Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

HC I [National Assistance (Increased Rates)]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [662/1761]
Editorial comments: Between 1459 and 1532 (Willie Ross speaking, cc1756-66). MT merely indicated dissent.
Importance ranking: Trivial
Word count: 3377
[column 1756]

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

I do not think that anyone with a real interest in this very important subject can have cause for dissatisfaction with the quality of the speeches in this debate. They have been of a very high level. Seldom have we heard, on a Friday, such splendid contributions. But speeches are not enough. I liked the ending of the Minister's speech. He said:

“… the greatest of these is charity.”

I hope that he remembers the opening of that wonderful passage:

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that charity in relation to that passage from the New Testament did not mean charity in the sense to which he was referring in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton), but charity by embracing the quality of Christian life. If we embraced exactly that concept of charity, we should talk less in terms of persuasive percentages, as the right hon. Gentleman did in opening his speech, and more in terms of people and the reality of their present circumstances. [column 1757]

I thought it a bit unfair, particularly in view of the timing of the debate in the jubilee year of the institution of National Insurance in this country, that the Minister should have been so scathing, and rather defensively scathing, about intellectuals attached to this side of the House. He will remember that it was the same kind of intellectuals, over 50 years ago, and also attached to this side of the House—certainly not to the Tory Party—who brought forward the start of what has become an institution of which we can be proud—the development of social insurance over the years.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The hon. Gentleman will recall that one of those intellectuals—who is, I am glad to say, still with us—the noble Lord, Lord Salter, subsequently became a member of the Government of my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill).

Mr. Ross

That may well be so but it does not detract from the relevance of what I was saying. When the right hon. Gentleman referred, with a certain measure of pride, to what he and the Government had done, I could not help thinking of a certain sentence. I could not remember at first where the words came from, until my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) made his wonderful speech and reminded us of the timeliness of the debate today. I recalled then that I had seen the words during my perusal of a little exhibition we have at present in the Library in a glass case. The words were:

“We are prone to be bemused by the contemplation of our past.”

Those words were used by the Minister himself when he read his commemorative message in relation to National Insurance.

One thing that has emerged from many of the speeches today is that it is time we stopped contemplating our past and appreciated that there is a challenge before us and that the facts and figures have presented us with the need for new thinking and new decisions. The new thinking has been done; it is the new decisions which are overdue.

The original conception of National Assistance was that it should be the long [column 1758]stop, the safety net. As my right hon. Friend said, we hoped, with the new development of comprehensive National Insurance as from 1948, that we would take all those within the scheme's ambit completely outside the whole conception of Poor Law assistance.

We certainly cannot contemplate with satisfaction the figures at the moment. Here, within the safety net that was supposed to catch the exceptions, we have in receipt of weekly allowances more than 1,844,000 people, for the figures have, I believe, increased since December last year. If we add their dependants, the total is over 2,600,000. In addition, during the year 1,011,000 applicants received a single payment. They were in such desperation that they applied and received a single payment to help them in their need. They may well have had dependants. Within these two categories alone there may well be over 4 million people, almost one in ten of our population. What kind of safety net is this? What kind of society is it in which one in ten of the population are exceptions who must be supported in this way?

There are two effects of the strain of this weight upon the safety net. First, it affects the safety net in that the meshes are very much wider. People slip through. The assistance we give to them is less than it might be. It has its implications upon those who should not be there at all or who are supposed to be safe, the retirement pensioners. We are in the position today that we cannot make an increase in the retirement pension, if it is to come from insurance, because of the effect it would have on the ability of those at the lower end of the scale to pay. Neither can we do it in that way without giving help to people who do not need it. Therefore, the pensions are lower than they should be. We still have assistance scales which are inadequate for the purpose. The inadequacy for the purpose is proved by the supplements within the National Assistance scheme.

There are so many discretionary payments—over 868,000 of them, or 51 per cent. In these circumstances there is something wrong with the scales. We should appreciate what the discretionary grants are paid in respect of. They are paid in respect of diets and special foods. The price of special foods has risen. [column 1759]They are paid in respect of laundry. Have laundry prices increased? They are paid in respect of home helps. The price of labour has risen. Yet the amazing thing is that taking 1961 with 1960 there is practically no difference in the average payments of discretionary grant.

There are many retirement pensioners who cannot exist on their pensions and have to get a supplement from National Assistance. Further than that, many of the pensioners who are getting their supplement according to the scale that we lay down cannot exist on that and must get an additional supplement. This is true of 66 per cent. of them. The whole thing becomes ludicrous.

The adequacy of the scale is what really matters. It cannot be justified by relating percentages to 1948 or any other year. I liked the speech of the noble Lord the Member for Hertford (Lord Balniel), but this was the weakest part of his speech. It certainly did not agree with the passage from St. Paul that I quoted. If there is a man with £5,000 a year and another man with £200 a year and we have something available to give them—£260, say—do we give 5 per cent., £10, to the man with £200 a year and £250 to the man with £5,000 a year? This is what the noble Lord and the Minister were prepared to justify. To my mind, this is wrong. If this is the essential basis of the division of the increasing prosperity of the country, it is little wonder indeed that the party opposite is losing support all over the country.

