Does not the existence of 89,000 persons in receipt of National Assistance in one county alone indicate that because the pension is inadequate the majority of old-age pensioners are compelled to apply for National Assistance? How does the Ministry justify that situation? Why cannot the hon. Lady give me the figures of the average amounts paid? Surely that information must be in the possession of the Department?
If I may take the last point first, information about the average amounts paid comes from a sample inquiry. That sample is accurate for large areas but not for areas as small as Durham. The average amount of payment for the Northern Region as a whole is 38s. 9d. The Northern Region includes Northumberland, Durham, the North Riding of Yorkshire, Cumberland and Westmorland.
As to the earlier part of the supplementary question, had the Government followed the principle of not putting up National Assistance benefits when they put up retirement pensions, there would be fewer people on National Assistance than there are now. The Government took the view that it was more important to give those in need a share in the rising standard of living.
Does not the sum of 38s. 9d. which the hon. Lady has furnished, being the average for the Northern region, indicate that the pension itself is wholly inadequate? That is the point that I wish to impress upon her. Would she agree that the pension is inadequate and that, therefore, probably a majority of old-age pensioners are forced to apply for National Assistance?
I would not necessarily agree with the right hon. Gentleman. As he knows, the 6 million people drawing retirement pension cover many ranges of income groups. The pension rates were put up by about 17 per cent. in May, 1963.
Is it not a strange situation that in five months of the year nearly 40,000 people have had to apply for National Assistance? Does this indicate the prosperity which the Government have been bragging about in the North-East?
The Government are quite right to provide a Department charged with the duty of getting help to those in need. I do not find anything strange in the fact that people in need should go to the Department whose duty it is to do that job.
That is not the point that my right hon. Friend was making; of course, the National Assistance Board helps people in need. Does the Answer not show, however, that in the northeast of England there is a far greater proportion than in many other parts of the country of people who are in such great need that they have to apply to the National Assistance Board? Does not this also show, as my right hon. Friend has suggested, that the affluent society has certainly not touched the North-East?
The rates have been increased eight times and the rate for a single householder is now 111 per cent. higher than at October 1951. Over the same period, the Index of Retail Prices shows an increase of 50 per cent. Changes in the treatment of resources have also been made, the disregards being increased by some 50 per cent.
While thanking my hon. Friend for that enlightening Answer, may I ask whether he does not agree that this shows that a Conservative Administration gives top priority to looking after those who are less well off? As there sometimes appears to be misunderstanding about who can apply for National Assistance, can my hon. Friend make a statement on what the disregards are?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that if the Government had not increased assistance rates as often as they have there would be far fewer people on National Assistance. Also, if they had not increased the disregards as they have there would be fewer people on National Assistance. The capital disregards, broadly speaking, are these. An owner-occupied house is disregarded entirely; war savings up to £75 each for husband and wife are disregarded completely; other savings up to £600 do not disqualify a person from receiving assistance. On the income side, the disregards are: 30s. and half the next 20s. of earnings; 30s. war disability pensions; 15s. superannuation; and 15s. charitable payments.
Without wishing unduly to interrupt the orgy of self-congratulation which is going on, may I ask whether the Government do not think that it is high time some inquiry were made into the effect of changes of prices on the type of people, the groups of people, who are affected over National Assistance and so on, instead of relying on a general retail index of prices which may not have by any means the same effect?
As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, there is a number of inquiries made, particularly through the National Food Survey and the Household Expenditure Survey. I deliberately did not confine my Answer to the Index of Retail Prices, giving other comparisons by which to measure the increase in National Assistance rates. One can compare it with the increase in average earnings. The increase in scale rates then compares with an increase in average earnings of 102 per cent., the increase in scale rates being 111 per cent.