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I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your courtesy in allowing me to raise this matter on the Adjournment, and I thank you also for rearranging the time allocated so that my debate will not be prejudiced. It is my duty in these circumstances to be as brief as I can, and I propose, therefore, not to elaborate certain matters which I have in mind. It is my duty, also, not to refer to legislation but to outline only in a factual sense the effect of Acts of Parliament upon war disability pensioners, and this I shall do.
What are the main problems confronting war disability pensioners? First, there is the question of the value of pensions. The improvement in war disability pensions in March, 1965, when the basic rate of compensation was raised to 135s. a week, brought the purchasing value of the pension to slightly more than the old 40s. a week pension of 1938. That increase in March, 1965, in the basic payment, therefore, which brought the value of the pension to only slightly above the rate in 1938, illustrates that for these pensioners, and probably for all pensioners, inflation knows no frontiers, and these pensioners, the most deserving in the population, suffer just as much in terms of income or compensation as anyone else.
In March, 1965, when 135s. a week became the operative basic rate, the Index of Retail Prices stood at 109·9, but in August, 1966, the index had risen to 117·3. In other words, since March, 1965, the purchasing power has dropped to 126s. 8d. Therefore, even at the present quite generous basic rate of 135s., the pensioner is slightly worse off in terms of purchasing power than he was in 1938 at the 40s. level.
There are, surprisingly, no fewer than 448,000 war disability pensioners, and there are 13,700 whose income is limited to war pension and allowances. These 13,000 severely disabled consist of about 5,000 survivors from the First World War and 7,000 from the Second World War. I beg the Government to realise, in their future consideration of this matter, that it is this section of the disabled, the severely disabled numbering 13,700, who are entitled to first priority in any easements which the Government, in due time, I hope, will be able to make in regard to pensions.
I turn now to another subject, artificial limbs and appliances. It is very sad that, although Great Britain used to be far ahead in the design and fitting of artificial limbs, we have now lost our place in the world in this work. I was distressed two or three years ago when a delegation of British limbless ex-Service men went to the Scandinavian countries and Germany and found that their British limbs were considered by the Scandinavians and the Germans to be inferior to what they themselves possessed. But there is a possibility that, even if we cannot achieve our old position, we can catch up again by the creation of the bio-mechanical research department at Roehampton which, I understand, the Minister of Health is to open in the new year.
I hope that there will be research not only into improving many of our fittings and appliances but into ways to cure the present delays in limb fitting at Roehampton. I need not remind the House of a most distressing strike which took place a few weeks ago among the limb fitters at Roehampton. It was most unfortunate. A special appeal about it was made on television programmes. While I sympathise with the members of the organisation for whom I am privileged to speak, the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association, I am sympathetic also to the views expressed by the limb fitters who were on strike. I feel that there is a way by which the problems created in distressing circumstances like that can be cured. I realise that on this theme there are differences between the parties, but this is my proposal. I should like to see limb fitting centres set up under the regional hospital boards in our orthopaedic hospitals and the limb fitters at Roehampton brought under the umbrella of the Ministry of Health, being treated as fully qualified technicians on level terms with other technical grades in the National Health Service.
In those circumstances, the Ministry of Health would not only be responsible for supplying the limbs but would become responsible for the technicians and the fitting of those limbs. I know that different views have been expressed from both sides of the House as to just how far the great National Health Service umbrella should be extended. But I am anxious never to see again a limb fitting strike such as that which took place at Roehampton and caused so much distress among the members of the organisation for whom I speak.
I now turn to a third subject, the provision of mini-cars for the disabled. No doubt hon. Members saw the headline and article in the Evening Standard last night concerning invalid drivers and the great row blowing up in Sussex about tricycles and wheeled vehicles. It is necessary to send to a special depôt in Lancashire for fittings, and there is delay. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Social Security knows all about that problem. I do not want to elaborate on it, but to take this opportunity to thank the Ministry of Health for supplying no fewer than 5,000 mini-cars to disabled ex-Service men.
