National Assistance (Regulations)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 18th February 1963.

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Photo of Mr James Dempsey Mr James Dempsey , Coatbridge and Airdrie 12:00 am, 18th February 1963

I was interested in the Minister's attitude towards the nature of the increase. He knows that we all welcome an increase, no matter how small. It is more than welcome in the homes of many old folk at the present time. My anxiety was to try to point out to the Minister how inadequate it is. After listening to speeches like that of the noble Lord the Member far Hertford (Lord Balniel), in which we were treated to an exercise in mental gymnastics in making comparisons between sets of pensions and between the 1940s and the 1960s without mentioning the hole in the and the fall in its value, I can only say that we are liable to be misled in dealing with the situation.

The people with whom we are concerned do not live on statistics nor on comparisons between the 1940s and the 1960s. They live on food, shelter and clothing. The question posed to hon. Members is whether we honestly believe that the Minister's suggestions are adequate to meet the present day needs of old folk. I have interviewed them and their organisations, and I have not met a single retirement pensioner or an organisation or any of the associations but protests about the inadequacy of this increase. I decided during the weekend to visit some of the old folk and I made the following note of the weekly budget of an old lady of 73 years of age, living in Scotland.

The weekly charge for each item was as follows.: 7s. for gas; 7s. for electricity, which is quite modest; 1s. for insurance; two bags of coal at £1 0s. 8d.; one dozen briquettes, 2s. 8d.; one packet of fire-lighters, 1s. 5d.; one gallon of oil, 2s. 4d.; ½1b. of tea. 3s. 10d.; 1 1b. of butter, 3s. 7d.; half-a-dozen eggs, 2s. 6d.; two loaves, 2s. 3d.; ½ 1b. dripping, 1 1d.; ½ 1b. ham, 2s. 6d.; milk for the week, 6s.; two packets of tea biscuits, 2s.; matches 4d.; milk puddings, 1s. 6d.; butcher's meat, 5s. This makes a total for that weekly budget of £3 12s. 6d., and it ignores soap, powders, fruit, potatoes, vegetables, clothes, shoes and all the other incidentals. I have also not mentioned the mutuality clubs to which payment is made for some of the household effects which are essential at that time of life.

The ladies whom I interviewed do not smoke or drink and had not been to the cinema for over twenty-five years. They do not even buy or read the papers. They sit and knit for most of their time as pensioners. I am talking of pensioners who are excellent managers in their homes and not of people who are inclined to be wasteful. They are elderly people who are extremely frugal in every aspect of expenditure.

When we examine the increase suggested by the Minister we should relate it to the actual living costs of old folk and we should not trouble them with a bundle of wearisome statistics. This increase is inadequate to meet the needs. We have said that we welcome it, because it is better than the present rate, but the Minister should not indulge in smug complacency and tell us that all in the garden is well and that the old folk have something to look forward to for the rest of the year. They are sot even to receive the increase until the end of May and, as I have said before, by that time we shall discover that thousands of them will have died and will not have received one half-penny of the proposed 6s. What is most humiliating is to give them an increase with one hand and take it back off them with the other. Such will be the fate of probably 1¾ million old-age pensioners. This sort of treatment is humiliating and nauseating to most public representatives.

It is fair to say that since the 1940s there have been very few occasions when the increases in National Assistance did not correspond to the increases in retirement pensions. In the majority of cases the pension increase and the National Assistance increase equated each other. The Minister should realise that this request is not impossible; it is quite feasible. It has been practical for many years, and there is no reason why that practice should not be continued. As I tried to point out, the pensioners with whom we are concerned are the poorest people of all in our society. To deny them the additional 4s. is a very niggardly act indeed.

I hope that the Minister will pay attention to this matter. He should realise that we are dealing with one of the most challenging and serious problems of all time, the problem of the old folk. I am sorry, but I cannot agree with him—I should like to do so—that the discretionary payments in respect of coal are going as well as he maintains. I have had a long association with the Assistance Board, and I know that this is something which has always been fobbed off. I am willing to accept the right hon. Gentleman's statement that in some cases a 5s. allowance has been made, but I come from a place where the cost of a bag of coal is 10s. 4d., not 5s. Therefore, he is still not meeting the need of old people for fuel by his discretionary payments when they are being made.

It is upsetting, to say the least, to find that local people who are interested in the old folk are promoting dances in their towns to which the admission is not money, but a bag of coal. When the bag of coal is deposited, it is taken to an old pensioner in desperate straits. That is what is happening in my part of Lanarkshire. If the old folk were aware of the generosity of the Assistance Board in helping them over the fuel crisis, there would be little necessity for this sort of thing.

Because of the weather that we have had, the problem of the old folk is more acute than ever. I have never met so many people who are really and truly touched by the present plight of the old people. Only yesterday collections were taken outside the churches to try to raise money to help the old people in their plight at this time of the year. This is unusual. I have never known it to happen before. It is indicative of the fact that people are alarmed at the plight of the old. There is no doubt that the weather has spotlighted it. Far too many people have up to now been indifferent about the problems confronting the old, but the elements are compelling them to sit up and realise that this is a very serious and vexing problem.

Many old people do not have a fire in the hearth. They are doing without a meal. They are living at starvation level. How the Minister expects to overcome this serious state of affairs by offering them another 6s. a week or less is beyond my comprehension. He must realise that this increase is totally inadequate. He should make up his mind to come back here very shortly and propose an additional increase of 4s. to ensure that National Assistance recipients will receive the same increase as other pensioners. They are pensioners and have to pay the same price for food and other commodities which pensioners who receive the 10s. weekly increase. So long as the pension and supplement are synonymous, it is in the interest of the Minister to ensure that increases, when granted, should correspond in both respects.

