Oral Answers to Questions — Royal Commission on Poverty

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th April 1970.

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Photo of Mr Woodrow Wyatt Mr Woodrow Wyatt , Bosworth 12:00 am, 16th April 1970

asked the Prime Minister whether he will recommend the appointment of a Royal Commission on Poverty.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

I would refer my hon. Friend to my reply to a Question by my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Barnett) on 17th February.—[Vol. 796, c. 209–11.]

Photo of Mr Woodrow Wyatt Mr Woodrow Wyatt , Bosworth

Why is the Prime Minister so complacent about this matter? Would it not be a very good thing to have an up-to-date definition of what poverty really is, including child poverty—[HON. MEMBERS: "You do not know what it is."]—plus some practical recommendations on how to alleviate it scientifically and financially in a way which might be adopted, rather than not adopted as most other Royal Commission reports are?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

If the hon. Member has any new and up-to-date information from his own experience in the matter of poverty, of course I shall be ready to study it, but he will be aware of answers I have given on previous occasions. I think we have most of the facts necessary. The problem is dealing with them. The most recent action taken was in my right hon. Friend's Budget. My hon. Friend will have studied with great effect the Budget debates of last year, including the unfortunate pronouncements by the Leader of the Opposition. He will no doubt also have studied the statement by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury yesterday on the family survey and on the Child Poverty Action Group. I hope he will be very much impressed by what was said.

Photo of Lord  Balniel Lord Balniel , Hertford

Is it not a pity that the Prime Minister regards this matter so complacently? In view of the fact that an objective, well-respected and non-political organisation is absolutely convinced that there is a growth in the amount of poverty in the country, and in view of the fact that the Budget does absolutely nothing to help, what steps are the Government to take?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

I am prepared to take criticism from those concerned with these matters and share their impatience that we have not been able to do more, but I shall not take it from the Front Bench opposite. Right hon. Members had 13 years in which to deal with this matter. They refused to deal with the widow's earnings rule, which we abolished. Our pensions record is very much better than theirs. There are the rate rebates for one million less-well-off householders, the repeal of the Rent Act, the abolition of National Assistance, and increase in family allowances. The hon. Member has only to look at the Opposition's proposals on raising council house rents and prices to see how much worse poverty would be under them.

Photo of Mr Joel Barnett Mr Joel Barnett , Heywood and Royton

Although my right hon. Friend is absolutely right to dismiss the humbug of the hon. Member for Hertford (Lord Balniel), will he confirm that later this year and not too long away we shall see some alleviation of some aspects of poverty by an increase in supplementary benefits and an increase in the level at which they will start?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

My hon. Friend will be aware that it has been a regular pattern, I believe under previous Governments as well as this one, that in one year there is an increase in the basic pension and the following year in supplementation benefits—which are very different from the National Assistance of the Conservatives. These are dealt with in alternate years. These matters are being considered as they were at this time in 1968 and in 1966, and, for all I know, in 1964.

Photo of Mr John Boyd-Carpenter Mr John Boyd-Carpenter , Kingston upon Thames

As the right hon. Gentleman referred to his Government's pensions record and compared it favourably with that of their predecessor, does he recall that the actual value of National Insurance benefits generally was increased by 50 per cent. under the late Administration and in respect of widows with young children by 100 per cent.? Will he tell the House whether his Government's proposals even approach that record?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

Yes, Sir. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, there has been a very big increase in the basic rate under this Government in the last five years—by 20 per cent. in five years. He will also know, since he referred to widows, not only of the action taken—action which the previous Government refused to take—in respect of the 10s. widow, not only of the action I referred to in the abolition of the earnings rule—which he steadfastly refused to get rid of, as did his Tory successors—but of the very big step forward in regard to earnings-related benefit, the lengthening of the period in the early months of widowhood and of the big stepping up of the rate for widows. The right hon. Gentleman would do well to remain silent.

Photo of Mr Ernest Fernyhough Mr Ernest Fernyhough , Jarrow

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways of tackling this problem of poverty would be the introduction of a wealth tax, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Wyatt) and hon. Members opposite would gladly subscribe, as this might give us £300 million a year, which would be a good start in tackling the problems about which hon. Members opposite are so much concerned now but about which they were not concerned when they had responsibility?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

It is my impression that the question of the amendment of the law in relation to taxation is before the House, and that during the debate all hon. Members are free to put forward any suggestions they have for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to consider. My right hon. Friend's own judgment of the situation was included in his Budget speech.

Photo of Sir Robert Cary Sir Robert Cary , Manchester, Withington

The problem of child poverty has now become urgent and critical. Surely the Government should take special steps to deal with it?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

I agree. After the first attack on the problem of widows, of supplementary benefits in place of National Assistance and the other things I have mentioned, poverty among large families came much more into the centre of the stage as the most urgent problem. That is why on two occasions we have increased family allowances, I am sure with the hon. Gentleman's support. The only thing that worries me is the way Tory canvassers, knowing that it is unpopular, go around getting the maximum political advantage out of our decision.