HC Deb 09 April 1919 vol 114 cc2120-31

The Minister shall, subject to the provisions of this Act, appoint such officers as he may think fit to constitute a Board of Health in Wales through whom he may exercise and perform in Wales in such manner as he may think fit any of his powers and duties; the Board and any officer who is a member thereof shall act under the directions, and comply with the instructions, of the Minister.


I beg to move to leave out Clause 5.

7.0 P.M.

I realise that this Amendment is of very great importance and raises vital issues and I would not have undertaken to raise it but for interviews I have had with Welsh people. The Amendment seeks to exclude Wales from the operations of the Bill. It may be said that there are many Welsh Members who can speak for the Principality. I am not assuming that they are not able to do that, nor am I speaking or moving this Amendment because I recognise that the great champion of Wales, the Prime Minister is absent; but I am doing it as a representative in this Chamber who has been appealed to by a very large section of the Welsh electorate and of the Welsh people who feel that under the provisions of this Bill they are being very unjustly treated. It may be said, and probably will be said, that the arguments I am about to advance have been engineered. I will say, in passing, that, if that be correct, then it is very successfully engineered, because, during the last few days there have been representative gatherings in Wales. The National Free Church Council at Shrewsbury passed a resolution condemning the attitude of the Minister towards Wales, and the mover of the resolution happened to be the brother of the Prime Minister, who spoke evidently for the great Nonconformist bodies of Wales. That resolution condemning the Clause as it affected Wales was carried unanimously. Then I find that the Welsh Churches representing South Wales and Monmouth—no small part of the Principality, also passed condemnatory resolutions. In addition, I find the National Council, representing the Welsh educational committees, at a meeting in Cardiff, also passed condemnatory resolutions.

I may be told that the Minister has entered into a bargain with the represen- tatives from Wales, but I deny the right of any party to enter into a bargain with a Minister until they are fully confident that that bargain meets the wishes and aspirations of the people on whose behalf it is made. It has been said, and I take no exception to it, that the Minister in charge has made certain promises in regard to Wales. He has said that this raises a constitutional issue, and that in this Bill you cannot do what the Welsh people require, and that is to have an Under-Secretary who shall be established in Wales to administer this Act in the interests of the whole Principality. Whatever may be the promise made by the Minister—and I am not impunging his honour for a moment, because I believe he is not only honourable but very amiable, and fully intends to carry out the promise he has made—I have lived long enough to find out that Governments come and Governments go, and Ministers may make pledges, but unless those pledges have been crystalised in Acts of Parliament other Ministers who follow very often forget the pledges made by their predecessors. Therefore, I want to point out that in Wales there is very deep resentment at the preferential treatment that has been given to Scotland and Ireland. During the last five years I think I am right in saying that there has been a great revival of Welsh national sentiment. That sentiment has been encouraged by Government Departments themselves. In the early days of the War those responsible for the military guidance of the country saw the necessity of appealing to the Welsh people for Welsh regiments and Welsh commanders, and I think no one will doubt for a moment that that action on the part of the military authorities resulted in some of the finest regiments that have ever been created, and composed entirely of Welshmen.

That sentiment has been growing. But what do we find? Yesterday the same principle was being discussed in a Scottish Committee, and the Minister representing the Government at that Committee undertook to recommend the appointment of a Secretary so far as Scotland is concerned. If Scotland can be given this preferential treatment, then the same ought to be done so far as Wales is concerned. If I understand the Clause aright, not only is Wales to be treated different than Scotland or Ireland, but many of her present privileges are to be taken away. I have been told that the two Secretaries to be appointed will have certain powers to delegate certain responsibilities to committees in Wales. I do not know how far privileges or rights will be conceded to the committees in Wales, but I conceive endless troubles if you get an autocratic Under-Secretary—and such have not been unknown, and there have been autocratic Ministers. If something is not done for Wales to put Wales in the same position as Scotland and Ireland, she will have some humiliating experiences in the not very distant future.


I thought the hon. Member's Amendment was to exclude. Wales altogether—to delete Clause 5. Now he is asking for a Minister. I do not know whether he is in order or not. That is a matter for the Welsh people.


