HC Deb 26 May 1919 vol 116 cc988-94

Motion made, and Question proposed,

"That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Pratt.]


I desire to ask the Home Secretary whether he can give the House any information regarding the serious trouble which arose outside the House this afternoon between a procession of discharged soldiers and sailors and the police, and also to ask the right hon. Gentleman to say what the Government intend doing with a view of removing the causes which lead to processions such as this? I understand that the procession consisted entirely of discharged and demobilised soldiers, and they were making their way from a meeting in Hyde Park to the House of Commons with the intention of interviewing the Prime Minister and the Minister of Labour, and of ascertaining whether it was possible for them to get work. Judging the occurrence with very little information, it seems that the purpose of these men may be summed up in a very few words. I am quite aware of the regulations prohibiting such processions coming within a certain distance of the House, but there is just the possibility that the men who made up the procession were unaware of the regulation, and were of the opinion that they were quite within their rights in coming down here on a matter which to them is of vital importance. These men left their work in order to answer the country's call. In many cases they were promised their work on their return. They come back to find that it is impossible for them tot get employment. Evidently they do not want employment doles; they want to ascertain whether the Government can find them employment. This is a matter that is causing a considerable amount of irritation throughout the country, and unless the Government can find some means of dealing effectively with the demand of these unemployed men we may be face to face with more serious trouble in the near future than we have had up to now. What I would like to know is whether the Government are in a position to state what they intend doing, with a view of preventing a recurrence of such scenes. The Government have had opportunities of showing their sympathy and of proving their intentions in this particular matter. The Labour party, by amendment to the King's Speech, raised this very question. They also raised it later on in another form, when they introduced their Out-of-Work Bill. Evidently neither the Amendment nor the Bill introduced by the Labour party met with the approval of the Government, and we would like to know what are the proposals of the Government themselves. If the suggested remedies of the Labour party were not sufficiently comprehensive or drafted in a way that could not meet with the approval of the Government, then I think we are entitled to ask the Government what they are prepared to do. At the moment we have a very large army of unemployed men and women. Many of them are in the position of the men who made up that procession this afternoon. They want work. Can the Government inform us what they intend to do with a view to providing work? It will be far better for the men and for the country and for the Government to face the finding of work for the unemployed of this country than to continue to pay unemployed dole—that is neither good for the recipient nor for the country. The Government would be well advised to face the seriousness of the situation. I am certain that neither they nor any other section of the people of this country desire to see a recurrence of the scenes that evidently have taken place outside the House to-day. But unless this festering sore is dealt with by the Government effectively and rapidly, this is only the beginning of such scenes. Therefore we are entitled not only to ask if the Home Secretary can give us any information regarding the occurrence this evening, but also if he can inform us what the Government intend doing with a view to removing the cause which has led to this scene and may lead to more serious scenes in the future.


