HC Deb 23 February 1915 vol 70 cc224-9

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £91,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1915, for the Salaries of the Staff and other Expenses of Labour Exchanges, including the Contribution to the Unemployment Insurance Fund and Repayments to Associations pursuant to Sections 85 and 106 of the National Insurance Act, 1911, and certain additional Repayments to Associations."


I propose to ask the Committee for leave to withdraw this Motion, and on that account I will briefly explain the whole of the circumstances. The Committee will remember that when the Estimate came up I admitted that there had been considerable doubts as to what was the correct form in which it should be put forward. There was a certain amount of irregularity about it, and in strict fact the theoretically correct form of the Estimate would be its inclusion under the Vote of Credit. It is really an Emergency Grant made by the Cabinet on special representations, and it is under the Vote of Credit that the money is payable. What would have been the effect of treating it in that strictly correct form at the outset? It would have been that this payment would have gone into the Appropriation Act, and in that way it would have escaped the notice of the House. It would not have come before the Public Accounts Committee until 1916, and by that time the information which the House might very naturally have expected would be practically useless. The course that was taken of putting it forward in connection with the Unemployment Insurance Estimate had the effect of securing full publicity and of giving the House a means of discussing all the details. The choice was between theoretic irregularity with publicity or regularity without it I believe the Committee will not regret, in the circumstances, the course which gave it the means of raising and discussing the whole question. The hon. Baronet (Sir F. Banbury) did, in fact, call in question the payment as well as the form in which it appeared. I will only repeat what I stated to the Committee before, that this was a Grant made in respect of the peculiar and very exceptional distress experienced in one or two trades, the cotton trade being the chief, while other trades were in very good employment. That distress is happily decreasing, but it has certainly not yet disappeared from the cotton trade. It was considered that the best way to relieve that kind of distress was to use the machinery of the unemployment part of the Insurance Act. It was because the money was paid in connection with the machinery of the unemployment part of the Insurance Act, and because the machinery of the Department was used and the Grants were, so to speak, tacked on to the Insurance Grant, that, the Vote was put forward in connection with the Unemployment Insurance Estimate. There being no statutory authority in the unemployment part of the Insurance Act, the Estimate, as I have stated, was really irregular. Authority for the payment will be regularised by putting it into the Vote of Credit which was so drawn as to cover such Grants from the Government, and in that way it will be put upon a thoroughly constitutional basis. I would formally move that the Vote be withdrawn.

Sir F. BANBURY rose—


If the hon. Baronet wishes to speak, the Motion for the withdrawal had bettor be made later.


I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his explanation. I think he is quite right in moving to withdraw this particular Estimate. I am not quite sure that he is right in saying that it can properly and regularly be brought in under the Vote of Credit. On that I will not commit myself, except to remind the hon. Gentleman that Erskine May says that a Vote of Credit is only to be used in a case of great emergency or where the sum involved is of such magnitude, or of such an indefinite character that it cannot be dealt with in other ways. I do not consider that this sum comes under cither of those categories. It is not of enormous magnitude, and it is not of an indefinite character. It has a very-definite character. I would further remind the hon. Gentleman that the President of the Board of Education old us that it would be necessary to have legislation to authorise this expenditure, and that the Government did intend at an early date to bring in a Bill to regularise it. I now understand that is not going to be done. The hon. Gentleman has rather thrown over the President of the Board of Education, who was called in to lead the Committee when they were in considerable doubt as to what ought to be done.


I would remind the hon. Baronet that I myself alluded to the introduction of a Bill, if necessary. It has been decided that the Bill is not necessary. That being so, it was not thought necessary to burden the House with the Bill.


I remember that the President of the Board of Education did make the statement. I do not know that I quite agree with the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that we should be burdening the House if he brought in another Bill. The House has not very much to do, but it is most anxious to do anything in reason that the Government requires. There has been no attempt on either side, certainly not on this side, to do anything, in any kind of way, to prevent a Government Bill, if it is a good and proper Bill, passing. I am afraid the argument of the hon. Gentleman that he cannot bring in the Bill because he would be burdening the House—


I said that if it were unnecessary it would be burdening the House.


