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New Clause—(Dependent Relatives Allowance)

Volume 466: debated on Tuesday 28 June 1949

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Subsection (1) of section twenty-two of the Finance Act, 1920 (which, as amended by subsequent enactments, provides that where a claimant maintains an infirm or aged relative or widowed mother of his or his wife's whose total income does not exceed one hundred and twenty pounds a year he is entitled to a deduction of fifty pounds reduced, if the total income of the person maintained exceeds seventy pounds a year, by the amount of the excess, and provides for a like deduction in respect of the services of a daughter resident with an aged or infirm claimant), shall have effect as if the words "one hundred and fifty pounds" were substituted for the words "one hundred and twenty pounds," the words "sixty pounds," were substituted for the words "fifty pounds" and the words "ninety pounds," were substituted for the words "seventy pounds."—[ Viscount Hinchingbrooke.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

3.45 p.m.

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

This new Clause in the name of a number of my hon. Friends and myself is with respect to dependent relatives allowances. At first sight, it looks very complicated, but I assure the Committee that it is a Clause which has immensely respectable antecedents and, with the assistance of the Committee, I hope to give the allowance even more virtue and substance than it has had before. The Clause is designed to ease the position of a claimant—and there are about a million of them in the country today—who maintains an infirm or aged relative or a widowed mother. There is also a subsidiary class of claimants who are themselves aged or infirm and have resident daughters living with them.

The object of this Clause is to raise the allowance from £50 to £60 and to lift the brackets within which the allowance is payable to £90 and £150 respectively. I think probably all hon. Members who have had anything to do with this matter in public life or who have been Members of the House for any considerable period, will know in detail the history of this allowance and, therefore, I shall not repeat it now. Suffice to say that the allowance was originally recommended by the Royal Commission on Income Tax in 1919 and was for the first time embodied in the Finance Act of 1920. It has been amended and enlarged on a number of occasions since then—in 1927, 1943 and 1947.

May I first make a point about the allowance itself? It appears to me that the £50 is now out of line with the other allowances which are obtainable—for example, the £60 allowance for the child and the £70 allowance for a wife, being the difference between the marriage allowance of £180 and the single allowance of £110. I therefore suggest that the allowance should be raised by £10 to bring it in line with the child allowance. I must point out the anomaly which exists today in that a child who may be incapacitated or invalided and who is under 16 years of age receives £60, whereas the moment he or she passes his or her 16th birthday the allowance drops to £50. I think it is only fair that we should all acknowledge that the cost of maintaining invalid children would, if anything, go up rather than down, with their wider interests as they grow up. The allowance ought to be maintained at £60.

Secondly, with regard to the brackets. The present brackets within which the allowance works are £70 and £120 respectively. Where the income from all sources of the maintained person is £70 or less the full allowance is operative, but when we get beyond the £70 the allowance tapers off pound by pound until, when the maintained person has an income from all sources of £120, it disappears altogether as far as benefit to the claimant is concerned. It seems to me that both brackets are too low today in relation to the cost of living and to the general level of pensions and earnings.

For example, since the last concession was made in 1947 by the present Chancellor of the Duchy the cost of living has risen nine points. I have the figures here in money values and could give them. But the thing is apparent. It seems to me it is miserly—quite miserly—for the Treasury today to stop the allowance when the maintained person is earning £2 6s. a week, which is not, after all, a very princely weekly sum. The Clause, is therefore, designed to help those persons—and, as I say, there are about a million of them—on whom the burden of the maintenance of relatives falls very hardly in these times.

If the Chancellor had been prepared to do something about Purchase Tax this year, that might have been a way in which we could have assisted these people even more notably than in this, but that possibility having been ruthlessly removed by the Treasury we are forced on this side of the Committee to look for ways and means, within the general frame of the Income Tax laws, for assisting these people. I do not know at all what the cost of this concession would be. It may be £10 million or £20 million. If it is £20 million it is only a half of the 1 per cent. of what the Treasury are extracting from the pockets of the people.

