Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, West)
I take up immediately the final point of my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice), namely, the division of the national wealth which we assume is just. I think that the Government are having second thoughts about this. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot) said, we are discussing quite simply how we should share out the national wealth. All that I can say about the proposals before the House is that they will go a very short way towards relieving the enormous suffering which is being [column 1742]endured by a substantial minority of our people, particularly the old.
The Minister said that the total cost of these proposals will be about £20½ million, with a probable increase when the number of recipients increases. I cannot forbear from enlarging on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale, that the Minister made great play of this beneficence of the Government, but they were far more beneficent to a much smaller and much wealthier minority, the Surtax payers, who number 300,000 as against the more than 2 million on National Assistance.
This year, the 300,000 wealthy Surtax payers are getting £83 million and the 2 million people on National Assistance are getting £20½ million, which, in proportion, means that we are giving twenty-eight times more to the wealthier minority of the community than we are giving to the impoverished minority. That is the context in which we should examine these proposals.
The basis of both these concessions is need. I recall the Chancellor of the Exchequer saying, when the £83 million Surtax concession was given, that the man on £5,000 a year today could not make ends meet and that, therefore, he had to be given the relief. The Minister spoke this morning about the definition of need as being a very interesting philosophical conception. Of course it is. However, our conception is very different from that of the Government, and that is what this debate is about—priorities and the relative needs of different sections of the community.
Moreover, the Minister, contrary to what his noble Friend the Member for Hertford (Lord Balniel) said, went out of his way to say that this increase will do no more than restore the value of the rates which previously operated; and it is almost exactly that to a penny. The people on National Assistance will be no better off after the increases come into operation than they were before the last increase was granted. In other words, inflation has robbed them of an element of purchasing power of which they can ill afford to be robbed.
The Minister—I do not blame him for this—hesitated to make any prophesy about the cost of living. I proposed to ask him his estimate about the prospective increase in the cost of living between [column 1743]now and the date when these rates become operative. My guess is that, by the time that they are operative, there will have been considerable erosion of them. I go further and make a point which is repeatedly made from this side of the House, that the Index of Retail Prices is a wholly inadequate and unfair yardstick with which to measure the relative hardship or relative generosity of the scales and the benefit derived from them by the people who must exist on them.
Let me give one example to underline this, that of vegetables. They are given a weighting in the index of 32 points out of 1,000. That is to say, about 3 per cent. of the average income is assumed to be spent on vegetables. If we look at the index to find what change has occurred in the vegetable price index between April, 1961, and April, 1962, we find that it has gone up from 106 to 143. If we couple those figures with the example given in the Explanatory Memorandum of a married couple with two children, aged between 5 and 10, paying rent and rates of 28s. a week, that couple and their two children will get £8 5s. 6d. a week.
Three per cent. of that figure, which is the proportion they are reckoned to spend on vegetables, is less than 5s. a week. The price of potatoes alone is about 1s. per lb. Therefore, if we are asked to believe the price index, we are assuming that the married couple and their two children will spend 5s. a week on all their vegetables—and at the present time 5s. buys 5 or 6 lb. of potatoes. Everybody in the House must know that the smaller the income, the greater proportion of the income that must be spent on basic foods like potatoes and bread. Moreover, there is no indication that the price of potatoes will fall perceptibly over the next few months. Even if it comes down, it is likely soon afterwards to go back to its present level.
Another factor which has not yet been mentioned is that many millions of workers in key industries receive less in wages than the rates of National Assistance. I have taken the trouble to find the figure for the general worker in the farming industry in Scotland. His weekly earnings, as given in the 1961 Report on Scottish Agriculture, are [column 1744]£9 11s. 3d. That includes overtime and perquisites.
If we make a comparison with a married couple who have three children, one aged between 5 and 11, another between 11 and 16 and another in the 16 to 18 age range, and assume that they spend £1 a week on rent, this family on National Assistance will get £9 16s. Therefore, the general farm worker in Scotland, even taking account of his overtime and his “perks” , gets less working on a Scottish farm than a man and his wife and their three children will get under the National Assistance rates.
The Joint Parliamentary Secretary is herself on record, and was quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) in his admirable speech at the beginning of the debate, as saying that the family on National Assistance does not have to exist solely on National Assistance. Therefore, the family whom I have quoted as receiving £9 16s. would probably get some of the additional discretionary payments, so that the gap between that family and the agricultural worker would be even greater than the figures I have given.
I do not say that that shows the generosity of the National Assistance Board's scales. The obvious point is that the wages are far too inadequate. When the Government say that they are entering the Common Market but will protect agriculture, what are they protecting workers of that kind against?
Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir William Anstruther-Gray)
I am reluctant to interrupt the hon. Member, but I hope that he will bear in mind what we are discussing.
I am bearing it very much in mind, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I wish to underline the argument which I am endeavouring to adduce. The old people of today who are now in receipt of these National Assistance rates were the farmworkers, among others, in the 1920s and 1930s. If the wages of these workers—and I could quote other workers, too—are not increased, we will be building up among the workers the future generations of National Assistance recipients, because it is impossible for those workers to save.
An earlier speaker has referred to the desirability of saving. I agreed with the [column 1745]hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. P. Browne), I think it was, when he said that we ought to take into account the ability of people to save and should encourage them to do so by boosting the disregards. This would not help the people whom I have in mind, who are completely unable to save. Therefore, in ten, twenty or thirty years' time, they, in turn, will be the subject of debate in the House of Commons. The hon. Lady the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will then probably be in a much less fit state to appear on television than she is now, but, presumably, she will still be debating these matters in the House.
I shall probably be one of the recipients of National Assistance.
Oh, no. The hon. Lady and her party will try their best to avoid that. I sometimes wish that the hon. Lady and her hon. Friends could live on National Assistance rates for a month. I should like to see every Member of the House do so. That is the test. There would be several by-elections shortly afterwards. However much the Minister may boast about the rates, the fact is that nobody can live on £4 or £5 a week. People can exist, they can struggle, or they can strive on that figure, but they will suffer.
When we pretend that we are an affluent society and then a Minister of the Crown boasts about these rates, he ought to be ashamed of himself. I do not welcome them at all except to say that they will give a modicum of comfort to the most impoverished section of our community. The sooner that we get down to some solid and constructive thinking about this and educate the rest of the community—I say it frankly—into paying more for this small section of the community, the better it will be for us.