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National Insurance

Volume 414: debated on Thursday 11 October 1945

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Sickness Benefit

1.

asked the Minister of National Insurance whether, in view of the delay which must inevitably occur before the passing into law of a comprehensive scheme of National Insurance, he will forthwith introduce measures to bring the exceptionally low rate of sickness benefit into conformity with unemployment and other benefits, and at the same time extend to all cases of sickness, provision for dependants as recently made available in the case of tubercular patients.

Partial legislation on this matter in advance of the main insurance Measure would be unsatisfactory, but it is the Government's intention so to frame the main legislation that the earliest practicable opportunity may be taken of bring into effect, as part of a general plan, the improvements in rates and conditions of health insurance benefit which it will propose.

:Can the Minister say when the comprehensive Measure is going to be introduced? Does he realise that the proposals now under consideration mean that accident benefits are, quite rightly, basically, 45s. a week, plus allowances to dependants and so forth, whereas the sickness benefits are 18s. a week for single men, 15s. for a spinster and 30s. for a married woman?

I fully appreciate that. It is proposed to introduce the major Bill early in the New Year, and to press forward to pass it into law during this Session.

Means Test (Old Age Pensions)

2.

asked the Minister of National Insurance the number of old age pensioners applying for the supplementary old age pension; the cost of abolishing the means test for this class of applicant; and whether it is his intention to make this concession before the major social insurance improvements promised in the King's Speech.

9.

asked the Minister of National Insurance whether it is proposed to continue to apply a means test to old age pensioners during the coming winter.

At the end of August, supplementary pensions were in payment covering the needs of about 1,600,000 pensioners. If old age pensions for all persons now eligible for them were assessed on the present supplementary pension scales, including the allowance for rent, without a means test, the extra annual cost immediately would be about £100,000,000, rising rapidly with the growth of the aged population. In reply to other Questions on the Order Paper today, I have indicated the proposals of the Government as to the time by which it will be possible to improve the fixed pensions. But I ought to make it clear that, if reductions in the amounts now being paid in many cases are to be avoided, opportunity must still be left for pensions supplementary to the fixed amounts to be paid where the circumstances of the applicant are such as to make this necessary.

Sea Fishermen (Unemployment Benefit)

3.

asked the Minister of National Insurance whether he will expedite the formulation of a special scheme for the purpose of making adequate unemployment benefit available to all sea fishermen, with special reference to the anomalous position of share fishermen.

This is one of the matters to which the Government will give full consideration in framing the provisions of the main Insurance Bill to be introduced early next year. In the meantime, I cannot go beyond what is said on this subject in Part I of the White Paper on Social Insurance, paragraph 78 (iii), Cmd. 6550.

But does the Minister realise that the White Paper is wrong when it excludes fishermen from Class 1 on the ground that they control their own unemployment?

I can only say that the matter will be given further consideration and that our proposals will eventually be embodied in the major Bill.

Old Age Pensions (Increase)

4.

asked the Minister of National Insurance whether, pending the coming into effect of a comprehensive scheme of national insurance he will take immediate steps to bring about a substantial increase in old age pensions, widows' and orphans' pensions, blind pensions and other forms of contributory and non-contributory State benefits.

5.

asked the Minister of National Insurance when he expects to introduce his proposals for increasing old age pensions; and if he proposes to include all pensions, both on a contributory and a non-contributory basis, in order to encourage thrift and consider a provision for abolishing every type of means test.

7.

asked the Minister of National Insurance if he is aware that the present basic rates for old age and widows' pensions are quite inadequate; and if he will take immediate steps to increase them.

10.

asked the Minister of National Insurance whether he proposes to increase the allowances to old age pensioners during the coming winter.

11.

asked the Minister of National Insurance when he proposes to increase the basic rate of old age pensions.

Old age pensions and pensions for widows over 60 or with children are at present being supplemented by the Assistance Board in cases of need, in accordance with Regulations approved by Parliament in December, 1943. These lay down a scale of payments for general guidance and give the Board a wide discretion to deal with the individual circumstances of pensioners. About 1,600,000 out of a total of over 4,000,000 pensioners are at present receiving supplementary pensions, amounting annually to a total of £60,000,000.

The Government intend substantially to improve the basic rates of pension to be payable on retirement and so to reduce the need for supplementation. Proposals to this end, which will also include improvements in the rates of a number of other national insurance benefits will be contained in the Bill which it is hoped to introduce early next year and to pass into law during the present session. A considerable time will be required to bring into full operation all the far-reaching changes contemplated, and the Government have considered various possibilities of improving the pension rates at an early date. They have come to the conclusion that a Bill dealing separately with pensions would be unsatisfactory. It could only be partial in application; it would delay the bringing into effect of the general insurance scheme and would not accelerate the payment of improved pensions by any considerable period. They have, therefore, decided to proceed as rapidly as possible with the general insurance Bill and to make special arrangements to bring its pensions provisions for existing classes of old age pensioners who have retired, including widow pensioners over 60, into operation at a date substantially earlier than that at which it will be possible to operate the scheme as a whole.

