PENSIONS AND NATIONAL INSURANCE
Partially Blind Persons
16. Mrs. Hart
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance what proposals he has had from the National Assistance Board regarding a revision of the National Assistance (Determination of Need) Regulations to permit the special higher scale of assistance to blind persons to be paid in cases where the degree of partial sight is so low as to preclude any normal employment or activity.
The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)
None, Sir. The existing statutory provisions do not confine the higher scale to the totally blind.
But is the hon. Lady aware that there may be cases of real hardship? Does she not think that if a person is in receipt of National Assistance and is at the same time severely handicapped by lack of vision, this ought to be enough to enable him to qualify for the allowance as a blind person? Will she [column 12]consider asking the National Assistance Board to regard the definition, which is crucial here, as relating to whether or not the handicapped person is able to follow his normal employment?
As I think the hon. Lady knows, the definition to which the National Assistance Board works is contained in Section 64 of the Act, which says:
“blind person means a person so blind as to be unable to perform any work for which eyesight is essential.”
Whether a person comes within the terms of that definition is a matter for the ophthalmologist who examines him. If he is partially handicapped, the Board can take that into account in its discretionary allowances.
But is it not the case that there can be instances where somebody might be able to perform some jobs for which sight is essential but still not be able to follow his normal course of employment? Does not the hon. Lady think that he should be treated generously by the State and regarded as a severely handicapped person because of lack of vision?
I think that he probably would. I hope that he would be treated generously by the National Assistance Board through its discretionary allowances. It certainly takes all these factors into account in determining these allowances.
Unemployed Persons (Holidays)
17. Mrs. Castle
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance whether he will introduce legislation to amend Section 29 of the National Insurance Act so as to enable unemployed persons who take their holiday abroad during traditional holiday weeks to qualify for unemployment benefit on the same basis as those taking their holidays in Great Britain.
The Minister of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. Richard Wood)
No, Sir. It is difficult to see how the ordinary conditions for unemployment benefit could be satisfied by people who take their holidays abroad. An exception to the statutory bar on the payment of unemployment benefit for periods of absence from Great Britain would not be justified.
But is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this problem particularly affects unemployed married women insured in their own right, such as cotton weavers, for whom no work can be found during the town's traditional holiday week because all the mills are closed? If these women go out of Great Britain on holiday with their husbands to, say, Ireland, they not only forfeit unemployment benefit but have to stamp their own cards as well, whereas if they go to Scotland they do not do either. Is not there an anomaly which ought to be looked into?
I think that, as far as this country goes, the arrangements for paying benefit are not relaxed in the traditional holiday weeks. The test has always been whether the claimant is or is not available for employment. It is not whether employment is available for the claimant, but whether the claimant is available for employment. That is the test which is applied, and that is why unemployment benefit is not paid. As regards people going abroad, it is unrealistic to suppose that the test of availability for employment can be fulfilled by people who go abroad for a holiday.
Is not someone as likely to be available to come back from Ireland as from Scotland? Ought not there to be a discretion in the operation of this Section? Is it not too rigid as it stands, and does it not cause serious anomalies?
I think it is fair that the line should be drawn at the British Isles. One might say that someone who was sitting on the quay at Calais could get back as fast as someone in Scotland, but if Calais, why not Naples? I do not think it would be possible to go beyond the shores of this country without getting into an awful mess.
18. Mrs. Castle
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance what new steps he will take to enable old-age pensioners to meet the increased fuel bills arising from the introduction of smokeless zones.
None, Sir. The White Paper on Domestic Fuel Supplies and [column 14]the Clean Air Policy made clear that the introduction of smokeless zones need not lead to increased fuel bills. The National Assistance Board already takes certain steps to help with the cost in individual cases where there are difficulties.
Whatever the White Paper may say, the facts of the situation are that smokeless fuels are dearer than good quality coal, particularly since summer prices were introduced. Is it not also a fact that in view of our typically cold summer weather old-age pensioners must have a fire all the year round? Ought not there to be an increased allowance for these smokeless fuels in the National Assistance scales?