Lord Balniel

I quite see this point. I accept that there is much truth in it, but does the hon. Gentleman think that the National Assistance scales should form a higher percentage of the average industrial wages than they do at the moment? That could well be argued, but if he does, I remind him that when his Government were in office there was a substantial reduction in the percentage which National Assistance scales formed of average industrial wages. What the hon. Gentleman is proposing is a reversal of policies pursued by the Labour Government.

Mr. Ross

Will the hon. Member waken up to political realities? We were [column 1760]the Government—I am very glad that my right hon. Friend mentioned this—who introduced the very considerable social revolution. In July, 1948, we not only had the new Insurance Act coming into force, but also the National Assistance Act and National Health Service Act. We had barely time to get the whole thing established and going before the Conservative Government came into office, and they have been there for 11 years. When one starts a policy, one does not stop there, stagnate, and decide that no change should be made in the light of circumstances and on how things turn out. The distortion of the original scheme and intentions have come through the years under the guidance of the right hon. Gentleman, and now we have the ridiculous position that the safety net is no longer a safety net. What kind of safety net is it that takes at least 12 weeks to adjust? It would be very handy in a circus ring!

The reason that it takes 12 weeks to adjust is because we have so many people now to be contained within it. The right hon. Gentleman knows quite well that if we were dealing only with discretionary grants—this was one of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman)—we could institute these changes right away. If we were dealing with individual cases and the local officer had this power we could increase the discretionary grants. We have seen in the last year the discretionary grants increased on an average by only 4d. It is the distortion of the growth of the administrative machine which has put it into this position where, when help is needed, changes must be made, but they cannot be made for a long time. That is one of the outstanding weaknesses of this matter.

When we come to the question of adequacy compared with what was done a year ago—it was interesting to hear the right hon. Gentleman bring September, 1959, into this, lumping the two increases together—we have to remember that it was during the General Election of 1959, after this had been enacted, that the party opposite declared to the country that pensioners and those on National Assistance would share in the increased prosperity of the country. By definition the people on National [column 1761]Assistance are the poorest in the land. Let no one think that because the scales are to be 95s. for a couple, all people on National Assistance will get 95s. There are about 330,000 getting 10s. or less. When we increased the pension by 12s. 6d. we did not increase the National Assistance scale by as much as that. By definition, the poorest received 3s. 6d. for a single person and 5s. for a couple.

Since then we have seen galloping inflation and a steadily rising cost of living. I do not accept that there has been a rise of only six points in the cost of living. It should be borne in mind that no one will be paid these scales until 24th September. The last announcement was made, and the discussion followed it even as this discussion is following another announcement, in November, 1960. When the announcement was made, the cost-of-living index stood at 110. Today it stands at 120 and on Tuesday of next week I am sure that it will be 121. I am sure that the hon. Lady has the figure.

Mrs. Thatcher

indicated dissent.

Mr. Ross

She ought to have the figure and to have given a preview of it, because it will be published on Tuesday. It is always published on the Tuesday nearest the 15th of the month. This is dirty Friday the 13th. I wonder how the Minister feels. My hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot) referred to the fact that we are led to believe that coming events are casting dark shadows across present Ministerial faces. I wonder whether it will be black Friday for anybody sitting on the Government Front Bench. I am sure that if it had wanted to do so, the Department could have obtained this figure. If it had been a good Department it would have obtained it.

In any event, it means an increase of 10 points in the cost of living since the the Government last thought it desirable to make an increase. The pension rate for a couple, according to an Answer given last week, has lost 6s. 9d. of its promised value. These new rates do not even compensate for the rise in the cost of living according to the index which the right hon. Gentleman quoted, and that index itself bears no relation to the pattern of spending of the poorest of the land. [column 1762]

The first speech which I ever made at this Box, and probably the best I have ever made at this Box, was on the removal of the bread subsidy. I am surprised that anyone has ever placed any reliance on the cost-of-living index since I made that speech. I thought that I had destroyed the myth of the index proving anything about any person or any group. It does not. It is a general trend.

The old index in force after the war was related to working-class spending, whereas the present index, whatever it is related to, is not related to that. The steep increases in the price of food lately are such that the Minister's statistics have been completely destroyed in relation even to the 1948 standard of living, if that has any meaning. Most of the people on National Assistance were not on National Assistance 17 years ago.

Let us relate our standards on the adequacy of life on National Assistance scales to our present thinking about adequacy. These standards change and will be very much higher as this country is prepared to support standards which are very much higher than we could support in 1948. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to give a proper share of the rising national income to the pensioners, he should do far more than he is doing in these scales.

On the figure quoted by Professor Titmuss and his colleagues in The Times today, we should need at least another 10s. for the single householder, exclusive of rent, and I do not think that any of my hon. Friends would be satisfied that even that was enough. Today we are solemnly judging that for two people in Britain—after the rent is paid—£4 15s. 6d., as it will be on the new scale, will be adequate to support life—their food, their clothing, the incidental expenses of life, transport, fuel, lighting and the rest.

