Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Margaret Thatcher

HC I [National Assistance (Increased Rates)]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [662/1734-41]
Editorial comments: MT intervened at c1737, between 1355 and 1415 (Reg Prentice speaking).
Importance ranking: Trivial
Word count: 2621
[column 1734]

Mr. R. E. Prentice (East Ham, North)

In a moment I intend to follow the theme of my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot) about the amounts of the increases in National Assistance and the basic question of the share to which the poorest people are entitled of the national income.

Before I do that, however, I should like to refer to one or two other aspects of the matter and to begin with something which has not received enough detailed attention in this debate. I refer to the numbers of those who fail to apply for National Assistance and their reasons for not doing so. Not so long ago a survey was carried out in the Borough of Salford. There was another one in the Borough of Bethnal Green, and more recently there has been a survey, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) referred, of the economic circumstances of old people, covering seven areas, and carried out by Dorothy Cole and John Utting. I read that survey with great care because one of the areas covered was East Ham.

All these surveys lead us to the conclusion that for every two old people drawing National Assistance there is at least one who is entitled to National Assistance but does not apply for it. That proportion of two-to one is, if anything, an under-estimate of the number of those who do not apply. Those who carried out the survey found some points of detail which were difficult for them to interpret—for instance, that some people had savings and that sort of thing—but it is a conservative estimate to say that something like 500,000 old people [column 1735]who are entitled to National Assistance do not apply for it, bearing in mind that just over 1 million are obtaining supplements from the National Assistance Board. We ought to regard this as a very serious aspect of the situation.

The first conclusion we should draw is that whatever the merits or demerits of the theory that we should spend money on those who need it most, and that we should increase National Assistance rates rather than National Insurance rates surely that case falls on this point alone, that there is this large number of people who, for one reason or another, do not apply for National Assistance to which they are entitled.

We should not base a policy for the social services on reliance on National Assistance to that extent, when so many people do not apply to the National Assistance Board. I put it to the Minister strongly that whatever he may feel on this fundamental point, he has a duty to find out a great deal more about the reasons why people do not apply for National Assistance, and to do something about it. Most of us would say from our own experience and from the experience of advice bureaux and so on indeed, it is borne out by the surveys to which I have referred—that the reasons seem to fall into two main categories, one of which is that people are too proud to apply. Here a real attack should be made on this state of mind, using the modern methods of public relations. I agree with the hon. Member who said that these people have paid over and over again for National Assistance drawn by other people and that if they claim National Assistance it is something to which they are entitled. It is not asking for charity.

I wrote in my notes the suggestion that the Minister ought to appear on television and say this. However, I accept the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Tornington (Mr. P. Browne) that the hon. Lady the Joint Parliamentary Secretary should appear on television. I think that would be a more attractive proposition. This method and any other methods of public relations which may be available by television, radio, or advertisements in the Press should be turned on to the problem in order to persuade people that they should take this step. [column 1736]

All this strengthens the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths), a point which many of us have raised from time to time, that the actual administration of the National Assistance Board for paying supplementary benefits is wrong and that the whole process should somehow be merged within the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. If people who go to a National Insurance office to claim a pension or to inquire about claiming a pension can talk about the supplementary side of it to someone in the same room or, preferably, the same person, the psychological hurdle of having to go somewhere else is removed.

This would, I believe, make a great difference. Even if there were a case for having a separate National Assistance Board to deal with the exceptional cases which are not covered by any sort of National Insurance, that case falls down when we remember that most of the work nowadays is to supplement insurance benefits. This step and any other steps which careful study may reveal should be taken in order to reduce the psychological barrier against applying for National Assistance.

