On a point of Order. May I repeat the question which I put at an earlier and less convenient stage as to which of the Amendments on the Paper you, Mr. Speaker, propose to call? While doing so, may I respectfully call your attention to the fact that a fairly substantial number of Members would like to debate the issue of whether in the inquiry which the Motion proposes, there is still to be open, in the opinion of this House, any question of the application of the means test to the determination of old age pensions? With respect, I submit that that is a major point of principle on which this House might like to divide.
On looking over the Amendments on the Paper, I find that if I selected one of them, the effect would be to limit the discussion to the particular point raised in that Amendment. I think that would be a mistake and that it would be better if I did not select any Amendment and allowed a general discussion which would include all the questions which are raised in the various Amendments.
Would not that have the effect of depriving Members of the opportunity of testing the opinion of the House on whether the inquiry is to be open on all these questions, or whether the question of the means test should be excluded from the inquiry as having been decided already by this House, since the result of passing such an Amendment would be to limit the points to be inquired into by the Government by leaving out that one? Should not the House have the opportunity of excluding that point from the inquiry and deciding it now if it so wishes?
May I put this point, Mr. Speaker? If you were to call any of these Amendments, and if that Amendment were defeated, would not that automatically limit the matters referred to the Government for inquiry and exclude from that inquiry some very important points which might be included in a more general investigation?
I am inclined, Mr. Speaker, to agree with your Ruling as a wise one, so far as giving us the best opportunity for debate is concerned. I agree that any one of the Amendments, if called, would tend to limit the discussion. But is it not possible, as has been done on other occasions, while keeping the Debate general, to allow the House an opportunity afterwards of dividing on one or other of the Amendments?
I do not and cannot take any responsibility for what may have happened on any other occasion, but if we were to assure you, Sir, that if given the opportunity of dividing on one of these Amendments at the end of the Debate we would take advantage of that opportunity, would that influence your decision?
I beg to move:
That this House, recognising that the difficulties of old age pensioners and widows have been accentuated by war-time conditions, would welcome an immediate examination by the Government of their present position so that any necessary action can be taken without delay.
Since my election to the Front Bench, I have heard two speeches from Members on the Front Bench opposite, in which they asked the indulgence of the House on
first addressing it from that position. I am sure that I shall have a similar measure to-day of that human sympathy. While it may be true that what one says is of more importance than where one says it, there is, nevertheless, a traditional significance in speaking from this Box. I appreciate the confidence reposed in me by my colleagues on this side of the House. I hope to-day to speak not only on behalf of Members on the Front Bench, but on behalf of those occupying the back Benches. To a stranger, a description of this Bench as being higher than the back Benches may appear remarkable. I suppose the explanation is that this is another instance of the ambiguity of our language, or else that it is a locational contradiction. Be that as it may, I shall probably be in a position later on to say whether it is preferable to speak from a back Bench or from this Box.
Apart from the war, there is no subject which holds the same amount of interest as this about which I propose to speak. We demand a substantial increase in old age pensions. Our demand is not based entirely on any variation which may have occurred in the cost of living, although that factor is of importance, and deserves the consideration of this House. Our application is made because we claim that one of the tests of a nation's greatness is the provision that it makes for its aged people, those individuals who have contributed to the industrial and commercial prosperity of the country, and who are as a result entitled to a reasonable and respectable standard of existence. I desire to say something about the cost of living. The changes that have occurred may appear insignificant in relation to the request we are making. The Determination of Needs Act became law on 26th April last year, and the appropriate Ministers issued Regulations which, after being passed by Parliament, were put into operation on 2nd June last year.
In making the calculation necessary to determine the amount of supplementary pensions payable, 1s. 6d. per week was provided as compensation for the increase in the cost of living. I submit that that amount was quite inadequate. That payment was made in June, 1941, when the index figure of the cost of living was 100. As that is the figure at present, it may be argued that no increase is necessary on the basis of a change in the cost of living. But such a contention would ignore the fact that the payment of 1s. 6d. per week was provided for in the draft Regulations laid before the House in April, when the index figure was 98. To an old person, with so limited an income, a variation of two points is of considerable importance. Moreover, I suggest that when reference is made to the index figure, regard should be had to its correct meaning. That is defined in a pamphlet issued by the Ministry of Labour, entitled "Cost of Living Index Number—Method of Computation." It states that, as the phrase "increase in the cost of living" can be interpreted in various ways, it should, at the outset, be observed that the statistics prepared by the Ministry of Labour are designed to maintain unchanged the pre-war—that is, the 1914—standard of living of the working classes: that is to say, the standard which was actually prevailing in working-class families at that time, irrespective of whether the standard was adequate or not. To expect acceptance of a standard of living 29 years old is to show a distorted view of progress. In fact, some of the calculations were based on working-class budgets for 1904. To provide for aged people by so antique a measurement is not only discreditable but degrading, both to those who receive and to those who provide.
Most sections of the community have experienced some improvement in their conditions. One exception, perhaps, is the widows, about whom I propose to say a few words at a later stage. Respect for old age alone is sufficient justification for the demand that an immediate and substantial increase should be made in old age and widows' pensions. In this connection, I would refer to the recent Budget taxation on tobacco and beer. These items will, naturally, elicit no sympathy from abstainers or nons-erkomsu, but both concern the old age pensioners. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has assumed that because old age pensioners have not complained to him, no dissatisfaction exists among them. He should be the first to admit that that is a very weak argument. I would direct his attention to an article in the "Evening Standard" of nth May. It is entitle "How Hard are they Working?" and is written by Leslie Randall. He says:
What rankles most with the workers is not that big sums were withheld in peace-time
for the relief of unemployment, but that a little bit extra could not be found for the old age pensioners. I found that the hardship it imposes on the old age pensioners is the most bitter working-class comment on the Budget.
It is too early to ascertain their effect upon the cost of living, because these increases are not yet reflected in the index figure, but strangely enough, while tobacco is an item that is taken into calculation, beer, for some reason or other, is excluded. By a simple calculation made upon the assumption that an old age pensioner consumes a pint of beer a day for six days a week and four ounces of tobacco—a very modest amount, in my opinion—his increased cost of living has been raised by 3s. 2d. or even as much as 3s. 6d. a week. Beer alone means an increase in his cost of living of 1s. a week and tobacco of 2s. 2d. to 2s. 6d. per week. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has refused to deal with this question, although he graciously admitted on 16th April last that the old age pensioners are persons with whom we all have a considerable amount of sympathy. We all appreciate his expression of sympathy, but that will neither purchase tobacco nor secure the release of a single pint of beer. He also stated that no section of the community has been more helped by the stabilisation policy of the Government which is costing over £120,000,000 a year than the particular section of the community known as old age pensioners. I think that on reflection he will agree with my description of that statement as being the Chancellor of the Exchequer's childish contribution.
Everyone knows that the stabilisation policy of the Government affects all people in this country and that, if it affects old age pensioners more advantageously, it is because their standard of living is lower than that of any other individuals in this country, which concedes that part of our case that so low a standard should be substantially improved. I will put this last point in relation to this particular part of our case. I received, as other Members received, a copy of a publication issued by the Old Age Pensioners' Association, which contains the budget of two typical cases of pensioners and puts the case not only truthfully, but reliably as well. It first takes the case of a woman pensioner who is in receipt of an old age pension of 10s. and a supplementary pension of 10s. 6d., a total of £1 0s. 6d. I am submitting these figures for the consideration of the House in order to show that the increase not only in the cost of living but in the items for which they have to pay, is certainly not excessive. Rent in this case is assumed to be 6s. 3d. per week, coal 3s. 4d., light 1s. 2d., clubs 1s., household requisites, such as soap, etc. 1s. and other expenses 8d., a total of 13s. 5d. When the 13s. 5d. is taken from the £1 0s. 6d., that individual has no more than 7s. 1d. with which to provide food and clothing.
Another case is given, of two pensioners, which means that they are in receipt of £1 per week and a supplementary pension of 13s. 8d. a total of £1 13s. 8d. In this case the amount of rent is 7s. 6d., coal 4s. 10d., light 1s. 8d., clubs as. 1d., household requisites 1s. 6d., other expenses 1s. 1d., making a total of 18s. 8d. per week. They are supposed to exist in regard to the purchase of food and clothing on 15s. for the two of them. Unless you are able to controvert these facts, you are not acting within your rights in refusing our demands for an immediate improvement in the life of the old age pensioners. You have no right to continue to pay the present small amount to these people when the nation can afford to pay a billeting allowance of 10s. 6d. per week for a child under five years of age—not too large a sum—and of 16s. 6d. per week for a person over 17 years of age.
I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer is back in 1908, when the original Old Age Pensions Bill was introduced, because his statement is similar to that of the then Mr. Chaplin, who, on 27th May of that year, asked "Where is the money to come from, and how is it to be provided?" The right hon. Gentleman appears to be in a much worse position than his right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House, who assured this House that he had plenty of resilience on that subject. The word "resilience" is very appropriate. It means "springing back or rebounding." The act of springing seems to be a political necessity and is fast becoming the monopoly of particular Members of this House. In any event, it would be very difficult to persuade the old people of this country that it is possible to spend £15,000,000 a day on the prosecution of the war and yet it is impossible to find enough money to provide them with a satisfactory pension.
These people have been described as simple folk, but if it is thought that they are simple-minded, we deceive ourselves. They know that, before the war broke out and we were called upon to spend £15,000,000 a day, precisely the same arguments were adduced against any increase in their pension as have been adduced to-day. They know, particularly in the mining valleys, that this House had no difficulty in finding £70,000,000 to relieve the mining industry of an incubus of 3,789 royalty owners, who, in addition to receiving £70,000,000, robbed the industry in 20 years of no less than £120,000,000. These people know that if they violated the law of this country and were compelled to serve a term in one of His Majesty's big establishments, it would cost this nation £3 3s. 6d. to maintain them in existence, in this case, with the application of no means test, while they have to exist on 19s. 6d. per week, plus the alleged added comfort of a means test. These people also know that there are from 15 to 20 industries in this country that are being subsidised to the extent of from £15,000,000 to £20,000,000 per year. They are not deceived by the alleged difference between finding money in order to subsidise industries and providing money for individuals.
I think it is very appropriate that we should be raising this question to-day, that we should be making a demand for an imrprovement in the lot of old age pensioners at a time when the Chancellor has asked for another £1,000,000,000. These people realise—and this bears upon the question of cost—that before the war out of each pound of national expenditure, excluding self-supporting services, pensions of all kinds accounted for only 2s. 6d. If we omit war pensions the amount spent upon other pensions was only 1s. 6d. out of every pound. I have never subscribed to the doctrine that he who wills the end must also will the means unless it provided the required power and authority to will the means as well. The demand of these old people is just, legitimate and reasonable, and this House should find the money to meet that demand.
To-day we hear a lot about making every effort to utilise all kinds of labour
to win this war. Recently, one of my constituents came to see me. He is 70 years of age and in receipt of a pension of 10s. a week and, having lost a boy in the last war, is in receipt of another pension of 12s., making a total of 22s. a week. His wife, who is the same age, is in receipt of a pension of 10s. a week, plus a supplementary pensions of 8s. making a total of 18s. a week and a total for the two of £2 a week—not too large a sum on which to maintain themselves with decency. Notwithstanding the wife's age, she volunteered to assist in the domestic affairs of another man who had two sons, and she openly admitted that she received 10s. a week for her services. It is to the credit of these Regulations that when she suffered a reduction in her supplementary pension, from 8s. to 5s. a week, her husband had his increased by 3s. But I submit that this is an absurd arrangement in view of the attempt which is being made to prosecute this war to a successful issue. I have received a letter from one of my constituents, an old age pensioner, parts of which I should like to read to the House. He says:
I was amused the other evening, the 8th May, to read in the leading article in "The South Wales Argus" about Remembrance Day. It said that the dead were not forgotten. No, but the living are forgotten. I was nearly four years in khaki in the last war, but in this war with many more old age pensioners will be in rags. We do not want to look pretty and nice but we like to look tidy in this war after plodding through mud and muck in the last. At the beginning of the last war it did not matter if your eyes were right or left. There was that big finger pointing at you, 'Your King and Country need you.' The question is, Who needs us to-day? Nobody.
This was a means test case. This man has a son 35 years of age, and because 2s. was given to him by the county to meet the cost of living, the local officer took it off his supplementary pension. The writer of the letter goes on:
If ever I lost my temper it was then. I put in an appeal and got it back, after waiting five weeks for arrears.
The Regulation which makes possible such treatment of our aged people is not a credit to this country. I consider that to be a human document which merits the attention not only of the Minister, but of the House, because it expresses the mind of the person on whose behalf we are speaking to-day. There never will be satisfaction among the aged people of this country or peace, which is more important, unless it is agreed to abolish the
means test. Until that is done the issue will always be the subject of discussion in this House, and, what is more, the subject of dissension and dissatisfaction in the country. We contend that these pensions should be payable not in the form of charity, not as a matter of privilege, but as a matter of right and a measure of justice to these people. Since its inception the application of the means test has been modified. Some of our opponents say the means test has been considerably modified. Well, if that be true, I submit that it is a concession to our demand that it should be completely abolished. Members of all political parties are talking about the need for a new order and a new society, and they cannot be built upon a foundation of the existence of a means test. It should, and must be, abolished.
Prior to the passing of the Act to provide supplementary pensions, we argued the need for removing pensioners from the list of applicants for public assistance. To-day there are persons similarly situated who are getting as much as 6s. a week more than is being paid to old age pensioners. Let me here say that in the administration of this infamous test evidence is to be found of a complete absence of any semblance of justice. Every Member of this House knows that the Regulations permit of the payment of what is termed "winter allowance," that is to say, 1s. a week in the case of a single pensioner and 2s. a week in the case of a married pensioner. It is made in order to meet seasonal expenses, such as coal and light, and is generally paid during the period of 22 weeks. But the strange feature in connection with these allowances is that they ceased to be paid at a time when, in the first instance, from November, 1940, to April, 1941, the cost of living had increased by no less than 5 points and, in the second instance, from November, 1941, to April, 1942, when the cost of living had increased by 4 points. It does seem absurd that these payments should cease at a time when the cost of living is higher than when they were first paid. Furthermore, why should they not be continued during the cold month of April and in some instances the month of May? People are kept warm by fires according to the nature of the weather and not according to the days of the calendar. In addition, the fact of these payments being made is further evidence that the amount paid to old age pensioners is insufficient. The amount of money paid should guarantee to the recipient a decent standard of living—a 1942, and not a 1905, standard. All these devices are, in my opinion, not to the honour of this country. They constitute no more than a political makeshift in dealing with old age pensioners.
There are one or two matters which may be considered of minor importance, but which, nevertheless, I wish to raise. The first concerns lonely pensioners who know very little about the number of points for food, the variations in the supply of food and what is required of them if the books relating to these matters are lost. I should like to know whether it is possible to provide them with the information on a printed slip when they receive their pensions. There is another matter which also requires attention. It relates to the computation of available resources, and is that part of the Regulations which treat as capital assets certain moneys and investments. In so far as these do not exceed a total value of £25, they are disregarded, but, where they exceed £25, each further £25 is treated as weekly income of 1s. per week, and that amount is taken into calculation in the ascertainment of the amount of supplementary pension payable. But that shilling is equal to 12½ per cent. on the investment, and in our submission it ought to be substantially reduced. We know the object of this provision, but, as it is a penalty on thrift, it should be changed.
There is another provision made in the Regulations which has reference to providing or clothing the local officer with certain powers of discretion with regard to the provision of what are called occasional requirements, such as clothing, household utensils and so on. We consider that a much more generous interpretation of this provision should be insisted upon. We think the powers are too niggardly exercised, and that the administration bears too clearly the stamp of economy. I have already stated that some hon. Members may describe these points as being of no importance, but if they are small, I think they should be dealt with at once. They cause considerable annoyance and are of an unnecessarily irritating character; they may be aptly described as regulation irritants, and, as I say, they should be removed.
There is also the difference which exists between the amount of supplementary pension payable in the cases of a householder and a non-householder. This matter has reference to page 5, paragraph 9 of the Explanatory Memorandum, issued during the time the Regulations were submitted to this House, and known as Command Paper 6265. It reads:
If there are two married couples living in a house, the rent of which is 12s. per week, and the householder applies for an allowance, the amount of the contribution from the other couple will usually be taken as 6s.
I do not propose to enlarge on the differences, as they were very ably dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) on 29th April, last year, when the Regulations were before this House, other than to say that they are the cause of much discontent among the people whom they affect. This can be easily understood when it is known that the differences are in some cases between 19s. to 24s. a week, and 12S. 6d. to 18s. 6d. a week. These variations need attention, and we ask the Minister to give the matter his early attention and remove them.
After all that may be said for the old age pensioners, there is still the other case of the pensions paid to widows. It has been truly said that by the Act of 1925 social insurance entered on a new phase. The Measure is known as the Widows, Orphans and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act, and was passed on 7th August, 1925. It began to operate on 4th January, 1926, but its full and complete operation commenced on 2nd January, 1928. It provides, as hon. Members know, for the payment of pensions to widows and orphans and persons between the ages of 65 and 70. The payments were 10s. per week for widows, 5s. for the first child, 3s. for the second and a similar allowance to other children belonging to the family. In 1929 the original Act was considerably improved, the chief improvement being that the age of entitlement for widows' pensions was lowered. Since then other improvements have been effected, but, strangely enough, the 10s. per week pension has never been increased, and that is not to the credit either of this House or of the nation. These widows are being neglected and their claims are being ignored, and we, to-day, in connection with similar cases, have referred to the increase in-the cost of living.
In this case the cost of living index figure for January, 1928, when the original Act was in full operation, was 68 above the figure of 1914. To-day it is no less than 100. There has been an increase in the index figure during that period of over 32 points. If we compare the figure in January, 1928, with the figure for January of this year, we find the cost of living has increased by more than one-half. Surely this is a question where the mere recital of the facts is sufficient to demand immediate attention. I should like the House to listen to a letter I have had from one of these widows. She writes:
Dear Sir, I am worrying you again, but happening to read an announcement in the 'Daily Herald' on the 13th, I thought perhaps it would be an opportune time to champion the cause of the widows and orphans. It is positively disgraceful that, after nearly three years of war, 10s. weekly is considered adequate for a woman who oft times is past work. Never have so many waited so long for so little. Please forgive me for worrying you so often on the same subject, but we poor widows are badly in need, and we want someone to plead our cause in the House of Commons.
I trust, if I have not said enough to impress the House on other matters regard will be had to the contents of that letter. No display of resiliency and no comments on the stabilisation policy of, the Government will prove an effective reply to the letter I have read.
In conclusion, I wish to thank the House for the patience it has shown during my first speech from this Box. What I have said is part of our case in demanding an immediate improvement in the conditions of old age pensioners and the long-neglected widows. We say, and we say it deliberately, with full appreciation of the alleged difficulties, that at the earliest opportunity a substantial increase should be made in the payments to these people, and that, in addition to the acceptance of the other suggestions, the proposed increase should be made without the application of that iniquitous means test. In other words, the increase should be disregarded, as other items are disregarded in the determination of supplementary pensions. The method that should be adopted to deal with widows must be obvious, and therefore requires no explanation.—[Interruption.]— I think the hon. Member has a very clear idea what we mean when we are asking for a substantial increase in payment. Emerson says that there is a remedy for every
wrong and a satisfaction for every soul. Let it not be said of Members of the House:
Our griefs, how swift,
Our remedies, how slow!
We who support the Motion are convinced that, in meeting our demand, you will give a measure of satisfaction to those on whose behalf we speak. You will hearten and encourage the sons and other members of the families of these people, whose efforts to win the war are without precedent in the history of the country. You will also justify to some degree our claim to be a great people and a great nation.
