HC PQ [Pensions and National Insurance]
|Document type:||public statement|
|Document kind:||House of Commons PQs|
|Venue:||House of Commons|
|Source:||Hansard HC [685/749-71]|
|Editorial comments:||The Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance was first for questions on this occasion, i.e., immediately after Prayers at 1430. Concluding time unknown. MT spoke at cc753, 7612-65, 768-79.|
|Themes:||Employment, Pay, Social security and welfare|
PENSIONS AND NATIONAL INSURANCE
Industrial Injuries (Prescribed Diseases)
2. Mr. Prentice
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance what consideration is being given by his Department, or by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, to possible additions to the Schedule of prescribed diseases under the Industrial Injuries Act.
The Minister of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. Richard Wood)
My Department closely watches developments which might have a bearing on the prescription of industrial diseases. The Industrial Injuries Advisory Council is kept informed of anything significant. The Council itself can consider on its own initiative the whole range of possible additions to the existing schedule, but its proceedings are confidential and I know only of those aspects of this work which it brings to my attention.
May I draw the Minister's attention to the debate on this matter which took place at this year's Trades Union Congress, and the disquiet displayed by representatives of a number of unions about it? Particularly, is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that enough people in the Ministry are doing research into new processes to ensure that if new processes in industry carry a risk of disease the question of prescribing those diseases can be considered reasonably quickly?
I think that that is so. More important, perhaps, the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council is continually examining the possibility of new prescription. I think that the hon. Member 750would agree that it is immensely important in this connection that the relationship between the disease and the employment of the men or women concerned must be clearly demonstrable if the principle is not to be irretrievably breached.
Will the Minister bear in mind that for years all of us who serve in areas where people are at risk from noxious dust inhalation have been trying to persuade his Department that pulmonary disability, whether or not there be radiological findings, should be recognised after many years of work in such an industry? As a new Minister to this Department, will he bear this fact in mind?
The hon. Member has a great interest in these matters. I know that these questions have been examined on many occasions. I should like to inform myself on the issue, and anything that he would like to send me I shall certainly look into.
Benefits (Christmas Week)
3. Mr. A. Lewis
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance whether he is aware that since the last adjustment in welfare and retirement payments food prices have increased, rents have risen, and the purchasing power of the £ sterling has further depreciated; and whether he will introduce legislation to enable all National Insurance benefits to be doubled for the Christmas week to assist those on limited incomes to enjoy the festive season without increasing the inflationary spiral.
24. Mr. Manuel
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance if he will make, the week before Christmas, an additional payment equivalent to one week's pension to all retired men and women who are in receipt of a contributory National Insurance pension or a non-contributory pension.
Since the retirement pension improvements in May, the retail prices index for all items has moved very slightly downwards. Any argument based on the movement of prices is therefore misconceived. In any event, payments of the kind mentioned have always been regarded as quite inappropriate to our system of social provision.751
The Minister may quote general prices, but is he not aware of the fact that the cost of food, rent, and the basic commodities which old-age pensioners and others mentioned in the Question have to meet has risen drastically? Does he think it fair that these sort of people should not receive increases while such people as judges should get a 50 per cent. increase and such people as the chairmen of public boards should get a 20 per cent. increase? If, during the period of the election, the Government propose to make certain hand-outs, should not the people referred to in the Question be the first to receive the benefit?
I read Hansard, and I am aware of the hon. Member's researches. If I may offer him a little advice. I would point out that it would be better if his researches were less selective, and if they produced the whole picture. In any event, it is important to remember that, rather than give bonuses in Christmas week, a few months ago the Government took steps to see that pension rates, all through the year, were put at a higher real value than they have ever been.
Will the right hon. Gentleman recognise the very great happiness that he could bring to the lives of retirement pensioners if he gave this additional week's increase? Is he aware that it would enable these old people to buy gifts for their grandchildren, and such like, and so enter into the festive spirit at Christmas?
I think that the Government were right, rather than giving a week's increase, to take the decision they did and give an increase over the whole year.
