HC Deb 29 June 1921 vol 143 cc2296-302

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Colonel Leslie Wilson.]


I desire to raise a question of which I have given notice with reference to the rates of wages being paid in connection with the Bristol employment exchanges, and I have no doubt other labour exchanges also. I have no criticism whatever to make of the way in which the persons concerned conduct their duties. They conduct them in an admirable way and with a view to the public interest, and they are devoted in their service to the public. But that is no justification for the extraordinary application of what is called the war bonus scheme under the Whitley Council connected with the Civil Service. I am informed on the authority of the Minister of Labour that young women who enter the employment exchanges, whose qualifications are required to have clerical ability together with aptitude to deal promptly and courteously with miscellaneous inquiries, are paid, up to the age of 18, a salary of £138; from 18 to 19, £199; and when they reach 19, still possessing the qualifications I have mentioned, £212 per annum. May I compare this with something which will enable the House to estimate the value of the services these young women perform in comparison with that of much more highly qualified persons? I take one illustration out of many. A certificated mistress in an ordinary elementary school, after spending a considerable sum upon her training, passing two to three years in a training college, under the Burnham scale receives about £170 a year, and continues at that salary for some considerable time. The girl clerks I have mentioned are permanent clerks of the Civil Service, enjoying all the advantages of permanent employment. They carry out the ordinary duties with zeal, devotion, and ability, so far as they require those qualities, and they receive, as I think, the extravagant sum of £212 per year. They have neither homes nor families to maintain, having regard to the age at which they are employed, and they receive a much larger salary than any women in any other employment that could be mentioned. I call attention to this, not with a view to reducing the salaries of the girl clerks, in the Employment Exchanges. I recognise that they are carrying out their services well, and they are working probably long hours; but I want to call attention to the almost ridiculous way in which the war bonus scheme of the Whitley Council in the Civil Service works. A war bonus was intended to be an addition to salaries which were fixed before or during the increase in the cost of living due to the War. It was given to put these salaries on a scale commensurate with the cost of living and to put them in the same relation with the cost of living as the pre-War salaries were. These young women were engaged two years after the War and yet by the addition of what is called a war bonus their salaries are increased, in the case of those who are 19 years of age, by no less than £132 a year upon what is called a salary of £80 a year. Probably this is the only opportunity there will be before the close of the Session for calling attention to the operation of this scheme. Whether or not it has been wise in the interests of the Civil Service I make no question to-night. I do not want to go back upon the past—but separating as we are about to do in a comparatively short time I do suggest that the Government ought to cut off the further operation of their scheme with regard to persons engaged from this time forward, and to direct that salaries shall be fixed with regard to the services performed, the age and qualification of the persons concerned, and with regard generally to a permanent engagement at a rate of salary appropriate to the duties performed, and that the almost ridiculous operation of the so-called war bonus shall cease in order that we may know where we are. We are continually told that the salaries of this and that official are so much, with war bonus. It leaves us in a doubt, it introduces difficulty and uncertainty when there ought to be clarity and certainty, as to the salaries that are paid.

I am sure my right hon. Friend the Minister for Labour will not think for a moment that I am making any criticism of the labour exchanges. I believe them to be an essential part of our industrial system. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] Some hon. Members differ from me. I make no attack on the labour exchanges or on the officials. What I do attack is this rule-of-thumb method, contrary to common sense, of giving war bonus on salaries which have been fixed two years after the close of the War, which was supposed to have led to the giving of the bonus. My right hon. Friend may say that he is not in a position to give any decision which would bind the whole of the Government departments. I recognise that, but I do hope that the position in regard to the labour exchanges for which he is responsible will lead him to make an intimation in the proper quarter of what I think is the sense of the House upon this question, and that it will perhaps lead to some arrangement which will make it impossible for such anomalies to continue in the future.

The MINISTER of LABOUR (Dr. Macnamara)

My hon and learned Friend has performed an urgently necessary public duty in scrutinising with the closest care the public expenditure of the country. It is absolutely necessary that there should be strict economy if we are not to become bankrupt, and so far as I am concerned I am urging that every day of my life. I am glad that my hon. and learned Friend spoke so kindly and so sympathetically of the work of the employment exchanges in the city which he represents. That city has been hit very hard during the last ten months with over- whelming unemployment and the staff that we have there—which he does not criticise and therefore I am absolved from going into that matter—has had a very hard time. I cannot speak too highly of the patience, the devotion, and the consideration which day by day these girls display in meeting the requests and the inquiries of the people who are cast upon these hard times. I have been in the Bristol Employment Exchanges and have seen the work they do, sometimes in premises thoroughly ill-adapted for the work, and I have been surprised at the way they do the work. While thanking my hon. Friend for his testimony, I take this opportunity of paying my tribute to as loyal public service as any public man has ever had. The permanent wages of the girls are £52 and £75. and to that respectively is added £85 16s. in the one case and £123 15s. in the other, War bonus. These are fixed by the National Whitley Council and the Treasury. They are not peculiar, as my hon. Friend knows, to the Employment Exchange Service; they are applicable to the whole of the Civil Service. They will be faced by reason of the fall in the cost of living by a very substantial reduction, as from 1st September. I think I am right in saying that, in reply to a question to-day, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that he would take an early opportunity of making a statement in regard to the whole question of the Civil Service bonus.