Is it unnecessary? We have the statement of the President of the Board of Education that the Bill is necessary, and the further statement of the hon. Gentleman himself that he thought it was necessary. He has not given any good reason why he has changed his opinion, except that he does not want to burden the House. In these circumstances, I shall be very glad to assist the hon. Gentleman in withdrawing the Vote, but I must reserve to myself the right of criticising his further action when he proceeds later on to take the necessary steps to get this money. If he will allow mo to give him a little advice, I would advise him to throw himself freely into the hands of the Opposition, who would endeavour to do everything they can, so long as things are properly done, to assist him in carrying on the government of the country.


I do not quite agree that in all circumstances a Bill would be unnecessary. If the Government attempted to persevere with this Vote, in my opinion it would require legislation. By taking it simply under the Vote of Credit as an emergency Vote, instead of in this form, they are hoping to escape the necessity for a new Bill. Some hon. Members present will remember that on the previous occasion the hon. Baronet (Sir F. Banbury) and the hon. and learned Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Rawlinson) were discussing it according to its appearance on the Paper. My own impression was that it was a special Grant to trade unions under the emergency powers, but the discussion proceeded on the assumption that it was part of the ordinary working of the unemployment insurance part of the Insurance Act. I felt it my duty to get up, when the hon. and learned Member was proceeding to develop his point and it was not challenged, and challenge it myself in order to bring out the fact that it was an Emergency Grant, and had nothing to do with the National Insurance Act. Hon. Members then said generally that I was wrong. I stuck to it with my usual modesty. I knew the right hon. Gentleman would be very candid, and he said that I was right, and that the general view of hon. Members was wrong. As a consequence of that the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Bigland) moved to report Progress, the Chairman felt bound to take the Motion, and the Government accepted it. What the Government did was this: They had a rebate under the National Insurance Act and they took credit for it to the amount of about £30,000, thereby reducing the Grant to trade unions from £120,000 to £90,000, and in order to take advantage of this surplus they had to do it in this way. I do not agree for a moment that the Treasury put it on the Paper to show how the money had been used. They put it on the Paper in that form in order to get the £30,000 into the account so as to reduce the £120,000 to £90,000.

What will be done under the Vote on Account I do not know. I do not blame the hon. Member in charge of the Vote, because I do not think he was responsible for the form. The thing had been done by the Treasury. Whether they intended to avoid discussion in the House I do not know. I am rather chary about giving them credit for giving the House more opportunities of reviewing their work than it ordinarily has, but I hope when they ask us to vote it again that the amount and the deduction under the Insurance Act will be specifically shown, so that the House will see where the £120,000 has gone. I was glad to see one of the latest recruits of the Labour party in the House at the time the discussion was taken. I said it was due to the Committee that some official spokesman on behalf of the trade unions should make an utterance on this point which would benefit the trade unions, but there was none. When it comes up again a straightforward statement by the Government on the one hand, and the trade unions on the other, will be of great benefit. My criticism at the time was that there was an opening for a corrupt Government in the future, unless the whole thing were disclosed to the House. I ventured to point this out even to Members, of the Labour party, because I do not think they would like it if any Government should have it in its power to make-a Grant to a specific trade union in a time of emergency, and then cover it up in some general way, so that the House did not know what was being done. I do not think there will be any trouble if a full disclosure is made of these things. I trust the Government can see their way to do that when it comes before the House again.


I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion. The hon. Baronet is really unjust to the Treasury in being indisposed to credit them with a desire to bring the matter fully before the House. It was the desire of the-Treasury to bring it before the House which was the cause of the Estimate being brought forward in this irregular form which has permitted this full discussion. In reply to the hon. Baronet (Sir F. Banbury) I would not pit myself against him or Sir Erskine May as to the Rule on Votes of Credit, but I would remind him that the wording of the Vote of Credit is very full and specific, and that it includes the words "for assisting the food supply, for promoting trade, industry, business, and communications, whether by means of insurance, or indemnity against risk, or otherwise for relief of distress, and generally for all expenses arising out of the existence of a state of war. I rather think Sir Erskine May would say that covered the situation.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.