HC Deb 20 November 1919 vol 121 cc1191-7

Resolution reported; That a supplementary sum, not exceeding £1,500,000 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, 1920, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Department of Civil Demobilisation and Resettlement of the Ministry of Labour, including Out-of-Work Donation and the Contribution to the Unemployed Insurance Fund, and Repayments to Associations pursuant to Sections 85 and 106 of the National Insurance Act, 1911, and the National Insurance (Part II.) (Munition Workers) Act. 1916 and Grants for the Training of Demobilised Officers. Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution.

4.0 P.M.


I cannot allow the final stage of this Vote to pass without taking the opportunity of addressing a few observations to the Leader of the House on what may be regarded as the new aspects of the question, especially in view of his reply to a question this afternoon with regard to the uses to which the money in the National Relief Fund can be put. I return to the subject, and would ask the sympathetic attention of hon. Members, because the decision of last night, if it may not mean life and death to some very poor people, really will mean a condition of very serious privation, which I am sure Members of the House would desire to prevent. I do not desire to reopen the whole theme which was discussed at length last night. I mean no offence to hon. Members when I say that we think a larger number of Members would have gone into the Lobby in our support had it not been for the fact that many of them were unable to attend the earlier stages of the Debate, and therefore had only the opportunity of listening to one or two of the final speeches which were made in the course of the discussion Hon. Members who sat throughout yesterday's Debate will agree that the trend of the speeches was all in one direction, and indicated a very strong desire that this unemployment benefit should not be immediately discontinued. In view of the decision, we recognise that some other step must be taken. It is clear that it is possible for such a step to be taken from the reply of the Leader of the House to the question to which I have referred. I understood the right hon. Gentleman to say that the money in the National Relief Fund could be used to relieve cases of distress, as clearly the money was subscribed for that purpose. I believe the Fund now amounts to a very considerable sum, indeed, something in excess of £2,000,000. It is no exaggeration to say that the greater number of the civilian unemployed who are no longer able to receive the State money which they have received will be put in a state of very real distress by not having any longer the opportunity to receive that pay. It is with very great reluctance that we make an appeal of this kind or suggest that distress due to unemployment since the close of the War should be relieved from this source. We should much prefer that the support of the unemployed should be provided under conditions of a greater sense of dignity than may be possible if they receive their support from the source of the National Relief Fund. But real necessity knows no law, and, for my part, I say that if it be that we cannot get some money as it was receivable until now, as a State right, and if these poor people are driven on the rocks of charity, we must do our best to rescue them, by whatever means we can, from the immediate threat of starvation.

1 would therefore ask the Leader of the House whether he can consider some means whereby State pay can be continued, even if on a reduced scale, to the civilian employés who, by virtue of last night's Vote, were deemed to have their pay terminated? I believe that hon. Members who voted against us last night will be prepared, in the circumstances, to consider some continuation of pay from State fund sources, even on a reduced scale. Failing that, I ask that some steps be taken whereby money may be obtained either from the National Relief Fund or from the considerable reserves which I gather have accumulated under the heading of Part II. of the National Insurance Act. I believe there has been a great accumulation of money in the funds under that head, because of the other payments which have been made from State sources during the course of this year. May I suggest another point to the right hon. Gentleman? The unanimous feeling of the House last night was that, however undeserving or less deserving than others the civilian unemployed may be, there could be no questioning of the right of ex-soldiers and ex-Service men and women to a continuance of State pay. On that point we were so unanimous that each of us competed with the other in offering thanksgiving and praise to the ex-Service men and women for fighting for their country in the manner they did. I put to the Minister of Labour the view that the sacrifices and the services of these men and women would be badly rewarded or paid for by reducing their pay. It is not seemly, at, the least, to sing the praises of these men and women and then to immediately decide in this House that their pay should be reduced. I would therefore plead, whatever may be done for the civilian workers, and anxious as we are to see justice done to them, that the pay of the demobilised soldier and sailor ought not to be reduced by virtue of the decision reached last night, as I am sure it was not the intention of any Member of this House, into whichever Lobby he went, to have the pay of the soldier reduced. Therefore, in view of the approaching winter, the point which, because of its overwhelming importance I do not fear again to repeat, is that, great as was the difficulty before the War confronting poor people who were unemployed, and therefore receiving no wages, great as was their dfficulty in scraping together the necessaries of life, it is three times greater now, in view of the high prices of food, which are said to be 130 per cent, higher than they were before the War. In face of the almost impossible task of keeping body and soul together, and in face of the very considerable minority which went into the Lobby last night in favour of the continuation of this pay, I put to the right hon Gentleman the urgent necessity of giving out some more hopeful message to these poor people than they will gather from the Press today. I ask him whether he cannot continue, in full, the pay of the ex-soldiers and sailors and, either from State funds or from relief funds or from the accumulated funds and reserves which have been obtained in connection with Part II. of the Insurance Act, give some hope of tiding over Christmas to those people whose faces will be glam when they read the information in the papers this morning. We on this side felt that we could not allow this Report stage of the Supplementary Estimates to pass without submiting what we think is so humane a consideration that it cannot fall entirely upon deaf ears.

