§ Sir KINGSLEY WOOD
I beg to move, in page 1, line 11, to leave out the word "twenty-six," and to insert instead thereof the word "twenty-five."
The object of this Amendment is to extend the provisions of this Bill for one year only instead of two. I have no objection to the particular proposals contained in the Bill itself. Many authorities, especially in London, are receiving some assistance as a result of the provisions of this Measure which, the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury) will remember, was introduced as the result of a conference at the Ministry of Health some time ago. I believe that, on the suggestion of the representative of the city of Westminster, supported by others, the compromise contained in this Bill was generally agreed to. If I remember rightly, the hon. Gentleman and his friends voted for the Bill on that occasion. But it has all along been considered that the provisions of this Bill were of a temporary character, and I believe that in the time of the previous Minister of Health, the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir W. Joynson-Hicks) a circular was sent to the local authorities, before this Bill was introduced, asking them to make their comments on the Bill, and that one of the points which a large number of authorities brought forward was that the Bill should be extended for one year only instead of two.
The main objection which these local authorities took was not, as I believe, 946 that they wanted to avoid the financial contribution which they were making, but that they believed that if this Act were again extended for two years it would mean a further postponement of a measure of Poor Law reform. Most Members of all parties agree that a measure of Poor Law reform is long overdue. I was very much disappointed to find that the Ministry of Health is suggesting what in effect amounts to this subject being again postponed for a further period of two years. That means that little or nothing is going to be done by the present Government in relation to what I think is a very urgent matter. I do not know whether the Government contemplate any further inquiry, but most hon. Members who have shown some interest in this subject know that it has already been the subject of very exhaustive inquiries. The last inquiry held on this matter was held under the Chairmanship of an old Member of this House, and a man of great experience, Sir Donald Maclean, and while there may be objections to any proposal made in connection with Poor Law reform, I think that a great many of the recommendations in that Report receive a good deal of assent.
Therefore, I would ask the Under-Secretary to the Ministry of Health why he wants the Act to be extended for two years and why he cannot be content with the period of one year. I believe that if the House postponed this matter for two years, it means shelving for a much longer period the question of Poor Law reform, especially in London. Another reason why I object to the period of two years is not only does it mean postponement of this particular reform, but I think that there is a great deal to be said for the point which has been raised again and again on this matter by the hon. Member for West Middlesbrough (Mr. T. Thomson) as to the industrial areas in the provinces in reference to poor relief and matters of that kind which he has pointed out is a very urgent one. He and many other Members have again and again pressed the Minister of Health to declare his intentions in that connection, and I believe that if you pass this Bill with a period of two years we shall again postpone any solution of this matter. The Minister of Health will go away and say, "Well, that Bill is through; every- 947 thing is all right for two years, and I need not trouble any more about it." If he knew that this Bill had to come up again in a year's time, it would perhaps make him more vigilant in his stewardship and get along a little quicker with these very necessary and urgent matters. The third reason why I urge that this Bill should be limited to one year is, as many hon. Members may recollect, that on the Second Reading many of us raised the question of the way that local authorities were administering Poor Law relief, and, particularly, matters arising out of this Measure. There was the notorious case of the Borough of Poplar, and the Minister of Health on the Second Reading of the Bill invited suggestions as to how matters could be improved. I must not, as the Amendment has been ruled out of order, refer to the specific proposal that I have ventured to put on the Notice Paper, but I do say that one of the reasons why this Bill should be limited to one year is that apparently the Minister of Health is going to do nothing in this particular matter. As I understand it, the Poplar Borough Council are continuing the same practices.
§ Mr. LANSBURY
On a point of Order. The hon. Member will, I am sure, allow me to tell him that this matter has nothing whatever to do with the borough council.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
And the hon. Member must please not attempt on this Amendment to deal with the one that I have ruled out of order. This is a Bill merely continuing the Act for a period, and the only question is whether the period should terminate in 1925 or 1926.