Surely the right hon. Gentleman is aware that the gap between what the old-age pensioner or the retired person receives today and the average wage is much bigger than it was even in 1938, before the war? Is not this really proof that old-age pensioners, vis-à-vis wage earners, are having a very thin time?
No, Sir. The proportion which the retirement pension now bears to average earnings is very much higher than it was when the Conservative Party came to office.752
National Assistance, Bournemouth
4 and 5. Sir J. Eden
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance (1) how many people in the county borough of Bournemouth are in receipt of a National Insurance pension; and how many of these are drawing National Assistance;
(2) how many people in the county borough of Bournemouth over retirement age and not in receipt of a National Insurance retirement pension are drawing National Assistance.
I do not know the number of National Insurance pensioners in any particular local authority area. The National Assistance Board tells me that 3,496 retirement pensioners and 576 people over retirement age, but without a retirement pension, were receiving weekly grants from its Bournemouth office on 24th September, the latest available date. This office covers four-fifths of the county borough of Bournemouth and small parts of Christchurch and Fordingbridge. Some of the grants provided for the requirements of a household with more than one pensioner.
Sir J. Eden
Can my right hon. Friend say whether the figures which he has quoted indicate an increase in the total number of elderly people drawing National Assistance? If so, would not that indicate a welcome change of attitude, particularly in an area such as Bournemouth, as it would mean that many people were coming to recognise National Assistance as an extremely fair way of providing help for those most genuinely in need? In welcoming the work of the National Assistance Board officers, will he do everything he can to encourage them to be as liberal as possible in their assessment of needs, particularly with borderline cases?
I cannot give the proportion for this area, but the proportion generally throughout the country has remained reasonably static in recent months and years. I hope that my hon. Friend's Question will get all the publicity it deserves, because this is the attitude which I should like to encourage.753
Sickness Benefit (Personal Case)
6. Mr. A. Lewis
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance when he received from the hon. Member for West Ham, North, the communication from one of his constituents making the claim that although he is entitled to £7 10s. sickness benefit, for which the local office remitted a postal draft on 12th November, 1963, which has not yet been delivered to the claimant, he will have to wait a further seven weeks before payment; and, in view of the fact that this constituent will otherwise need to apply to the National Assistance Board, whether he will authorise payment forthwith.
The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)
As I have explained in my reply to the hon. Gentleman's letter of 21st November, his constituent received a duplicate postal draft on 26th November.
I thank the hon. Lady for that reply and for the expeditious way in which she has satisfactorily resolved this matter. However, will she look at the general principle, because it appears that if a postal draft goes astray for some reason, the normal practice is for the intended recipient to have to wait for seven weeks during attempts to trace the original draft? Could not the Ministry use the recorded delivery, or some other, service to see that when people do not get the original draft, they have some payment, instead of having to wait seven weeks for the draft to be traced?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not know how many postal drafts we issue in a year. My Department alone sends some 35 million postal drafts a year and that would exclude recorded delivery.
Widows (Ten-shilling pension)
7. Sir J. Langford-Holt
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance why the pension paid to widows aged 49 who married before 5th July 1948, and who have continued National Insurance contributions since their husbands' deaths is limited to 10s. shillings.
Under the present scheme a woman widowed under the age of 50 754does not normally qualify for a continuing widow's benefit unless she has children. The 10s. pension is payable to some of these widows as a reserved right from previous legislation. Contributions paid during widowhood will qualify them for the retirement pension and other benefits of the present scheme.
Sir J. Langford-Holt
Would my right hon. Friend bear in mind that it is much more difficult for a widow at the age of 50 to become re-employed than it is for younger ones? Will he consider the age of 50 rule which has been in existence, I know, for a very long time?
I will certainly bear in mind what my hon. Friend says.
Mr. H. Hynd
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the contributions during widowhood which he has mentioned swallow up practically the whole of the 10s. pension?
Certain relaxations can be made for women who are not working and, in any event, the 10s. widow who has to pay a contribution is better off than the widow in similar circumstances who, under the new scheme, is not receiving any pension at all.