I do not know, but it seems to me that the Financial Secretary is unusually unhappy this year. Poor man, he has not been allowed to open his shoulders one little bit in this Committee, whereas under what in many ways was the more unfortunate dispensation of the Chancellor of the Duchy there was usually £30 million or £40 million to play about with on the Committee stage. And I have seen the face of the Financial Secretary glow once or twice during our Debates two or three years ago, when opportunity was given to him by the then Chancellor to make some concession. I do hope that he has so prevailed upon the right hon. and learned Gentleman today, the fourth day of our Debates in Committee on this Bill, as to be able to come down here to give us—who, after all, are trying to represent the state of living of some of these people so desperately hit by the right hon. and learned Gentleman's general financial policy—some concession, and help remove a burden that now exists.

I am sure the Committee will be grateful to my noble Friend for bringing before us this extremely benevolent proposal. My recollection is not quite the same as his regarding the past activities of the Financial Secretary on previous occasions. I seem to recall that the right hon. Gentleman was never given the opportunity of making concessions, but was invariably left on the burning deck in order to resist proposals, and that it was always the role of the Chancellor to take the bows and the applause. Today the Financial Secretary has an opportunity—or the Economic Secretary has—to meet us in this matter.

My noble Friend has pointed out with profound truth that the cost of living has not kept pace with the concessions that have been made during the lifetime of this Parliament under this particular heading; that there has been a further rise; and that it would be right and proper for us to take cognisance of that, and to make an effort, by the adoption of this Clause, to bring the law into line in this matter of aged dependants. They are, as my noble Friend has said, a small but particularly helpless minority. Whereas the concession will be made to the young and active, in many cases the effect of it will benefit those aged and infirm relatives whom they are maintaining.

The other part of the Clause is designed, of course, to help the aged persons themselves. To assist the infirm is, after all, one of the noblest actions of which the human race is capable. I think it would be appropriate and proper if today we were to take regard of the fact that the cost of living, since we last adjusted the matter during the lifetime of this Parliament, has risen, and I hope very much that the Economic Secretary, who, I understand, is to reply to the Debate on this new Clause, will open our proceedings today, the fourth day, in admirable fashion by telling us that the Government have agreed to accede to my noble Friends' proposal.

I think it was a little hard of the noble Lord the Member for South Dorset (Viscount Hinchingbrooke) to say that my right hon. Friend had not so far opened his shoulders during these proceedings, because, as a matter of fact, he did hit two boundaries off successive balls just before we ourselves on this side, strictly in accordance with the rules, I hope, declared the innings closed last night.

I do not think that is correct. The noble Lord correctly rehearsed the history of this particular allowance, and he and the hon. and gallant Member for Holderness (Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite) have spoken very persuasively in moving this further concession. Of course, we would all sympathise with their desire to assist the aged and infirm. However all that both hon. Gentlemen have said could have been said with equal force at whatever level this allowance stood. If we made this concession this year and enlarged the scope of the allowance, it would still be possible to advance very much the same arguments a year hence.

So I am afraid what we have to look at is not simply the merits of this Clause, but the claim of this particular allowance in relation to the other allowances under Income Tax, and, indeed, other claims of remission of taxation. When we do that the first thing which appears, as the noble Lord quite correctly said, is that this allowance has been increased no fewer than three times, and twice in quite recent years. It was increased in 1927, again in 1943, and yet again in 1947.

4.0 p.m.

By the Finance Act, 1943, the allowance was increased from £25 at which it had originally stood, to £50 in any case where the relative's income was below £30, and in those cases where it lay between £30 and £80 the amount of the allowance was to be £50 less the excess over the £30, as I think the noble Lord pointed out. In the Finance Act, 1947, we made a further substantial concession in that we raised the lower limit of £30 to £70 and the higher limit of £80 to £120. I think, therefore, that having gone so far, the case cannot be made out for extending this concession any further unless, indeed, the cost would be trivial. In point of fact, the cost of operating this new Clause would not be trivial; it would amount to £7 million, which is quite considerable. For these reasons I do not think we can accept it this year.

The noble Lord invoked to aid his argument the rise in the cost of living. That is a very natural claim to put forward for the people concerned, but I think the Committee will agree that if the Government were to accept that argument as sufficient in itself for making increases in payments of this kind, or indeed of other kinds, that undoubtedly would be the way to inflation, and it would be out of line with our White Paper policy and our general policy of disinflation.

