HC Deb 25 July 1910 vol 19 cc1871-81

I wish to submit a few points with regard to the administration and management of Labour Exchanges. We have listened with a great deal of patience to questions of high Imperial politics, and we feel that we ought to give some attention to the subjects which affect the life and conditions of the labouring poor. We wish success to the Labour Exchanges, and I am glad to know that they are doing some service in the direction of bringing ready and willing workers in closer touch with such work as may be available for them. But notwithstanding this, the accounts we have received of the methods of management and questions connected with the administration of these Labour Exchanges have convinced us that the managers have shown an over-anxiety merely to fill vacancies without due regard to the many consequences and effects which were certain to follow. We have in this connection endeavoured to procure from the Government an account of the antecedents and some information as to the capacity of the men who have been put at the head of these exchanges. Some few weeks ago the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil questioned the President of the Board of Trade with regard to this very method, and the right hon. Gentleman replied that it was not the custom to publish an official statement as to the qualifications and previous experience of officers appointed to situations in the public service, and that he saw no reason for departing from that rule in the present instance. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil was anxious to obtain information as to the previous commissions held by those who have been appointed at the head of the several Labour Exchanges. We wished to have that information, because it had been borne in upon us that a number of these men were not showing that capacity for management or that acquaintance with labour and social questions that ought to be possessed by the men who have to deal with these questions. We wished to know whether we had at the head of these exchanges the right men for managing them. I wish to draw attention to a precedent which has been set in this matter.

The right hon. Gentleman has so far withheld the information we have asked for on the ground that it was not usual to supply it. I would remind him that on 3rd June, 1907, a Return was asked for by the hon. Member for Leicester as to the previous occupations and professions of the gentlemen who had been appointed to the position of factory inspectors, and a Return giving the fullest details was supplied to my hon. Friend. If in the case of the gentlemen who are to fill positions as factory inspectors we can be supplied with information as to their previous occupations and professions, we do not see why it should not be supplied in the case of Labour Exchanges. We have had a number of complaints as to the rate of wages paid to the men performing daily service, as compared with the considerable salaries paid to the men at the head of these institutions. We ask are those who are actually doing the work as clerks and minor managers, under-managers, and deputy-managers, down to the men and women who clean the office, being properly remunerated for their services, as compared with the men who are receiving £500 and £600 a year. I have here information of a case of two persons who for a week's work of something like seventy hours received about 15s. It is conveyed to me in these words:— Have you ever tried to keep a family on 13s. 6d. per week? If not perhaps it will interest you to know my experience. I am caretaker and cleaner here at this handsome salary, Nominally the payment is 15s., with three rooms and the use of a kitchen, with light and fuel, but, as we have to find our own materials for cleaning and keeping the exchange in order at a cost of at least 1s. 6d. per week, it reduces the salary to 13s. 6d. The exchange consists of two large four-storey buildings with basements. There are four or five cwts. of coal to carry daily in the winter months up a number of stairs, and the work of cleaning takes my wife and myself on an average over seventy hours a week, and we have to be on the premises all Sundays and all holidays. Such work and such wages are not creditable to this or any other Government, and cases of that kind should be immediately reviewed. They made some complaint with results very disagreeable. Feeling grieved and thinking it would command attention to his case, the man wrote to the head of his Department. He received an answer threatening to dismiss him for having technically violated some regulation to the effect that he ought not to have written to the head of the Department. When men feel aggrieved in connection with State work and communicate direct with the State Department they ought to receive better treatment than to be told that in so presenting their case they are incurring the risk of dismissal. Many of us have visited these exchanges and we would urge very seriously the necessity, especially in view of the winter months before us, of providing better accommodation in many cases for those waiting to hear of a job. During the past month or two many of the exchanges have had to revise their times, and in a number of cases—I know of some myself in Lancashire—they are now beginning work at a quarter to six in the morning. It is essential persons should not be compelled to walk some four or five miles to some central exchange, and I would suggest the advisability of opening a number of suboffices, which, I think, could be done without any great cost to the State.

I would ask attention to our grievance with regard to the absence up to now of the advisory committees that were promised and, indeed, provided for in the Labour Exchanges Act. We have been specifically promised the setting up of these advisory committees. We know the difficulties in the way. We are not imputing any undue delay or neglect of duty on the part of those who have had this matter in hand, but it does appear to us to be necessary now to hasten the formation of these committees so that they may be fully prepared for the circumstances that will have to be dealt with in the winter months.

