HC Deb 15 July 1915 vol 73 cc1065-70

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That a sum, not exceeding £250,000, 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, 1916. for Works to be carried out for the Relief of Unemployment in the United Kingdom.


I beg to ask leave to withdraw this Vote. I desire to tell the Committee something of the history of this, which, as the Committee will see, is a very exceptional Vote, and one on which some explanation ought to be forthcoming. The Works Votes for buildings and for new undertakings are arranged in the autumn of each year by a conference which sits under the presidency of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. The various works in contemplation are reviewed and the Vote is kept as low as possible, consistent with public requirements. In the autumn of 1914, when this Conference met, the Office of Works and the Treasury had one object in view, and that was to postpone every work that could be postponed, only to go on so far as inevitable, and with works of which the contracts had already been let, and which it would have been uneconomic to stop. The consequence was that exceptional reductions in the Vote were agreed to.

At that time, however, nobody could predict cither the length of the War or the results of the continuance of the War. There were many people who anticipated a considerable and serious unemployment, and it was, therefore, decided by the Minister of Munitions, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, that in these peculiar and exceptional circumstances a sum of £250,000 should be set aside, and that Parliament should be asked to Vote it, in order to begin, as opportunity arose, projects which in ordinary circumstances had to have the sanction of the Treasury, but which were postponed for the present because we wanted to save money which might advantageously be taken in order to relieve unemployment which might exist. As events have turned out, the fear of unemployment has practically disappeared. Under the circumstances it does not seem to the Government to-day to be necessary to ask the House to vote this money, designed to meet this exceptional unemployment, and therefore I beg leave to withdraw the Vote.


I desire to put a question or two.


The Question is, that leave be given. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] If hon. Members object, it is not possible to withdraw the Vote.


I understand this Vote was down on the Paper, and I had no notion that it was going to be withdrawn until the Chief Patronage Secretary informed us that there was to be no discussion upon it. Since then my right hon. Friend has been put up on the Front Bench to withdraw the Vote. That is not the way to deal with hon. Members who are sitting in the House, and desire to criticise those Estimates. We subsequently asked what Votes were going to be taken, and having been given the information, we notified what Votes we were going to ask questions upon. Since then the information has been given that the Vote is to be withdrawn. That I do not think is quite—

Mr. GULLAND (Lord of the Treasury)

I did not exactly hear what my hon. Friend said.


I will repeat it, then: The point I am making is that this Vote has now been withdrawn; that leave is being asked to withdraw it. It was on the Paper. I say that the Patronage Secretary came round here and asked us, amongst other things, what Votes we wanted to raise questions on, so that he could inform the Ministers that they might be present. This Vote was mentioned as the very next Vote, and the result of that action is that the Minister in charge—


That is what I absolutely object to; there is no connection between the two.


What occurred was this: the Patronage Secretary came down here after consultation with the hon. Member and told me that he proposed to raise some question upon this Vote. I then told the Patronage Secretary that it was my intention to ask the House to withdraw it.


We were never informed of that. If the Patronage Secretary comes here and asks us our idea, and conveys that information to the Minister, surely he could have come back and told us that the Vote was to be withdrawn. This Vote is put down for a specific purpose. I am not sure that the money is not required. No case has been made out by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury in favour of withdrawing this amount of money because of the absence of unemployment. Everybody in this House knows that the whole of the East Coast of the country at the present time is very hardly hit, and that there are large numbers of trades which are very badly employed. There are in our own country of Scotland the case of the fishermen and fishermen's dependants. The War has entirely ruined that industry in Scotland, particularly that portion of it which is carried on by the dependants, and I do not know of any other fund that is provided by the Government to deal with these cases. From time to time these cases are brought up in this House, and we are informed that they are the consequence of the War, and that these people must suffer in the same way just as other people suffer. But the House knows perfectly well that a great many people, for instance, in connection with the Stock Exchange, and people engaged in the City—friends of the hon. Baronet opposite (Sir F. Banbury), who-is in favour, I understand, of this Grant being withdrawn—they have been supported by Government money and Government credit. The hon. Baronet shakes his head. I think he will find it very difficult indeed to prove that they have not been supported by Government money and by Government credit.

