HC Deb 01 August 1890 vol 347 cc1534-9
MR. HOWELL (Bethnal Green, N.E.)

I beg to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether he is aware that in some 15 or 16 cases within a recent period Trade Unions, most of whom are registered under the Trade Union Acts, and all of whom have sick benefit, funeral allowance, and superannuation benefit, several of whom have accident benefit and out-of-work benefit, and some of whom have enjoyed, for from 20 to 26 years, the privilege of banking their moneys in the Post Office Savings Banks or in the, Trustee Savings Banks, have been revoked, cancelled, withdrawn, or refused; whether it is part of the settled policy of Her Majesty's Government to revoke or cancel a privilege existing without challenge for over a quarter of a century, and confirmed within the tenure of office of the present Government; and whether he will explain to the House the reason or reasons for this new departure from a practice which has conferred and is conferring so many benefits upon the members of Trade Unions throughout the country?


The question of the hon. Member raises a very important issue. Let me, in the first instance, state the law with reference to deposits by Friendly Societies. The unusual privilege of depositing funds without limit of amount has been conceded by Act of Parliament to Friendly Societies registered under the Friendly Societies Act, but not to Trade Unions. The Postmaster General only has the power under the Savings Bank Act to accept funds from Provident or Charitable Societies not "legally established Friendly Societies" with in the limits of £100 in one year, and £300 in all. Above these limits the consent of the National Debt Commissioners is required. Now, the question arises whether, by the insertion of rules which have sick or superannuation benefits, Trade Unions should be allowed to secure the privilege of depositing funds to an unlimited extent in the Government Savings Banks. Such an inclusion is, in my judgment, both contrary to law and to public policy; to law, because it is only to purely Provident or Charitable Societies that the privilege is extended; to public policy, because there is an illegitimate risk to the Public Exchequer in accepting as deposits an unlimited amount of strike money. The sudden withdrawal of such deposits might expose the State to the loss involved in selling stock at a time when the funds might be peculiarly depressed. While the number of applica- tions were few, the Post Office closed its eyes, and to a certain extent so did the National Debt Commissioners. The Post Office was ready to accept deposits-from any Society not flagrantly outside the legal definition. But as these applications multiplied, the matter came before me for decision, and I recognised the inexpediency of acting contrary to the letter and the spirit of the law. Hence, some applications have been refused. I believe the privilege has not been withdrawn from any branch of any Trade Union Society which has made deposits; but the acceptance of new-deposits has been refused, and I am glad that the matter should receive attention. I have before now communicated with the hon. Member for West Nottingham on the subject, and I will communicate with the hon. Member who has put the question to-day if he wishes it. I am quite ready to accept some compromise-by which a reasonable limit should be imposed, either of amount or by extending the period for notice of withdrawal, or by both. But I am not prepared to receive unlimited funds from the Trade Unions which might put the Exchequer in times of strike or commercial distress to any great disadvantage.


Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the special branches to which I have called attention were registered as Friendly Societies in 1883, and is he aware that the Amalgamated Society of Painters and Decorators-have more than 100 branches, and that they pay sick, funeral, accident, out of work, and other benefits? Does he not think that that fact brings it within the provisions of the, Friendly Societies Act? May I ask whether the Operative Bricklayers' Society is not also included in the list of these Friendly Societies; whether it has not, for more than 25 years, deposited money in the Post Office Savings Bank; and whether it has not branches all over the country? [Cries of"Order!"]


lam afraid that the hon. Member is exceeding the limits of a supplementary question. He had better put the question down on the Paper.


I bow to your ruling, Sir; but it is a most important question, and I trust that the right hon. Gentleman will give it his most careful consideration.

MR. W. E. GLADSTONE (Edinburgh, Mid Lothian)

I quite appreciate the great difficulty in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be placed in being required, without notice, to answer in detail a number of questions of this kind, the particulars of which it is almost impossible he can be acquainted with at the moment. I entirely sympathise with the anxiety of my hon. Friend, but, at the same time, I think the spirit of the answer of the Chancellor of the Exchequer ought to encourage us to believe that he will not grudge any amount of trouble which the careful consideration of the question will involve. I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman to say, either now or at some future time, whether he has ascertained that the actual or probable amounts of the deposits from Trades Unions are such as to afford a ground for the serious and solid opinion that the withdrawal of those deposits at the time of a strike would cause public inconvenience? Looking at the vast importance—and, happily, the vast importance—of the Post Office Savings Banks I am afraid that I am extremely sceptical as to whether such inconvenience would actually arise.


I do not say that any public inconvenience has arisen, although, no doubt, there has been a wide extension of the deposits in the Post Office Savings Banks and the Trustees Savings Banks, and there has, occasionally, been a loss to the Exchequer. But the question is whether, if the Trades Unions funds were included, more serious inconveniences might not arise. My attention has been drawn to the rapidity with which the extension of the deposits has been made, but I think I have offered to meet the difficulty fairly by undertaking to make arrangements with the representatives of Trades Unions in regard to the meeting of all ordinary claims. If such an arrangement were made, we might be able to accept these funds, but only to such a limited extent as I have suggested.


I beg to give notice that upon the Vote for the National Debt Office I will call attention to the subject.


Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Reports of the Friendly Societies Registrar show that the money utilised for purposes which seem to meet with his disapproval are in some cases kept separately? I refer to the distinguishment of Strike Fund from Benefit Fund.


I will inquire into that point. The only supplement I wish to make to the answer I have already given is, that there are £110,000,000 lying at call, and, although no insurmountable inconvenience might be occasioned by the Friendly Societies withdrawing the whole of their money in a time of pressure, there would, undoubtedly, be a certain amount of inconvenience; and that is why I suggest a limitation of the amount.


I beg to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether he is aware that the Post Office Savings Bank Department has refused to accept the transfer of moneys, deposited by the Trustees of the Camberwell Branch of the Amalgamated Society of Painters and Decorators with the Trustees of the Camberwell Savings Bank to the Post Office Savings Bank; and, if so, on what grounds the refusal is based; whether he is aware that the moneys aforesaid, amounting to £118 1s. 3d., were deposited in the Camberwell Savings Bank under the Friendly Societies' Clause, as a Friendly Society, and was entered as G 583 in the said Bank; whether the Amalgamated Society of Painters and Decorators is a Friendly Society within the meaning of the Act, and has been allowed, as such, to deposit its funds in Trustee or Post Office Savings Banks for many years, and has now deposited funds in the Post Office Savings Banks of the country; whether he is aware that this branch of the Amalgamated Society of Painters and Decorators is unable, by reason of the closing of the Camberwell Savings Bank and the refusal of the Post Office to accept the transfer of its funds, to make payments to its members for sickness, funeral, accident, out of work, and other benefits; and whether he will cause such transfer to be accepted without delay, in accordance with the existing law and practice in similar cases? The principal part of this question has already been announced, but I wish to have some further information in regard to the acceptance of the transfer of funds.


This is not a Society, as the question implies, registered under the Friendly Societies Act, but it is registered under the Trades Unions Act. With regard to the 4th paragraph of the question I will confer with the hon. Member and see whether an arrangement cannot be made to transfer this sum of £118. The hon. Member will see, however, that the Post Office Savings Banks Department is not the only Department that must be taken into consideration.