HC Deb 26 November 1920 vol 135 cc830-42

Any person employed on a work of public utility under this Act shall be entitled to rates of wages and hours of labour not less favourable than those commonly recognised by employers and trade unions in the trade in the district in which the work is carried out, bud in the absence of such recognised wages and hours such person shall be entitled to those recognised or prevailing in the nearest district in which the general industrial circumstances are similar."— [Mr. Hayday.]

Brought up, and read the First time.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

This Amendment was moved in Committee upstairs yesterday. The right hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill felt that it was rather a big Amendment to be discussed at so short notice, and an undertaking was given that, if it was felt, after consultation with the Minister of Labour, that words could not be found to deal with certain exceptional cases that really will evolve from work of this character, he would undertake to ask for the re-committal of the Bill in order that we might discuss the proposed new Clause. Our experience of the last two periods of exceptional unemployment must be taken into consideration in relationship to perhaps the most important period we are likely to encounter now, and in the near future. During the years 1895–6—I am sure the Minister of Labour will well remember the keenness of the conditions then prevailing—we had what were termed relief works, mainly dependent upon the charitably disposed, subsidised by a Government grant to assist; the wages then paid and the conditions under which a man's wages were earned rather tended to deteriorate the physique and standard of those employed, so that when that period was over they were less fitted to take up their regular work. We came along to the period of 1904, which is perhaps the most distressing period of unemployment ever yet encountered, particularly in London, where a condition of things prevailed generally under which the recognised standard rates and hours in the particular class of employment provided under the guise of public utility works were paid. I remember the repairs being carried out to the main sewer embankment in the East End of London, and there the standard rates were paid as existing at that time. I realise that these works are not altogether in the sense relief works as we understood works of a similar character in years gone by. This is work that is going to be profitable and useful to the country as a whole. It is really being put into operation now, because it is essential to the development of road transport, and because of the state of unemployment. It is really useful public work being put into operation at a time when there is perhaps a shortage in the demand for useful labour and a supply greater than the demand.

I hope works of this character will be held in hand for periods such as this, and I hope that when good trade returns such work as can be held over until a period of depression arises will be held over. Work has already been put into operation in connection with the making of new roads by local authorities, and that is absorbing quite a number of ex-service men who would otherwise be unable to find employment. We realise that all these ex-service men have by reason of their service to the country under the conditions of the late War really become experts in that particular kind of occupation, namely, road-making. I suggest that these men as well as the unemployed ought not to be used for public utility service for the nation and the local authorities at a rate less than that which governs a similar kind of employment in the locality where the work is being carried out. Those are the points I desire to put before the Committee, and I do not want any degeneration in the relief work such as occurred in times gone by when it was looked upon as more like charity to employ these men under conditions which caused them to lose that manly respect which they ought to be assisted in maintaining. I want the rate of wages paid which have been discussed and fixed in the light of the increased cost of living, so that when these public utility services are no longer required to absorb the unemployed, these men may be employed under such wage conditions as will preserve for them their physique, and they should not be allowed to deteriorate because the wages may not be sufficient to supply their physical requirements, in order that they may take up their ordinary form of employment after the temporary work is over with equal physique and stamina as they possessed before.


I beg to second the Motion.


I hope my hon. Friend will not press this Amendment. I have a great amount of sympathy with his point of view, and with some of the arguments he has used, but I am sure he will appreciate the difficulty of putting into an Act of Parliament a rigid Clause of the kind which is now on the Paper. I agree entirely with what he has said about the character of the work to be done. The one point about which we are keen is that the work should proceed with the greatest possible expedition, and if they are to proceed with the execution of these works long and acrimonious discussions on the question of wages may very well hold up the work while the people remain unemployed. These works are to be largely carried out by local authorities and popularly elected bodies. Is it wise to control the discretion of these local authorities by a rigid Clause of this kind which would apply inflexibly to all the various local authorities who would be disabled by this Clause from giving any effect to local conditions.

In some instances it might not be desirable to pay such a high rate of wages as would attract men from other employment. A local authority would be able to consider all these circumstances and reach a conclusion unfettered by the terms of this Amendment. One can conceive it possible that a wave of unemployment might sweep over this country and the State might be in such a condition as would render this provision, if it were inflexibly laid down, inexpedient and difficult to work. Probably these wages will be paid. There is nothing in the Bill to prevent them being paid. The work that is being done now is being paid for at that rate. The only point I take is that inasmuch as that rate is now being paid, and local authorities are far better acquainted with the circumstances in which the work will have to be executed, they ought to have a free discretion. For these reasons I would ask hon. Members not to press this Amendment, which would really hamper the work which is being done, and prevent it being done with the expedition which we all desire.