Has it not always been the policy of this and, indeed, of other Governments to select for protection against the effect of inflation the aged and infirm members of the community in particular?

The Economic Secretary has given a somewhat limp answer to the points which have been made by my noble Friend the Member for South Dorset (Viscount Hinchingbrooke). This is the only new Clause to which I have put my name because I believe it concerns such a deserving cause. Hon. Members are always in difficulty when trying to decide which are the most worthy causes, and my own feeling is that there could be few more worthy causes than this. I say that because I believe that, apart from anything else, it is always highly desirable that as many people as possible should look after the least fortunate in their own families instead of putting them on the State.

The whole principle which lies behind the original measure is a happy compromise in which we have an individual trying to look after the less fortunate members of his family and at the same time the State giving him some reward for doing it. The Economic Secretary has merely questioned the extent to which that reward should be given. My own feeling is that there is a much better case for this Clause than there was yesterday for the two Clauses which were accepted. The Economic Secretary says that his right hon. Friend hit the Opposition and their Amendment for a boundary yesterday, but I should have thought that all he could really say was that he finished up in the dark with a 1s. 3d. cinema ticket and a dog licence. That is confusing sports and entertainment a little, but if that is considered hitting a boundary, I am afraid the right hon. Gentleman could only have had experience on the river rather than with a cricket bat in his hands.

This new Clause is very fair in view of the increase in the cost of living. The Economic Secretary said that the increase in 1943 over the original amount was from £25 to £50. I should have said that there was certainly that increase in the cost of living in that period, and I should say that there has also been a small increase since 1947, as my noble Friend said. I believe that although this proposal would cost £7 million, it is much better that we should do it this way than have a demand for increased social services or something of that sort, because that would seem to be the alternative.

If these people are really going to be put into a difficult financial position, the State has an immediate remedy by making it possible for the National Assistance Board to help them out. Surely, it is much more desirable that individual families should try to help these people and should be given some reward for so doing. My own feeling is that the reward would be much cheaper than would be the case if the National Assistance Board had to be authorised to make good the loss of income owing to the rise in the cost of living. Therefore, I hope that the Financial Secretary will reconsider this matter. If he cannot accept it, perhaps he will go further into it. I certainly believe that it is a highly estimable and desirable new Clause, and I hope the Committee will give it support.

The Economic Secretary's argument appeared to indicate that he was feeling the heat because it was not up to his normal controversial standard. He began by saying that at whatever figure these allowances were fixed an argument could be adduced for raising them. That may be so, but that is no argument for maintaining the present figure. It is no argument for simply ignoring the changes in the general price level since 1947, and it is no argument at all for the present figure. I think the Economic Secretary will agree that he was rather below his standard when he put forward that argument.

The Economic Secretary's much more interesting and important point was in his inflation argument, and I should like to say a word upon it. The hon. Gentleman said, perfectly truly, that concessions of this sort have an inflationary effect, but he did not seem to me at all to face the intervention of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Holderness (Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite) as to whether it was his intention and the intention of the Government to apply that doctrine at its most rigorous to the aged and infirm. As I understand the theory in broad terms, it is that we should restrict the amount of spending power generally available in the hands of that part of the community which can look after itself. That is the general argument, whether it be valid or invalid. I should, no doubt, be out of Order if I pursued that question.

I have always understood that every effort had at the same time to be made to insulate from its effect certain special classes such as the aged, war disabled and children. Surely that is the case which is presented again and again from the Box opposite. That is surely directly material to this point. The figure of £7 million which the Economic Secretary gave was lower than that which my noble Friend had intimated was his impression. This comparatively small amount would be concentrated upon the worst hit section of the community—that part of the community who have to maintain aged and dependent relatives. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee know perfectly well of many cases in which that imposes an all but intolerable burden upon hard working and responsible individuals and particularly upon those individuals whose sense of self-reliance and responsibility leads them to seek to maintain their dependent relatives rather than cast family burdens upon the community.

