HC Deb 24 November 1920 vol 135 cc423-5

asked the Prime Minister whether he is aware that there are over 60,000 fewer skilled men now employed in the building trade than before the War, and approximately 150,000 fewer skilled men than five years before the War, while the amount of building to be done is at least five times greater; whether he is also aware that negotiations between the Government and the building trades unions to allow of the employment of 50,000 ex-service men have now been proceeding for more than a year, but that no agreement has yet been reached, and therefore 50,000 ex-service men who should long ago have been in good employment are still unemployed, and are thereby materially increasing the prevailing distress due to unemployment; and whether he will assure the House that in the event of the building trades unions failing to accept the Government's terms by the end of the current month the Government will themselves take steps to secure employment for at least 50,000 ex-service men in the building of houses under some of the various schemes which are now being hung up or delayed from lack of labour?


asked the Minister of Labour whether the Gloucester division of the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers have informed him by letter that there are a large number of ex-service men in Gloucestershire desirous of taking part in the building of houses, making of new roads, etc., and that the National Federation are prepared to provide skilled ex-service bricklayers, carpenters, etc., to instruct unskilled men in the work; and what action he proposes to take in order that this offer shall be taken advantage of?


I have been asked to answer these questions. I have received the letter referred to in Question 28. The negotiations between the Government and the building trades for increasing the supply of labour by the admission of ex-service men for work on the national housing programme are proceeding, and every effort is being made to expedite a solution. So long as there is a hops of agreement upon a national basis, it is better, I think, not to complicate the position by sectional or local arrangements. This last sentence, relating to the prospect of settlement applies also to the point put to me by my hon. Friend in the question now under answer.


Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that these negotiations have now been going on since July, 1919, and when I raised this question on more than one occasion I was asked not to press it as the negotiations had reached a critical stage, and does the right hon. Gentleman not think after sixteen months it is high time that the negotiations were concluded so that these men should get into employment? May I press for the assurance asked for in the question that if the negotiations are not completed by the end of the current month the Government will themselves take steps to get these men into the building industry?

Mr. A. DAVIES (Clitheroe)

Can the right hon. Gentleman say if there is any reason other than the opposition of his own supporters why the Government should not build houses themselves and employ these men direct?


Is it not the fact that no building can be undertaken without some skilled men to lead the work; and is it not the fact that the skilled men have refused to lead the unemployed ex-soldiers? [HON. MEMBERS: "No, no!"]


It is true negotiations have been conducted, certainly since July, 1919. I am very interested to hear the proposal of my hon. Friend (Mr. Davies) that we should proceed forthwith to build houses. For the moment I would rather not give a decision while the national settlement is pending. I agree at once, and I imagine everybody will agree, that it is desirable to settle this thing one way or the other.


Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Prime Minister himself advocated the policy of the State building of houses in the year 1913, and does he not think that now is the opportunity afforded him of carrying it into practical operation?


May I ask if the right hon. Gentleman will take advantage of the offer now made from the Labour Benches and call on the men representing the building trade to volunteer to produce the necessary men the Government want to train ex-service officers and men?


I said I was very interested in the suggestion, but I do not want to complicate the negotiations which I hope will be brought to a conclusion at an early date one way or the other, by undertaking to accept any offer. After all we are trying to find an arrangement with the trade unions. My hon. Friend (Mr. Davies) speaks for the trade unions, but I do not think he could say at this moment that his proposal would not be opposed by them. I am rather afraid it might. In any case I do not want to enter into the subject further at this moment.


Will the right hon. Gentleman take steps to warn any ex-service men who propose to enter the building industry that it is the considered policy of the Ministry of Health to limit people engaged in the industry in a way that no other industry is limited, or, in other words, it is the policy of the Ministry of Health to prevent men in the building industry selling their labour at the highest price?