I think the best speech delivered in support of the Amendment has been delivered by the right hon. Gentleman who has just spoken. The very points which he has brought out against the Amendment are the strongest that could be used in support of it. The fact that the trade union rate is now paid is sufficient justification for us putting it into the Act of Parliament, because we are not creating any new precedent. We are not asking for any departure from the conditions and customs that exist. That is one good point which the right hon. Gentleman has made for us. The second point is the fact that work of a remunerative character would be undertaken, and we have not suggested digging holes in the earth and filling them up again. We only want work undertaken of a remunerative character. He pointed out that it would attract men from other employment.

We are dealing with unemployed persons who must justify their employment on the particular work that is being undertaken. That, in itself, is a safeguard, but the main argument in favour of this Amendment is that it would prevent the unemployed being exploited by people who are always out to do so. It would prevent people taking advantage of the poverty of the unemployed and compelling them to work at rates of wages less than those prevailing in the district. Some of us in the past have had experience of this kind of thing. I remember a bad patch in my own life. I shall never forget when in 1888 the industry with which I was concerned was shut down practically for twelve months, and many of us were put on arduous work, brutally arduous work, and paid the magnificent sum of 2s. 8d. per day, subject to certain deductions for doctor, hospital, etc. We did not object to the deductions, but we did object to the poverty pay which was given. I say that this has been done, that it is being done, and that it will be done again, and as long as remunerative work is undertaken, such as we have in mind—the widening of roads, the construction of tunnels and harbour works—the recognised rate of wages should apply. We believe the arguments used by the right hon. and learned Gentleman against the Clause is the strongest argument in favour of putting it in the Bill.


I listened with some amazement to the remarks of the Secretary for Scotland, though there is a good deal to be said for his view. When unemployment comes upon a community, the first men to be dismissed are those who are not good workers. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] Take, for instance, a colliery. When bad trade comes, the first seams to be stopped are those of a poor quality and the men are thrown idle. When depression takes place, the best men are not the, first to be sent about their business. At the same time there is a good deal to be said for the views which have been put forward by hon. Members on the opposite benches. It is not fair that a good workman should be asked to work for less than the ordinary rate of wages paid in the district, but we must remember that there are many parts of these various schemes where it will take good men to do the work. Had I been in the House earlier, I should have asked what is likely to happen in my own district. There we have a huge quantity of peat moss which, under this new scheme, might be utilised not only for making moss litter for collieries, but also for making good briquettes. In order to get that work started you require the very best skilled men. I anticipate, therefore, that there would be no difficulty in giving them good wages. There may be other places where there is lighter work, and where men who are not very strong might be employed. I want to put this point. The ratepayers, looking around, might find unsuitable men, who were not skilled or able to do a good day's work, getting a big wage, if this scheme of giving the rate of wages prevalent in the district were applied. It would be a good thing if there were a departure from the cut-and-dried line, and an opportunity of employment at a smaller wage were given to these men. It would help things very considerably, and I put that view earnestly before my hon. Friends.

We shall have a good deal of unemployment in my own district; we have already, and I should be sorry to see men thrown out of employment and capable men paid at a rate lower than the ordinary rate of the district. At the same time, there are a large number of men going about who are not strong and cannot do a good day's work. It would

be a pity to prevent these men getting into some good occupation for the time being, so as to tide over the period of unemployment. Therefore, while there is a good deal to be said for the view of the Secretary for Scotland, I hope it will be made clear to the local authorities that capable, strong, good men should be paid the ordinary rate, but that they will be free to employ men who cannot do a good day's work at a lower rate of wage. The work in my own district which I mentioned requires special men. An engineer would not be capable of doing the work that an ordinary workman engaged in mining would do, because a good deal of it would be stone mining. In order to get to the various drifts one would require to drive an open or underground mine for some distance to the peat moss and take away the water. An ordinary workman or tradesman would be of little use, but as soon as he was able to do the work he ought to get the ordinary rate of wages. I hope the Secretary for Scotland will make it plain to the local authorities that they are expected to pay the ordinary rate of wages in the district to men who are able to do the work, but that they may employ those not so able at a less rate in order to tide over the period of unemployment, which, I regret to say, is likely to come sooner than most people seem to think.

Question put, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

The Committee divided: Ayes, 43: Noes, 94.