All hon. Members know of cases of that sort; they are pathetic cases, and I should have thought that the case for giving some limited relief in that direction cannot be met by broad generalisations about anti-inflationary policies. It calls for at least a reply which indicates, as the Economic Secretary's reply did not indicate, that the Government have seriously gone into the merits of this question. It demands a considered reply which indicates the same appreciation of the hardships involved. I trust that the very moderate and reasonable concession for which my noble Friend asked will not be brushed aside with the airy and ill-considered generalisations with which the Economic Secretary regaled the Committee.

Frankly, I was amazed at the smallness of the sum which the Economic Secretary said would be needed for this proposal. I thought it would have been considerably more. I have a very large number of cases of this type in my own constituency; again and again I have endeavoured in one way or another to obtain relief, and on several occasions a considerable amount of relief has been given to these people. In that estimate of £7 million, I wonder whether any deduction has been made in respect of the fact that if it was not for the maintenance given by these relatives a considerable number of the dependants would be obliged to apply for State assistance. These people who take care of their dependent relatives are doing something which in a large number of cases has to be borne by the State.

As has been pointed out by one or two hon. Members on this side of the Committee—incidentally, no hon. Members opposite have taken the trouble to support these old people—these people who take care of their dependent relatives are relieving the State of a large burden, a burden which is quite likely far larger than the £7 million which the relief proposed in this new Clause would cost. That £7 million, of course, would not carry the whole burden but it would be an immense relief to those people who are trying to do their best to look after their own families.

I should like to raise a point which has not been mentioned today. It is not always very easy, especially in these days of housing shortage, to have an aged person in one's house. It is not very easy to have in one's house any of the classes mentioned in the new Clause. In many cases, as a result of the housing shortage, members of the community have taken on this obligation and have tried to help their own families. Very often there is a whole family plus another person in one house, as those of us who know the poorer sections of the community realise, and that makes available a larger amount of accommodation for the rest of the community. This is being done entirely voluntarily by those people for whom we are asking a concession.

4.15 p.m.

This matter of helping one's own family has always been one of the strongest virtues of the British people. It is a matter on which I have heard the Home Secretary make brilliant speeches. Perhaps I ought not to say "brilliant," but doing his best to advance somewhere along the road towards brilliancy. I do not want to exaggerate matters, because I do not think exaggeration is right, but it is an undoubted fact that we should do everything possible to encourage family life. In this case, an enormous job of work is being done by individuals to help the State, a job which carries out the high traditions of our race. Surely some concession might be made in this case. The amount involved is not large.

I understand that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has gone away, or will be going away very soon. Why does the Financial Secretary not take the law into his own hands in the absence of his right hon. and learned Friend? If he will do so we shall back him up, and in all probability, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer returns, he will not sack him but will be thankful for what he has done. For some unknown reason it is only the Conservative minority who speak for these people. It has always been the privilege of our party to be the main defence for the elderly. I am astonished that no Member opposite has so far taken part in this Debate, or has yet turned down this proposal. In those circumstances, it is very wrong of the Government to take this obdurate view towards this proposal.

Cannot the Financial Secretary answer the appeal which has been made to him in one sentence, namely, that owing to the probable rate of national expenditure neither he nor the Chancellor of the Exchequer can abate taxation by one shilling? It would be far more realistic on their part to put that plain fact before the Committee. The right hon. Gentleman has not dared to tell the Committee that, despite the rise in the cost of living and the very strong case of these people, he cannot make any adjustment because no taxation relief can be given until the total volume of national expenditure is reduced. I know that the right hon. Gentleman will ask how the national expenditure can be reduced, but that is not our business but his. I ask him to adopt the maxim of Napoleon to his marshals, that if it is difficult it is done, and if it is impossible it will take a little time.

I hope that the Economic Secretary will forgive me if I do not follow him in the realm of cricketing metaphors. Sporting metaphors are always dangerous. For example, we might have the Solicitor-General indulging in metaphors drawn from his experience on the turf, which would be most embarrassing to many of us. I must confess that I share my hon. Friends' disappointment with the answer that has been given. It seemed to me to be a machine-made answer, with very little if any relevance to the case we are now considering. The stock answer is, of course, that any increase in taxation relief is an inflationary movement. It is true to say that in some degree any release of purchasing power is inflationary in its tendency, but I cannot understand why that argument should be adduced for a proposal such as this, when no such argument is adduced if it is a question of giving £20 million to those who drink beer. I should have thought, speaking both economically and otherwise, that the £20 million to beer drinkers was likely to be the more inflationary.

