HC Deb 19 October 1920 vol 133 cc756-63
Sir CHARLES SYKES (By Private Notice)

asked the Prime Minister whether he was in a position to make any statement with regard to the Government's plans for dealing with unemployment in the coming winter?

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Lloyd George)

I made an announcement to the House on the 16th August as follows: The question of unemployment, and particularly of the continued presence on the list of the unemployed of large numbers of ex-service men, is engaging the very serious consideration of the Government, and a Cabinet Committee has been appointed to examine the problem. That Committee sat during August and September and has submitted an interim report to the Cabinet with the least possible delay. Concurrently with it, the Cabinet Committee on Housing has also continued its labours during the Recess.

We have definitely come to the conclusion that a great opportunity of finding work for many thousands of the fit ex-service men at present unemployed is afforded by the building trades. During the War neither men nor material could be spared for building operations. Many of the operatives joined the colours; the older men went into other occupations. The direct result is that to-day there are 65,000 fewer skilled men in the building trades than there were pre-war. This shortage of skilled men reduces the employment which can be given to labourers and unskilled men. It is estimated that the country requires 100,000 new houses each year. We are therefore faced with the shortage of at least 500,000 houses, in addition to the shortage of building labour. And it must be remembered that during the last 12 months there has been employment throughout the country available for men who could not take advantage of it for want of a house to live in.

On Wednesday, 6th October, we sent to the trade unions a series of proposals designed to hasten housing operations, and at the same time give work to many thousands of the fit ex-service men. I hope that the trade unions will at once accept these proposals. The proposals provide for adult apprenticeship up to 26 years of age, with three years' intensive training, and actual commencement on certain forms of productive work from the very beginning. At best, this will not completely cover the ground. We are, therefore, considering definite proposals for the employment of further large numbers of ex-service men on the housing programme.

Other proposals designed to give productive employment to large numbers of fit ex-service men have been approved by the Cabinet. They deal with road-making and road improvement by anticipating four years' programme of the Ministry of Transport for the making of new arterial roads and for road improvement. Round and about London we propose to put in hand forthwith a large scheme for the making of new arterial roads. We propose that grants from the Road Fund should be given to assist the various local authorities.

So far as the London boroughs are concerned, it is hoped that the London County Council will assume responsibility for a substantial portion of the cost of the construction of these roads, making the charge a county charge, and thus relieving the poorer boroughs, whose financial obligations at the present time are very heavy, and in whose districts the number of unemployed is out of all proportion to their rateable value. Many thousands of ex-service men reside in these boroughs, and it would be quite impossible for the boroughs themselves, owing to their high rates, to make the necessary grants. This appeal is made to the London County Council on behalf of the whole of London.

As regards the provinces, similar schemes of road improvement will be put in hand forthwith. Again, the policy to be followed will be that of mutual share and co-operation between the Ministry of Transport and the local authorities. The Ministry of Transport wish it to be understood that these plans will not interfere with its programme of road classification and maintenance grants, which in itself provides a wide field for employment for unskilled men throughout the country.

An appeal is also being made to the Trade Unions concerned to suspend or vary their rules so as to permit of additional men being admitted into the following trades in which there has been serious shortage of skilled labour, viz., foundry trades, iron puddlers and railway wagon building. The shortage of output in these branches of trade has reduced employment and output in the engineering trades proper, so that the proposal is of far-reaching importance.

These plans were all in progress before the outbreak of the strike, and but for that strike the Government hoped that by these and similar means the problem of unemployment and especially of the unemployment of ex-service men would be adequately met during the coming winter. We shall proceed with our plans to the best of our ability in spite of the strike, but I need not tell the House that the effect of the strike must be not only to add enormously to the number of unemployed, but to lessen our power to give effect to the schemes already planned. Meanwhile, the Cabinet will continue to explore other possible fields of employment.


Relating to that part of the answer dealing with house-building, is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the fact that only some 10 per cent. of the men employed in the building trades are now engaged on house-construction? May I further ask whether the Prime Minister can make any statement on the public announcement of the trades unions covering the men in the building trades, as to their willingness to admit others to the industry if they themselves are guaranteed continued employment?


Is it not in the power of the trade unions, if such is the case, to withdraw their labour from these luxury buildings, as there is an enormous demand for them in the building trade generally?


It is not a question of withdrawing labour. It is a question of finding employment. I am not in a position to challenge the statement of my right hon. Friend in regard to the 10 per cent., but, even if it is accurate, at any rate 90 per cent. are in full employment, and it is a question of finding work for ex-service men. I forget how many there are, but my recollection is that there are about 180,000 ex-service men out of work, and it is a question of finding work for them. Here is Work ready to hand. The country needs 500,000 houses. It is profitable employment, healthful employment. Here are men seeking employment, and they are men who could help in liquidating the necessities of the country in respect of this lack of housing. As to the guarantee, it is part of the proposal.


In his first reply the right hon. Gentleman said that building was being delayed because of lack of builders.


There is absolutely no doubt of that. There would be more building if there were men available for the purpose of putting up houses. Here are men who could assist, and we propose that they should be allowed to assist.


Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that as far as iron puddling is concerned, it is the absolute immovability of the Labour Department which is responsible for men not being employed?


Having regard to the fact that 90 per cent. of the men now employed in the building trade are employed on the erection of mills, factories, and such like, is it desirable that that state of things should continue, and that the unskilled men should be brought on to the erection of houses for people to live in?