There was this afternoon, unfortunately, a somewhat serious situation as between a procession of discharged soldiers and sailors and the police. I cannot agree for a moment that the cause of the unfortunate situation was the lack of unemployment, or the lack of work, or that it had anything to do with it, or had anything whatever to do with a legitimate grievance. The cause of the unfortunate situation was that the men, unfortunately, acted under the control of wild spirits who were amongst them, instead of under their own proper leaders. What did happen was that there was a procession to Hyde Park, and at the meeting in Hyde Park it was suggested that a procession should be formed to go to Buckingham Palace and the House of Commons. The police explained to the men's leaders that that was impossible and could not be allowed; that it was contrary to the Sessional Orders of this House. The leaders of the men, so far as I have been able to ascertain, or those who appeared to be leaders of the soldiers and sailors, were very anxious to try to prevent any such procession taking place, but they were. unable to do so. The police therefore were obliged to take steps to bar the way of the procession. They barred the way by Constitution Hill and the procession went down Grosvenor Place and tried to turn up New Palace Road. There they were barred again by the police, and as the road happened to be under repair there were missives handy for the wild spirits and they used blocks of wood to assail the police and used the poles to trip up the horses of the mounted police. The same sort of scene occurred again outside Parliament Square. From first to last the police behaved with the greatest restraint. They endeavoured to avoid any trouble, they tolerated very bad treatment from the crowd, many of them were injured and finally it was absolutely necessary, so threatening was the attitude of the crowd, to draw their truncheons and to charge them and disperse them, which they did, and the truncheons were returned to their cases at the earliest possible opportunity. So far as I have been able to ascertain, the police behaved throughout with the utmost rectitude of conduct; great toleration and great patience and forbearance, and only took strong measures when they were absolutely obliged to do so. With regard to the cause of the dissatisfaction of the crowd, we cannot possibly debate that question in the short time that is left on the Motion for the Adjournment. I do not know beyond what rumour has reached me what the meeting in Hyde Park was about. I have not seen the resolutions, and have, therefore, no definite knowledge what it was, but, of course, that it was dissatisfaction by discharged soldiers and sailors at not being able to got back into" their places in civil life one has no doubt. Let me, however, remind the House that the problem of getting these men back into civil life is an enormous one. From the Army alone there have been something over 2,500,000 of men discharged, and the rate of absorption of those men into their civil employment in this country has been much more rapid than in any other country that has been fighting. When the facts and figures come out, if there is to be a Debate upon it, I think the House will see that the rate of absorption has been, although not perfect, much more rapid and satisfactory than one could have imagined who really understood and had faced the problem. I do not propose now to go into a detailed Debate upon that subject. I understood that it was the conduct of the police that was going to be attacked. I was not aware that the larger question was going to be raised, and in any case it could not be raised satisfactorily on a mere Motion for the Adjournment. All I can say is that, so far as the police are concerned, so far as the information that I have been able to obtain is concerned, they have behaved throughout in a way worthy of the highest commendation, and that all the trouble arose from the fact that wild spirits—whether they were trade union spirits or not I do not know, and I do not believe they can be—got amongst these men and got the better of them, and supplanted their own and saner leaders, and that that was the cause of the whole trouble.


I am sure everybody in the House will agree that we cannot discuss the cause of this unfortunate affair in the short period of half an hour. From what I have heard of the story of my right hon. Friend about the procession from Hyde Park to the House, and what happened subsequently, he himself is not yet in possession of the full facts. I could give him considerably more information than apparently ho has been in possession of yet, which would enable him to understand clearly what has happened. I do not propose at this hour to discuss the question of the cause. I want to ask my right hon. Friend whether the Government will set down on Wednesday the Ministry of Labour Vote, in order that this may be discussed, or whether on Thursday they will substitute the Ministry of Labour Vote for the War Office Vote. I think I may claim to understand the mind of the discharged men, and I assure the House——


Why more than someone who has served in the War?


The Noble Lord interrupts on a point I never made. Always in this House, with great respect, I have never ventured to express for the serving men what I could not do, but I have ventured to express for those who have served what I was able to do. On behalf of those who have served, and those who have tried to serve the serving men, I think I understand the frame of mind. It is a fact that there are 300,000 discharged disabled men out of work at the present moment seeking employment. To-day's demonstration in London is only one of hundreds of demonstrations held simultaneously today all over the country. The men outside are hoping that the House will discuss this question from the point of view of causes, but, as we cannot discuss it to-night, I will not pretend to discuss it now. I ask explicitly on behalf of myself and my right hon. Friend whether the Government will now alter the programme, and put the Ministry of Labour Vote down as the first Order on Wednesday, in order that those who are interested in discussing the causes and not the effects may be able to do so. I hope the Leader of the House, who has just come in, will give that assurance, so that the men to-morrow can see that the House is in earnest on this question.


May I say that if the hon. Member will put the question to me at the opening of business to-morrow, I will in the meantime consider whether the course he suggests is possible?


Is this, Mr. Speaker, going to remain a party question, and is the Liberal opposition simply going to be counted as only being interested in this subject?