Orders of the Day — Old Age and Widows' Pensions Bill.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 21st February 1940.

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Photo of Mr Arthur Greenwood Mr Arthur Greenwood , Wakefield

I do not intend to follow the narrow party political line of the speaker who has preceded me, though I am glad of his admission as to the character of the Government which now sits on the opposite side of the House, and of which he seems to think he is entitled to be inordinately proud. My purpose is to deal with some of the criticisms which have been offered against us, with some of the charges which have been made and with some of the questions which have been put to us. The Minister of Health and the Parliamentary Secretary both stoked up a great deal of zeal for social reform in general and in the abstract, but on analysis of the Bill one finds that much of that zeal seems to have evaporated. The Minister introduced his speech with great enthusiasm and he concluded with a remarkable peroration to which I wish to draw the attention of the House. He said: We say to our friends in France 'We are not neglecting out war effort to turn aside into paths of social reform. On the contrary, we are travelling towards an ideal which you, wiser than we, never really abandoned; the ideal of the property-owning democracy—the ideal of the State which shall marry industrial production with personal liberty, where every citizen has or shall have a real stake in his country.' "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th February, 1940; col. 1219, Vol. 357.] Let me say that from my point of view that does not represent what we are fighting for in this particular war. The ideal of a property-owning democracy is a curious phrase in connection with this Bill, and, as a matter of fact, in relation to it, it is completely meaningless. It has, however, a certain significance, as I will try to show. This Debate has brought out quite clearly that, whilst there is overwhelming agreement in this House on the determination to overthrow Hitlerism, the old deep divisions which separate us still remain as clear as ever they were. The supporters of the Government hold by their property rights, so-called, just as tenaciously as ever they did before the Great War. They still mean to preserve class distinctions and they still regard the masses as inferior to the classes. There is on that side of the House a very deep sense of class consciousness, and that spirit of class consciousness has been breathed by speaker after speaker, both yesterday and to-day, on those benches. Whilst in Debates in this House there have been very many occasions when the Government have no supporters whatever, even on their own side, except a miserable array of figures on the Treasury Bench, on this occasion the Government have found more friends. I regard it as significant and as an expression again of what is the fundamental difference between that side of the House and this. Our outlook on the problem is human equality and human rights coupled with human respect.

To us the Debate to-day is not intended for any narrow political ends. If there was a political speech made in this House in this Debate—I grieve to say it in her absence—it was in the closing sentences of the speech of the Parliamentary Secretary. I do not propose, however, to follow that course. The Parliamentary Secretary in her speech to-day, which must have been something of an ordeal for her, asked two specific questions very emphatically. I take it that it is our business to ask questions and it is for the Government to answer them. I am not sure that we are called upon to answer questions, but I am prepared to do my best to answer the two she put. The first was, did we think there was any good in Part I of the Bill, or would we scrap it? Well, I am old enough as a politician not to be trapped by a question like that. If you hold out a crust to a hungry woman of 60 and say, "Will you have this or nothing?" she would say, "I will take the crust," and, in so far as there are people who will receive pensions at the old scale who otherwise would not have received them, we are glad to know that they are going to benefit to some extent. There are 300,000 of them. The hon. Lady asked me whether Part II of the Bill should be entirely scrapped. My answer is emphatically in one word, Yes. I am saying that of a part of the Bill which potentially affects not 300,000, but 3,000,000 old age pensioners.

Therefore, I would invert the saying about doing a great right by doing a little wrong, and say that in this Bill the Government are doing a little right by perpetrating an enormous wrong. We do not believe that on the whole the aged people of this country will be better off because of Part II of the Bill. It has been stated on these benches, and I take the same view myself, that considerable numbers of them may be really worse off, and substantially worse off. What we object to in this Bill is the nationalisation of pauperisation. That is at the root of the objections that have been taken to it on this side of the House. The Parliamentary Secretary tried to put us in a dilemma by saying that the public assistance committee had come in for more praise to-day than ever before. That is true, and the reason is simple. We dislike the Poor Law system, but experience has shown that it is more resilient, more humane and more understanding than the abstraction called the Unemployment Assistance Board, with its elaborate classification of groups of people, with its inevitable standardisation, with its officialism and with its remoteness from the individual with whom it has to deal.

The choice is not our choice. We would rather have a humanely administered Poor Law system than an inhuman national monster. If the Unemployment Assistance Board be harsh to the able-bodied unemployed, can we expect it, even if one ewe lamb is added to its personnel—who happens to be a personal friend of mine—to be more humane to the aged people, who are less familiar with the elaborate social organisation of the day, unaccustomed to deal with forms and probably frail in health? Can they be expected to take kindly to this new glorified body called the Assistance Board? If it comes to a choice as between the two, I say, as one who dislikes the Poor Law system, that I would prefer that to this new method in Part II of the Bill. We would rather have retained the present machinery for the determination of old age pensions claims.

Having tried to answer—I am not certain to her satisfaction—the two questions which the Parliamentary Secretary put to me, I think I may claim to put one or two simple questions to the Government. The first is this: Is 10s. pension enough? What proportion of the aged pensioners, of these 3,000,000 people, have enough, with the 10s., to live in decency? On the answer to that turns the case the Government are trying to make. If the proportion of people who can live on the 10s., with what they have, is small, it means that a large proportion of these people are unable to exist on the10s. The case for an all-round increase then stands. That is the question to which we require an answer. Then, put in a somewhat different form, is a point which I have already put: Do the Government think that a remote bureaucracy, dwelling in London and dealing with case papers and not with human beings, and administered by individuals with very wide powers, is a suitable machinery for dealing with aged people—often ailing people—who, in the evening of their days, require more care and sympathy than they did during their years of vigorous life, when they might have been victims of the Unemployment Assistance Board? The questions which I am putting to the Government are fundamental, and I hope I have made clear the attitude which we take up on these problems.