29. Mr. J. Bennett
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance what, in terms of 1946 prices, is the present value of the 10s. weekly pension now being paid to some widows.
5s. 4d., on the basis of the Retail Prices Index from June, 1947, and the Cost of Living Index for the earlier period.
Will the Minister accept that his reply has been heard with a sense of shock by all hon. Members? Does not he agree that a continuation of this principle is quite indefensible, and will he seek an early opportunity to redress what is a very serious wrong?
I did not quite gather from the hon. Gentleman what was the principle the continuation of which was indefensible. It seems to me that what is shown by the reduction in the real value of the 10s. pension is that the lead which widows who receive it have over other widows in similar circumstances is rather less than it was. Since the 755House agreed that the basis of compensation for widows should be different, I do not think that there is any justification for bringing the lead back to where it was.
Mr. P. Williams
Will my right hon. Friend tell us how much of the decline occurred up to 1951?
I have not got that information now, but, if my hon. Friend will put down a Question, I shall be very happy to give the answer.
9. Mr. Mitchison
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance what percentage, as at the latest available date, of persons and of householders receiving retirement pensions or contributory old-age pensions was also receiving National Assistance.
It is estimated that 22.6 per cent. of pensioner households were receiving supplements from the National Assistance Board in June, 1963. Pensioners in these households amounted to 21.7 per cent. of the total number of retirement and contributory old age pensioners.
In view of these very high proportions which have now been running for some years, does not the right hon. Gentleman consider that an increase in National Insurance benefits is overdue?
The proportion is almost exactly the same as it was at the end of 1951. It would certainly be possible to reduce the proportion, as suggested, by improving National Insurance benefits and not National Assistance, but the difficulty is that this would give no help to the poorest of those concerned, because they would merely get benefit instead of assistance.
Does that mean that the right hon. Gentleman has no intention of increasing National Insurance benefits?
I have a number of Questions on this subject. Perhaps I can answer them when I get to them.
Sir J. Eden
Can my right hon. Friend say what proportion of the National 756Insurance retirement benefit has been paid for out of contributions?
I should have to have notice of that very complicated question.
10. Mr. Gourlay
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance by how much the retirement pension of a married pensioner would require to be increased to raise its present purchasing value to that which obtained on the date when the present rates of pensions were announced.
1s. 1d. would have to be added to the combined retirement pensions of a married couple.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that pensioners consider that they have been very shabbily treated by the present Government? Will he, therefore, review the present position of pensioners, especially at this time of year when many of them are unable to purchase sufficient coal to keep themselves warm? Will he consider announcing an early increase in pensions, although a General Election is not very far off?
I find it hard to believe that pensioners believe this, because in May——
Mr. A. Lewis
Ask them at Luton.
Luton was concerned with a number of issues—National Insurance benefits were given the highest value that they had ever had, and they still retain this highest value.
Notwithstanding that, is it not a fact that pensioners in Scotland in particular are still very dissatisfied with the present rate of pension, which is not sufficient to ensure that they can keep themselves warm at this time of year?
We could continue this argument for a very long time, but the steps which the Government took in the spring of this year had the effect of giving the pensioner a pension of greater value than he had ever had before.
30. Mr. Small
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance if he will express in terms of 1946 prices the present value of the basic retirement pension for a single adult male.757
36s. 2d., on the basis of the Retail Prices Index from June, 1947, and the Cost of Living Index for the earlier period.
Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that, in relation to the 26s. pension of 1946, the present level in monetary terms is quite derisory, particularly in what is regarded as our present affluent society?
The hon. Gentleman is not comparing two like things. The pension has not only increased in monetary terms, but has risen by more than half in real value since 1951. I point out also that the 26s. pension he is taking about had already decreased in value by 1951 to 23s. 3d. In fact, this Government are spending a very much larger proportion of the national income for this purpose than was being spent in 1951.
Why does one in five have to go for National Assistance?
For the reason which I gave earlier, that we have increased National Assistance as well as National Insurance benefits. If we had done one without the other, we should certainly have reduced the proportion, but we should not have helped those who were poorest.