Lieut. - Colonel Sir J. NORTON-GRIFFITHS

Can the right hon. Gentleman indicate how long it would take to arrive at a definite conclusion with regard to undertaking the work of road construction, and further is he aware that if you want to employ men the avenue for providing employment for a number of men is in road making more than in any other utility work which he can devise?


Negotiations with the London County Council have already begun. As soon as these negotiations are completed, if they are satisfactory, work can be begun in two or three weeks. The plans are indeed ready.


What about the iron puddling?


I do not know what my right hon. Friend means. If on Thursday he will elaborate his indictment of the Labour Ministry, we shall know what he means, and we shall then be able, as our object is, if there be difficulties in the way, to remove them, so that work may be found for the men who are unemployed.


Are you aware that we have been doing our best to get it settled in this way, and that it is not the wicked trade union but a useless Government that is at fault?


My right hon. Friend will have an opportunity on Thursday of getting rid of the difficulties and of the Government.


Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the fact that apart from the miners' strike and before the miners' strike, and apart from the building trade, 20 per cent. of the transport workers of the country have been idle for the past six weeks?


This Committee was appointed, as my hon. Friend knows very well, before the miners' strike. It was appointed in August to deal with unemployment, especially among ex-service men, and we have been considering the question, not with a view to meeting the exigencies of the strike, but of dealing with a problem which would have arisen with or without the strike.


If the negotiations with the London County Council come to a successful issue, does that mean that a great portion of the cost of this arterial road is going to be thrown on the local rates?


Where roads are constructed for local convenience, by every precedent a contribution must come from local rates. You cannot expect the Imperial Exchequer to bear the whole burden of making roads in London. If special privileges were given to London, other places in the country would also claim them. We must hold the balance fairly.


asked the President of the Board of Trade whether he can state the figures showing the scale

Trade. 1913. 1919. 1920.
August. September. August. September. August. September.
Per cent. Per cent. Per cent. Per cent. Per cent. Per cent.
Building† 2.7 3.4 1.1 0.5 0.3 0.4
Coal Mining 0.3 0.3 0.2 0.2 0.1 0.1
Engineering and Shipbuilding. 2.1 2.8 1.8 2.4 2.6 3.4
Miscellaneous Metal 1.9 1.6 1.0 1.5 0.7 1.2
Cotton 1.8 1.7 3.0 2.8 1.5 2.5
Woollen and Worsted 4.4 5.6 2.6 1.3 2.4 3.2
Other 1.3 1.3 15.2 3.6 1.3 1.6
Printing, Bookbinding and Paper. 4.8 4.3 1.3 1.3 1.3 1.8
Furnishing 2.3 1.7 0.8 0.9 2.1 2.4
Woodworking 1.9 2.6 0.8 1.4 0.8 1.3
Boot and Shoe 2.0 2.2 0.6 0.5 1.6‡ 2.8‡
Other Clothing 1.3 .0 0.8 0.8 1.6 2.4
Leather 5.2 5.0 0.9 0.8 5.3 7.1
Glass 0.4 1.3 0.1 0.1
Pottery 1.0 0.4 1.1 0.6 0.1 0.1
Tobacco 3.9 3.5 0.2 0.1 6.9 6.9
Above Trades 2.0 2.2 2.2 1.6 1.6 2.2
* Short time and broken time are not reflected in the figures. In the Mining and Textile Industries a contraction in the demand for labour is generally met by short-time working.
† This percentage is based mainly on returns relating to Carpenters and Plumbers.
‡ In addition 4.4 per cent. in September and 3.2 per cent. in August were temporarily suspended.

of unemployment during August and September and the comparison such figures bear to the numbers for the same period of last year and for 1913 for the main industries in the country?


I have been asked to reply. I will, if I may, circulate in the OFFICIAL REPORT a statement showing for the periods mentioned the percentage unemployed among members of certain Trade Unions (mostly of skilled workers) in the principal industries, and also the percentage unemployed in trades insured under the Act of 1911. These are the only available figures affording a comparison between the years 1913 and 1920. But any deduction from them with regard to the total amount of unemployment at the two periods should be made with caution. In particular, there is reason to suppose that the Trade Union percentages for 1920 do not reflect at all fully the unemployment among ex-service men.

The following is the statement referred to:

Trade. 1913. 1919. 1920.
August. Sept. August. Sept. August. Sept.
Per cent. Per cent. Per cent. Per cent. Per cent. Per cent.
Building and Construction of Works 3.6 4.3 3.9 3.4 2.1 2.8
Shipbuilding 3.6 4.7 4.1 4.4 3.8 5.4
Engineering and Ironfounding 2.6 2.9 4.6 3.9 3.5 4.6
Construction of Vehicles 3.1 3.5 2.4 2.3 2.0 3.1
Total 2.9 3.4 4.2 3.7 3.0 4.0


I beg to ask the Lord Privy Seal a question of which I have given him private notice, which, unfortunately, I have not been able to intimate to you, Mr. Speaker, namely, whether an early opportunity will be given to discuss the industrial situation in this country?

Mr. BONAR LAW (Leader of the House)

I understand that my right hon. Friend's question has special reference to unemployment. I believe the House would desire to discuss that, and if, as I fancy is the case, it is agreeable to the House, I propose that it should be taken on Thursday.