§ Sir K. WOOD
I need hardly say that I shall not for a moment venture to refer to those Amendments which have been ruled out of order, but I want to urge that, unless the House takes the course of substituting the year 1925 for 1926, certain practices, not by the borough council, but by the Poor Law guardians of Poplar, may well continue into the year 1926, and need not be dealt with, as I hope they will be dealt with, in the year between 1925 and 1926. It seems to me that that is, at any rate, a valid reason for urging upon the House the curtailment of the period in this Bill, because undoubtedly 948 nothing has been done, and no alteration whatever has been made in the practices of a good many boards of guardians, including the one to which I have referred; and I fear that if the year 1926 is retained nothing at all will be done in that important connection. I want to urge another reason why this period should be curtailed. Under the provisions of this Bill and the principal Act which it seeks to amend and continue, there is, of course, the very important question of the relationship of the Minister to various surcharges which are from time to time being made. I want some legislation brought in to deal with that matter, and I fear that if the year 1926 is retained in the Bill nothing will be done in that connection, and the present system will be continued. I have, however, no wish to deal further with that subject.
My main contention is that by continuing this Bill for a period of two years little or nothing will be done in the important question of Poor Law reform. I venture to say that little harm can be done in making this Bill operate for one year, because, if it be found impossible to bring forward a Bill reforming the Poor Law within that time, this Bill can be continued for another year, as, in fact, it was done on the last occasion by Sir Alfred Mond, who was then Minister of Health, or the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ladywood (Mr. Neville Chamberlain). I venture to say that is a reasonable course to ask the Government to adopt on this occasion. If they find that they cannot bring in their proposals—I should have thought that they would have had them ready by now, having regard to all the statements and literature that I have read—they can bring in another Bill continuing the Act for another year. I do object to this long time being taken, and I hope that a good many Members will agree that the course which I suggest is, at any rate, a wise course. It will not do any harm, and it may accelerate the Government in the good work which we expect them to do.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the MINISTRY of HEALTH (Mr. Arthur Greenwood)
I would draw the 949 attention of the, House to the fact that this matter was raised in Committee and was negatived.
§ Sir K. WOOD
I do not want the hon. Gentleman to make too much of that point, because, as he knows, many of us were sitting on another important Committee whiih demanded our constant attention, and were therefore not present on that occasion.
§ Mr. GREENWOOD
I was going to point out that it was with the approval of my Noble Friend the Member for Hastings (Lord E. Percy), and I hope that the hon. Member, having made his protest, will withdraw his Amendment, because, I think, there is a case to be made out for the Bill operating for two years. It is true that the Act now coming to an end has operated only for one year, but it is perfectly clear from our experience that a year from now, or really next April, a further extension of this Bill will be necessary, and it was primarily with a view to saving Parliamentary time that we suggested that this Bill should operate for two years rather than for one year. The hon. Member suggests that this may be a way of postponing Poor Law reform and certain legislation of a different kind in which he is interested. I see no reason why that should be so. It is obvious that the question of Poor Law reform in London is a very large and complex question in which a number of divergent interests are concerned, and the actual bringing into operation—I do not say the passing into law—of any scheme of Poor Law reform can hardly be expected in 11 months from now. Consequently, if we are to continue this system of assistance to Metropolitan authorities some Measure will be needed in any event. I hope it may be that I am wrong, but we are legislating against the contingency of not being able to bring that scheme into operation by the beginning of April next year. The other argument of the hon. Member seemed to me hardly relevant to the Bill. The question of the local authorities outside the London area is not dealt with in this Bill, and I feel sure that that matter may well be left to my hon. Friend the Member for West Middlesbrough (Mr. T. Thomson).
§ Mr. GREENWOOD
My hon. Friend will, I am sure, on all possible occasions, bring the grievances of those authorities before the House. After all, this is a non-party and non-controversial Bill. As I pointed out on the Second Reading, it was introduced by the Coalition Government, re-introduced last year by the Conservative Government, and it is introduced again this year by the present Government as being necessary. In view of its non-controversial character and in view of the continuance of this period of real difficulty for Metropolitan Poor Law authorities, it is advisable, I think, to save Parliamentary time by extending the Measure for two years instead of for one year, and I hope that the House will agree to that course.