Provision will be made for the payment of the increased rates under these special arrangements during the coming financial year, and it is intended to introduce them as soon as is possible after the Bill has reached the Statute Book.

Is the Minister aware that, while his reply will give great satisfaction, there are still many widows, many old people and many blind people and other members of the community who are living in conditions of great distress, and that many of them feel that they are entitled to a reasonable minimum standard of living without the necessity of replying to inquiries of a kind which they feel are infringements on their personal rights and freedom; and will he consider reviewing the matter?

I fully share the concern and anxiety which the hon. Member has expressed, but I would ask hon. Members to realise that they are faced with the dilemma with which I am faced myself. There are two choices before us—either a series of temporary Measures to deal with pensioners and sick persons, or pressing forward with the main Bill. I have come to the conclusion, and the Government have come to the conclusion, that the right thing is to press forward with the main Bill and bring it into operation, and that for two reasons. First of all, temporary Measures, in my short experience in this House, are never satisfactory. They always give rise to anomalies. There is a second reason. If we have temporary Measures, we shall have to postpone the bringing forward of the major Bill, and I would ask hon. Members to realise that all this social legislation has to be dovetailed, and, as a matter of fact, the Bill we are discussing to-day and which we hope will get its Second Reading, cannot come into operation, until the major Bill is passed. For those reasons, the Government have arrived at this decision, which, I am certain myself, is the best one in the interests of those affected.

Will the Minister say whether the Cabinet have now agreed as to what shall be the basic rate of increase for old age and widows' pensions, and, if so, as it is the general desire on all sides of the House, why should it hold up the major Measure to introduce something which would help these people this winter?

A temporary Measure could have been passed at any time during the last two years. I have said that the Government have arrived at the conclusion that we have had enough temporary Measures dealing with old age pensions, and that it is time we put the matter on a really permanent basis.

Can the Minister say whether, in relation to the increases which have been agreed upon, the old age pensioners will have any chance at all of benefiting by them during this winter?

No, Sir. This new basic pension cannot come into operation until the main Bill is passed, and, therefore, I am afraid that that will not be possible this winter because the legislation has to be passed first.

If the old age pensioners have to wait for their increases until the big insurance Measure is through, can my right hon. Friend give us an approximate date when the increases will be paid, and if this is likely to be later than the winter, is there any form of Parliamentary procedure, other than a temporary Measure, which might be used to secure for these old people a flat rate increase before the onset of the coming winter?

It is not possible at the moment to give a date and when I give a date it will be one upon which I shall be perfectly satisfied myself that I can begin to pay the new basic rates. With regard to the other points, I can only repeat what I have said that, having carefully considered the matter, we have come to the conclusion that it would be a mistake to begin temporary Measures all over again, and that right policy is to press forward quickly with the major legislation. I can give an undertaking that the new pension rates will begin to be paid at the earliest possible date after the main Bill has reached the Statute Book.

Will the Minister indicate if it is the intention of the Government to make provision in the new Bill for persons who are now excluded from pension, such as widows whose late husbands were not contributors under the present scheme, or elderly persons who are not entitled now to old age pensions?

I would ask the hon. Member to put that Question down, as it raises another point not included in the Questions which I have just answered.

Would my right hon. Friend bear in mind that the supplementary pensions to which he made reference are only given after a means test has been instituted? Could he take steps immediately to withdraw such a means test, so that those applying for a supplementary pension can be granted it?

We have come to the conclusion that the right way of doing this is to increase the basic pension.

Does that mean that a Labour Government is wedded to the means test?

Family Allowances

6.

asked the Minister of National Insurance what steps he proposes to take to correct the anomaly in the Family Allowances Act, 1945, under which allowances are not paid in respect of the children of naturalised British fathers.

The Family Allowances Act makes these allowances payable in cases where the father is a British subject born in the United Kingdom, and in any other cases to which payment is extended by Regulations made under powers conferred by the Act. Regulations will be made and laid before Parliament in the near future, and will deal, among other cases, with those in which the claimant is a naturalised British subject.

Health Insurance Contributors (Old Age Pensions)

8.

asked the Minister of National Insurance what percentage of national health insurance contributors reach the age of 65 and actually receive the old age pension.

Information precisely in the form asked for by my hon. Friend is not available but approximately 95 per cent. of the claims for old age pensions received by my Department are successful.

Would the right hon. Gentleman consider, in bringing in his new Bill, reducing the age, as there are numbers of old people now who have paid contributions to this fund for half a century who die before they are entitled to get their pension?

The age at which pension will become payable will, of course, be provided in the new Bill. At the moment I cannot make a statement about what the position will be finally.