords, I should like, first, to join with other noble Lords in expressing my appreciation to the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, for having promoted this debate. It has been a most interesting and instructive afternoon. The noble Baroness made more than one suggestion which seemed to be a novelty and well worth consideration. One thing she proposed was that the wages councils should be encouraged to exercise their functions over a rather wider field than they have been accustomed to do in the past. I am sure that that would be a good thing, but I hope it is practical; the forces at work are very complicated. The differential had its day and I fear that that may prove to be the case with this proposal. The noble Baroness proposed that industrial re-training for men temporarily out of employment might be given in 728 empty factories vacated during short-time working. That seems to me a proposal well worth considering and I hope that the Government will give it the consideration that it deserves.
There was one observation from the noble Baroness with which I found myself in complete disagreement. She said that we could get rid of poverty if we wanted to. I wish I could believe that to be true. My Lords, you cannot spend ten years of your life on the National Assistance Board and come away with the conviction that poverty may be got rid of if you want that to happen. The causes of poverty are so diverse and different. Almost every case presents a different aspect. That was the lesson that I learned when I was at the National Assistance Board, and I have never forgotten it. With the sentiment which the noble Baroness's words connote we would all agree, but the practical instrumentality is much more difficult.
I enjoyed. as I always do, the speech of the noble Baroness. Lady Phillips. I am sorry that she had an unpleasant experience in one of the offices of the Ministry of Social Security. When I was at the Board the staff prided themselves on being the friends and confidants of the population they served. I am bound to say that that was brought out in my postbag. In the ten years that I was there I do not think I had more than half a dozen letters complaining of the treatment received by applicants either in their homes or in the offices of the Board.
§ BARONESS PHILLIPS
My Lords, would the noble Lord, Lord Ilford, permit me to interrupt him? I should not like him to get the wrong impression. I said that I watched them getting their pensions in a post office—not in a Social Security Department office. I do not want any blame attached to the wrong Department.
§ LORD ILFORD
My Lords, I do not want to be critical of the Post Office, but I have not the same interest in maintaining my ground in respect of the Post Office as in respect of the National Assistance Board.
In the few moments that I shall detain your Lordships I should like to make one or two observations about the old 729 casual wards to which the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, referred in such unflattering terms, The casual wards came in for a good deal of abuse, much of which was deserved, but not all of it. At the end, after the local authorities took over responsibility for the service from the guardians in 1929 a very high standard was maintained in a great many authorities and we ought not to overlook that. During the war, the casual wards all over the country were closed. When the war came to an end there was in fact no casual accommodation available at all. Accordingly, an obligation was placed on the National Assistance Board to provide casual accommodation, and to enable the Board to do that it was given powers to require local authorities to provide such accommodation.
It was obvious that the National Assistance Board was unable itself to undertake the provision of casual accommodation all over the country. Accordingly, the National Assistance Board exercised its powers and called on the local authorities to set up some form of casual reception and accommodation. That was done. In some parts of the country it was well done, and the accommodation that was provided did not fall short of the standards established before the war. I regret to say that in other parts of the country the provision made was quite deplorable. It was obvious to me that I should have to close all these places and substitute something better, if I could. We set to work to do that, and in a relatively short time we closed almost all the casual wards all over the country.
Then there was the problem of what we were to institute in their place. We wanted a place with a different standard to the old casual ward. Some white tiles helped in these cases, and clean towels and a hot bath—they always used to get a bath but not always a hot one. They had a good meal and then next day they were free to go if they wanted to. The process of building up the new system of casual wards was a very slow one. It was difficult to find suitable buildings and we were not allowed to build for ourselves as we should have liked to have done. Much of the accommodation was not where we should have liked it to 730 have been. It was too far away from the main centres of population.