Many complaints have reached us as to the action of Labour Exchanges on wages. The fullest promise was given to us when this question was under consideration as to the impartial position which these exchanges would occupy on the question of wages in districts. But our contention is that the exchanges have not been absolutely impartial. We have a report from Carlisle. Recently two members of the local branch of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, in consequence of an application from Camborne, Cornwall, for fitters and turners, journeyed to that town and were there asked to start at 2s. below the union rate of wages. They refused, and telegraphing to the exchange at Plymouth the officers of the association there paid their fares back to Carlisle. My comment on that is that it would be far wiser before labour is supplied to any employer to have an understanding on the question of wages rather than that men should be sent a considerable distance and then be offered work below the regulation wage, and in consequence have to have their fares paid back to the town whence they started.

Again, in the case of Reading the local trades and labour council applied to be allowed to place in the premises of the Labour Exchange a list of the standard rates of wages in the possession of the trade unionists of the town. They were refused permission for the use of the exchange premises for so innocent a business as giving information to the working men of the district as to what were the proper rates of wages. On this matter the Board of Trade, in a letter sent out on the 23rd May, stated that the officer in charge of a Labour Exchange should undertake no responsibility with regard to wages or other conditions. The business of the Labour Exchange was to notify workmen of any vacancies of which the exchange had been able to obtain notice. It was to be left to the workman to use his own discretion as to whether the wages offered to him were right. But the fact remains that if a man after perhaps some weeks of unemployment is sent miles to a place he is not in a position to excercise discretion; circumstances may compel him to accept whatever may be offered for the time being. My view is that non- interference and impartiality in the holding of the scales as between employers and employed on this question of wages may be difficult, but under no circumstances nor in any form should the Labour Exchanges supply workmen to employers at less than the standard rate of wages. In fact, the Exchanges have virtually taken the side of some employers on the wage question, and are not acting impartially at all. May I draw attention to a speech which was made by the right hon. Gentleman who is now at the head of the Board of Trade in this House, dealing some time ago with the question of contracts? The principle of the Motion which he himself was responsible for carrying in this House was this, that the Government should not provide work for employers who paid less than the standard rate of wages. The point I put to him is this: That if it is right to withhold work from an employer until he pays the standard rate of wages, it is wrong to supply workmen to an employer who does not pay them. Surely the workmen and the work should be supplied, so far as the State is concerned, on the same principle.

The workmen, as well as the employers, have been totally misinformed as to the way in which the exchanges would be used. Some time ago the employers in Coventry passed a resolution to the effect that workmen who asked for, or wanted, more than 30s. a week for any class of work should not be allowed to use the exchanges. If that view of the Coventry employers has come to the notice of the right hon. Gentleman, I would like to know what his view of such a resolution is. During the existence of trade disputes there have been, as most Members of this House are aware, cases reported from time to time of men trying to fill positions which have been vacated by men who have entered into a state of dispute. It was never intended that the exchanges should be used for such a purpose, but certainly they have been so used. When the Home Secretary, then at the Board of Trade, was placing this matter of the Labour Exchanges before the House in the last Parliament, he repeatedly and emphatically stated that these exchanges would aid neither party during a dispute. Neither party, he said, was to be aided by the exchanges during a dispute. We say that these instances show that employers of labour have been aided by the exchanges in cases of dispute. It is not sufficient to leave either to employers or workmen liberty to notify the existence of a dispute, and then to leave it to the discretion of the workman as to whether he will fill a vacant place or not. When under any circumstances or in any form a workman is supplied to an employer where a dispute exists, it is not acting impartially, but it is acting the part of an agent of an employer where working men are supplied during the existence of a dispute on existing conditions.

The whole of the administration of these exchanges is a matter which should be watched carefully by those who are responsible in the last resort for their efficient management. They will not fulfil the purpose they were intended for unless they can secure and retain the confidence of the organised workers of the country. The prosperity and success of the interests of workers of this country rests upon the prosperity of our trade unions. It is understood that we are to have the questions of wage adjustments, of minimum rates for those in sweated trades, insurance for the unemployed and those out of work through sickness linked up with the management and work of our exchanges, and for these reasons, if for no other, we are wishful to have them lifted above any suspicion, and to be worked impartially in the interests of the workmen and employers, and worked with a view of giving the assistance they were intended to give to the unemployed classes.