The hon. Lady must appreciate that though she said that they did not need to live on that amount that is what we are judging today they must live on, unless they have additional and exceptional means, and 44 per cent. of more than 1 million old-age pensioners are dependent only on their supplement, which will be very small, for rent. The increases of 4s. and 5s. do not match up, [column 1763]neither do the increases for the blind—7s. 6d. and 8s. 6d. respectively. It is more than a month since I asked the loss in the value of this pension due to the fall in the value in the £ since the last increase was made, and it was over 7s. at that time.

We have no reason at all to be proud of what we are doing, and we have every reason to use this occasion to meet the challenge that was thrown out by my right hon. Friend. We cannot go on—and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate this—deceiving ourselves that we—or he, because he has been in the position longer than anyone else has ever been—have reached satisfaction in relation to National Insurance and National Assistance scales. As my right hon. Friend and others have said, a person paying at the top rate for the new graduated pension—which is supposed to solve all our problems in this respect—will probably earn, after 20 years, an addition to the pension of about 20s. Last year, the average payment to retirement pensioners to bring them to subsistence levels was 19s. 5d. How on earth can we be satisfied with a position like that?

It is not just a question of recasting our National Assistance; we must start by recasting our National Insurance, and making those pensions adequate for life and reasonable comfort. The safety net will be very much smaller, very much stronger, and very much more comfortable for those who have to be caught in it, and we will then be able to avoid the ridiculous position that the safety net that will save people from danger cannot be adjusted quickly, and in time. Here, we are giving far too little and, because of the very nature of the problem that the right hon. Gentleman himself has created for himself, we are giving it far too slowly.

I am pleased that several hon. Members have spoken about prescription charges. We have already adjudged the present National Assistance scales as being inadequate and have been told that the proposed new scales will bring probably another 40,000 to 50,000 people within the ambit of National Assistance. Is there anything to prevent the Ministry from applying the new scales immediately when any retirement pensioner comes forward with a case for [column 1764]prescription charge repayment? I recall, in this connection, that when the National Health Service Bill was going through the House it was pointed out that it would help a great deal if the new scales could be paid immediately. After all, illness will not wait until 24th September.

I feel annoyed and angry when it is suggested that a man who is sick or unemployed can cope all right without help as long as he has been in employment for a certain time. I have in mind a case in my constituency. Because I was angry about what had happened to a constituent I wrote to the Ministry and, by coincidence, an allowance was made to the man concerned after I had written the letter. However, in the letter of explanation I received from the Minister there was the usual assumption that if a man has had a spell of work he is able to keep his family for a week or two on his unemployment or sickness benefit without recourse to National Assistance. This sort of thinking does not face up to the facts of life.

As I say, payment was eventually made to my constituent, but I am afraid there is one less person on National Assistance today because the man was taken into hospital and died. It is this sort of thing which makes people shy away from National Assistance. There are certain types—perhaps I might call them the “hangers-on” and those who believe that they know everything—who have little or no trouble, especially mentally, in seeking National Assistance. They merely badger the local officers, present their cases, and receive help.

The other type, however, often needs to be persuaded to go to the National Assistance Board. When such a person goes he might easily be turned down, thereby suffering a terrible indignity which has an effect throughout the scheme. We must face these things. People have and want to maintain their dignity and independence and we seem not to have completely broken away from the link with the public assistance schemes of days gone by. I regret it. I try to plead with people who are in need to go to the National Assistance Board. I tell them that the Board has been provided to assist them. Do not let us keep saying that the Board is [column 1765]there for them to visit as of right, for they must prove that they are in desperate need, and that is a great stumbling block.

There are many old ladies—and some who are not so old—who do not like parading their poverty to others. Let us bear all these things in mind and, when we do make changes, let us face the challenge and be adventurous. It is no use talking about charity and Britain being a Christian country if this affluent Britain is not prepared to share the burden of the poor and the pensioner.

I hope that the Minister will make the administrative changes hon. Members are seeking. I hope that he will give great publicity to the National Assistance Board. Its officers have done excellent work and we should be a lot poorer without them. They work in an humanitarian way and I should not like anything I have said to be construed as being criticism of these excellent people.

Let not anyone think that because we criticise the discretionary allowances we want them discontinued within the present form. We do not. What we want is much more fairness in the granting of them because they vary so much from one area to another. It was one of the weaknesses of the old parish system that Glasgow was generous and some other place not so generous. This is one of the great weaknesses of the discretionary authority. I sincerely hope that whilst we require these allowances to be used they will be adjudged in fairness.

The Minister opened with that fine passage from St. Paul. I shall finish on a fine passage from St. Paul. I have already referred to the opening section of it. The right hon. Gentleman concluded with the last few words of it.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The hon. Member will find the quotation in the second verse of the 13th Chapter of the Corinthians.

Mr. Ross

The right hon. Gentleman finished by saying

“… but the greatest of these is charity.”

I refer to:

“… faith, hope, charity …”

We must have faith in ourselves but, as far as this Parliament is concerned, faith [column 1766]in the ability of the party opposite to handle the affairs of the country has been dissipated. Hope still remains with the people who depend on our proper legislation here, but their hopes are not fixed on that side of the House. Their hopes are fixed on this side.