Also, methods of public relations should be used to explain as simply as possible the rules for National Assistance. Besides those who do not apply through pride, there are those who do not apply simply because they do not understand the rules. We have all had in our advice bureaux people who say that they cannot ask for National Assistance because they have some savings. It is a fairly common idea that, if people have any savings at all, however modest, they cannot ask for National Assistance until they have used them up. People try to eke out the modest savings which they have built up during their working lives, savings which have lost a lot of their value as a result of inflation, and they will not go to the National Assistance Board until their savings have been used up. The true situation should be explained. If, in the meantime, the whole business of disregards could be simplified and brought up to date, that would help in the same process.

I come now to the discretionary payments. I share the concern which hon. [column 1737]Members have expressed. I agree that there should in the National Assistance scheme be some form of discretionary payment, on either a permanent or a temporary basis, but it seems to me that the discretionary payments now play such a large part in the scheme that at least part of the cases which they cover should be codified. At the end of last year, 51 per cent. of those receiving National Assistance payments were receiving a discretionary addition. Sixty-six per cent. of retired people were receiving a discretionary payment.

In this House we should have a lot more information about the way these things are done simply in order to do our duty. Now that this is a major part of the scheme, we ought to be able to control it, and we ought to be more satisfied that the methods which are applied by the National Assistance Board in the best or more enlightened areas are brought to the attention of other areas so that we may be satisfied that, between one area and another or between one officer and another, different rules which are unfair in some cases are not followed.

I mentioned earlier the survey carried out by Dorothy Cole. At one point, speaking about the discretionary payments, Miss Cole says:

“In some places fuel allowances, for instance, appeared to be granted almost automatically, given the age and general state of health of the old person. In others we were told that they could be granted only on production of a doctor's certificate …   . In some areas, where the Board's officers were less hard pressed, it often appeared that they took the initiative in bringing to the old person's attention the possibility of non-recurrent single payments to replace clothing, worn-out bedding and the like. In others no such initiative was shown.”

There is a reference elsewhere to the practice in some areas, when people on National Assistance ask for something extra to provide clothing, of putting them first in touch with the W.V.S. and other organisations and seeing whether gifts of other people's secondhand clothing will suit them; and only it that fails is a discretionary payment made.

Mrs. Thatcher

That was quite inaccurate. We do not send people to the W.V.S. first.

Hon. Members

It is done.

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Mr. Prentice

Some of my hon. Friends seem to think that that is the practice. I only hope that, if what the hon. Lady says is correct, it will be more widely known and enforced throughout the country, because it is the experience of some hon. Members, borne out by this survey, that what I have described does, in fact, happen. It underlines the great difficulty about these discretionary payments. It ought to be possible to draw up some rules or guidance for National Assistance officers which would be publicly known and which we could discuss in the House so that in all these matters the more enlightened practice could be followed generally.

Now a word about the blind and people with tuberculosis who receive the special allowance. I do not quarrel, and I am sure no one does, with the extra allowance which they receive. However, since this allowance recognises the fact that people in these groups have special needs for which a distinct payment should be made, the same should apply to certain other groups of permanent or long-term sick people. The long-term invalids in this country are, I think, one of the most neglected groups of all. I have heard my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly say on more than one occasion that they have no pressure group to speak for them as the British Legion speaks for the war pensioners, as the unions speak for the industrially disabled and as the old-age pensioners' associations speak for their members. This is a small but very important group of people who have very special problems.

There are many kinds of illness which, in almost every case, mean that there is a need for a special diet or for constant attention by someone brought in to look after the invalid. A great deal of new thinking must be done about this. Perhaps the National Assistance Board is not the best agency to deal with the matter. Perhaps we should consider extending to these people some of the supplementary allowances which are applied at the moment to the industrially disabled and war pensioners. One way of helping them would be to create new categories besides the blind and the people with tuberculosis who have a special allowance from the National Assistance Board. This is something we have referred to many [column 1739]times without, so far as I know, any glimmer of recognition by the Government that action ought to be taken.

I come now to the level of benefits. I feel a bit sick when I keep hearing of comparisons with 1948. I am quite certain that the pensioners and others affected feel sick too. What they are concerned with is their standard of living now and in coming years, what relation that bears to the general standard of living in this country at the time, and the kind of share to which they are entitled. It is a bit smug of those on the Government benches—not only the Minister, but the Prime Minister himself and the Home Secretary deputising for the Prime Minister—to refer constantly to comparisons with 1948.