We have all listened with interest to the speech which has just been made, but I am wondering what our position is going to be after the war. Whether you have a capitalist system or not, strictly so-called, you cannot develop industry and avoid unemployment unless there are available substantial savings, in other words, new accumulations of capital. [An HON. MEMBER: "Nonsense."] It may be nonsense, but I have not met anyone yet who could do it, and, no doubt, the hon. Member who said "Nonsense" will in due course explain how you can make something out of nothing. [An HON. MEMBER: "What about Adam and Eve? "] They started off with a supply of apples, which was helpful. The greatest social problem that prevailed in the uneasy interlude between the two wars was the continuing problem of unemployment, for which there were palliatives but for which no one had a solution. None of the party sitting behind me found themselves able to solve that problem. They merely made it worse. It is a significant thing that, when taxation was reduced in stages after the last war, there followed at once decreases in unemployment. I must not go further than that, because I should be going beyond the terms of the Motion, but I must indulge in a warning note. It is easy to establish a case for action by quoting a number of hard cases. Everyone has sympathy with the examples which have been quoted, but what we are concerned with is not the odd cases of hardship. We are concerned with the vast sums which are implicit in the hon. Member's proposals. I wonder whether people quite realise the way in which expenditure has expanded. In 1914 the service of old age pensions cost about £13,000,000 a year. Various changes were made. There was the notable change made in 1925 by the Govt. of which Mr. Neville Chamberlain was a prominent Member, and there came certain modifications in 1929, when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) was Minister of Health, and then there came further substantial changes as a result of the Supplementary Pensions Act which we passed about 18 months ago. The position at the moment is that the cost of widows' and old age pensions is approximately £125,000,000, and, of that, £104,000,000 is provided by the general taxpayer and the balance is provided out of contributions under the contributory Act of 1925. £125,000,000 is a very large sum.
There is a demand that the means test shall be abolished. I am entirely, completely and absolutely opposed to the abolition of the means test.
I am opposed to the abolition of the general principle of a means test, for a very obvious reason. If you abolish the means test, you at once give pensions, which they do not need, to many hundreds of thousands of persons—probably to more than 2,000,000. You impose a colossal charge on all sorts of people of a kind which does not exist and is not proposed in any country in the world. There is a means test which I am in favour of, the means test under which you assess people to taxation—a very unpleasant means test, but it is a means test. The Income Tax form which we fill up every year is a means test, and on your means you are taxed. On what ground of justice is it suggested that those who are to receive benefits are to be relieved from that inquisition? On what grounds do you put some of the people through an inquisition and say that others are to be exempt? What is the advantage of giving a man who has sufficient a pension? On what moral grounds do you say your own children have no responsibility to you and that your responsibility is to someone else's children? That is what you are proposing, the complete destruction of the idea that parents have a responsibility to their children and children to their parents. The members of the family ought to make the first effort to help their parents in their old age. [Interruption.] It does not apply only to the worker. I should have got married four years earlier than I did but for this reason.
Will the hon. Gentleman relate that to the fact that children have a responsibility which the State claims is higher than their responsibility to their parents, and that is that when war breaks out he and I say "This boy belongs to the State"?
I do not say that he belongs to the State. All that conscription means is that you are forced to work in a particular way, and you are paid for it. It may be underpaid, but it is paid service and is at the rate of about £4 a week if you take the average allowances and emoluments into account.—[Interruption.]—It is obvious from the number of interruptions I am getting that I am saying some things that people do not like. It will not do them any harm to listen to them for once. People say with supreme ignorance that if we can afford to spend all this money on the war, we can afford to spend a bit more on something else. The doctrine is that the poorer you are the richer you are. We are going to end this war in a very grave economic position. Masses of capital will have to go for the physical reconstruction of damaged buildings, but when that is completed it will not furnish us with a reproductive industry. We have to find the resources to re-establish the industries which have been put out of action. We have sacrificed the bulk of our overseas assets, and we shall find ourselves without the means of importing the foodstuffs to feed our people which we were able to get in the old days because of the interest arising from investments overseas, shipping services, commissions and so on, all of which will be much reduced.
We are living at the moment on a completely false basis. We are getting our imports largely without charge. They have been lent to us, and possible they may be given to us. We do not know, but at the moment they are being lent to us. In that closed economy we can do all sorts of funny things inside the banking system. When that comes to an end, the lending will come to an end. I ask people to realise the significance of this burden. We cannot pay pensions by borrowing money. It can only be done by an annual charge. It is £125,000,000 now. In 30 years hence, since the population is an ageing population, it will be £250,000,000 on the present basis. Yesterday everybody with full enthusiasm was raising the school age to restrict the number of producers. The object of pensions is to restrict the number of producers at the other end. There will come a time in the life of living people when the whole of our system of social services will be in peril of collapse because the number of dependants will be too great in relation to the number of producers.
It may do, but that result will not come for some time. If we jump the school-leaving age by two or three years, we shall cut out of production, whether we like it or not, a little fewer than 1,000,000 people per year for each year the age is raised. We cannot have all these things. We are deceiving the nation by the optimistic speeches we make one day about education, on another day about what we propose to do about old age pensions, and on another day about family allowances. We cannot finance all these things. With complete irresponsibility Members of all political parties are going around the country preaching what a beautiful rosy world is to come after the war. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not? "] Because you will not get it, and you will not get it for precisely the same reason that my interrupters made the world much less rosy in the two years between 1929 and 1931. The result was that the party that was 200 strong returned 40 strong.
I contend that we can and we will get the support of this people for the preservation of freedom without driving them with bribes to come later on. This country entered the war to preserve liberty and freedom. It is now suggested that it is necessary to bribe people that they will get something in 1943 or 1944 in order to persuade them to continue the essential efforts for the preservation of their liberties. The people who are going about the country promising that after the war everything is to be lovely and perfect are deceiving people. Our first problem will be the incredible problem of trying to get people into employment. We shall have to demobilise, I do not know how many million people in the Services and in Civil Defence. We shall have to shift several millions of people from war production to civil production at a time when the effective purchasing power of overseas nations to restore the export trade will not exist, or will barely exist at all. To promise now easy things when we are going to have difficult things is dishonest, unfair and unnecessary. The people of this country will face every problem that comes before them. They do not want to be bribed. They are too good for that, and they will always rally to the cry of responsibility. If they will not do that without bribes, the Conservative party will never get a majority in this country. My hon. Friends behind can always outbid us in promises, but they have done it so often that people no longer believe in their promises. In the old days, when a candidate bribed out of his own pocket, it was complete respectability compared with the present system, when you bribe out of your neighbour's pocket. I have endeavoured to make a protest on certain general lines, and I know that it is one which is felt by millions of people up and down the country.
For a long time Debates on this and similar topics have been somewhat quiet and placid. To-day we have had from the hon. Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams) an interlude that has almost brought back to me something of the Debates we used to have before the war on the means test. I will not enter into a competition with the hon. Gentleman on the question of political honesty. Perhaps I may have his attention: he is always the first to chide other Members for not giving attention.
If my hon. Friend knew the hon. Member for South Croydon as well as I do, he would never dream of trying to give him information; he would always listen to information from him. I will not compete with the hon. Member for South Croydon in attempting to deal with the economic position of this country. He did not deal with a question of raising old age pensions as much as with the general economic structure of this country both now and after the war. I do not propose to deal with that issue, because the issue raised to-day deals merely with old age pensions and widows' pensions. He talked about parties bribing the electors. I have never bribed in my elections, because anybody who has had substantial majorities such as I have been fortunate in having has no need to do it. I will not say what I would do if I had only a small majority. In the election which the hon. Member talked about when our people were routed, I held my seat with a 9,000 majority, which is not an inconsiderable majority. I have never bribed, because I did not need to do so. The hon. Member's party have no great record in this matter. Who does not remember the elections of the tariff reform years, when they promised everybody a job, and competed in the most scandalous fashion in exploiting the miseries of unemployment by offering everybody immediate work? Who has not watched them over a period of years entering into all sorts of competition? Go back even to that famous election in 1931, when the Tories outbid almost everybody in offering peace and security if the people voted for them.
Let me say a word or two about the means test. I am not afraid to raise this issue again. The hon. Member must consider a number of facts. He asked, "What about the son maintaining the family?" One of the points is that a son is not now asked to keep his parents, unless he is unfortunate enough to remain at home, which is a totally different proposition. For good or ill the law, when we changed it, swept aside every other member of the family living outside the home. To-day the means test falls on the family residing with the parents.
I am not to be driven off into the side issue which the hon. Member now raises. He said that we must have a means test because we ought to see that the family assisted the parents. But that is not the law; it is only selected persons who are asked to do it. One has to consider not merely the social effects of a means test but its working from day to day. I remember a famous tax which was imposed by the present Prime Minister, the Betting Tax. It was dropped because it turned out to be a complete fiasco. One of the reasons for that was that the cost of its collection was so heavy that things became almost impossible. I put it to the hon. Member that from the point of view of the administrative expense of running it the means test is not worth while as a means of saving public expenditure. The gap is narrowed, and each year sees the gap get less, and when we are running a machine which no longer justifies itself from the point of view of the saving which it effects that machine ought to go.
As everybody who is acquainted with the operation of the means test knows, its working involves inquiries over a wide range of the family. It brings in the relation of brothers to sisters and of uncles to nephews. It is a costly business to work it; it causes resentment; and from no human standpoint can it be justified. One of the things that makes for resentment is that the poorer section of the community feel that in the grant to them of a pension a means test is operated which would never be tolerated if it were applied to the richer sections of the community who have pensions. The police, civil servants and a whole range of other public officials receive pensions, substantial in amount when compared with old age pensions. It may be said that they have in part contributed to them, but the great bulk of the money found comes out of the national pool of wealth. To-day nobody would dream of applying to that great range of public servants anything like the means test which is applied in the case of old age pensions. Why they should be harried and cross-examined in every way, I cannot understand.
Many old people will not apply for a pension because they know they will be subjected to this constant inquisition, and it is not the old people alone who have to suffer the inquisition. It goes into the affairs of the girl who is working or the son who is working in order to find out what are their earnings. It is true that the Act dealing with the determination of need modified that position to some extent, but there is still an inquiry concerning each member of the household. It is no use the hon. Member talking about "dangling carrots outside" in order to win the war. Cabinet Ministers have been dangling carrots for the last two years, and the only criticism I have to make is that they have been dangling them very ineffectually. What about the speech made in Edinburgh the other week by the Foreign Secretary, in which he held out new hopes of things after the war, painting the rosiest of pictures of the future of this country? People say, "What about his painting this picture of what things will be like at some time to come? What we want is a realisation of such a picture much nearer the present time if it can be got."
If the hon. Member wants an answer to that question, I shall have to go into detail. The answer is that supplementary pensions raise the scale of the pension, subject always to a means test, to, roughly speaking, sums varying from 19s. 6d. to 25s. or 26s. in the case of a single person. In the case of a married couple, the basic scale goes from 29s. 6d. possibly to £2. There may be exceptional cases over £2. In round figures that is the position. I would abolish the means test and raise the pensions rate to at least a figure that would cover the present high scale paid by the Assistance Board. I would do the same in the case of a married couple. That is my answer to the hon. Gentleman. I would give the old age pensioners the money that we are now paying to keep an expensive régime going.
I have not heard for some time any real argument against a case for increase of pensions. The hon. Gentleman who preceded me argued that this country should do nothing to increase the cost of social services. The House should, face the issue that there is no more urgent political issue in this country than this question of increasing old age pensions. Wherever you go in any part of the country there is a terrible clamour for a decent pension for the old people. The hon. Member who led for our party quoted from some of the budgets of these people. I would tell those who would detend the present state of things what the position is in Scotland. The standard of old age pensions, as administered by the Assistance Board and run by the Government, has reached a stage below that now paid by the great majority of Poor Law authorities. In Scotland, no Poor Law authority can pay above a destitution scale, which must be fixed according to destitution, yet this scale in many cases exceeds what the present Government are paying to old age pensioners.
The anomaly arising wholesale under the Act of 1940, is that poor persons taken over from the Poor Law were guaranteed their poor relief, while the new people who come along receive less than the others. In the same street, or, as we say in Glasgow, in the same close, you may have one of each case living next door to each other. In my own constituency the older recipients of destitution relief receive a sum of money plus clothing, underclothing and boots, but the new recipient merely receives money. He not only does not receive the same amount but receives no clothes. From the point of view of the old age pensioner, the position to-day might be regarded as a ghastly one.
In the old days, the only case against an increase of old age pensions was that the country could not afford it, and that argument was used with terrible force. Before the war started; however, we were spending more upon increased armaments arising from the danger of war than would have met the most generous claims put forward by any advocate for increased old age pensions. If any Member thinks that the means test is popular, let him go to the men in the Forces, to the soldiers who are now serving, and who to-day suffer because of the means test in respect of their families and dependants. They are defending the country, but before those at home can be granted anything like an increase they must undergo one of the most rigorous means tests that I know of. This means-test principle runs through every Department. The old people feel, and so do I, that this means-test machine may have been justified in the days when there were great numbers of unemployed people and when the sums that could be saved were vast. There might have been a case on the ground of such saving. The machine is costly, and to-day that case has gone. The reason for the retention of the machine is not the paltry savings from the old age pensioners.
I forget. I understand that the figure is roughly £2,500,000 or £2,750,000, but I would not pledge myself to it. I am sure the Financial Secretary would be glad to give the hon. Member the figure for which he asks. This machine is being maintained in order to be worked after the war. The old people make an appeal, with great moderation. In nearly every walk of life, for workmen in industry, civil servants and others, there have been increases of pay in recent years, but no section of the community needs an increase more than the older section of our people. With regard to widows, one can only say that a woman with children has a greater responsibility than ever before. The responsibility of rearing and maintaining a family becomes increasingly grave. The sum of 10s. a week, fixed in 1925 by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, must now be considered terribly inadequate for a widow. The allowance of 5s. for the first child and 3s. for every succeeding child also becomes increasingly inadequate. Yesterday I attended a criminal court in Scotland, in my native city, and had the misfortune of seeing a man sentenced to a long term in an asylum. In conversation afterwards with one of the authorities I was told that that man, an outcast from society, would cost at least £3 a week to supervise and maintain in an asylum. He was a criminal, and in the, same court others were sentenced, at a cost approximating to the same figure. For our own old people, for those who have contributed so well to our past, the Labour party make this simple claim.
This Motion does not commit the House to anything like the extent I would have liked it to be committed; I would have liked to see the House committed to removing the means test and granting a definite fixed allowance, but in so far as the Motion does commit the House to immediate action to ameliorate the conditions of our elderly people and widows, it has my support, and I trust that every decent man, apart from political considerations, will not merely give this Motion his support but will press the Government to make it a reality.
When I read this Motion on the Order Paper I thought it was due to the fact that there are a large number of aged people in the country who are finding difficulty in making both ends meet owing to certain circumstances which have arisen since the war. When, however, I heard the hon. Member for Abertillery (Mr. Daggar) moving the Motion, I found that that could not have been its chief object, because he made a plea for a substantial increase in the general pension. When he refused to give way to me I wanted to ask him whether the suggested increase in the general pension would do away with the supplementary pension, because throughout his speech he had objected to the means test. But at the end of his speech he said that the supplementary pension should be added to the increased normal pension as before. That is what I do not understand. I do understand the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan); he has been frank enough to tell the House that in order to sweep away the supplementary pension and to abolish the means test, the normal standard pension must be raised to the higher standard paid to-day to any supplementary pensioner, whose pension itself may have to be raised before the higher standard is granted.
The hon. Member for Gorbals told us that at present the supplementary pension carried a single man to somewhere between 19s. 6d. and 25s. 6d. and a married person to somewhere between 29s. 6d. and £2. He then said that £2 should be the minimum pension for a married couple, otherwise there would have to be a supplementary pension and a means test all over again. He went on to say that 25s. 6d. should be the standard pension for the single individual, if the supplementary pension and the means test are to be abolished for him. But what is the position at the present time? There are 3,600,000 people in this country who receive pensions, of whom 1,350,000 receive supplementary pensions. Consequently 2,250,000 people receive no supplementation at all. According to the hon. Member for Gorbals, the single ones among these people have to be raised to at least 25s. 6d. and the married people to at least £2 before you can think of doing away with the supplementary pension based on the means test. What does that mean? It means an increase of 15s. 6d. in the standard pension for a single man and of 10s. each for a husband and wife. For the sake of convenience let us call it an increase of 12s. 6d. a week.
No, Sir; if I may be allowed to go on, I think I have a very strong point here. The hon. Member for Gorbals said that all this could be done with the money that is paid to-day for keeping the machinery going.
I did not say that. What I did say was that the present cost of running the machine could be saved. I never argued, and do not here argue, that everybody should get a pension. I have never asked it for the man who is in work, and I do not now.
I shall come to the question of the man who is in work in a moment. I asked what was the cost of maintaining this scheme, and two figures were given, £2,250,000 and £3,250,000. An average increase of 12s. 6d. per week for 2,350,000 people would cost approximately £1,500,000 a week, roughly worked out on the figures which the hon. Member for Gorbals has given. But the hon. Member for Gorbals told us that he is not prepared to pay an additional pension to those people who are in work. Let us examine how many there are. Before the war 375,000 people were drawing contributory pensions while at work. To-day that figure is in the region of 600,000. Consequently there are 600,000 people in the country to-day drawing pensions and working. Most of them pay Income Tax upon their wages and upon their present pensions. Despite the fact that I admire the hon. Member for Gorbals for not wishing to pay them this additional pension, it does show how the whole business is being complicated, because those people have a right to the 10s. a week at 65 because of their contributions. Is there to be one scale of pensions for the people who are not working and another for those who are? If so, you are instituting a means test in the very act of trying to abolish it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gorbals asked me what was my argument. Realising the complications that arise in this matter, realising also the feeling which the question of abolishing the means test has always engendered in this House, and realising further that there are old people who are suffering today from an inadequate supplementary pension, I have come here to appeal to the House to confine its inquiry to those needy people if they want something to be done for them as quickly as possible. The cost of living has increased, we know, and I join with my hon. Friend the Member for Abertillery in his views upon the question of tobacco and beer. He has worked out that the cost of tobacco and beer is 3s. 6d. a week. If anyone says that these are luxuries, I make no apologies for saying that they are luxuries which the aged are entitled to enjoy. I do not see, for the life of me, why those people who have applied for supplementary pensions should not enjoy them now.
The hon. Member for Gorbals said that many more of them would have applied but that they did not like to apply for supplementary pensions because there was a means test. We heard that story when people used to go to the public assistance authority when they had to go there to have pensions supplemented before the passing of the Pensions Act of 1940. What was the position then? In order to supplement their pensions, 275,000 went to the public assistance authority because they were absolutely in need. I remember pleading in 1940 for supplementary pensions and making the statement that there were many people who associated public assistance with pauperism and who would not go to the public assistance authority, but that if such a scheme of supplementary pensions was evolved that they could get their pensions at the post office, they would apply in large numbers. The then Minister of Health estimated that the number who would apply was 400,000. Some hon. Members opposite thought that that was an exaggerated estimate. What has been the result? Within a month of abolishing that taint of pauperism over 1,000,000 applied for supplementation, and to-day we have 1,350,000 people receiving supplementary pensions.
I shall finish with this one appeal, which is, Do not complicate the issue; do not ask for a committee to inquire into the whole business of pensions, especially now, in war-time; do not bring in the question of abolishing the means test. If you desire to help the aged who are in great need, who suffer through the inadequacy of the supplementary pension to meet the increased cost of these commodities, sometimes clothes, sometimes beer, sometimes tobacco, then for heaven's sake confine your application and exhortation to the Government to pay attention to those people, to give them a much needed increase in their supplementary pension, and to give it as quickly as they possibly can.
I rise to take part in this Debate to support the Motion moved by the hon. Member for Abertillery (Mr. Daggar). In doing so, I wish to say that this is the first time I have had the privilege of addressing the House. I therefore know I shall receive the indulgence of the House which is given to new Members on such occasions. I wish to say that I do not speak without any experience or knowledge of the issue which is before the House. I happen to have been a member of the old Manchester Board of Guardians for many years. I was on the council at Manchester when the transference made by Mr. Neville Chamberlain's Act of 1929 took place, and since then have been, up to quite recently, a member of the advisory body governing the Assistance Board in. Manchester, and am an ex-chairman of, the public assistance committee of that city. Having this experience, I have listened to, and read in the OFFICIAL REPORT many times, all the Debates which have taken place in this House on this subject. I read last night the Debate which took place in this House on 12th March on the Report of the Assistance Board. I dare say that during my time I have on certain committees dissected the budgets of poor people, as to how they live, as much as anyone.