All these difficulties confronted us, but I am glad to say that we did some good in this matter and I see in the latest report that they now have ten reception centres in operation and a certain number which are still operated by local authorities. I do not know how far that number of reception centres is regarded as adequate. It may well be that they are so placed that they serve the main centres of population where they are required but I think it is a question whether the Supplementary Benefits Commission ought not to bring a greater number of establishments into being. I do not know. I am quite willing to accept the fact that ten is an adequate number, but I think it is worth inquiring into. The complexion which we tried to give to these reception centres was quite different from the treatment given in the old casual wards. They took little interest in a man. He was a body who was given a bath and a meal and who went out next day and that was all. We tried to convert these reception centres into rehabilitation centres as well, so that if a man is willing to try if he is recommended for work and takes it, we do in the end succeed in our aim—that is, to send a fair number of them out into the world to earn a living as they ought to do.
May I turn for a moment to a different type of accommodation which exists alongside the reception centres—what used to be called the common lodging house, which is still in use in many parts of the country? The common lodging house is, I believe, the last relic of Disraeli's Public Health Act of 1870, which gave local authorities some responsibility for common lodging houses and gave medical officers of health power to inspect them, to decide how many men should sleep in each room and matters of this sort. I used to visit these common lodging houses. The squalor and poverty which prevailed there was almost unbelievable. Glasgow, I think, was the city with the greatest number of these places. Liverpool is not without them; and there are others in other parts of the country. These are very big establishments and hundreds of men sleep there. 731 They make a small payment, but they are pretty well free to do what they like. I think it would be a good thing if the Minister made some inquiries about these common lodging houses. I do not know whether anything can be done to improve their standard. The difficulty is that we are dealing with very large numbers of men. But if something could be done to clean up these places, to make them a little more attractive than they are at present, this would be well worth while. Men come very readily into the common lodging houses. Although they have to pay, they come without the least difficulty or any attempt to attract them.
One of the peculiarities of this job of providing accommodation for casuals is the fact that the higher the standard of accommodation, the more difficult it is to get them to use it. When we began to open these reception centres which came up to a reasonable standard, one of my difficulties was to get enough men to use them. It was not that the men would not go into them; it was that they preferred the old ones. There is in this section of the population a certain number of men who are really hopeless, who will never attempt to improve themselves, who will never attempt to take advantage of anything that is done to help them to better their lives; but if we can get them into the reception centres, and these centres can undertake their main purpose of rehabilitating them, the Board will think that it has done as well perhaps as it can hope to do.
I do not think there is anything further I want to say about these places. The noble Lord, Lord Amulree, referred to the reception centre at Camberwell, which is a very big one, capable of accommodating as many as 500 or 600 men. People often go down to Camberwell to see what a reception centre looks like. I wish they would not. Camberwell is not what the Assistance Board requires. It was what they had to have because they could not get anything better, and it certainly does not represent the kind of standard of comfort or administration that the Board would accept. When people go to see a reception centre, they should go to see one of the new reception centres in the North of 732 England. because they reflect some credit on the Board, and not go to Camberwell and then come away and complain about it.
§ 5.18 p.m.
THE LORD BISHOP OF LEICESTER
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Aberdare has kindly agreed to wait for a moment before speaking further, to allow me a word or two of explanation and comment. I should have liked to put my name down for this debate but did not think the speakers would be so economical of time as they have been, and I feared I should not be able to wait in courtesy to hear the Minister's reply. The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, in a speech which interested and challenged every one of us, made a particular reference to ministers of religion and after that I feel that one word of explanation is due from me.
Far be it from me to try to avoid the challenge she put before the leaders of the Churches and before the country generally to face the very real problems existing in many clergy homes. She stated that a number of ministers were claiming the family income supplement. I believe that to be true; I am sure she would not have said so were it not. But it is a fact that the Department of Health and Social Security has ruled that the provision of a house, rent and rates free and all costs met, is not to be counted as part of income, but is to be treated like a tied cottage, perhaps with a lot of justification from one angle. But it is a fact that because of that ruling most clergy incomes are being reckoned as being £300 a year less than in practice they are worth. That is the statistical explanation of how it is that clergymen are in this position in certain cases, if they have large enough families. I think those brief words ought to be said in order to keep the picture in focus.