I should be the last to detract from the difficulties of the Assistance Board. I know that its officers do a wonderful job in my constituency and in other parts of Lanarkshire but we have black sheep among its officers. We have them everywhere. It appears to me that as a result of some of their human weaknesses interviews can result in some old people being treated better than others, although such could be exceptional.

I see no real difficulty—I say this in all sincerity to the Minister—in granting an allowance for coal during the winter to old people in receipt of National Assistance. Where there is a will there is a way. We could overcome many difficulties by deciding that the plight of the old people shall be the primary consideration and not the administrative difficulties which might arise. In dealing with the problem of exceptional needs, I should like to see something more than the bald statement which appears in the appropriate form under the heading "Treatment of other income."

I should like the Minister to consider the possibility of giving an annual grant to old-age pensioner recipients for exceptional needs. I should like him to make it abundantly clear that the receipt of the extra nourishment allowance does not prejudice entitlement to a fuel allowance. The National Assistance provisions are so complicated and generalised that sometimes people in receipt of the extra nourishment allowance are ineligible for receipt of exceptional need grants for other purposes. I should be very pleased if the Minister would clarify the situation and state whether the extra nourishment allowance having been granted prejudices the right of a person to receiving a fuel allowance or some other allowance which the Assistance Board's officer is convinced is necessary.

In my own home town we have had to run cinema shows for years to raise money to provide old pensioners with a bag of coal at Christmas. I have done it for twelve years myself. I did not realise that the Assistance Board was willing to come to the aid of old people and give them a coal allowance. I have discovered that I have been subsiding the Board with my efforts for about twelve years. This scheme is not widely known, nor is it generally publicised. I could give the Board names of very dignified pensioners who have never been visited with a view to ascertaining whether they required fuel. There is need for clarification here.

As I say, the shocking weather has spotlighted the coal shortage facing old pensioners. I am sure that the House would be glad of some distinct statement of policy about what the Assistance Board's attitude is to the question of making a fuel allowance. It should be made clear whether a person is eligible to be considered for a fuel allowance, if he is in receipt of the extra nourishment grant. I cannot emphasise too often the importance of this matter, because it raises a vexed question in the management of the Board's services in most parts of the country.

Having said that, I wish to ask the Minister to consider a category of beneficiaries who are in receipt of National Assistance. I am talking for the moment only of pensioners. I know that there are people who are unemployed, but we hope that their problem is merely temporary and that they will soon be restored to employment. I am talking of the old souls who will never work again, the poorer section of the community, who are in receipt of supplementary payments. Is there no hope that at some time in the future these people will get an additional weekly allowance of some kind to enable them to overcome their difficulties during the winter?

That kind of assistance has been given before. It used to be given by the local authorities. Prior to National Assistance, it was their practice to supplement the payments given by the former social welfare committees. Would it not be a Christian act, at least, to give to these old men and women during the winter period, the most trying time of all, an extra allowance or ex gratia payment to help them to provide the necessities of life?

When dealing with human beings, we must treat them in the most sympathetic way imaginable. My view is that, in tackling this problem, we should be willing to do so even at the expense of other sections of the community. One has only to knock at door after door to discover the unbelievable conditions in which old folk live. I have been to homes where there has not been a fire for a week. This is a shocking way to treat our old folks, and a poor reward for their past services to the country.

Good Samaritans in the community have asked me whether it is not possible for pensioners to be housed next door to them, so that they can give the old folks a share of their coal. The old folks are depending upon and appealing for charity after a lifetime of work and service to the nation. It should not be charity. It should be their right and their just entitlement to have an adequate allowance upon which to live and with which to purchase the necessities of life, especially during a bad winter such as we have been having.

I should like to know from the Minister whether the long-term sick beneficiary is exempt from the principle of the wage-stop. Because of the unemployment situation in my part of the country, it is extraordinarily difficult for those recovering from tuberculosis, for example, to find employment. Most of us realise, of course, that they receive a special type of payment because they are recovering from a long-term illness. I should like the Minister to explain whether that type of payment is exempt from the wage-stop.

This is another bone of contention. I understand that people are exempted from it in some places, but I should like the Minister to clarify whether these folks, when recovering from such an illness and unable to find employment because of the heavy demand for the few jobs available in the locality, are exempted from the restrictive influences of the wages stop principle.

Like other hon. Members, I am concerned that the increase is not to be paid until May. Now is the time when the old folks need it, when they require additional commodities and services and a warmer standard of life, and yet this is the time when they are denied it. On future occasions, I should like the Minister to consider telescoping the waiting period into a much shorter interval, so that these old people can enjoy the increase that much the sooner. Even though it might be inadequate, it is nevertheless better than nothing at all. Six shillings would mean a lot to them, but 10s. would be much more welcome.

There is one other point which should be considered in connection with the assessing of the living costs of old people. Far too much emphasis is placed upon a cost of living which includes, for example, reductions in the prices of motor cars. The old folk do not benefit from this. My view is that in considering pensions and National Insurance, if it is intended to have some regard to the cost of living, attention should be paid to the commodities which this section of the community is likely to use and on which these people are likely to spend their pensions and supplementary payments.

Old-age pensioners are inclined to feel that these are matters which should be given every consideration. I hope that when the Minister comes back to the House in the very near future he will say that these items, among others, have been given consideration, that we will have a clarified policy and that a system will be operated which assures the elderly section of the community of decent living standards in the twilight of their life.