Sixth Schedule. — (Transitional Provisions.)

Part of Orders of the Day — National Assistance Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th March 1948.

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Photo of Mr Niall Macpherson Mr Niall Macpherson , Dumfriesshire 12:00 am, 5th March 1948

The House is accustomed to listen to the hon. Member for South Tottenham (Mr. Messer) with great respect when he speaks on social subjects, and they will warmly welcome what he has said. Indeed, one of the main features throughout the proceedings on the Bill has been the helpfulness on all sides of the Committee and not least from the hon. Member for South Tottenham. We have listened to him today with great appreciation, and nothing that I say is intended in any way to detract from the welcome which I give this Bill and appreciation of the fact that it is setting the coping stone to all the social legislation which was prepared during the war by the Coalition Government and is now being brought to completion.

Already some hon. Members have drawn attention to the fact that we cannot expect full implementation of this Bill to be made in the immediate future. Indeed, during such a period of financial stringency it is difficult to see how such items as the construction of the re-establishment centres, the reception centres and homes for the aged and infirm could be carried out. However, I remember being told a long time ago that when we are considering assistance to other human beings and to charity we must always think what we can afford to give and then give a little more. In the implementation of this Bill we should approach the matter in that way. We should think what we can afford at the present time of financial crisis, and then give and do a little more.

One of the interesting features of this Bill from a rather theoretical point of view is that it places on the Board a duty to assist, and yet in a sense there is no correlative individual right. The right is the right of the community to ensure that it shall free itself from the moral blight and the practical scourge of want. In that way it is a challenge to our people. The Bill is making assistance in many ways easier and better and as a consequence there may always be a tendency and a temptation for some to avail themselves of the opportunity to abandon their own moral responsibilities. One of our main duties in all legislation which we undertake today is to do nothing in any way to lessen family ties and responsibilities. I hope that while the duty is now laid on the National Assistance Board to assist, our people will still face up to the moral responsibilities that lie, for example, upon children to maintain and look after in their old age those who have brought them up, and that nothing will be done to lessen that. That is the challenge to our people.

There are one or two points to which I wish to draw attention particularly. I should have preferred—and many hon. Members may share this view—to see separate Boards for Scotland and Wales. I can never see why those countries should not be allowed to run their own social services as they consider they should be run. I do not intend to go into detail on this, Mr. Deputy-Speaker; I am merely referring to it in passing. Another point with which I would deal is the new relationship which is being set up between the National Assistance Board and the local authorities and the great extent to which the success of this Bill depends upon the maintenance of friendly and efficient working arrangements between the two. For example, there is a Clause under which the Board can require a local authority to provide accommodation for a person, and that person cannot then be turned out of the accommodation without the consent of the Board. That is one of those minor things which might give rise to a great deal of friction between the local authorities and the Board. How that will be settled depends very largely on the way in which the two approach the common problem.

I would, also refer to the responsibility placed upon the National Assistance Board for influencing people, meaning vagrants particularly, to a more settled way of life. For that purpose, reception centres will be set up. I am not quite satisfied that we are taking the right step in this matter. After the reception centre stage, the person may be passed on to a re-establishment centre where he may get instruction or training for his entry into or return to regular employment. We there come up against this difficulty; what happens when it' proves difficult or impossible to influence the person to a more settled way of life? What happens if he refuses to go to the re-establishment centre? According to the Bill apparently, he then loses his right to all assistance from the Board. I would draw the attention of the House to the fact that there is no finality in that provision as it stands at present.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman, in replying, will refer to this matter, because it represents a loophole in the Measure, and implies a certain amount of coercion on the individual which I find it hard to justify. In general, I would rather have seen this "influencing," which is a moral process, being done by bodies which set out on influence in a moral way, and I hope that many of the reception centres will be entrusted to bodies such as the churches, and other voluntary organisations, many of which in the past have shown their ability to rehabilitate from the moral point of view those who have lost their way in life.

I did not quite understand the hon. Gentleman's explanation today of the Clause making mothers responsible for the maintenance of their husbands and children. I still find that this is difficult to justify, since the primary responsibility of a mother must, of course, be to her children, and it is difficulty to see how she will be able to carry out that responsibility if, for example, she has also on her hands the responsibility of her husband who, for some reason or another, is unable to contribute to the family exchequer, and if she has to be the breadwinner as well as bringing up her children and looking after her man.

Then, again, I find it hard to see the reasons why the local authorities should be called upon to indemnify employees who may lose all or part of their emoluments or their job because of the action now being taken in transferring from a local authority those functions which are' now being taken over by the National! Assistance Board. While it may be true, that there will be few cases in which no alternative employment can be found for such "displaced persons," I do not consider that this burden on the local authorities is justifiable in principle, and I hope it will not be a precedent.

One of the greatest difficulties local authorities will meet is in seeing that that part of the Act is carried out in which the burden is placed upon them to provide accommodation of different descriptions suited to different types of persons.

Another matter which has come up in the course of discussion today is that of the responsibilities of districts in Scotland. By an Amendment passed today additional responsibilities are placed on districts, in particular for welfare. In the rural parts of Scotland district officers are at present charged with the administration of public assistance and this is one of their main functions. Many county councils may find it necessary to revise their administrative arrangements in consequence of the withdrawal of these responsibilities. Considering that the districts are now to have these additional responsibilities for welfare placed upon them, it seems reasonable that the Government should reconsider that Amendment by which the county councils are obliged to send copies of any schemes they have to make, only to small burghs. They should also consult the districts in these matters.

Finally, on behalf of those of my colleagues who are here today, and those who are not, I give this Bill a very sincere welcome. One is always liable, in dealing with legislation of this kind, to think of it as final. We have a long way to go before we reach finality in our social legislation, and what may seem perfect in a plan today may need, in the not distant future, to be modified considerably in the light of social development and different trends of thought. Nevertheless, this is a Measure on which undoubtedly the Government are to be congratulated.