The other remark I should like to make is how much we on these Benches appreciate this debate and the call that has come from all sides of the House to continue to address ourselves to the problems of poverty. There is one sense, of course, in which poverty will always be with us, if you press the point that poverty is relative; it is the fact that unless you can somehow arrange that every branch of the community moves up in prosperity at 733 exactly the same rate, there will always be a time lag between the increase of prosperity on the part of any section and on the part of those who are the slowest to react to the new possibilities, probably through their inability to do so. There is that kind of poverty. There is another sort of poverty that exists at different times and in different nations and communities, when there is such a large area of the community suffering from very poor living conditions. Poverty of that kind should be tackled; and it is the object of all economic planning by all Governments to reduce that area of poverty and to raise the standard of living of the whole community so that there is less of that sort of it. Then there is the third category, which arises from particular circumstances, some of which can be seen at once and can be notified: there are the handicapped, the retired, the single parent families and so on.
It seems to me that the right line of approach is the one that we are all trying to follow; namely, to increase our sensitivity so that we locate and identify more and more of these types of special need and plan our social services to meet them. There will always be some, I think, that it will be difficult to cover in a direct way. Every clergyman, for instance, especially if he lives in one place for a long time, gathers around him a set of clients, as it were, men and women whom one knows to be incapable of fitting into the demands of society, and one has to deal with each one with as much understanding, tolerance and T.L.C. as it is possible to bring to bear upon them.
There is one last point that I should like to make, and it is this. This is a field where it would be such a splendid thing if we could have something approaching bipartisan policy. I know that we shall not have it. We are so arranged in our country that all subjects are threshed out by a kind of polarisation of the two principal contending Parties at any one time. Most people do not realise it, but there is much more bipartisanship than is commonly known and seen to be the case. In this House, for instance, we have_ frequent comments from both sides about favourable elements in the policies of the other side, but I very much doubt whether the country as a whole realises this. When the 734 noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, was saying, "Why do not more people take up the family incomes supplement?", the point occurred to me that perhaps one reason is because so many hard things have been said about it by the section of the House which she represents. There are these difficulties in any kind of partisan discussion of these matters, but I am certain that we all have the same ultimate objects in view, however much we may differ as to the way in which to achieve them.
§ 5.23 p.m.
§ LORD RAGLAN
My Lords, I did not intend to speak this afternoon, but I happened to have some figures with me. I am the chairman of a New Town development corporation, and therefore on this subject it is incumbent upon me to make a politically neutral or bipartisan speech. We felt it our duty to discover what the effect of the Government's proposed Housing Finance Bill would be upon our rents and upon the people who inhabit the houses. We drew up an enormous chart of incomes and benefits. including National Insurance, graduated pensions and income tax deductions, and plussing family allowances, family income supplements and school meal allowances. So when my noble friend Lady Phillips quoted that article, I suspected that it was by a Mr. Eric Jacobs of the Sunday Times. Is that so?
§ LORD RAGLAN
We worked out the same sum as Mr. Eric Jacobs, and we found that he was wrong. So we rang him up and told him so, and he agreed that he was wrong because he had forgotten to include the school meal allowances. Comparing a married man with two children earning £19 a week and a married man with two children earning £22 a week the differential is that the £22 a week man ends up 77p to the good. Then we had to work out what the incidence of the new rent rebate scheme was going to be, and we found a set of very curious figures. A married man with four children, earning £16 a week gross and paying £3 a week rent, would end up with £24.65 (I am afraid these figures are rather hard to digest straight off the cuff); and a married man with four children, with £26 a week gross income 735 and paying £3 a week rent, would end up with £25.74, a differential of £1.09. Perhaps I can explain that a little further. The £16 a week man with four children gets £1.09 a week less than the man with £26 a week. At a rent of £5 a week, this works out at much the same kind of differential.
I think I heard the noble Lord, Lord Ilford, say that the differential, at any rate in theory, had had its day. This certainly seems to be the case under these proposals. If people are prepared to face a means test and take the benefits, there is no doubt, at any rate, in my mind, that the low paid will be nearly as well off as the higher paid, and, likewise, that the unskilled will be nearly as well off as the skilled. In other words, after the Housing Finance Act has been passed and is working, the Government will have further closed the gap which the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, said earlier that the T.U.C. said they did not want to be closed.