Mr. BONAR LAW (Leader of the House)

The House must welcome the attitude of my right hon. Friend, inasmuch as he accepts the decision of the Committee last night and does not propose to have the whole subject reopened again. As regards the question of distress, it is quite evident, not merely from the speeches but also from the attitude of the Government, that it is our desire to do anything which we think can be done without injury to the nation to make that distress as small as possible. I do not at all agree with my right hon. Friend that to receive money from the State for unemployment is a direct dole—to use the, word which really describes it—or is in. any way on a different level from receiving help from funds such as the National Relief Fund, which was subscribed by the people of this country for the express purpose at the time the subscriptions were raised of meeting the distress which was expected in consequence of the War. What I said last night was—and the whole attitude of the Government will have shown—that we do desire, as far as wo can, to limit the amount of distress which may become inevitable. The National Relief Fund, as I have already explained, is not under the control of the Government.


A certain amount of it is.


I was not aware of that. At any rate, the great bulk of it is not under the control of the Government; but I am certain that it was to meet distress of this kind that the money was subscribed. I have no doubt whatever that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour will himself see—I do not say we can put pressure, because I am sure it would not be necessary—as I have already seen the chairman of the executive of that Fund and discussed with him the distress which may arise. I do not suggest for a moment that the right use of that Fund would be to continue the special payments irrespective of what the needs may be. I Should think that the best use to make of this Fund or of any other fund which may be available will be to regard it as a question of distress, and to give help where the distress exists. As regards the National Insurance Fund, I am informed—


May I interrupt the right hon. Gentleman to ask him whether he is aware that only 636 cases have been dealt with under the conditions that he names through the National Relief Fund?


My hon. Friend must realise—I am sure he does—that those who directed the National Relief Fund were, of necessity, bound to take into consideration in the allocation of that Fund the fact that this money was being given by the State. A new condition has arisen; and I think we all look at it from an entirely different point of view. As regards the National Insurance Fund, I think my right hon. Friend realises that by Statute we have no power to deal with it in this way. That is my impression. I wish to say—and this is my lust word—I wish the House to realise, and I wish hon. Members on that bench opposite to realise, that we do look forward with as great sympathy as they do to the possibility of this distress; anything we can do to help, without setting up a permanent system which would be disastrous to this country, we shall gladly do.


I think my right hon. Friend will find, if he cares to inquire, that a certain amount of the Relief Fund to which he has referred was administered by the Local Government Board, particularly in the East Coast towns which suffered from bombardment and damage from aircraft. But I have not risen lo put that point. I want to remind my right hon. Friend that he has not dealt with one point in which we are all interested in this House—that is the payment of discharged men. I should like to be quite clear about it, and I should like the House to be quite clear about it, before we agree to the Report stage. The: discharged soldier who was not able to get employment was originally entitled to 29s. per week. Does the present proposal mean: supposing a man were demobilised yesterday and is in process of demobilisation, he will not he entitled during his first-twelve months to get twenty-six weeks at 29s. per week? Or does it mean that after he has got through that first six months during the first twelve months of his demobilisation he then goes on to a lower amount of 20s. per week? The House will agree that whatever we do on the Report stage of this Vote, we must, at any rate, see that every demobilised soldier, whatever the time he is demobilised, gets equal and the same treatment. I do not think my right hon. Friend appreciated what was in the mind of my right hon. Friend near me. (Mr. Clynes). If the Labour Minister can make that quite clear before we agree to the Report stage, we shall be grateful.


I thought it was made quite clear yesterday as to what were the precise proposals of the Government in regard to the discharged soldier. As there is evidently some confusion, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity of making the matter clear, beyond all doubt or misapprehension. Every discharged soldier was, under the original scheme, entitled to twenty-six weeks' of unemployment donation in the year after the date of his demobilisation. That payment was at the rate of 26s. per week. Later, the Government added to this by giving the discharged man thirteen further weeks of unemployment donation in his year after the date of his demobilisation at a less rate, namely, 20s. per week. In each case with the supplementary allowances in respect of the children he might have. Accordingly, every demobilised man became entitled to thirty-nine weeks' unemployment donation in his first year of demobilisation, of twenty-six weeks at the higher rate, and a subsequent thirteen weeks at the lower rate. In the case of the disabled men a further seven weeks was added, making in all forty-six weeks of unemployment donation. These rights remain intact no matter when the man is demobilised. Supposing he is demobilised to-day, he has got these same rights for the following twelve months. The only case that is now specifically dealt with in the new proposals of the Government is that of the man who was demobilised a year ago, and who, therefore, has come to the end of all his rights, but who, further, has still the winter before him. True, he has had twelve months in which to find employment. I think everybody will acknowledge that some of those who are unemployed are so undoubtedly because of the state of labour in the country, but one recognises that all men are not the same in this matter. They are not all even very industrious. There are some in all bodies of people and in all ranks of society who are not so eager to find work as are others; and, accordingly, although we saw that the twelve months had passed in which the men have had the opportunity of finding employment, and undoubtedly there are some who through their own fault have not got it, yet in the great bulk of cases, undoubtedly it is owing to adversity of circumstances. For these the winter looks rather a blank period. What we have, therefore, decided to do in their case is to give them during the winter a still further nine weeks' unemployment donation at the rate of £l per week, so as to give them the still further opportunity of finding employment. That is how the matter stands. I hope I have made it quite clear.

Question put, and agreed to.