The Minister uses the argument that more of the national income is being spent for this purpose. Does he take into account that there are very many more old-age pensioners? Further, will he look at the problem from the point of view of the old-age pensioner for a change, recognising that what they suffer from is the constant increase in the cost of bare essentials which they, as old-age pensioners, must have? For instance, the price of bread will go up next week, and this will be an important increase for them. Finally, will the Minister tell us clearly and definitely what is the Government's policy: is it to extend National Assistance rather than the basic pension, as he seemed to imply in an earlier answer to one of his hon. Friends?
I shall do my best to give as informative answers as possible to any hon. Member who puts Questions down. I am glad that the hon. Lady has drawn my attention to the increase 758in the number of retirement pensioners. The difference in the cost of pensions between 1951 and 1962 is striking—£270 million in 1951 and £820 million today.
Medical Appeal Tribunals
11. Mr. Swingler
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance if he will state, for each of the last three years in respect of injury benefit and disablement benefit cases, respectively, in what proportion of cases where the decision of the medical board was favourable to the claimant he referred the case to the medical appeal tribunal.
The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Lieut.-Commander S. L. C. Maydon)
Questions of injury benefit do not come before medical boards except in some cases of diagnosis of prescribed diseases. My right hon. Friend exercises his power to refer to medical appeal tribunals decisions of medical boards in the interests both of claimants and other contributors. The proportion of all the medical board decisions which came before medical appeal tribunals after such references in 1960, 1961 and 1962 was about 1.4 per cent., 1.4 per cent. and 1.6 per cent. respectively.
That does not answer the Question, which was concerned with a decision favourable to the claimant. Is the hon. and gallant Gentleman aware that I am concerned with the figures given by the Minister to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mrs. Slater) last week, which showed a startling increase in the number of cases which the Minister referred to the appeal tribunal, cases in which the medical board had given a favourable result to the claimant? In the last three years, in north Staffordshire at any rate, this increase in the number of cases referred to the appeal tribunal by the Minister has created the impression that the Ministry is doing everything possible to dispute the claims of the injured and disabled.
In the first place, it is impossible to separate what might be considered a favourable from an unfavourable decision. The assessment is given by the medical board, and it is not until after appeal that it can be found whether it remains 759the same, is reduced or increased, in which case it would be favourable or unfavourable.
Widows (Pensions and Earnings Rule)
12. Mr. Lipton
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance whether he will increase the pension of 10s. widows and abolish the earnings rule for widows' pensions.
Both these proposals were rejected by the House of Commons earlier this year. I have no further statement to make.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Government have already decided to improve pensions including those of the 10s. widow, and to abolish the earnings rule? Can he give us an assurance that these improvements, whatever they are, will be put into effect as soon as practicable and not kept in cold storage for the Tory election manifesto?
The hon. Gentleman seems to be in possession of information which has not come my way. Perhaps it would be helpful if we could have a little talk about this some time.
Dame Irene Ward
Apart from his argument with the hon. Member opposite, can my right hon. Friend tell me whether he agrees with my view and the view of most of my Conservative colleagues on the question of widows, and will he tender that advice to the Cabinet, which is much more important than an exchange of views across the Floor of the House?
My hon. Friend has expressed a number of views to myself and my right hon. Friends. With most of her views I find the same thing—I agree with some of them, but not necessarily all.
Retirement Pensions and Benefits
13. Mr. W. Hamilton
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance when he intends to make a statement on retirement pensions and other National Insurance benefits.
18. Mr. Milne
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance what 760changes Her Majesty's Government intend making in old-age pensions and other similar payments arising from recent increases in the cost of living.
19. Mr. Frank Allaun
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance if he will grant an increase of £1 a week to those on retirement pension or on National Assistance.
I have no statement to make except to remind the hon. Gentlemen that National Insurance benefits now have a higher real value than ever before.
Who will make the statement when it is made—the right hon. Gentleman or the Prime Minister? Would the right hon. Gentleman be prepared to live on the old-age pension?
I have not said whether or not a statement will be made, so it would be wholly hypothetical if I said who was going to make it. As for the retirement pension, I have not had any case brought to my notice where a pensioner is having to live on it alone.