As far as Gorton is concerned, it is a constituency which happens to be on the borders of Manchester. If it had been regarded as a separate area, it would have been designated a distressed area many years ago when the unemployment situation was so acute. Therefore I say, knowing, as I do know, the facts, and the way we budget upon these matters appertaining to the poor, I have always contended, and contend here, that the pension, via the supplementary pension, is inadequate to meet the needs of our old age pensioners to-day. You may ask, as one of the hon. Members has asked today, "What are your views in relation to matters important in administration, such as the means test?" I have had a good deal to do with this subject. I remember somewhat vividly attending the first meetings of the Advisory Board to try and reach and make recommendations—that is all we could do—to the Assistance Board in regard to what we call the rent formula. I remember moving that, no matter what the rent was, the full rate should be paid. Naturally that was lost. In an OFFICIAL REPORT I have in my hand one hon. Member, I think the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan), said he was tired of winning the arguments and losing when it came to the final issue. This was my lot, at any rate, and it has been the lot so far as the appeals from the Labour party on this matter are concerned. As other Members of this House must be experiencing when they visit their constituents, I find that the type of people I come into contact with, say, "I do not want our James to help me," or "It is not right that our Mary should help me." They feel that, having contributed their full share to industry, they are entitled to adequate allowances and pensions, and to be independent of their sons and daughters. They believe that they have a right to a decent life, and that they should not have to live miserably, as thousands of them do, on a diet of insufficient vitamins and calories.
I remember an encounter last week, when I was on my way to the office in Manchester of the National Council of Social Service. I have attended there for two years, giving advice in a ward which I represent on the council. While waiting for the tram, I saw 20 to 30 old age pensioners. They asked me how I was going on in the House, and I said, "It is all right." I noticed that not one of them had a cigarette or a pipe. I made no comment on the fact, but I thought of how I had heard the Chancellor of the
Exchequer manipulating figures here, and I compared those figures and the position of these old people. The first person who came to me at the office was a soldier's wife. She said, "I have made an application for a war grant, and have been turned down. Can you get me any clothes?" I said, "Have you no coupons?" She said, "Yes, but I have no money." That woman had four children with her. I had to tell her that I could do nothing. As a former member of Manchester Board of Guardians, I know that it is true, as the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) said, that people used to get more from the old public assistance committees. Now, if a person applies to the assistance board for clothing, he is sent to some charitable organisation. These people say, "Is it a fact that we still have to go down there begging for clothes, in spite of the fact that this is supposed to be an adequate pension?" I say, "If you have instructions to go and you want these clothes, you must go there to get them." Then, all their family history has to be told before they can get clothes, which the P.A.C. in Manchester used to provide. I am not speaking disrespectfully of the people on these organisations, many of whom I know personally, but the position is such that many of the applicants refuse to go to them. Many of them refuse to apply for the supplementary pension, because of what they are expected to go through. I am speaking especially for the people who have been thrifty, who may have a little in the bank, or who may have certificates. If their certificates-were bought during this war they are not taken into account, but any which were bought before the war are taken into account. To show the position of that type of person, I will read a letter which I received this week. The writer did not know that I was going to take part in this Debate. This is a letter which he wrote to the chief officer of the Assistance Board in Manchester:
Sir, I have received from: you a supplementary pension book, and a form of advice, dated 24th May, 1942, telling me that you have granted me a supplementary pension of 14s. 6d. per week. As the amount is less than sufficient for my welfare—I quote from the words in the 1940 Act—I appeal from your determination and ask you to arrange for me to meet the Appeals Tribunal at an early date. As all my former appeals have been turned down by that body, I have come to the conclusion that I shall not get a pension sufficient for my
welfare—again I quote from the 1940 Act—until the rate is fixed in a new Act and it is placed beyond your power and that of the Appeals Tribunal to interfere with it in any way whatever. Your present administration of the Act proves beyond all question that both you and the Appeals Tribunal are not fit to be treated with any discretionary power in the matter.
That applicant feels that these people are not to be trusted. I do not say that. I believe that within the confines of their discretionary powers they try to work the Act to the best of their ability. This type of case can be multiplied, and thousands of old age pensioners feel that the persons who are administering this Act are not giving them fair play. Therefore, I appeal to the Members of this House to support the Motion of the Labour party, and I earnestly ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whom I am delighted to see here, to take this matter into full consideration and bring in another Act for bur old age pensioners which will place them upon an adequate living basis.
I would like to congratulate the hon. Gentleman the Member for Gorton (Mr. Oldfield) upon his maiden speech. We could all of us hear him. I did not hear any shouts of "Speak up." I also believe we all enjoyed what he said. It was very much to the point. He put a lot of new points before us, and we shall be very glad to hear him speak again.
I have heard something like 12 Debates in this House on the subject of old age pensions, and this is the first time I have had the temerity to speak on the subject myself. There are so many hon. Members who have made a close study of the subject and know much more about it than I do myself. The position is different to-day. All of us know when we pay for our cinema seats, our tea, our trams, that the cost of living has gone up very much indeed. Everybody knows what his own wife has to pay in housekeeping expenses and how much more has to be paid out at the end of the week. The position is also different with me, because this matter has been taken up by my own Association. Although we are supposed to have no party now and are all working together in supporting the National Government in the prosecution of the war, it gives us more freedom to speak. At the same time, the Conservative Association in Blackburn have written to me on the subject, and I have been in touch with the Chairman, who has encouraged me to speak my own mind.
I do not know that it has ever been a party question, because whatever party has been in power and whatever Chancellor of the Exchequer has been in office this matter cannot be considered from the point o£ view of sentiment only. The Chancellor of the Exchequer must consider the number of people he has to pay, how much money he has and how much taxation he has to raise to pay for this service. One of the speakers suggested that the cost of tobacco and beer should be reduced for old age pensioners. That would raise a very doubtful principle. It would be a question of putting on taxation in order to get money and then immediately handing it back again. I do not think that we could work upon those lines very successfully. When I went to Blackburn in 1930, at the beginning of the depression in the cotton industry, I met not one or two, but considerably more people who had owned small cotton mills and they pointed out that they had paid out health and unemployment Insurance for thousands of workers for many years. In the depression in the cotton industry they had been compelled to go bankrupt, and in their old age, although they themselves had paid out a lot of money towards providing other people's old age pensions they had not a penny left for themselves. Therefore, there is a great deal to be said for a social security scheme such as exists in the United States of America. When I was staying with my brother, who has become a citizen of the United States having lived there so long, he told me—he is an ordinary middle-class or lower middle-class person like myself—that he was paying out each month or week a certain amount for the social security scheme, which meant that when he was 60 or 65 he would be sure of a pension in his old age.
I understand that there are two countries, Sweden and the United States of America, that are ahead of us in their, social services. [Interruption.] I am willing to be corrected because just as we lead the world in fighting against aggression so, I hope, we lead the world at the same time in our social services and in looking after our old people. All of us have been brought up probably in an atmosphere of thrift. I know that I was so brought up myself. There were 11 of us children and, again and again, I heard my father say, "On the day that you are 21 I shall take you to the front door and kick you out and you will have to look after yourself." And I went. I realise that in this House there are Members who went to work and who supported themselves from the time that they were 12 years old. Whatever we do in this matter of pensions we do not want to penalise thrift, but to encourage people to put something by for their old age. I would like to see security for all at the age of 60. Some allowance should be made according to whether people continue in industry or not. That might not be applied until after the war, but we have a Minister for post-war planning and I think that is one of the matters upon which he should ponder. I can never believe that it will be possible to shovel out public money without a means test of some kind. After all, in his Income Tax return a man has to state his own income and his wife's income. I am not suggesting that that is as personal a matter as a means test before a public assistance committee, but, at the same time, whoever is Chancellor of the Exchequer must consider that he is the custodian of the public money and that it is up to him to see that it is spent properly. You may have to modify the means test but there will have to be some sort of means test in existence.
All I would appeal for in this matter is justice and I think our aged people at the present moment are justified in getting some sort of increase now. The larger issue about social security may, perhaps, have to be postponed until after the war, although I myself would like to see it started at once, because we have probably more people in industry now than ever before and if everybody in this country who was working contributed only £1 a year it would make a good many millions with which to give the fund a start. At a time when we are paying very heavy direct and indirect taxes—indeed, it will soon cost us 1£ a minute to breathe—another £1 a year with which to start this fund should not make much difference. The Home Secretary talked about justice for the Germans after the war. I agree. If they get justice that is enough; they will suffer a good deal. I appeal, at the same time, for justice for our aged people now.
It has been truly said that the best way to judge a civilisation is by the amount of attention it pays to its young and its old. Yesterday, the House considered the young and it is fitting, therefore, that today we should discuss the old. I do not propose to talk at length on this subject, partly because I know many other Members hope to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, and partly because I think there is a remarkable unanimity in the House that something more needs to be done for our old age pensioners. The only difference of opinion is how much this country can afford when it is fighting for its life and saving as much as possible for armaments. From time to time, after the 9 o'clock B.B.C. news on Sundays, we are entertained—if that is not too disrespectful a word—by some right hon. Gentleman in a postscript dealing with the new order which we are fighting to achieve in this country after the war. We are told that the Britain of the future will not be the Britain of 1939. I, being a Member of this House, am far too humble to scoff at the sentiments I hear on the radio from right hon. Gentlemen, but there are others who say "That was said in 1917–18. We have been bitten once; we shall not be bitten again. It is always jam to-morrow but never jam to-day."
It seems to me that in this matter of old age pensions the Government have an excellent opportunity of proving the sincerity of their ideas about to-morrow. It may be that such other subjects as housing and social security will have to be left until after the war but old age pensions is a different matter. To allow a reasonable pension does not take steel or material which is needed for the front. All it needs is a Vote from this House and I would point out something we are inclined to forget—that if we are a great nation, as we are, it is largely due to the efforts of those who are now old. Their labours in the prime of life built us up as we are and now that they are old, I think it a sad thing that they should be in the humiliating position of having to plead, as suppliants. As regards meeting the cost of the scheme no one has a greater sympathy for the Chancellor of the Exchequer than I have. I can think of no more trying job in Europe than being Chancellor of the Exchequer of this country at the present moment, unless it is that of being Chancellor of the German Reich. But I feel there is a great contrast between this Debate and what happened a short while ago at this Sitting when, in a few minutes, with hardly any consideration, we voted hundreds of millions of pounds for the war effort. That was for war and was rightly considered necessary, yet now we are spending the better part of a day discussing a comparatively infinitesimal amount of money for the benefit of our aged men and women. If these millions for which the House asks were for bombs, aircraft and ships with which to kill Germans, we should not be having a long Debate; the money would be voted automatically, as it was earlier to-day. There is only one question on which to make up our minds and that is: is there injustice to the old age pensioner? If there is, it should be done away with and, if doing away with it costs money, that money must be found.
I am confident that the Motion on the Order Paper will command the sympathy and support of Members in all parts of this House. Many have spoken about the plight of old age pensioners and I join in the plea which has been made that we should take into consideration afresh their position and grant them adequate pensions. The Determination of Needs Act was an advance and through its operation about 140,000 old age pensioners did receive supplementary allowances but I have always held the view that it is much better to ask for flat-rate increases in the basic rates and that, if you have only a certain amount of money in the "kitty," it is better to give it to applicants, rather than spend it on salaries and wages of people who make inquiries to assess how much aged people should receive. With other Members, I believe that we owe our prosperity, as a nation, to the work of our aged people. The majority of them have been hard-working and have contributed to the welfare of the nation and in the evening of their lives they should be free from the haunting fear of poverty and insecurity and have the chance of a decent standard of living.
I wish, however, to direct my remarks more particularly to the question of widows. My mother was left a widow with six young children and the impressions left on me by my young life have never been removed by the passage of time. I feel it my duty to plead the cause of the widows of this country for adequate pensions and for justice and fair play. I remember speaking at many demonstrations before we established the principle of widows' pensions, and, although I was gratified that the State had accepted some measure of responsibility towards the widows and helped them to rear their children, I never felt that 10s. was enough. I could never burke the fact that husbands had to contribute to National Health Insurance almost from the day they entered industry and that when a woman was bereft of the love and protection of her husband she not only had to be mother to her children but the breadwinner also.
We give 10s. to the widow, 5s. for the first child and 3s. for each other child. I say that these pensions which are paid under National Health Insurance are totally inadequate to meet the needs of widows and help them in their struggles. We are placing an impossible burden on the shoulders of the widows of this country. The children are penalised in the struggle of life. In the majority of cases they do not get the same chances in life as the child whose father is still living and able to work. I am well aware of the fact that many children of widows have risen to high positions in the country, but, at the same time, it means a desperate struggle on the part of the mother to give them a chance. We have also thousands of widows who do not come under National Health Insurance and who do not receive pensions, but, even where the widow does receive a pension under National Health Insurance, if she is unable to go out to work, she frequently has to seek public assistance. I want, as a first step towards adequate pensions, to have an equalisation in the rates paid to the widows of this country.
I have been interested in the pensions which are paid to different sections of the community. I have in mind the pensions paid to widows who come under the Civilians (Personal Injuries) Scheme when their husbands have died as a result of enemy action. I also have in mind the pensions paid to the widows of servicemen. Childless widows under 40 receive 17s. 6d. a week, and childless widows over 40 receive 25s. a week, and the widows with children who come under these different Acts of Parliament receive 25s. a week plus the children's allowances. I think the Government ought to look into this question, and, as a first instalment to adequate pensions, they should bring the civilian rates up to the rates given to other widows. I do not want to be misunderstood. I am not claiming that 25s. a week is sufficient, because I know as a practical housewife that a widow would still have to struggle in order to keep the home fires burning, and would still have to look for some other source of income to enable her to give her children sufficient food and clothing and a start in life. I say that 10s. a week paid to widows under National Health Insurance is totally inadequate, and that there is a real difference between 10s. and the 17s. 6d. or 25s. paid to other widows.
As a member of the War Service Grants Advisory Committee, I am also interested in the standard which has been laid down by the Government in relation to allowances for the widows and dependants of Servicemen. I was gratified when the principle was established in our work that we must see to it that after the wives of Servicemen had met reasonable commitments, rates, insurance and so on, she should have at least 16s. left. That was a revolutionary principle, and it is a principle which the Government ought to consider still further in regard to social services. I feel quite sure that, if we can establish a principle of that kind and guarantee our widows more generous treatment and a more adequate allowance, we shall have moved along the road towards securing a higher standard of decency for these people.
I have been asked by the Standing Joint Committee of Working Women, an organisation representing over 2,000,000 in the Labour, trade union and Co-operative movement, to draw the attention of the House to the fact that we allow a widow of 60 years of age to apply for a supplementary pension. I admit that has been a boon and a blessing to many widows, but younger widows are not allowed to apply for a supplementary allowance. Although we are not enamoured of this principle—we would rather have a flat rate increase in the basic rates—if we cannot get that, we say the Government should consider the possibility of extending this principle and allowing younger widows to apply also for a supplementary allowance. While in recent times we have made some concessions to the aged pensioners—not that they have satisfied me—we have never altered the 10s. a week. If the Government ascertained the opinion of the people of this country in regard to these two items, they would find that the vast majority think it high time that we gave some consideration to adequate pensions for widows and just treatment for the fatherless children. I conclude by adding my appeal to that of other hon. Members, that the Government should take these questions into serious consideration. I am interested when I hear members of the Government and other Members of this House talking about the brave new world which we are to build after the war. Here is a sphere in which you can start to build now and help this decent section of the community to a better chance of a fuller and happier life.
I think a Debate of this character serves a useful purpose at the present time, but I am bound to say that a somewhat distorted picture has been painted up to now of the general conditions. One would imagine listening to the speeches, many of them dealing with very bad cases, that all the old age pensioners of this country were living in a state bordering on destitution. There could be nothing wider of the mark. Apart from all else there are 60,000 old age pensioners in full work at the present time, and many others who have never applied for anything above the 10s. granted to them as a right. There is a tendency—I think I noted it in the otherwise admirable speech of the hon. Member for Abertillery (Mr. Daggar) who opened this Debate, and also in what was said by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Berwick - on - Tweed (Captain Grey)—to say "Any amount of money is being spent every day in the war. When bombs and guns are needed, there is no question of any discussion in the House. What does a bit more matter?" It is sometimes forgotten that all this war expenditure has to be paid for afterwards. There are many hon. Members opposite, who, in the days before the war, were very eloquent in pointing out, especially on League of Nations platforms, that the social services were being starved, among other things owing to the amount of taxation that was required to pay interest on the money that had been borrowed for past wars. Those things will happen again. It is the duty of any Chancellor of the Exchequer, of whatever party, to consider carefully what is necessary and what is unnecessary expense and not to be carried away by the idea that, with these astronomical figures, one need not trouble.
What is the present position in regard to old age pensions? You have, roughly speaking, 2,700,000 under the contributory scheme, 450,000 non-contributory and 430,000 widows, a total of 3,600,000. Of this number, about 1,350,000 are in receipt of supplementary pensions, so that you have an enormous figure of over 2,000,000 who have not applied for supplementary pensions or, if they have applied, have been turned down on the ground that there is no actual need. Before the 1940 Regulations somewhere about 250,000 were drawing public assistance in addition to their pensions. The 1940 Regulations rightly transferred the supplement to the pension from the rates to the State. In the Debates at that time many observations were passed on the way in which old people, even if there was a switching-over from the rates to the State, would still feel that any form of means test involved a degradation to them in applying for a supplementary pension. The hon. Member for Camlachie (Mr. Stephen) said that probably fewer than 270,000 would apply owing to the grinding misery of being under the means test.
Before we switched over from the household means test to the determination of needs test—with the switch-over from the rates to the State—somewhere about 860,000 persons were granted new supplementary pensions. Since the Determination of Needs Act came into force, only another 140,000 have been added to the extra 860,000. It is nonsense to maintain that there are large numbers amongst the old people who are ashamed to apply because there is some form of determination of need. Some people say, "Do away with the supplementary pension altogether and make a flat increase in the pension itself." I do not think anyone who has the responsibility of the Chancellor of the Exchequer at present would be prepared to advocate handing over anything from £50,000,000 to £100,000,000 extra a year without making some inquiries to find whether that money was going to people who needed it.
It is terribly easy, if one has not the responsibility, to make an awful lot of noise, and perhaps arouse a certain amount of enthusiasm, by criticising the meanness of those who, after all, have to be answerable to the taxpayer and who wish to bring about after the war a better rather than a worse condition of life for the people as a whole. I remember the gasp that went up from the Opposition benches when the Chancellor observed in his Budget speech that you would not squeeze out more than £80,000,000 a year if you wiped the rich completely out of existence, and that any further taxation for social purposes would not come out of the pockets of the rich after the war but out of the pockets of the poor and the moderately well off. They have a right to see that that money does not go into the pockets of people who are as well off as they are. There are persons in receipt of the 10s. pension who have made no application for any increase and who may actually, as a result of their savings, be considerably better off than some of the people who are being taxed to assist them.
There is one point in regard to savings on which I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Abertillery. He pointed out that where there were savings of between £25 and £50 it was possible to deduct 1s. a week on the basis that the savings were worth that. It appear to me that if that is correct it is manifestly unfair that a very small amount of savings should call for a reduction in the amount of the supplementary pension. On the other hand, I do not see how the Chancellor could agree to allowing savings as a whole to be exempt from any consideration in regard to determination of needs. It is all very well to speak about people saving for a rainy day and in the same breath say they ought to be granted increased pensions, but, after all, if you save for your old age you are saving for the purpose of using some of your money for yourself, and I cannot see why a certain amount—£50—is to be exempt while, over and above that, you should say the taxpayer has to pay to ensure that money put by for old age is not spent during old age but is merely passed on as a bequest to someone else about whom the taxpayer knows nothing and of whom he has never heard. I think that the Chancellor is right to watch the position in regard to savings.
There is one line on which, generally speaking, old age pensioners might very well have their position reconsidered. There has been some rise in the cost of living, particularly in regard to clothing, and I have no doubt that many have great difficulty in replacing their clothes. Many are not particularly anxious to go to charitable organisations. The Chancellor might consider the possibility of raising the ceiling of the amount of supplementary pensions which is permitted for general purposes. This is a useful Debate, and it is only fair that the picture on both sides should be drawn and that it should be shown that the pensioners are not merely a destitute class who are being starved by the Chancellor.