Division No. 375.] AYES. [1.45 p.m.
Bell, James (Lancaster, Ormskirk) Hirst, G. H. Royce, William Stapleton.
Bromfield, William Hogue, James Myles Shaw, Thomas (Preston)
Burn, T. H. (Belfast, St. Anne's) Irving, Dan Simm. M. T.
Carter, W. (Nottingham, Mansfield) Jesson, C. Sitch, Charles H.
Coote, Colin Reith (Isle of Ely) Kenyon, Barnet Spencer, George A.
Davies, Evan (Ebbw Vale) Lawson, John J. Swan, J. E.
Donald, Thompson Lunn, William Thomas, Brig.-Gen. Sir O. (Anglesey)
Finney, Samuel M'Cuffin, Samuel Thorne, W. (West Ham, Plaistow)
Glanville, Harold James Malone, Major P. B. (Tottenham, S.) White, Charles F. (Derby. Western)
Graham, R. (Nelson and Colne) Mills, John Edmund Wignall, James
Grundy. T. W. Morgan, Major D. Watts Young, Robert (Lancaster, Newton)
Guest, J. (York, W. R., Hemsworth) Myers, Thomas
Hall. F. (York, W. R., Normanton) Newbould, Alfred Ernest TELLERS FOR THE AYES.
Hallas, Eldred Richardson, R. (Houghton-le-Spring) Mr. Tyson Wilson and Mr. Allen Parkinson.
Hartshorn, Vernon Robertson, John
Hayday, Arthur Rose, Frank H.
Allen, Lieut.-Colonel William James Borwick, Major G. O. Churchman. Sir Arthur
Astor, Viscountess Bowyer, Captain G. E. W. Coats Sir Stuart
Baird, Sir John Lawrence Brassey, Major H. L. C. Cobb, Sir Cyril
Baldwin, Rt. Hon. Stanley Breese, Major Charles E. Cockerill, Brigadier-General G. K.
Barrie, Charles Coupar Bull, Rt. Hon. Sir William James Colfox, Major Wm. Phillips
Bellairs, Commander Carlyon W. Burn, Col. C. R. (Devon, Torquay) Colvin, Brig.-General Richard Beale
Birchall, Major J. Dearman Campion, Lieut.-Colonel W. R. Conway, Sir W. Martin
Dalziel, Rt. Hon. Sir J. H. (Kirk'dy) Kiley, James D. Preston, W. R.
Doyle, N. Grattan King, Captain Henry Douglas Pulley, Charles Thornton
Edwards, Major J. (Aberavon) Lewis, Rt. Hon. J. H. (Univ., Wales) Rawlinson, John Frederick Peel
Elliot, Capt. Walter E. (Lanark) Lindsay, William Arthur Rees, Capt. J. Tudor- (Barnstaple)
Eyres-Monsell, Commander B. M. Lloyd-Greame, Major Sir P. Roundell, Colonel R. F.
Fell, Sir Arthur Locker-Lampson, G. (Wood Green) Sassoon, Sir Philip Albert Gustave D.
Forestier-Walker, L. Lorden, John William Seddon, J. A.
Ganzoni, Captain Francis John C. Lyle, C. E. Leonard Shaw, William T. (Forfar)
Gibbs. Colonel George Abraham Lyle-Samuel, Alexander Shortt, Rt. Hon. E. (N'castle-on-T.)
Gilmour, Lieut.-Colonel John Macnamara, Rt. Hon. Dr. T. J. Stanley, Major Hon. G. (Preston)
Glyn, Major Ralph Macpherson, Rt. Hon. James I. Sturrock, J. Leng
Green, Joseph F. (Leicester, W.) Macquisten. F. A. Sugden, W. H.
Greenwood, William (Stockport) Magnus, Sir Philip Thomas, Sir Robert J. (Wrexham)
Greig, Colonel James William Munro, Rt. Hon. Robert Thomson, F. C. (Aberdeen, South)
Hacking, Captain Douglas H. Neal, Arthur Thorpe, Captain John Henry
Harmsworth, C. B. (Bedford, Luton) Nicholson. Reginald (Doncaster) Tryon, Major George Clement
Henry, Denis S. (Londonderry, S) Nicholson, William G. (Petersfield) Whitla, Sir William
Hoare. Lieut.-Colonel Sir S. J. G. O'Neill, Major Hon. Robert W. H. Willoughby, Lieut.-Col. Hon. Claud
Holbrook, Sir Arthur Richard Ormsby-Gore, Captain Hon. W. Wilson, Daniel M. (Down, West)
Hopkins, John W. W. Palmer, Major Godfrey Mark Wilson, Colonel Leslie O. (Reading)
Hurst, Lieut.-Colonel Gerald B. Parker, James Wood, Sir H. K. (Woolwich, West)
Illingworth, Rt. Hon. A. H. Parry, Lieut.-Colonel Thomas Henry Young, Lieut.-Com. E. H. (Norwich)
Inskip, Thomas Walker H. Perring, William George
Jones, J. T. (Carmarthen, Llanelly) Pinkham, Lieut.-Colonel Charles TELLERS FOR THE NOES.
Kellaway, Rt. Hon. Fredk. George Pratt, John William Lord E. Talbot and Captain Guest.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill reported, without Amendment.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."


