HC Deb 12 November 1908 vol 196 cc640-4

rose to move the adjournment of the House for the purpose of calling attention to the difference between the statement of the Prime Minister regarding the future administration of the Unemployed Workmen Act and the Order issued that day by the Local Government Board. He said hon. Members on those benches had been somewhat, surprised at the delay which had taken place in the issuing of the Order changing the regulations under the Unemployed Workmen Act in order to bring the regulations into harmony with the speech of the Prime Minister. When they found from the Press that morning that the Order had actually been issued, they were much more alarmed than at the delay to find that it was, in their judgment, inconsistent with the impression which had been left on all sections of the House by the Prime Minister's declaration. He desired to state accurately what the right hon. Gentleman said, and he would quote from Hansard the words of the right hon. Gentleman. He said— When you are dealing with a special emergency like this, I am satisfied, as I believe everybody who hears me is, that you may stretch the limits which quite properly from a business point of view would be imposed when conditions were more nearly normal. Further, with regard to the special conditions under which this grant is administered, we propose they should be relaxed in two important particulars—first, so as to allow assistance to be given in proper cases to persons who have been receiving Poor Law relief during the last twelve months, who are at present excluded; and in the second place—and I think this equally important—so as to remove the disqualification of persons who have been assisted under the Act in each of the last two years. With those three modifications, elasticity in the character of the work and the removal of the disqualification in respect of Poor Law relief and assistance during the last two years, I believe the main objection which has been taken and the main criticisms of the present administration of the grant will be effectually removed. He felt quite certain that the right hon. Gentleman would make no attempt to depart from his own words. The interpretation put upon the language—and he thought he was speaking for all sections of the House—was that the two disqualifications set up by the old Order under the Act would be removed, and, for the time being, actually done away with. He claimed the indulgence of the House in order to read two paragraphs in the new Order. The new Order provided that the distress committees might, if they thought fit, entertain an application— In the case of an applicant who fails to comply with the first of the conditions mentioned, if the distress committee have satisfied themselves that the case is capable of more suitable treatment under the Act than under the Poor Law, and that it is in all other respects one which they may properly entertain. In the case of an applicant who fails to comply with the second of the conditions, if the distress committee have satisfied themselves that his case is deserving of exceptional treatment and is in all other respects one which they may properly entertain. When he first read the Order in the Press that morning he came to the conclusion that possibly some permanent official of the Local Government Board had bungled; and it was with considerable surprise that he heard the President of the Board at Question-time, declaring that in his judgment, or in the judgment of his Department, this was the best way to carry out the engagement of the Prime Minister. But the aspect of the matter became worse when they turned to the covering letter that was sent with the Order to distress committees. In that letter the definite and conclusive statement was made that the provisions of the Order did not remove the existing disqualifications, but gave to the distress committees a discretion whereby they might waive the disqualifications in proper cases. [MINISTERIAL cries of "Hear, hear."] Hon. Members opposite might think that this was the best position to take up. But he contended that such an interpretation was impossible if they were to accept the Prime Minister's declaration both in the letter and in the spirit. What the party for whom he spoke suggested was that this Order should be withdrawn, and that a new Order should be issued in complete harmony with the Prime Minister's declaration. If that course were adopted, they made the further request that, having regard to the delay which had already taken place, the fresh Order should be issued as soon as possible, and that it should be made retrospective, so that no further hardship should be imposed upon the unemployed who were now being denied the relief which the House intended they should have. He hoped the Government would deal with the question in the spirit in which he had dealt with it in bringing it to the notice of the House. He begged to move.


seconded the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. Arthur Henderson.)


I do not in the least complain of the action which the hon. Gentleman has taken, or of the manner—the moderate and reasonable manner—in which he has presented his case to the House. I meet it at once by the frankest possible admission that the language which I used was in the sense in which he has interpreted it, and as, I believe, it was universally understood. The situation was this. These two regulations excluded from the operation of the Unemployed Workmen Act persons who had been in receipt of Poor Law relief during the past twelve months, and also persons who during the past two years had been employed on work provided by a distress committee. These two restrictions were imposed, as I think for good reasons, in times of normal and not exceptional distress. But, as I said in my speech, we are now dealing with very exceptional distress, when persons who, through no fault of their own, have fallen within one or other of these two categories might fairly make a claim for relief from the disability they imposed; and I certainly contemplated and intended to convey to the House and, as I think, did actually convey to the House, that the relaxation—which was the expression I used as regards one disqualification—and the removal—which was the expression I used as regards the other—should be general and universal. I am not quite sure that I am not somewhat to blame myself for the use of the words "so as to allow of assistance to be given in proper cases." I think it is the use I made of these words that possibly has led to misapprehension and misconstruction elsewhere. What I meant—perhaps I ought to have said so in a more explicit form—was, of course, that the local authorities were to continue to exercise a proper discrimination in these two cases; that if a man has received Poor Law relief during the past twelve months, or work during the past two years, that was not to give him an indefeasible title to get relief, but that it was not to be a bar or disqualification to relief; and that subject to this, those who are entrusted with the responsibility of administering this grant were to exercise a power of discrimination. But there has been a misapprehension of my words. I can only repeat that my language might possibly have been plainer, though it was fairly plain; but that is the sense in which I intended it to be understood by the House; and I have always considered that when I, or any other Minister, have given an assurance of that kind, it ought to be construed and given effect to, not only in the letter, but in the spirit. I have talked over the matter with my right hon. friend the President of the Local Government Board, and he agrees with me that the phraseology of this order ought to be amended. These two disqualifications are no longer to be a bar. That is not a matter for local discretion. My right hon. friend assures me that this amendment will be made without any delay, and the moment this amended order comes into effect all applications which have been refused on the ground that they fell within these disqualifications can be renewed and treated on their merits. With that assurance I hope the hon. Gentleman will be satisfied.


said that, having regard to the very satisfactory Answer given by the Prime Minister, he asked leave to withdraw his Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.