HC Deb 03 March 1921 vol 138 cc2055-64

Order for Consideration of Lords Amendments, read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Lords Amendments be now considered."

4.0 P.M.

The MINISTER of LABOUR (Dr. Macnamara)

Perhaps I may be allowed to express my thanks to the Members of the other House for the immediate consideration which they have given to the Unemployment Insurance Act Amendment Bill, which passed its Third Reading in this House on Thursday. Like my hon. Friends and colleagues in this House, the Noble Lords recognise the extreme urgency of the problem, and are anxious that the alleviations contained in the Bill shall be immediately available for those who need it, and are qualified to obtain it. Most of the Amendments which we are now asked to consider are either drafting Amendments or are designed to express the intentions of the Bill more clearly than its text did when it left us. I shall ask the House to agree to those Amendments. They were, indeed, accepted in another place on the suggestion of the Noble Lord in charge of the Bill on behalf of the Government. There are two or three other Amendments of substance to which, again, I shall ask the House to agree. There are, however, three Amendments which substantially affect the practice and policy of industrial unemployment insurance as we have conceived it and followed it since 1911. To those I shall be compelled to ask the House to disagree. With this preamble, let me take the Amendments seriatim.

The first Amendment—in Clause 2, Sub-section (1), to leave out the word "on" ["from on and after the third day of July"]—is a drafting Amendment to make it clear that the increased contributions will commence from the beginning of the insurance year 1921–22. They will begin to be payable as from 4th July next. I shall ask the House to agree to that Amendment. The second Amendment—in Clause 2, Sub-section (2), after the word "which" ["unemployment benefit to which any person is entitled"] to insert the words, "having regard to the proportion of benefit to contributions fixed by paragraph 3 of the Second Schedule to the Principal Act—again is a drafting Amendment. It limits the benefit to one week for every six contributions paid. I shall ask the House to agree to that Amendment. The next Amendment—in Clause 2, Sub-section (2), to leave out the words "commencement of the Principal Act and before," and to insert instead thereof the words, "Seventh day of November, Nineteen hundred and twenty and"—is also a drafting Amendment and is merely intended to make the Clause read clearly. The next Amendment—in Clause 3, Sub-section (1), to leave out the word "those" ["in the aggregate of those periods"], and to insert instead thereof the words "the special"—is a drafting Amendment necessary to avoid the use of the word "periods" in a different sense from its use previously in the same Sub-section. The next Amendment—in Clause 3, Sub-section (2), to leave out the word "periods" ["his failure to be employed for the periods required"], and to insert instead thereof the word "period"—is a verbal Amendment made necessary by a previous Amendment.

The next Amendment—in Clause 3, at the beginning of Sub-section (3), to insert the words, "Paragraph (b) of the proviso to Sub-section (1) of Section Seven of the principal Act shall cease to have effect and"—is a very serious Amendment to which I must call serious attention. From the beginning of unemployment insurance in 1911 there have been laid down statutory conditions for the receipt of benefit. They are to be found in Section Seven of the main Act. Shortly, a person seeking benefit must have paid the necessary contributions, must be unemployed, must not have exhausted his right to benefit, and must be capable of, and available for, work, but unable to obtain suitable work. In the same Section Seven of the main Act the conditions are laid down under which he may decline an offer of work and yet not forfeit benefit. The particular condition which it is here proposed shall cease to exist is that which provides that he may decline without forfeiture of benefit: (b) An offer of employment in the district where he was last ordinarily employed at a rate of wage lower or on conditions less favourable than three which he habitually obtained in his usual employment in that district or would have obtained had he continued to be so employed. If this Amendment of the main Act were made, a man would be disqualified from benefit if he declined a job, which was otherwise suitable, on the ground that the wages and conditions were less favourable than those which he habitually obtained in his usual employment or would have obtained had he continued to be so employed. Of course, he could accept the job if he liked—that would be a matter for him—but, as the main Act stands, he would not jeopardise his benefit if he refused to accept it. Under this Amendment he would jeopardise his benefit if he refused to accept it. I think I have made that perfectly clear, and that Amendment we cannot accept. To withhold benefit from men who refuse work at rates less than those settled by collective bargainings would be a reversal of the accepted policy of the Government in reference to the wages question. You cannot use a compulsory contributory insurance Act for this purpose. It must be remembered that the employment exchanges and the local employment committees are not administering Poor Law relief or charity, but are administering an Insurance Act to which working people, with others, are compelled to contribute I warn the House that any suspicion that you are using this Act in such a way as to influence wage standards would never do. Curiously enough, if this Amendment were adopted, and a man therefore made to lose his benefit because he refused an offer of work at a rate of wage lower than that which he habitually obtained in his own district, no such disability would fall upon him in respect of a similar refusal if the job offered were outside his own district, because, while it is proposed to strike out the paragraph which I have just quoted, the next paragraph in the main Act remains untouched, and a man could refuse without forfeiture of benefit. (c) An offer of employment in any other district at a rate of wage lower, or on conditions less favourable than those generally observed in that district by agreement between associations of employers and of employed or, failing any such agreement, than those generally recognised in that district by good employers. Possibly pressure of time is responsible for the striking out of one proviso and the leaving in of the other, but mani- festly it would make confusion worse confounded, and in any case I am bound to ask the House, for the reasons which I have stated, to reject the Amendment. The next Amendment—


