§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the MINISTRY of HEALTH (Mr. Arthur Greenwood)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
I believe and hope that this Bill will be received by the whole House with unanimity. In this matter we have had legislation emanating from two previous Governments, and, as we are not altering in any important degree the legislation which has hitherto been passed, I think we may reasonably ask the House for an early passage of the Second Reading of this Measure. The Bill extends, for a further two years, the operation of two Sections of the Act passed last year by the late Government. It virtually re-enacts Section 1 of the 1923 Act, whereby the cost of indoor relief in the Metropolis is charged upon the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund at the rate of 1s. 3d. per head per day, and, as regards out-relief, at the maximum rate of 9d. per head per day. Further, it extends Section 2 of that Act, enabling the local authorities to borrow for purposes of providing temporarily for their current expenses, and otherwise extends their borrowing powers during the continuance of this period of abnormal unemployment. These Sections are themselves, with certain modifications, a re-enactment of the earlier Bill of 19–21 passed by the Coalition Government.
The principle of the Bill, as regards the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund, is not a new one, because, ever since the establishment of that fund, certain specified items of the expenditure of the Metropolitan Poor Law authorities have been chargeable upon the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund; but, until very recently, no assistance was given as regards out relief. In view of the very serious unemployment situation, legislation was passed by the Coalition Government under which the cost of out relief in the Metropolitan area was charged upon the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund in so far as it conformed with the scale and Regulations which were prescribed by the Minister of Health. At the same time, the Act increased the charge upon the fund for 1229 persons relieved in workhouses from 5d. to 1s. 3d. per day. That Section, which operated for a period of 12 months, expired at the end of 1922, and the Act of last year continued that provision with two modifications. Under the scale approved by the Minister as set out in the Act of 1921, a maximum charge of 9d. per person per day was payable out of the fund in respect of persons on out relief, that figure of 9d. being rather less than the general average payment for out relief in the London area. Secondly, the 1923 Act extended the charge upon the Metropolitan Poor Fund in respect of indoor relief to certain institutions not technically workhouses, such as the colony at Hollesley Bay. The Act which is now in operation expires at the end of this month. The cost of relief for unemployed persons and their dependants in the London area still remains very heavy, and the numbers who are being relieved are falling very slowly, if at all, in the London area, notwithstanding a more appreciable fall in the provinces. In view of the prevailing circumstances an extension of the Act is necessary, and last December the late Minister of Health the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Twickenham (Sir W. Joynson-Hicks) sent a Circular to the London local authorities asking for their views on the continuance of the Act, and also suggesting its extension for a period of two years instead of one year, as in the case of the present Act. That Circular received a good deal of support, but representations have been made to the Ministry chiefly on two points, one regarding the period and one regarding the rate of charge on the funds for out relief. It has been suggested that the Act should be extended for only one year, and also that the rate of charge on the fund, which now stands at 9d. and which, when it was introduced, was rather less than the average for the London area, should be reduced to 7d.
I think there are reasons against continuing the Act for only one year. We should at the present time have been relieved of the responsibility for this Bill had the Act of last year been put into operation for two years, and I have no doubt myself that conditions a year hence will be such as to necessitate the continuance of the Measure again for a year, and from the point of view of the saving 1230 of Parliamentary time alone, I think, an extension for two years from 1st April, 1924, would be justifiable. The Government are committed to a Measure of Poor Law relief, but even with the best will in the world it cannot be thought out and carried through the House and put into operation in a very short space of time. Even if it could, it is quite clear that there will be a good deal of time taken up in winding up the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund, and when that time comes, clearly if the present Act were in operation that would have to be wound up with the fund. In other words, if there is no further necessity for this Act because of the Poor Law reform, its operation can come to an end. If, however, the Act only lasted for one year and there was need of continuing its provisions, further legislation would be necessary, and I think, therefore, the House will agree on the reasonableness of our suggestion that the Bill should continue to operate for two years instead of one. As regards the suggestion which has been made in various quarters that the ninepence per head per day should be reduced to seven-pence, that figure of ninepence was fixed having regard to existing costs. There is no suggestion that the index number of the cost of living has fallen. There is no suggestion that the cost of living for the guardians has substantially fallen, and consequently if ninepence was the right figure before it is clearly the right figure now, and in the absence of any substantial reason why it should be reduced I suggest that it should continue in operation. The average cost per person on out-relief in London for the half-year ending September, 1922, was 10.43 pence. The corresponding figure for the half-year ending September, 1923, was 10.22 pence, a very small decrease which in no way warrants any substantial cut in the rate of ninepence.
Clause 2 of the Bill relates to borrowing powers. Under the Act of 1921 a local authority was empowered, with the consent of the Minister, to borrow for the purpose of defraying current expenses, any amount so borrowed being repayable out of the revenue received in respect of the financial year in which the expenditure was incurred. But there was a proviso which enabled the Minister to extend the term of such borrowing where the circumstances 1231 were exceptional up to a maximum period of 10 years where the money was borrowed under the original Act before 1953 and under the present-Act before 1st April, 1924. This proviso extending the period of the loan has enabled local authorities to spread the cost of a quite unprecedented period of bad trade by means of borrowing over a period of years and has undoubtedly eased the situation for many local authorities. In the next place Subsection (1) of Section 6, referred to in the Schedule of the Bill, provided that money borrowed before 1st April, 1923, for unemployment relief works should not be counted in the usual limit of loans which a local authority may borrow. Under the Public Health Acts the limit is two years' assessable value. Moreover the Public Health Act, 1875, requires that where a local authority proposes to raise the total debt by means of a loan to over one year's assessable value, a local inquiry should be held. The Act of 1921 suspended that requirement. Those three provisions regarding loans we propose should be re-enacted. The serious unemployment from which we are still suffering was the cause of the legislation of 1921. That legislation was modified in the light of experience. Further legislation along those lines was passed by the late Government. It expires this month and we believe that the serious unemployment and poverty which still exist justify the continuance of the Act and with a view to rendering unnecessary any further legislation for some time we believe this new Bill should be put into operation for two years. There is little time before the new Act must come into operation and I feel, having regard to what I may call the non-party nature of this Measure, which is based upon the Acts of two Governments, in one of which hon. Members below the Gangway were concerned and the other composed of hon. Members opposite, there should be very little opposition to the Measure, tie principles of which have, I think, been approved in all quarters of the House.
§ Lord EUSTACE PERCY
As the hon. Gentleman has said, this is an entirely non-party Measure and I feel it myself to be especially non-party because the first time I spoke on this subject in the House, in 1921, I remember attacking the promoter 1232 of the Bill, Sir Alfred Mond, because he had introduced a temporary Bill instead of tackling the question of Poor Law reform in London, while the second time I had anything to do with the subject I was responsible under my right hon. Friend for introducing this very temporary Bill again. But while this is entirely a non-party Measure there are one or two questions I should like to put. In the first place I want to put a question as to the drafting of the Measure. Clause 1 says that the provisions of the Act of 1923, so far as mentioned in the Schedule, shall be extended. In the Schedule you find Sections (1) and (2) of the Act with a description as to their subject-matter, but since in Clause 1 it is the provisions of the Act which are being extended in so far as they are mentioned in the Schedule, and not the Clauses of the Act, the subject-matter in the Schedule becomes not only a convenient description, for convenience of reading, but acquires an importance as showing what provisions you actually are extending. Therefore, because I think the wording of the Schedule is not at all clear, I want to have it quite clear that the whole of Sections 1 and 2 are intended to be extended by the Bill, and that none of the provisions of Sections 1 and 2 are allowed to lapse on 1st April. I believe that is the case, but I should like to have it clear. There is another remarkable thing about the Bill which the hon. Gentleman quite omitted to mention, but which doubtless is very present to the mind of his right hon. colleague, namely, the fact that there is no extension of Section 3 of the 1923 Act, which dealt with Scotland. Naturally we want to know whether Scotland is being left out in the cold—and that I can hardly believe—or whether it is going to be made the subject of a separate Measure, and whether we may expect to have that Measure introduced at a very early date.