§ Lord EUSTACE PERCY
I rise because the Parliamentary Secretary has referred to my action in supporting this Bill, for which, in a sense, the late Government was as much responsible as is the present Government. When I did that, it was my view, and I think it is still my view, that on the whole two years is the period for which the present Act ought to be extended, but I acted on the Second Reading and in Committee without a knowledge of what has happened since the late Government left office, information which, I think, the House might have expected the Government to have laid before us. When the late Government was in office, they circularised, I think on 17th December last, the local authorities in London, and asked their opinion on an extension of the Act. At the time that the late Government left office, I think I am right in saying that all the views that they had received from the local authorities agreed that an extension of the Act was necessary and saw no great objection in any case to an extension of two years, but afterwards, on 6th February, the representatives of the contributing boards of guardians held a meeting and passed a series of six resolutions. They subsequently asked the Minister of Health to receive a deputation, but while he did so, on 25th February, no mark is left upon the Bill of the views that the deputation urged and, what is more remarkable, I do not think that any mark of them is being left on our Debates in this House.
The Government, not, of course, intentionally, have omitted to inform the 951 House of the position of certain local authorities in regard to this Bill. That is a very serious thing. When we deal with a Bill of this kind, we ought to be in possession of full knowledge as to how far the local authorities immediately concerned agree and how far they do not agree. I confess that I have acted in this matter under the completely erroneous impression that all the local authorities chiefly concerned had agreed or, at any rate, saw no great objection to the extension of this Act for two years. That, apparently, is not so, and therefore we are faced with a rather new situation.
Frankly, I do not know what I should have done, or what my right hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Sir W. Joynson-Hicks) would have done, if we had been faced by these representations of the boards of guardians. I think it is possible that we also would have decided, not, indeed, to disregard that information, but to reserve our view as to what extension was necessary. But not having heard the views pf the deputation I will not say. The representations were of a serious character. I understand that the boards of guardians pointed out that 9d. per day was the full average cost of relief per head over London. They took the line that if the Bill was to be extended for two years the Minister should, at any rate, have regard to the question whether it was advisable to fix for a period as long as two years a contribution equal to the full average cost over London. They were of opinion, therefore, that a safer contribution would be a contribution of 7d. I do not think that at the present time it would be desirable to cut the contribution down from 9d. to 7d., but I would be very sorry to say that that would not be necessary next year.
It must be remembered that this average contribution of 9d. is not an average that is made up because, on one side, you have boroughs like Kensington, with a very low cost of poor relief per head—say 6½d.—and Poplar, on the other side, with the very high cost of poor relief of over 1s. per head. Even Westminster, as a matter of fact, has an expenditure per head which is rather higher than the average for London. It is, therefore, very important that, if we are to extend this Act for two years, we should be sure that next year we shall 952 not be sanctioning a contribution considerably higher than the receiving unions ought to receive or than the contributing unions ought to be asked to pay. I, therefore, enter a protest against the fact that the Government have not told the House what opposition their proposal has received from the interested authorities, and I protest also against the Government taking their Bill quite so much as a matter of course, though I admit that the action which I took in Committee may have encouraged them to adopt what is a very deplorable course of action.
§ Mr. PERCY HARRIS
The Noble Lord was a little unconvincing in his intervention, especially considering that he was a Member of the last Government, though not a Member at the time in question, and that that Government was also guilty of asking for this Act to be renewed. I see that the Noble Lord has alongside him two very distinguished representatives of the former Ministry of Health. They, too, are equally guilty, because they had 12 months to go into the whole problem of the Poor Law, and if they had appointed an efficient Committee or Commission to go into the matter thoroughly, by this time the present Government would have been in a position to introduce legislation for dealing with the whole Poor Law problem. I have for many years preached that the Poor Law throughout the country is bad and that it is particularly bad in London. The whole system is an anomaly and it cannot last much longer without grave injustice. Every attempt to bolster it up by palliatives, by equalisation schemes, by any re-arrangement, only makes reform more necessary. I have a great deal of sympathy with this Amendment, because it is a good thing to be able to bring the Government before the high court of Parliament at least once a year and to press them to put through this needed reform. Every succeeding Government seems to fight shy of this particular problem. This is the fourth Government to whom that remark applies. We have all the facts and all the information, and every year that passes the problem becomes more pressing. Every piece of social legislation that we introduce makes the muddle more involved. After all, our machinery for dealing with poverty is worked through the insurance scheme and the Employment Exchanges. You have two 953 parallel systems working alongside and tremendous friction and waste are the result. I am very sorry to see that when this burning question is before the House it is necessary to have the Secretary for Scotland to deal with it. I am not sure that we shall not get more sympathy from him than from the Ministry of Health.
