Orders of the Day — National Insurance Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 13th November 1957.

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Photo of Mr Thomas Brown Mr Thomas Brown , Ince 12:00 am, 13th November 1957

My experience does not lead me to that view at all. Old-age pensioners have been very enthusiastic for a number of years in trying to secure redress for the injustice meted out to them. I visit old-age pensioners' clubs in my constituency and elsewhere, and the enthusiasm, if I sum it up aright, is born from the fact that they are suffering grave injustice brought about by the increased cost of living which makes it difficult for the basic pension of £2 to meet their needs. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman meant what he said in the way he put it.

There are many people who are throwing their weight in with old-age pensioners who are not old-age pensioners—members of the Churches, the Co-operative societies, the trade union movement. My experience teaches me that many of the leaders of the old-age pensioners' movement have been members of trade unions in the past. They know very well that if they are to get any redress for the injustice from which they are suffering, they will have to organise themselves, draw up petitions, and so on. I hope that the hon. Member will take it from me that the enthusiasm of the old-age pensioners is born from real hardship.

I listened with rapt attention, as I always do, to the Minister when he put forward the case on behalf of the Government. I listened to him when he said that he had an intuition that we on this side of the House would advance a very strong argument about graduated contributions. How he got that impression, I do not know, but it would be foolish of us to advance that argument under the present pensions structure. In the days that lie ahead, we shall certainly come forward with a Measure that will have within it graduated contributions. That is as sure as night follows day, because that is the only sensible thing to do.

When there is such a variation of wage rates and standards in the various industries, we cannot have a fair flat-rate contribution. Therefore, we have to make up our minds, when we face this problem in the future, that there will have to be a graduated contribution.

The next thing of importance that the Minister said was that the Bill did not alter in principle the structure of the present scheme. Neither would it be wise for the Bill to alter it. We have to make the best of the scheme. However many shortcomings this Bill may have—and it has plenty, which we shall be in duty bound to criticise, if not on Second Reading, in Committee—I think that it would be foolish for us to try to upset the structure which was established many years ago. We have got to improve upon it. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) that in the days which lie ahead this problem will have to be faced in a totally different way from that which has been faced in the past. I am not blaming the Government or my own party for the scheme which was inaugurated in 1946. I am blaming the statesmen of the past, who have failed to realise the problem of the ageing population. We should have started a lot sooner. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then.

The Minister gave us some staggering figures, which almost made me fear and tremble for the future. We have had staggering figures from time to time of what it would cost to grant the pensions that the old-age pensioner demands. We have had staggering figures for destruction, too, of £1,460,000 million a year spent in the preparation for war and in payment for past wars. If we can afford to spend that money in preparation for war and destroying life, then I say without fear of contradiction that we ought to be in a position to find the money for the maintenanec of life.

I am not so silly as to suggest that we must not prepare for our defence. We have got to defend this country, and defend it we will with our money and with our physical resources, but, at the same time, we cannot allow the people who have weathered the storm of life to remain in a state of poverty.

I agree, also, with my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East that this will be our last debate on the present scheme. I made that prophecy some time ago and I repeat it. I may be wrong, but as I read the signs of the times—and I think I read them aright—that prophecy will eventually prove to be true, because there is a different approach in many spheres of society regarding the old-age pensioner and the problem of the aged of the country.

I was glad to see in the Queen's Speech that the Government proposed to do something concerning the wider aspects of old age. When we have finished with the Bill, we shall have to tackle the wider field, because, after all, we can give the old-age pensioner his £2 10s. or the married couple their £4, but one thing that the money will not do is to relieve loneliness. That problem has got to be tackled, and I hope that the Government will tackle it with determination in the near future.

In the concluding part of the Minister's speech, he spoke of bringing comfort and solace to the old, the sick and the infirm. We agree with him. I assure the Minister that we on this side of the House will not do anything to retard or hinder the progress of this Bill, with all its faults, with all its failings, and with all its shortcomings. We shall assist in every conceivable way to get it on the Statute Book as quickly as possible, so that the old folk may have the benefit of the increase. We realise that the improvements do not go far enough. They ought to go a lot further.

We should have had these increases long ago, but we are told by the Minister that the old folks will have to wait until after Christmas. It would have been a good thing if the increase contained within the Bill could have been given to the old-age pensioners on the payment day before Christmas. It would have been welcome to them. The Department knew full well that there was this agitation throughout the country. On 20th February this year, there was presented a Petition, signed by 133,000 people over the age of 21, calling the attention of the Government to the dire need for some improvement in the basic pension rates. We had a debate on 25th February, when the Government, through the Joint Parliamentary-Secretary, admitted—I pay tribute to her honesty—that £2 a week was an inadequate pension on which to live. On 1st August, we had a debate and many points were put forcibly and logically. Those three events were sufficient to convince the House and the Department that something would have to be done in this new Session for the old folk.

It would have been a good thing if it could have been done before Christmas. I have had some experience of administration for over twenty-five years, and I am not unmindful of the administrative difficulties that confronted the Department. At the same time, if the Department had realised the problem that was facing it, preparations could have been made in the early part of this year to meet the situation in the new Session.

This great family of pensioners is growing, but I am convinced that if the Department had shown the good will which it ought to have manifested towards the old people during the Recess it would have formulated proposals to make it possible for the old folk to have an increase in their pensions before Christmas. Alas, such is not the case, and the old folk are bitterly disappointed at the Government's failure to do that for them, because they are suffering real hardship.

