Old Age and Widows' Pensions and Unemployment Assistance.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 29th July 1942.

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Photo of Mr Henry Willink Mr Henry Willink , Croydon North

The draft Regulations which we are discussing to-day do not, as we have been told, amount to a change of policy. They are not put forward as a new departure. They are to be looked upon as a temporising measure, and it is from that point of view that I would consider them. It is only fair both to the Ministers and to the Assistance Board to remember what it was the House called attention to in the last Debate and what was the undertaking given. The House recognised that the difficulties of old age pensioners and widows had been accentuated by wartime conditions, and it called upon the Government to make an immediate examination with a view to early action. These draft Regulations and the variations in practice which have been announced are the response to the accept- ance by the House of the Motion which was moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Abertillery (Mr. Daggar). It is my honest belief that the Government are to be congratulated, first, on the speed with which they have reacted to that Motion, and, second, on the remedial steps which they propose. Action is not always so speedy, and we should note with satisfaction that it was within a month of that Debate that the Government's proposals were announced. That reflects credit not only on the Ministers, but on the Assistance Board, who have obviously given close thought to this matter and, I feel, have put before the Government satisfactory proposals.

To-day, when only 17 Sitting Days have run since a long Debate, with the Rule suspended, the House is devoting most of another day to this question. Except from one point of view, which I shall mention at the close of my observations, I regret that this time is being spent. There are other far more urgent matters on which we might profitably be spending our time. There is, however, one reason for which I am glad that we are having this discussion to-day.

Furthermore, I hope that none of the Amendments on the Order Paper will be pressed to a Division. In these difficult days, difficult particularly from the point of view of the supply and availability of consumer goods—and that is a matter which is most relevant in this connection—we all want to do the best possible for the old people. I should like the impression to go out to the country that this House, having fully discussed these difficulties on two occasions, have reached, of course as a compromise, a basis of agreement as to what was best. It is from this point of view that I particularly regret that only to-day an Amendment appeared on the Order Paper in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) and of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence). It did not appear for 12 days after the Chancellor's statement. That statement was followed by a Supplementary Question which elicited the reply that the proposals had the unanimous support of the Cabinet. My own feeling is that to put down a Motion condemning, except under certain conditions, proposals agreed to by the Leader of the party opposite and of the members of that party in the Government savours of party politics. From another point of view I regret the general line of the proposal, because it asks for further steps, and, therefore, I suppose another Debate within a short time on this specific subject, when we have been told that Sir William Beveridge's Report is expected at an early date.

My hon. Friend the Member for Abertillery has called attention forcibly to certain of the illogicalities and irregularities, particularly in regard to children. We must not at this stage run risks of perpetuating and enlarging those irregularities. All of us who have given even the slightest consideration to these various remedial measures for poverty and insecurity of all kinds are baffled by the untidiness of them and the irregularities. They have just grown up in the most untidy way, and that makes it extremely difficult to follow them. I understand there is hope that large measures of economy will be possible in administration in various directions, and I think it would be disastrous that there should be any sort of pledge that this particular isolated part of the problem should be dealt with on the lines of one instalment to-day and another instalment in a few weeks.

Let me say a word or two about the remedial proposals in the Regulations and the amended practice, and deal first with the increase in the scale rate. I imagine there is no doubt that it is fair to take away from those figures, 19s. 6d. and 22s., what I have understood is the normal rent allowance included, that is 5s. for a single person. If it is more than that he gets more than the 19s. 6d. So it is fair to take off 5s. from each of those figures, and the real difference is between 14s. 6d. and 17s. in that particular case. If one looks at the various increases one finds that on that basis, which I hope and believe is fair, the increase varies between 17 and 20 per cent. right through. As a temporising measure I venture to think that that is a fair and proper basis at the present stage. Then there is the maatter of the winter allowances. There is no doubt that here we have taken two steps in the direction of sound common sense. First, there is very little more fuel consumed by a married couple than by a single old person. Secondly, the exten- sion of the month is quite obviously right. Of course the fuel allowance is not intended to cover all the fuel in the winter; it is an added allowance to that element which is included in the general allowance throughout the whole year.

The third matter is one which was commented upon most adversely by my hon. Friend the Member for Abertillery, and that is the arrangement under which, where there is reason to think that old people are suffering by reason of the difficulty of buying clothing or household equipment—he mentioned pots and pans—they are visited by officers of the Assistance Board to see whether the anxiety or apprehension as to the condition of the old people is justified or not. I really do not quite understand the description of that kindly action as unpleasant work. It seems to me wholly appropriate. Having had some contact with poverty, not only accentuated by war conditions but accentuated by conditions of bombing, I say that one of the greatest difficulties is the buying of necessary things. The pots and pans mentioned by my hon. Friend are the most conspicuous example of all. Blankets are the subject of the fourth remedial measure. Contemptuous words were used of the arrangements which are to be made for the provision of blankets in kind. There, too, I have a little personal experience, because the difficulty of getting blankets arose a long time ago. The A.R.P. services were most inadequately provided with blankets for many months, through the difficulty of getting supplies, and I am sure the wisest possible step is to have a bulk provision of blankets and in proper cases distribute them, because I cannot believe that it would be at all easy for old people needing blankets to find them.

There is one other general observation I wish to make. I may be deceived, I may be deceiving myself, but what I am going to say is based upon scores of conversations with old people. The difficulties which they have expressed to me are not so much difficulties arising from the amount of cash at their disposal, but the difficulty first of finding useful things to buy at a reasonable price, and secondly, the difficulty, which is outside the purview of this Debate, of finding satisfactory little places in which to live. The housing arrangements in our cities are badly devised, in the main, in the matter of providing small homes for old people—one-room homes or two-room homes, and I hope that this matter will be very much thought of in connection with reconstruction. We have made attempts to deal with the situation under the force of necessity, and extraordinarily good work has been done, for example, by voluntary housing associations, but I am sure that one of the greatest burdens under which our old people suffer is that our houses are extremely badly devised for their comfort. Somebody asks "Whose fault is it?" I have not noticed that municipal authorities have been much better in this respect than private enterprise.