I would not be inclined to support my hon. Friends opposite if I got an assurance that the Government meant business, that they have some real machinery in hand and can promise us the reform that is needed. The Poor Law is expensive, inefficient and cumbersome, and, above all, it is hated by all the people who are recipients of the money that is expended. Yet, somehow or other, each Government takes the line of least resistance and adopts temporary expedients. Temporary legislation is the very worst form of legislation, because local authorities do not know where they are, and you create vested interests which are concerned to keep the temporary laws in force. I press the Government, therefore, to give us a real guarantee, and I will back my opinion by my vote if I do not get a satisfactory assurance that in the next 12 months they intend to have some scheme prepared which will deal not only with the London problem—the question cannot be dealt with piecemeal—but the whole Poor Law problem. They have the knowledge, if only they have the knowledge to grasp the nettle. Let the Government tell us what their scheme is. If they have a Royal Commission in view let them tell us what the Royal Commission is to be and who its members are to be. If the Government have a Select Committee in view let them say what form of Select Committee it is to be. If they have their Bill ready that will be best of all. Let them tell us when they will introduce it.
§ Miss LAWRENCE
I think it is a thoroughly satisfactory condition of affairs that all Members who have spoken are in substantial agreement. I fully agree with nearly everything that the hon. Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood) has said. I agree almost completely with the remarks of the other speakers. At the beginning this business was a piece of makeshift legislation. The contributing boroughs showed a great deal of public spirit in 1921, when the affairs of London were in a state of 954 the utmost complexity, by agreeing to come to the assistance of the necessitous districts. That is perfectly true. It is also true that the contributing boroughs have a very considerable grievance. It is an odious thing and contrary to all the canons of democracy to have to pay for things over which you have no control. In that unfortunate position all the contributing boroughs are now. They agreed to it, and we agreed to it, on the understanding that it was to be for a year, and for a year only. I do not suppose that they would have agreed for a moment if they could have looked into the future and could have seen that year after year the arrangement would be renewed. Those who are concerned with London government know that we were not behindhand in the matter. We did attack, with them, successive Ministers of Health. We did say to them that this was a makeshift piece of legislation and must be ended. We did not get even a promise.
Now we have a promise from the Government, and I think it is impossible to do anything at this minute. Much as I dislike the Bill and heartily as I agree as to the want of reform of Poor Law administration, it is impossible to get at this moment anything but a promise and a renewal of the Act. What else is there to be got? You cannot get the larger Bill; you cannot get a Poor Law Reform Bill through in five minutes or in five weeks. You cannot reform the Poor Law without a great deal of Parliamentary time. If any of the hon. Members who have spoken was in charge, he would not produce such a Bill in an ordinary Session. Any such Bill must deal with the area question as well as the Poor Law question. There is only one course which is reasonable, namely, to get a repetition of the promise already given by the Government that they will deal with the Poor Law, and at the moment we must pass this unsatisfactory makeshift Measure once more, in order to prevent financial confusion. I like the Bill no more than any other Member who has spoken. It was Sir Alfred Mond's makeshift scheme. It was necessary to have a makeshift scheme at that time, but it never was and never could be a permanent piece of legislation. We have unitedly expressed our protest—I am glad to see that London Members are 955 doing that—but, that having been done, I can see no practical step for the moment except to get this Bill through and to ask the Minister to repeat the assurance given us that the Poor Law as a whole shall be reformed.
§ Mr. KEENS
I trust that the House will not allow this Measure to be passed in its present form. Apart from the general question of Poor Law relief, there is another question raised, and that is that this Bill stabilises for a period the grants from the ratepayers of London generally to the necessitous areas The principle of equalisation, or a step towards it, is undoubtedly a fine thing, and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to vote against such a Measure. But on 26th February last the Prime Minister said:I would ask my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley (Mr. Asquith) if he would not help us in trying to devise that collateral security. I should be very glad if it were possible to get collateral security that would work equitably and fairly, and would be in accordance with democratic government—collateral security which, in addition to the surcharge, would protect the ratepaver."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th February, 1924, col. 396; Vol. 170.]I submit that in this Bill we are prevented from introducing the collateral security which is admittedly desirable. By that fact, and by the bringing in of a Bill in these circumstances, we are absolutely being forced—those of us who believe that the contributing ratepayer must have more adequate protection—to ask that the Measure shall be limited to the shortest possible time. I therefore have pleasure in supporting this Amendment, to the effect that the Bill be renewed for one and not for two years.