The old folk have had the most disgraceful treatment given to any section of the community. There is not one of us here, whatever our political philosophy may be, and no matter on which side of the House he sits, who can deny that. They have been left at the back end of the queue. They have been struggling for years to meet the higher prices caused by inflation. They have no trade union, and, therefore, somebody has to take up the cudgels on their behalf. I say with the greatest respect that no other section of the community has had the treatment that our old folks have had. Rising prices have depressed their conditions more and more, and as one views the future one cannot see any hope of an end to rising prices for food, coal, light, clothing, etc.

The increased benefits foreshadowed in the Bill, such as they are, will be swallowed up by rising prices, may be by 27th January, 1958, when the increases take place. I hope that that does not happen. I hope to have an opportunity of criticising the contents of the Bill at a later date. During the Committee stage, we shall put forward certain Amendments, and I hope the Minister and the Department will give serious consideration to them. The Government are tackling this problem early in their current programme of legislation, and one thing that I admire is the fact that this is the first Bill in the programme of the new Session.

The Bill offers increases which, if they do not meet all the demands of the pensioners, will certainly do something to ease the strain now being borne by the old folk on their meagre resources. Of course, the proposed increases will have to be paid for, and we all realise that. I have said that before, and I do not go back on my word. The insured workers will have to pay. There is no question about it. We cannot think of a pension scheme unless the workers are prepared to pay towards it, but I say that the payment ought to be on an equitable basis—equitable in every sense of the word.

Therefore, I say that the Exchequer is not paying its full share of this scheme. It is true that the Minister made some reference to increased contributions from the Exchequer, but I think that if he will turn back the files he will discover that in 1952, 1953 and 1954 the Exchequer grant to this fund went down sharply. I am glad to know that it is now increasing.

I want to give some figures concerning this family of pensioners, a family for which we must care. In the quarter which ended in June of this year the number of retirement pensioners rose to 4,716,000; that is, the figure of non-contributory pensioners, which had gone down. This is a diminishing figure, and, as the years go by, it will disappear altogether, so that in a few years' time they will all be contributory pensioners. But we still have to meet the liability of paying pensions to 4,959,000. During the first two quarters of this year—I do not know about the third—there has been an increase of over 25,000 pensioners.

Furthermore, one has to examine the increase in the number of people going to the National Assistance Board, and that is the acid test whether our people are becoming better or worse off. These figures speak for themselves. In July of this year, the number of people in receipt of National Assistance was 1,660,000, and in August it had gone up to 1,663,000. I am informed on good authority—though how far my informant is correct I do not know—that the figure will be considerably greater in October.

It is not my intention to say very much about the repeal of the tobacco token, which, to me, is the last straw. I am the first to admit that this tobacco token, when it was put upon the Statute Book in 1947, manifested a keen desire to help the old folk. I know that it is illogical, but I think that taking it off now is inopportune in this sense. In one, two or three years' time, we shall have to consider a comprehensive pensions scheme. Whether it comes from that side of the House or this, we shall he forced into that situation, and in my judgment it would have been much better if we had allowed the tobacco tokens to remain for that period and to have removed them when the comprehensive scheme was put before the House.

I happen to occupy an honorary position in connection with the old folk, and, naturally, I get hundreds of letters. I do not want to weary the House with them, but I think we ought to be able to get a consensus of opinion on this question of tobacco tokens from two sample letters which I propose to read, one from England and one from Scotland. This one came yesterday, along with many others: Dear Mr. Brown.It was announced in Parliament last Wednesday, 6th November, that pensioners were to receive 10s. a week increase and also that the tobacco tokens were to cease. If that is the case, how do the pensioners get 10s. a week? According to my reckoning, it is only 7s. 8d. On the 6 o'clock news, it said that the tobacco tokens were to be replaced by money. According to the newspapers, that is not so. Can you please tell me which is the correct version? If the National Assistance do the same as they have done before, and take National Assistance off them as well, can you please explain how the pensioners are going to be any better off than they are now? I am only one pensioner out of thousands, and it affects them all in the same way—give with one hand, and take away with the other. That is the policy of the Government. It is causing a great deal of bitterness among the ranks of the old folks.

I will now quote from a letter which I received from the Scottish Old Age Pensions Association. It was written on behalf of the Executive Council of that Association. It says that the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance has received a letter of protest on the question of the proposed discontinuance of the tobacco coupons and adds: We feel that it is most unfair, especially as it is proposed to give a cash allowance to non-contributors in lieu of the coupons. I have written the Minister, and am giving you the information as it may be possible to raise the question at a later stage of the debate on the Bill. That is signed by the General Secretary of the Association.

All these things are reacting against what the Government, yesterday and the day before, and last week, tried to persuade us all to do—to co-operate with the Government to get through the economic crisis which we are facing. If this policy is to be pursued by the Government I say that the workers will not co-operate, but will look askance at the proposals the Government are now submitting to us.

I beg the Minister—I have pleaded before and I plead again with the Government—to have another look at the anomalies of this Bill and the injustices it perpetuates. If the right hon. Gentleman will do that he will have the eternal gratitude of the old-age pensioners of this country. I beg of him to do so.