I am wondering where we go from here. The Government, in theory, and by these calculations, are by way of making it pointless in financial terms to obtain a skill. Get a £16 a week job and beget four children and you are almost as well off as the £26 a week man with four children. I am not attempting this afternoon to supply any answers to these questions or to indulge in philosophising, but I think there is something here that must be looked at carefully. Is it right that we should subsidise the procreation of children to the extent that we do? Is it right that we should nearly eliminate the £16 to £26 a week differential? Do we believe in incentives; and if so, what sort of incentive? As the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, said, this debate covers a vast subject, and it is a complicated one. I hope that the Government, your Lordships and a lot of other people will give a great deal of thought to this part of it, too.
§ BARONESS GAITSKELL
My Lords, may I just refute the accusation of the right reverend Prelate that people did not take up the family income supplement because of the hard things that some of us have been saying. I am really shocked that the right reverend Prelate could say such a thing—because we 736 would urge them to take it up and not do the opposite.
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ LORD ABERDARE
My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness was a little out of order in making that statement at this moment, but if she feels so strongly about it no doubt she wants to get it off her chest.
I should like to answer several points that were raised, but the debate has been so wide-ranging that I should be keeping your Lordships rather too long if I went into all of them. I found them most interesting. May I ask leave of the House to speak for a second time? I should like to run briefly through some of the points which have been made. I listened with great interest to the noble Lord, Lord Burgh, and what he had to tell us about those who live in groups, pooling their resources. I can only say that it would seem from his description that some of these people find happiness from living in such groups, and this is something that people would wish to encourage. Also, certain of them, if they did not find themselves a way of life within these groups might well have to go into other community provision where clearly they would be less happy than if they were living in groups. To that extent I am sure we would all wish to encourage the groups that he mentioned.
The noble Lord, Lord Amulree, referred to the homeless and destitute; and my noble friend Lord Ilford gave him some information about reception centres. I was asked for one or two figures. There are 18 reception centres provided by the Supplementary Benefits Commission, although four of them are run by local authorities who act as agents for the Commission. In all, they provide beds for just over 2,000 people, and on average about 1,500 men and women are accommodated overnight in them. But although there are a great number who use the reception centres—and the numbers have increased over recent years—there are still those who are destitute and homeless and who do not go to reception centres. I would mention, as did the noble Lord, how much we value the shelters and hostels run by the Salvation Army and the other organisations which were mentioned. I know that the Commission is anxious to cooperate fully with these projects and, 737 where appropriate, to use its powers under the Social Security Act 1966 to provide financial assistance to them.
The noble Lord, Lord Amulree, went on to talk about the problems of the elderly. I certainly listened with great sympathy to his plea for further development of sheltered housing. We share his view about the value of sheltered housing and residential homes, and certainly go along with him in thinking that further development is desirable. As the noble Lord will recall, in making the Statement about additional resources the other day my right honourable friend announced that £30 million additional loan sanction was being made available for local authorities, to be spent on the provision of more and better residential homes and particularly for the elderly and mentally ill. He also announced in the same Statement that a five-year programme is being undertaken to remove finally all those public assistance institutions and workhouses that are such a blot on our services at the moment. I would follow him, too, in paying tribute to the home-helps, Meals-on-Wheels and other domiciliary services which are so important in keeping old people in their own homes.
I was very grateful to my noble friend Lady Brooke of Ystradfellte for her welcome for the family income supplement and the new housing finance provisions. I also listened with great sympathy to her plea for the provision of heating for old people. She was quite correct in all that she said about the fuel element in the scale rate of the long-term addition, and she is also clearly well informed about the three levels of special addition for heating. This is some provision for those who need it, and the problem is. as in so many cases, to make sure that those who really need it apply for it and get it. We have no figures available, as the statistics are prepared annually from a special inquiry made each November, so that the figures for special heating provisions will not be available until next spring. But one general point which she made, and which I think needs making, is that so often one hears figures quoted of deaths from hypothermia which are out of all proportion to the truth. It is a fact that the last figure we have is that some 155 deaths occurred in 1969 in which hypothermia was known to be 738 a contributory factor or underlying cause. The fact is of course that there is always a rise in mortality in winter, due mainly to an increase in respiratory disease; and it is quite wrong to take the increases in deaths in winter and attribute them all, or even the vast majority of them, to lack of heating.