§ Mr. GREENWOOD
In view of what has been said by the Noble Lord the Member for Hastings (Lord E. Percy), perhaps I may just refer to what I actually said on the Second Reading. I think the Noble Lord must have forgotten. I should be sorry if he thought for a moment that I had withheld from the House any facts relevant to this discussion, but I explained quite fully to the House that this limitation had been agreed upon by the authorities, and I gave the precise figures for the two years, showing that the cost of outdoor relief had remained practically constant, and 956 that, therefore, there were no really strong grounds for believing that 9d. would prove to be an excessive sum in the second year during which the Bill operated. I hope, therefore, that the Noble Lord will not think that I have withheld from the House any important information.
I also referred to the fact that the deputation of local authorities which raised this question did not advance any substantial reasons for any reduction of the period, and I believe it was agreed that next year, when the question would again arise, continuance would again be necessary. I understand that the main contention of all hon. Members who have spoken is that this opportunity ought to be used for extracting a renewal of an undertaking that has already been given. I assure the House that the Government have no desire whatever to hold up the question of Poor Law reform, and communications are now passing between the Whips of the three parties with the object of bringing about a conference of those parties, in order that, so far as is practicable, an agreed Measure might be reached. That, in the opinion of the Government, seems to be a speedier and, on the whole, a more desirable method than the machinery of a Royal Commission or Departmental Committee has in the past been found to be. In view of the fact that that is now in hand, I hope that hon. Members who are anxious about the reform of the Poor Law will accept this explanation, and that the House will accept our proposal that this Bill should be extended for two years.
§ Lord E. PERCY
With the leave of the House, I should like to say just a few words, in view of what the hon. Gentleman has just said. I apologise to him if I appeared in any way to accuse him of concealing information from the House. The Debate to which he referred had slipped from my mind, and I did not recollect it. I quite understand, and if I have done the hon. Gentleman an injustice I apologise.
§ Mr. LANSBURY
I only desire to say that neither a Royal Commission nor another Committee is, in the judgment of anyone acquainted with the facts, necessary. There has been a Royal Commission, and there have been two Committees, presided over in each case 957 by very eminent people, and their Reports are very valuable. It does seem to me that, if the Government are consulting the other parties, and if what would be more or less an agreed Bill can be arrived at, that is much the best method of going to work. I hope this Bill will be extended for two years, not because I want the Government to wait two years, but because it is certain that we shall not be able to get the Bill through this year, and because, after the discussion, which will necessarily be prolonged because of the interests outside, there will only be just sufficient time to get a Bill through before this one lapses. I hope, therefore, that we shall extend the Bill for the two years, and leave it at that, hoping that this Government will be the Government that will, for once, do what it has promised to do.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
I am always in favour of giving any Government as little time as possible, because, all the time that I have sat in this House, I have never found any Government that kept its word. Consequently, the more control the House of Commons keeps over the Government, the more likely are the undertakings to be carried out, and from that point of view I think there is a distinct advantage in putting in the year 1925. Next year it will not be necessary to go through all these stages; it will be quite possible to deal with the matter in the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury) wants to know why it is being done in this way. It is because, in the present Session, we are dealing in two separate Bills with a matter which was dealt with in a single Bill last year. An alteration is being made in one of those Bills, and the Government is not dealing with it in the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill because it desires that the period shall be two years and not one year. The Parliamentary Secretary has stated that communications have taken place between the Whips as to some sort of inquiry into the reform of the Poor Law. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood) is very glad to hear that such communications have taken place, but I think the House would have been more gratified if some statement had been made as to the position of the negotiations. Apparently it is the case that a communication has been made with 958 regard to some form of inquiry, but the hon. Gentleman is not able to say whether the Whips of the different parties have assented, and whether it is now simply a matter of the personnel of the Committee that is to inquire and of its terms of reference. If the hon. Gentleman is able to say whether any advance has been made in regard to defining the reference or determining the personnel, I would suggest that he might make an announcement on that before we part with the Measure.
