I know very well, as do, I think, all hon. Members, the concern which my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Miss Ward) has shown on this subject and her very human and instructive approach to it. She has shown that concern in many directions, not excluding "The Times" of today, which does, however, contain one phrase which I cannot believe of my hon. Friend. She there uses the expression, "I am dismayed." I have never seen my hon. Friend dismayed, and I do not think I ever shall.
I hope I do not have to tell her that I fully appreciate and understand her feelings on this somewhat difficult problem, and that I feel a good deal of sympathy for it. No one would dispute that people on small fixed incomes have suffered considerable hardship in recent years, and they are, I think, the section of the community which my hon. Friend had most prominently in mind.
She dealt, of course, with certain other classes, and I am bound to say in opening that my hon. Friend covered such a wide field, embracing many matters which are the responsibility of many Ministers, and some which are the responsibility of none, that, quite obviously, in the nine minutes she has been good enough to leave me in which to reply I should have to imitate the oratorical speed of the hon. Member for Oldham. West (Mr. Hale) if I were to have a chance of covering the ground.
The first point I would ask my hon. Friend to recall is that the section of the community to which she referred, that on small fixed incomes, is the section with the greatest interest of all in the stability of our economy and in the maintenance of the value of the £. As we have seen in other countries, it is precisely that section which suffers most acutely from an economic breakdown and which is the first and perhaps the most conspicuous victim of the inflationary process.
Therefore, I would say first of all to my hon. Friend that, leaving all other measures out of account for the moment, the greatest service which any Government can do to that section of the community is to stabilise our economy, restore our balance of payments and place our economy on a firm foundation. I know perfectly well that the connection between that and the next week's grocer's bills of the individual is sometimes terribly difficult for that individual immediately to appreciate. But it is none the less true that the people who will gain most from the success of Her Majesty's Government's general policy of stabilising our economy and restoring our balance of payments is this particular section for which my hon. Friend has this afternoon expressed such proper concern: since, without a shadow of doubt, were a breakdown to occur they would be the people who in the subsequent confusion would suffer worst.
Those who have substantial tangible assets and those who have the skill of their brains or hands to sell always have something by them even in the worst of economic crises; but people whose whole livelihood depends on the right to draw from either savings or pensions a specified sum in pounds, shillings and pence are the people who ought to be most of all concerned that our economy should be right.
Therefore, before passing as quickly as I can to the specific points which my hon. Friend raised, I would beg of her in her sympathetic discussions with these people to reassure them that their greatest interest, the one which I have just described, is the end which Her Majesty's Government throughout the whole of their economic policy are striving their hardest to pursue.
My hon. Friend referred to the effect on these people of what she described as Socialist finance. Even in her most exuberant moments I am sure she would not expect me to spend very much time in defending that. Indeed, I use what capacities I have in that direction in a contrary sense, and I will certainly not accept any responsibility for that finance.
There is here a real problem. Some of the aspects of it are, of course, not within the direct control of the Government. For example, my hon. Friend referred to rates, which are imposed by democratically-elected local authorities. The Government do not, cannot, and ought not to control them. The best thing for those people who feel that the burden of rates upon them is excessive is so to exercise their franchise at local government elections as to ensure that local authorities are elected who can be economical with local funds.
My hon. Friend referred to retired servants of what are now the nationalised industries, with particular reference to the important question of retired railway-men. She asked me to ask the Transport Commission to enter into discussions with the trade unions. In the first place, so far as I know, that is not a matter which, under the Transport Act, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport has express power to do.
In any event, it would be a wholly unnecessary request. It must be common knowledge that the distinguished members of the Transport Commission, as of other nationalised industries, are in constant contact with the relevant trade unions. Indeed they would find it impossible to discharge the duties laid upon them by Parliament did they act otherwise. But no doubt the effect of what my hon. Friend has said will be reported and will carry its own weight to the people in control of these great industries.
Then my hon. Friend referred to the conditions imposed in respect of National Assistance. I thought that she meant in particular the limitations on income on which entitlement may depend. That, as my hon. Friend knows, is not a matter within my control. In so far as it is not in the control of the Assistance Board, the Minister responsible is my right hon. Friend the Minister of National Insurance, and I am perfectly certain that my right hon. Friend will take note of what has been said.
I thought that my hon. Friend attached excessive weight to the desirability of setting up a committee with a roving commission in these matters. I fully agree with what she said about the use-lessness of setting up committees unless they contain people who are capable of coming to practical grips with the problem. I would certainly not rule out a committee on certain aspects, though it would require a great deal of thought as to the terms of reference and composition before one decided how to tackle the matter.
My hon. Friend's speech suggested the width of the problem and the number of subjects which required to be investigated, and if the committee had to cover the ground she covered it would require a quite remarkable membership. But I certainly would not dismiss the possibility of a committee, although a great deal of further thought would be required on the desirability of such a body as a real means of dealing with this problem.
The problem must not be exaggerated. Many people living on a small fixed income will benefit from a concession in the Finance Bill on the rate of tax on small unearned incomes. That was deliberately inserted by my right hon. Friend as a means of dealing with this problem. Many of these people will find that it brings them real and valuable assistance. It was certainly so intended, and no doubt it will have a considerable effect in that direction.
I fear that there is no time to cover the other points which my hon. Friend raised, but I can assure her that what has been said will be recorded in HANSARD with its usual accuracy, and we shall then have the opportunity of giving full weight to the important considerations which she has been good enough to bring forward.