My Lords, I always listen with rapt attention to the speeches of the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, and I always long to leap to my feet every five minutes and argue with her. But I would make just two points here. She pilloried us as "the Government of means testing". Yet, as I have pointed out to her before, there is only one new means test that we have introduced which is different from those which were operated under the Labour Government; that is the family income supplement. All these other benefits were means tested under the previous Government, so that I do not think we can be made out to be such villains. All we are saying is that, at this moment when our resources are severely strained, if we are going to use them wisely we must make money and services available to those who need them most. The noble Baroness spoke of the numbers in poverty and, I think, took the supplementary benefits scale as a kind of mark, being the lowest point to which one could fall. Of course, one can go on arguing about this until the cows come home, but the difficulty about it is that every time you raise the supplementary benefits level you automatically increase the number in poverty, if you accept that this is the point at which you fix the poverty line. So it is not really an easy task to give figures for those in poverty. All I would say on the subject of the family income supplement—which is the one benefit, as I say, that we have introduced which is an extra benefit that depends on a means test—is that at least it is helping over 85,000 families who got no help before, at a cost of £6 million in a full year. This, at least, must surely be beneficial.
My Lords, I listened with tremendous interest, as I always do, to my noble friend Lord Ilford. I can assure him that local social security offices—I cannot speak for post offices, but I am sure they will have seen what the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, said—do have the same high standard of personal serf vice to those who call at them as they 739 had under my noble friend's wise guidance when he was Chairman of the National Assistance Board, and the example which he set in those days is certainly followed to-day. I must plead guilty to having visited Camberwell and not one of the more modern centres in the North; but all I can say is that although Camberwell is operating in an old building and in very cramped and difficult circumstances it is doing an extremely valuable job and is handing on the tradition, which he also set, of trying to help people to settle into steady accommodation and steady work if they show any signs of being able to do so.
I should like to thank the two speakers who contributed without giving me warning. I think it was right that in a debate of this sort we should hear the voice of the Church, so ably put by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester. It is vital that the Church should be involved in these problems because, as I tried to say at the beginning of my speech, so many of the problems are individual ones, and great assistance can be given by individual help which the Church is in a good position to supply. I listened also with great interest to the noble Lord, Lord Raglan. I tried to follow his figures as best I could, but I am not sure whether I have them correctly. I appreciate the problem of the differentials. We all see this. If you are going to help the very poor, those people at the bottom of the scale. you automatically bring in problems of differentials and automatically decrease the incentive for the very poor to earn more. It was for this reason that the family income supplement was kept at the 50 per cent. level of rise rather than anything greater.
§ LORD RAGLAN
My Lords, I think I ought to emphasise again that there is a great deal of difference between £16 and £26. between the unskilled and skilled man. All these benefits completely close the gap.
§ LORD ABERDARE
My Lords, I understood that when the noble Lord spoke originally.
I have so far failed to deal with the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, in introducing this debate. She made some valuable suggestions, including one relating to the Swedish example in the retraining of men. I will certainly see that this is considered. I expect she had noticed that on July 20, 1971, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment announced four new measures for improving and extending industrial re-training facilities. I will not go through them all, but the second is one that might interest the noble Baroness: employers in every region are being approached with a view to utilising their spare training capacity for training unemployed workers, largely at Government expense. The training provided is mainly at semi-skilled level and the initial response from employers has been encouraging. I will certainly see that her suggestion further to that is considered.
§ 5.43 p.m.
§ BARONESS SEEAR
My Lords, it only remains for me to thank your Lordships for the many interesting contributions that have been made to this debate. I should like to correct one stupid error that I made in the figures that I gave in my opening speech. I read from the wrong column with regard to the figures of the disablement. But it does not in the least alter the gist of what I was saying. I gave the total number of people on the disabled register who are out of work as 620.000, instead of 86,616—which itself is a very considerable rise. The main point I was making was that the rise in the number of unemployed disabled persons has been disproportionately great; and this of course still stands. It was ridiculous to say that there were 620.000 disabled persons out of work, and I should like to correct that for the Record. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.