Now I come to what is the main point of the Bill, namely, the extension of time and the terms under which the time is extended. It is true that the proposal to extend the time and to keep the figure at ninepence, as it was in the previous Act, really originated with the previous Government, was circulated to them by the local authorities, and that, on the whole, the replies of the local authorities have been that the extension might well be for a year, and that there is no need for altering the per capita limit.
1233 The only thing I should like to say about the date is that the first day of April, while it is a distinct improvement on the thirty-first day of December from the Parliamentary point of view, is a very bad date. I am quite sure that if any legislation of this kind is going to go on until such time as this Government or any succeeding Government introduces a Measure for the relief of the Poor Law, that Measure cannot be introduced in any comprehensive and enduring form before the Session of 1926. The danger of the 1st April is that Parliament never has time to deal with anything big before Easter. There will always have to be some extension of this Act until Parliament has had time during the whole Session to deal with it. Speaking entirely for myself, I am inclined to think that the 30th September would be a more convenient date from that point of view. I do not commit myself on that, but I throw it out as a possibility.
There is another very much more important question which was not touched on at all by the hon. Member. My recollection is that some of the local authorities who were consulted on this subject expressed a desire for some further limitation on the calls that might be made on the Metropolitan Poor Law. It is, of course, perfectly obvious that a per capita limit, while it does involve a cheek on the expenditure of boards of guardians on any person whom they are relieving, does not furnish any adequate check on the undue extension in the number of persons relieved, and boards of guardians are under no incentive, so far as the grant from the Metropolitan Poor Law is concerned, to keep the numbers relieved within the proper limits, whatever those proper limits may be—a question which I am not discussing at the present moment. That is important, because, whatever differences of opinion we may have as to the administration of the Poor Law in London, I think we should all agree that the worst way in which a board of guardians can mal-administer the Poor Law Acts is unduly to extend the number of persons relieved. The great danger of the Poor Law system which is based on domicile is that you will tend and almost be obliged in many instances to maintain in the localities a rising generation of population which to a certain extent ought to be distributed throughout the 1234 country in response to changes in the locality of industry. An undue extension in the number of persons relieved may therefore perpetuate an irremediable state of unemployment in an area to an extent which the mere exaggeration of the amount of relief given could not possibly do. Therefore, this device of a check on boards of guardians by a per capita limit is a very imperfect one. My recollection is that the Ministry at about the time when the last Government left office was asking the local authorities concerned whether they could devise any additional check which would meet that need. It is admittedly very difficult to do.
§ Mr. A. GREENWOOD
That point was made by the Minister at that time, at the end of his circular which the noble Lord probably has in mind. I did not refer to it, but I will read it now.The Minister would at the same time be prepared to consider any suggestions that may be made to him with a view to preventing any unfair inflation of the number of out-relief cases in respect of which claims may be made.No such suggestions have been received.
§ Lord E. PERCY
That passage in the circular was in response to verbal representations, and I wanted to know if any concrete suggestions had been put forward. I am very much obliged to the hon. Member for his reply, but I do think it is necessary to make it quite clear that until such a concrete suggestion is put forward, the check which appears to be provided under this Bill and under the previous Act is really an ineffective one against the worst form of extravagance that boards of guardians may go in for. I hope the Minister will consider that point in connection with all the other points with a view to devising a remedy. This is not a question which merely comes up under a temporary Bill of this kind, It is a problem which will come up under any future re-arrangement, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman, in replying to this Debate, may be able to show that he has already devoted his mind to this very difficult problem and give us some idea as to how it can be met. I will not delay the House any longer. We shall not, of course, oppose in any way the Second Reading of this Bill, and we recognise that we are indeed very largely responsible for it.
§ The MINISTER of HEALTH (Mr. Wheatley)
I may say that it is proposed to introduce a separate Bill for Scotland.
Mr. TREVELYAN THOMSON
As has already been mentioned, this is no party Bill; but, on the other hand, there are certain sections of a non-party character which have on previous occasions, when Bills of this character have been introduced, had to put in a claim, not for what was in the Bill, but for what the Bill omitted. The right hon. Gentleman opposite the late Minister for Health will recollect that when he brought in his Bill, and when the Minister for Health preceding him brought in the original Bill of 1921 for assisting distressed areas in the Metropolitan boroughs, a claim was then put forward that, although the need was great in London, it was as great, if not greater, in the provinces. The question I would put to the Minister is, what provision is he prepared to make, if not in this Bill, in some subsequent Measure, for meeting a problem which is as intense in other parts of the country as it is here? It seems as though those of us who were law-abiding, those of us who were patient and long-suffering, have to suffer because of our forbearance. Local authorities in industrial areas in the provinces seem to be, as it were, the Cinderella of municipal and local authorities. Those, like Poplar, who have raised their voices with some effect, have received from the Governments of the past a measure of equalisation.
The point I want to put to the Minister has reference to a difficulty which I know he has inherited. It is not a problem of his own making, and therefore one is not putting forward this in any hostile spirit, but rather pleading with him that he should do what his pre decessors have unfortunately failed to do in the past. The House will remember that when Sir Alfred Mond as Minister of Health was introducing the Bill of 1921, one of the reasons he gave for that Bill, that measure of equalisation, was the considerable difference in the ratings in the various Metropolitan boroughs. He told us that, whereas the rates in the City of London were 10s. 6d., the rates in Poplar were 22s. 10d. That was the reason why he claimed there should be a measure of 1236 equalisation. When you have a rate in Merthyr Tydvil to-day of 25s. 6d., as compared with a rate of 7s. in Blackpool, or a rate in Middlesbrough of 20s. and in Bournemouth of 8s. 5d., you have a discrepancy which is even greater than that which called forth the equalisation measure for the Metropolitan boroughs. I submit, if the principle of equalisation is sound, it should not be limited by geographcal conditions, but it should be applied equally throughout the country. I am quite aware that it is impossible before the 1st April to bring in a scheme which would give this measure of justice and this measure of equalisation to the provinces, but I do submit that before the House gives a Second Reading to this Bill it should have some assurances from the Minister that, having got this Bill for 2 or 2½ years, the provinces should not be left alone and without any assistance whatever.
The Minister is fully acquainted with the question. It was only last week that he received a deputation from necessitous areas in the provinces representing some 61 local authorities covering a population of over 12 million people, and they put before him a case which I think he will find it difficult to resist. I do plead for the necessitous areas outside the Metropolitan boroughs that they should have some measure of equalisation not, it is true, on the same lines. It is impossible to apply the same machinery to the provinces as you have here. There is no common poor fund in the provinces. But surely it should be possible to apply the same principle of justice to those necessitous areas outside London as that relief which this particular Bill gives?
I do not want to labour the point, but surely when you have a poor rate as low as 5d. in Bournemouth and as high as 10s. in Merthyr Tydvil, there is a very strong prima facie case for some assistance. Previous Ministers have received deputations. The one that went to the right hon. Gentleman the other day was the fifth deputation that has come from these areas since 1921, and the principle has been sympathetically considered by each Ministry in turn. I submit to the right hon. Gentleman that he has a great opportunity of distinguishing himself even more than he has done up to the present by finding a practical way of translating that sympathy which other Ministers have 1237 given utterances to in some real measure of relief to those particular districts. I am encouraged to hope that that may be so, because the Minister of Labour, speaking in this House on another question earlier in the Session, admitted the point that this question of excessive Poor Law relief is not a local question, but is a national question. The Minister of Labour said on the 18th February:The present position is, that unemployment of an exceptional kind is facing the country. In the opinion of the Government, that unemployment is directly caused by the War, and ought to be considered a national responsibility. The present position is that the industries bear, roughly, three-fourths of a burden that ought to be purely national."—[OFFICIAL RRPOHT, 18th February, 1924; col. 1381, Vol. 169.]Those industrial areas not only are bearing a burden which is oppressive to the ratepayers, but the industries themselves are being killed and crippled by rates and taxes which are making competition with the rest of the world almost impossible. Therefore, I appeal to the Minister that he should not be content to put off this question until we come to the whole problem of Poor Law reform.