Perhaps the House will allow me to say just two things on this Motion. The first is to express our gratitude to the House for being so good as to give us both stages of this Bill to-day. I think everybody in the House, and probably outside as well, must recognise the exceptional urgency of this problem, and feel bound to co-operate in all means which tend towards its solution. That is the first thing I want to say, and the second is this, that if and when the Bill passes from another place and becomes law, I hope I may respectfully venture to suggest to the local authorities throughout the country that they will take note of that fact and that they will not hesitate to put the provisions of the Bill into operation in any area where the circumstances of unemployment seem to justify that course.


I would like to ask the Minister in charge of the Bill whether he can give us now any indication as to works already in hand or in immediate anticipation, and in view of the discussion on the new Clause defeated in Committee, can we expect from the Department that local authorities in conjunction with themselves will be encouraged to recognise in the spirit the new Clause defeated in Committee?

The MINISTER of LABOUR (Dr. Macnamara)

I desire to associate myself with my right hon. Friend the Secretary for Scotland in thanking the House for the great expedition with which it has given us this Bill. I am sorry to say that we have to-day in Greater London 100,000 men unemployed, and of these 70,000 are ex-service men, to whom we are, of course, under a very serious obligation. The House realises the need for meeting that as far as possible, and we are much obliged for the promptitude with which we have got this Bill. As regards new arterial roads around London, my hon. Friend knows that the London County Council have been pleased—and we are very grateful to them—to raise half the cost by way of a county rate, and the Ministry of Transport have found the other half. This Bill, as now amended—and amended in accordance with their request—will enable them to proceed with greater expedition.

With regard to the inner parts of London, the Ministry have increased the number of main roads in regard to which they will give assistance, and they are already in communication with fourteen borough councils in London with respect to the maintenance and reconditioning of, so far, over 30 roads. Here, again, part of the obligation is met by a grant from the Ministry of Transport, and the other part by the local authority—in this case by a borough and not a county rate. It has been decided to endeavour to meet the local authorities as far as possible by allowing them loans on as easy terms as possible. As regards arterial road schemes and inner main roads in the provinces, schemes are before 23 authorities now respecting the maintenance, widening, resurfacing, paving, and so on, of some 30 main roads, and I am glad to say that men are already on road work at Brighton, Leicester, Birmingham, Preston, Ipswich, Norwich, Plymouth, Bournemouth, Reading, and Nottingham. Altogether, 25 provincial authorities have now under consideration schemes for new arterial roads.

Again, as my hon. Friend knows, the Ministry of Health has hastened the layout of sites and the work of sewerage around London, and a circular has been issued to local authorities with substantial housing schemes urging them -to take material steps in this direction. Apart from all that, we have done what we can to keep work going at the ordnance factory at Woolwich, and also at Enfield. The Cabinet Committee on Unemployment is still at work, and, quite apart from the various schemes that I have mentioned, we are examining all propositions which seem to us to be feasible to meet the emergency in which we find ourselves. I should like to say how much obliged we are to the local authorities, London and provincial—heavily burdened as many of them are—for the great loyalty, good-will and expedition with which they are helping us in this matter. The only other point is with regard to wages. I do not know whether I can add anything in regard to this, except to say that it is all being done now through the local authorities, which is a different state of affairs from that of the old days to which my hon. Friend referred. I have no reason to suppose that under this Bill the work will be done otherwise than under conditions which are quite fair to those engaged in it.

2.0 P.M.


While this Bill is not so wide as we should have liked to see it, we are not going to stand in the way of any Bill which is going to ameliorate the conditions of the people who are unemployed. I think the Government may rely upon the local authorities doing their utmost to carry out the provisions of the Bill. I would likewise appeal to Members of this House to use their influence with the local authorities in their constituencies. I believe that Members can do a great deal of good by encouraging local authorities, and indicating to them how the Bill can be operated and what is the intention of Parliament in connection with it. I can only hope that there will not be very much necessity for putting it into operation; the less the necessity for operating it the better for the people of this country. I hope that the Bill will be the means of bringing comfort to the homes of those people who may be unemployed during the coming winter.