That is a great triumph. How superb that small car is. I hoped for years that the motor manufacturers would design a vehicle which would be perfect for the limbless man, and suddenly they produced for the public at large a car that is not only popular with everybody but is extremely suitable for the limbless ex-Service man. There is still a large demand. I know that the hon. Gentleman will also be speaking for the Ministry of Health, which controls these matters, and I know that the sum involved is enormous. This subject has been mentioned at Question Time.
If any Government had to meet the entire requirement it would cost them about £40 million. However, we are grateful to the Government for their cooperation so far not only in regard to the provision of mini-cars for disabled drivers but for their most helpful cooperation in dealing with individual cases. I know that the hon. Gentleman is extremely well-informed on this subject and is most sympathetic to our claims. I hope that, as 1967 progresses, we shall perhaps have another small helping. I may not be able to ask for 500, but how about a suitable supply to take the 5,000 just a little higher in the coming year?
I now turn to the main point, which is the matter which creates the most burning anger among the disabled. That is the rate rebate scheme. The impact of the scheme is well known to all hon. Members. I and the hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. L. M. Lever) recently circulated the necessary documents to all hon. Members. I am angry with the Government because, under the scheme, for the first time since 1919 the war disability pension has been treated as income and not as a compensation.
It is an award earned in the field by a man who has been gravely injured. We have never interfered with his right to have that as compensation and not considered as income. It is not for me to elaborate on the scheme, based on the Allen Report, whereby 75 per cent. of the ratepayers subsidise the other 25 per cent. But it compelled the Government to make two levels, and for a married couple the ceiling for rate rebate was set at £10 a week.
The result is that if two married couples living next door to each other both enjoy the National Insurance pension of £6 10s. a week, but one man has a disability compensation payment of £4 9s., that couple are taken over the ceiling of £10. They therefore cannot receive the rebate, and that means that the war disability pensioner is put in the position of subsidising his next door neighbour.
I would much rather see the rebate provided from central funds and not brought down to the homes in this way. There is nothing more disastrous than making people quarrel, as happens at present, about rate rebate. In the debates on this matter at the end of the last Parliament the Government did not modify their view about war disability pensions, and we shall cover that ground again. I still look upon such pensions as an award and compensation and I resent the Treasury's treating them as part of income for the first time in our history. Not even in the great financial crisis of 1931 did we invade the compensation sum paid to war pensioners.
Mr. Speaker, you know my position in the House. I belong to a very small number of hon. Members who served in the battles of the Somme. I also belong to another small surviving number of hon. Members who left the House on 3rd September, 1939, to rejoin the Armed Forces. That I survived both conflicts without a scratch is, perhaps, the greatest blessing I enjoy in life. I never go to that great gathering, the annual conference of the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association, without thanking the Creator, when I see that great roomful of men shattered by war, that I should have been allowed to go through the hazards of both wars without a scratch. I cannot recall suffering even one day's sickness in all my service as a professional soldier.
In taking over your great office, Mr. Speaker, you ended your speech of dedication by paying tribute to those who gave their lives in two world wars, and to those who are still with us, the members of the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association. I hope that the time will come when the House will take steps to bring to an end the circumstances in which limbless ex-Servicemen have their right in compensation described as an income.
I express to you, Mr. Speaker, our appreciation for extending the time available for discussing the problems of the war disabled. I am pleased that we are being allowed a little social injury time so that we may extend our debate.
I support the plea of the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Sir R. Cary) on the subjects which he raised which are of very great consequence for the limbless ex-Service men. I should like particularly to draw attention to the way in which the war disability pension is affected under the rate rebate scheme. This is a matter which gives great concern and a feeling of injustice to limbless ex-Service men vis-à-vis other people who are receiving social benefits.
There seems to be a misconception in the House as to what is a war disability pension and whether, even with the merger of the Ministry of Pensions and the Ministry of National Insurance, it should be treated in a similar way to other pensions. The question of war disability pensions is separate. A war disability pension is compensation for loss of faculty. Parliament, in its wisdom, decided that such a pension should be free from the taxation which is involved in other social service benefits. That is sacrosanct. That same freedom from taxation should be applied to the rebate scheme in calculating the income of a disabled ex-Service man.