Might I point out the inconvenience of the course which the right hon. Gentleman is taking. He is explaining each Amendment now, instead of giving us an opportunity of debating them on their merits as they come on? It means a much longer debate in explaining them twice over.


I am entirely in the hands of the House. I thought that I should less meet the convenience of the House if I explained them one by one, but each of them will have to be put from the Chair.


I quite understand that, but it means the right hon. Gentleman speaking again.


I will take care not to repeat anything that I have said.


I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will repeat himself.


How happy I should be with either of my hon. Friends. The next Amendment—in Clause 3, Sub-section (3), after the word "Section" ["no person shall be entitled to benefit under this Section"] to insert the words "whose wife or husband resident in the same house is in receipt of wages, annuity, or other income amounting to more than double unemployment benefit at the full rate, or"—again is a very serious Amendment to put in an Amending Insurance Bill. The effect would be that when a man and his wife, both insured persons, were living in the same house, and one was in receipt of an income of over 40s. a week, the other, though unemployed, would be disqualified from benefit. It must be remembered that this is an Insurance Bill guaranteeing a personal benefit for a personal contribution, and, of course, the contributions have been paid for years on that basis. I venture to suggest that to impose this disqualification in respect of persons who, though married, are both operatives and intend to continue operatives, would be dangerously near a breach of faith, and, even if you could do so, it is only proposed in respect of this particular relationship. There would be brothers and sisters in the one house who would not be under any disqualification such as is here proposed to impose upon a man and his wife. There is a case upon which I should like to say a word or two. It is the case of a woman who gives up employment on her marriage. Under the main Act that woman for the first year after she gives up employment can apply for benefit, if she has contributions to her credit, if she wants work and if she is available for work and unable to obtain it; but it is the duty of the Employment Exchange to ascertain whether, in fact, that is her position and intention. The necessity to do this becomes all the greater under this Amending Act, because, during the present emergency, longer periods of benefit are possible than usual, and receivable under much easier qualifying conditions.

We propose to make it possible, under this Bill, for unemployed persons to receive two periods of benefit of 16 weeks each, up to the close of June, 1922, if they can show 20 weeks of employment in an insured trade during 1920. It really would not be fair, I suggest, under an Unemployment Insurance Act, for a married woman, who had definitely on her marriage given up employment, to claim this emergency benefit on the basis of the 20 weeks' employment during last year, if, in fact, she was not available for work, and had no intention or necessity of returning to it. The Bill, in fact, enables this claim to be tested. It proposes in Clause 3, Sub-section (3), that no person is to be entitled to benefit under that Section—the Emergency Section—unless it is proved that he or she is genuinely seeking whole-time employment, and I shall propose to call the attention of those who will have to administer this new measure to that condition. The next Amendment in Sub-section (3) is to leave out the words "the foregoing provision" and insert the words "this Section." This is a consequential Amendment upon the structure of the Clause as amended in this House. I propose to ask the House to accept that. The following two Amendments are drafting Amendments, which I shall ask the House to accept.