If the Government want to make a point about comparisons, we can make a few as well. Why take 1948? Why not take 1938? The year 1948 is a very convenient date because, by taking it, one ignores the substantial improvements introduced by the Labour Governments and then, taking the story on from there, the Government try to take credit for the modest improvements which they have made over the years. In fact, the amount for a couple in 1948, 40s., compares with 31s 1d. in 1938 when that is adjusted to 1948 prices. In other words, here, as in so many of the social services, despite the tremendous difficulties of the post-war period and the effects of the most destructive war in history, the Labour Government made the biggest advance ever in our social services. To keep harking back to periods just after that advance is to play party politics in a quite improper way.

I wish to say this about the figures. Today, the Minister compared the rise in National Assistance rates in purely money terms with the rise in average wages. That, of course, is misleading because we are concerned with the standard of living in real terms, making allowances for prices. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman will say, as he has said before and as he said when he announced these new arrangements in the House, that the cost of living index since 1948 shows a rise in the cost of living of 70 per cent. and that the National Assistance rates have increased almost by twice as much. But it is that index which is so misleading. [column 1740]

We have said over and over again that there should be a separate cost of living index for those on National Assistance and possibly one for retirement pensioners, or, at any rate, one geared more closely to the spending pattern of the people about whom we are talking. I shall inflict on the Minister a few figures on this matter prepared by some of our academic friends for whom he does not seem to have as much respect as he should have. These show the changes which have taken place since 1948 in the cost of living of people on National Assistance. In order to do this, these people have had to make a number of adjustments. They have had to take out the effect of rent, because that is paid separately by the National Assistance Board. They have had to give a much bigger weighting to the cost of food and fuel and less weighting to other items which appear in the ordinary cost of living index on which people receiving National Assistance cannot afford to spend very much.

The picture which emerges from these figures is that since 1948 the cost of living for those on National Assistance—there is a small variation between single and married people and smokers and non-smokers but I shall not give too many details—has increased from 88 per cent. up to 99 per cent. according to the category which we take. That picture is very different from the picture presented by the figures on which the Minister relies over and over again.

I wish to make this comment which is in line with that made by many of my hon. Friends. We cannot take this static view of poverty and this static view of the entitlement of people. The very least that we should demand, and the very least that we do demand, is that people on National Assistance should maintain the same share of the national income which they had in the past. I make one final comparison with 1948 and put this to the Minister. Since 1948, the average income per head has increased by 42 per cent. The income in real terms of those on National Assistance, taking into account the special cost-of-living factors, has increased by between 20 per cent. and 28 per cent. according to the group which we take. In other words, people on National Assistance have had little more than [column 1741]half of the rise in prosperity which has occurred since 1948.

Assuming that these people are entitled to the share of the national income which they had in the past, we should be proposing rates of 65s. for a single householder and 107s. for a couple, which is 10s. 6d. and 11s. 6d. respectively more than the Minister is proposing. That is the bare minimum. We should go further and say that in this scientific and technological age in which we are able to increase production faster than ever before in history—although this country has failed to increase production by as much as other countries because of mismanagement by the Government, nevertheless it has seen its standard of living increase—we should progressively take better care of the elderly, sick, widows and others who are unable to earn a living in the normal way.

We should recognise that these are groups of people who have great problems to face, such as the problems of bereavement, of sickness, and of adjustment to old age, and that it is immoral for society to impose in addition a burden of unnecessary poverty which becomes more and more unnecessary as time goes on. The figures that we are discussing today fall far short of what a civilised country should do for people such as those whom we are discussing. We are bound to accept them and to approve them because they represent a modest increase, but we do so with a great feeling of dissatisfaction and in the belief that we need in this country a Government which will deal more generously and more humanely with these people.