The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of TRADE (Mr. Buxton)

I fully recognise that the Labour Exchange system, which I think is making good progress, cannot be a success unless it receives general assent from all quarters inside and outside the House, and I quite agree that unless it obtains and retains the confidence of the organised workers and employers it cannot be the success which we hope it will be. The question of rates of wages in particular places has not come before me. I shall be very glad to inquire into it, and I shall be prepared to do at the Board of Trade what I did at the Post Office, and look into any case which is sent to me and see how far justice is done in reference to wages and conditions of labour. If the hon. Member will send me particulars I will certainly look into the case, but, with few exceptions, I have not received complaints with reference to the question of wages under Labour Exchanges. As to the premises, the work of the Labour Exchanges is quite new, and it has been done under great pressure. It was necessary to carry it out rapidly in order to open a considerable number of Labour Exchanges to give the experiment a fair opportunity, and therefore a considerable proportion of these premises are of a temporary nature. We are remedying that as rapidly as we can by the acquisition of permanent premises which will meet the objection.

The hon. Member also mentioned the question of advisory committees. There, again, we have been making as rapid progress as we can. The worst thing we could do would be to set up these advisory committees without proper inquiry, consideration and communication in various quarters. But I am glad to think we are making considerable progress with them. The advisory committee for London had its first meeting on Thursday, and in other parts we are rapidly proceeding with the creation of these committees. I agree that the creation and the existence of advisory committees will be of the greatest possible assistance, and I am glad to believe that the committees, which consist of representatives of workmen and employers, will do a great deal to meet the other points which my hon. Friend has referred to. In starting a new institution of this sort it is quite obvious that various questions will arise, some of them of a peculiar nature, and some of them of quite a long character. These are questions which have to be solved gradually and with due consideration. My hon. Friend ought to remember that in regard to the points he has raised we have endeavoured at every stage to act in the best way for all those concerned. My hon. Friend said it was the duty of the exchanges to notify vacancies so far as possible in order to put workmen in the way of filling them. It is not very easy, indeed it would be impossible, in every instance to say how far a particular vacancy is suitable for a particular workman. In every case the exchanges give such information as they can to the workman who is seeking a position in order that he shall be put in possession of the facts as to the position of affairs when he is applying for a particular vacancy. But there again there are many points which have come to my attention, which I will certainly look into—matters in which advisory committees will be of the greatest possible assistance. In regard to all questions of disputes I think the hon. Gentleman will remember that when the Bill was introduced originally there were two courses open with respect to the attitude of the Labour Exchanges. One was that where there was a dispute the Labour Exchanges should, so far as that particular portion of their work was concerned, be put out of gear, and that no men should be engaged or applied for through them. The other course was that in every case where there was a dispute the exchanges should notify it, and give full information as to the position of affairs to men who are on the lists, and allow them to exercise their own opinion in regard to it. The matter was discussed with representatives of the trade unions, and my right hon. Friend came to the conclusion—basing his conclusion largely on the experience of Germany—that it would be better, instead of putting the exchanges out of gear in reference to these matters, at all events to see how the other course would work under the conditions I have described. In the case of Germany, which is the best example, Labour Exchanges were put out of gear during disputes; but after a short time employers and workmen, and especially those representing the trade unions, came to the conclusion that second thoughts were better. I can assure my hon. Friend that, in regard to all the points to which he has referred, we are watching matters with the greatest possible care. We are exceedingly anxious that the Labour Exchanges in these matters should maintain an impartial attitude. I hope that, with the help of the advisory committees and the greater experience which comes to us with longer time, we may be able to satisfy those interested in these matters that the Labour Exchanges are conducted on an impartial basis, and that, as a matter of fact, they do not interfere on one side or the other. I desire to acknowledge very heartily the generous assistance we have received from all quarters interested in the Labour Exchanges with the view to their getting a full and adequate trial. I hope the results will be satisfactory to all concerned.


Can the right hon. Gentleman make any statement as to the opening of sub-offices in large cities and towns?


That is a point which I had in my mind. Of course we have not yet opened all the head offices. We cannot move very rapidly in this matter, but I am glad that it has been mentioned, and I shall give it special attention.