May I ask for the usual indulgence which the House affords to one who is making his first speech here? I held 82 meetings in my constituency during the Election and it was obvious that the two prime factors which at present touch people most closely are war production and old age pensions. I promised my constituents that I would do my best to represent their thoughts in regard to old age pensions to this House and therefore I support most earnestly the Motion of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood). I am disappointed, however, that he has not stated an amount of money and also a time limit within which these old folks can expect to get the additional benefit. The old folk cannot to my mind, and presumably to the minds of the speakers who have gone before me, continue to pay for even the bare necessities of life with the present amount of pensions. The obvious question which arises is where the money is to come from. The hon. Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams) said that there is not any money, that we cannot get any more money and that the Government painted rosy pictures in which, presumably, they did not believe.
May I suggest one way in which the money for the old age pensioners can be found? We are spending £14,000,000 or more per day, seven days a week, in the war effort in order to make this country and the world better for us to live in. The costings system of the war production factories does not control the expenses of those factories. I suggest that, for the duration of the war, the factories should be nationalised and that incentive and competition should be brought into them, to save this money for the old age pensioners. Everything which is manufactured in this country to-day, whether engines, aircraft, guns or shells, is manufactured by four, five or six different firms for each object that is made. A specific type of gun, for example, is manufactured by four different manufacturers and the Ministry which represents the customer is paying four different prices for that gun. That is wrong, improper and unnecessary. I suggest that, through nationalisation and by introducing competition, the firm which is most efficient should have something to say about those firms which are less efficient and thereby save a considerable sum of money—more than enough to pay for an addition to the old age pension. If it takes 300 hours by firm A to make this gun, 320 hours by firm B, 350 hours by firm C, and so forth, I suggest that firm A should place at the disposal of the other firms under the direction of the Ministry concerned their shop lay-out, their planning, and their shop procedure, and that the Ministry should then give the other less efficient firms a time limit in which to cut down their manufacturing time and costs. If they did not accomplish this within the time limit the Ministry should take them over and use the management of the efficient firm to run the other three. I contend that enough money could be saved in the war industries alone to more than pay for an adequate increase in old age pensions which is desired by everybody in the country.
I would like to congratulate the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Kendall) on his very interesting and instructive maiden speech. I hope that we shall have the opportunity of listening to more of his speeches. I hope also that the Chancellor has taken note of the hon. Member's suggestion on how to raise the money to increase old age pensions. We have had a tirade from the hon. Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams) about the means test. At the same time, he derided the idea of better things after the war. In striking contrast came the remarks from the hon. and gallant Member for Blackburn (Sir W. Smiles) and the hon. and gallant Member for Berwick-on-Tweed (Captain Grey). Surely, after the sacrifices made in this war, we all want a better world.
There is no denying that the means test has been a constant source of grievance on the part of old age pensioners who strongly object to the inquisition imposed on them. Objections to the means test were voiced repeatedly in this House until, in November, 1940, the Government had to take action. The Prime Minister announced that the Government had decided to dispense with the household means test and to introduce what is known as the needs test. Undoubtedly the needs test was a big improvement on the old household means test. To thousands it has meant increased allowances, but to others very little and it still leaves cause for a feeling of grievance. The other day I came across a case in which an airman had been granting his father 14s. a week, and because of that the father was denied a supplementary pension. Had the airman been wise and given his father only 7s. a week, then the father could have got a supplementary pension. As it is, the airman is subsidising the Government.
The old people are no longer voiceless. They now have a very large association and one that is not backward in airing their grievances. Having made a careful investigation, this association declared that after meeting rent and normal incidental, household expenses, the average pensioner with a supplementary pension of 10s. 6d. a week is left with only 7s. 1d. for food and clothing. No one can deny that the cost of living has risen considerably and bears very hardly on old age pensioners. Official figures of the cost of living do not reveal the true facts. Almost every item of household need has increased enormously. Mention has been made of clothing. We know what it means to buy a pair of boots, and the cost of boot repairing has gone up considerably. Then some household utensil happens to get broken, a tea cup or a tea pot, and that means a good deal to the old age pensioner, because the cost of these things has risen considerably. Then comes the added infliction of the increase in the cost of his pipe of tobacco. Is it to be wondered that old folks are very much alive to their grievances and are kicking vigorously? The cost of the keep of a pensioner in a Durham institute is 30s. 11d. a week. In view of this I think the allowance to the old age pensioner does not seem to be excessive.
The British Dominions have set an object lesson to the Mother Country in their treatment of old age pensioners, starting with a pension of 20s., increased subsequently to 30s.; probably it is more since the war began. That has been good not only for the old people, but for the local shopkeeper and for the community in general, and the sooner the Government here recognise that fact the better for the country. The hon. Lady the Member for Dartford (Mrs. Adamson) mentioned the case of widows, especially widows with children. There certainly is a case for the old age pensioners, and there is equally a case for widows with dependants. The most distressing cases are those of widows who happen to be in indifferent health and unable to eke out a living by accepting outside work. They are compelled to resort to public assistance. In conclusion, I sincerely hope that the Government will give heed to what has been said to-day on behalf of old age pensioners and widows, and that it will result in more generous treatment for those classes.
On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. I understand that at an earlier stage of the Debate you indicated that you would not be calling any of the Amendments upon the Order Paper. I should like to ask you to reconsider that decision. It seems to me that there are three courses for this House to take. One is to say that nothing ought to be done; the second is to say that there ought to be an inquiry into what should be done; and the third is for the House to say that it wants something done now. Unless you, Sir, in your discretion, decide to call an Amendment, which expresses the opinion that something ought to be done now, we are left with a choice of one out of two courses instead of a choice of one out of three. In those circumstances I ask whether you could call an Amendment which would enable us to divide the House on the question of getting something done now.
I have already given full consideration to this matter and I have come to the conclusion which I told the House at the beginning of the Debate, and I propose to stick to it.
Arising from what has just been said, may I say to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that, if I am not present when he replies, I hope he will forgive me? I have to go for reasons which I cannot fully control. Of course, I cannot predict the line he is going to take in reply. None the less, unless my right hon. Friend does make some concession, I hope he will credit me with the most inconvenient intentions about any Division that may take place. While I was listening earlier in this Debate to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Blackburn (Sir W. Smiles), I felt from time to time that a good deal more united than divided us all in this controversy to-day. My hon. and gallant Friend said much to applaud and more to command respect, especially as he declared that he was speaking with the voice of the Blackburn Conservative Association.
But not all the speeches we have heard to-day have been so conciliatory. There was my hon. Friend who sits for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams). I gave him notice a little earlier that I intended to mention what he said if I had the good fortune to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) did not make the mistake, which I believe is often made, of underrating the hon. Member for South Croydon. He is a very powerful figure in this House. Indeed, I would concede to him, if he were here—and I am sorry he is not—that he is quite the most impressive Devil's Advocate I have ever heard. My hon. Friend is always able to advance reasons, very compelling reasons, either for doing the wrong thing or for doing nothing at all. To-day he even conveyed the impression that it was a matter for rejoicing that he had, for reasons which were not quite clear, postponed his own marriage for four years. The hon. Gentleman has now appeared. I will not fatigue the House by repeating what I have just said, but I have one remark to make to him, which I have privately made to him before. It is that I hope, when he is alone and meditating upon what he has said in this House, he occasionally repeats to himself a line uttered by Satan in "Paradise Lost":
Farewell, remorse: all good to me is lost; Evil, be thou my good!
Before we went to war we had a number of persistent and anxious questions relating to the standards of life of the people of this country. Most of them arose, as has been said in the course of to-day's Debate, from what appeared to be, through its long persistence, a mass of chronic unemployment. To-day most of those problems have melted. None of those who are employable are left unemployed, and with regard to extreme poverty, we are left with only two problems. The first is not so serious as the second, and I mention it in passing only to give, within the compass of a few words if I can, what I conceive to be a fairly complete picture of the social problem before us. The first is the dangerous disparity of rewards paid to those in industry on the one hand and to those in the lower ranks of the Services on the other hand. I have raised this problem before, but it is persistently burked. A cynic might say that this neglect is permitted because the private soldier and his brothers in the Navy and the Air Force arc, during hostilities, of small political account. I leave that problem now. It seems that it will have to be laboured again and again during the course of this war, although it is clearly not relevant to this Debate.
The other question is the problem of the old age pensioner. It would indeed be a shameful thing if it could be said that the life of the old age pensioner is allowed to remain as grey as it is simply because his political influence is a wasting asset. In the last few weeks we have received a certain amount of not very pleasant propaganda. All of us know that the persistent written and printed threats directed against all and any of the Members of Parliament do not—this kind of propaganda never does—spring from strength. They spring from the opposite of strength. That propaganda can be irritating, but it ought not to be allowed to cloud our judgment, because here are the facts The old age pensioner receives, in relation to the rise in the cost of living, a meagre, a pitiable, sum to-day. Any rise in that cost of living hits him much harder than it hits anyone else, because he has no margin of safety.
Frankly, I have been dismayed and very disturbed by the persistent evidence of hardship and anxiety among this class of citizen. I went to my constituency the other day when it was possible for me to do so without interference with my other duties. I found there, apart from the more general anxiety about the war, that this problem vexes not only the old age pensioners and those who, within a measurable time, will come within their ranks, but all sorts of citizens who are concerned about the level of prosperity and standards of living. It is, as every hon. Member is aware, one of the few practical cases where the means test survives. I shall not discuss the merits of a means test. Opinions vary. I was very interested, not to say surprised, over ten and a half years ago to hear the late Mr. George Lansbury say, not physically but theoretically in this House, in one of the earliest speeches I heard here, that he was in favour of the principle. I am afraid that that admission, made with characteristic sincerity by the old gentleman, proved of first class political value to those who did not agree with him about other political questions. But all those circumstances are academic beside the fact that there is a general consensus to-day that the means test is no longer a respectable method of saving public money. I suggest that that is a conviction which is now embedded in the political consciousness of us all.
We know that the means test arouses a score of antagonisms and is keenly resented. It is wrong that it should be allowed to survive almost solely as a means of harassing the aged. There are many old people who need assistance but will starve rather than appear as suppliants before officials. I remember my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South-East Essex (Flight-Lieutenant Raikes) saying in former days, when we were both a great deal younger, that it was one of the principles of our common political party to maintain the self-respect of all the citizens of this country. He has made a speech to-day, and I must remind him that it is directly in conflict with the self-respect of many aged people to have to go as suppliants before public assistance committees. We shall never convince people of middle age and those who are older that the money cannot be found. It is of no use for this House to indulge in a balance on the one hand against another mass of figures on the other. The figures given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer before the Debate have been described several times by the convenient adjective "astronomic." They are astronomic, and so would be the figure involved if the most extravagant demands made on behalf of old age pensioners were satisfied. I am not pleading for this to-day; but our current expenditure for not more than three or four days would defray for a whole year the highest demands now made for increased pensions. I do not believe anyone will deny that.
I wish to amplify one or two of the figures given by the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Leslie). I will ask the House before I sit down to consider the pathetically absurd lengths to which these figures can carry us. He said with perfect fairness that it was reasonable to calculate that, where one old age pensioner had a weekly income of £1 0s. 6d., that sum is made up of 10s. old age pension and 10s. 6d. supplementary pension. The old age pensioner, whom we are postulating, has unavoidable weekly expenses amounting to 13s. 5d. which includes rent and fuel. That leaves a sum of 7s. 1d. per week for food and clothing. Of this sum 5s. 4d. is spent on rationed food and 1s. 3d. on bread and potatoes. Those expenses are minimum expenses; it is not possible for an old man to live without being near to starvation or at least to privation, unless he lays out that amount of money. If he writes two letters in the course of the week, stamps them and posts them, one penny is then left for clothing, footwear, tobacco and unrationed food. If he writes, stamps and posts three letters, that old age pensioner falls into debt.
I have only one other set of figures with which I will trouble the House. A married couple, both pensioned, might receive a total of 33s. 8d. a week. After they have met unavoidable expenses the amount left for the two of them, for food and clothing, is 15s. a week. Not many letters will be sent to the children and grandchildren of that aged couple. In both those sets of calculations the supplementary pension has been included. I am told that many applications are made for this supplementary pension. I can well believe it. But that is not a justification for saying that all is well. It is an argument for raising substantially the basic rate of pension.
There can be no doubt that in this one regard this House is not doing its duty fully. I ask again that the House should forget, or at least forgive, the extravagant propaganda which we receive on this subject. The fact is that distress is present, though we have eliminated in all other respects extremes of poverty during the war. No doubt when the war is over, it will be argued, "During the war there were no extremes of poverty, although taxation was vast," and that kind of critic may continue and say with great force, "We insist that poverty is not allowed to return." I shall agree with that point of view, and, if my voice is still audible, at that time I shall support such a contention. But if we do not act in this regard now we may be left quite unnecessarily with this problem when peace comes upon us, as it might quite suddenly.
I have only this to add: Up to the middle of July, 1918, the enemy were attacking with considerable success. We were not prepared for the victory which followed so quickly after. As in 1918, victory may come in Europe like a thief in the night, just as unexpected but far more welcome. We should do all we can, I suggest, to clear away these encumbrances. We should not allow ourselves to be weighed down by matters which, whatever their dimensions, we can quite easily solve to-day. We shall need all our energies and capacity for agreement for far bigger things than old age pensions when peace comes. Here is an injustice, an admitted injustice. It is not a major problem but one which, I ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to agree with me, does us no credit at all while it is allowed to persist and fester. Politically, it is true, the old age pensioner may not be a very formidable factor. It is quite true that the weight of his voice and of his influence is a wasting asset, but that, I submit, ought not to govern the behaviour of the Government. It cannot be denied that the lot of the old age pensioner is hard, probably the hardest in the whole community. That lot can be made less hard, and if the Government can in this problem be a little more open handed—or even a lot more open handed—they will be doing a decent thing.
May I be permitted to remind the House that what it is concerned with to-day is not the brave new world that we are going to build, it is not social security after the war—all that will be looked after, no doubt, in its turn—but what we are concerned with to-day is the maintenance, in reasonable dignity in their last remaining years, of the existing generation of old age pensioners. That is our problem; that is what we are concerned with to-day. Listening to some hon. Members who have taken part in this Debate and who have talked of the amount of money that will be involved, one would have thought that this House had to decide whether these people should be maintained or not. But they have to be maintained; I have not heard anyone suggest that you can do anything else with them than maintain them. The question before the House is not whether the cost of maintaining them decently can be borne at all; the question is whether it shall be borne by the State as a whole or by the immediate relatives of the old age pensioners themselves. People really must not argue this question as though there were any choice before the community about the cost of maintaining the old. We have not come to that yet. The question is as to the incidence of the burden, and not as to the expenditure.
When we consider that, there really cannot be two points of view about it. With all the barbarity which has overtaken the world and which is inevitable for the time being, and however hard it may be to get back to a civilised standard of conduct when the time comes, we have not yet sunk so far in this country as to believe that we are entitled to take any part of the cost of the war out of the miseries of the old. I should have thought that there would be complete agreement in every part of the House—unanimous agreement—that the Motion which my hon. Friend moved should be passed, and passed with a view to action quickly. But, Mr. Speaker, some of us have Amendments upon the Paper, and you, Sir, thought, as I understand it, that it would be a pity to call any of them, especially those which dealt with the means test, because the effect of calling them would have been to limit the area of debate. With the exception of the last speech and a half, I have heard every speech that has been delivered in this Debate on both sides. Every single one of them has dealt, on one side or the other, with this question of the application of a means test to old age pensioners, and it is perfectly obvious that the only issue which divides the House—if any issue does divide it in this matter—is precisely that issue of the application of a means test to old age pensioners. I regret very much that we shall not have the opportunity of testing in the Division Lobby how many people there still are in this House who are prepared to defend by their votes the application of this principle to the old age pensioners. I find that the old age pensioners, concerned as they are with the amount of money actually reaching their pockets each week, are even more concerned at the degradation which they feel in the application of this vicious and tragic principle to the meting out of what is necessary to keep them alive.
An hon. Member said in this Debate, "Would you really dole out public money"—I beg his pardon, the hon. Member did not say "dole," he said "shovel"—"would you really shovel out public money to thousands of people who do not need it?" But we already do. In every class but the working class, pensions without a means test are the rule. Civil servants, the Armed Forces—the Regular Armed Forces, that is—the police, teachers, local government officials, all these are entitled, at not too late an age, to an adequate pension, depending on their working salary, without any means test of any kind. Somebody said that lots of these old age pensioners are working, and asked whether it should be, given to them too. We can do it to the Lord Chancellor, who, when he was at the Bar, earned far more money than presumably he could spend. He gets a salary of £10,000 a year for his present office, and he gets on top of that a pension of £5,000 a year. It will be said that in the case of these people they are entitled to it by contract, that it is part of their terms of service, and in some cases, certainly not all, and I believe not the majority, it will be said that they pay into a superannuation fund contributions out of their salary.
What we are claiming for these people is that they shall have by Statute what the others have by contract. Is it to be said that they have not paid into a superannuation fund? But why have they
not? Because there was no superannuation fund to pay into, and because if there had been, their wages did not permit of the deduction. Are you going to say that because they had not the means to contribute, and because therefore they had not the means to save, and because therefore they are in need at the end of their lives, the fact they were paid too little when they were working is to be the reason for giving them nothing now? Are we really to apply pensions on the basis that:
Whosoever hath, to him shall be given: … but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away, even that he hath?
I hardly think that the House wishes to apply that kind of principle to old age pensioners. Unless I am greatly mistaken, the Prime Minister, prior to the introduction of the last Bill on this subject, made a speech which was subsequently published as a White Paper. In it he said that this principle which had aroused so much bitter controversy in the past was to be swept away. Legislation was recommended to us at that time on the ground that this principle was to be swept away, and that it did implement the promise which the Prime Minister had made. But it was found that the legislation so recommended did no such thing, and the last figures published by the Assistance Board show that at the end of all the controversy, and all the promises, and all the assurances, when you divide the number of pensioners into the amount of extra money paid by the Treasury, it works out at an extra 6d. per head per pensioner per week.
I say that three-quarters of the Members of this House, when they were elected in 1935 gave pledges to their constituents against the household means test, and at that time no one had thought of applying the household means test to old age pensioners. How much more would they have been pledged had that been known? I say that three-quarters of the House have no right to do other than to assist us in getting this principle abolished. So far as my friends on these Benches are concerned, their pledges on this matter do not go back only to 1935. They go back far beyond that, and there is not a single one of them who would not agree with me that he was pledged over and over again, beyond controversy of any kind, to do
everything in his power to get this principle abolished. You cannot do that by speeches alone, no matter how eloquent, no matter how sincere. You must do more than make speeches in the House if you want decisions to be reversed or new decisions to be taken. My hon. Friend, in moving the Motion, made an admirable speech in support of what he termed demands. There is not a word of demand anywhere in this Motion, no demand for anything, merely a Motion:
That this House … would welcome an immediate examination by the Government.…
But it does seem to me that if my friends on these Benches wanted it enough, they could secure the abolition of the means test as applied to old age pensions now from the Government as now constituted. Why not? I say that three-quarters of the House are pledged to it anyhow. Suppose I am wrong about that. What prevents them from putting it down, what prevents them from insisting on it? Only the fear that they would be defeated, only the fear that in the result they might get less than they will get by the present strategy and tactics.
Only in the last three weeks we have seen a major measure of Government policy, advocated by the Government to the House on the grounds that it was vitally and immediately necessary for the successful conduct of the war, reversed by a group of Back Bench Tory Members. Is pressure of that kind upon the Government always to be pressure from the Right, always to be pressure from the reactionaries, always to be pressure from the privileged class in defence of their privileges? I say to my friends that they ought to be bolder in their demands and that when they are demanding so small and limited—both in space and time—a measure of social justice as this, they ought not to fear to make their demands and press them home, and let those defeat them who dare.
I think that is all I wish to say, except one word. I said that we were not dealing here with the future, that we were dealing with an existing generation most of whom will not live to see the brave new world we hope to build. In another sense the future is involved. There are tests of sincerity. Many promises are now made which were made before. They were not kept. I believe that we mean to keep our promises this time. I make it clear that, for myself, we shall not keep them without very drastic social reorganisation. But I say that the very greatest test of sincerity about the future is what you do for those who will not benefit in the future but who could benefit now. If you wish the world to believe in the sincerity of these promises, I would beg of this House not to regard as open to any further inquiry, under this Motion or otherwise, the question of the application of the means test to the determination of old age pensions. Let that infamy go, and let it go now.