When will the right hon. Gentleman agree to stop juggling with statistics and deal a little more sympathetically with this matter? Does he realise that the weightings in the cost of living index are heavily against the old-age pensioners? Will he have a look at the question of food and fuel in relation to pensioners and then tell us what he is prepared to do about it? Is he not aware that it is obvious in all our constituencies that there is a considerable amount of hardship which should be dealt with more sympathetically?
I will examine any information that the hon. Gentleman has to suggest that the means of measuring these things, which have been used for a very long time, are in some way basically faulty, but I have not had brought to my notice information which convinces me that the present is not the best way we have so far discovered of measuring these things.
Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Labour Party is committed to a substantial and immediate increase and that this will force the Government to promise some increase before the General Election.761
I understand that Labour is so committed, but what the party has not told us is what it will cost.
Will the right hon. Gentleman look again at an earlier reply in which he said that he had not had brought to his notice any case where a pensioner was living on "it" alone—meaning the retirement pension? Does he think that the type of pensioner who is over-shy, muddled or too proud to ask for National Assistance or for assistance from voluntary organisations of any kind is the type of pensioner he will hear about?
What I have been trying to do—in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden)—is to discourage the reluctance which I understand people feel, but which is so unnecessary, to approach the National Assistance Board. The Board exists—and Parliament has put it in a position to be able to do so—to help pensioners to supplement their means if they are inadequate for them to live on.
National Assistance (Scotland)
14. Mr. W. Hamilton
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance how many retirement pensioners in Scotland are in receipt of National Assistance supplementation; what proportion this is of the total; and what is the average supplement being paid.
At the end of June, 1963, 86,040 retirement pensioners in Scotland were receiving supplements from the National Assistance Board. Some of these grants provided for the requirements of a household with more than one pensioner, and it is estimated that the proportion of households receiving retirement pensions in which a supplement was also paid was 20.4 per cent. The average supplement was 17s. 9d.
Is not this further evidence that the basic pension is entirely inadequate? Will the Government give an assurance that one of the solutions to the problem—although not the only one—would be an increase in the basic pension? Will the hon. Lady also assure us that, when a statement is made on this, the Conservative Party, contrary to rumour, will not seek to solve the problem by putting the increase on National 762Assistance benefits, which means a means test, rather than on the basic pension?
The proportion of retirement pensioners drawing National Assistance depends really on the relationship between the two scale rates, that is, National Insurance and National Assistance. If last time we had put up National Insurance rates without putting up those of National Assistance, we should have been subject to very severe criticism. The proportion of retirement pensioners drawing supplements has not altered materially in recent years.
Mr. John Hall
Does not my hon. Friend agree that the National Assistance system allows assistance to be given where it is most needed? Would she not also agree that, to encourage people who are reluctant to apply for National Assistance, it might be helpful to adopt the suggestion I have often advanced—change the name of the National Assistance Board, which is a very unfortunate name in the minds of many people?
We have considered that from time to time, as my hon. Friend knows, but we do not believe that changing the name of the Board would achieve a material increase in the number of people applying for assistance. I would emphasise that one of the points about the system is that a person in need of help can get it readily this week—now—without having to fill in as much as a single form or visit a single Government office.
Is it the Government's intention to continue paying insufficient National Insurance pensions and to rely on the National Assistance Board to make them up to what is required to live on?
As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, insurance pensions are paid by virtue of contributions, quite regardless of need, and I think that the system we have of National Insurance on the one hand and National Assistance on the other, is right for present purposes.
23. Mr. Small
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance how many unemployed men in Scotland are in receipt of a National Assistance allowance below the scale because of the wage stop.763
Does the hon. Lady recognise that these figures relate to people who, because of the anomalies of the wage stop, are compelled to live below the standard set by the Government themselves? Will she review the situation, since this is not necessarily the best measurement to give justice to people who are unemployed?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we frequently discuss this in the House. The basic problem is that the wages system takes account only of a man's capacity to do a job and the social security system takes account of his family commitments. This is the point at which we have to have a reasonable compromise between the two, and the present regulations governing the wage stop are, I believe, reasonable.