I do not disagree with the hon. Lady when she says that smokeless fuels, weight for weight, are more expensive than ordinary coal, but the White Paper to which I referred made it clear that the heat output of these fuels was greater and that therefore the cost for heat was less. There was a time when I could have given the hon. Lady an even more authoritative answer, but I think that now I had better refer questions of this kind to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Power.
Industrial Injuries and National Assistance
19. Mr. J. Griffiths
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance whether, having regard to the increase in the number of persons in receipt of benefits under the National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Acts whose income has to be supplemented by the National Assistance Board, he will introduce legislation to increase the benefits under those Acts.
No, Sir. There has been a steady rise in the numbers entitled to such benefits and the very small proportion who receive supplements from the National Assistance Board has not increased over the years.
I am glad to know that they have not increased, but does not the right hon. Gentleman think that the fact that some people disabled by industrial injury or by industrial disease have to have recourse to assistance is one of the major reasons why he should [column 15]bring legislation before the House to increase the payment, particularly as the Industrial Injuries Fund now stands at more than £300 million?
I think the right hon. Gentleman will know better than anyone that the National Assistance Board has always existed to provide for special needs. Again, I think he knows better than anyone that it is conceivable—there is nothing wrong about it—that someone with a low rate of disablement benefit because he has had a small loss of faculty may qualify for supplement from the National Assistance Board. Thirdly, one reason why the Board comes into a number of these cases is because of the disregard of a certain amount of Industrial Injuries benefit.
20. Mr. J. Griffiths
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance what estimate he has made of the number of retirement pensioners whose total income is such as would entitle them to a supplementary grant from the National Assistance Board but who have not made an application for assistance.
32. Mr. Prentice
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance what steps he takes to estimate the number of retirement pensioners whose circumstances would entitle them to a supplementary pension from the National Assistance Board, but who have not applied for assistance; and what is the most recent estimate.
None, Sir. A great difficulty about making a firm estimate is that it could only be done by asking many old people to make a detailed disclosure of their circumstances, with no probability of benefit to themselves. I have considered that the right course is to concentrate on positive ways of overcoming any reluctance people may feel about applying to the Board.
The Minister knows that he is under an obligation under the Act, which provides for a quinquennial review, to look at problems of this kind and to make an investigation. Has he any reason to doubt the estimate which has been given by many people who have made competent researches into this matter, and repeated by a well[column 16]informed correspondent in The Times newspaper last week, that the number of people who are living below the standard set by the Assistance Board, and that means dire poverty, is 750,000 and possibly even one million? Has he any reason to doubt that? If that is anywhere near the truth, does it not indicate that there is a need for a radical revision of our existing arrangements?
I have seen those estimates and I have heard them put forward in debates in the House. Most of them stem from work done by Mrs. Cole-Wedderburn under the auspices of the Cambridge Department of Applied Economics. Whatever this estimate was, it was not an estimate of people suffering hardship. It was an estimate of the people she claimed to have found, based on a comparatively small survey, who would have qualified for assistance if they had made application. Some of the cases were subsequently investigated and, in fact, those concerned did not qualify because of capital and other resources. But in any event, I believe that the best approach to this problem, particularly in the light of Mrs. Cole-Wedderburn 's survey, is to try to take positive steps to spread more widely information about the services which the Board is prepared to offer, through social workers and through local newspapers and so on. As I announced in the House, I have recently taken the positive step of putting a new leaflet in every pensions book which has the object of trying to ease the way for people into National Assistance.
In view of the figures based on Mrs. Cole-Wedderburn's survey, is it not clear that the Minister ought to have a survey of his own because of the probable size of the problem? When he says that he thinks that not all these cases are of severe hardship, would he not agree that the figure probably includes some of the worst cases of poverty in this country, of very elderly people often living alone and living below the National Assistance level? Is not this a grave social problem which demands urgent attention?