I should like to join in congratulating the hon. Member for Gorton (Mr. Oldfield) and the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Kendall) on their maiden speeches. The hon. Member for Grantham fully maintained the description, under which he sits in this House, of an Independent.
The speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Silverman) might properly be described as a gesture. It is, I imagine, a continuation of that rebellious gesture against the decision of the Labour party which the hon. Member took on the Second Reading on the Determination of Means Bill. The speech was in the tone of the Amendment which stands in the name of the hon. Member on of Order Paper. Although that Amendment has not been called and is not before the House, it sums up a great deal of what he has said. When I first saw the Amendment, although I do not claim the intimate knowledge of the working of these rules possessed by many of my hon. Friends on the other side of the House, I was concerned to contribute to the defeat of the attitude adopted in that Amendment. We have heard the term "degradation" applied to the situation regarding the Assistance Board. In the Amendment, the word "offensive" is used. The Amendment says that the application of the rules has been "offensive in practice."
I am much obliged to my hon. Friend for that interruption, and I am glad that the Assistance Board has been given the benefit of that withdrawal. Although I do not claim intimacy with the application of these rules, I desire, from two points of view, to contribute to the Debate. I will first take this matter of the Assistance Board, and then refer to the general principle, because the general principle of the abolition of any means test has been pressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan), by my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne, and somewhat to my surprise, by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for West Leeds (Major V. Adams).
On the first of these two points—the oppressive character of the system under which old age pensioners obtain their supplementary pensions—it so happens that in the last 18 months I have been privileged to see the work of the Assistance Board in the Metropolitan area. It is interesting to observe that not one of the names attached to my hon. Friend's Amendment, describing the situation as oppressive, is that of a London Member. I have had the opportunity of seeing the work of the Board at, if I may so put it, all levels, because, as is well known, the Assistance Board have had very special functions with regard to all those who have been bombed out in the raids. Within two or three days of my undertaking the work with which I have been entrusted, I realised that perhaps the greatest problem we had to face was that of elderly and old people under these conditions. As a result, I obtained the services of a special corps of welfare inspectors. I obtained a staff not only from the Ministry of Health, but from the L.C.C. and other sources. At all levels, it became necessary for that staff to deal with old people who were suffering from these raids. Yesterday, the President of the Board of Education paid a tribute to the conduct of young people under raids. I should like to take this opportunity, a day later, of paying my tribute to the conduct of old people under raids in London. Their resolution and their fortitude have been most inspiring, and their humour a constant refreshment. But they presented a very great problem, particularly old people who lived alone. Evacuation was not available. They lost their all, and their re-establishment was a very difficult matter.
Through all this work the function of the Assistance Board has, of course, been central. They have done their work in an enterprising, co-operative and flexible manner; and time and again, when particular points have been before me alleging something oppressive, something harassing, as between the Assistance Board and an individual, it has been found, in almost every case, that the story had not been understood. O, that education may bring to us in future generations lucidity of expression, by writing and by word of mouth! In not one single case, of the scores of cases that were brought to my notice, was there any oppressive action by the Assistance Board. I submit that Members who speak as my hon. Friend has just done, and who draft Amendments in such forms, do no good service to the old people whom they purport to be helping when they represent that application to the Assistance Board by old people is degrading, and when they speak of oppressive hardships. It has been found that there is no truth in the suggestion that contact between an old person and the Assistance Board is degrading, or that it gives rise to oppressive treatment.
I do not want my hon. and learned Friend or anyone else to think that I have made, or would think of making, any charge of any kind against the officials who have to administer what I consider this montrous principle. What I regard as oppressive and unjust is the taking into account, in fixing the pension for an old man or an old woman, of things which in other walks of life are not taken into account. Such a system would be, and is, oppressive in the most sympathetic hands.
I am glad my hon. Friend has made it clear that he is making no attack on a body of officials whose work I regard as admirable. He has also made the position clear on a second point, about which I desire to address the House. Because in certain positions, or under certain contracts, there are arrangements for pensions at the end of the time of service—and, of course, everybody knows that one of the attractions of the Civil Service, as opposed to commercial and professional life, is that at the end of the time there shall be deferred pay in the form of a pension—he suggests that, in connection with the old age pension, need shall have nothing to do with the matter. As I look at our social system, I see many other directions in which I should wish to spend money in preference to such an outpouring of wealth as that.
The figures have to a large extent been quoted, but my hon. Friend, I understand, suggests that 600,000 old age pensioners out of 3,500,000, that is, one-sixth of the whole number, who are in full-time work should none the less get exactly the same old age pension as those who are disabled. Is that a right principle? Is that equity? What my hon. Friend has suggested is a basis of the grossest inequity and unfairness. I would remind the House that not only the late Mr. Lansbury, of whom we were reminded, but also the hon. Member for Stoke (Mr. Ellis Smith), who in seconding the rejection of the Determination of Needs Bill took a strong view on this matter, said:
We are now prepared to accept a personal means test.
This is no trifling matter in amount, and the suggestion would result, as I have suggested to the House already, in gross inequity. My hon. Friend the Member for Gorbals was not accurate in his statement as to the range and scope of supplementary pensions. It is not sufficiently realised that this supplementary pension ranges from 2s. to 30s. a week and over. Does my hon. Friend suggest that people whose needs are so widely different should come under the universal system of one figure for all? Is that what is suggested as equitable? My hon. Friend, I am sure, knows many old people and knows the extraordinarily wide range of difference between people of the same age, over 70 may be, where some are fit to do work and others need looking after with great care and are quite incapable of ever working again.
In my submission to the House, this principle of confidential, delicate, discreet administration is the correct one to deal with these affairs. I have watched it in connection with the air raids. They are the same officials, I understand, and in my judgment these officers of the Assistance Board have acquired great experience in exercising discretion. The success of the supplementary pensions scheme, only two years old as it is, is shown by the enormous increase in the number of beneficiaries from 250,000 to 1,350,000. I am comparing the figures of those who used to receive supplementary benefit from the public assistance committees and those who now receive benefit under supplementary pensions. The success of the scheme, though so young, is proved and we should be very unwise indeed and any Member would be very unwise to support a suggestion that so successful a scheme should be tinkered with at this moment.
We all know that the whole range of our social service is being considered by Sir William Beveridge's Committee. I hope that that Committee will produce a co-ordinated scheme which, without any reduction in benefit—I hope with increase in benefit—will give at the same time great reductions in cost of administration. That may well be, for our system is gravely unco-ordinated. At the moment and apart altogether from that, if I were to mention a matter in which I would like to see improvement in the care of the old, it would be in the care of the old and the infirm. I hope that after the war there will be a great development of such houses as have been set up during the war for bombed-out old people who are not on public assistance but living on their supplementary pensions, where in medium sized houses and in homely circumstances groups of perhaps 20 to 30 old people can live out the evening of their lives in dignity and comfortable surroundings. I should like hon. Members to see the rest homes for such people which have been set up by the London County Council and the county boroughs of East and West Ham. If one large measure to relieve poverty could be brought in in the course of this war, I should have no hesitation whatever in adhering to a needs test as may be administered to-day in connection with old age pensions; I should choose a sphere where I believe poverty is more pressing still, the poverty of young parents with young children, poverty which would be relieved by a family allowance provision.
I do not wish to detain the House for many minutes, because many other speakers want to contribute to this Debate, but I would like to say, in reply to the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for North Croydon (Mr. Willink), that the gravamen of our case is not the inefficiency or oppressiveness of the officers of the Assistance Board at all. Conditions may vary from place to place. I do not know what they are like in London, but, generally speaking, I think that most Members will agree that they do their work very well and very sympathetically. The argument is really not how they carry out their work, but the kind of work they have to carry out because of the instructions from this House. I differ from the hon. and learned Gentleman when, speaking about the enormous cost that the raising of the old age pension rate would entail, he thinks of many other better ways in which he could spend money. As far as I am personally concerned, I can think of no better way than that public money should be spent by giving it to the aged people, unless it is to give it to the young. The majority of people throughout the country would agree that the spending of money upon human beings in order to uplift their standards of life was the best possible way in which public money could be spent.
I have listened to all the speeches that have been made in this Debate so far, and with the exception of the hon. Gentleman the Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams), I do not think any hon. Member has opposed the idea of improving the lot of the old age pensioners. They have differed as to how far the improvement should go and also about the cost. At least the House would be carrying out the wishes of the vast majority of the people of this country if they agreed to some immediate improvement in the standard of living of the two classes who are covered by our social insurance, for whom so far nothing has been done during the war period, while much has been done for other people in the way of improving their basic rates. We receive resolutions from city councils, town councils, churches, co-operative societies, trade unions and from all sections of the community, supporting the plea that something should be done for both these classes of people. The demand for improvement has very often been made, but so far it has not been met.
At the beginning of the war the demand was so insistent that the late Prime Minister promised an inquiry into the matter, which, unfortunately, was prevented by the outbreak of hostilities. Again, in 1940, after the agitation had continued, there was the Widows' and Old Age Pensions Bill, which for the first time gave supplementary pensions. But it did so only on what I call a poverty qualification. It certainly brought into the scheme a number of women who had not been in before, but it did not improve the lot of old age pensioners by Statute. It improved them only by reason of their great poverty. Some of us thought that that Bill would do very little, and agitation continued, until, in 1941, improvement had again to be sought for the lot of the old age pensioner. The Determination of Needs "Bill was accepted by the House, because many people thought that that was a real contribution to an improvement of the lot of the old age pensioner. But, as has been pointed out, it affects only a certain number of pensioners. The old age pensioner to-day is still left on the same rate as long before the war, that is, 10s. a week unless he can by a searching means test prove that his poverty is so great that he is entitled to a little more.
We think the time has come when that state of affairs should be remedied and that the old age pensioner is entitled now to be treated as other classes of workers have been treated under our social insurance. Our contention is that, apart altogether from any question of a means test, the time has come to improve substantially the basic rate that is paid to the old age pensioner, as it has been improved among other classes of workpeople. I think the Government might do this job now, at the third attempt since the war started. The 1940 Bill did something: the 1941 Bill went a little further, but there is still widespread dissatisfaction, not only among old age pensioners, but among all sections of the community, that enough has not been done. Do not let us go further with a modified means test; do not take the supplementation idea any further. Start at the other end and improve the basic rate paid to old age pensioners. What do we do at the present time? If 10s. is not enough, we bring the pensioner up against a carefully calculated scale to find out by formulas and the balancing of figures exactly how much it is essential to give him to enable him to live one-sixteenth of an inch this side of starvation.
That kind of thing causes bitterness, not only among old age pensioners, but among their relatives as well. It causes a good deal of bitterness, too, among soldiers and sailors. I had a case this week of a soldier who was sending home to his widowed mother 14s. a week, which is very much more than he is required to send home as an allotment. But because he contributes so generously, the public assistance committee has come along and said that his widowed mother cannot get any allowance from the Government. It is not a question of finding the money. As one hon. Member said, it is only a question of the incidence of its fall. Either the soldier has to find it himself, or it has to be spread over the whole community. Our system of social insurance has been based on the idea that there are risks which every citizen has to face in life—the risks of accident, sickness, unemployment, losing a breadwinner—and the certainty of old age. We have met all these risks from time to time. First of all, we met the risk with regard to accident, and our first social insurance was workmen's compensation. Then we met the risk with regard to ill-health, and health insurance followed. Then we met the risk of unemployment, and we also met the certainty of old age. But since the war all those risks, which were borne by the community under our schemes of national insurance—and I hope that they will all be coordinated after the war—have been reconsidered. We found that the risk which we undertook with regard to compensation was not enough, and we increased it by 5s. We discovered that the risk which we undertook with regard to ill-health was not properly met, and we increased that by 3s., I think. We also discovered that the risk which we took with regard to unemployment was insufficient, and we increased that. Two classes have been left out since the war—widows and old age pensioners—and I am asking the House to deal with them as the other three have been dealt with, namely, by improving the basic rate and putting beyond the pale altogether any consideration of a means test and inquiries.
We talk about a new world; we are fighting for the security of this country which we are perfectly confident we shall succeed in obtaining, but there are other securities that touch upon the family. If a man be a miner or a weaver earning £2 5s. a week or £2 10s., and, he has suddenly to drop to 10s. a week, he has to go on consuming and buying things. One knows that with the increased cost of living and the impositions placed upon old age pensioners by the Budget neither 19s. 6d. nor 20s. 6d. for a single person is sufficient. I think it is generally true that about 7s. a week is what the average old age pensioner has with which to buy food and clothes, even if he has the most generous allowance. It is not sufficient in these days, when the cost of living is such that he cannot even buy the rationed goods which his ration book will allow him to buy. What we are asking the Government to do is to give these people not something on a poverty qualification but something as a right, a reward for 40 or 50 years' service to their country, irrespective of what their sons or daughters might provide, so that they can feel that glorious privilege of being independent. In a few minutes, earlier today, we voted £1,000,000,000 to the Chancellor, and, as we were reminded, we are spending £10,000 a minute. If that money can be voted so easily, could we not find the few millions that would be required if the House was willing to do it?
I know it is no argument to say that because we are spending so much on one hand we have the money to do something else. Obviously, it might work the other way. At the same time, the claims of these people are so long overdue that every hon. Member knows perfectly well this House could find the money if it was anxious and willing to do so. Hon. Members also know that the country desires to see these people lifted up above their present level without any more of the means test. If the House does what the country wants, this Motion will be passed, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer will complete his inquiries in the shortest possible time and give a substantial increase to all old age pensioners and not to just a few.
I hope the Government will be able to see their way to accept the Motion which has been moved by hon. Members opposite. Strange as it is, the Motion is in moderate terms. I should like to support the appeal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Burke) that there should be an immediate increase in the basic rate of old age pension. Hon. Members opposite are not satisfied with the present position, for two reasons. On the one hand, there is the speech which we have just heard, in which my hon. Friend appeals for an increase in the basic rate, and, on the other hand, there is the speech made by the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Silverman), who objected to any means test and demanded what, in fact, would be an abolition of supplementary pensions. I know there is a great deal of difficulty in the minds of hon. Gentlemen opposite on this vexed question of supplementary pensions.
I quite appreciate that, and I am appealing for an increase on the basic rate, but at the same time it is clear that some hon. Members want to abolish supplementary pensions altogether.
Let us see what that means. It is no good evading the issue involved. The hon. and learned Member who made such a powerful speech in support of the Assistance Board pointed out that the rate of supplementary pensions granted to-day to old age pensioners varied from 2s. to 30s. A 30s. supplementary pension is granted only in case of special need, and no one will suggest that it is possible to increase the basic rate of pensions by 30s. Even the Amendment put on the Order Paper by I.L.P. Members does not put forward a claim of that kind. That means that to abolish supplementary pensions a great number of old age pensioners now receiving supplementary pensions would not receive pensions at the present rate. While appealing for an increase in the basic rate, I want to make it clear that I support the existing supplementary pensions. I think they have been an inestimable boon to large numbers of old age pensioners. Having made that clear, I appeal for some increase in the basic rate, which, as has been pointed out, has remained at the same rate of 10s. for a number of years.
As the hon. Member who just spoke has pointed out, there have been increases in other social services, but the old age pensioners, because supplementary pensions have been granted, have had no increase in the basic rate. There are strong arguments for an increase, because, while everyone will agree that there is nothing more urgent than to relieve actual need, if you restrict any increase in an old age pension to a supplementary pension, you are not encouraging thrift on the part of people who save for their old age, because the more thrifty they are the less they benefit from supplementary pensions. One must keep a correct balance between the two types of pension—the basic rate of pensions and the supplementary pension. In preserving that balance, one cannot be satisfied with the existing rate of 10s. The Motion asks only for an examination of the question, and I hope the Government will give a sympathetic response. I am sure, if there is an examination, there will be a recommendation for an increase in the amount of the basic rate. I, personally, do not commit myself to any specific amount, because that is not the issue to-day, but I strongly appeal for some increase.
The only reason I can see why a claim for some increase in the basic rate could be resisted is that it would be unwise to do something which cannot be justified as a permanent policy. I suggest, however, when one is looking at post-war questions and post-war finance, we are all agreed there is no possible basis for post-war reconstruction on any idea of deflation. If we try to solve our postwar problems by reducing the purchasing power of the community, or even keeping it at its existing level, I am sure we are courting nothing but disaster. We know the potential resources which are at the disposal of mankind, and everyone is agreed that human beings must solve this very difficult and, up to now, intractable problem, and that there should be some means of seeing that the full potential capacity of production is distributed through the machinery of purchasing power. It is quite clear, if one recognises that principle, that one of the best means is by ensuring adequate and good social services. This country has a very good record among the nations of the world for its system of social services, and we cannot start with any hope of future reconstruction on any other basis than that we are going to improve the social services after the war. I suggest that it would be quite safe to recognise what is undoubtedly true, that life has become more difficult for the old age pensioner, due to the increase in the cost of living and the difficulties of living under war conditions. If, as I have submitted, an increase in pension is justified from the point of view of post-war reconstruction, a very strong case can be made out for some immediate increase in the basic rate of pension.
I speak with a measure of diffidence, because my task is not an easy one, having regard to the fact that there is the disability of having to discuss a subject on which almost everything has been said and every point of view enunciated. Again, one cannot enter into a live appreciation of this intricate problem without introducing a measure of sentiment. Sentiment should enter into it, but it should be conditioned with regard to the potentialities of the Government and the nation to deal with old people generously and well. There are many old age pension associations. I was surprised at the great moral and physical strength of these organisations. They are fortified by the fact that the old people to-day are very much concerned about their subsequent fate. Some of them are incredulous. They have been fobbed off with promises before, and they are asking political parties to take the initiative in inaugurating a scheme without delay which will have for its intention the conferment upon them of a standard of life comparable to their needs. The Labour party, I believe in 1937, laid down certain proposals in regard to these people. It was on the basis of £1 for an old person and 35s. for a couple. I was warned that, if I made a comparison with regard to the cost of living, it would be met by very effective rejoinders from Members on the Government Bench. Probably a prima facie case can be made out that the cost of living would not justify a tremendous jump in the scale, but in my opinion nothing less than £3 a week, without the application of a means test, could ensure for old people even the most modest income upon which they could subsist.
I had a very amazing psychological experience recently. A venerable old gentleman, a fine character, sincere and honest, came to see me. He was aged 76. He had been a miner for 52 years. He said he was paying 10s. a week for his house, 3s. for coal, a very modest amount, 1s. for light and as far as luxuries are concerned—I use the term euphemistically—3s. for tobacco and 3s. for drink. I am a complete abstainer from the noxious weed, for which I am profoundly thankful, and largely abstain from intoxicating liquor, but I feel that, if people are prone to enjoy the warmth and geniality which come as the consequence of partaking of these pleasures, they may do so. Surely no one would desire to inhibit people who have come to a late stage of their life from their smaller pleasures.
The list I have given makes a total of 20s. per week. Even on that computation, no account is taken of such items as insurance, entertainments of a light character, transport, which is sometimes necessary in order to visit friends and relations, particularly in these times, having regard to their physical disabilities; books and literature, which in my opinion constitute a very important adjunct in the life of any civilised individual; the depreciation of household effects and renewals; black-out expenses and various other extras which have come as a consequence of the war. If even a parsimonious regard were had to these essential articles the figure would probably be more in the region of 30s—and even then the old age pensioner has not started to eat. That is one of the reasons why I am in favour of a determination of needs test, a rigorous determination of needs test. If we had a determination of individual needs in that way I think we should come to a figure similar to the one which I have put before hon. Members.
A previous speaker said something about these pensioners taking something from the community and the community not having the wealth and the wherewithal to provide for them, however sentimental we may be. I happen to believe in the materialistic conception of history, and know that exploitation of the working classes takes place at every stage of their existence, and that these people have paid tenfold in surplus labour for any benefits which the State could give. I am positive, when looking across this Chamber and seeing the kindly countenance of my very distinguished and, if I may say so, admired right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Privy Seal, that he will appreciate, and has appreciated, the lot of these people, and will surely bear me out in the contention that when a man comes to the close of his days and is faced with difficulties of this order, the State should have regard to them.
