With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to give the House an outline of the Government's proposals for a scheme to replace National Assistance.
A Ministry of Social Security will be established bringing together the existing Departments of the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance and the National Assistance Board. This will get rid of the sharp distinction between benefits related to contributions and non-contributory benefits.
A new scheme of non-contributory benefits will replace National Assistance. Provision will be made for rent and additional payments to meet special individual needs; but the aim will be to make this part of the scheme more readily understandable than the present discretionary additions. A form of guaranteed income will be provided for the old and others with long-term need such as the chronic sick.
Rules for the treatment of resources will be simplified and rationalised. There will be a small "disregard" of all income except National Insurance pensions and benefits, family allowances and maintenance payments. The amount of savings of any kind to be totally disregarded will be increased, so that modest savings will be ignored—no matter how they are invested. A new system will be adopted for capital above this level which will get rid of the rigid limit of £600 which at present by itself disqualifies the holder entirely from benefit.
The procedure for claiming the new benefit will be made more flexible for retired people. They will have a choice of making a written declaration of their circumstances or of being visited at home. The assessment based on the written declaration will need to be confirmed by an interview, but if desired this could take place at the local office.
There will be less routine visiting; but visiting officers will have more time to ensure that any welfare needs are indentified and brought to the notice of the appropriate service.
When an elderly person receiving the new benefit also has a National Insurance pension the two will be paid together on a single order book. Those who are not receiving retirement pension will receive payment on an order book of similar appearance to the retirement pension order book.
The new Ministry will send details of the new benefit to everyone claiming a National Insurance retirement pension. Personal contact will be made with anyone, who, on retirement, does not claim the new benefit, unless he indicates that he does not want it and the same will be done on widowhood. As the scheme develops we shall arrange to contact pensioners after they have been retired for some years.
Financial help is not the only kind of help that old people fail to seek. A wide range of services to meet health and welfare needs is provided by local authorities, but too often they are not known by old people or the effort to make the necessary contact is beyond them. The arrangements I have described will help to overcome these difficulties.
To preserve responsiveness to human needs there will be within the Ministry of Social Security a commission of persons chosen for their interest in, and knowledge of, social problems, in whom will be vested the responsibility, under broad regulations made by the Minister, for guiding the new scheme and for individual awards.
These changes will preserve what is good in the present scheme while getting rid of those features which create dislike or misconception. Everybody recognises the humanity and efficiency with which the National Assistance scheme is administered and the Government are confident that these qualities will be carried over into the new organisation. But the new Commission and the staff concerned will be enabled to do an even better job. The Government believe that the changes will ensure that the elderly will have no hesitation in claiming a benefit, given with dignity, to which they are entitled and which the nation wishes them to have.
Is the Minister aware that we on this side of the House welcome the Government's adoption of nearly every one of our own published proposals? We should like to join the right hon. Lady in her tribute to the humanity and efficiency of the National Assistance Board. But, at the same time, we welcome the more positive arrangements that she has announced.
There are a number of questions which we should like to ask on her important statement. While welcoming very much the raising of disregards, can she tell us what level she has in mind and what extra costs will be involved? I hope that the right hon. Lady will take a few notes of the questions, because I have quite a number on her long statement.
While welcoming the increased help for the chronic sick and others with long-term needs, will she tell us whether that will include the severely disabled, including those severely disabled who have not themselves individually been paying contributions under the social security scheme? Will she confirm that the extra help by what she calls "a form of guaranteed income" will involve what would be called, if it were proposed from this side, a test of means?
Will she confirm that the Assistance scales and benefits will be the same as now? Will she tell us what cost is involved in all these proposals, bearing in mind that her right hon. Friend the First Secretary of State's National Plan provided for £387 million extra for social security over six years, of which about £70 million has already been used?
Will the right hon. Lady confirm whether supplementary benefits will now be the subject of Parliamentary Questions to her? Will she acknowledge that her statement is a very far cry from the unqualified pledge of a minimum income guarantee which the Government promised? That would have involved a complete dependence on a negative tax return, which is only dragged into an overall traditional scheme as a minor option in what she proposes?
Finally, has she anything to tell the House about help for the children in low income families, as proposed by the Family Poverty Group?
