HC I [National Assistance (Increased Rates)]
|Document type:||public statement|
|Document kind:||House of Commons Intervention|
|Venue:||House of Commons|
|Source:||Hansard HC [662/1728-34]|
|Editorial comments:||MT intervened at c1733 between 1338 and 1355 (Michael Foot speaking).|
|Themes:||Social security and welfare|
Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)
Some of the contributions to the debate made by hon. Gentlemen opposite must arouse a feeling of nervousness among those who are concerned about the development of our social services. Even the Minister seemed to give the impression that he was perfectly satisfied with the present situation. The right hon. Gentleman is a most able Minister and we all recognise his abilities, although whether those abilities are recognised in the highest quarters we may discover in the next few days. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman does not know whether, after the reshuffle, he will be in the pack.
In dealing with the problems under discussion the right hon. Gentleman shows an intelligent sympathy, but when all those compliments are paid to him it makes all the more damning the outlook which he has to the problem generally. The right hon. Gentleman appears to think that the present situation is entirely satisfactory and he produces statistics to show how well he has done. He seems to think that our social services, particularly in relation to those governed by National Assistance, are developing perfectly well and that there is nothing wrong. The fact that he is not disturbed in the least by what he has been told is a condemnation of the whole approach of the Government towards this matter.
As has been pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths), what has occurred is 1729quite different from what people hoped would occur. The intention has not been fulfilled. I have always thought that we would have a National Assistance Board to deal with a few things, but the primary aim of our social service policy today should be to do away with the Board altogether. We might have to have some kind of board left to deal with a small number, but if the rest of our social service system was operating properly we should not need the Board. We want to see the Board wither away, but that has not happened. Indeed, the opposite has happened.
The figure given in the Report of the increase in the number of people who go to National Assistance is staggering, and it has been growing steadily. Leaving out all the temporary allowances, the number receiving weekly allowances in December, 1948, was 1,100,000 and now it is up to 1,800,000 This is an enormous, steady increase. If the Board is regarded as a safety net, that net is having to be made bigger and bigger or—to use the metaphor employed by the Minister that the Board is a form of long-stop—if there is too much pressure on the long-stop it is an indication that there is something wrong with the wicket-keeper.
The breakdown or the failure of our social service system to provide adequately in other fields is imposing further burdens on the Board. Nobody can deny that that is what has happened, and my complaint is that the Minister and the Government and their supporters are satisfied with the situation. They like it that way, and I understand why. It is because it fits in with their idea of what the social services should be. We know that a whole series of other measures have been taken by the Government which have contributed to increasing the work done by the Board. They have taken steps to injure the National Health Service and to put part of the burden on the Board.
In the same way, the Government have had a housing policy which puts up rents for quite a number of people and therefore puts a further burden on the Board. We have, therefore, a series of measures taken by the Government in different fields of social policy, including housing and health, by which they are increasing the burden on National Assistance. As it has happened and they are satisfied 1730with it, I presume that it has been done deliberately.
Mr. E. Johnson
Does the hon. Member disagree with his hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman), to whom I pointed out that it seemed to me more sensible to use some of the money available for those in greatest need rather than, by increasing the flat rate, give it to those who are, fortunately, not in a particular need?
I think that the hon. Member's interruption misinterprets what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman), but I understood clearly what the hon. Member was saying. It is the Tory view of the social services. It was an advance to get the Tories even to take that view, but now that they have got that far they are satisfied with it. It is not my view and I do not think that it is the Socialist view generally. It was not the intention of the Labour Government when they introduced these Measures.
The whole point of the National Health Service was that the same treatment was to apply to everybody. I should be horrified to think that we should carry the means test system even further in pensions. The hon. Member wants to carry it further in the interests of national frugality. He thinks that there should be a separate section of the community made up of people in need, and the more people are dealt with under the National Assistance Board the more that fits in with Government policy.
The Minister should have said why these numbers are going up and why the Board is having to deal with more and more problems. It is partly because his hon. Friends have been pushing these problems on to the Board, and that is partly his fault. He should have protested against it. What has been happening in recent years is the reshaping of our social services away from the intentions and the aims set out when the Labour Government introduced them, and the incorporation in those services of the Tory idea that we require them only as a kind of national minimum need.
Hon. Members opposite have been quite open and brazen about it, including the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. E. Johnson). They do not think that the social services should 1731be all-embracing and comprehensive. They do not think that the same should apply to everyone. They want to see us picking out the people who are most in need, and they produce, as the hon. Member did, what appear to be philanthropic arguments in advocating their point of view.