I am prepared to consider what the hon. Member said, but so far I have taken the view that this inquiry, which it is being suggested that I ought [column 17]to undertake, means investigating, as I said in my Answer, in great detail the circumstances of many people who would not benefit at all.
Surely even though it would mean investigating the circumstances of many people who would not benefit, the Minister or his Department would also be investigating cases in which many people would benefit? In spite of all the publicity and the note in the pensions book, there are still many old people in this country who even when they know that they can get help, are very reluctant to go to the National Assistance Board, and sometimes personal contact is the step which finally gets them to make application.
All I can say is that if there existed anything like the number which Mrs. Cole-Wedderburn estimated—it is an estimate on which figures have been based in the House—I would expect that the social workers and others in very close contact with people of this kind would bring more cases to the National Assistance Board for help.
Would it not be a useful step towards getting rid of misunderstandings if legislative steps were taken to bring the National Assistance Board under the Ministry instead of being left under a supposedly independent Board?
I think that goes a little wide of the Question.
In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply and the very great importance of the matter, I give notice that I shall seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment at the very earliest possible moment.
34. Miss Herbison
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance what reply he has given to the National Association of Old Age Pensioners on their claim for a rise in their basic retirement pension.
If the hon. Lady is referring to the National Federation of Old Age Pensions Associations, I have had no recent letter addressed to me on this matter.
From time to time, the Association in Scotland and the National Federation have made repre[column 18]sentations to the Minister. From the reply which was given to my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Doig) about the great number of old-age pensioners in Scotland receiving National Assistance, is it not clear that the time has come to give all old-age pensioners a rise in their present rate?
I have nothing to say at present in reply to the hon. Lady. She can make her own comparisons of the rate which retirement pensioners are now receiving with the rate which they received in the early 1950s.
Are we to take it that the Minister is completely satisfied that a basic rate of £3 7s. 6d. is an adequate pension for old people, no matter what the comparison may be with 50 years or so ago?
The hon. Lady must patiently await any further news which may come to her. I was saying that I have nothing to say at the moment.
Pneumoconiosis (North Staffordshire)
21. Mr. Swingler
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance how many claims for industrial widows' pensions in respect of pneumoconiosis have been made in North Staffordshire in each of the last three years; how many have succeeded; and how many have been rejected.
The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Lieut.-Commander S. L. C. Maydon)
I am afraid this information is not available, but I have some figures which may help the hon. Member. They relate to all claims for death benefit, whether from widows or other dependants, referred for advice to the Pneumoconiosis Medical Panel at Stoke-on-Trent, which covers North Stafford-shire and North Shropshire. I will, with permission, circulate them in the Official Report.
Is the Parliamentary Secretary aware that there is some good reason for investigating the data regarding widows? Is he aware that there is a deep sense of injustice among many widows now disqualified whose husbands [column 19]suffered a high degree of pneumoconiosis, sometimes for 10 or 15 years during their lifetime? Is he aware that there is an opinion among many medical men that in such cases pneumoconiosis ought to be regarded automatically as a contributory cause of death and a reason for granting widows' pensions? Would he, therefore, investigate what is the situation about the rejection of widows' claims and this particular aspect of these cases?
Entitlement to industrial death benefit is dependent upon death having resulted from the disease. It does not follow, because a man had a disablement pension for pneumoconiosis in life, that he died from that disease.
Is not the Parliamentary Secretary aware, quoting a case from my constituency, that where a woman has nursed a man for 10 years who is reckoned to be 80 per cent. disabled by pneumoconiosis, it creates a deep sense of injustice when she is not entitled to an industrial widow's benefit?
If the Hon. Member will be kind enough to refer the case to me, I will certainly look at it.
Following is the information:
Sickness Benefit (Married Women)
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance what could have been the additional cost in [column 20]1963 of paying full sickness benefit in place of the reduced amount to married women who pay the full contribution.
The cost in the financial year 1963–64 would have been about £5 million.
Will the Minister have this type of case examined by the Advisory Committee? I understand that it is some time since the Advisory Committee looked at this matter. In these days, when so many women normally work full-time and feel aggrieved when, being off sick, they have no full National Insurance benefit, surely it is time at least to have another look at the matter?