But these poorer working classes engaged in those various industries around the coast are suffering hardly, and there is no fund that I know of, except the Prince of Wales' Fund. I do not know, Mr. Whitley, how far one is entitled to refer to that fund in this discussion, but part of that fund is at the disposal of the Local Government Board for the relief of civil distress. This Vote of £250,000 is also for the relief of civil distress, and therefore, if I may, I should like to refer to the fact that we never have had yet placed before the House any adequate or full statement from the Local Government Board of the amount of money subscribed to the National Relief Fund that has been expended in the relief of civil distress throughout the country. I am perfectly certain, so far as I am aware, that anything that has been done has not been devoted to particular trades. I would like the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to believe me when I say that one is concerned for this particular purpose. He knows perfectly well—these towns apart, and the places I have mentioned in my own country—that on the East Coast of England you have distressed industries and people that are largely out of work. You have, for instance, watering places along the coast practically this year without visitors of any kind, and ladies who make their livelihood from year to year by letting apartments on the verge of ruin. They are having an extremely hard time of it. Why should the Government, unless they can give us some real and tangible explanation of their hold upon the National Belief Fund for the purpose of relieving civil distress—unless, I say, they can make that plain—not earmark, at any rate, that small amount of money that the Government every year earmarks, of £100,000, for the purpose of the Unemployed Workmen's Act in connection with our Labour Exchanges? That is the usual Grant that is made from year to year.

Here is a sum of £250,000. If it is not required and not spent—and here the hon. Baronet opposite will surely agree—if it is not spent it will go back into the Treasury; it will not be lost. It is one of those balances which goes back. It is not as the sums which we have been discussing this afternoon. Surely it is much better that the Government should have this small amount in hand to deal with that exceptional kind of distress should it arise. Take the point again, of the landladies at the boarding houses. You will not really know until the end of the season how badly they are going to be hit. Their great difficulty will be in carrying over from the month of October to the spring, and I think the Government ought to provide some fund of money which they could use, if there is not enough available from the National Belief Fund. The Financial Secretary knows of the rumours going about that so much of that money is used for soldiers' and sailors' allowances which ought to be provided by the War Office and Admiralty. Whether they will ever get that money back I do not know. At any rate, an enormous number of claims are coming out of that National Relief Fund, and it would be unwise of the Financial Secretary to withdraw the only fund that does exist to meet exceptional cases of distress that are in existence and will arise as distress becomes more intense in the winter months.


Statements have been made that there is no distress, or will be no distress this winter. I know there is a great deal of prosperity while this money is being spent, but if the right hon. Gentleman thinks that is the case everywhere he is grievously mistaken. My committee are having a meeting, I hope, next week with the Local Government Board, and the mayor and corporation are sending a deputation, because there is not the slightest doubt distress is acute in my Constituency, and people at the present moment are selling their furniture bit by bit to pay their immediate expenses. The town has been absolutely stopped from having visitors this summer and lost its herring fishery last season. If, therefore, this Vote is not to be applicable it will be serious. It is a most serious matter to lose a great herring fishery, and then to lose the summer season entirely, seeing that an enormous number of lodging-house keepers and others depend on it. They have not been allowed to have Belgian or French refugees, because it is in the danger zone, and they are not allowed to have troops billeted there, because, for some strategical reason, troops are not desirable in the locality. The withdrawal of the Vote, which might enable assistance to be given to such a town, is, therefore, a matter of serious moment. I do not know what would be done with this money, but it should be left available for such cases as will be brought before the Local Government Board next week.


I think there is some misapprehension. This money was for the relief of only one kind of unemployment— that in the building trade. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"]


Is the Vote not an estimate of the amount required in the year to defray the cost of: "Works to be carried out for the Relief of Unemployment in the United Kingdom"?


I quite agree, but works to be carried out by the Public Works Departments, and the works which were contemplated were building works. In the present state of things, it seems to me highly undesirable to go on with that, particularly as you would be using men especially useful for other and more urgent work, and also raw material—girders and things of that kind—which might be required in other work. If my two hon. Friends are interested in unemployment generally, there are other ways of meeting such unemployment as may occur during winter. My hon. Friend (Mr. Hogge) has already mentioned the extra-Parliamentary Fund. Distress arising out of the War can be met out of the Vote of Credit, and later on this evening I hope to move a Supplementary Estimate under the Unemployment Workmen's Act, not of £100,000, but of £50,000, which is specially designed for the purpose of relieving unemployment, so that there are other means of meeting this.

Question put, and negatived.