I rise to do exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) has asked, that is, to press this Amendment to a Division, if the Committee feels that we can now do so. We have had a long debate, the second debate only of the day, and we have a very long way to go, and there are other matters to which we want to give equal attention. Our next debate, for example, is on widows' benefits, which we regard as of the highest importance.
I apologise to the Minister for being absent for a moment or two at the beginning of his speech. It was my first absence from the Chamber since half-past three. I am obliged to him for repeating for my benefit one or two of the things that he had said earlier.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned not only the level of the benefits proposed in the Amendment, but the cost. He did not, however, say that this level of benefits proposed in the Amendment was in his opinion too high. When he referred to the cost he was really confirming the figure I had already quoted, having made reference to the speech of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary earlier. The right hon. Gentleman did not say the cost would be too much. He merely said what the cost would be, and left it rather open as to whether it was one which the community could bear.
I wonder whether he has studied the recent statement comparing social security costs in the countries of the European Economic Community and this country. I have just picked up a little broadsheet on Britain and Europe and the social security of the Six, and I see here that on the last available figures, in 1957, the lowest percentage of national income going to social security in all the Six in the European Economic Community was 12.1 per cent. In Western Germany, it was nearly 21 per cent.
Those are the countries which we were so anxious to join because of their vigorous economy, their enterprise, their exports, their labour costs, their dynamic economies—all such that we wished [column 533]to be associated with them. Every one of them appears to spend a larger proportion of its national income on social security than Britain.
The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will complete the picture by pointing out that hourly wages in this country were higher than in any of the other countries in Europe at the same date?
I do not really see that that has any bearing on the matter. If our hourly wages are higher, then presumably we in Britain are better able to afford this higher standard of social security.
This pamphlet describes various ways of paying for it. It shows a variety of methods. Some countries ask contributors to pay a higher proportion; other countries lay more upon the exchequer; other countries ask the employers to pay considerably more than the workers towards social security. There is a considerable variety of experience both of provision of and payment for social security in Europe. [column 534]So there is nothing sacrosanct in the structure of our own National Insurance Scheme. Moreover, they have not had flat-rate benefits or flat-rate contributions: they are all wage related.
I do not really think that the Minister, by his argument, has destroyed the validity of the Amendments that we have put down. What we ask him to do is to reconstruct the scheme to accommodate a higher level of benefits, and that is not beyond his capacity to do, nor beyond the capacity of the nation to bear, by whatever method the Minister might seek to finance increased National Insurance benefits. In these circumstances we must say to the Minister that he has not discouraged us from pressing this matter upon the Committee. This is where we stand, on our level of National Insurance benefits, and we ask the Committee to adopt it.
Question put, That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Schedule:— The Committee divided: Ayes 198, Noes 161.