11.0 P.M.


I am extremely sorry I was not in my place when my right hon. Friend the Member for East Worcestershire raised the question of the most recent concession to Ireland on the subject of Licence Duty. I do not intend to say very much about that. I make no complaint about the concessions which are obtained by my hon. Friends from Ireland for licence holders there, because I recognise that the duties are of a very extreme and very punitive character. I am only too glad to think that the political influence of hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway has been able to induce the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make no fewer than three concessions already upon the tax as originally proposed to be levied in Ireland. But I bring this matter forward in order to press upon the Chancellor the fairness and the justice of reconsidering the position with regard to the licences above a certain rental in England and Scotland. If it be fair and reasonable to make these constant concessions to Ireland, on a rental based on a perfectly out-of-date valuation, bearing no relation whatever to the existing actual value in Ireland, surely there is a very good case for reconsidering the charge upon the very excessive site value, and building value rental upon which Licence Duty is based in England and Scotland; and I think the House ought to know what this really means. I have asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer two or three times to furnish figures showing what the real effect of these new duties is upon certain localities in England and Scotland. He has hitherto told me, I have no doubt with perfect truth, that he is unable to do so, that the Inland Revenue authorities have not yet been able to provide him with those figures, and that until he has the actual valuation of the higher houses settled upon the new basis, or rather, I ought to say, on the alternative basis. it is quite impossible for him to give these figures. I have got in my hands a typical case, that of the borough of Cardiff. I do not know whether it is in any sense a peculiar case or whether the other county boroughs of England and Wales would be in the same position, or whether the licence holders there would be situated very much in the same way. But it is a very interesting case. It is a case which I think the House ought to hear about, and then perhaps they will realise what these licence duties mean. There are 235 houses in Cardiff which are affected by the new duties. The old duty on these houses for the year ending in July would have been £7,006. The new Licence Duty, taking the £500 houses and all those above that figure at the minimum charge which the Finance Bill proposes, and taking the hotels as if less than one-third of their takings were for liquor—I find that the new Licence Duty for the year amounted to no less than £29,934, an increase of £22,934. [Mr. HOLT: "Hear, hear."] The hon. Member for Hexham says "Hear, hear." Yes; I wonder whether he would like a charge of that kind put upon shipping.


We do not get the special monopoly privilege.


That may be perfectly true, but what is the good of a monopoly privilege if the taxation is such as to take it away? I think the licence holders in Cardiff would be very glad to be in the position of the hon. Gentleman to carry on their business under the same conditions as those under which he carries on his. Certainly the hon. Member is not punished by taxation which takes away infinitely more than the monopoly value. I think that these figures ought to show clearly that while it may be perfectly right and fair to make these concessions to the Irish licence holders there is a very strong case for some reasonable consideration of England and Scotland. The difficulty is that you are assessing on the annual rental value, which in many cases has no sort of relation whatever to the trade done in those houses. It may arise from a very expensive site value, or expensive building value, and it does not necessarily arise from the trade value. While the Chancellor of the Exchequer has bound himself in the Finance Act to make a revaluation of the whole of these houses on the annual licence value basis, so far as I can see it is very doubtful indeed whether that valuation will be ready for the purposes of the finances of 1911. I am bound to say that I agree, if you can arrive at the licence value, it is a very fair and just basis to insist upon. But the continuance of a system which is full of anomalies cannot be justified—a system which is grossly unfair, which penalises many people doing a comparatively small business, and is very much in favour of people doing a large trade carried on in premises of a very low value, and which, of course, pay a very low duty. I know many cases of the kind myself. I had a case brought before me in which a house pays £40 Licence Duty and sells ever so much liquor, while another house not very far from it pays £250.

There is no fairness in that. Where does the monopoly come in there? The Chancellor of the Exchequer was told of these cases all through the Debates on the Finance Bill, but he turned a deaf ear. I think, however, that the right hon. Gentleman acknowledges now that the charges on these more highly rated houses are really unfair, and I think he is satisfied now that these people should receive greater consideration. I trust the right hon. Gentleman will revise the duties in such a way as to take away from these people payment of the very excessive sums which they are now charged. I trust before we reassemble in November the right hon. Gentleman will be able to give the figures both for Scotland and for England as to the new Licence Duty, which by that time will all be paid, and in cases where they are not paid the House will know. We shall then know whether his estimate of £2,100,000 has been exceeded or not. I think we have a right to claim if that sum has been exceeded, as I believe it will be very greatly exceeded, that he will then consider the propriety, the fairness, and the justice of giving licence-holders in England and in Scotland a concession which will, at all events, refund to them the money which he has taken over and above that sum, which he always agreed he had no right to take.