Is the hon. Lady aware that the wage stop as applied in many areas is based upon the minimum hourly or weekly wage of a man working so many hours a week, whereas, in fact, most people working in industry earn, by agreement with their employers, a wage far above the minimum wage? Is it not quite unfair to a worker to set the stop at the minimum wage? Ought not the stop wage to be averaged according to the trade or occupation which a man follows in industry?
The wages figure which, in consultation with the Ministry of Labour, the Board try to apply is what the man would earn if he went back to work this week. I think that this is a reasonable basis.
Is the hon. Lady aware that there seems to be a practice now—this is so certainly in Lanarkshire—of the National Assistance Board itself scaling down the earning capacity of a man, for instance, reducing him from a general labourer to a person who is not physically fit to labour at all and paying him, therefore, on the basis of a person who is not physically fit to do a general labourer's job? Will she look into this?
If the hon. Gentleman has any individual cases, we will, as he knows, look into them; but the basis 764which I have given—what a man would earn if he went back to work this week—is the one which the Board generally apply.
Will the hon. Lady look into this again? Does not she know that, taking the last two occasions on which increases were made in National Assistance rates, there were 6,500 people who got nothing from the last increase and nothing from the previous increase? Does not she realise how difficult it is for a man, his wife and his family to try to exist on an income quite a bit below what even this Government regard as necessary for mere subsistence and keeping body and soul together?
I am aware of the difficulties, but I am quite sure that it would be wrong to pay a man more when he is out of a job than he could get if he went back to work.
27. Mr. Millan
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance what estimate he has made of the number of persons in Glasgow who are in receipt of National Assistance supplementation, but whose regular weekly income falls below the National Assistance minimum scale rate.
28. Mr. Lawson
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance what estimate he has made of the number of persons in Lanarkshire who are in receipt of National Assistance supplementation, but whose regular weekly income falls below the National Assistance scale rate.
I regret that information from which such estimates could be made is not available.
Will the hon. Lady try to get such information? Quite apart from the detailed anomalies to which my hon. Friends have drawn attention, is it not quite wrong and distasteful in principle that in these cases the National Assistance Board should be deliberately paying people below the subsistence level?
The information from which we get the wage stop figures arises from a sample survey. This gives us a reliable figure for a large area, but not for a small area such as the hon. Gentleman requests, which could be done only by taking an actual count. I 765do not think that I can usefully add to what I have already said about the wage stop.
Is the hon. Lady aware that some of my hon. Friends asked for, and were given during the last Session, even more detailed information? If at one time we can get information related, for instance, to Hamilton and other places, why cannot we have similar information now? Will the hon. Lady look at the matter again, since I and other hon. Members know of people receiving as much as £2 less than her own Government consider should be the minimum standard below which no one should have to live?
During consideration of the last general uprating provisions and the interaction between National Insurance and National Assistance, the Board took an actual count as we went through the papers. That count was relevant only to the uprating and the circumstances in which it was done. I shall, of course, look into any individual case which the hon. Gentleman puts to me.
War Pensioners (Widows)
15. Sir R. Cary
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance what proposals he has to help the widows of severely disabled war pensioners during the period immediately following the husband's death.
As from today, the widow of a war pensioner, who was receiving constant attendance allowance or unemployability supplement, will be eligible for a special allowance for the first thirteen weeks after his death. The allowance will normally be equivalent to the war disablement pension and the main allowances paid to the husband before his death, except the additional allowance for a wife.
The new allowance will usually be substantially higher than, and will then replace, the war widow's pension or National Insurance widow's benefit for those thirteen weeks, after which the appropriate existing widowhood benefits will apply.
I hope that this new allowance, by broadly continuing the husband's pension for thirteen weeks, will give some help to widows of severely disabled war 766pensioners in the period immediately after their husbands die.
The amending Pensions Instruments have been laid and copies are available in the Vote Office.