We read in the Press this morning of a gigantic scheme connected with the development of the Severn for purposes of electric power. According to what is stated, there is a suggestion that that scheme will find work for 250,000 workers for seven years. Having regard to the fact that a number of us will certainly be bombarded with questions as to when the scheme is going to be put into operation, I should like to ask the Minister of Labour if he has anything to say in connection with it, and whether he will expedite it in every possible way?

Lieut.-Colonel Sir S. HOARE

As a London Member, I should like to make one or two short observations. The first is to thank the Minister of Labour for the new Clause in the Bill, and for the great activity and sympathy that he has shown in dealing with the case put before him by the representatives of the London boroughs. Certainly the London borough for which I speak did not think that it was well treated under the Bill as originally drafted. As there were no arterial roads in Chelsea, it was obvious that Chelsea would receive no benefit under the original scheme. Under the extension, I hope that it will, and on that account I am grateful to the Government for their new Clause. At the same time, I cannot help thinking that they would have been well advised if they had still further extended the scope of this Bill. I believe that it would have been better not to have restricted the Exchequer grants to road making, but to have given a Treasury grant to any approved scheme put forward by one of the great local authorities. I believe that sooner or later the Government will come round to that, and, speaking for myself, I would say, the sooner the better. Unemployment is like a snowball; when it begins it is comparatively easy to deal with, but as it goes rolling on and on it becomes more difficult and more expensive. On that account, I should have said that it would have been better here and now for the Cabinet boldly to face the problem, and say that they would give an Exchequer grant of 50 per cent. to any approved scheme, whether for the building of roads, for drainage, or for necessary repairs to our great public services. It may be said that a grant of that kind would really be a grant in aid of the rates. That is obviously true. At the same time unemployment is not a local problem. You cannot deal with unemployment as if it was a question like mending of roads or the erection of public buildings in a particular locality. Unemployment is the direct result of national causes, and on that account it should be dealt with as a national question and should be paid for, if grants are necessary, in great part, if not in whole, from the Exchequer. Whilst thanking the right hon. Gentleman for what he said I cannot help expressing my regret that the Bill does not go further and cover all approved schemes.


The hon. Member (Mr. Jesson) addressed a question to the Minister of Labour to which he has asked me to reply, with reference to the great scheme which is mentioned in the Press this morning of work in connection with electricity and transport on the Severn. I am not in a position at the moment to say more than that that scheme is the result of a most careful and detailed examination which has been made by the Director-General of Civil Engineering of the Ministry of Transport, and that it is not yet possible for me to say whether it will be available for unemployment. With reference to the observations of the hon. Baronet (Sir S. Hoare). I think he perhaps overlooked for the moment that this is an Emergency Bill dealing with machinery only for the acquisition of land for certain purposes. The questions he mentioned are questions of great importance. They are not being lost sight of, and it has been stated from this Bench several times recently that there is a Cabinet Committee sitting very frequently considering the whole of these questions and considering whether it is possible to help forward this work. To have put matters of the description the hon. Baronet mentioned into the Bill would have raised acute controversy of various kinds, and might have done what the rest of us desire to avoid, namely, delayed the passage of the Bill, which is very urgently needed in order that work may be commenced in the country.


I should not have thought it necessary to intervene in this important matter had it not been that the new Clause proposed by the hon. Member opposite failed to receive the approval of the House. I am very jealous with regard to trade union rates. The reason I rise to speak is because I know one instance, and my colleague beside me is aware of it too, where a public body actively intervened for the purpose of preventing a contractor paying a certain rate of wages which he was prepared to pay in connection with a public contract. It is rather disgraceful that that should be the case. I have heard it suggested that few public bodies will do so, òut I have a specific case before me, and I appeal to the Minister at least to make it a condition, where a minimum is not recognised, that a report on the matter should be forwarded to his Department from the public body concerned. It is only right that they should have some assurance upon this matter, for while I am not suspicious of public bodies as a rule, I am afraid, after all, where they can reduce expense in connection with an undertaking by engaging those who are perhaps not best qualified for the work, they would be more inclined to take that course than to engage others who are capable of doing the work better. I appeal to the Minister in charge to look into the matter and in particular, in respect of the suggestion I have made in connection with certain public bodies that I am not free to mention to-day, at least to take that course in connection with engaging the men.