That figure was for sickness benefit only. If we add unemployment benefit to it, it will come to £7 million. I am certain that my right hon. Friend has heard the hon. Lady's representations.
23. Mr. Swingler
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance when the conditions on which the confinement grant is made were last reviewed; and to what extent he has taken into account, when considering these conditions, the fact that mothers who have confinements in hospital are spending much shorter periods away from home.
The conditions for home confinement grant were last reviewed in 1955 and we are looking into this matter at the moment. The extent to which mothers are spending shorter periods in hospital after confinement is one of the factors to be taken into account.
While thanking the hon. Lady for that reply, may I ask her to speed up the inquiry? I think it is agreed that the situation has changed completely since 1955. Is she aware that it is the widespread practice now for women to be discharged from hospital 48 or even 24 hours after confinement, so that the conditions are quite anomalous?
We are consulting the Health Departments, who would be considerably affected by any change. I explained this to the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) in an [column 21]Adjournment debate which we had on the subject. But I pointed out to her that, whatever we do, the number of grievances will not be greatly reduced because on the second day after confinement about 20,000 women are discharged from hospital, on the third day about 15,000 are discharged and on the fourth day about 11,000 are discharged. I am afraid that wherever we fixed the limit a number of people would fall on the wrong side of it.
Will the hon. Lady remember that when we discussed this matter in an Adjournment debate she agreed with me that the present situation was unsatisfactory? I am very glad that there is to be a review of the situation. Could she say when she hopes to be able to report on this situation to the House?
It is unlikely that I shall be able to report before the House rises. I will do so in the next Parliament.
Limbless Ex-Service Men (Committee)
25. Sir R. Cary
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance if he will make a statement about the compensation of limbless ex-Service men.
I have been considering the issues raised by Motion No. 53 on the Order Paper in the name of my hon. Friend and many hon. Members. These issues cannot be fairly considered without taking account of other disabilities besides the loss of limbs. I have therefore decided that the best course will be to set up an independent Committee. The terms of reference which I shall give it will allow the Committee to consider two matters. First, whether developments since the introduction of the present schedule of assessments, which is common to the War Pensions Instruments and the Industrial Injuries Acts, would justify any modification to the schedule; and, secondly, whether there is any case for special provision for disablement due to amputation, either generally or in relation to advancing age.
Sir R. Cary
Is my right hon. Friend aware that his decision to initiate an independent inquiry will give great [column 22]satisfaction to both sides of the House, particularly as nearly 500 hon. Members signed a Motion standing on the Order Paper in my name and the names of my hon. Friends? May I also on behalf of the members of the British limbless Ex-Service Men's Association thank him for the courtesy and patience which he has shown to them in this matter? Has he anything in mind in regard to the time factor in this matter, as to the pace of the inquiry, when a conclusion may be reached and above all the final steps, when the Government may make an announcement?
No, Sir. I am afraid that I cannot give my hon. Friend, to whom I am extremely grateful for what he said, further information at this stage. I will get ahead with the composition of the Committee. I hope that it will be able to start work as soon as possible, but this is a complicated subject and I am afraid that it is likely to take some time.
Since the Hancock Committee, which reported on this matter as long ago as 1946, was an inter-departmental committee and had wide terms of reference, applying both to industrial injuries and to war service injuries, will the Minister see that the terms of reference of this Committee will be at least as wide as those and will include the minor injuries which were taken into account by the Hancock Committee outwith its terms of reference?
Perhaps I should take this opportunity to make it clear that the purpose of this Committee will be to concern itself with the relativities of the compensation for various kinds of disability. I must make it clear that it will not be concerned with the monetary levels of compensation, because that is clearly a matter which the Government; must decide in the light of the Committee's Report.
Sir Knox Cunningham
Will my right hon. Friend at the earliest possible date let the House know the composition of the Committee?
I will do my best.
