HC Deb 15 November 1918 vol 110 cc3146-52

Order for Second Reading read.

The MINISTER of LABOUR (Mr. G. Roberts)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

This is a temporary measure to enable the Commissioner of Works to take possession of premises on behalf of the Ministry of Labour by an extension of the powers of the Defence of the Realm Act, under which the possession of lands and the buildings thereon can be taken to meet war emergencies. We are advised that they cannot be taken for purely peace purposes such as demobilisation, and it has been necessary to come to Parliament direct for the purpose. It is therefore proposed that under the Defence of the Realm Act Regulations may be made by Order in Council enabling the Commissioner of Works to take premises for the purpose of Employment Exchanges and other purposes of the Ministry of Labour. The powers given by the Bill will, of course, come to an end at the same time as the other Defence of the Realm Regulations. The Committee, on termination of war legislation, was of opinion that the power to issue Regulatons under the Defence of the Realm Acts only existed during the continuance of the present War. The effect of the Bill will be to give this temporary power so long as this state lasts. Any person whose premises have been taken will, during the operation of the Orders, be entitled to compensation for direct loss or damage assessed by the Defence of the Realm Losses Commission.

The first object of the Bill is to enable the Ministry to secure premises for Employment Exchanges. The present staff of the Employment Exchanges is approximately 6,000, and the Exchanges ordinarily deal with some 4,250,000 workpeople. It is anticipated that during the demobilisation period the Exchanges will have to deal with some 14,000,000 persons, and practically the whole of the working classes will be brought within the unemployment benefit scheme. It will be necessary, therefore, to make a corresponding increase in the staff of the Employment Exchanges, and it is anticipated that it may at least have to be trebled. It is obvious that the present accommodation is totally inadequate for this purpose, and moreover the need is instant and urgent and the possibility of obtaining premises at present engaged by other Government offices cannot therefore be taken into account. The necessary premises will, wherever possible, be acquired by agreement, and the compulsory powers will only be used as a final resource. We have already been promised the use of town halls and other public buildings, and our present view is that we shall require to use these powers very slightly; but there are certain congested districts in which we have been unable to secure buildings by agreement, and I am sure everyone will acknowledge that nothing must stand in the way of the task of demobilisation being carried through as speedily and as smoothly as possible.

The second object of the mil is to enable the Ministry to take premises for other purposes. These other purposes are mainly the provision of offices and accommodation for the staff of the Appointments Department of the Ministry. The Appointments Department has been established to deal with the resettlement in civil life of officers and other ranks of like standing and education, and similar persons who have left their work or business to undertake war work. It is intended to provide advice and assistance where necessary with a view to resettling these persons in civil life. The country is divided up into a number of separate local districts, each of which will have a head office with a staff of about 100 persons. Several branch offices will also be required in each district. I think I can rely on the general concurrence of the House that we ought to have these powers.


I have no objection whatever to the powers my right hon. Friend is asking for, but I should like him to say how many buildings he proposes to take and how many centres it is proposed to take over to establish new Labour Exchanges. At present there is an enormous number of Labour Exchanges throughout the country, and some may be taken while others are not. I should also like him to say whether it is proposed that the Office of Works shall take over any premises occupied by other Government Departments now which will become vacant at an early date. I ask that in the interest of economy, because some of these Departments—the Food Control offices and the National Service offices—are already furnished, and would suit the purpose admirably. It would be extremely unwise on my right hon. Friend's part to take fresh buildings for Labour Exchanges purposes when there are already offices fitted up at the expense of the nation which would suit his purpose equally well.