The noble Lord the Member for Hastings (Lord E. Percy) suggested that it might be the year 1926 before it would be possible for this or any Government to deal with the question of Poor Law Reform on a comprehensive basis. We cannot afford to wait until 1926. The measure of suggested relief given by this Bill is entirely inadequate. We were told by the Parliamentary Secretary that it was sought to extend the power of loans to local authorities for a further period. Surely, when you have local authorities with rates of 20s. in the £, when their loans run in some places over £1,000,000, as in some of the larger boroughs of greater London, and in the provinces to £500,000 or more, it is futile to tell those local authorities that the State will assist by lending them money at the market rate of interest. The previous Minister of Health went a step further when speaking on this question last year. He then suggested that local authorities should not only have extended borrowing powers, but that in some cases the payment of interest as well as the repayment of loans should be postponed for a period. I would like to ask the Minister whether 1238 his Department have granted any local authorities loans on these terms, that is to say, allowing them to forego the payment of interest during those periods of acute depression, when their rates are already at an excessive figure? But, even if this provision has not been taken advantage of to any extent, I hope he will not think that that in itself is going to be any solution of the problem. It is of no use piling up debt and crippling local authorities for years to come. In the County Borough of Middlesbrough where there are, I understand, something like 10,000 direct individual ratepayers, over 5,000 have not paid their rates for last year. That is typical of the position in many towns, and it shows the appalling position, especially in those towns in the heavy steel and iron districts. We have been told that unemployment has been falling in the provinces. While it is true that the average last year for unemployment was between 11 and 12 per cent., you have certain districts where unemployment is even now increasing. Take the North-East corner of England, where shipbuilding, engineering and ironwork is carried on, and you find greater unemployment in engineering. Last January, the rate of unemployment in engineering was 21 per cent., and in shipbuilding the rate was 40 per cent. Those rates are double and four times those of the rest of the country.
I submit that it is not unfair to say that this is indeed a national problem, and that assistance should be given from the Treasury to the necessitous areas. A practical scheme was put up to the right hon. Gentleman last week by a deputation of local authorities from the provinces. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us that he has considered their proposal to equalise the burden of poor relief in the provinces in the same way as it is done in the London metropolitan boroughs. It is suggested that each district should bear its quota of Poor Law relief according to its population, but that, when the percentage of poor relief given is in excess of the rest of the country, then part of that excess should be borne by the Treasury. It is suggested that safeguards should be introduced whereby the Treasury should be protected, in order that in no case should any local authority receive more than half of its expenditure in Poor Law relief if it was above the average of 1239 the rest of the country. It was further proposed that in no case should the local authority receive this assistance if its Poor Law relief should be less than the average poor relief for the whole of the country. I hope this scheme will prove one which will enable him to avoid those difficulties which his predecessor pointed out in connection with a previous scheme. If the scheme is not watertight, I ask the Minister to so amend and improve it that it will meet the conditions of his Department, and that he will not merely turn it down on some technical matter', or some flaw in the particular formula suggested. In the Agricultural Rates Act, 1923, you have £2,750,000 handed over by the Treasury for the relief of distressed agriculture. I do not grudge them that money, but I do say that, if their distress was great, the distress in the industrial areas is greater to-day than it is in agricultural districts. We have a good claim for putting forward our case, and I appeal to the Minister that he will be able to hold out some promise of help to those distressed areas which have been man fully, patiently and quietly bearing their burdens and that, because of their patience and forbearance, they will not be penalised in favour of those who make themselves heard in a more vociferous way.
§ Sir KINGSLEY WOOD
I think the House will in the main agree with what the hon. Member has just said. I have no doubt that many of the areas he has referred to up and down the country will be disappointed to-day, because their well merited claims are again apparently to be postponed for some considerable period. The Minister of Health will be prepared himself to say that this can only be regarded as a stop-gap Measure, and I hope he will expedite what is a very urgent matter. It is only fair to say-that, while I sympathise with the claims which the hon. Gentleman has put forward on behalf of the poorer localities, that these proposals did, in fact, come forward from Westminster and the City of London. Westminster, which made the proposal, contributed in the year 1922–23 a sum of nearly £700,000, and in the following year it is estimated that their contribution will be over £870,000.
§ Sir K. WOOD
As the Member for Bow and Bromley is interested in this matter, it is also material that the House should know that for the half-year ending September, 1922, for every £ contributed by Poplar ratepayers towards the cost of outdoor relief in Poplar, the rest of London has contributed £7.
§ Sir K. WOOD
How far the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley regards that with satisfaction, I do not know; but I think he ought to be willing to acknowledge this afternoon that a very substantial contribution is being made by other areas in London in this matter.
§ Sir K. WOOD
I was hoping that the Minister of Health would, at any rate, have been enabled to incorporate in this Bill some of the conclusions which he perhaps might have arrived at concerning the Poplar question generally. He will remember that the Prime Minister the other day, when he followed the Minister of Health, indicated that while this provision should be made, he was certainly of opinion that further checks and safeguards should be imposed. The Under-Secretary for Health will remember that I put a question to him one or two days ago, asking him whether, following that intimation from the Prime Minister, any further proposals would come forward from the Government. This little Bill deals, certainly, with one aspect of the matter, but I thought it would have been an opportunity to have taken some steps by which the Minister could have dealt with a matter which is certainly urgent and deserves immediate consideration. While it is true that in this Bill we are to have equalisation on the old lines, I think the Minister of Health will agree, and I fancy he said so the other day, that some further checks ought to be immediately imposed. The Member for Bow and Bromley does not disguise the fact that, so far as his contribution from Poplar is concerned, his manner of administering Poor Law relief is going to go on as before.
§ Sir K. WOOD
He retracts nothing, and he and his colleagues intend to go on as before. I am addressing a question to the Minister of Health asking him 1241 whether he is urging the auditor at Poplar to proceed rapidly with the auditing of the Poor Law Guardians accounts in order that, as he is apparently prepared to grapple with the situation immediately, he may be in an early position to know the exact state of affairs at Poplar. But whatever the result of that audit may be, I think it is clear that the present law is obviously insufficient. I suggested, some little time ago, and I think I had an opportunity of discussing it with the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley, what I thought would be a very useful check. It is that in districts where there are illegalities and overexpenditure by boards of guardians, ratepayers should be permitted to raise that defence when they are summoned for rates. That defence is not open at the present moment to a ratepayer. I think that would be a very useful check on boards of guardians, not only in Poplar but elsewhere. Where it is known that there is flagrant abuse, the ratepayer should be permitted to raise a statutory defence and say: "No! I ask that no order be made against me so long as illegalities are going on. Directly illegalities cease, I am quite prepared to pay my rates, but I ask the Court to make no order against me while there is gross overexpenditure." Surely it would have been well to have incorporated some Clause to that effect in this Bill. Perhaps the Minister of Health will consider that when we get into Committee upstairs. It ought "not to await the reform of the Poor Law.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman opposite that it is rather unfortunate that it should be intimated that we are not to have a reform of the Poor Law until 1926. I am very much afraid that the Minister of Health will not be in a position then to deal with it in the way that we would like him to do. Nothing would interest me and other hon. Members more than to see the hon. Member's proposals for a reform of the Poor Law. I hope he will not be so optimistic in regard to the future of himself and his party as to wait until 1926. I hope we shall have some intimation from him this afternoon that at a very early date he will bring in his proposals. Whatever proposals are brought forward, the fact remains that this subject is very complex. It will raise great controversy, and many months will elapse before we see any proposals 1242 of the kind on the Statute Book. In the interval, is the Minister of Health going to allow the present state of affairs at Poplar to continue? I admire the courage and determination of the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury). He is quite plain on the matter. What is the Minister of Health going to do? Will he not take the opportunity in this Bill of adding one or two Clauses which would give some protection to a large number of ratepayers who have not a voice in the administration of their own borough? It is correct to say that in Poplar to-day there are ratepayers who pay over £400,000 per annum who have not a voice in the administration of that borough.