I am not sure that the right hon. Gentleman quite answered my Question, although he may have meant to do so. The Hancock Committee was [column 23]an inter-departmental committee with wider terms of reference and its findings applied to industrial injuries as they applied to war service injuries. It is the same question in both cases. Will the proposed new Committee have terms of reference at least as wide as those and will its assessments be assessments of percentages even if they are not assessments of amount?
The assessments which finally emerge from the Committee will be on the same lines as the Hancock assessments. The purpose of the Committee is to see whether the assessments which were fixed 18 years ago are or are not still up to date. They will apply not only to war pensioners but also to those who are industrially injured.
Handicapped Persons (Death Grant)
26. and 27. Mr. McBride
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance (1) whether he is aware that handicapped persons may be unable to take employment, or to satisfy contribution conditions for National Insurance and may remain dependent on relatives throughout their lives; whether he will re-submit to the National Insurance Advisory Committee the question of payment of a death grant in such cases irrespective of the age of the dependent: and what steps he proposes to take to remedy the hardships at present caused by its refusal:
(2) what decision he has reached on the payment of a death grant in respect of people who through disability have never been able to work.
36. Mr. Small
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance what steps he intends to take with regard to the payment by the National Assistance Board of a death grant in respect of those people who because of physical or mental illness have never paid National Insurance contributions.
In cases of need, the National Assistance Board can provide grants during the lifetime of handicapped persons so that they need not remain completely dependent on relatives. The provision of death grant for all such persons raises difficult and wider issues which my right hon. Friend is at present studying.
Is the hon. Member aware that many people will be disappointed with that Answer? Could she not submit this afresh to the National Insurance Advisory Committee? Is she further aware that the financial cost to the nation of providing the death grant for mentally handicapped children irrespective of age would be small indeed? I ask her again to look at this matter in human terms and to alleviate a real hardship caused to parents on the death of handicapped children over 18 years of age—an alleviation of hardship which would be a blessing indeed.
I agree that the cost of giving the death grant to this small group of people would not be very great. Our difficulty in the National Insurance Scheme would be to confine the grant, in the absence of contributions, to this small group of people. If we gave it to this group of people there would be a number of others who would have similar claims. Despite the absence of contributions, or a low record of contributions, they would also want death grants. But we are considering this point.
Mr. L. M. Lever
On a point of order. I thought that you were going to call me. Mr. Speaker, on Question No. 25. I want to support the hon. Member for Withington (Sir R. Cary) in that matter. I have had more connection with this question than any other hon. Member who has spoken about it. I should like to support the hon. Member for Withington in thanking the Minister for his reply to Question No. 25.
Order. I do not understand what the hon. Member is trying to do. If he reflected about points of order in general he would see that we should clearly be in a difficulty if hon. Members were to talk about something of that kind, and in particular to talk about another Question, on a point of order.
The hon. Lady will recognise that people are covered up to the age of 16 and then enjoy National Assistance as a right. Could not she introduce some measure of equity here, without closely applying economic principles throughout? Since National Assistance is afforded up to the age of 16, an additional ex gratia payment on death would not break the back of the nation, would it?
If I understand the hon. Gentleman right, he is asking whether the National Assistance Board could make a death grant in such cases. This was mentioned the last time we had Questions on this topic. Studies on the point have so far been a little disappointing. As the law now stands, the Board tells me that it has no power to make payments in respect of deceased persons and no responsibility for burials under the 1948 Act. The Board does, however, use its discretionary powers to help with funeral expenses in exceptional circumstances where a person who has incurred a debt in arranging a funeral is himself in receipt of assistance or living at about the assistance level and when, because help cannot be obtained from other sources, real hardship would arise if nothing were done.
Is not this a matter which ought to go to the Advisory Committee again? When it was considered, together with a number of other matters, as long ago as 1955, it was turned down only on the ground that there were very few cases. Is not that an insufficient ground, and ought not the question to be referred to the Advisory Committee again to see whether it can limit the task properly?