It is true that Parliament decided that matter in the last Parliament, but under our constitution what one Parliament has done another Parliament can undo. That is fundamental under the constitutional law of this country. The decision that a war disability pension should be treated as income under the rate rebate scheme was a very serious mistake. We should like Parliament—and it would be a sign of its greatness if it did this—to admit that it made a mistake and to exclude the war disability pension for income purposes. This should be corrected as soon as possible so that the anxiety of disabled ex-Service men and their relations is removed.
It was to that end that we tabled a Motion. It was an all-party Motion. This was not a party question. It is not submitted by the hon. Member for Withington or myself as a party question. This country has a very fine record in improving pensions, whether by a Government of one party or another. Since 1950, I have had the privilege of being Honorary Secretary of the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association all-party committee in the House. I pay tribute to Members on both sides of the House, since the improvements made in the position of disabled ex-Service men have been considerable. We should not spoil a good record of achievement on behalf of the disabled ex-Service men by including their income from disability pension for taxation purposes under the rate rebate scheme. This is the fly in the ointment.
The hon. Member for Withington cited a very important case in which two people were each receiving £6 10s., one person from a disability pension and one person from a social service benefit. One is entitled to a rate rebate where the disability pensioner is at a great disadvantage. This is a clear anomaly and it is Parliament's duty to look at it as soon as possible.
I have been in comunication with each of the last two Ministers of Housing and Local Government. My right hon. Friend who is now Leader of the House wrote a letter to me dated 17th March, 1966, in which he said:
Thank you for your note enclosing this copy of a letter from the General Secretary of
the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association about the Rating Act. I am sorry not to have replied before.
We had a good look at pleas for disregards for such things as disability pensions in the final stages of Standing Committee on February 10th and 15th, as you will see if you look at the HANSARDS for Standing Committee D, discussion of new Clauses from column 268 onwards. The House of Commons took a further look at the justification for various disregards at Report Stage on February 24th, but no changes in the Bill were made. Much as we sympathise with the feeling that disability pensions should be left out of income for the rebate schemes, we have not been persuaded"—
and the object of our raising this matter is to persuade the Minister that it would be proper to disregard the war disability pension under the rate rebate scheme—
that it would be proper to have any disregards for this particular purpose. It seems to me that the fact that Income Tax is not payable on these pensions is in itself no precedent for leaving them out of income for rebate purposes. The problem is that if one starts having disregards, it is difficult to know where to stop—though we do understand the reasons which prompt people to suggest refinement of this sort.
The present Minister of Housing and Local Government said this in his letter to me:
I have looked most carefully into the background of the debates in Standing Committee and at Report on the Rating Bill earlier this year and I have concluded that the Government line was reasonable and justifiable. Both Dick Crossman and I have had many letters on this matter, particularly from branches of the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association, and have made it clear in our replies that we regard the issue as having been settled by the last Parliament.
I have already pointed out that what one Parliament has done another Parliament can undo.
The rebate scheme is a tax reform with a limited objective—to reduce the proportion of lower incomes taken by rates, in order to lessen the regressive nature of rates and improve them as a tax.
Neither letter, while couched in sympathetic terms, deals with the fundamental principle that a disability pension is in a category of its own, whereas benefit under a social service scheme is entirely different.
I support what the hon. Member for Withington said on the other matters which he raised. I emphasise that the treatment of disabled ex-Service men under the rate rebate scheme is not just and that 244 Members have to date signed our Motion No. 163 agreeing with us. I hope, accordingly, that the Government, realising the urgency of the matter, will think again and will relieve the limbless ex-Service men from the additional disability from which they are suffering under the rate rebate scheme. I am sure that all sections of the country and the House, if they were asked their frank opinion, would support us and regard it as a duty to help or relieve disabled ex-Service men in this way. I am sure that this great country is not so broke—not that it is broke at all; we have many great assets—that it cannot afford to allow disabled ex-Service men to benefit from the rate rebate scheme and thus enable them to live happier lives.
We on this side of the House are grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Sir R. Cary) for raising this subject today. The whole House is aware of my hon. Friend's longstanding interest and his expertise in matters relating to the war disabled. His hon. Friends on this side support fully the Motion on the disabled, which is also supported by a number of hon. Members on the benches opposite.