The fact is, of course, that the Government are now in a position where expenditure is so high that they are unable to give a concession however meritorious or well deserved. The right hon. Gentleman referred to two concessions which were made last night. It is quite true that there were two concessions, but it was not that those new Clauses were more desirable for the sake of human happiness than the many other new Clauses that have been discussed, but merely because the concessions cost no money. It was on that ground and that ground alone, that the Government made them.

I should like to have a little more information on this figure of £7 million. I understood it was a Treasury estimate of the loss of revenue they would suffer, but has there been any attempt to put against that, any decrease in social service payments which might otherwise be made? These people who will benefit are all in low income groups, and cer- tainly the probability is that in most of these cases the rise in the cost of living, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said is not to be remedied by taxation reliefs, will have to be met by increased assistance payments. If, as I suspect, the saving by the Treasury in refusing this proposal is to some extent off-set by the increased expenditure which is to fall on some other Department, I would far rather, for the sake of the pride and independence of the people concerned, that the relief, if it is to be given by the Government, should be given in this form instead of in the other form which, however humanely it is done, still has the appearance of charity payments.

The Opposition in dealing with these new Clauses, are always in the difficulty that they are not allowed to select the particular taxation relief to which they give the greatest priority. The eagle eye of the Chair goes through the new Clauses and excludes a number of them, not on grounds of intrinsic merit, but on such grounds as whether they have been discussed in some other form, or whatever the appropriate grounds may be. It means it is not necessarily the case that the particular proposal we are able to put forward, is the one to which we give the highest priority, which is the case here. I would not say, even if the Government by a reduction of expenditure had the money available, that this was necessarily the highest of all priorities, but it is certainly one that is a high priority. As far as I am concerned, unless the Government are prepared to make some concession, I shall go into the Division Lobby to vote against the position in which the Government are now in, that owing to the high rate of expenditure to which they are committed they find themselves impotent to give any concession to any cause however good.

I wish to associate myself with those who comprise our little party representing that part of the United Kingdom from which I come. We get a good opportunity during the Committee stage of the Finance Bill to make our pleas to the Treasury, and I feel that in this matter a case has been made out. We know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Financial Secretary cannot meet all the pleas that are made, but I hope that they will not disagree with this one, because those who have looked after the old and infirm know what a hard task it is in many cases. The suggestion put forward is very reasonable indeed, and I hope it will not be turned down.

There are two points I should like to make. The Economic Secretary said, quite rightly, that a good case can be made out for a concession of this sort at whatever level allowances are standardised. The point is that the allowances are out of line with the allowances given in the case of a wife and four dependent children, and that the Economic Secretary completely failed to answer. It is clear that there is always a good case, whatever the allowance may be, for making it better, but there is certainly a case for making the allowances fair one with the other.

The second point is one that has already been partially made, and that is the consequences of the Chancellor's policy of deflation by taxation. I believe that we should now use the word "disinflation," which I will use because the right hon. and learned Gentleman attaches a particular importance to that fig leaf which I will not snatch away from him. If expenditure is at this level and the Government try to balance things by raising taxation, they are bound to produce a condition where the cost of living rises steadily, as it has risen steadily since 1947 and as it is likely to continue to rise.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that what we want to do is to stop incomes and wages rising, regardless of the cost of living. There is something to be said for that, although it is a rather gloomy policy, but what occurs, in fact, is that wages follow the cost of living a small move behind, whereas dependent relatives and people of that sort do not move upwards at all. They are, therefore, ground between the upper and nether mill-stones. We want to put on record that, as a result of the present policy, the faces of people like this are being ground in the dirt.