Someone has said that if you are fighting a war, all the money is essential for direct war. I wish to argue that keeping the old people in good health and comfort is a direct war effort, and an essential one, and it must appeal not merely to the sentimentality of hon. Members but to the practical side of those who have engaged in business and who claim to be able to deal with the practical affairs of the nation. If it were possible for us to project ourselves 50 years in time and to look back upon this Debate I am sure some of us would say, "How abject, how small, were our predecessors at a time when the four freedoms were enunciated; when we have been told that we are fighting a war not merely for the liberation of mankind, but for freedom from want." They would say that we were an amazing, antedeluvian, almost antiquarian assembly of individuals to pose as leaders of a country. They would cast severe censure upon the conduct of a House which still believed that the basic rate for pensions should be 10s. a week. I am minded to think of our Chinese colleagues, who are fighting so wonderfully against great difficulties. The Chinese, as is well known, have a reverence for age. I think the Chinese philosophy, in so far as they practise it, is far in advance of our own. If, as one hon. Member said, on a conservative, or one might say a liberal computation of the amount, it cost to give the people the extra sum I have mentioned, even if it were £50,000,000—and I am not going into the financial position—I venture to say that it would be of everlasting benefit not merely to the people who were the recipients of this increased amount, but also to the Government, who would not have to pay the additional cost of instituting the means text, of extra hospital treatment, and of the concomitant features.
I will not protract my speech. There are many things I would have liked to say. At the outset of these remarks I thought of many varying and perhaps poetical and noble phrases which might lift this subject from the ordinary level of debate. After all, there are times when one feels exalted, not so much because one is in exalted company as because of the theme. There is no nobler theme; there is nothing which could inspire Members of the House to do bigger things than they might otherwise have done. If I have appeared to be a little presumptuous, I trust that Members of the House will appreciate that this contribution is not meant in a spirit of aggrandisement but is meant as a small contribution from one who entered this House as an unemployed worker and who knows something of the difficulties, the sadness, the acerbity and bitterness which a state of unemployment must generate inside any one of us.
I often look at the Chancellor of the Exchequer, at his benignity and geniality; I am not necessarily under any illusion about how far those qualities are interpreted in the practical operations of the work which he has to perform. When I look at the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, I am constrained to think that he has an even more beatific countenance, and he has a disarming manner which sometimes takes away a good deal of the spirit of our arguments. I ask them, as they are concerned with finance, to remember that it is practical and possible for them to achieve all we have set out to achieve for the old people, and that if they were to do so, they would earn the overwhelming gratitude of the old people. More than that, they would earn the appreciation and the gratitude of the nation, and they would have in posterity a not altogether unhonoured place.
I am glad that it has fallen to me to be the first to congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Mack) upon his initial speech in the House. I am sure that we all appreciate, the sincerity with which he has spoken and hope there will be many future opportunities for him to contribute to our discussions.
The Motion is one with which I have a great deal of sympathy. I do not know any social service which commands the sympathy of the general mass of the people more than that for the aged of both sexes who, after possibly a hard life, find themselves in straitened circumstances in the twilight of their days. I know of many sad cases, but in a number of cases those circumstances are not entirely due to financial reasons but very often to other reasons as well. In the speeches we have heard to-day, from both sides of the House, many references have been made to the margin left in the hands of the pensioner, as though all the pensioners were in exactly the same position. It is worth while roughly to divide pensioners into various classes. There are some cases in which it will be admitted that the circumstances of the pensioners are not harsh and severe, while into the circumstances of other groups the Chancellor of the Exchequer might well consider making further inquiries. I am not making a division into contributory and non-contributory, but the first class to which I want to refer is the pensioner who is in full-time employment at the present moment. Of the present pensioners, there are, I believe, about 600,000 now in full-time employment. I do not think that anyone can maintain that any man in full-time employment, probably drawing between £3 and £4 a week, who may have other means and who is in receipt of a pension, is suffering from the severe hardships to which several hon. Members have referred.
Why is it that this arises only when it is a question of the ordinary workers? Why does nobody ever mention the fact that there are thousands of policemen—and others—drawing pensions of £3 a week, and working?
My hon. Friend has raised quite an interesting point, but he must realise that I am not dealing with the question from that point of view at all. When a policeman receives a pension he is really receiving deferred pay. When he goes into that employment, he takes it because he knows that at the end of his time he will receive that pension, and that applies to a great many others as well. The point with which I am dealing in dividing pensioners into these categories is so as to see in what cases the pensioner is having a very difficult time. I am trying to divide pensioners into different classes to show that in some cases there is no need at all of greater subventions from the State, whilst in other groups there may be, and I maintain that if there is a certain amount of money which we can distribute, that money should be expended on those who most require it and not on those who, at the moment, are in comfortable circumstances. I maintain that these 600,000 pensioners who are in full-time employment and are receiving the 10s. a week pension—in these cases there can be no question of a supplementary pension —do not require further support from the State at present. If the money is to be distributed, I want it to go first to the hard cases. That is the argument I submit. There is another class of people who are in part-time employment, who have savings or who are living in a household in which there are considerable means. Again in that case, I submit that there is generally no particular hardship. It is with regard to the third group that hardship may sometimes and often does exist, and if there is any inquiry, I hope it will be to that particular group that attention will particularly be given. The third group—it is the one for which I have tremendous sympathy—consists of old men or women without relations able to support them, and often living alone. There is no doubt that in a great many of these cases the present supplementary allowance leaves very little margin. Personally, as a smoker, I hate to think that owing to the increases in the last Budget there must be many old people who have been cut off from the very simple luxury of their ounce of tobacco or their extra tea. I would like to say that I have investigated a great many cases of old age pensioners, and I have met no example where there has been unkind-ness by the Assistance Board. I think that on the whole the present Board is doing a good job.
It may be said that the regulations are too severe, but I think the administration is good and kindly. A case which I had in my own constituency was of a man who was crippled. He had no relations of any kind available. There was no one able to do any cooking for him, and he was struggling to carry on. After representations were made an allowance was given to enable him to get assistance for cooking and services such as that. It is within this group that I feel the Chancellor might particularly consider making an inquiry. In this group there is an even more important question than the financial one, important as that is. I hope more will be done in the way of making peaceful and comfortable the last years of these old people. The Act itself said that regard should be had to the welfare of the recipients. My hon. Friend behind me who spoke referred to the hostels for old people. I am sure that more has got to be done on those lines. It is an entirely different thing from asking an old person to live in an institution.
Take the quite common case of an old man or an old woman with no children living with them, who are living in loneliness, trying to keep their little house. Most of them would rather keep their one room and kitchen, or whatever it may be, than go into an institution. But I think that the idea of having a group together of 40, 50 or 100 of them, each with their own little room, and with rooms where they can have communal meals, and where a nurse can attend to give them assistance, as many of them are frail, is a line which might be followed up, and I hope that more in this way may be done.
Is the hon. Member really of the opinion that these old age pensioners would appreciate their segregation away from the people and friends with whom they have associated throughout their lifetime, and has he ever consulted old age pensioners to see whether they would agree with that suggestion?
Most certainly, I am dealing with what I know from practical knowledge. I say that to send them off to some institution would not appeal to the old age pensioner at all, but it is an entirely different thing to get a building in which they can be given a room and a kitchen, and where they can use a common room, where they can talk with their friends and other old age pensioners from the same neighbourhood, where there might be a wireless set, and where they might get their meals communally if they so wished. Some attempt has been made at this already, and I am sure that it has to be developed.
No, I have not. Further, many of these old people have lost their friends, who are either dead or have disappeared, and they have nothing to look forward to at all, I think that some attempt should be made, and I think that probably the Assistance Board will make it; to provide occasional entertainments and for their meeting together. I do believe that within this group the Chancellor might make inquiries and see what he can do to make their lot happier. It is in these cases that the hardship is most apparent. I am sure the Chancellor will consider the whole range, and what can be done to alleviate hardship, wherever it is to be found. I am completely at variance, however, with my hon. Friends opposite who want us to adopt immediately a basic rate of 20s., 30s., 40s., or 50s. Nobody to-day has suggested any argument for any of these figures. In fact, I am surprised that nobody has suggested £10 or £12. In 1940 and 1941, we made the greatest advances with regard to old age pensions that we have ever made. Before the 1940 Act, 250,000 people were in receipt of supplementary allowances from the public assistance committees. Since then, there has been an increase of 1,000,000. If the suggestion for a fiat rate of 20s., or 30s., were adopted, remembering that people are living to a much riper age each year, we should be met by an enormous increase; and I find it difficult to understand how my hon. "Friends opposite would justify it. They may think that the national purse has no limit, but that is not true. Remember that we have on the Paper also requests for family allowances, increases in soldiers' pay, and se on.
Surely the correct method is to use whatever money is available, not to give a present to those who are already in comfortable circumstances, but to support those who are suffering hardship. I hope that the Chancellor will consider whether anything can be done to prevent thrift being penalised. I still believe that thrift is one of the virtues. I hope that the Government will see what they can do for hard cases. This country has reason for pride in the fact that during this great war, in which we have spent more than at any other period in our history, we are preserving our social services as we are doing; but we shall risk serious consequences to the pensioners themselves if we listen to unsound advice. Let us be sympathetic to hard cases. If there is money available, let us spend it on those who need it; let us be sure that the old man gets his tobacco and the old woman her tea, that the people who are really in need get little amenities before we give a present of State money to people who are already living in comfort.
I felt when the Motion was put down and this Debate arranged, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer really did not need any further information about old age pensioners. I believe that the Department have all the information they want already and that the only thing now wanted is the will and disposition to do something. However, if this Debate helps the Government to make up their minds to do something, it will have been a very useful Debate indeed. I have been thinking of the past since this matter has been under discussion to-day and, unfortunately, I can look back a good way. I remember a time when the working people of this country carried an enormous burden and were under the fear of what was likely to become of them when they were old and their working days were over. In those days we used to talk very often about the workhouse. That was about the only thing that the workers could see before them, and very many of them went there, too. I am delighted that that fear has been removed. I do not think that anyone worries to-day about the workhouse, because people have the old age pension, such as it is, and, with the help of others, they manage to keep their homes together and live more or less in the way they have been used to living before.
The hon. Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams) seemed to think that children ought to be responsible for maintaining their parents. I do not agree with that point of view. Many of the children of old age pensioners are married and have children and it takes them all their time to live up to their own responsibilities. Their responsibilities are not now to their parents but to their own children. If the hon. Member had argued that parents should maintain their own children when they were children I would agree with him. Considerable help is given to the parents of children to-day, including the provision of milk and meals in schools.
A petition which the hon. Lady the Member for the Combined English Universities (Miss Rathbone) is getting up in favour of family allowances, has been going round the House during the last few days and I am told that she has obtained a very large number of signatures for it. I do not know anything about that, but I submit the old age pensioners have a prior claim. Although I am not opposing such a proposition as that of the hon. Lady, I do not think it should come in here. The obligations which we have already undertaken ought to be decently dealt with before we take on any new responsibilities, and that would certainly be a new responsibility. The old age pensioners have the first claim upon us. None of them can live upon the present pensions, not even those who are drawing a supplementary pension. They have to get additional help somewhere or other. I would like to see these old people, who have done their job in the world honourably and well, made independent of everybody. That is the position in which they should be placed; they ought not to be where they are to-day, dependent upon what others can give them. We should raise the basic amount of pension and also the supplementary pension. The position will hot be satisfactory unless we do so.
The old age pension scheme ought to be investigated, though we cannot do that now. It has been mentioned to-day that 600,000 men in receipt of the old age pension are at the same time working. I do not know whether that figure is right or approximately right, but that is something to which I have always been opposed. At most of my meetings, which have been miners' meetings, I have opposed that view. There have been men at the meetings who are in receipt of the pension, and are entitled to it, but I have never heard one of them opposing what I have said on that point. When a man is working he should get sufficient money to maintain himself and his family and when his working days are over he should have a pension which would enable him to live in decency and comfort. I have known of people and officials in collieries who have received a standing wage, whether they were at work or absent through illness and I know that some of them have been receiving 10s. a week. That is unnecessary and wrong. The people who have finished their work are the people entitled to it.
We passed to-day a Vote of Credit for £1,000,000,000. Two years ago that was an unheard of figure. It comes pretty often now and I daresay that those responsible are already getting the next one ready. This country has stood up to these demands and, if they come again we shall no doubt stand up to them as before. That is a great thing. But have not the old people, about whom we are talking to-day done their part towards making that possible? I think they have and they should be considered and something should be done for them. They have done their job honourably, nobly and well and now they should be given something on which they can live, independently of anybody else. I hope the basic rate will be raised. It can be done if there is the will and the disposition to do it and I hope that for the sake of our old people it will be done at once.
I welcome the opportunity of this Debate, after 14 months' experience of the great new Act of 1940 and the Determination of Needs Act, 1941. When we were discussing those Measures, we were dealing with them before the event, as far as supplementary pensions were concerned, but now we have 14 months' experience behind us and I want to draw upon my own experience in the operation of these Acts in my constituency. In the two and a half year in which I have been in the House I have received only one letter from a constituent complaining about his old age pension. I received that a few weeks ago from a man whose wife is also a pensioner and who receive jointly 39s. 6d. a week. He wanted the Government to contribute to the alleged losses of a small business, which he could not prove by his books. For almost two years, in the absence of an hon. and gallant Member I have been looking after another constituency, Peebles and Southern, and I have not received one complaint from any old age pensioner of that division. As in the case of other hon. Members, my mail is heavy. It is a constant battle to keep up to date with it and it includes all kinds of hardship cases. The absence of complaints from old age pensioners reflects credit on the officials of the Assistance Board.
In April, 1941, I was delighted to receive an invitation to speak to the old age pensioners who are members of the Peebles Old Age Pensioners Association. On the day of that meeting the memorandum explaining the working of the Determination of Needs Act was published. I can recollect the pleasure it-gave me to meet these aged people, many of, whom were contemporaries of my parents. If they had lived they would have been about the same age as the pensioners. I felt drawn to them in a most remarkable way—a way in which I had not felt with any other audience— and I wanted to explain to them the provisions of the Act and to tell them of the removal of the household means test and to explain to them that they would get supplementary pensions as a right, the only condition being that of need. I remember so well referring to the original Act of 1918 and the amending Act of 1919. Hon. Members will recollect that these Acts gave 5s. and 10s., respectively, and were designed to augment the pensioners' income whereas the Acts of 1940–41 for the first time set out to relieve the needs of old age pensioners irrespective of their resources. In other words it was designed to provide them with Sufficient to maintain themselves in a reasonable manner.
Immediately following that meeting I went to, the Assistance Board officers in Edinburgh and told him how anxious I was that any problems and difficulties should be speedily overcome. Arrangements were made for one of the senior officials to come down to Peebles and I was delighted to learn that they had short-circuited the problems by transferring Peebles problems from Edinburgh to Galashiels. I was assured that any difficulties which arose would be taken to that office and dealt with on the spot. Subsequently I met another meeting of old age pensioners at Penecuik where I again referred to the operation of the new Acts and promised assistance to any who required it. I have been in continuous communication with Mr. John Rutherford, J.P., who is a very great miners' leader in South Midlothian and who has done grand work for the community in dealing with all matters of hardship. Many of these he referred to me but I have not received a single complaint from him -among all the correspondence I have had with him. It seems obvious to me that the new Act is working well. It is almost exceeding all our hopes. The House can imagine my amazement when two months ago I received a resolution from the Peebles Old Age Pensioners Association demanding a flat rate pension of 30s. a week. I telephoned to the Assistance Board officer in Edinburgh and asked him whether he had received any complaints and he told me he had not received a single one, nor had the Galashiels office. I got into touch with the editor of the local newspaper who is a knowledgeable and prominent man in the locality and asked him whether he had heard of any complaints and he told me that he had not heard of any. I am sure if there had been any complaints he would have known of them.
How can my hon. Friend say there is no dispute in Scotland, in view of the fact that the new Act to which he refers has given to Scottish old age pensioners an average increase of only 2d. per pension per week whereas in England and Wales it has given an average of 6d. per pension per week.
I did not say there is no dispute in Scotland, I said there had been no complaints from Peebles. I am dealing with something with which I am very familiar, and I think the Debate would benefit if others drew on their own experiences in the same detailed way that I am trying to do. I have had some correspondence with the Secretary of the Old Age Pensioners Association and, amongst other things, I wrote:
I know it is a very easy matter to get on a platform before a number of aged people and get them to approve attractive resolutions such as the one that you sent me, I think it is cruel to raise hopes in their minds which are incapable of fulfilment. Peebles is not a big community and you have not many members, and I respectfully suggest that you would render greater service by getting to know the individual situation of your members and bringing those that require special consideration to the notice of the Assistance Board. This will entail much more work than passing resolutions at a quarterly meeting but it will be of greater value to your members.
I was born in Scotland and lived there for 22 years. I suggested also that the resolution was not conceived in Peebles at all. A day or two ago I received an open letter, which doubtless other hon. Members received as well. It is obvious where the 30s. flat rate was inspired. It came from this document and my submission is that it is a political manœuvre. The resolution does not express the wishes of the people whom I addressed and the Assistance Board officials I interviewed. They have had no complaint at all in the 14 months. It is political propaganda. If it were worth bringing to you, Mr. Speaker, it would justify a Motion for contempt of the Privileges of the House. Every paragraph blackmails Members of Parliament for doing what they conceive to be their duty, unless it runs parallel with the lines of this resolution.
In regard to my own constituency, realising that the Debate was coming on, I spoke to a number of ministers of religion of all denominations and asked them if they had any cases of poverty and distress among old age pensioners, but I could not get a single case. Yesterday I went to the Assistance Board office at Tooting and learned from the manager, with very great joy, of the grand work that has been done. I learned that constituents of mine who receive 55s. a week and others receive £6 or £7 for clothing allowances, that surgical boots are provided, and that there was no real limit if need could be proved. I went the routine rounds with the welfare officer. She had three calls yesterday, but I could only visit two because one was in another constituency. One that I visited was an elderly widow living alone who was very happy, though I should have liked to see her in more comfortable surroundings. The other visit was to a married couple receiving 38s. a week, 32s. for pension and a supplement of 6s. for domestic help. A neighbour came in and did the housework. They seemed well pleased with their lot.
I feel that there is a case for the Chancellor's consideration of the person who is living alone. That is a social and economic problem which will have to be faced. Where there are two or more in the household the position is not so difficult, but the lonely person receiving the scale limit could well do with an extra hall-crown. I also suggest that the coal allowance is a real hardship. Last winter it was 1s. 6d., and I understand that it is to be 2s. 6d. this winter. One cwt. of coal costs 3s. 5d., and I would strongly urge my right hon Friend to increase the allowance to that figure and extend the period from 1st October to 1st May. I realise that it will cost more money to make these concessions. I realise also that the Chancellor will be called upon shortly to supplement the benefits of other members of the community as well as old age pensions, such as workmen disabled by sickness whose only income is National Health benefit, widows with children in receipt of widows' and orphans' pensions, unemployed men on flat rate unemployment benefit, and employed men with small earnings and a large family.
I also realise, as the hon. Gentleman the Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams) pointed out so clearly, that taxation has reached almost intolerable limits and that people will have to find the money for additional pensions. The State is bearing the cost of all pensions for those aged 70 and over, and that absorbs £50,000,000 per annum. The supplementary pensions paid in 1941, which are also entirely borne by the State, absorbed £30,000,000. The proposals I have made will add a million or two to the cost and the taxpayer will have to find that money. Having regard to the undoubted success of the Act, I feel confident that he will do so cheerfully, but I am convinced that he would resent being called upon to meet the demand for an increase of 10s. in the basic pension, which was fixed in 1919 at a time when the cost of living was much more than it is to-day, particularly when he knows that out of 3,500,000 pensioners there are 2,250,000 who do not receive supplementary pensions because their own resources make these unnecessary.
I would ask hon. Members to bear in mind that our aged population is growing in numbers. That is a good thing, and long may it continue, but our birthrate is disturbing and experts say that in 40 years time the number of old age pensioners will have increased to 7,000,000. If our more youthful working population does not increase proportionately the nation will be hard put to it to find the pensions for the increased number of elderly persons. I would like to pay tribute to those Members of Parliament who in the last 40 years have done so much to inform the House of the poverty and distress so prevalent among the people. Many of them, unfortunately, have passed on, but some of the greatest are still with us. They must rejoice in the tremendous improvement which has already taken place in this country and in the "freedom from want" clause of the Atlantic Charter, which proclaims the extension of social security to all the peoples of the world.