I will take the first point made by the right hon. Gentleman. What a pity that, after the 1955 General Election, his Government did not introduce such a scheme, since, in the Labour Party manifesto in 1955, we had said that we would set up a Ministry of Social Security. Eleven years have passed since then, and nothing has been done.
I turn now to another point made by the right hon. Gentleman, about a test of means. We never hid that the income guarantee would be based on means. This scheme will also be based on means. We have never tried to hide that.
I have been asked whether the Assistance scales and benefits would be the same as they are now. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman and the whole House to await the legislation which will be brought forward. He has asked about the cost, and again I would ask him to await the legislation.
The point that interests the right hon. Gentleman most is clear from his reference to the National Plan. I can assure him that the cost for this is contained in the provision made to my Department. [HON. MEMBERS: "What is it?"] I would ask hon. Members to exercise a little patience. I have no doubt that when the scheme goes out, in view of the record of my Department in the last 16 months, the people will support it.
I turn now to the question of the chronic sick. In my statement I said that this form of guaranteed income will apply to the elderly and to other people such as the chronic sick. Those are the people who at present have been on the books of the National Assistance Board for a long time; in other words, people like the elderly who have nothing to look forward to but their sickness benefit and whatever help the National Assistance Board gives. Those are the people who will be covered by this form of guaranteed income.
I think that I have done my best to reply to all the right hon. Gentleman's points.
While congratulating the right hon. Lady on the timing of her proposals and also upon having the courage to stand at the Dispatch Box and say that she is advocating a means test, does she not think it slightly indecent that her proposals and those of her colleagues should have been introduced at this time at the expense of Her Majesty's Stationery Office, instead of at her party's expense?
I would say quite clearly—and this is important—that these are proposals on which my Department has been working for a considerable time. Whether we had been on the eve of an election or not, they would have been announced.
While regretting that hon. Members opposite will have to cut down the number of their election pledges from 131 to 130½, would my right hon. Friend tell the House whether she anticipates that the number of home private visits to be made will be reduced and, if so, why?
As I said in my statement, the number of routine visits will be cut down. This form of guaranteed income will give more security and stability to old people, and the routine visits every three or six months to find whether an old person should have an increase of 1s. or a cut of 1s. will disappear. It means that the visits that take place will be of much greater value in finding out the welfare needs of the old people which so desperately require to be attended to at present.
Is the right hon. Lady aware that if, as she says, she and her Department have been working on these proposals for many months, it is entirely incomprehensible to the House that she should not be able to state one single figure for the cost of them? It undermines completely the integrity of her performance, and demonstrates not only to the House but to the country that this is the last of a whole series of statements produced—
Is the right hon. Lady aware that her statement, the last of the many by the present Government, demonstrates that it is only itself put forward for the purpose of the election and earns the contempt of us all?
I know that the right hon. Gentleman is very annoyed. I would be willing to compare my integrity with his. I have already dealt with the point about costs, which was raised by the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph). We have made it perfectly clear—the Chancellor of the Exchequer has done so time and again, and it has been made clear in the National Plan—that each spending Department has been allocated a certain figure. [HON. MEMBERS: "What is the cost?"] All that hon. Gentlemen opposite need do is to look at the National Plan. It is not my job to do that for them. The cost of these proposals will be held within the allocation which has been made to my Department.
Does my right hon. Friend realise that it is much more contemptible to display lavish promises before the electors after 13 years of neglect than to present constructive proposals after 15 months in office?
Is the right hon. Lady aware that the proportion of the gross national product allocated under the National Plan five years hence to health and welfare is less than it is today? Does her statement mean that a higher proportion of the gross national product is to be devoted to pensions and social security? If so, can she give the figures? If she cannot, why not?
The whole cost of this scheme is not charged against the sum which has been allocated to the Ministry of Health, but to the Department for which I am responsible at present.
Will my right hon. Friend say whether there is any intention to abolish the wage-stop, bearing in mind the difficulties which families on low incomes, and especially their children, have been suffering in the past under our previous system of National Insurance benefits?
The scheme which I have described does not deal to any extent with the problem of the wage-stop. This is a matter which will have to be dealt with in some other way, not under this scheme.
As the Government seem bent on rushing out a succession of pre-election statements adopting Conservative policies, may we shortly expect a statement announcing that talks have started with Mr. Smith?
I think that perhaps the best thing that I can do is to educate right hon. Gentlemen opposite by letting them see this pamphlet, which was published many years ago.