Until the election of a Labour Government in 1964, it was always the policy of successive Governments that disability suffered by war pensioners as a result of service in the Forces merited special generosity. The reason is quite simple. The war disabled were our comrades who fought to preserve the sort of society we were all trying to build. In fighting, they sacrified their opportunity to live a full life in the years that followed—I would not like to live in an occupied country—and for the rest of their lives they are paying the price for my freedom. That is how I see it. They have certainly earned their place in the hearts of the British people, but not, it appears, in the hearts of the present Labour Government.
Successive British Governments prior to 1964 have all taken the view that the war disabled merited special treatment in matters of finance. Consequently, war pensions and allowances paid to war pensioners, but not to their dependants, have been disregarded for Income Tax assessment. In the same way, a major part of war pensions and allowances has been disregarded for purposes of assessing National Assistance need.
Early this year, as has been said so eloquently both by my hon. Friend and by the hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. L. M. Lever), the Rating Act brought a marked change of attitude to these men by denying them any special consideration under the rate rebate scheme. The Opposition made the strongest possible protests about this when the Bill was passing through its various stages. The issue was debated both in Standing Committee on 10th and 15th February and again on Report on 24th February, when a new Clause was moved by the Opposition. The then Minister of Housing and Local Government, now Leader of the House, rejected the new Clause on the assumption that the new Rating Act would provide essentially a tax concession which was intended to ease the burden of the less affluent members of society and should not be confused with social service provisions.
In replying to the debate on the Clause, the right hon. Gentleman emphasised that was pensions constituted
a highly worked out social service".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th February, 1966; Vol. 725, C. 670.]
In our view, far from being a social service, war disability pensions are payments borne by the Exchequer as compensation for physical disability and loss of function due to injuries suffered in the service of the nation. They are not related to the economic circumstances of the individual, and the amount of pension is based on a medical assessment of functional loss. These are the payments that, we believe, should be disregarded for purposes of the rate rebate scheme. They are not social insurance payments. They are not based on financial need. They are not benefits from a contributory pension scheme. They are compensation paid by the nation as an employer to those who have suffered grievously in the service of that employer. As such, the compensation should be paid in full and should not be subject to deductions in the form of any kind of tax collected by that same employer. That is our view.
The Government, of course, have a substantial Parliamentary majority and for the time being they have forced their shabby treatment of these deserving people through the legislative processes. I hope that with a change of Minister at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, we may look for a change of heart. I confess to some misgivings on this score, but it is the season of good will.
Whether or not the Government reconsider the position, I should like to make our own position quite clear. The Conservative Opposition remain implacably opposed to any measure, including this one, that treats a war disability pension as if it were income for the purposes of taxation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Withington also raised the question of the work-to-rule—incidentally, not a strike—by limb fitters at Roehampton. Whilst I share his concern at the distress caused to the patients, who, goodness knows, have in all conscience already suffered enough by this type of action on the part of the limb fitters, I do not feel able to endorse his proposed remedy. It does not seem to me that to move a man from the private sector to the public sector would put any obstacle in the way of his working to rule if he wanted to. In fact, on the record so far, I should have said that a man was more likely to work to rule in the public sector than ever he was in the private sector. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh" In the private sector, the tendency is rather to strike than to work to rule.
The particular problem to which my hon. Friend referred has now been solved, but there are other problems at Roehampton which are still in urgent need of solution. For example, the appointments arrangements are still appallingly bad, as are the transport facilities for ferrying patients to and fro. I hope that these will be looked at as matters of urgency. There is no doubt that the patients, who already have enough to bear, are quite unnecessarily having to suffer frustration, irritation and tiring, time-wasting periods of inactivity.
As we move into the Christmas Recess, I should like to end on a note of peace and good will. I should like for example to be able to commend the Government for the improvements in war disability pensions which became effective at the end of March, 1965, when the 100 per cent. basic rate of compensation was raised to 135s. This was certainly welcomed at the time by all the ex-Service organisations. Unhappily, however, the Government's record is not quite as good as it looks. Since that time, according to my calculation, the purchasing power of that 135s. a week has dropped by about 9s.