§ Mr. LANSBURY
Is the hon. Member aware that the Port of London Authority, the London County Council, the London and North Eastern Railway Company, and the London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company pay the bigger part of the sum he has mentioned? How could their shareholders have a voice in the administration of the borough? The Port of London and the London County Council are public authorities.
§ Sir K. WOOD
I agree. These authorities ought to have a voice in the administration of the borough in some form or other. To say that the London County Council pay a very large sum is no reason why you should debar a big firm in the district, who pay £10,000 per annum, from having a voice in the administration of the borough and being able to say how their money should be spent. If I remember correctly, the Minister of Health himself acquiesced in that view. He indicated that it was his own idea, and that he did not think it was a state of affairs that ought to continue. I do not think he will agree with me as to the solution, but I think he intimated that it was a most unsatisfactory state of affairs. If that be so, it is all the more reason why in this Bill he should give some further protection to these ratepayers.
I hope he is not going to ride off on the fact that, in the Debate which took place in regard to Poplar the other night, the Motion was carried that the Debate should continue. I hope he will afford us another day for discussion, and I hope he does not think that the matter has ended. 1243 I believe that his troubles in regard to Poplar are just beginning. He will find himself in the same position as every Minister of Health. In the very excellent speech the other night, in which he defended himself very vigorously, he said that his predecessors had done nothing. He will be in exactly the same position as his predecessors. In a few weeks' time he will be faced by an auditor's certificate, stating the amount that ought to be surcharged against the Poplar Board of Guardians. He will then have to come to some decision in the matter, and I hope that he is thinking it over very seriously with a view to bringing some concrete proposal before the House.
This Bill might have afforded an excellent opportunity of adding some protective Clauses, in the interval before he brings forward his great proposals in connection with the reform of the Poor Law. In connection with this Bill, he might have given some protection to a large number of ratepayers who, he himself thinks, ought to have some further protection. I hope that he will be able to make some statement in connection with this matter. So far as the exact terms of the Bill are concerned, we cannot disagree. The criticism of the Bill is that, in the first place, it postpones for some time the Poor Law reform proposals of the Government, and, secondly, it fails to deal with the very urgent matters which confront the right hon. Gentleman and call for a solution.
§ Mr. KEENS
I wish to call attention to the fact that, in connection with Poplar, Mr. Edgar Lansbury has stated. "What does it matter? The bulk of the money comes from the other end of London." Everybody on this side agrees that there must be some form of equalisation. Everybody, I assume, agrees that the question of necessitous areas is one of great difficulty, and that the problem of London is not only one of complexity, but one which must stand by itself because of the different circumstances compared with other great areas. My point is this, that to extend this Bill for a period of two years, two and a half years, or any other period, without giving adequate guarantees to the remainder of the citizens of London that the money which they contribute shall be properly spent, is committing an 1244 injustice upon those citizens. The hon. Gentleman who introduced the Bill talked about the average rate of relief as being something in the neighbourhood of 10½d. per person. We do not want to know what the average cost is, but what we do desire to know is the cost in particular areas to which the largest contributions are made, but which themselves produce the smallest contribution. The question of the number of persons is a much more important point than any scale of relief. The answer that was given to the question of the hon. Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood) yesterday, as to whether any suggestions could be made for these guarantees, was a statement from the Government, "We are looking to you for suggestions." I suggest that that is a case of very great weakness on the part of the Government. Surely, they must shoulder the responsibility of bringing forward adequate guarantees for the proper expenditure of these huge sums of money which are paid by the ratepayers of London as a whole.
I should like to make a few suggestions which may be of service. In the first place, I suggest that all the audits in these areas should be speeded up, that the information should be available very much sooner than it is, and that if it is necessary to reorganise the audit staff of the Ministry of Health it might be worth while as a measure of economy for that to be done. The question of surcharges also needs great consideration, and there must be and should be reversion to the old system by which it was treated judicially and all the expenditure had to be justified. In addition, there must be some special measure either on the lines indicated by the hon. Member for West Woolwich, or on some other lines, for the protection of individual ratepayers against mal-administration. It is no use saying that in any local government area the ratepayers are the electors and that they can settle the matter themselves. How can you get that in an area where one-fifth of the people on the electorate in the area are in receipt of relief? Consequently, I suggest that there must be some further protection. It is impossible to vote against this particular Bill because the money has to be obtained, and to hold up a measure of equalisation which has got as far as this has got would intensify the difficulties of every Poor Law authority; 1245 but I do hope sincerely that opportunity will be taken by the Minister of Health to assure the House that the proposals which have been put forward as to security for the ratepayers of London generally will be considered by him and that they will in future be put into force.
§ Sir GODFREY COLLINS
This Bill, when it becomes law, will stereotype the present inequalities between different districts throughout the country. In reply to a question, the Minister of Health stated that a separate Bill would probably be introduced for Scotland. When that Bill is introduced it may well be, as has so often happened in the past, that the Minister in charge of the Bill will point out that because a certain Bill has been passed for England it would be impossible to apply a different system to Scotland. Therefore, before the Second Reading stage of this Bill is completed, I hope that we shall have some assurance from the Minister of Health that the grave inequalities which the present law has placed upon different localities, not only in England but in Scotland, will receive consideration. I know that the Minister of Health must be fully seized with the grave position of, say, the city of Glasgow. Unemployment in that area has placed upon the citizens of Glasgow a very heavy burden in comparison with the burden placed on the citizens of, say, Aberdeen.
In my own constituency of Greenock, for instance, the Emergency Provisions Bills passed during the last two years have placed upon the inhabitants of Greenock a burden of 16s. 6d. in comparison with a burden of 4s. in Dundee and 6s. in Aberdeen. This Bill simply continues the present law and the present system. Is it fair that an emergency Bill passed nearly three years ago should be continued for another period of two years, when during the three years experience has shown that this extra burden has been placed upon certain localities? Take the shipbuilding industry. As the hon. Member for West Middlesbrough (Mr. T. Thomson) pointed out, you have shipbuilders in some areas competing with shipbuilders in other areas where the burden of unemployment is not so great. Is this system to continue?
1246 I appeal to the Minister for Health when the Bill is introduced for Scotland, or rather before, this Bill becomes law, to adjust this unfair burden between trade and trade and between district and district so as not to be unfair between individuals, with some areas where unemployment is light let off with a low Poor Law rate, and that we shall not be asked, as we are asked this afternoon, to continue the existing inequality for another two years. The Minister when introducing the Bill stated that it might be unnecessary to introduce new legislation for another two years. He also pointed out that the local authorities had been given power to borrow and repay that sum over a period of years. It is simply postponing the repayment of capital which the different localities are bound to repay in the future. Could we not have, before many months are over, some considered seheme from the Minister of Health, who must be fully cognisant of the very unfair burden which these measures have placed on the shoulders of individuals in different localities? I agree that this is a distinctly non-party Measure, and I hope that, before the question is put from the Chair, we may have some assurance from the Minister of Health that the present grave inequality will receive his serious consideration.
§ Mr. LANSBURY
I was hoping that this Debate would have gone through without dragging in King Charles' head in the form of Poplar, but two or three questions have been raised concerning it. It is true that Poplar gets the allowance out of the common poor fund. That, as the hon. Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood) has told us, is the very object of this Bill. That is to relieve the districts that need relief most. Other unions get pro rata very much the same amount. When hon. Members stand up and speak with apparent authority on this subject I wonder why their vision of the area of the Metropolis stops short always at the River Lea. If it were not that the Metropolitan common poor fund is in being I think that there would be no discussion whatever about Poplar for this simple reason. In the Union next to us, West Ham, about which we hear nothing, the number in receipt of Poor Law relief, over 70,000 for part of last-year, is double ours. It is something just over 70,000 at the present moment. It is true that it is a bigger district but 1247 it is also true that it is a Union in a large portion of which there is very little pauperism and that the mass of pauperism—I use that official word, advisedly—is confined—and the hon. Member for Plaistow will agree with me—to a portion of the area which is bounded by the Thames on one side and by Wanstead Flats on the other.
