I beg to move
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the payment out of the National Insurance Fund of a heating allowance for pensioners and those on long-term Social Security Benefit and of a Christmas bonus for pensioners in 1976.
In introducing the Bill I am able to express the strong view of the North Staffordshire retired members' section of the Transport and General Workers' Union, who have asked me to protest against the abolition of the £10 Christmas bonus, which was first pressed for by the Transport and General Workers' Union—and particularly by its general secretary, Jack Jones—through the Trades Union Congress.
The TUC opposed the abolition of the £10 bonus and suggested, after its opposition had been unsuccessful, a heating allowance. My Bill attempts to implement the policy of the General Council that, in the absence of a 1975 Christmas bonus, there should be a heating allowance of not less than £10.
While I do not agree with the Government in rejecting both the Christmas bonus and the heating allowance. I must acknowledge that they present a substantial case to answer. The promise at the February 1974 General Election to introduce the £16 pension for married couples and £10 for single persons was quickly fulfilled, and pensions have since been increased in line with the increase in earnings.
The Secretary of State said of the Christmas bonus that:
A bonus is bound to be somewhat arbitrary in coverage and excludes a number of people who benefit from a general uprating."—[Official Report, 22nd May 1975; Vol. 892, c. 1624]
Despite the fact that the Labour Government added a million widowed, chronically sick and disabled persons to those to whom the bonus was paid, there were many anomalies including the exclusion of those on long-term supplementary benefits. Many have opposed it as a sop and as being no answer to the problem of low incomes for pensioners and have
drawn attention to the fact that the bonus was given tax-free to some who had no need of it at all.
The Government therefore abandoned th £10 bonus in favour of paying a higher weekly pension than would otherwise have been possible. They have also now turned down the request of the TUC for a heating allowance this winter.
The Minister of State, for whom I have the greatest respect, has said in a letter that
full consideration of this proposal within Government has led to the conclusion that it cannot be justified on grounds of cost; of the resources which have already been committed to raising the purchasing power of the pension and increasing the supplementary benefit discretionary heating additions; and of the generally unsatisfactory nature of lump-sum payments as a way of giving increased financial help.
Despite those arguments—I hope the Government will accept that they have been fairly put—I still believe that bonuses should be paid. The Government have committed a psychological blunder.
Let me talk first of the Christmas bonus. It was first introduced in 1972 as a once-and-for-all measure, a gesture to help those who were hardest hit by inflation. In 1973 it was linked to Stage 3 of the incomes policy. In 1974 it was paid again.
Over these three years it became very popular, and only partly because it was neither taxable nor liable to be means-tested for supplementary benefit and rent and rate rebates. It was popular because it was something extra for Christmas, at a time of extra expenses. The Christmas bonus was welcomed because pensioners, who wanted to be able to buy presents for their grandchildren, to offer a drink to a neighbour or even to spoil themselves by buying a tin of salmon and the trimmings for Christmas could do so without great sacrifice. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for most of them to save from the present pension so as to be able once a year to enjoy a modest luxury or two.
But although this was argued strongly by the North Staffordshire Transport and General Workers' Union retired members, that is not the main reason for my strongly supporting the restoration of the £10 Christmas bonus. In my view it was seen as a present, and people like getting presents.
To those who argue, in the best English puritan tradition, that higher weekly payments are best, I ask the question "Have you tried this doctrine on your family, on your children or on your parents? Would you substitute presents by small increases in pocket money or allowances?" The answer will be "No".
At Christmas I enjoyed delivering parcels from the Mayor of Newcastle-under-Lyme, Bill Welsby, to many people in my constituency, and was impressed by the pleasure the parcels brought. It was not the value of the groceries that pleased people but the thought that they had been remembered.
The Christmas bonus, like Bill Welsby's parcels, helped to reduce the social isolation of many pensioners. It helped to make them feel wanted. I for one regret that it was not paid in 1975. It ought to be paid in 1976.
The arguments in favour of paying a heating supplement are somewhat different. For me, one powerful reason is that it makes it easier to return to economic pricing, and this I advocate firmly. If extreme hardship is felt by pensioners as a result of higher charges, economic pricing will be harder to justify and maintain.
We read today both that fuel charges are to increase in April and that the Government have decided that the tariff structure should not be changed in favour of the small consumer but that problem should be dealt with through social security. I agree with the Government's decision, but further social security action is required beyond the substantial increase in heating allowances already introduced by the Government.
The difficulties faced by pensioners following the dramatic increase in fuel charges are well known to hon. Members. Additionally, both the Citizens' Advice Bureau service and the British Association of Settlements have kindly presented me with substantial evidence of the considerable hardship faced by pensioners and others. There is no time to spell out in detail the problems of the old. Many spend much of their time in poor housing on an inadequate diet. Studies have clearly shown that many old people live in temperatures below the minimum recommended for comfort and safety. Hypothermia is a dreadful indictment of our society.
Although retirement pensions have increased by 32½ per cent. since August 1974, the prices of coal and coke, gas, electricity and oil to the domestic consumer have gone up by 52 per cent., 33 per cent., 48 per cent. and 41 per cent. respectively. Given that pensioners spend a much higher proportion on heating than do other people, the severe problem that faces many of them can be clearly seen. Those figures support the case for a heating allowance.
Mr. Astley, of the North Staffordshire retired members' section of the T and GWU tells me that a little is better than nothing, but we should be prepared to give a lot. We do not want pensioners to be living in dread of their fuel bills this winter. We do not want them to be shivering in discomfort or becoming ill in consequence. The TUC has called for sacrifices from many trade unionists this winter, and I support that call. When it calls for help for the aged, we should also respond to that call for action.