Therefore, in all financial matters—I exempt the question of mini-cars, on which the Government have a good record and for which I give them credit—relating to war disability pensioners the Government appear to have a worsening record. The ability of these people to live by reasonable standards is becoming more rapidly eroded than ever before. It is to our shame that this is so. Can we know, I wonder, when the Government propose to reverse this process?
I am sure that the House is grateful to the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Sir R. Cary), who opened this debate. I am grateful to him for the manner in which he raised the subject. One does not doubt the absence of ulterior motive and the absolute sincerity of the hon. Member, whose gallant record is known not only to this House, but to the country. I thank also my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. L. M. Lever) for his contribution. I therefore impute no ulterior motives in the debate and I will try to answer it in exactly the same spirit.
If I may change the key, however, I was a little worried when the hon. Member for Carlton (Mr. Holland) said that it was not in the hearts of the Labour Government to recognise the sacrifices and the price paid by these men for our freedom. That is a bit hot. That is all I will say about it, otherwise I could really get into orbit and spoil the atmosphere of the debate. I know the nature of the hon. Gentleman and I know that he does not really mean that. Let us, therefore, deal with the realities as constructively as we can.
Throughout all my journeys during the past two years or more with our officials—who serve all Governments—when going to meetings concerned with war pensions committees of one kind and another, B.L.E.S.M.A. and to places like Roehampton, where my responsibilities overlap with those of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, I have never failed to pay tribute to the work that was done by the previous Government when dealing with these complicated problems. Having said that, I hope that I have created the right atmosphere for the reply to this debate.
This is a subject with which the whole country has great sympathy, and we have too little opportunity to discuss it. We in this House meet on common ground when we discuss war pensions, and as I have pointed out—I have certainly tried to—we make it not a party matter.
I have been very conscious of the difficulty which we are in this morning because of the looming shadow of the rules of order as they affect one subject, namely, the question of the rates, but later I will try to answer fairly some of these problems, which need answering, about rates rebates.
Taking up the point which the hon. Gentleman the Member for Withington mentioned, the question of value, I am an old hand at statistics myself, and when I want to make a political speech what I can do with statistics is nobody's business, and there are other men in this House who can do so as well. I can make them dance about and serve my purpose—without my tongue in my cheek, because the figures I quote do serve my purpose. I am careful not to quote those which do not. What is the truth? We have had to meet a great deal of this increase in the cost of living, and that increase is in the nature of the kind of society in which we are living, and it is happening all over the world, but I want to reiterate that when we came to power we gave the largest single increase that has ever been given to war pensioners. We are aware of this: the value of this pension and its position is just about ahead.
There again, the hon. Member for Carlton said, "Of course, on some of the material things you have done well, but you have forgotten the financial side." There is something which we must not forget. I do not want to claim all the credit for this Government. I see present the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood), who was a previous Minister of Pensions. He will know of the work which was done by the McCorquodale Committee. The right hon. Gentleman gets the credit for setting that Committee in motion, but since we came into power—I do not want to make a party quip about it—despite all the difficulties of the country we, with alacrity, and a little charm, introduced the McCorquodale Committee's Report and a large increase on the financial side.
So never mind the statistics. What I am saying is that we are well ahead if we add all these up. If it is asked, "Are we satisfied?" I reply, "Which of us is ever satisfied?" But we have a practical issue of politics.
I raised this issue because none of us can win against inflation. Inflation is the great enemy that we all, on both sides of the House, have to fight. The Government must consider this in considering the priorities when the easements come. I was claiming that then the war disability pensioners should be first.
The hon. Gentleman's charm is almost overwhelming. I march shoulder to shoulder with him into battle on this issue of inflation.
Let me come now to motor cars. This is not entirely the responsibility of my Ministry but to try to give a coherent answer I have the authority and help of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health to get this clear; there is some overlapping between the Departments. In October, 1964, there were 4,250 war pensioners whose cars were supplied through the Health Department. Today there are 5,500, as well as about 250 National Health Service patients who have the benefit of arrangements introduced under extra statutory powers in 1964. In addition—this is a point for the House, and it is very relevant—there are about 1,100 war pensioners who prefer to run their own cars and who receive special allowances to assist them so to do. It was the pressure of organisations like that to which the hon. Gentleman belongs and the British Legion and others that this sensible policy was introduced, and it has worked.