If you want to compare Poplar with anything you must compare it with that area. These are two areas entirely different from any other area in the Metropolis. No one faces that fact. Everybody talks as if the Metropolitan area stopped when you come to the River Lea, but the Noble Lord the Member for Hastings (Lord E. Percy) knows that as well as I do—because I understood that he took the Poor Law side when he was at the Ministry of Health—that the West Ham problem of poverty causes in that Department as much anxiety as the problem of Poplar. It is only because we have as it were persuaded London to come in and help us to bear the burden that the whole of this discovery has arisen. In regard to that I think that the House acts just a little unworthily by always throwing in our teeth that we have this fund. We in East London are under a great debt of gratitude to the Chairman of the Westminster and the Kensington districts, and other representatives who attended the Conference and of their own volition proposed this, which was more than Poplar asked before we went to prison. And I think it a little ungracious for Members who are not really finding this money to be as it were discussing whether we are getting it worthily or not. I attended—and I am giving away no secrets—as one of the delegates of Poplar the Conference that settled the question of the scale, and it may surprise the House to know that those who represented the paying-in unions proposed that there should be no scale at all, but that all of us ought to be left to pay what we thought was right according to our discretion. That was put forward not by Poplar but by the paying-in unions.
The hon. Member for West Woolwich has referred to a subject about which the Minister spoke on the last occasion. That is the want of representation of the bigger ratepayers in this matter. I shall oppose, whether my right hon. Friend 1248 brings in this Bill or not, the giving of votes to limited companies in any circumstances. There is no reason why you should want to give votes to limited companies in poor districts, any more than in rich districts. So far as I am concerned the votes are given to private people. The hon. Member said that these, poor ratepayers cannot get a look in. When I was first a guardian the guardians formed the assessment committee. The East and West India Docks, the Millwall Docks, and others were rated by the committee. The assessment of the property was a very important matter, and so one of the high officials in those companies always had his residence in Poplar, and always stood as a candidate for the guardians, and he always by some means or other became a member of the assessment committee, and until the assessment was transferred to the Poplar Borough Council he was always the chairman of that committee. The extraordinary thing is that when it became the Port of London Authority we had no representatives of the Port on the board of guardians at all.
We also had sitting on the board persons representing a big match factory in our district and a big shipbuilding concern in our district. All that disappeared when the assessment was taken out of the hands of the guardians and put into those of the borough council. Then they came to the borough council. The only reason they are not on the borough council to-day was that when Mr. John Burns occupied the position which my right hon. Friend occupies to-day he took Poplar in hand in this drastic manner in which you are being challenged to take it to-day, and the municipal alliance, until the War, controlled Poplar from the point of view of majority. This House does not know that the Poplar Labour people never had a majority in Poplar until 1918, and that all the time the rates in Poplar were I infinitely higher than in any other borough in the country, and the sole reason—and this ever will be the case while conditions remain the same—is that Poplar and West Ham have such a burden as no other place has, and that is the burden of casual labour.
§ Mr. LANSBURY
The Noble Lord shakes his head. I with that he had the opportunity to reply, so that he could 1249 tell me where that other place is, because our rateable value per head in Poplar is much lower than in Bermondsey, which is the only other comparable place, and over in Bermondsey they have not the amount of docking and dock labour that we have in Poplar or that they have in West Ham. We have the East and West India Docks and the Mill-wall Dock, and in Bermondsey they have only the Surrey Dock. The fact that half our rateable value ie due to factories and the Port of London must reduce the general level of our rates per head. But the House should recognise that when hon. Members of the party opposite were in control of Poplar, they were never able to get the rates down. The facts are as I have stated, and anybody can verify them. The real reason is that no one can take charge of the Poor Law in Poplar or West Ham without giving outdoor relief.
That brings me to another point, that is the point about demoralisation caused by relief. I agree—and I have said it at least a dozen times in this House—with everybody else about the demoralisation caused by relief of any kind, whether from a Labour Exchange or from relief. I do not see the difference between a man getting for six months £1 a week from a Labour Exchange or from relief. In my judgment they pay for it either in rates or some other way. It is always paid for, but the point is that you do not get over it merely by talking about Poplar all the time. Surely, the thing to do is to find some means of dealing with the problem which is there. The Noble Lord said that if you keep on giving relief, you keep the people there. I very nearly interrupted him to ask him where we are to send them. We have always heard that people ought to move about, but if he will tell me privately any place where I can get work for these young men and women, I will see that they go there, and we will not give them relief.
One other point. My hon. Friend opposite said that he admired us because we stuck to our guns. Sticking to our guns is that we have not done anything illegal. We have said a thousand times that we are not paying trade union rates of pay in relief. We have never done it. We think that it ought to be done, but we have not got the power. There is no 1250 use in hon. Members saying continuously what is not true. I will give an example of how history is made in regard to Poplar. There is a certain newspaper which is founded on cocoa, and on 27th February it produced this: It is headed "Six pounds a week" and it says:Mr. Kedward of Bermondsey embarrassed Mr. Lansbury by a question relating to a family whose circumstances have been verified to-day. In this case a man, wife and six children received from the Poplar Guardians £4 6s. a week. The man had an Army pension of 10s. 6d. weekly, and he had a son at home earning £2 10s. The son contributed only 12s. 6d. to the family income. Mr. Lansbury said that he could not deal with the case on the spur of the moment.I took the trouble to ask my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey about this, and in a speech of his later he made the matter perfectly clear—that he had taken a hypothetical case on the Bermondsey books and had applied the Poplar scale, and that the case would come out at the figures quoted, but that there had never been any such case verified in Poplar. That is how history is made about Poplar. I undertake to say that the case will be quoted all over the country. I wrote a letter to the newspaper pointing this out, and with the usual courtesy of a Jack-of-both-sides, fair-to-all-parties newspaper, it has not published it. That case is another sample of the sort of charge that is made against Poplar. About a year ago, in every newspaper of the country, there appeared a statement, very similar, of a man getting £8 a week. We took up the matter. First of all, it was said that a philanthropic society had given the name. We traced the philanthropic society and then were able to publish their contradiction. But we never caught up the lies, I am sure, and we never can. I hope that the Minister of Health will take this matter in hand. I sympathise with all those districts that are not getting any assistance, but I hope that they are not going to do anything to stop our getting what we have had for the last two or three years.
§ Mr. GATES
I do not wish in any way to cast stones at Poplar, nor to comment more than I can help on the management of that distinguished parish by the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury). I represent the very poor part of a contributing parish, and I am asked to express regret—shall I say 1251 surprise—at the action of the Ministry of Health in continuing this temporary Measure for another two years. I do not know whether it is that the right hon. Gentleman, who now so ably represents that Ministry, is desirous of putting the matter off, so that he himself will have nothing more to do with it, the assumption being that in two years' time he will not be in office; but I do say that the present arrangements are absolutely indefensible, and that I should have thought that the present Government, in their eagerness for work and eagerness to do away with abuses, could have produced a proper scheme within the space of one year. I would appeal to the Minister not to extend the provisions of the Local Authorities (Emergency Provisions) Act to 1926, but to limit it to 1925, and to take the opportunity, which, perhaps, he will have, of introducing a comprehensive Measure himself.
My constituents feel very much concerned in this matter. They contribute a very considerable sum. As the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley has said, they were parties, by their mayor, to the arrangement that was made with the Ministry of Health in 1920, and, of course, I cannot go away from that. But when they agreed to that arrangement they were certainly under the impression that the Ministry of Health would exercise a stricter control over the money which they contributed to the spending parishes, and they feel that there is a very grave objection to a Measure such as this, which continues to allow individual parishes to draw upon a common purse for the purpose of out-relief to an extent which is practically unlimited. It has really become the practice that all able-bodied people should have out-relief. That was never the practice before the War, and it is a practice which should be discontinued as soon as possible. The hon. Member for Bow and Bromley and I have been in public life in London for 30 years, and we have served together on other authorities which endeavoured to do good work for able-bodied men who are unemployed. I believe that the hon. Member, in his heart of hearts, will agree with me that the new departure of granting out-relief by boards of guardians is not one that should be encouraged, and that it would be very much better if other methods could be adopted.