The first Amendment in Clause 4 is to insert after the word "shall" ["no person shall receive"] in the first Sub- section, the words "within any insurance year." That is merely to make it clear that the insured person would be eligible for 26 weeks' benefit within an insurance year. The next Amendment is to insert after the word "shall" ["shall have effect"] the words "not operate during the special periods, and shall thereafter." The permanent extension of the maximum benefit in a year is from 15 to 26 weeks, but that will take place not until after the emergency period after June, 1922, and this Amendment makes that clear. The object, of the first Amendment in Sub-section (1) of Clause 9, namely, to leave out "thirty-first day of October" and to insert "second day of November" is to make the first 16 weeks coincide with the insurance benefit pay week. 31st October is a Monday, and it is intended that the special period shall not terminate until 2nd November, which is the following Wednesday. The succeeding Amendment is consequential. The next Amendment is to insert a new Sub-section: (2) In the application of this Act to Ireland references to a court of referees 6hall be substituted for references to a local employment committee. There are no local employment committees in Ireland, and it is, therefore, necessary to provide that the function placed on the Committee under Clause 3 should in Ireland be discharged by the Court of Referees constituted under Section 13 of the principal Act. Then we come to an Amendment to insert at the end of Sub-section (3) the following: or so as to render it necessary for the Minister at any time before the third day of November, nineteen hundred and twenty-one, to require any association to make for the purposes of proviso (a) to Sub-section (1) of Section seventeen of the principal Act any greater or further provision for unemployment benefit than would have been required to be made for those purposes if this Act had not passed. Under Section 17 of the main Act, trade unions and friendly societies may become agents for the administration of benefits on the condition, amongst others, that they add to the benefit from their own fund. Where they are doing so, they made certain rules, and fixed certain subscriptions in advance of certain obligations. This Bill, by increasing benefits, and increasing the period for which benefit may be drawn, materially adds to their obliga- tions in this respect, and we think they should have reasonable time in which to effect necessary alterations. We propose to give them that time up to the end of October next; that is to say, they can then shoulder the obligation in respect of the larger benefit, or rather the larger amount of benefit, which will be now payable under this Act. The next Amendment in Sub-section (5) is to leave out the words "Thursday next after the passing thereof" and to insert "third day of March, nineteen hundred and twenty-one." If the Clause stands as at present, it will have the effect of bringing the Act into operation on Thursday, 10th March. It is most desirable that this Act should come into operation to-day, if possible, in order to enable payment of benefit at the earliest possible moment to ex-service men and civilians who have exhausted their right of benefit under the Unemployment Insurance Act. It is necessary, therefore, to provide specifically in the Act that it shall come into operation on Thursday, 3rd March.

The following Amendment in the same Sub-section is to leave out "thirtieth day of June" and insert "sixth day of July." As the Bill left this House, the Act would have terminated as regards the increase of benefits and contributions at the end of the insurance year 1923–24, but, had that stood, this Amendment would have been necessary, because 6th July, and not 30th June, would have been the end of the insurance year, but another Amendment in another place proposes to make the Act, as regards the increased rate of benefit and contribution, come to an end in 1923 instead of 1924. The corresponding date in that case at the end of the insurance year, 1923, is 1st July, and not 6th July. I therefore propose to amend the Amendment made in another place by substituting the 1st July for the 6th July. As regards the Amendment of the Lords to leave out "twenty-four" ["nineteen hundred and twenty-four"] and insert "twenty-three," this is the Amendment to which I was referring, and, so far as the Government are concerned, they will assent to it. We have no objection to bringing the Act to an end in June, 1923, because in all probability it will be necessary, as circumstances arise, to overhaul the Act by that time, and therefore we propose to accept that.