I do not rise with any hostile intention against the Bill, but it is rather a significant commentary upon the discussion that has taken place on the previous Bill, for which the main argument was that it was really designed to shorten the period of the continuance of the powers now held under Defence of the Realm Act, that we should be immediately confronted with a measure for further extending the existing powers, for this is a proposal in effect to extend the powers now granted to the Government under the Defence of the Realm Acts. It is only a matter of months since a Committee of this House was asked to vote to the Labour Ministry a large sum of money for the purpose of providing additional premises for Employment Exchanges. Are we to understand that this is a power additional to those conferred by that grant of money? I indicated at the time that the sum asked for was a very considerable one, and we were asked to vote it without any indication of the purposes for which it was to be used. The Minister of Labour assured me then that it was to be used for the purpose of acquiring and enlarging existing Employment Exchanges. I take it this is an application for a power over and above that very considerable extension of accommodation which was granted only some weeks ago. I was very much impressed by the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion that because a large number of additional classes of the population are to be brought within the ambit of the responsibility of these Departments—quite properly so—a corresponding increase of accommodation and staff was required. It does not necessarily follow—and the conduct of all large businesses is evidence of this—that because you have a vast extension of your clients therefore you require a corresponding extension of staff or premises, and, having regard to the perfect recklessness which Government Departments have hitherto displayed in the acquisition of public buildings and the multiplication of staffs before they have taken anything like a proper review of the scope of their work, I hope we are not to have, in reference to this measure, a repetition of that very unfortunate and extravagant experience. The work on which the right hon. Gentleman is engaged is work of profound importance, with which every hon. Member will be in entire and sympathetic agreement, but since we have had so many lessons of perfectly indefensible and reckless extravagance in our recent past I hope he will not construe the fact of the passing of the Second Reading of this Bill as giving him a blank cheque for such extensions of staff and such further requisitions of premises as he may be advised or may think are proper in connection with the work of his Department. He told us that the compensation to be given where premises were compulsorily acquired was to be compensation as determined by the War Losses Commission. He must be perfectly aware that in the past a considerable amount of injustice has been done in cases where Government Departments have compulsorily acquired premises under the Defence of the Realm Act and have refused to acknowledge any obligation for the rent of those premises. That may be permissible—I doubt if it is—but it is conceivable that it is permissible in time of war. But there can be no justification for action of that kind on the part of an executive Department in time of peace. The Government, now that the restraint of patriotism is relaxed, may find themselves in legal difficulty. The right hon. Gentleman may or may not be aware that at any rate other members of the Government are aware of, or are being made aware, that the Government has no legal power to-day to requisition property at anything less than its value in the market at the moment of requisition. An owner of property that has been requisitioned under conditions such as that has only to proceed by petition of right to upset the Government's terms at once, and I counsel the right hon. Gentleman to have security for his own position and to see that procedure as regards compensation for premises compulsorily acquired does not leave him open to the embarrassment of proceedings. Individuals who have for patriotic reasons refused to proceed against the Government while the War was raging are not in the same position now and the same sort of restraint will not obtain now as in the past.


My hon. Friend directs attention to the fact that two months ago powers were taken for the extension of the Employment Exchanges, but I would point out that owing to war conditions it has been absolutely impossible to carry out that scheme and to erect new buildings or to make any considerable alterations, and the emergency of demobilisation has come upon us much more rapidly than we contemplated at that time. Therefore, the proposals in this Bill are not really additional to the plans which we then submitted to the House, but are really emergency substitutes for those plans. I can assure my hon. Friend that I am fully conscious of the desirability of administering my Department as economically as possible, and I hope that is the policy I have consistently pursued; but he will realise that in this emergency it may not be possible to carry things on so strictly businesslike as if we had time to gradually create a staff and in course of time to perfect it. There is a very heavy responsibility thrown very suddenly on the Department, and it must be enormously extended in order to deal with the problem. I have listened to the observations of my hon. Friend with respect to the question of finance, and I appreciate the spirit in which he has spoken, and certainly it will be my business to see that money is not wasted and that it shall not be expended unnecessarily in any shape or form. It is the urgency of the problem which requires that we should ask the House to give these powers. In regard to compensation I am aware that the procedure and practice of the Defence of the Realm Losses Commission have not given universal satisfaction, but I believe that an improvement has taken place of late, and that much of the dissatisfaction that at one time ensued from that practice has been removed. I recognise that justice ought to be done, and that a Government Department ought not to act arbitrarily against the interests of anyone.

My hon. Friend (Mr. Tyson Wilson) asked me if I could state the number of premises that it might be necessary to requisition. It is not possible for me to do that. He said we have Employment Exchanges in nearly every large town throughout the country. That is quite true, but he will realise that if we are to deal satisfactorily with the large numbers of men who will be released, first of all the civil war workers and then the Armies, we shall need more accommodation than is provided by the ordinary Employment Exchanges, because those buildings are designed to deal with the ordinary amount of movement of employment. Here we shall have to deal with an unprecedented movement of labour, and it is requisite that we should have larger premises temporarily. I think it would be a very sorry sight if the civil war workers, and certainly the soldiers, were unable to get into the premises and had to stand in the street in queues wailing to be attended to. I am sure everybody will agree that the powers we ask are reasonable. Whether they are put in proper form or not is always a debatable point, but the power to acquire sufficient accommodation for our purposes is one which will carry the general assent of the House. My hon. Friend (Mr. Tyson Wilson) asked me whether we would not be better advised to take over the premises now in possession of the Government authorities? Of course, if there are suitable premises now in the occupation of other Government Departments of which they have no use, or even a declining use, we should certainly avail ourselves of those premises. I can assure hon. Members that I will endeavour to administer these powers as economically as possible and to do the work with a minimum amount of staff and accommodation.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House for Monday next.—Mr G. Roberts.