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Once again the hon. Lady for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) has deployed her case with her usual sincerity and compassion in arguing for the deletion of a provision with which she disagrees. This proposal in paragraph 2 of the Schedule, for a lower limit of payment, and for rounding off the benefit payable, is not new. Provisions for a lower limit of payment and for rounding the benefit payable are in the National Assistance Scheme, the lower limit being Is. weekly and the allowance being rounded to the nearest 6d. These National Assistance rules, which were taken over unchanged from the Unemployment Assistance Scheme of 1934, have remained unchanged since 1948. Therefore, the proposal in the Bill to increase these sums to 2s. and 1s. respectively are, in the Government's view, no more than some recognition of the change in values.
The effect of abolishing the two rules would be nonsensical. As to the lower, limit despite what the hon. Lady has said, some older people feel insulted if they are told by the Board that they are entitled to receive only 1s. per week. There was general agreement when my right hon. Friend made this point on Second Reading. Older people would be much more upset if told that they were entitled to, say, 2d. a week, but this would be the effect of the Amendment in borderline cases. It is a matter of judgment as to where the line should be drawn. The figure should not be too high. We would accept that. But 2s. a week is certainly not excessive in the Government's view when we consider a basic rate for a householder of over £4 a week.
With regard to the abolition of the second rule—the rounding rule—benefit ending in odd pence would be payable here. At the moment this would only be the case in theory. In practice it could not be paid to the last penny because a rounding rule having existed for so long, the Department is not equipped with machines to produce order books for amounts ranging in all the penny stages from one penny to eleven pence. It may be that given time, when perhaps we have a fully computerised system operating in the Department, these difficulties of the odd pence could be overcome, but I cannot conceive, nor can the Government, that anyone really wants the new scheme to be run on the basis of calculating to the last penny pensions with such rates as 18s. 1d., or 19s. 7d. I am sure that pensioners themselves would find such a system thoroughly irksome. The basic approach in this Bill, as has been said, on more than one occasion, is that non-contributory benefit should be less, not more, finely adjusted than National Assistance.
The Committee may like to know—for I am sure these are the people whom he hon. Lady is concerned about more than anyone else—how many people are at present getting assistance of less than 2s. a week. At the end of 1965 there were about 4,500 people receiving 1s. a week and 8,800 people receiving 1s. 6d. or 2s. a week. However, it must be borne in mind that as a consequence of this Bill nearly all of these people will be entitled to considerably more by way of supplementary pension or allowances because of the higher rates which we are proposing. The householder who now gets Is. a week will normally become entitled to at least 6s. a week because of the 5s. increase in the basic rate.
In any event—and here I am afraid we are once again indulging in repetition, for we have said it so many times that I nave become weary of it—nobody will lose as a result of the change. A person already receiving assistance of 1s. 6d. and who for some reason or other does not become entitled to 2s. a week under the new scheme will have his or her position preserved by the transitional provisions of Schedule 7. The principle of minimum payment and rounding rules is a common sense one and, indeed, it is well established. All we are doing in this Bill is to bring the amounts up to date and we clearly must have some provisions embodied in the Bill.
Having said that, and while, for these reasons, we cannot accept the Amendment, there is a related point upon which the hon. Lady did not touch. It is whether this rule as it stands is appropriate to the circumstances where the payment of noncontributory benefit is combined with some other payment for which the Minister is responsible. Nobody wants awards of trifling sums to be made as separate amounts on a separate order; but when one comes to combined payments it may be better, in the Government's view, to apply the rules in paragraph 2 to the combined payment rather than to the non-contributory benefit alone.
Hon. Members may know that it is already the practice to make a combined payment of unemployment benefit and National Assistance. As the White Paper indicates, it is the Government's intention to introduce combined payments of retirement pension and supplementary pension on a single order book as soon as we can.
Therefore, we are now considering whether the present provision deals adequately with this situation. If we find that it does not, it may be necessary for us to put down an Amendment, perhaps in another place, but we cannot in any circumstances accept the hon. Lady's Amendment. If, in the light of what I have said about further consideration being given to at least one aspect of the Amendment, the hon. Lady is prepared to withdraw the Amendment, fair enough; but if not, I must ask the Committee to reject the Amendment.