Coming to the Schedules, the Lords have inserted an Amendment to Section 7 of the main Act by substituting for the words "suitable employment" the words "employment on reasonable terms for which he is physically and otherwise fit." One of the conditions for the receipt of benefit laid down is that he is capable of and available for work, but unable to obtain suitable employment. It is pro posed that that should read as follows: That he is capable of and available for work, but unable to obtain employment on reasonable terms for which he is physically and otherwise fit. That is the effect of the proposed Amendment in Par. (iii) of sub-section (1) of Section 7. There are two changes in the main Act proposed. The phrase "on reasonable terms," raising the wages conditions laid down for 1911 onwards, I have already dealt with, and I have nothing to add. The phrase "for which he is physically and otherwise fit" varies the general interpretation which has been given to the words "suitable employment" in the main Act. "Suitable employment" means, to put it quite broadly and generally, employment similar to that for which the man has been trained, to which he is accustomed, and which he will, presumably, again follow when he returns to employment. Here we have got a new definition, that he must be physically fit; that is to say, a watch and clock maker, being offered a job as a shipyard labourer, and being "physically and otherwise fit," could only refuse it under risk of losing his unemployment benefit. I cannot agree to depart from so well established and so sound a rule as the interpretation of "suitable employment."

Colonel NEWMAN

I suppose "he" includes "she"?


Yes, certainly; in this association anyhow. The last Amendment is a verbal Amendment. I have now gone through the Lords Amendments, and I will take care, as they arise, not to repeat anything I have said. I just want to make one broad comment on the whole matter. In this Bill, largely by drawing on the accumulated Insurance Fund in order to meet a time of grave unemployment, we are substantially increasing benefit, both as regards amounts and periods for which it may be drawn, and during the emergency period we are necessarily easing the qualification precedent to eligibility for benefit. I have listened to the Debates with great care, and also noted very carefully the reasons for which a number of questions to me have been framed, and what emerges is this: There is a feeling that, in some cases, people, and especially people not altogether dependent upon themselves for maintenance, seek to avail themselves of benefit, without making any very great effort to secure work. If that is so, apart altogether from the personal demoralisation involved, it does real prejudice in the public mind to those who are most fully entitled to seek the assistance of the Unemployed Insurance Act, by casting upon them the suggestion that they are out for a dole. Further, the benefit provided for the emergency period has only been made possible by drawing heavily upon the accumulated balance of the Insurance Fund. If unemployment continues grave for a lengthy period, the provision made for it is bound to deplete the fund most seriously. While, therefore, the assistance rendered by the Act must be immediately available in every proper case, it is only just to all concerned that every care should be taken to see that no reproach lies against those who are charged with administering it of laxity, or failure to prescribe reasonable tests to see that the contributions of hard-working people, of employers, and of the State are thereby not dissipated. For the avoidance of that, I shall propose, in bringing the new Act into operation, to remind all those charged with the administration of it of the precise terms of eligibility for benefit, the reasonable conditions which have to be satisfied before it is payable, and the machinery of appeal freely to hand for the protection of any person who may consider his or her claim for assistance under the Act has not been fairly met, I think it necessary before sitting down to tell the House I propose to do that.


May I ask the Minister of Labour one question. Assuming a man or woman was insured under the old Act, when they have exhausted the ninety days, will they be entitled to another eight weeks between then and July, and then another six weeks between July and June, 1921?


If they had twenty weeks' employment to their credit during 1920 they would be entitled by reason of that qualification to sixteen weeks' benefit up to the end of October, and by the same qualification to another sixteen weeks up to the end of June, 1921.

Question put, and agreed to.

Lords Amendments considered accordingly.

  1. CLAUSE 2.—(Provisions os to contributions.) 333 words
  2. cc2065-92
  3. CLAUSE 3.—(Amendments as to conditions for receipt of benefit.) 11,179 words
  4. cc2092-3
  5. CLAUSE 4.—Period of Unemployment Benefit. 140 words
  6. cc2093-115
  7. CLAUSE 9.—(Construction, saving, short title, commencement, and duration.) 8,770 words