Sir R. Cary
May I ask my right hon. Friend whether he is aware that his Answer will give widespread satisfaction to both sides of the House, as it will to the hard-working officials of the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association and other organisations? Over the years, successive Governments have dealt honourably and fairly with limbless ex-Service men but in the past, all too often on the death of such a man, his widow has suffered a grievous decline in her standard of living to the point of almost intolerable hardship. My right hon. Friend has corrected that position for the future and may I thank him sincerely for the step he has taken?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those remarks. Perhaps I may also express my appreciation of the work of my predecessors, who prepared the way for this.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association put this particular hardship at the head of its agenda at every annual conference for a number of years and that it will wish to echo the thanks conveyed by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Sir R. Cary)? Is he further aware that I also pay tribute to him and to his predecessors for the way they have handled some of the hardships of disabled ex-Service men? Would the right hon. Gentleman be willing to meet a deputation from the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association to consider some outstanding hardships which still remain?
I am also grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am seeing representatives of the association both tomorrow and Wednesday, and no doubt they will take the opportunity then of raising further points with me.
16. Dr. Bray
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance whether he will now announce a planned rate of increase in pensions.767
I think it best that we should continue to take into account all the circumstances that are relevant, including prices, before putting specific proposals to Parliament.
Does not the right hon. Gentleman feel that the new attitude to forward planning of Government expenditure—taken many years ahead—plus the accepted need for a policy of distribution of income, means that if we do not earmark an increasing share of the national income for pensioners we shall always be in the position of not being able to afford the pension increases which we know are needed?
I think that the method suggested by the hon. Gentleman would tend to introduce a certain unwelcome rigidity into the development of pensions. If, in the past, we had tried to link increases in pensions to some economic index, they would almost certainly be lower than they are. If they had been linked, for instance, with the retail price index they would be 43s. 6d. and if linked to average earnings they would be 58s. 5d. As it is, however, they are 67s. 6d.
Does not the right hon. Gentleman have some sort of index of the cost of living for old-age pensioners, something more particular than the usual retail price index? If so, will he make it available to hon. Members or publish it?
The question put by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, West (Dr. Bray) was whether we would project our minds forward and announce a planned rate of future increases of pensions. I think what he had in mind was some means of assessing what prices and other circumstances will be in the future. There is no mechanism at the moment that will do that.
Children (National Assistance)
17. Mr. McKay
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance if he is aware that a child leaving school at 15 years of age has no claim through his parent to family allowances, National Insurance or National Assistance if he remains unemployed, and the parent is sick or unemployed, and that a child who leaves school at 16 years of age has 768a claim to National Assistance of 37s. per week if unemployed; and, in view of these facts, if he will consult the National Assistance Board with a view to making regulations to enable them to give children who are unemployed at 15 years of age a claim to National Assistance.
No, Sir. The needs of a child of 15, in the circumstances described in the Question, can be provided for in the assessment of any assistance allowance payable.
I am afraid that the hon. Lady has not the right information on this matter. I have made inquiries about this myself of various National Insurance officers and they definitely tell me that a boy who leaves school at 15 cannot claim National Assistance and that, in addition, if his parents are on National Insurance benefit through sickness, injury or any other cause, he loses about 20s. National Insurance money. I understand that, in addition, if the father is on National Assistance he loses the 28s. which he used to get for the boy.
The whole point is whether this is a big question or so small that it can be overlooked. The Minister of Labour informs me that there are 32,181 concerned who are under 18 years of age, so this is a big question. If the hon. Lady allows for the 17-year olds, the 16-year olds and the 15-year olds, allocating the 15-year olds only one-third of the total, this would mean a total of 10,000 of these youngsters. These children have no place in society for the time being. The Minister should pay attention seriously to this matter and consider the advisability of giving a child of 15 some National Assistance just as the 16-year-old boy is able to get it.
I wonder if I may clear up what would appear to be one or two misunderstandings between the hon. Gentleman and myself? I agree that a child of 15 cannot claim National Assistance in his own right. The point I was trying to make, and on which I can assure the hon. Gentleman I am right, is that, if the boy's father is on National Assistance, an allowance can be paid in respect of the boy but not to the boy himself.769
25. Mr. Lawson
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance if, in view of the number of unemployed young people under 16 years of age, he will introduce legislation to enable the National Assistance Board to pay these young people a weekly allowance.
