National Assistance

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th June 1959.

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Photo of Sir Spencer Summers Sir Spencer Summers , Aylesbury 12:00 am, 24th June 1959

It is precisely because the hon. Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) and his hon. Friends appear to follow the advice which the hon. Gentleman gave—that what a country can afford is a political matter—that while his party were in power we had a financial crisis every other year and a devaluation of the £. To those who will come to judge these matters it is not at all a convincing argument that the amount spent in this or in other aspects of the Welfare State should be a matter of politics and not of economics. I shall challenge a number of other things said by the hon. Member for Motherwell, and by other hon. Members opposite, but first I wish to try to get into perspective this link which has been quoted between Beveridge and Phillips.

It was asserted that there had been some departure from the original Beveridge thinking, which was regretted. The picture was drawn of the Beveridge idea of a subsistence pension payable to the contributor who, be it noted, had earned his subsistence pension by his contributions. It was suggested that in some way or other, hon. Members on this side of the House had departed from this conception and had taken over another one which, for the sake of simplicity, was called Phillips.

What the hon. Member for Motherwell completely ignored is the fact that since the war there has been no attempt to implement by legislation the fundamental philosophy of Beveridge in the sphere of pensions. There has been no attempt to build a subsistence pension by contributions from the contributor, the employer and the State over the years. All the parties concerned decided many years ago to abandon that conception and to substitute for it a substantially improved pension, but not a subsistence pension, without waiting for the contributor to pay what Lord Beveridge then thought it was essential that he should pay in order to avoid a financial crisis. So do not let us call in aid Lord Beveridge. His plans were abandoned long since, and the fundamental philosophy which he recommended at the time was not accepted by hon. Members on this side or the opposite side of the House. It is quite unreasonable to claim part of the thinking of Lord Beveridge when all the time we know that the rest of it was rejected.

I wish to deal with a comparatively small point, namely, the question whether there should be some merging of the National Assistance Board with the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. I think that it was the hon. Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice) who alluded to the point, and it was referred to indirectly by other hon. Members. One could sympathise with the motive behind the idea of getting that more acceptable to people—I shall refer later in my speech to the gravamen of the charge made a few minutes ago—if it were part and parcel of the pension technique which is prevalent. There is, however, also value in the independence which Parliament has hitherto ensured for the National Assistance Board But, having said that, I must also say that I think that one change has come about in the independent idea of the National Assistance Board by reason of the fact that, for the first time, the National Assistance rates in terms of the cost of living are no criteria of the rates before us at present.

There is a new conception, namely, a willingness to share the increased prosperity in the country, particularly with those on National Assistance. No doubt that idea was initiated by the Government, and the very fact that there is emerging a different relationship between the Government and the Board from the suggestion that this new element should be a factor to be taken into account does change somewhat the independent situation hitherto assigned to the Board. I think that makes it easier to go along with the idea of perhaps some day merging it with the ordinary pensions Ministry.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) said that by comparison with other countries we tended to fall behind in our welfare services. That was one way of saying that we ought to be doing more than is being done, but the suggested test by which we should judge whether we are falling behind seemed to be the proportion of people's income which is taken from them compulsorily and deployed in one way or another through the Welfare State. I do not regard that as a reasonable criterion.