1252 We feel very strongly in Kensington that if we are called upon to bear a large share of the burden of unemployment in the Metropolis, we are certainly entitled to insist that any prolongation of the present temporary enactment shall be accompanied by provisions which will protect the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund from abuse, and will effectually reduce the claims upon it to reasonable limits. I understand that the Minister is anxious for help in the matter. He has stated in a circular that he is prepared to consider any suggestions which may be made to him with a view to preventing any unfair inflation of the number of out-relief cases in respect of which claims can be made on the Fund. I do not know whether this is the time and place to make suggestions to him, but I say that there should be uniform administration and effective central control. That is the point which I submit for the right hon. Gentleman's consideration. Of course, the problem would be greatly simplified if we could have some method of dealing with the unemployed as distinct from the unemployable. I feel bound by the offer that the contributing boroughs made, an offer which the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley has handsomely acknowledged. I feel unable to protest in any way against the scale which we are paying of 9d. per day per head. But we feel that, limited as that scale may be, there has been a considerable abuse by some of the boroughs, and that against it those who contribute should be guarded.
It falls particularly hard on the constituents whom I have the honour to represent. I represent the Cinderella sister of Kensington, a poor part, with very many poor people. Probably two-thirds of my constituents live in tenement houses, and there are large numbers of struggling tradesmen, and so on. It falls very hard on them to have to contribute such a handsome sum as they contributed for 30th September, 1922, of £62,881, to the Common Poor Fund. I have often heard the hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Mr. P. Harris) talk about the rich parishes, and how they ought to contribute more. He and the House will appreciate that if only there were a uniform system of assessment, those advantages would disappear. In a district like Poplar or Bethnal Green you have a high rate and 1253 a low assessment. In a borough like Kensington you have a high assessment and a low rate. The contributions made by the ratepayers, if you allow for these considerations, probably come to very much the same thing in what is called the poor borough or the rich borough; the burden is practically the same.
I had the honour of giving evidence before the Royal Commission, as, indeed, did the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley. As a former member of the London County Council, I gave my assent, in answer to the Chairman, to a speedy reform of the. Poor Law, and I expressed my belief that what is called the Maclean Report would be one of the best ways of dealing with the matter. I feel that the whole problem hinges upon a real simplification of the Poor Law. Probably it would be a real advantage if we had a common poor rate for London. But that must be accompanied by a strict control over the administration of each of the unions. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will consider the question whether he cannot limit the terms of this Bill to one year.
§ Mr. PERCY HARRIS
We have heard a very sad tale about the poverty-stricken ratepayers of the Royal Borough of Kensington. Certainly, the hon. Member wished to be commiserated with in comparing their lot with that of the ratepayers of Bethnal Green. But if the Royal Borough of Kensington likes to exchange its assessable value for the assessable value of Bethnal Green, I think I can offer to agree. The assessable value of Bethnal Green is £500,000 and that of Kensington, £2,500,000. Kensington, therefore, has some advantage. A penny rate levy in Kensington brings in something like £10,000. A penny rate in Bethnal Green brings in only £2,500. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's constituents are in so bad a position as he imagines. If the hon. Member again explores the question of local government, perhaps he will investigate a little closer the advantages of the area which he represents. In one part of Kensington there is a great deal of poverty, and there are very bad slums, which are a disgrace to the Royal borough. I hope that the Royal borough will soon take the opportunity of clearing them away. Although there are some very poor areas in the 1254 borough, Kensington is fortunate in having some magnificent streets, some very prosperous districts, and some of the most valuable buildings in London.
We have had a good deal of discussion about Poplar on this Bill. That is not the fault of the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley, because we know that he is a very modest man. It would be most unfortunate if the House or the country got the impression that the only area in London that had to struggle for its existence was Poplar. Poplar is by no means the poorest. It is fortunate in having within its area large railways and docks, and very big warehouses. As a matter of fact, the poorest area in London is the district which I represent, namely, Bethnal Green. There is in that district no great industry; it is an area of thousands of small houses and hundreds of small factories, eking out a very difficult existence in very difficult circumstances, and although I congratulate the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley on the splendid advertisement he has secured for his district, I ask the House not to be prejudiced by that advertisement, and not to form their conclusions solely on what we have heard about that particular area. The whole basis of London government as regards Poor Law is thoroughly unsound, and I am rather disappointed by the speech of the Under Secretary to the Ministry in introducing the Bill. The hon. Gentleman pointed out that he proposed to extend the term to 1926—"with a view to preventing any further legislation for some time." That seems to suggest that the Government, like other Governments before them, are going to shelve the problem; that they are going to glide over the difficulty by the bad expedient of temporary legislation. Anyone who listened to the Debate must have noticed that from whatever point of view hon. Members approached this subject, all were agreed on the necessity for drastic changes in the Poor Law system. Hon. Members may have been biased in different ways, in approaching the problem, but they were in unanimity to that extent, and I think if we survey the problem without prejudice we will find that there is substantial agreement. We are all progressing along very much the same lines as to the need for removing the blot on our social system of a Poor Law no longer suited to our requirements.
1255 I ask the Minister of Health not to be diverted from the important problem of changing our Poor Law system, because of the ease with which he gets this particular Bill through Parliament. I may remind the House of how the parent Act came to be passed. The hon. Member for Bow and Bromley has already made reference to it. A sudden increase of unemployment took place, and Poplar, Bethnal Green and a number of the poorer districts had to face an impossible burden. The hon. Member for Bow and Bromley and his friends took the drastic action of refusing to pay a London County Council rate, levied by precept—the various boroughs having to collect the central rate. They went to prison, and there was a deadlock. It looked as though they would have to stay there indefinitely. [HON. MEMBERS: "And the band played."] Yes, the band played.
§ Mr. LANSBURY
On a point of Order. Has the hon. Member the right to state that we did something which in fact we did not do?
§ Mr. HARRIS
I am not surprised that the recital of these occurrences arouses emotions and memories of different kinds. In any case I would point out to the House the serious aspect of this matter. This drastic action proved effective. It is not the kind of thing of which I approve, but direct action in this case achieved its purpose. It forced the hands of the Minister and the Minister—Sir Alfred Mond—had to call a conference of the London boroughs at which a makeshift scheme was patched together. It was not a satisfactory scheme. No-one was satisfied with it, but the situation was urgent and we were anxious to see outside the prison gates once more the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley and the hon. Member for North East Ham (Miss Lawrence), of whose services we on the London County Council had been deprived. We were so anxious to have them back that we were unanimous in adopting the scheme as a temporary measure, and as such it was introduced by Sir Alfred Mond in consequence of the direct action to which I have referred. The Measure went through Parliament with the active co-operation of all parties. All sides condemned legislation of this kind. They said it was unsound 1256 in principle, that it offended against the constitutional law and went against the theory of no taxation without representation by handing over money from one district to another, but the Measure went through because of the pressure of direct action. It was deliberately passed to be of one year's duration only. Now we are repeating this temporary Measure from year to year, and it is proposed here that it should be prolonged until 1926. That will give the impression outside this House that if any better legislation is to be looked for, direct action must be resorted to again.