It is open to the hon. Member to state the reasons for his Amendment. I understand he wishes to exclude this Clause, with a view to subsequently bringing in some further Amendment to deal with the case of Wales.


I was proceeding along those lines. I do not think it is contrary to the Rules of this House to give reasons for an Amendment. Unless the right hon. Gentleman is prepared to make great concessions to remove from the minds of the Welsh people the sense of wrong and injustice, I believe that in the very near future they will be in a very humiliating position. London will be the centre instead of Wales. I may be stretching my imagination, but it appears to me that under an autocratic Under-Secretary even the purchase of floorcloths and scrubbing brushes, or anything that was required, would have to be applied for to the Minister sitting in London. I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman, because of the sentiment which has been expressed to me, to deal with this matter, and I claim an equal right with my hon. Friends to speak for Wales so long as Wales has its laws administered and enacted in this House, and I speak for the Welsh people, who have appealed to me to present their case. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to relieve this growing resentment in the Principality and to give a definite assurance that if there is no power under this Bill to meet the case that he will use his powerful support towards giving to Wales, by another Bill, that for which they ask, so that it will remove from the minds of the Welsh people the sense of injustice, and Wales may have the same treatment as is extended to Scotland and Ireland under this Bill.


I beg to second the Amendment. In so doing, I address the House for the first time and claim the indulgence that the House usually accords to new Members. It may be asked why I, a London Member, should undertake to champion the cause of the Principality. My reply is, that the issue involved is a question whether the nations which compose this Kingdom shall be governed on a bureaucratic or a democratic basis, and that is a question upon which every hon. Member is entitled to speak. I claim that right equally as an English Member and as a native of the Principality. In the second place, I have consulted a good many of my Constituents on this question and I have their hearty support in the course I am taking. In the third place, very numerous representations have been made to me, some of which have been detailed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hanley (Mr. Seddon). There is a deep feeling of resentment in Wales that the Welsh Members do not in this matter represent the national opinion in Wales, but that, on the contrary, they are surrendering the sacred rights which Welsh Nationalists of a former day and of a more courageous type fought hard and most successfully in this House and in the country to establish, as they thought once for all. I am anxious that the issue in this matter should not be obscured by non-vital details and side issues. I therefore ask for the patient attention of the House while I appeal to it not to allow the right of self-government in domestic affairs which Wales has enjoyed for years in so many other matters to be filched from her in this vital matter of public health.

I put my case in the form of five propositions, and I hope that when the House has heard the facts they will agree that the case for separate treatment for Wales is not only convincing but overwhelming. I submit these five points in the following form: First, that this House ever since the year 1880, when it passed the Welsh Sunday. Closing Act, has successively recognised, in matters of religion, education, and local government, the right of Wales to manage in her own way, through her own representatives, her own domestic affairs. Secondly, that with the long accumulation of Parliamentary precedents, Parliament cannot now stultify itself by abandoning the principle of national self-government and substituting for this great British method of government the hateful Prussian method of government by bureaucratic departments of central officials. My third point is this, that apart from these weighty Parliamentary precedents, every new power this House has given to Wales to manage her own affairs according to Welsh feeling has been made excellent use of and that the great strides Wales has made in the last quarter of a century, in education and in social and administrative reform, are directly due to the healthy and vigorous public spirit which those responsibilities have developed. My fourth proposition is that under the principle of self-determination, of which we have heard so much of late in connection with Alsace-Lorraine and other races suppressed under alien rule, Wales is entitled to organise her own domestic and national affairs as the Welsh people think best for themselves, and that, as the resolutions of representative Welsh bodies that have already been submitted to the House clearly show, the Welsh people in this matter demand the right to make their own provision for the betterment of the public health. Fifthly, Clause 5 of this Bill wipes out this long-established right on the part of the Welsh people, declares in effect that there is no such thing as a responsible Welsh nation capable of ordering its own life, and reduces the sham Welsh authority to be set up and all its officials to the level of puppets under the absolute control of a supreme official in Whitehall, who may be utterly ignorant of the special needs and characteristics of the Welsh people, and to such a retrograde and reactionary proposal every believer in the liberty of little nations is bound to offer the most vigorous resistance.

