HC Deb 08 December 1908 vol 198 cc259-62
* MR. KEIR HARDIE (Merthyr Tydvil)

in asking leave to introduce a Bill to amend the Unemployed Workmen Act, 1905, said he was exceedingly anxious to get through the various stages of the small measure he wished to introduce this session, so as to enable the distress committees and local authorities generally to deal more adequately than they could at present with the problem of unemployment. The Bill consisted of two clauses only. The Unemployed Workmen Act, 1905, allowed distress committees to spend a yearly sum equal to a halfpenny rate without the consent of the Local Government Board, and up to the amount of a penny rate with the consent of the Board, but the distress committees were limited in the objects upon which the money so raised could be spent. A distress committee, for example, could acquire land under the Act, but it must not pay wages out of the rate money for having that land worked, and the object of the first clause of this Bill was to remove that limitation. They were not proposing to increase the amount that could be raised under the Act; all they were seeking was to remove the restriction which prohibited wages being paid from the money so raised. The local authorities in all the big centres of population were finding great difficulty indeed in dealing with unemployment in their midst, and it was thought that, if the power which this Bill proposed to confer upon them was given, they would be able to deal more freely with the problem. He had in his hand the figures from various big centres of population as to what a halfpenny rate would give to these distress committees, and in the city of Liverpool he found that a halfpenny rate meant £9,000 a year; in Manchester, £8,500; and in the Metropolitan area no less than £90,000. They asked, then, not that the rate should be increased, but that the money that it was now legal to raise should be available to be spent in the payment of wages. The clause proposed to add to subsection (6) of the Act so that it would read as follows: "The expenses, including wages, incurred by the central body in providing and operating relief work for the unemployed, which has been sanctioned by the local Government board." The second clause was a question of machinery. At present, under the Act, where no distress committees had been set up, it was obligatory on the various councils to form what were called special committees, which were limited, to collecting information about the unemployed and to assisting labour exchanges and matters of that kind. What the second clause of the Bill proposed was that where there was no distress committee, and where a special committee had been set up, the Local Government Board should be empowered to authorise that special committee to perform all the duties of a distress committee, the object being to enable certain localities where unemployment was acute, but only temporary, to tide over the present winter without being under the necessity to set up the sometimes costly machinery of a distress committee. Might he say quite frankly that the special object they had in view in the second clause was to enable the localities which had no distress committees, but where there was acute distress, to participate in the Government grant. The grant could only be administered at present through distress committees. That shut out great tracts of country where the need was pressingly great, and the second clause of the Bill widened the scope of the area over which the Government grant could be distributed. These were the only provisions of the measure, and he respectfully begged the House, in view of the urgency of the question, not merely to give leave to introduce the Bill that day, but to allow it to go through its Second Reading unopposed, in the hope that thereupon the Government would take the measure up and carry it through its remaining stage. Those who doubted the need for a measure of this kind should visit the Embankment between twelve and one o'clock at night, or go to the city of Glasgow, where every night hundreds of men were lining the streets in the neighbourhood of police offices, waiting to occupy the vacant cells in which there were no prisoners. The situation was acute. Thousands were starving, and this little Bill, by conferring upon the local authorities more adequate powers than they now possessed, would at least go some little way towards tiding them over the present winter. He begged to move.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend The Unemployed Workmen Act, 1905."—(Mr. Keir Hardie.)

SIR F. BANBURY (City of London)

said he should not have risen if the hon. Member had not said he hoped the Second Reading of the Bill would be agreed to. So far as he could make out, from the description of the Bill, it was an extremely bad Bill and one to which he should offer his most unqualified opposition.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Keir Hardie, Mr. Arthur Henderson, Mr. Barnes, Mr. Ramsay Macdonald, Mr. George Roberts, Mr. Charles Duncan, Mr. Curran, Mr. Jowett, Mr. Summerbell, and Mr. Tyson Wilson.