HC Deb 23 February 1921 vol 138 cc934-7

I beg to move, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the prevention of unemployment, to provide for the proper treatment of unemployed persons; and for other purposes connected therewith."

4.0 P.M.

In the course of the ten minutes which, in accordance with the rules of the House I have at my disposal, it will not be possible to enter at length into any detail with regard to the Bill which I am submitting. I am sure that hon. and right hon. Gentlemen must be conscious of the growing seriousness of the difficulties of the country with regard to the state of unemployment, and, if the figures are not fresh in the minds of all of us, I would just ask the House to remember the statemen which the right hon. Gentleman made a few days ago, that more than 1,000,000 persons are registered as unemployed, that probably hundreds of thousands of other persons are not registered, but are unemployed, and that 600,000 persons are working short time. We have therefore the fact that some millions of persons, thinking of these unemployed in the terms of their families, are suffering the privations of unemployment. I suggest to the House that we have not in this Session of Parliament so far done justice to these staggering facts, and that we might well give some little of our time to considering how far this House can by legislation do something to diminish the hardships of this enormous and suffering class.

When the Bill, which I had the privilege of introducing, was first drafted, it was conceived in terms to deal with only normal conditions of un- employment. It was built upon the experience which we had had in previous years. Certainly it had to be considerably altered if the Bill were to deal with the situation as it has now developed. Therefore, Members who may go to the trouble of comparing the Bill with measures or Bills under a similar title introduced by my hon. Friends on this side of the House in previous years will find a very substantial difference. Our Bill is designed to deal with abnormal and with exceptional situations, as well as empowering local authorities and Departments of State to deal with ordinary conditions of out-of-work as will happen in normal times. The Bill proposes to place fully and absolutely in the hands of the Ministry of Labour the whole of the powers for dealing with this problem. One ground of complaint which we have often advanced is that too many State Departments have this question in hand. They have had different views, with the result, very frequently, that little or nothing has been done. In our judgment it is essential that some one principal State Department shall be answerable and shall be vested with full powers for dealing, as the central authority, with this great question. Linked up to the central authority for practical constructive purposes will be the whole of the local authorities of the country.

The Bill proposes to create within each local authority a committee permanently charged with the responsibility and the duty of reviewing the local situation, the numbers of unemployed, their personnel, their character, and the local causes, so far as they are purely local, which have tended to produce unemployment. Our view is that there can be nothing of more importance to a locality or to a municipality than the presence of large numbers of unemployed. Local authorities have permanent committees for almost every other purpose. If it be important, as it is, for a local body to have a watch committee, as it is termed, or a gas committee, or an art galleries and libraries committee, it cannot be of less importance that it should have a permanent committee regularly dealing with this problem, and not a temporary committee such as has been occasionally called into existence. These local committees will for many purposes be linked together in large areas as well as being kept in touch with the central power for the exercise of the authority which would be vested in them. We have often been asked what we would do with those who refuse work and who, under the best conditions or the fairest arrangements which might be made, would still decline to perform, as we say, "an honest day's work for an honest day's pay."

The Bill makes due provision, I submit, for dealing with those who want something for nothing. Indeed, it is one of the very worst features of the Government's handling of this problem of unemployment that already it has given too much for nothing. If it had wisely spent the millions, which it has wasted, in organising productive work, much more good would have been done to many willing workers throughout the different parts of the country. The Bill therefore says that those who refuse employment offered to them under conditions which in the opinion of the Council, upon a report of the manager or Advisory Committee, are reasonable will not be entitled to any of the provisions for support or maintenance referred to in the Bill. It will be the duty of the central authority under this Bill to maintain a more constant level in the aggregate national demand for labour, both for private employers and public departments. The Ministry will act in consultation with State Departments and with the Treasury in organising work and services so as to regularise the demand for employment and prevent fluctuations from which great masses of workers now suffer. Local authorities will have much to do, therefore, in connection with the erection of public buildings, schools, other institutions and local works of a varied character.

May I submit to the right hon. Gentleman opposite that the principle of this Bill has already been accepted by the Government and is now in practice. His speech a day or two ago showed the House that, in respect to public works, local works, main roads, and various enterprises undertaken both by the State and by local authorities, work had been already found for some 70,000 men. The principle, then, for which we have long pleaded has at length been forced by sheer weight of circumstances upon an evidently unwilling Government, and the plea of this Bill is to extend that principle so as to find useful, productive, remunerative and profitable forms of employment instead of paying out money for nothing, as we have so often alleged on this side of the House has been done. Finally, may I read, in support of the principle of the Bill, the statement made by the Prime Minister just prior to Christmas, 1919, when addressing a large conference of representatives of the building trades assembled in this city? On that occasion the Prime Minister said: I know what the workmen have got in their minds. They have got the horror of unemployment. I wonder what sort of Christmas an unemployed man has to face for his children. We must get rid of this fear and this horror of unemployment for ever. It is a thing that we have no right to permit in a civilised community. It is a torture which no human citizen should commit against another. It is a thing which 13 causing a great sense of wrong, a great sense of injustice, a sense of grievance in the minds of the working men of this country greater than anything else. I plead that this Bill should be given consideration by this House at the earliest opportunity, in order that we may remove this wrong and prevent this horror.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Clynes, Mr. Thomas, Mr. Stephen Walsh, Mr. Arthur Henderson, Mr. Thomas Shaw, and Mr. Neil Maclean.