Let me give the House some facts and reasons in support of the five points I have mentioned. The Welsh Sunday Closing Act was a measure passed by a Liberal Government under Mr. Gladstone. It was strenuously fought on the ground that it separated England from Wales and introduced piecemeal legislation, but to-day what responsible Minister would think of repealing an enactment which has proved of immense social good in Wales, which in its promotion of sobriety has a close bearing on the question of public health, and which has demonstrated that in many respects Welsh opinion is not only different from that of England but in advance of it? The second precedent of which I will remind the House relates to Welsh education—the Welsh Intermediate Education Act of 1889, passed, it may be well to remember, by a Conservative Government. Up to that point, with the exception of a few odd endowed grammar schools, Wales was destitute of any provision for linking up the elementary schools with the new university colleges, and the Government of that day had the wisdom to leave Wales liberty to devise its own system to suit its own needs, and the result was the establishment in a few years of a network of new intermediate schools, the success of which was rightly described by eminent educationists who investigated the system as one of the romances of education. Not only has that experiment opened out new avenues and new vocations to the youth of Wales, who would otherwise have remained isolated in their native valleys, but it has demonstrated beyond all doubt the ability of the Welsh people to do for themselves, when given the chance, what the bureaucrat in Whitehall could not possibly do for them. What is true of secondary education in Wales is also true of higher education. Wales did not wait for a bureaucracy in Whitehall to provide university colleges. It provided them itself, largely out of the pence and three-penny-bits of the common people, and now it has its National University, with three constituents, at Aberystwyth, Bangor, and Cardiff, granting its own degrees in divinity, arts, sciences, and other subjects. The ability to create and successfully administer a national education system on new lines is a severe test of a nation's capacity for self-government, and I fearlessly challenge anyone to say that Wales in this vital matter of education has not vindicated her right to be entrusted with powers of self-government, beyond all doubt and beyond all question. Now let me take another equally searching test of a nation's fitness for self-government, its provision for its religious needs.


We are now discussing only a matter of health. The hon. Gentleman is not entitled to make a general Home Rule speech in favour of the Amendment, but should confine himself to the Amendment.


I was endeavouring to show how, if the President of the Local Government Board had only the wisdom of his predecessors to trust Wales in this matter of the public health, it would not only result to the advantage of the Welsh people but to the real object which I know he has in view. If the House will bear with me I will give just one other point. Welsh opinion, as I have said, is in many respects not only different from, but is in advance of, English opinion, and I will show that this is true of Welsh opinion respecting the public health. When King Edward VII. died, and it was proposed to raise a national memorial to the King, who was the first Chancellor of the University of Wales, what form did the Welsh memorial take? It took the form of a campaign for the eradication of consumption from the land. It did not wait for Whitehall to suggest the idea, or to frame a scheme, or to raise the funds. It conceived the idea itself, it constructed its own organisation, and it raised a great endowment fund before anyone in Whitehall had given a moment's thought to the health of the Welsh people, and yet a nation which forestalled the State in its concern for the public health, which constituted a Ministry of Health for itself before any national Ministry of Health was thought of, is now to be stripped of all authority, and to be told by a Minister in Whitehall exactly what it must do and exactly what it must not do. I venture to describe Clause 5 as humiliating to the Welsh nation—a deeper and more open humiliation than any Government, Liberal or Conservative, has dared to suggest for at least a generation, and if you think that an overstatement let me read the words of the Clause itself: The Minister shall, subject to the provisions of this Act, appoint such officers as he may think fit to constitute a Board of Health in Wales through whom he may exercise and perform in Wales in such manner as he may think fit any of his powers and duties; the Board and any officer who is a member thereof shall act under the directions, and comply with the instructions oil the Minister. I call that bureaucracy, and I call it more than that. It is personal autocracy as absolutely as that of any Czar or Kaiser. No self-respecting National Board worth the name would for a moment accept such a position. It would be merely a sham, a puppet, a servant, instead of a mistress in its own house. I remember how, when the Education Bill of 1902 was passed, the Prime Minister led the Welsh nation in revolt against the attempt to override Welsh educational opinion. I wish he were free from the onerous duties he is so nobly discharging to lead a new revolt against this degrading proposal. I have gone into this matter at some length, because it is a vital issue to the Welsh people, to their pride and self-respect as a nation, and to the efficiency and vigour of their public life. This Clause wipes out Welsh nationality. If it is adopted there will be no reality in the term "a Welsh nation." It ignores all the Parliamentary precedents of a generation, it ignores the splendid uses to which Wales has turned every grant of self-governing powers made to her, it reverses all modern Welsh history, it is an insult to the memory of the great Welsh nationalists of the past, and it is an indignity which no nation worth the name would meekly submit to. On all these grounds. I make a confident appeal in support of the principle of a separate treatment for Wales, similar to the powers which are to be given to Scotland, which is in accord with the established policy of this House on questions of Welsh national interest. It is supported equally by precedent and experience, over a long period, and it has behind it the great body of Welsh nationalist opinion and sentiment in Wales.