Naturally, the discussion has centred very largely on the means test, and a good old chestnut was thrown on the Floor of the House again last night, probably in order to mislead hon. Members who have not been in the House since it was previously used. This is a question to which I must refer: The means test was initiated by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wake-field (Mr. Greenwood) when he was Minister of Health. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] Yes. It is all very well for hon. Members to say "No!" but I could show them the circular in which the right hon. Gentleman laid down the principle. And, a little later, after my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition had intervened, the hon. Member in question said: The circular lays down the means test most unmistakably for the guidance of local authorities."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th February, 1940; col. 1275, Vol. 357.] That statement is a shameless untruth. I have said in this House before that the means test was established in this country by the 43rd of Elizabeth, passed in the year 1601, and I take my share of responsibility for that. I inherited a Poor Law, and, if I had been able and had had the time to try to overhaul and overturn it Members on that side of the House would have been bitter in their opposition. What could I do, in a minority as we then were?

I did the next best thing. The circular which I sent to the boards of guardians I stand by to-day. In effect it was this: "We all know," said I, in addressing the boards of guardians, "that, under the law, all means have to be taken into account; but," I said, "boards of guardians have the right to exercise a certain measure of discretion. "I suggested that they should exercise that discretion and I pointed out two particular classes of people to whom I hoped they would show discretion, the disabled ex-Service man and the widow with young children. The "Manchester Guardian, "a paper with some repute in this country, published a leading article in which it said words to this effect: ''This is the greatest administrative act of the century"—and yet I am alleged to be the author of the means test.

Let me give another side of this pretty picture. I remember that in 1929, when I was on the opposite side of the House, with the help of my colleagues I was trying to put through a Pensions Bill, and I remember the kind of treatment I received from hon. Members who are now on that side of the House and who then were on this side. I remember when the 1925 Contributory Pensions Bill was before the House, how the Tory party sat there preening themselves, covering themselves with unction and taking on themselves a sort of holy pride as if they were protecting the self-respect of the poor of this country. They said, "We are getting away from this iniquitous inquiry such as you have under the old non- contributory pensions Act. We are going to institute a system under which the people will pay and will receive." In 1929 those who accused me of being the author of the means test before this circular was issued had Amendments on the Paper to try and force me to accept a means test for the old age pensioners. These are facts which are undeniable; the facts are on record. I remember keeping the House until late the following morning in order to break the resistance; and we broke it. The Government did not get the means test, but if they had they would have palmed it on to us.

Let me follow out this history. Up to 1031 the unemployed in this country, so long as they were really out of work and work was not available for them, could receive unemployment benefit. It is true that during that period of growing economic crisis we built up a debt, but I am not ashamed of that. It was a payment which men received because they were out of work, and although I will not pretend they were treated generously they were at least treated fairly. In 1934, instead of this long period of benefit under the Act, we got the short period of benefit and then the inquisition. We protested against that at the time and we debated it night after night. We kept the House here nearly two days, I believe, on the discussion of that very principle. This vicious system introduced by the National Government in 1934 is now beginning to spread. We had a Debate a week or two ago on workmen's compensation. I took occasion then to say some very hard words—words which I do not regret. The same principle is to be applied there. There is not a Member of this House—because I asked a question on that day—who would say that workmen's compensation rates to-day are even reasonably adequate. I am not referring to exceptional cases, but the vast majority, and probably all. The present scales are inadequate. The only answer to that is to raise the scales.

What is the proposal of the Government? Unless they put proposals which employers will not accept and which trade unionists will not look at, their intention, so far as they have any intention in this matter, is to deal with workmen's compensation by picking out what they call specially hard cases. In a working-class home, if a breadwinner is stricken down by industrial accident, there is hardship in that home. I repeat what I said on that occasion: the masses of the people live in poverty; poverty is hardship; and it is hopeless, therefore, to try to deal with this problem of workmen's compensation by dealing with hard cases. When we get this Bill, we find the same kind of principle. There is the old amount of 10s., and then, if you want any more, the inquisition again. It is obviously the policy of the Government to stabilise the existing provision that is made under various schemes, and, merely in order to satisfy their own consciences, to deal with hard cases in any new legislation that they have in mind.

It is increasingly clear to me that the Government's intention is to pauperise the whole of our social services, to spread this miasma of pauperism through a new, more subtle, more diffused Poor Law system. It is that to which we object in this Bill, and we object with all the strength at our command. Hated as that Poor Law system was, it was at least concentrated; but now the whole spirit is to trail over one social service after another, infecting them all with the old Bumbledom, that we on this side wish to see destroyed for ever. The Parliamentary Secretary spoke of what the country would think of the Bill; we have had a very emotional picture of what Northern Ireland thinks about the Bill; also of what the great constituency of Mitcham has said about the Bill. We on this side believe that we know, as well as most Members, what the people will think about Part II of the Bill. We believe that there is bound to be an ever-increasing resentment by honest, decent, working-class people at this widening area of investigation, whatever help it may be that they seek to obtain. In our view—I do not wish to cramp the time of the right hon. Gentleman—the poor, the unemployed, the aged should be treated with dignity and respect. We shall go into the Division Lobby wholeheartedly in support of our Amendment, with stout hearts, to continue the fight until the shackles of pauperism and injustice which are now again being fastened on the necks of the poor are smitten from them, and they are accorded the treatment rightfully due to the citizens of a great nation.