Mr. E. Johnson
Let me give the hon. Member an example. Next month I shall be qualified for retirement pension. What is the point of giving me a larger pension if it means giving less to somebody who needs it more?
The hon. Member is entitled to his pension if he has contributed towards it on the insurance principle. He said earlier that he would like an extension of discretionary benefits. I do not think that he would like it very much if he were receiving discretionary benefits and having someone come along and say to him, "Here is a bit extra to buy blankets". He would say that he would prefer to have the money and make up his own mind about what he would do with it.
In other respects the Tories say that people should be allowed to decide for themselves how they spend their money, but they do not say that to people on National Assistance. They do not want the same rules applied throughout. In other words, they still believe in society being divided into different classes.
We on this side of the House do not believe in that. We want to do away with it. We want to live in one community. Therefore, what we are discussing is not a question of safety nets or long-stops. We are discussing the distribution of the national income and we say that that distribution is wrong. It is, of course, very convenient for the Government to have a separate debate about National Assistance and not relate it to other figures, but, of course, we are discussing the distribution of the national wealth, and part of that wealth has been created by the people who are now on National Assistance. This has nothing to do with charity.
If we look at it as a matter of distributing the national wealth, how can anybody with a civilised sense of fairness think that what we are doing is fair? The total sum is £184 million, or £200 1732million with the extra under these provisions, to provide for 1,800,000 people plus all the other people who receive temporary benefits. It is not such a great amount of money when we compare it with other items in the Budget.
Moreover, if we take the figure of £20 million, of which the Minister is so proud—what he calls a substantial sum to make available at a time when Government expenditure is subjected to the closest scrutiny—then, although everybody knows that £20 million is a lot of money, it so happens that this £20 million to be distributed in extra benefits to people on National Assistance is almost exactly the same figure as the Chancellor is distributing this year in Surtax relief on unearned income. This year a small number of Surtax payers who are getting part of their income unearned will receive £20 million in cash relief.
Incorporated in the total of £80 million which is to be distributed this year by the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be a certain amount of unearned income. The Government are distributing this year £20 million to cover the 2 million people on National Assistance, and, at the same time, they are giving £20 million to a handful of people—it cannot be more than a few thousand—in respect of their unearned income. How can anybody defend that practice?
I do not expect the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to try to defend it. She will probably say that it is none of her business, that it is the Chancellor's business. But that is what is being done. This is how the Government spend the nation's money. That is why we say that we ought to be discussing the distribution of the nation's wealth. If we approach the subject from that point of view it is apparent that we are doing it in a grossly unfair manner.
Although we are glad to have these few crumbs, we say that the complacency of the Minister adds to the alarm that we feel about the situation. He does not feel that there is anything wrong in the way in which we are treating our old people. He says that the situation is better than it was in 1948. I hope that we shall never hear that argument again. It is a mean approach to the whole problem that a Minister should say, in 1962, that we are just keeping 1733up with what was achieved three years after the greatest war in history, when this country had to shoulder housing and other burdens on a much larger scale than now. The hon. Member for Hertford (Lord Balniel) quoted figures in an effort to prove that the pension had been maintained in proportion to the national wage rate.
The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)
[ J. Boyd-Carpenter] My hon. Friend quoted figures for average earnings. That is much more significant than the national wage rate to which the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot) referred.
I do not think I have misrepresented the situation. The hon. Member for Hertford was quoting the Government's figures and said that the pension has gone up roughly by as much as the average earnings had increased. He said that they had kept pace and he thought that was satisfactory. Indeed, he gloried in it.
The old people have been treated most shamefully for generations. It so happens that they are treated slightly less shamefully now than they used to be, but that is no reason why people should not be aghast at what is happening. It may be even more reason for being aghast at what is happening because this is a large welfare society and we ought to treat our old people differently from the way in which they are treated.
When we see how we are spending other parts of the national income it is utterly indefensible for a Minister to say that he is treating the old people fairly. Moreover, as to the future, the defence that the Government make of their present policy is alarming. During the next two or three years we shall have to reassert the basic principles on which the social services were introduced and extended by the Labour Government after the war, and we shall have to do so against a very sinister attack. Every major scheme which has been introduced by the Labour Government, and, in particular, the National Health Service, has been corroded and attacked.
The attack is not limited merely to the amounts given, but to the essential 1734features of the scheme. The hon. Member for Blackley has proved it. He does not believe in a national scheme. He does not believe in social services which wipe away the sense of class and substitute a proper sense of community, which we believe in.
We protest against these proposals as being quite insufficient. They represent an inadequate distribution of the greatly growing wealth which the Government claim is being achieved and which should be shared in order to relieve the hardships of old age in a far more adequate manner than the Government are attempting.