The tendency, one gathers from reading parts of the Report on Population, is to have more and more elderly people in this country, precisely the sort of people who will to some extent be benefited by this new Clause. It is worth remembering that if these people do not fall on the private charity of the family, they will fall on the charity and assistance of the State. From the national point of view, it must be clear that these small reliefs in respect of dependent relatives will make life very much easier for them than can be the case in an institution, which undoubtedly for many of them will be the only alternative. It is no great concession to make; the alternative is whether the money is to go to honest tax relief or for ignoble public assistance. Perhaps that is an over-simplification, but I hope the hon. Gentleman will give the matter more sympathetic consideration than it has been given hitherto and will accept the Clause.

4.30 p.m.

As serious arguments have been advanced on this point I should like briefly to reply. The hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) said that my main argument for regarding the allowance as being at the correct level at present was that at whatever level it stood, it could be argued that it should go higher. That was my comment on what was said by the noble Lord the Member for South Dorset (Viscount Hinchingbrooke); it was not my principal argument. We have made three increases in the allowance in recent years, two of them in very recent years. It has been said, rightly, that there is a special case for helping the aged and infirm, and we were asked whether it was not our general policy, although following, generally, a disinflationary policy, when the cost of living rose, to moderate its impact on those least able to face it. That is our policy; that is why we have subsidised the cost of living, among other things, and why the work of the National Assistance Board is, as we all agree, conducted along humanitarian lines.

All the arguments about special claims on behalf of the aged and infirm, however, could be advanced equally cogently in the case of the general mass of old age pensioners who are living below the Income Tax level, and of whom I have a large number in my constituency as, no doubt, has the hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams). In all the circumstances, I think it would be unfair to make this concession, strong as the arguments are, if we could not do something comparable for the large number of people who are, on the whole, worse off—old age pensioners living below the Income Tax level. Finally, the right hon. Member for West Bristol (Mr. Stanley) said, very candidly, that he did not regard this proposal as having the very highest priority among the taxation reliefs which he and his party would wish to obtain. That is also our position. Having looked at possible reliefs, both before the Budget and since, we agree that in all the circumstances we do not put this in the very highest priority class which we are able this year to accept.

As the Committee wishes to get on, I do not intend to take up more than a few minutes, but I must say that the arguments adduced by the Economic Secretary amount in my view to little or nothing. The hon. Gentleman said that two concessions had been made in recent years, and suggested that this was a reason for doing nothing now. The point is that since the last allowance was made the cost of living has gone up by seven points, so that the time has now arrived to make a further step forward. It may be that if we got this concession now and the cost of living rose 10 or 20 points we should have to try again to get fairness for these people. I should not have asked for a concession of this kind unless the need for it had been due to the deliberate policy of the Government during the last few years.

The hon. Gentleman said we should be justified in doing this only if we were to make comparable concessions to the general class of old age pensioners. In 1947, when this particular allowance was increased, nothing was done for pensioners then; the increase followed something done for pensioners a year or two previously. Is it not reasonable to take things by stages? For various reasons we now want this extra concession for this class of people, and in a few years it may be necessary to do something for the whole class of pensioners. It is not right to suggest that nothing should be done until the whole thing is lined up, because legislation has never proceeded in that way.

The hon. Gentleman made no impression upon me at all in what he said about inflation. If it is the deliberate instruction of the Chancellor that every Amend- ment and new Clause is to be turned down on the grounds that it will cost 2½d., and will lead to inflation, why should right hon. and hon. Members opposite prepare any briefs in connection with specific Amendments and clauses at all. In fact they do not do so. We are finding out that there is no attempt to argue on the merits of any of our proposals.

This concession would cost £7 million. I am not seeking to unbalance the Budget by gaining an exemption of this kind today; I am suggesting that it should be granted, and that the Government themselves should save the inflationary position by reducing their own expenditure. What produces inflation is the aggregate of personal and Government expenditure. It is logical for us on this side to argue that inflation can be held by granting a concession and the Government meeting that concession by the same amount in a reduction of expenditure. That could be done in hundreds of ways, as we have detailed many times and which I would like to develop now if it were not out of Order. I regret that the hon. Gentleman has not been able to meet us, and I can only hope that in the night hours he and the Financial Secretary will reconsider the matter and bring it forward again either on Report or next year.

Question put, and negatived.