A doctrine of that kind is most unfortunate and is to be deplored. It points the high road to anarchy, as I am sure the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley will agree. There may be occasions so serious as to render necessary an evasion of the law or a breaking of the law, but the proper course is to prevent the possibility of such occurrences. I suggest to the Minister that it would be unfortunate, should the idea be spread abroad that this Government is too timid to face the problem with imagination and bring in fresh legislation dealing not only with London but the whole country; dealing with unemployment not as a local but as a national subject, and dealing with it not on the basis of relief but on the basis of a better organisation of trade and industry and improved machinery of insurance. I go further and say I should like to see this Bill only extend the period for one year. That would strengthen the Minister's hands. We know there is great competition among Government Departments for the time of this House, and great pressure upon a Minister to earn fame by placing on the Statute Book a Measure associated with his name. If the Ministry of Health is not to be crowded out, the right hon. Gentleman should be in a position to say to the Prime Minister, "This matter is urgent; the present legislation expires in 1925, and if we do not have a Measure dealing with the subject we shall have to face the criticism of the House of Commons." I am sure that would enable the right hon. Gentleman to take the problem in hand on a proper scale and on lines of general agreement. The Poor Law stands condemned ever since 1909. I have here the words used in the Majority Report of the Royal Commission. I deliberately avoid 1257 quoting the recommendations of the Minority Report because they are so much associated with the President of the Board of Trade that they might be suspect with hon. Members opposite, but the Majority Report bears the signature of Lord George Hamilton, who is approved of by all Conservative Members, and this was a Royal Commission appointed by a Conservative Government. The Report states:The case for the abolition of the board of guardians has been more conclusively demonstrated in London than in any part of the Kingdom. The first reform necessary in our judgment is the total abolition of the present boards of guardians and the establishment of a unified London for all purposes of public assistance. The charge upon a common poor fund, the disbursements made by the county council to the separate boards of guardians and the expenses of the Metropolitan Asylums Board, in the aggregate amount to over 70 per cent. of the whole Poor Law expenditure in London. The transfer of the remaining 30 per cent. to a common fund would, we believe, be economical to London as a whole.That was in 1909, and I would say to the Minister of Health to-day: Do not evade the problem, but make clear to Parliament and the nation that the present Measure is only temporary. Make clear to the nation that it is unsound in principle, and in the end bound to lead not only to extravagance but general suspicion. I am not one of those to take up a serious attitude in regard to what is called Poplar administration, because I know how difficult the problem is when you have streets of men out of work and no industry to absorb them. There are areas where there are no works and no wealth with which to give relief, and the pressure on the guardians to give assistance is immense In London it is very difficult to trace the history of the applicant, and if you inquire too closely, only too often it leads to the very men who are most deserving not getting any assistance at all. It is the system which is wrong, and the evil can only be cured by breaking up the system; by changing the whole basis of our attitude towards unemployment, and following the principles now recognised by Parliament of dealing with it on national lines through insurance, rather than on local lines through Poor Law guardians.
§ Miss LAWRENCE
This is a very interesting discussion and I congratulate hon. Members below the Gangway on having returned to their earlier love. I have not heard so much talk about London reform since the brave old days of 1904 and 1905. I do not know if the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Paisley (Mr. Asquith) has forgotten that he spoke on London Government and characterised it as "clotted chaos." I think the right hon. Gentleman has forgotten the long history of thos matter, and that hon. Members below the Gangway have forgotten how in 1903, 1904 and 1905 the London representatives clamoured, as they are clamouring now, against the intolerable system of London government against the burden and inequality of the rates and against the complicated nature of the administrative machinery. Hon. Members below the Gangway had power—unlimited power—in the years 1907 and 1908. What was done? Nothing whatever. Then came that great Commission on the Poor Law in 1909 and 1910. When had hon. Members a nobler field for reform than in the years 1910 and 1911? I listened to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Paisley. I heard him use the phrase "clotted chaos"—a very good phrase—descriptive of London government, and I reflected that during all those years when something might have been done, hon. and right hon. Members below the Gangway preserved the attitude of Olympian gods, while they calmly and peaceably contemplated the chaos. The only Liberal achievement in connection with London government during all those years was due to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George). He did something. He added another clot to the chaos. He saddled us with one more of those ad hoc, undemocratic, anomalous bodies, the Port of London Authority, and now my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health is attacked, forsooth, for bringing in for another short period this temporary Measure.
I was one of those who had, I suppose, a good deal to do with putting this Measure on the Statute Book, but none of us ever considered it otherwise than as a temporary expedient, and an expedient contrary to sound canons of local government. It is perfectly true in local government, as in national government, 1259 that those who pay the piper should call the tune, and it is a grievance that the expenses of Poplar, Bermondsey, Woolwich and the poorer districts should be levied on other areas who have no voice whatever in the management of those districts. That is a real and serious local difficulty, but were we guilty? It was hon. Members opposite who passed the first Act. It was Sir Alfred Mond who passed this Emergency Provisions Act, by which he met a temporary financial crisis. It is called temporary, but it is an eternal crisis, surely, because ever since 1900 those connected with Poplar have pointed out that under every administration, and for every purpose, the rates of Poplar were about double those of Westminster.
This business of the inequality of rating is one which has continued ever since the borough councils were established, and long before that, when the vestries existed, when the Poor Law unions of London were first set up. This is a grievance which has continued ever since London was London. People may say that the Poplar Board of Guardians are extravagant, but I would point out to them that the Poplar Borough Council was under Moderate management until 1919, and that during the whole of that time, with a population substantially the same as that of Westminster, whose expenses were considerably less, the rates of Poplar during those long years were about double those of Westminster. The poorer districts of London are cruelly overburdened on account of their poverty, and that was the meaning of the crisis three years ago, when Sir Alfred Mond, to meet a temporary emergency, passed this Act. Ever since then, we in London, and particularly we who represent Poplar, have gone on deputation after deputation to the existing Minister of Health, imploring him to do away with this mere temporary Act, which, undoubtedly, inflicted a severe grievance on the other parts of London, and to reform the Poor Law in London.
I think we went to all the previous Ministers of Health. We certainly went—I went myself—to the last Minister of Health, and we then put before him the claims for the reform of the Poor Law. I remember that I spoke myself. I did not speak in anger to the right hon. Member, but I really spoke more as a friend. 1260 I said to him that he, or any other Minister of Health, who chose to deal with this question could deal with it substantially by consent, and that there was no task more important and, for its size, less contentious than that of putting the Poor Law of London and the local government of London on a proper basis. We obtained from him no word of encouragement at all. This was at a time when there was every probability that hon. Members opposite would be in power for five years, but we could get no definite promise or assurance, we could not even get a sort of adumbration that the Government was considering the matter of the reform of the Poor Law in London.
After all that, after our experience of neglect by the Liberal administration during all those years, with our experience of the hand-to-mouth action of the Coalition Government, with our experience that that conduct was continued by the followers of the Coalition Government, and that, we could get no word of hope or encouragement, then, I think, it is rather too much to come and load all the sins of the past 20 years, all the sins of Sir Alfred Mond, all the sins of the late Government, on the shoulders of the new Minister of Health. I am quite sure that he will do what he can in this matter, as speedily as possible, but I say that if he said and did nothing whatever, he would be doing no more than repeating the sins of both the other parties ever since the year 1909.
§ Mr. KEDWARD
I think everyone will agree that it is necessary to pass this Measure in order that the poorer boroughs of London may be saved from chaos and bankruptcy. The hon. Member for North-East Ham (Miss Lawrence) has passed some rather severe strictures on the Liberal party, but she was rather forgetting that on the Government Front Bench at the present moment are a number of people who were previously in the Liberal party, and who also come under her very severe censure.
§ Mr. KEDWARD
We shall be glad to see what they are going to produce now that they have changed. The hon. Member for East Ham said that we Liberal Members below the Gangway had contemplated all this chaos and poverty in London for all those years, and had 1261 made no attempt to do anything whatever. Has she forgotten that it was a big attempt, and an attempt which the present Government are, at the moment, trying to extend, to give old age pensions? Was it not the Liberal party that grappled with the poverty of the old people and brought the old age pensions in during those years, and dealt with health insurance and unemployment insurance? Surely, she is not unmindful that at the present moment her party can produce nothing better than to extend these excellent Measures. They have passed endless resolutions, and deputations have followed deputations to Ministers and other places, and we were expecting to-day that the Minister would indicate to us what was their scheme for dealing with this very difficult and complicated problem, but we have been given no scheme. We are put off again with an extension of an Act passed by previous Governments.