If I recall aright, the National Insurance Advisory Committee turned the proposal down on account of the difficulty which I mentioned in answer to an earlier question, namely, that of providing a grant given in return for contributions in a case where there is an absence of contributions. This is the fundamental insurance difficulty. Of course, the Advisory Committee would have no status in relation to National Assistance.
Who is responsible for the disposal of the body if there is no income and no cash of any kind in the family? Will she tell us about that, because it seems to be a ridiculous situation?
I am not responsible for that particular matter. The Board tells me that it has no responsibility for burial under the National Assistance Act. I think that responsibility is laid on the local authority in the absence of other arrangements.
National Insurance Contributions
28. Mr. Manuel
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance how many increases have been made in National Insurance contributions since October 1951 and what is the overall percentage increase.
I refer the hon. Member to the reply my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary gave the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. A. Lewis) on 7th February.
That reply is most unsatisfactory. Does the Minister realise that his increased contribution constitutes a poll tax which falls very heavily on the lower income groups? Have the Government considered the economic implications of this? What remedy do they suggest?
Several of the Government's recent measures have, in fact, been moves exactly away from the position which the hon. Gentleman describes. If he will look again at the table which he has, apparently, already studied, there will become evident to him the very considerable increase in contributions which will be necessary to pay for the benefits which, apparently, his party is now suggesting should be instituted. Perhaps another reading of the table will enable him to be rather more explicit about what contributions would be necessary.
National Assistance (Scotland)
29. Mr. Lawson
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance how many persons in Scotland are receiving a reduced National Assistance allowance because of the operation of the wage pause.
I regret that the information is not available.
Is not this information which should be available? Is the hon. Lady aware that all the people coming within this category are living below the National assistance scale level, which is supposed to be the lowest level at which anyone in this country lives? Will she, at least, see that this particular measure is operated in as humane a manner as possible, not in as harsh a way as possible, as seems to have been the case in many instances?
The hon. Gentleman has directed his Question to the ‘wage pause’. I take it that his supplementary question is directed to the operation of the wage stop.
In response to the latter part of his supplementary question, may I remind the hon. Gentleman that in individual cases, which on rare occasions come to us, we try to operate the rule as humanely as possible. We have a lot of questions of this topic put to us, with well rehearsed arguments, but very few individual cases are brought to our attention.
I take it that the hon. Lady knew what was meant by the use of the word “pause” instead of “stop” in this connection. Is she aware that we have regular examples of what seem to us to be a harsh application of the rule, where there seems to have been an effort to find the very lowest possible wage rate at which the calculation could begin? Will she ensure that this kind of practice is not continued?
The hon. Gentleman says that he has a large number of cases——
—frequent individual cases. I can only remember one coming to me since I have been answering, and that was the one which the hon. Gentleman himself forwarded, which, as he knows, resulted in considerable relief to his constituent. If he or other hon. Members know of more cases, I should be grateful if they would forward them.
The hon. Lady may think that she has given a smart reply to my hon. Friend, but is not she aware that there are many hundreds of people—married men with their wives and children—who are suffering under the wage pause in Scotland particularly because of the lower rates of wages there? Is there nothing at all that she can do to help these hundreds of families in Scotland who are living below what even this Government regard as the minimum subsistence level at which families can live?
The hon. Lady is very unjust in her strictures. Before I came here this morning, I went through every single file we had on this topic so that I could give the House an accurate answer. The hon. Lady knows the [column 28]general principle—I do not think that the Labour Party would go against it, or, at least, I should be interested if they were to suggest it—that we cannot pay more to a person when he is out of work than he could expect to get on his return to work. We try to operate this principle very humanely, and we shall continue to do so, in spite of what the hon. Lady says.
30. Mr. Doig
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance how many retired persons in Scotland are in receipt of an allowance from the National Assistance Board.
On 31st March, 1964, 109,339. Some of the allowances provided for the requirements of more than one person.
In the light of a figure as large as that, does not the hon. Lady agree that the basic pension is totally inadequate and that it is time that it was reviewed upwards?