I would like to point out to the right hon. Gentleman that the contentions of Wales might be very easily and readily met if he described the functions which he is going to give to the Board. As the Clause reads at the present time, the Minister may delegate to a Board of Health in Wales such powers and duties as the may think fit. I submit that much of the misunderstanding and disagreement with the Bill as it stands is due to the fact that the duties and powers of the Board are not described. It is contended by many Welsh people to-day, that certain statutory powers under the Insurance Act and other Acts give them a certain amount of discretion in carrying on the duties of their office, and that these are being taken away from them and vested in the Ministry of Health. I submit most respectfully that they have not got the same amount of discretion under this Bill as they had under the old Insurance Act. If it is clearly put into the Bill that we are to take over the functions of the Insurance Commissioners, and the functions which are permitted under the Midwives Act, and so on, I think the difficulty would be very largely met.

The whole question as to the definition of the power and authority which the Minister is going to delegate to the Welsh Board of Health, Is the Welsh Board of Health going to be a body subject to the whim of any Minister? However good the intentions of the right hon. Gentleman may be, we have no guarantee that in the future the same good intentions will be exercised towards the Welsh Board of Health, whose powers may be taken away at any time at the pleasure and will of any Minister. Only to-day the Ministry of Pensions have agreed that they will completely disintegrate the Department as it is to-day, and that they will give to Wales a director and a medical board which will be absolutely supreme. I submit that if it can be done in the case of one Department without effecting constitutional changes it can be done in another. If the Department had brought forward a proposal to establish a separate Board in Wales with statutory powers, I suggest that the difficulties which now hamper the Bill would very speedily be overcome. I cannot support the proposal for the deletion of Clause 5 altogether because I should not like to see Wales at least without some semblance of provision in the Bill, but I do feel that what has been so ably said by the two preceding hon. Members to a large extent does represent the public feeling in Wales, which is very strong with regard to the provisions of this Bill. It is all very well for Members who belong to the Welsh party—of which I happen to be one—to suggest this has been engineered by one particular individual. It has not. It is very largely representative of an agitation which has gone through Wales and is affecting people's minds very considerably. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will see if he cannot define with some degree of exactness and fairness the powers he gives to Wales, so that Wales will feel she is placed in some degree on an equality with Ireland and Scotland.


I am sure the House of Commons will be asking themselves what crime I have committed in Committee upstairs. I think the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Morris) might in justice compare the proposals in this Bill with the present position, and then he would find that, instead of taking away from Wales powers she already has, and setting up some monstrous bureaucracy that is going to do all kinds of tyrannical things, as a matter of fact, we are giving to Wales vastly more power than she has got now.


Are we giving her as much as Scotland?


No, we are not, and for this reason: It has been said many times that we want to create a system of national Paliaments in the United Kingdom, and, personally, I believe that that is the only efficient way of dealing with the government of the United Kingdom at present. But when we want to do that in the House of Commons we shall do it by calling it the setting up of national Parliaments, and not calling it health. You cannot alter the constitutional government of the United Kingdom and call it health. It is not health; it is a system of government you are altering. Therefore, it was not in my power, in dealing with health matters, to alter the system of govvernment prevailing in the United Kingdom. Whatever may be my personal views as to devolution or not, devolution is not health; it is devolution. And, really, it is asking me to do something which is not within the scope of the Bill at all when I am asked to alter the form of government in the United Kingdom. The reason Scotland has a separate Bill, the reason that the business of Scotland is dealt with by the Secretary for Scotland, is because there is a Secretary for Scotland. It is because there is a Scottish Local Government Board, and there does not happen to be a Welsh Local Government Board The position at the moment is that the office which I hold is that of President of the Local Government Board for England and Wales. It may be very extraordinary, but it is so, and I cannot alter that under the guise of health. The reason Scotland and Ireland are dealt with differently is because they have a machinery of their own, and we therefore call upon that machinery to do certain work. In respect of Wales, however, it so happens that now these duties fall upon the President of the Local Government Board or the chairman of the National Health Insurance Commission.

