Orders of the Day — National Assistance Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th November 1947.

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Photo of Mrs Bessie Braddock Mrs Bessie Braddock , Liverpool Exchange 12:00 am, 24th November 1947

On behalf of all my constituents, and on behalf of those people in Liverpool who for the past 40 years have been compelled to apply to either Poor Law or public assistance authorities for maintenance, I welcome this Bill. I am not an envious sort of person, but I envy today the opportunity which the Minister had of moving the Second Reading of this Bill. I would very much like to have had that opportunity. I feel that he presented the Bill with a calmness which he did not feel. I would not have been able to present it in that way. I think of what we are repealing more than of what we are proposing, and I think that this Bill should not pass its Second Reading without our placing on record the difficulties which people in this country have had to face, particularly since 1921.

I was proud to take part in the unemployed demonstrations and organisation in Liverpool in 1921 and onwards, because, having won the war and having been promised a country fit for heroes to live in, we discovered that one in five of the population of 855,000 in Liverpool was compelled, within a very short time of being demobilised from the Forces, to apply for relief from the local Poor Law authorities. Under the 1911 Act, relief had to be paid mostly in kind—very little in cash. Some of it was paid in cash in Liverpool—the Toxteth board of guardians paid some in cash—but it was mostly paid in kind While I was listening to the right hon. and gallant Member for the Scottish Universities (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot), floundering in difficulties, I realised that he had no conception of what he was talking about, or what it meant to repeal the things which this Bill sets out to repeal. I was sorry for him from that point of view. There are thousands of people in this country who will welcome this Bill because they will feel that they will never again have to apply to people on Poor Law committees, boards of guardians or public assistance committees, and prove that they are destitute. I am pleased to see that the word "destitution" does not exist in the Bill. That word has been a very sore point for a long time, because it meant payment below the rates and wages paid to the industrial workers, and it tended to reduce continually the standard of living of those who were compelled to apply for Poor Law relief.

I am proud to be part of the Liverpool organisation. When we are paying tribute to the people who have done things, I want to pay tribute to a person who is not known nationally and who has never had his praises sung, but who, nevertheless, was a hero to the destitute people in Liverpool.

I am referred to the Poor Law officer in Liverpool, a man known as George Evans, who, for almost two years, fought the Ministry of a Tory Government and paid fully in cash relief to those who had to apply for assistance in Liverpool. In times likes this, I think that we ought to pay our tribute to people who have had the courage of their convictions—officials of local authorities or officials of the Government. I take the opportunity now of paying this tribute to George Evans for establishing, for the first time in this country, in 1921, in spite of the fact that it was illegal to do so, payment of relief fully in cash to those people who were destitute.

When we talk about queues at the present time, we do not realise what queues used to be like. Let us remember the queues outside the Poor Law relief offices, the destitute people, badly clothed, badly shod, lining up with their prams—many of the men lining up with the kit-bags which they had carried during the 1914–18 war—for their week's rations of black treacle and bread. Bread was issued once a week—and we know what bread is, even in the best of times, when it has been kept for a week. These are the things that we are repealing. These are the things we are wiping from the face of this country, and I am pleased to be associated with a Socialist Government which is doing this, because I know that a Tory Government would never have had the courage, or even the ambition, to do anything of the kind. It has always been useful for them to have a large crowd of people destitute, because they could be used to reduce the standard of living and the wages of the people who were fortunate enough to be working.

There is another important matter in connection with the scales of relief that were paid and the amounts that are to be paid under the new regulations. When the scale was established during the 1914–18 war for the Poor Law payment, it was 10s. a week. In the first instance, in 1921, 10s. a week was considered sufficient to maintain a destitute person. That was gradually increased, and in 1931, when we had a financial crisis similar to that which we have today, the only way the Tory Party could find to deal with the situation was to inflict a 10 per cent. reduction on everybody, including those people who were drawing the destitution scale of assistance. In Liverpool, where we have never had stable industries and never had permanent employment—it has always been a question, in the main, of casual labour—and where there have always been large numbers of unemployed, and where we still have large numbers of unemployed, the position has always been, so far as my party is concerned, that we have had the utmost difficulty and a struggle to establish some decent scales of assistance for those unable to maintain themselves.

The Bill covers many aspects. Another thing which I am pleased to see in it is the new method suggested for dealing with old people who have toiled as long as they possibly could, and have given of their best to the industrial and general welfare of the country. When they have been unable to look after themselves, it has just been nobody's business to see that they were properly cared for. Even when the old age pension was raised to 26s. it did not relieve the destitution of many aged people who had no one on whom to depend but themselves. It greatly assisted those who were able to live with relatives, but not those who found themselves compelled out of their 26s. to look after themselves, to pay rent and to find some one to do their washing and cleaning. These aged people like their liberty and they do not like to go into institutions. They love to live among their fellow creatures, but it is usually the oldest room in the house which is offered to them. We have thousands of them in Liverpool living in filthy back rooms, struggling as best they can, having to do their own queuing for the amount of rations which they are allowed, and suffering great hardships on 26s. a week. I do not take the same view as the Minister about the Assistance Board. I do not think the Assistance Board is any better than the old board of guardians or the public assistance committee, because in many instances those in receipt of 26s. as an old age pension are being paid by the Assistance Board the miserable amount of 6d. in addition to the 26s. that they get.