In fact, the figure is slightly lower than it was a year ago. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the cost of financing an increase in the rates of pension is borne by contributors and the taxpayer, and this is one of the matters which has to be taken into account. It was raised, at a cost of £227 million all round, last year.
But have not we recently been told that the Government have budgeted for an increase? When shall we hear more about it?
If the hon. Gentleman will read the Government's White Paper on future expenditure he will find the relevant paragraph.
31. Mr. Doig
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance how many widows are in receipt of either a pension of 10s. or no pension as a result of the raising of the operative age from 40 years to 50 years.
I estimate that the number is of the order of 10,000. I remind the hon. Member that the age test for a National Insurance widow's pension was always 50 for widows with no dependent children. Widows who fail [column 29]to qualify under the age test who cannot get work or are sick can now get unemployment or sickness benefit.
Does not the hon. Lady realise that women in this age group have the utmost difficulty in finding employment? In view of this fact, does not she consider that a change should be made?
One of the changes made after the National Insurance Advisory Committee reported in 1956 was to give widows with no title to a widow's pension a right to get unemployment benefit and sickness benefit. This was an improvement on previous legislation.
While there may be argument in the House about the age at which a widow ought to qualify for widow's benefit, does not the hon. Lady agree that it is a terrible hardship that a widow who just by days or even by hours comes below the age of 50 is debarred from a benefit which her fellow widow receives by virtue of being over 50? Will the Government, at least, consider introducing some flexibility at the end of the scale when considering the eligibility of widows for the widow's pension?
I agree that anyone who misses a particular benefit very narrowly is bound to feel a grievance. I am sure that I should myself. I shall bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman has said and pass on his representations to Richard Woodmy right hon. Friend.
33. Mr. Prentice
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance what progress is being made with the inquiry into occupational deafness; and when this is likely to be completed.
I understand that this inquiry is making satisfactory progress, but I am unable to say when it is likely to be completed.
The inquiry began in January, 1962. Is it not taking rather a long time? Is there any prospect of an interim report as a result of these inquiries which could be referred to the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council so that it could consider the possibility of [column 30]prescribing occupational deafness as an industrial disease, as is done already in many other countries?
The inquiry is taking a long time, and inquiries of this kind are bound to do so. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is prospective research, measuring the deterioration, if any, in people with unaffected hearing at intervals of about nine months. If these prospective investigations are to teach us anything, the inquiry must take some time. The question of an interim report is for the scientists carrying out the research. The Industrial Injuries Advisory Council is in touch with progress and it is, naturally, keenly waiting the outcome, as the hon. Gentleman is.
Wage-related Unemployment Benefit
35. Mr. Small
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance if he has now completed his study of the question of wage-related unemployment benefit; and if he will make a statement.
37. Mr. Lawson
asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance when he intends to introduce wage related unemployment benefit.
I am still examining the problems involved.
The Minister will recognise that, while this would be a major change, it would be a very desirable one. Will he make a statement on the principle before the end of this Parliament?
The hon. Gentleman can be fully assured that we should not have entered into detailed discussions with the Trades Union Congress and the British Employers Confederation if we were not contemplating at all the possibility of this principle. When I have a statement to make, I shall make it.
Is the Minister aware that in this respect this country has already dropped behind most other advanced industrial countries? Does he not agree that he should now give us this information and that it is about time he gave us a definite statement that he intends quickly to introduce wage-related unemployment benefit.
The mere fact that I am taking a long time with this investigation is proof that I am going very thoroughly into the very difficult issues involved.
Is the Minister aware that Lord Blakenham, when he was Minister of Labour, promised us on this side of the House that the Government would legislate on severance pay last autumn? The subject was delayed while these talks on wage-related unemployment benefits were held. Now we seem to be no nearer a conclusion from the Government on either subject. Does not this show that the Government are very tardy?
I certainly cannot answer for my right hon. Friend, but I have given the answer which is right and, I think, justified on the issue of earnings-related benefit. I shall make a statement, if I have one to make, when I am ready to do so.