Tom Myers – 1922 Speech on Old Age Pensions

The speech made by Tom Myers, the then Labour MP for Spen Valley, on 4 April 1922.

I beg to move

“That, in the opinion of this House, the recommendation of the departmental committee on old age pensions in favour of the repeal of the provisions in the Old Age Pensions Acts as to calculation of means should be adopted and the Old Age Pensions Acts amended accordingly, thereby enabling applicants for and recipients of the old age pension to derive the full benefit of their thrift and personal provision for old age, and to receive assistance from friends, employers, and organisations, without reduction of or disqualification for the full pension.”

In submitting to the House this Motion on behalf of the party with whom I am associated in this House, I would ask permission to make one personal reference, and one only. From the date of the inception of the Old Age Pensions Act to becoming a Member of this House, I served continuously as a member of an old age pensions committee. Perhaps what is more to the point, I was a member of a small sub-committee which was entrusted with the responsibility of adjudicating upon the appeals that were made by old age pensioners against the decision of the Committee. From that experience one could justify every syllable of the proposal before us. Fortunately we are strengthened in our attitude by the Report of the Departmental Committee, which has gone into the whole question of old age pensions. We upon this side of the House, and particularly the party with whom I am associated, have long held the view that an advance in the amount given for old age pensions, and a reduction in the age at which these pensions are made available, could both be justified having regard to existing circumstances.

The proposal, however, which we make on this occasion does not make any suggestion in the direction either of reducing the age or increasing the amount. What we do most emphatically say is that the method of administration of the present Act of Parliament and the hardship it imposes upon many a recipient of the old age pension is of such a nature that some very drastic alteration is essential. In a word, we would make the birth certificate of the applicant for an old age pension the sole test upon which the decision is made. Anyone who comes and presents evidence of the fact that he is of the stipulated age to receive an old age pension, that, I say, should be and could be, the sole test imposed. The evils of the existing system are legion. The first one is the irritation which is caused to a large number of old age pensioners. Most old people look forward for a considerable period to the time when they will be entitled to their pension, which will go to relieve their family, frequently, from a responsibility which they have voluntarily undertaken. No sooner is their application presented, and they are looking forward to its being honoured, than they have a visit from a strange individual. This individual enters the household of these old people—I believe he looks upon this duty as a very unpleasant one, but he has to carry out the law—with a view of ascertaining what are the means of income of these would-be pensioners. But the annoyance and irritation, and even worse, that is caused to many of these old people is well known to those who have been entrusted with the responsibility of administering the Act.

Questions are directed to these old people to ascertain their income and they cover a wide field. I could give instances where the old people have been primed before the visit of the official so that they may prevent disclosures being made as to their income. Any system or any method which drives old people to that expedient in order to protect their livelihood stands condemned from that point of view alone. Questions are asked about any extra meal they may be given by some friend. I have also heard of instances where inquiries have been made from the old people as to how many fowls they had, what their upkeep cost, and what was the egg-producing capacity per week, and then an average was struck between the cost of the upkeep and the market value of the produce, the amount being put down as part of the income of the old people. Then inquiries are made as to what they made out of their allotments, what they are receiving from friends, what voluntary assistance they get from relatives—these and similar inquiries are made by officials who have the backing of the law. Here and there are people who have at least some small accumulation. Even then the thing is inequitable, for it is very difficult to defend a system which permits cases like this. One person, say, has £400 in the bank, and there is 5 per cent interest calculated, or £20 per year, to be included in the income. Another person has £100, the interest on which is £5, but in this case he draws upon his little capital to augment the £5, so as to keep body and soul together. Every penny of that which is taken from the capital is included as income against that person. This is not so in the other case. This is one of the factors in the interpretation of the Act which cannot be justified.

But the principal objection to the administration of this Act is the penalty which it imposes upon thrift. We have had during this past fortnight voluminous correspondence and communications from all sorts of voluntary organisations in the country—those organisations that we have been taught in days gone by to support and to be associated with—trade unions, friendly societies, and the like, where life-long contributions have been made by men and women in the hope and belief that at the back-end of their days they would reap the advantage of those contributions of a lifetime. But when the old age pensioner goes round he is informed that if he has a few shillings per week superannuation allowance from a trade union, or a few shillings a week from a friendly society, or some allowance from a benevolent employer after long service at a factory or from a colliery company—if such a person happens to have free coal allocated after a long life at the colliery, or a free house—all those considerations are at once seized upon by the Pensions Department and a penalty is imposed upon the Old Age Pension arising therefrom. These are factors which are objectionable to all self-respecting people, and they are having the effect of stopping those avenues of generosity which in the past have been so much in evidence.

There is another point. Is an old age pension a test of poverty, or is it a reward for service? Do we grant it because people at the age of 70 are poor, or because they have rendered service to the community? The present administration of the law makes an old age pension a poverty test. The Report of the Departmental Committee is very definite upon this point. It says:

“The existence of the means limit really introduces the old pauper taint and brands the Old Age Pension as a compassionate grant.”

That ought not to be so, and we say very emphatically that if the birth certificate was made the claim for an old age pension being granted, great economies would be effected. If the birth certificate were made the test we could dispense with the Old Age Pension Committee, and all that would be necessary would be merely to check the age of the applicant, and we could effect all those economies which now involve so much expense by the employment of an army of officials, who at present do little more than impose a sort of inquisition upon these poor old people.

With regard to our Motion, the principal argument which will probably be urged against it will be that there is no money to be had, and the country cannot afford it. We heard that story in the past, when old age pensions were advocated in the first instance. We heard it then at the street corner, and it was only when the pressure of public opinion made the claims as the old people irresistible that old age pensions were granted. There is just as strong a feeling to-day for the removal of those limitations as there was in the old days for the institution of the principle of old age pensions. We shall be told by the Government that there is any amount of sympathy for this proposal, but that there is no money to back it. We cannot accept sympathy without something practical behind it. Sympathy is useless unless backed by something of a substantial character.

I am not going to accept any argument advanced from the point of view that we cannot find the money while we are able to point to avenues of expenditure of a much less desirable kind. If we seek such avenues of expenditure they are legion. While we are expending large sums upon the fighting forces which are very largely futile and all of them wicked, while we are expending the national substance on wicked and futile objects and upon our fighting forces, I decline to listen to any argument which is supported only by the statement that no money can be found for this purpose. We have to look at this question from the point of view of every old person in the country, whether they have a little accumulation of wealth or none at all, because when they reach the age of 70 they have made a definite contribution towards the well-being of the State. Even if they are wealthy people who can meet the test we are entitled to assume that people who do not want the old age pension will not apply for it.

On the Old Age Pension Committees we have plenty of experience in regard to men waiting until they were 72, 73, and even 76 years of age before applying for an old age pension. We are entitled to assume that that state of things will prevail even if our proposal is put into effect. I appeal to the House, having regard to the tremendous volume of opinion in the country in favour of this proposal, to take a broad view and declare an old age pension to be a reward for service to the State, and not a poverty test. Let us encourage those who have served their country well to believe that the country is going to stand by them in their old age.