It is worthy of mention, too, and I think the House should know, that as well as cars there are about 500 war pensioners who, strangely enough, still prefer to have the invalid tricycle although they could, if they wished, be supplied with cars. There are a number of reasons for this, on which statements have been made in the House by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and also the Minister of Health—that the invalid tricycle is a reliable machine if it is properly driven and maintained. It continues to meet a real need amongst the severely disabled. As the hon. Lady the Member for Melton (Miss Pike), smiling there so charmingly and who contested the seat of Leek against me some years ago, will know, in Leek we have quite a number of these. The tricycles have certain advantages. For instance, they can sometimes be parked in a man's backyard without any expense or difficulty involved if one wants to put up a garage—and there are some local authorities—I had better be careful—who are sometimes not hasty in allowing garage space. I came near to danger there.
Again, and this is the direct answer to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues and to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Ardwick. A review has recently been completed of the present processes and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, in the House, in answer to a Question on 5th December, said that his right hon. Friend was now studying the results of the review and hoped to make a statement early in the new year. We must await his statement. It is not my responsibility, and he will, of course, take note of what has been said in this debate. That is why my hon. Friend is here, and he will also, as he has said on many occasions, have to take note of other priorities within and outside the Health Service.
I come to the matter of the limb fitters. I can just about fit this matter in in the time I have. It is through the fitter that the manufacturer is able to fulfil his responsibility under a contract to provide limbs which fit properly and which function properly, and it is because of that that the Minister of Health is able to hold the manufacturer to that responsibility. It is a responsibility, too, of the limb surgeon, because it is he who decides what the amputee should have, and it is the limb surgeon who has to be satisfied at the end of the day that the manufacturer has fulfilled his contract. Whatever system we have, whether a public or private system, the key man here all the time is the limb surgeon, and whether we have it public or private—as we have in our nationalised industries, too—we can have work-to-rule.
May I sum up this by saying that I add my tribute to those paid on both sides of the House to the manufacturers. I have read the letter in The Times today from that lady and I, too, pay tribute to the people Who helped to get rid of this working to rule, and I am delighted it has come to an end. Now we are trying to catch up with the backlog. That is a terrible word, but I have used it.
The rates. Now I am going to say this. I have looked at this, the rates and rebates, the Allen Report. We know it is a regressive tax. Logic can be a horrible thing, but I must call it to my aid. With due respect, I think that both sides of the House are missing the point here. Rates have been going on for years. I put the 64 dollar question. Whether it was a Labour, Liberal or Conservative Government, why did they not, when they exempted people from Income Tax. 40 years ago in logic exempt them from payment of rates? It is as good a point. It could have been thought of then.
We are not putting a burden on a war pensioner who has two children and an income of £13 a week. He still comes in for the rebate. The result of the Allen Report is to relieve people from a regressive system of taxation. War pensioners always paid rates, yet, suddenly, as a result of the Allen Report, it is implied that we are neglecting the preference principle.
The fear is sometimes expressed that the special position of war pensioners may be endangered by the extension of the range of benefits under social security schemes. I am sure that that is quite misconceived. Some hon. Members appear to believe that this is a precedent, but far be it from the Ministry of Social Security to make any precedent of that. I do not want it to get abroad that, because the new Ministry of Social Security includes as only part of its work the War Pensions Scheme, there has been any neglect. There have been 28,000 personal visits to the severely disabled during last year. We have also sent out a note to increase the number of visits to the old men of World War I by about another 11,000 a year. All these things are being kept in mind, as I am sure they would have been by any hon. Member opposite who held a post in the Ministry of Pensions. On rate rebate, the position remains the same, and I have no authority to go further.
I hope that I have answered the debate in the spirit in which it has been conducted. I feel sure that all responsible Ministers will have noted the importance of the various points which have been made today.