This Debate has been very interesting in view of the fact that it has so largely turned on the question of the retention of the means test. The Motion avoids all reference to the means test, and yet in all parts of the House it is evident that Members are concerned about it. I regret that, while there is this interest in the House, we are to have no opportunity of a Division on a question about which Members are obviously anxious. The hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Robertson) took a line of his own in the Debate. He is, I think, the first Member who has been really complacent about the position as it exists. Even the hon. Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams) and the hon. and learned Member for North Croydon (Mr. Willink) seemed aware of the fact that throughout the country there is real distress among the old people, and that the Act of 1940 and the Determination of Needs Act have still left many of the old people in rather distressed circumstances. The fact that he has not had letters from individuals and the result of the inquiries he has made do not give him any right to conclude that the situation is satisfactory at the present time.
I have had many complaints. In Glasgow this week, just before I left to come to the House, an old man told me he had been working until a short time ago, earning £5 a week. He was pensioned off by his firm with £1 a week. He and his wife were able to get an old age pension of only £1 a week, so their income was now £2 a week. His son, who had been earning £12 a week, was now in the Air Force. Consequently, the income going into the home—now only £2 a week—made a very great difference in their circumstances. They had applied to the Special Grants Committee but had been refused a grant. "There we are," he said, "with our £2 a week and unable to get any supplementation of our old age, pension." It was a very hard case. I advised him to get into touch with his Member of Parliament to see what could be done about getting an allowance from the Special Grants Committee. I am convinced that we shall never deal with old age pensioners satisfactorily until we abolish the means test altogether.
The hon. and learned Member for North Croydon (Mr. Willink) got very angry at the thought of old age pensioners who are working to-day expecting to get the old age pension in addition to their wages. I rather wondered at hearing a lawyer who was working at the Bar and getting his income also as a Member of Parliament, complaining about an old age pensioner getting a few shillings of pension and also his wage in this period of war-time, when the country is pressing men to come back into the industrial sphere in view of the needs of the country for increased production. I believe that the old age pensioners put forward a very reasonable request in the demand for 30s. a week pension. It means that the working people, who have contributed so much to the welfare of the country, are asking only that they should be put into a position comparable with that of the more favoured individuals who enjoy a fairly decent income in the winter of their days. Some hon. Members have said that this is a political agitation.
The hon. Member says that that is wrong, but I do not see any reason why this should not be a political question. It is in accordance with the principles of democracy that people should ask their legislature to legislate for a decent standard of life for all the people in the country. The old age pensioners are not seeking to blackmail, as was suggested by the hon. Member for Streatham. They are putting forward their demands openly, before the whole country.
When I was speaking of the old age pensioners, I was thinking of the organisation which speaks for them in the country. The association demands the abolition of the means test, and Members of Parliament should be aware of that demand or take the consequences politically, if they are not prepared to meet those demands. The association seeks to use its political influence to see that we have a House of Commons that will deal justly with the old people of the community. I do not know why the hon. Member for Streatham got so excited about it. It is within my recollection that only a few weeks ago he was pleading on the Floor of this House for some people in the meat trade who had got into an unfortunate position because of circumstances arising from the war. He was asking that, in compensation, they should be allowed to join an association. He did not suggest that there should be any means test to discover whether they were entitled to join that association.
I am afraid that that observation is hardly relevant, but I must make myself clear. The hon. Member seems to overlook that I am satisfied with the situation only because of the intensive inquiries and visits which I have made. I found the old people that I am privileged to look after living in a state of comfort and happiness. I found one class of pensioner in need and I strongly urged the Chancellor to give an extra 2s. 6d. a week and increase the coal ration. So I am far from being complacent.
The whole of the evidence shows that there is widespread dissatisfaction among the old people of the country at their present position. The hon. Member will be interested to know that the executive committee of the public assistance authorities in Scotland asked Scottish Members to meet them in order to discuss the position of the old age pensioners. We met the executive last Saturday, and they pointed out to us that under the present scheme, in many parts of Scotland the old age pensioners were receiving less than the people on public assistance. I have various cases here in a memorandum sent to us by the executive showing that that is the case.
The next point I want to put to the House is this. The amount that is being given by the public assistance authorities—and I hope the hon. Member for Streatham will note this—is the amount which is payable under the Poor Law, an amount sufficient to provide the people against destitution. Therefore, the level on which the old age pensioners in this country find themselves is the level which avoids destitution and no more. That is what the hon. Member for Streatham is so eloquent about—a standard that is just above destitution. I think that that is a shocking position for the old people of this country to be in, and I think that when the hon. Member reflects upon it he will be sorry that he intervened in this Debate to defend such an inadequate standard for his older fellow countrymen. If appears to me obvious from the terms of the Motion that the Government will have to do something to improve the present position, but I am not so very hopeful that what the Chancellor will announce will do very much to remedy the grievances of the old people.
When the hon. Gentleman the Member for South Croydon was speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, what appeared to me to be a cold shudder passed through Members on the other side at his remarks about the terrible position we shall be in at the end of the war when we shall have to face the problem of demobilising millions of men and getting them back into ordinary industry again. I cannot see why there should be all this dismay about the future. The land on which we live will, at the close of the war, be more valuable and more capable of production than ever it was before; we shall have far greater industrial potential than this country has ever had in its existence, and while it is quite true that there will be a tremendously increased debt—the debt has already increased by over £6,000,000,000 during the years of war—I myself will have no sort of worry as to what may happen to the moneylenders in the days to come. I should say that the first responsibility after the war will be for us to use the tremendous industrial potential and the land of our country to provide for the needs of the ordinary citizens, and quite obviously it will be able to do that more effectively than at any period of our history, because the industrial potential is so much greater, and the land at least can be used as profitably in the future as it has been in the past.
I believe that there is a need for a material improvement in the position of the old age pensioner at the present time. I think that the blame with regard to their situation is not to be laid so much at the door of the Assistance Board. The Assistance Board has been seeking to carry out what it conceived to be the wish of the House. I recollect that when the 1940 legislation was before the House Members were told about the wonderful new position into which the old people were to be put by the supplementation—that they were to be treated very generously. We would not pay £1 a week flat-rate pension, which some of us urged, because we were told that that would not be enough in ever so many cases. We were to put the matter on the basis of leaving the 10s. basic pension, and having this system of supplementation so that everybody would be provided for most generously according to their needs. The House said, "Well, that is very good. We can go away contented, knowing that the old people are to be treated very generously." What did it come to, what did it work out at, this method of supplementation? It worked out at the Poor Law standard. Did the House mean that all the old people in the country should be put on to the Poor Law standard? That was not the impression that was given from that Box when some of us pleaded for £1 a week flat-rate pension. It was to be something which was to be so much more generous.
Then, when once more the complaint and the suffering of the old people compelled action in this House, and we had the Determination of Needs Act, we were once more to get a great improvement. This time it was to mean so much to so many people; and there was an increase, an average increase, from 19s. to 19s. 6d. a week. So we have got, by the Determination of Needs Act, an increase, on the average of 6d. per week on the Poor Law standard. It is a black burning disgrace that we should allow this sort of thing to go on. It means that we are treating these old people to kind words and then hoodwinking them by giving them a Poor Law standard. I know that hon. Members above the Gangway resent that Poor. Law standard for the old people of the country. I know that decent Members in every part of the House are joining in this complaint and pleading for more generous treatment. I believe that the only thing which will satisfy us to-day is if the Chancellor will tell us, once and for all, that they are to get rid of this Poor Law standard and put the old people into a decent position in days to come, without peradventure. I ask the Chancellor, when making his statement, whether he will give us the assurance that the Board will be asked to depart from this present Poor Law standard for the maintenance of the old people? I ask him whether he will give us an assurance—and I want a specific answer from the Chancellor to-day—that in the not distant future, in a month or two, there will be a great improvement in the position of the old people, by the Board once and for all getting away from the Poor Law standard and giving those old people decent maintenance. I believe the money can be found to give them a flat-rate pension of 30s. a week. I think that amount is fully justified. If that means bringing the other 2,000,000 old age pensioners on to the 30s. a week standard, I say, Certainly do so; they are entitled to it. If they had been in jobs with big salaries, they would have got corresponding pensions. Those are the people who have built this country and produced all its wealth; and in the winter of their days they are entitled to decent treatment, with adequate maintenance. They should not be left to finish their lives on this shameful Poor Law standard to which they have been condemned in days gone by.
I need hardly say, in supporting this Motion,. that I have no intention of denying that material benefits and improvements have come to the old age pensioner through the operation of the Acts of 1940 and 1941. A question was put to the Secretary of State for Scotland recently about the position, and he set out to show who had benefited by the Acts since 1940 and by the observance by the administrators of Section 13 of the 1940 Act. His answer was that 80,000 pensioners in Scotland had benefited owing to the 1940 Act, and that none had suffered a reduction in her or his allowance. We know also, as has been said to-day, that the operation of the Determination of Needs Act, 1941, brought in no fewer than 140,000 additional pensioners. I supported that Act, because I thought it the best we could get in the circumstances. I am prepared to support any Motion of this kind, and even something that may fall short of what we think is just and right. I hope that when it comes before the Government they will do something real and substantial, and "bring forth fruits meet for repentance."
Why is it that after you have done so much for these old age pensioners, they are still so discontented? One main reason is that they believe deeply that this means test is a measure directed against the poorest and most helpless section of the community, and not applied in the higher circles of national life and national business. In the OFFICIAL REPORT for 21st July, 1939, a table is given of 13 industries that in the 15 years 1924 to 1938 received subsidies to the extent altogether of £79,497,000. All these subsidies were given without any means test whatsoever. The sums were showered in a plentiful rain upon the evil and the good, upon the wealthy and the penurious.
I would recall in this connection the action of the House and the law in regard to derating. The Rating (Scotland) Act, 1926, in its first Schedule, allowed deductions from the gross annual value on certain classes of land and heritages of from 5 to 30 per cent. Then the second Act came, the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1929, under Section 45 of which the net annual rental was to be divided by four. That was a further derating of 75 per cent.; and at the same time it became increasing difficult for poor people to get any remission of rates at all. When the Lanarkshire County Council introduced a uniform scheme for the whole county, the increases some districts received were held to cover what had formerly been given as relief of rates to poor people. In a constituency like mine, which is mainly occupied with the manufacturing heavy industries, most of the big firms got both the 30 per cent., and after that the 70 per cent. A very simple calculation will show that they are only paying on £17 10s. out of every £100 of what they would have paid on the gross rental value. In the Burgh of Coatbridge the amount thus conferred upon those interests was £321,000 for a population of 43,786. There was no Determination of Needs Act for these privileged persons, and no inquiry as to the needs of the recipients.
The question has been raised as to this being political or non-political. It is important to notice that when these Acts involving the means test were being put into operation, many who had supported
it, partly from their own point of view, turned against it because of its operation. I will quote for the information of hon. Members from the "Glasgow Evening Citizen," a Conservative and Unionist journal, of 24th February, 1940. It said:
It is morally wrong and politically unwise to banish misfortune by Act of Parliament." "The means test breaks up family life, since the earnings of sons and daughters affect the amount of relief." "How can they and their children feel other than bitter and resentful?
It is often said that the original Act of 1908 had a means test in it, but, when you examine it, you find that it is confined to a personal test and not to a family test. Under the 1908 Act, before you got the full 5s., you must have an income of not more than £21. Then it was graded up to £31 10s., and those who were between £28 17s. 6d. and £31 10s. received only 1s. Then, when the 1919 Act came in, the sum was raised to £26 5s. for the full. 10s. rate, and that was graded again, by lowering it 1s. a time, up to £49 17s. 6d. for the 1s. pension. Under the 1924 Act there was a new method of raising the scale, as it were, and making it better for receipt of a pension. It was so graded that if £39 was received, not from earnings but from other sources, that could be excluded. So you had the sum of £65 5s. for the 10s. rate, and that was graded down to 1s. for those between £88 17s. 6d. and £49 17s. 6d. All that test was personal; it was not a family test.
I would like to take the liberty of mentioning what is being done for old age pensioners in some of our Dominions. Take New Zealand, for example. Where both a husband and wife are entitled to a pension, they receive £1 10s. each, and they are allowed as income, in addition to that, another £1, making a total of £4. In regard to property, the husband and wife may have between them, after liberal disregards of income, £1,000, but in every case it is not a family means test; it is only a personal test. What is the result? In a New Zealand pamphlet on the subject of pensions, an old age pensioner says:
I will not forget that old age is no longer a dark shadow but a rest after toil.
I take the case of Australia. Mr. Holloway, Minister for Social Services, lately announced that they were raising the pension to 25s. and that the increase was to be retrospective as from 2nd April. In that country men come on to their pension at 65 or, if they are disabled,
at 60, and women at 60. The maximum pension has been 20s. a week; now it is to be 25s. There are four particulars of disqualification for the pension. First, any person who has directly or indirectly deprived himself of property or income in order to obtain a pension; second, any person who is adequately maintained by his relatives, namely, husband, wife, father, mother, or children; third, any person who possesses property the value of which exceeds £400; fourth, any person who is in receipt of certain sums. The second of these might seem to constitute a family test, that is, "any person who is adequately maintained by his relatives," but a family test is expressly excluded under the definition of income. I think that this is most important, and I will read the House the Clause:
Income shall be deemed to include personal earnings, but does not include gifts or allowances from husbands, wives, fathers, mothers or children.
Not only do they not put on a household test, but they definitely exclude such gifts or allowances as would make it a means test.
May I now say a word on the system obtaining in Russia? The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, in the very important statement in this House the other day in connection with the Anglo-Soviet Treaty, stated:
The two countries also agree that they will, when peace is re-established, work together for the organisation of security and economic prosperity in Europe."—[OFFICIAI. REPORT, 11th June, 1942; col. 1352, Vol 380.]
We must have regard not only to Europe, but to our own country. I do not wish to enter into the merits of the Soviet system of government, but I think. the Government and all of us might well consider some of their practices and achievements in regard to planning social services and old age pensioners. I will give the House some details of their system. (1) Every man who has reached the age of 60 and has worked for not less than 25 years, and every woman who has reached the age of 55 and worked for not less than 20 years, receives a pension irrespective of his or her capacity to work and earnings. (2) On reaching old age, people engaged in work underground or in deleterious occupations are pensioned at 60 and receive a pension of 60 per cent. of their last earnings. Persons employed
in heavy industry receive 55 per cent. of their earnings; and those employed in light industries receive 50 per cent. of their earnings. (3) Certain increases are made according to the length of uninterrupted service at the same place of work. Thus, people employed in underground occupations and in deleterious trades receive an extra 10 per cent. for three to five years' uninterrupted service; 20 per cent. for five to ten years' uninterrupted service; and 25 per cent. for over 10 years' uninterrupted service.
To many, old age is a tragic lot. None have spoken with greater pathos on this subject than my favourite poet, Robert Burns. In the closing words of his "Ode on Despondency," he wrote:
The fears all, the tears all,
Of dim declining age.
In one of his "Epistles to Robert Graham of Fintry," he referred mournfully to those who are
Low sunk in squalid unprotected age.
These are burdens that we cannot lift; but if we cannot lift, the burden, we can at least make it lighter. The great cry today is to do all we can for the youth of the country, and it seems to be a coincidence that yesterday we were discussing youth, and to-day we are discussing the aged. In the new era let youth be served, but let age be honoured, that at long last it may be true:
He crowned a youth of labour
With an age of ease.
We can do it, but we must do much more than we have done. The Minister of Health indicated on 12th March that the cost of the Determination of Needs Act was £5,000,000, but of that only £1,500,000 was due to the new average rate made by the modification of the means test, under the Determination of Needs Act, 1941. The constant cry is that we cannot do it. That has been the cry from the beginning. Sir Henry Chaplin in 1908 said:
The most material objection of all is that no indication whatever has been given to the House as to the methods of taxation which would be necessary.
But, after all these prognostications, the Bill was passed. Those who opposed it were fighting because it would cost £7,500,000. The scheme stood all the adjustments that were necessary during the last war and proved sufficient for all the expansion between 1919 and 1924. The number of pensioners increased from 701,678, in March, 1911, to 3,350,000, as announced on 24th October, 1940; and the cost increased in similar proportion from £7,500,000 until, as given out on 14th December, 1939, the cost of non-contributory pensions had reached £47,850,000. I know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer told us on 14th May last that the cost of a basic rate of 20s. a week, with supplementary payments to cover the increased cost of living, would come to something like £200,000,000, but I do not put too much stress or value on these announcements. Five or six years ago we were constantly putting questions as to what it would cost for spinsters' pensions, allowing women the pension at 60, and so forth. They told us it would cost so much; and that, looking forward some 20 or 30 years, it would cost double that amount. The Act was passed for spinsters' pensions, and lowering the age to 60; and, as far as I know, no one is the poorer for it, In his Budget Statement the Chancellor said there were no rich people now. He could not contemplate any further direct taxation, and he invited us to study Table F in Command Paper 6347, where there is a comparison of national income and expenditure for 1939, 1940 and 1941. On looking up that Paper, I found that, taking the range of incomes between £2,000 and £10,000 the aggregate gross income for 1940–41 was £367,000,000. After the Income Tax and Surtax of 1940–41, they retained 47,4 per cent. Those with incomes over £10,000 had sums among them of £174,000,000, and after the deduction of tax 22 per cent. remained. These people, therefore, are not in such a desperate condition as the Chancellor would have us think.
This is a rich country. We have evidence of that to-day. We were told that we had already spent £8,600,000,000 on the war, and that our war expenditure was £12,000,000 a day. May I recall what was said by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence) in reply to that announcement to-day? He said that it was evident there was productive capacity enough to provide a complete life for all in the world, and he hoped it would prove to be so in days to come. If this country has proved to be rich in time of
war, I am confident that, if we have our affairs directed wisely, we will show that it is a rich country, and rich to abundance, in time of peace. When Captain Scott, after reaching the South Pole, was laving down his life in the Antarctic, he penned his "Last Message to the Public":
Surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for.
I would say, using his language: Surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those old people who are dependent on us, and on whom we have depended, are provided for properly and honourably.
I want the Chancellor to understand that it will give no satisfaction to the country unless, as the result of this Debate, he and the Government make up their minds definitely that a substantial increase is to be made in the basic rate of the old age pension. I want to urge upon him, if it is necessary, that he should convey to the Prime Minister that as a result of the discussion which has been so long demanded no further modification of the old age pension position will meet the situation unless it includes a substantial increase in the basic rate.
There is common agreement on all sides of the House that the basic rate is quite inadequate to meet the needs of the majority of old age pensioners, and the fact that legislation has had to be brought forward in the last two years to supplement it is proof that the basic pension is too little. The Chancellor will do very well to keep in mind that when old age pensions were introduced we started them at 5s. per week per head. I was not in the House at the time, but I remember the discussions. I believe the Bill when it was introduced proposed 5s. for one person and 7s. 6d. for an old couple, but the Bill was amended, and the pension was fixed at 5s. per head. In the Great War of 1914–1918 it was first raised to 7s. 6d. and later to 10s. Surely the time has come in this great war to take another step forward.
I want to be modest. Personally, I do not expect that we shall get more than an addition of 5s. to the basic rate, if we get anything at all. My colleagues may not accept that point of view. I agree that it is too little, but still, nothing less than 5s. on the basic rate will be of any use. As to the cost, I have been figuring it out and on the basis of 3,500,000 people an increase of 5s. would work out at round about £40,000,000 per annum. That surely is not too much to grant in the circumstances in which we are now placed. I urge the Chancellor to bear in mind that without an increase in the basic rate there will be no satisfaction in the country. The country wants it, and this House wants it. Public opinion is unanimous that the basic rate should be increased substantially.