We have in Bristol 179 persons engaged at work upon a total registration of wholly unemployed persons of 24,000, and there are, over and above that, 16,000 on short time, and we have in the Britol City area 147,000 insured persons under the National Health Insurance Act. Of these 179, 118 are on the casual basis, in order that I may adapt my staff with the greatest expedition to the precise needs which I have to meet. I stood in the Drill Hall in Old Market Street one Saturday in the early part of last year and saw these girls giving out broken amounts of money for broken periods of time to scores and scores of women, and I have to say now that I went away very glad indeed that during this trying period in one of our great cities we have a staff prepared to give such sterling services in the way that they are doing in Bristol. But that is not the issue between myself and my hon. Friend; it is the question of the war bonus, which, as I say, is a Treasury scheme applicable to the whole Civil Service that will have to face a substantial reduction on 1st September, and concerning which, as I gather, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has stated to-day that he will take an early opportunity of making a statement.

Lieut.-Colonel NALL

I do not wish to prolong this discussion, but I do want to say one word in regard to the comment of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Central Bristol (Mr. Inskip), when he says that, as far as he is concerned, the different staffs are doing their job properly. Although this does not concern Bristol, it is as well to give some instances that come before one's notice. One is the Borough Employment Exchange, in the Walworth Road, where a girl, 15 years of age, persistently asked if she could be given a job in domestic service. She was told by whoever dealt with her case words to this effect: "What, a nice girl like you wanting to go into service? You are too good for that. We will find you something much beetter." She went away, and when she returned she was told the same thing. A friend of hers, 16 years of age, who had the same wish, was told the same thing, and they were both denied any possibility of employment, and were compelled to draw out-of-work pay. That was some time ago. The exact date was the 29th March. At the Kensington branch, in Queen's Gate, last week, or the week before, an inquiry was made by telephone for a general servant. The wages offered were £40, to live in. All the satisfaction that could be got on the telephone was, that there were no maids available, and they could not fill the vacancy. I give these two examples out of many of which I have heard. They may well be quoted in this connection. I presume the staffs in these two places draw wages on the same scale as those mentioned by my hon. Friend. When further Estimates in connection with these exchanges come up, the House must make up its mind as to whether, in the national interest, it ought to continue Departments which pay the. extravagant salaries referred to, and which do the work in the manner indicated by the two instances I have just quoted.


I am sorry the hon. Member did not give us the details which he has just quoted earlier. If he will give them now we shall be happy to go into them. One of the dates which he, has mentioned is the 29th March, which is some time ago. If he can let us have the details of any case inquiry will be made promptly, and if he will let us have the details now we shall have inquiry made at once.


In view of the statement that 118 of those employés at Bristol are more or less casual and subject to short notice and that some of them are receiving salary and war bonus amounting approximately to £200 a year. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he cannot see his way to give a preference in casual employment to some of the large numbers of men who would be very glad indeed, in existing circumstances, to take advantage of employment of that character—men who have far heavier responsibilities, in many cases having to maintain wives and families, while many of these females are probably single.

Captain LOSEBY

In view of the attack of the hon. and learned Member for Central Bristol (Mr. Inskip) on the War bonus scheme of the Civil Service generally, and also in view of the statement of the Minister of Labour that the system was coming under review at an early date, I take the opportunity of challenging the opinion expressed as to the advisability of the War bonus scheme, and most sincerely hope that the Government will not accept the view of the hon. and learned Member as expressing the opinion of this House, because I am utterly unable to see how the Government could devise a scheme which would at the same time be economic, and provide anything in the nature of justice or ensure a reliable and fair economic wage, under any other system. At the present time it would be the greatest folly to fix a definite wage. It would be entirely uneconomic. No one in this country can say what the cost of living will be in one, two, or three years, and the Government took the line that in the Civil Service generally the wages paid were more or less fair in 1914; and if they act upon that basis, that the rise and fall of wages should vary with the rise and fall in the cost of living it is the only possible way of dealing with it. I have always felt strongly on this question of sliding scale. I have always felt it was economic, and I feel now that the Government would most certainly lose if it endeavoured, with a fluctuating cost of living, to arrange anything in the nature of fixed salaries.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty Minutes after Eleven o'clock.