The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)
This debate has been outstanding for two main reasons—first, for the number of [column 92]practical suggestions that have come from hon. Members, and, secondly, for the universal tribute that has been paid to the National Assistance Board for the way in which it discharges its duties. In the short time available to me I want to go through as many as possible of the points which hon. Members have raised, because Niall Macphersonmy right hon. Friend dealt fairly fully with some of the main issues in his opening speech.
I will first deal with the last point raised by the hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) about the prescription charges. Most of those people who were entitled to a refund of prescription charges before the pensions and National Assistance increases will still be eligible for those refunds. In the last year for which figures are available, prescription charge refunds were given to people not receiving weekly National Assistance supplements in 200,000 separate instances, so people not entitled to National Assistance supplements week by week were receiving prescription charge refunds.
Many hon. Members have referred to the discretionary powers of the Board and the need for more information, including my noble Friend the Member for Hertford (Lord Balniel), my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Curran), the hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) and the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle). There is no mystery about the circumstances in which discretionary powers are exercised; they are set out in the Board's annual reports. As many hon. Members know, a laundry allowance is payable in cases where a person is suffering from a disease such as arthritis. There are also window cleaning allowances, fuel allowances and nutritional allowances.
In this debate, as in previous ones, many requests have been made for extra information about these allowances. There have also been requests for extra information about cases in which rent is not allowed for in full. The hon. Member for Feltham (Mr. Hunter), who spoke earnestly, sincerely and practically, as usual, asked about this, and I can tell him that in most cases the rent is allowed in full. Indeed, in the more expensive parts of London up to five guineas is allowed in some cases. That is not always the case, because an officer of the Board [column 93]may think that suitable accommodation is available at a lower cost. Nevertheless, the fact that the rent is fairly high does not preclude its being allowed in full.
The Board's officers try to visit at least once every six months people who are regularly in receipt of weekly supplements. If people have helpful relatives who always let the Board's officers know of any change in circumstances the visits are not as frequent, but where there are no such relatives the visits are more frequent. In the recent bad weather, with the extra number of applications made, the Board's officers have not been able to visit as regularly as they would like. The Board relies particularly on voluntary helpers and Members of Parliament to keep them informed of any special needs.
I should like to tell the House that the Board, in response to requests for more information, and particularly after the debate that we had on 13th July, 1962, when this was raised, has arranged to collect further information about the exercise of discretionary powers so that fuller information can be given in the Board's next annual report, and I am sure that this will be most welcome both to Members of this House and to those who study these things in the London School of Economics and other places.
It has also arranged to give more details about the cases in which rent is not allowed in full. Concerning fuel, extra allowances are given for fuel usually from the beginning of November to the end of April. They are not, of course, confined to extra weekly allowances. Special lump sum payments can be made where there are high electricity bills or high costs which would result in hardship to the individual person who is receiving assistance. There are the two kinds, extra weekly allowances and the special lump sum grant.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford for pointing out the advantages of a discretionary system. Frequently when dealing with National Insurance cases my right hon. Friend and I have had to write to hon. Members saying virtually words to this effect, “This goes by rule of thumb; neither my right hon. Friend nor I have any powers to intervene or interfere with this particular arrangement” . With National Assistance it is different. There is that very flexibility which hon. Members [column 94]would sometimes like to have in National Insurance, and we should be slow to discard the advantages of this discretionary system, because in more cases than not it results in the officers giving the recipients of National Assistance the extra benefit of the doubt and helping them whenever they possibly can. This is of great advantage to many of the old folk who come to us for help.
The noble Lord mentioned one particular case of older folk who go into residential homes, and he asked if the Board could not possibly pay rent for a longer period. There is no rigid period fixed for this particular circumstance. When old folk decide to go into residential homes it is usually with the idea of staying there, and therefore the rent of the establishment which they left or the home which they left is paid for the period needed to clear things up or, alternatively, if there is some doubt whether they will stay in the home, it is paid until a clear decision has been made. This cannot go on indefinitely, but there is a good deal of latitude in the period in case a person should decide not to stay. Clearly there must be a line beyond which the Board cannot pay; but there is no rigid period and the Board will look at each case on its merits.
My hon. Friend also asked whether it was not possible to link the scale rates to average earnings. We should be most reluctant in either National Insurance or National Assistance rates to link them to any one particular economic indicator, because there would always be circumstances when that would act to the detriment of the recipient of National Insurance or National Assistance. I have been asked not to give too many statistics. I do not usually give them when winding up; it is when opening that I give them. I would, however, like to mention one particular statistic, namely, that had we followed advice and kept abreast of average earnings the scale of rates would not be going up today as we are proposing to put them up. For example, for a single householder the rates which we are proposing are 165 per cent. over the 1948 rates, whereas the average earnings are at the moment 137 per cent. over what they were in 1948. I must in all honesty point out to the House that average earnings are published only twice a year on inquiries made by the Ministry of Labour and these figures relate, therefore, to [column 95]October, 1962, so we cannot even compare like with like when it comes to the time of a particular economic indicator. On the whole, people do better from the broad things which we take into account when we are fixing increases.
Concerning the operation of the wage stop—and if I am not taken to task for dealing with statistics I think I should take my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge to task for using algebra in his speech—in comparing what a person gets when in work with his requisite National Assistance rates, the equation is that Assistance plus family allowances should not exceed earnings plus family allowances, so the two are, in fact, self-cancelling.
As the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) pointed out, and I am very grateful to him as this is a particularly difficult problem, I do not think that it would be wise or a proper use of public funds for a person to have a higher standard of living when out of a job than he can possibly get by going back to his regular job. If that were the case, he would have a positive disincentive to taking a job and would almost have a positive duty to his family not to take a job. That would not be at all right.
There are 25,000 allowances at the moment which are wage-stopped out of a total of 202,000 unemployed recipients of assistance. I should like to point out to the House that the officers of the Board can, in the exercise of their discretion, watch for any signs of hardship so that they can make special allowances to mitigate that hardship as, for example, where a child is sick or new clothing is needed. They watch very carefully for any particular kinds of hardship. The yardstick used for fixing the wage stop is what the man in an unskilled occupation, or whatever his occupation is, would earn today if he went into his job today and not, as my hon. Friend pointed out, what he earned when he left that same job some time ago.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden) spoke most warmly of a most admirable person aged seventy-six, and what he told us about him was an inspiration to us all. It is quite true that the Board cannot [column 96]pay weekly allowances for current needs in respect of needs that have already past, so it cannot back-date weekly allowances, but there are cases for special lump-sum payments where perhaps outstanding debts have accumulated or particularly large electricity bills, or something like that, come in.
It is true, of course, that these Regulations together with the National Insurance increases, will bring an increase in total income to many people. The 6s. increase to a single householder is a larger increase than previously given at any one time; and the 9s. increase for a married couple is also as large as previously given at any one time; and eight months is the shortest interval between increases. There have been differences of opinion about the amount that has been given, but I am sure that we all join in welcoming the increases that are to go to people in need. We have discussed the work of the Board in relation to the cash benefits to be dispersed. The Board not only carries out its task with wisdom, sympathy and understanding, but through its officers it has become the friend and helper of many of our people in need. In this spirit I commend the Regulations to the House.
Question put and agreed to Resolved,
That the National Assistance (Determination of Need) Amendment Regulations, 1963, a draft of which was laid before this House on 6th February, be approved.