To-day's Debate has been a tribute to Mr. Speaker. He has asked us many times to curtail our speeches. To-day we have been following the advice he has given us. There have been 23 speeches in the course of 5 hours 45 minutes, an average of about 15 minutes per speaker, including the Front Bench men. I think Parliament has got down to real business ways. Back benchers ought to be able to express themselves in 15 minutes. I do not object to Front Bench Members speaking longer, as they sometimes have to state a case, but what has happened to-day is an example of what can be done. This Motion has been moved for the purpose of trying to get an expression of opinion from hon. Members. From time to time we have been asking the House to consider the old age pensions question, because we have felt that if hon. Members had a chance of expressing themselves, we could get guidance on what could be done and what ought to be done. As there are no general elections now, the House must give guidance as to the feeling in the country, and Members must express themselves. After what has been said to-day, I feel that the Chancellor will have to move in the direction of granting some improvement in the old age pensions. Nothing else than a lifting of the basic rate will satisfy the House. The only definite voice against it was that of the hon. Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams). I welcomed it, because, when things go too placidly, one feels there is no fight left in the House. The hon. Member for South Croydon came along and stirred up everybody, and even got the Conservative Members to say what they feel. Anyone who examines their speeches will realise what they think about it. I want to take the House along on lies similar to those which I think the Chancellor may want to pursue. I want the Chancellor to get away from the past. The hon. Member for Abertillery (Mr. Daggar), who moved the Motion, said we were speaking in the terms of 1942 and not of byegone ages, not of 1908 or 1912. I want to argue on those lines with the Chancellor. Every well-organised industry has been able to secure a substantial advance in its standard of living. The munition workers started it and obtained a higher standard of life, and other people followed. The country had to bow to the demand and grant that standard of improvement. No matter what section you examine, you will find that they have got the improvement, because it has been realised that there must be a lifting of the basis of life. The purchasing power of the people has improved, and we have to recognise the fact. When pressure of opinion drives the House of Commons to do something like that, is it right that a large body of aged men and women who have no driving force to exert, such as by stopping work, should not receive a similar benefit? If there is justice in their claims, is it right that the House of Commons should pass them by, saying, "You cannot affect us in the elections and we are not troubled by your power. Although you have justice in your claim we are not prepared to do anything for you "? It is not right to take the stand that we have adopted up to the present. In that belief we have brought forward this Motion to have the whole matter examined and to get the Chancellor to look into it and give him time to do so, but not too long. I do not want this inquiry to be hung up for any length of time. We have been willing to wait until we could get a day to debate it, but the Chancellor must not think we shall be willing to wait very much longer before taking some very strong line of action in the matter.
I would call attention to the Motion. It reads:
That this House, recognising that the difficulties of old age pensioners and widows have been accentuated by war-time conditions "—
I would again emphasise those words. Not on the basis of the cost of living, but because of the way it has been accentuated. In every great industry something has been given by way of
wages or pensions to sections of the people. That is what we mean in this Motion by the words "accentuated by war-time conditions." That Motion goes on:
would welcome an immediate examination by the Government of their present position so that any necessary action can be taken without delay.
If the Chancellor requires anything more than that, he has had it from all around him to-day and even from behind him, from men who have said that something must be done in this very vital matter. We are asking that this improvement be brought about as quickly as possible. The Chancellor can no longer resist that claim. I know the position he is in, as guardian of the public purse, to try and put a brake on expenditure on every possible occasion, but we cannot put the brake on for too long in this matter because the House of Commons will not stand for it and will insist on something being done.
We have been strongly criticised on these benches for having some of our men in the Government. We are told that they are not moving forward as quickly as they ought to do. I have not lost confidence in our representatives in the Government. I was one who said that they ought to take up their stand in a time of crisis like this, but I urge upon our representatives in the Government that theirs should be the driving force. They know more than the other side of the House about the needs of the poorer classes. When they meet in conclave and discuss what should be done, I want them to remember, though they are not in active touch with us at the moment, that the same conditions prevail among our old people as prevailed when they were with us.
Had they been on these benches and someone else in their places, I can just imagine the dialectical skill of the Lord Privy Seal, and how he would have torn them to pieces. I have confidence in the Lord Privy Seal. To me, he is one of the best Socialists in the country, and on this occasion I want him to use all the influence he can on behalf of our aged people. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, of course, belongs to the other party; they have never seen eye to eye with us on these matters, but I am hoping that by the influence of the men around him he will do so.
There is another matter to which I should like to refer. Wherever you go now in every constituency you are met by the aged people and their organisations. They now have a very powerful organisation throughout the country, and they state their case in every constituency; they hold meetings every week-end and put forward their claims. I, with one of my hon. Friends, have to attend one next week, to tell them what the House of Commons intends to do in this matter. I shall try to urge upon them that the House of Commons is alive to the situation and will do something in that direction.
I would also like to say a word or two regarding the continuation of our present system. The American Ambassador made a striking speech at Durham a week or so ago, and these are the words he used: "The pulse of social change is quickening." I believe it is quickening all over the country, and that can only mean that those sections of the community who have not enjoyed a decent standard of life must now be looking forward to the change that is coming to their betterment. Is anyone, or any section, in this country more entitled to some kind of improvement in their lot than are the old age pensioners? I do not know of anybody; it is the most tragic thing in our lives to have to attend meetings and see before us veterans of industry, men and women who have given their best all their lives, on the borderline of poverty. I will not say actually in want, because the country does not allow that, but I would like to visualise a state of affairs which would not always leave in the minds of men and women the dread that they will be something short. That is the position of the old age pensioner at the present time. It is their demand to Parliament now that their lot should be examined.
I have had a resolution sent to me from my own constituency to this effect, and it shows what is happening in every other constituency. It was passed by Leigh Town Council on nth June and it reads:
The Council regrets to learn of the increasing poverty and hardship of many of those who are wholly or mainly dependent on old age and widows' pensions. This Council strongly urges His Majesty's Government to take immediate steps to increase the basic pension to 30s. per week, and further recommends His Majesty's Government to abolish the present method of granting supplementary pensions on the basis of a means test.
That is the feeling all over the country. It may be that the Chancellor cannot see his way to go so far now, but you cannot stop this unrest unless you are prepared to do something on their behalf. I urge the Government and representatives of all parties to take to their hearts what has been said in the House to-day about old age pensioners. If they do that, there must be an increase on the present basic rate.
One last word. On other occasions when we have dealt with old age pensions I have generally had by my side the hon. Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood) and the hon. Member for Spennymoor (Mr. Batey). I regret to say that both hon. Members are unable to be here to-day owing to illness. Those are men who have stood alongside me, in season and out of season, fighting for the rights of the aged people. What a glad message it will be to them if, when the Chancellor winds up this Debate, he can give to them, to the House, and to the country, an assurance that this Debate has so stirred the pulse of the Government that they realise that something must be done on behalf of the aged people. If the Chancellor could give that message, I believe it would bring glad tidings to every home in the land.
We have had a very interesting Debate, and I would first like to congratulate my hon. Friend who has just spoken. He has certainly been most persistent in advocating the claims of the old people. I very much regret, as I am sure the House will regret, to hear what he said about our two hon. Friends who are not with us to-day, and I hope it may be possible for them to be back again in their places soon. I would like to refer to the several maiden speeches which have been made—those of the hon. Member for Gorton (Mr. Oldfield), the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Kendall) and the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Mack). The speech of my hon. Friend who moved the Motion was not a maiden speech in the ordinary sense, but it certainly was in the sense that he was speaking for the first time from the Front Opposition Bench.
I would first like, because I feel it would be useful to the House, to give them some account of the present position of the old age pension administration in this country in the light of which the Government have given consideration to the Motion on the Order Paper to-day. I think that one of the most interesting things, in the present position, is how, what might be called the "pensionable population" has greatly grown in recent years. The total number of old age and contributory pensions to-day is over 4,000,000. Included in these 4,000,000 are some 860,000 widows who are in receipt of pensions, of whom 720,000 draw pensions by virtue of the contributions paid by their late husbands. In addition, and in the same category, to-day there are being paid some 250,000 allowances in respect of dependent children of widows, and orphans.
Various figures have been mentioned in the course of the Debate of the numbers of old age pensioners who are in work to-day. In fact some 700,000 old age pensioners are at present in employment, and another 250,000 are wives, aged 60 or over, of employed men pensioners. The increases in contributory pensions are, of course, also of importance in considering this matter at the present time. There are some 3,600,000 in receipt of contributory pensions, and I would like to speak further on this because it is important in view of the advocacy of an increase of the basic pension, which, of course, would apply equally to contributory pensioners and non-contributory pensioners. I would like to say something about this body of pensioners in this country, numbering as they do some 3,600,000.
These pensions are payable irrespective of the other resources of the pensioners. The circumstances of these pensioners, in fact, show the widest variations. There are, for instance, such people as a retired bank manager, who was allowed to enter the scheme voluntarily on the strength of Army service in the last war. There are, again—representing another considerable section of the contributory pensioners—highly-skilled craftsmen, such as, to take one example, a diamond cutter, who may have earned enough to provide a substantial nest-egg for his old age, apart from the substantial contribution he has made for his contributory pension. There are also many people who have ceased to be compulsorily insured, because they have left their employment to set up business on their own account, or because they have been promoted in the firms by which they are employed, and who have elected to continue in insurance on a voluntary basis. When you are dealing with that very large class of pensioners, you are dealing with a body whose circumstances show the very widest variation. When we consider any further movement in old age pensions, it is wise to take into account that section of the pensionable community. Most people within the contributory scheme have made provision for themselves, apart from the pensions for which they and their employers and the State have contributed.
Then we have also to consider the supplementary pensions. The House will recall that in 1940, by the Old Age and Widows' Pensions Act, any person in receipt of an old age pension, or, in the case of a widow over 60, in receipt of a widow's pension, was enabled, if in need, to obtain a supplementary pension, at the expense of the Exchequer. That was a far-reaching change. The same Act of Parliament provided that there should no longer be recourse to the Poor Law, and that the Assistance Board should deal with all such applications, in accordance with the provisions made by Parliament. I would recall another very important step. Early in the following year the present Government introduced further proposals, which, again, were approved by Parliament. The Determination of Needs Act became law in March, 1941. Under that Act, and the Regulations that followed it, the household means test was swept away, and the test of personal need, based on the circumstances of the applicant, was substituted. The further benefits which were ensured by these two Measures have been very considerable and far-reaching.
I have not interrupted anybody, and I want to be allowed to make my statement. In 1940, in order to show the far-reaching changes that this brought about, there were about 250,000 old age pensioners who were receiving payment from the public assistance authorities. Undoubtedly there was much reluctance, and one could understand it, on the part of many pensioners to apply to the Poor Law for assistance and relief. The change has been remarkable. There has been found little or no reluctance to go to the Assistance Board; and the standard upon which the Board has carried out its administration has been higher than that previously adopted by most of the public assistance authorities of the country. No pensioner has received less assistance, and most pensioners have received more, as a result of the transfer to the Assistance Board. I am able to tell the House that, in addition to 250,000 pensioners then taken over from the public authorities, some 750,000 pensioners have applied for and have received supplementary pensions from the Board; and as a result particularly of the Determination of Needs Act another 100,000 cases have already been added to the Board's register.
Let me make a comparison with two years ago—because this is important—when some 250,000 pensioners were receiving additional help from public sources. To-day the Assistance Board is paying a supplementary pension in 1,100,000 cases, representing, since husband and wife are usually treated as one case, some 1,300,000 pensioners. Reference has been made by some of my hon. Friends to the administrative action of the Board in dealing with that very large additional body of people. The facts are these: The average supplementary pension has been about 9s. 6d. a week all round, and it has been based upon the principle, endorsed by the House at the time I have just mentioned, that such assistance goes to those who need it, in proportion as they need it.
I hope people are not being treated any worse in Scotland. I rather think not. Married persons who have no resources apart from their old age pension have their incomes brought up to 32s. a week or more, regard being paid to their rent and any special needs. Those are the facts as they have been given to me by the responsible authorities.
I hope the House will allow me, in my position as Chancellor of the Exchequer, to add a word about the cost. The amount paid to old age pensioners is now some £125,000,000 a year. Non-contributory pensions account for £12,000,000; contributory pensions for £83,000,000; and supplementary pensions for some £30,000,000. To-day the State is spending on supplementary pensions six times as much as public assistance authorities were disbursing on pensions immediately before the present war. The cost to the Exchequer of the various schemes now operating is some £100,000,000 a year—ten times as much as the original old age pensions scheme just before the last war. There is also this to be said, as has been pointed out in the course of the Debate, that these sums are considerable; and that they will grow as the number of old age pensioners increases, as it will. These figures are of great magnitude, and I think every reasonable person would take them into account in considering the State's obligations. I will not, however, stress the financial side at the moment. I may have an opportunity of saying something more during the next series of Sitting Days when we have to give further consideration to other schemes which are very dear to the heart of some Members.
No one will dispute the fact that in consideration of the sums of money that are involved, nothing but disaster could result from the view that the resources of the State, and the extent to which taxation can be imposed, are unlimited or that funds can be effectively provided by the use of, say, a printing press or by some mysterious juggling with national affairs. I noted during the course of this Debate that only one of my hon. Friends made any suggestions how the money was to be found, and for that reason his name ought to be recorded in our proceedings. He is the hon. Member for Grantham, whose suggestions I shall, of course, study with the greatest care and attention. I gather that his suggestion had something to do with stricter arrangements in our munitions production, or something of that kind; and with that I, in principle, wholly agree. Roughly half the national income is at present applied to essential services and the conduct of the war. This is probably without precedent, and it is, of course, impossible to wage total warfare, applying the country's resources without stint or limit, and carry on just the same as before.
When we hear statements that this proposal would cost only the equivalent of three days of the war—and some speakers suggested that the more the cost of the war, the easier it was, apparently to meet the situation—I ask the House to consider my position as Chancellor of the Exchequer in a total war. It is not unlike that of a man whose wife has had to undergo a major operation. The private citizen in that emergency mobilises all his financial resources to give his wife the best medical attention he can command, and, what with operation fees, day and night nurses and nursing home expenses, he lives for a month or so at a rate of probably many thousands a year. But, in planning his budget for normal times, after the emergency is over, he cannot listen to the voice that says, "You can easily afford so and so. It is only the cost of so many days of your wife's illness."
I should like to say a word about an Amendment which appears on the Order Paper, which, quite rightly, received considerable notice in the course of the Debate. The Amendment deals with what some of my hon. Friends have described in the course of their speeches as the means test. I would say, speaking for myself, that it is true that the test of personal need, based on the circumstances in which the applicant is living, remains part of our pension system. I should not myself have thought that that is harsh, or unreasonable, or unfair, or against the beliefs or principles of any particular political party. I will put these questions to my hon. Friends: Is it not right to distinguish between those persons who are in need and those who are not? Is it not right so to measure that you can best meet the needs of a particular person? You can criticise, as has been done during the Debate—and I will take note of what has been said—the particular means or personal needs test, on the grounds that it is too severe or that it is too lax; or that it results in anomalies—but to object to a needs test in general is surely objecting to the principle of helping particular persons according to their need.
There are two alternatives, as I see it, to giving assistance according to need. The first—which is to leave every one to fend for himself as he likes, and to take no more trouble or care about him—has no friends. The second—to give to everyone, whether he requires it or not, a sum which will suffice for the neediest case—would not appear to be founded on any reasonable principle and in fact, unless it was carried even beyond the proposals in the Amendments of hon. Members below the Gangway, it would still mean that we would have to apply a test of need. If the old age pension were increased, we will say, from 10s. to 15s. a week it would cost another £30,000,000 a year. It would remove the needs test from all those who are getting 5s. or less by way of supplementary pension—there are, in fact, 250,000 such cases—but there would still remain a million pensioners whose pension of 15s. would require supplementation and to whom a test would still have to be applied.
If the pension rate were doubled and made £1, at an additional cost of £68,000,000 a year, there would still be 250,000 pensioners whose needs were not fully met. What is to be done about them? If one adopted that suggestion at very considerable cost, obviously a test would still have to be applied, and the only thing left when the matter is analysed would be to give a still further increase in the pension so that you covered the needs of all pensioners to the extent of the requirements of the individual pensioner who was in the greatest need; and every pensioner, whatever his need, would have to be brought up to this amount.
What would this amount be? There is no absolute ceiling to the amount of the supplementary pension. There are, in fact, a certain number of special cases in which the supplementary and the basic pension together exceed 40s. a week, and a few in which they exceed 50s. a week. If we take 30s. as the amount, this would cost an extra £160,000,000, and even then there would still be cases requiring special treatment. When we take these matters into consideration, and look at the sums involved, I say that directly we advocate a course of this kind we are involved, in spending money without justification and, what is worse, to the detriment of our financial position, and of the other justifiable claims on the Exchequer which we have to consider now and shall have to consider in the future. We have always to keep in mind that directly we begin to put the national finances in that position, and pay money which need not be paid, we are prejudicing all those claims on the Exchequer which have been enumerated to-day and preventing further assistance being available where it may be most needed. I realise that the sentiments that have been expressed to-day have not been confined to Members of any one party. Members of all parties have spoken in support of the case of the old age pensioner. We all realise that many of the hardships and inconveniences arising from the state of war particularly affect these old people. I claim to know a little about old age pensions and their administration because for five years I was Chairman of the London Old Age Pensions Committee, the largest in the country, and I have followed the position since. It is well to realise that it has not always been the financial side that has caused all the difficulties; and that there have been shortages of supplies and other difficulties which have been particularly hard on old people.
Having regard to what this country has done for old age pensioners and the amount of money that has been expended—not exceeded by any country in the world—it is deplorable and not within the facts to describe the lot of these people as hard and bitter and to represent them as engaged in a cruel struggle against adversity. Those statements have not been made in the House to-day, but they have been frequently made in the Press, and I say that there is no justification for them. Reference has been made to the Assistance Board. As far as any information goes—and it has been supplied not from official sources, but from my colleagues in the House and friends who take part in administration of this kind—the general judgment of the administration of the Board is that they have dealt fairly and justly and to the best of their ability with the claims put before them. We have to keep in mind that the measure of help which the old age pensioner and others receive has been laid down by this House. It is the responsibility of this House, and the Assistance Board have faithfully and sympathetically carried out their duties.
In considering the Motion, I have this also to say to the House, that the present provisions and arrangements for old age pensioners are (as my right hon. Friend opposite knows, because he played a very considerable part in bringing it about) the subject of an inquiry by Sir William Beveridge and his Committee. I believe they have received a considerable body of evidence from the National Federation and from others about the old age pension and the part it would play. I would certainly say to the House that it would not be desirable to anticipate, or to duplicate, the work of the Committee in working out any long-term scheme. That is obviously work for this particular Committee, and they are now engaged on it. I hope they will be able to report early in the autumn, so in any event there is only a very short time now to go.
The Motion asks for an immediate examination by the Government into the present position so far as it is now accentuated by war-time conditions. The Government will be prepared to accept the Motion and to carry out the inquiry that is being asked for. In connection with that inquiry, it is important that I should state this: They must consider it in conjunction with any recommendation that may be made by the Assistance Board—made in accordance with their statutory duty. When that has been considered by the Government, they will report to the House as early as possible the conclusions at which they have arrived. I would point out that accepting this Motion will not interfere with the work of the Beveridge Committee. I am most anxious to maintain the position of the Beveridge Committee, who have given a great deal of time and attention to this particular type of social inquiry.
I would also say to my hon. Friends that all the points raised in the Debate which come within the terms of the Motion shall be carefully considered by the Government, as well as those which I understand are now receiving the consideration of the Assistance Board. The Assistance Board, in fact, will be making certain suggestions as well. I think we shall in this way meet the wishes expressed at any rate in most quarters of the House and from all parties. If the Amendments on the Paper had been moved, it is obvious, I think, that the great body of hon. Members would not have been prepared to accept them.
I do not want to get into any quarrel with my hon. Friend. In any event, all we have to consider to-day is the Motion on the Paper, and I can assure the House that the Government will be quite willing to carry out the request of all my hon. Friends. We hope to see that there is no undue delay, and we shall then report to the House as soon as possible the result of the inquiry.
I am sorry. I did not mention them specifically, but I include them in the basis of the inquiry. I include them in the reference I made that the suggestions made, so far as they are concerned, shall also receive the consideration of the Government in the inquiry that is being made.
I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman a question, because we are very anxious that there shall be no misunderstanding about this matter. Did I understand him to say that he reads the Motion and accepts it as meaning that the Government shall inquire into the position of old age pensioners or only so far as their position has been accentuated by war circumstances?
The right hon. Gentleman did say something about it in his speech, and I want it to be clear, because it is an important point. I want to know whether the Government, in accepting this Motion, are to limit the inquiry into the accentuation and aggravation of the condition of the old age pensioners by war circumstances or whether the inquiry is to range over all the points which have been raised in the Debate.