I have been watching here, for the last few weeks, to see whether this Government were capable of originating even a thought, but they have not originated anything yet. The only thing they have been able to do is to pick up the Measures which have been carried by other Governments, and to extend them for the time being, but always saying, like the conjuror, "You wait; we shall produce something presently." We are getting a little, bit tired and weary of waiting, and I am very sorry that the Minister indicated that this was to be extended, and could hold out no hope that we were going to have any serious attempt to grapple with this very big question. Does he understand that this is going to leave things precisely as they are? In one borough—in every borough, probably—you have this kind of thing: On the right-hand side of the street a man will be able to go to a generous board of guardians and draw a fairly full allowance, and the people on the other side of the street, who happen to be in another borough, will be able to draw only half the amount; and you have that kind of thing repeated all over the place. There has been a great deal said about the extravagant boards of guardians, but I would like the Minister to turn his attention also to those boards of guardians that do not give sufficient to enable the people to maintain a decent 1262 position. There are some scales of relief which are an absolute scandal and disgrace, and which keep the people in abject poverty, but we want to keep the middle way. The hon. Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury) mentioned the case that I gave to this House the other day, and he seemed to suggest that no case of that kind was possible.
§ Mr. LANSBURY
On a point of Order. The only point was that the House and myself, when the hon. Member put the case, thought it was an actual case in Poplar, and it was so reported in the Press. It was only to correct that, and not what may be; nobody knows what may be.
§ Mr. KEDWARD
Yes, but it was an actual case in existence. Make no mistake about that. The conditions were there.
§ Mr. KEDWARD
Wait a minute. They were there in connection with another board of guardians, and all that I did was to apply the Poplar scale. All that I did was to take the White Paper and, with the clerk to our board of guardians, carefully to apply the Poplar scale, which he verified, to that case that was in existence, and the hon. Member will not deny the facts as set out. He will not deny that if the Poplar scale were applied, it would come to exactly the figures I mentioned.
§ Mr. KEDWARD
The hon. Member was defending, in this House, a particular scale of relief, and he asked if anybody had the face to get up and challenge it. I challenged it, on the ground that it was grossly unfair to the thousands of working men in London who were having, through their rents and rates, to pay, in order to keep the people in Poplar in that way. [Interruption.] I want to say something else. Does the Minister of Health know that among various boards of guardians the collection of money varies altogether—that is, the repayment of relief given? Take a board like that in Bermondsey. If a man has been denied his unemployment pay for a number of weeks, if it has been deferred, 1263 and he could not get it for some reason, probably there has accumulated £5 or £6 back pay, and in Bermondsey the board of guardians claims that, and gets it direct from the Ministry. In the meantime, they have been giving the man the weekly allowance on the guardians' scale. In Poplar, I understand, the thing is quite different. A man has applied for his unemployment pay, but it has not come through, and it has accumulated. Now the guardians at Poplar do not claim that unemployment pay, which it has given to the man in a lump sum, say £4 or £5, and Poplar guardians may discontinue the relief, but they make no claim on that at all.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
I do not see how the hon. Member attaches that question to this Bill. This Bill does not make any difference to that question one way or the other. The point he is now raising would seem to be more appropriate on the Minister's salary.
§ Mr. LANSBURY
On a point of Order. This is really a point of Order, because if this statement goes out in the Press to-morrow, as a previous statement went out, it is not fair. The statement is, that the Poplar Guardians do not take back that money from the person who has got it. We do take the money back, and we take it all into account, whether it is in a lump sum or by the week.
§ Mr. KEDWARD
I was only going to point out that if this money which is due to the guardians, £5 or £6, were used, it would make a very great difference to the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund. I was using it as an illustration, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Bromley must agree that Mr. Cooper, in his Report, instanced definite cases where the Poplar Guardians had made no attempt whatever to collect these sums.
§ Mr. W. THORNE
On a point of Order. What remedy has a Member if another Member makes false statements against another person or another local authority?
§ Mr. SPEAKER
The remedy is what I have just allowed. I have allowed the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley to make his denial.
§ Mr. KEDWARD
I was hoping that the Minister would have given us some promise or held out some hope of a larger measure of the equalisation of rates in London. I have not a great deal of sympathy with some of the contributing powers that have put their difficulties before this House this afternoon and suggested how generous they really are. But we must remember that in Westminster, at any rate, a penny rate produces something like £34,000, while a penny rate in Bermondsey produces £4,000, and a penny rate in Poplar £3,500. When a penny rate produces such a huge amount, it does not mean a very heavy burden to those contributing it. Again, you are faced with this fact, that a large number of the people who work in the city and at Westminster do not live there. They come out to Bermondsey and Poplar, and the moment you dismiss them from a city office they come into our borough and ask for relief. Therefore I think that really this cost ought to be borne by the whole of London. I hope the Minister will give some undertaking to set up later a central Poor Law authority for London who will deal with these matters, and also bring about a statutory relief based on a generous scale, and so do away with the many difficulties against which we now contend.
§ Mr. WHEATLEY
I do not think the House will expect me to occupy more than a few minutes in view of the very important business to which I have no doubt hon. Members are anxious to pay some little attention; but a number of 1265 criticisms have been made on the Bill and inquiries have been put as to what it all means. We have been told that it does not settle the question of the necessitous areas. We have been told that it does not settle the difficulties of London administration; that it does not settle the equalisation of the rates, the incidence of taxation, and—particularly—it does not abolish Poplar. If within the four corners of this little Measure it settled all those questions, there would be no necessity to keep the present Government in power until 1926 in order to clear up the mess of its predecessors. Notwithstanding, however, the flattering references which have been made to the capacity of the Minister of Health and the Government in general, I fear, even with the cordial co-operation and the utmost sympathy of this House, I could not have settled all those problems in the few Clauses that compose this very little Measure, to which I now ask the House to give a Second Reading.
May I just, in a few words, reply to some of the questions that have been put to me? First of all in regard to the question put by the Noble Lord the Member for Hastings (Lord E. Percy) as to whether we, in this Measure, are including completely Sections 1 and 2. May I say in Parliamentary phraseology that "the answer is in the affirmative." In regard to the question as to how we can control the numbers of persons receiving relief, apart from the amount of relief, I do not know that I could be reasonably expected to do anything here which is not in the existing law. I suppose the hon. Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood), and other Members who make this point, are quite well aware that every payment made by a board of guardians is subject to the approval of the auditor, and if the payment is not justified, then the auditor may disallow the amount. It is then the duty of the Minister of Health to deal with the situation. These and other questions of a similar nature are just the very essence of any terms of reference drawn up for the inquiry that has been proposed. The same thing applies to many other of the questions raised. I sympathise with those who have expressed a desire to see unemployment relief and the ordinary Poor Law entirely separated. I hope, and I can promise this, that, so far as I, 1266 during my period of office can contribute to doing that, I will most willingly and heartily make that contribution.
An appeal has been made to me by a representative from Scotland. It would ill become me to pass over my notes without making some reference to that appeal. I have been reminded of the grave condition of Glasgow. I cannot add much to what I have already said, that Scotland will be the subject of a separate Bill. I have no doubt that if I, in this Measure, had dared to prescribe for Scotland for the next 12 months one of my keenest critics would have been the hon. Member for Greenock (Sir G. Collins). The necessitous area is one of the questions to which reference has been made? I can only say that representations from these areas were put before me by a most influential deputation only a few evenings ago. I am putting these representations before the Cabinet. I will take the decision of the Cabinet on the matter, and that decision will be given effect to in whatever Measure is introduced—in the Measure that we promised at an early date dealing with the greater problem of unemployment. May I claim on behalf of the Government that they have done something in the removal of the gap alone: by that they have given very substantial relief to the necessitous areas. It is not necessary for me to remind the House—because I am sure the majority of Members know as well as I do—that the problem of getting control of the expenditure by limited companies who have to contribute to the fund is a very, very thorny question, and cuts straight down to the fundamentals of our whole system of local government. To have proposed to deal with this next year would have been the maddest possible course for the Government to pursue. All we are anxious to do here is to enable the present Government, seeing that the circumstances have now changed, to continue for a further period the very Conservative policy adopted by our predecessors. I hope that the House, in view of the other urgent business, will now see its way to give this Measure a Second Reading.