No, Sir. The minimum age for making independent application for National Assistance was fixed by Section 7(5) of the National Assistance Act, 1948, and my right hon. Friend has no proposals to amend it.
If the hon. Lady's Government claim to have made so many improvements in past legislation, will not they look at this? Is it not a great anomaly that, for instance, although the parents of a child continuing at school may be in receipt of allowances in respect of that child, no allowances are payable if the child does not continue at school? Is there not a strange anomaly here which this Government, if they are really so much concerned to make improvements, should put right at once?
I think that the age of 16 is quite young enough to allow a child income in his own right, and there is nothing to warrant reducing the age to 15.
Graduated Pensions Scheme
20. Miss Herbison
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance what to date is the sum of the contributions paid under the graduated pensions scheme by men and women who have retired before being eligible for any benefit.
I am afraid that this information is not available.
But is not the Minister aware of the feeling among people about to retire when they know that what they paid under the graduated scheme would neither give them an increased pension nor be returned to them? Will he do his best to get this information?
In order to get the information, I should have to examine the records of all contributors who have retired in the past two and a half years. I should then have to add the graduated 770contributions paid by those who have failed to earn any graduated pension. The hon. Lady will understand that this would be a quite formidable exercise. If I may try to get to the point of the Question, I do not think that the present system is unfair. As it is, if half or more than half the cost of a unit has been paid, then a whole unit is earned in pension, and, if less than half, then the contributions do not earn a unit. Frankly, I do not think that there can be any complaint that a man or woman retiring today is being "diddled" by the Government, because he or she gets a National Insurance pension worth many times the contributions he or she has paid, even if those contributions have been in full over the past forty years.
Surely, the Minister must be aware that there are many people among those retiring who have paid this graduated contribution and who are in receipt of benefit from it but who also think that it is a swindle in the scheme that they are not getting in return what they ought to be getting?
The hon. Lady will find that, if it became the system to give refunds where it was not possible to give any graduated pension, it would not then be possible to pay a unit of pension until the full contributions for that unit had been paid. I do not think that pensioners would benefit in the long run.
Medical Board (Examinations)
21. Miss Herbison
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance what are his proposals for decreasing the time-lag between a person's being referred to a medical board and his examination taking place.
I do not know which medical board examinations the hon. Lady has in mind. If she has evidence of difficulty in a particular case, I shall be glad to look into it.
The Minister will at least be aware of the number of times I have to write to his Department. I have in mind cases of people who are off sick. Their doctor has certified them as unfit for work, but, before any money in insurance is paid to them, they are 771immediately referred to the medical board, and there is delay in the working of the medical board which makes it very difficult to have any proof that the doctor was right in giving the certificate.
The normal period between being called for an Industrial Injuries Medical Board and examination is only seven days. There may be cases in which further complications arise, such as the need for a report from a hospital, which cause some delay, but cases of that kind are the exception rather than the rule.
26. Mr. Prentice
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance what consideration he is giving to raising unemployment benefit as a partial answer to the problems of redundancy and severance pay; and if he will make a statement.
Unemployment benefit was substantially raised last March. The hon. Member may have in mind the question of earnings-related benefit; I am now examining the problems this would involve.
Is that all that has happened since July, when the Minister of Labour's National Joint Advisory Council considered the problem of redundancy and said that part of the answer might lie in a revision of the unemployment benefits system? Can the Minister say when he expects the consideration which he mentions to be completed, or whether there is any hope at all of a revision of unemployment benefit, and possibly graduated benefit, during the remaining months of this Parliament?
What has happened both before and since July has been an examination of the very complicated problems which this would involve. I have had discussions with the employers, and I am about to have them with the Trades Union Congress. I hope to make progress on this, but, as the hon. Gentleman, with his knowledge of these matters, will realise, this is a very complicated question, and I cannot promise any very rapid progress.