What is the autonomy possessed by Wales now in these matters? The hon. Member said I took away some powers from Wales, I insulted the nation, and did various other things. As a matter of fact, Wales has not got any autonomy in these matters now. There is no autonomy in England separate from Wales or in Wales separate from England. The Commission for National Insurance has a separate office in Wales, but the Welsh Insurance Commission is still under the British Treasury, and is responsible to the chairman of the Joint Committee, just in the same way as the English Insurance Committee. Whatever autonomy that body possesses in Wales, they will retain. They are simply transferred to the Minister of Health, instead of remaining attached to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. There is no diminution of autonomy, but there is a great amalgamation. Up to the moment the Welsh Insurance Commission is the only separate organisation qua health that there is. We are not taking away powers, but we are adding to them by this proposal a great many more, and really I cannot understand what crime it is I have committed. We are saying, not only shall you have a separate body in Wales, but, instead of limiting that body to its existing powers, namely, matters relating to insurance, it is given the whole scope of the duties and functions of the Ministry, so that it will be made infinitely wider than it is now. I have discussed this at great length in Committee and with Welsh Members, and I believe that, with the exception of the two or three Members who have spoken, I may say I have got their support. We did everything we could to meet their case within the constitutional form of the government of the country, and there is no diminution of national responsibility or national power. There is an immense addition, and I am sorry to say that in the papers which have come to me—for what reason I know not—this kind of thing has been the subject of the grossest form of misrepresentation I have ever come across. It has been represented as if we were taking something away from Wales, instead of which we have added an immense lot to what there is already. It is absolutely contrary to the facts of the Bill. I have received representations from people anxious to sustain Welsh nationality which have no relation whatever to the proposal before the House, and I sincerely hope the House will not ask us to depart from the Bill.


May I say how grateful I am for this Welsh invasion by English Members—the hon. Member for Hanley (Mr. Seddon) and the hon. Mem- ber for Battersea (Mr. Morris)? I do not know whether it was within their knowledge that there were Welsh Members in this House or not when they moved this Motion. My hon. Friend the Member for Hanley may be excused, perhaps, because after his week-end visit to Wales I can understand his enthusiasm in coming to the House to say that we ought to have very much more extended powers than we have. But they show their desire in a very peculiar way by trying to take from us the little powers we have under this Bill. I want to say, on behalf of the Welsh Members in all parts of the House, that we welcome everything that has been said by the two hon. Gentlemen in support of autonomy for Wales, and I hope that, after this Bill has become law, the enthusiasm that has been displayed in quarters referred to by the right hon. Gentleman, by those who have passed resolutions misdescribing and misinterpreting what has really taken place and the powers under this Bill—resolutions largely initiated by vested interests, who think their little corner of the vineyard is being threatened in some shape or form—I hope the enthusiasm they have displayed, whether actuated by vested interests or not, will continue to be displayed from true national motives. Wales for many years has felt that she can manage very many of the affairs that are being managed in Whitehall, very much more efficiently both for the nation and for Wales itself, and I am hoping the time is not far distant when such extended powers will become possible of discussion in this House. We as Welsh Members were enthusiastic about securing in this Bill the great constitutional change to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred, but we were soon convinced that that was impossible, and we accepted the next best thing. There are certain powers in this Bill which, with intelligent and enthusiastic service and attention will, I am sure, do great things for Wales under the limited powers already given. I have no hesitation in saying that, notwithstanding the protests which have been received from Wales, all that can be secured under the present has been secured, and it is a large measure of extended powers.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.