§ Earl WINTERTON
I should like to say a word in support of what has just been said by the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Pringle). I happen to have read the Report of the original Royal Commission on the Poor Law, and it is a very remarkable and interesting document. I quite agree that it would be most inappropriate, to say the least of it, to appoint another Royal Commission, and I also agree that the announcement which has been made by the Parliamentary Secretary would have had more value had it been a little more definite. I think it is an admirable thing, and one which I have no doubt would affect the voting on this Amendment, to have what I may call pourparlers between the Whips of the different parties, with a view to arriving at an agreed Bill. But it would have helped us a little more in deciding how to vote if the hon. Gentleman had told us how far these negotiations have proceeded, what chance there is of their coming to successful fruition, and, what, is, I venture to say, most important of all, whether, if they are brought to a successful conclusion, we can have any sort of guarantee that the three parties agreeing to them will bring influence to bear upon their leaders to deal with the matter, whatever Government is in power.
That is really the whole problem, and, if there are to be negotiations of this kind, I think that a condition precedent to those negotiations should be an honourable understanding, by the parties agreeing to them, that the agreement arrived at will be carried out. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will not think I am treating the matter with levity if I observe that a very easy way of getting out of the difficulty would be for a Minister to say that the matter is now the subject of negotiations between the three parties, 959 and it is hoped that an agreement will be arrived at. While I do not suggest that the hon. Gentleman should speak now, I hope that on the Third Reading he will be able to give a little more definite information. After all, this is not a party matter. All sides of the House wish to see the matter brought to an end, and I would say that—although it is, in a sense, arguing against the party to which I belong—it is an absolute scandal that so many years have passed without a real effort being made to deal with this question. We ought to have in sight some definite end to what is really a very anomalous state of affairs.
§ Colonel VAUGHAN-MORGAN
I desire to support the remarks of the Noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton). I am sure hon. Members would be glad to know something more definite than we have heard on this important matter. I represent a division in London where the boards of guardians have carried on their work with exceptional success, both from the point of view of efficiency and of economy, and they certainly view with dissatisfaction the proposal that this emergency Bill should be carried on for a period, not of one year, but of two years. On the other hand, I think that they, and hon. Members of this House also, would be satisfied not to press the Amendment of the hon. Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood), if an assurance were given on the Third Reading that the matter would be dealt with in the manner that has been suggested. If some such assurance could be given from the Government Bench, it would certainly reconcile me to a continuance of this Bill for two years instead of for one year—a continuance for two years, that is, of the contribution of the Borough of Fulham to the Common Poor Fund on the same basis as at present. The Borough of Fulham is a substantial contributing borough, and it naturally views these matters with a good deal of close interest. I, therefore, support the suggestion that has been made, pressing the hon. Member in charge of the Measure to give us some assurance which would satisfy us on that point.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be read the Third time."
§ Lord E. PERCY
I do not want to part with this Bill without carrying a little further, if I may, the discussion we have just had. This Bill is a purely emergency Bill. I recollect that, when it made its first appearance in this House, I made one of my first speeches here, imploring Sir Alfred Mond to do something with regard to the reform of the Poor Law, and I think it is most important that, whenever the Bill comes up for renewal, the same thing should be said, as it has been said this afternoon. The Parliamentary Secretary has seemed rather to think that he can dismiss the subject—I am not using the word in any offensive sense—by saying, "Oh, we are going to have a conference of the parties." Of course, that may be a very convenient method of exempting yourself from the necessity of making up your own mind. I do not think that anyone can have been in the Ministry of Health, either in a senior or in a junior capacity, during the last two or three years without giving very careful thought to this particular problem. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Mr. P. Harris) criticised the late Government for not having done anything in regard to it, but his criticism was appropriately answered by the hon. Member for East Ham, North (Miss Lawrence), who pointed out that this is a question quite as much of area as of anything else.
It was only last year that we completed an inquiry—and when I say "We," I am not now speaking of the Conservative Government, for the Committee in question was appointed by the Coalition Government—into the Government of London, which led, in my view, to unfortunately negligible results. That is the kind of thing that happens if you proceed by conferences and committees, and have no real idea in your own mind of what you are going to do. I confess that, by the time I left the Ministry of Health, I had personally quite a clear idea in my own mind of what I wanted to do, and I hope that the Minister of Health and the Parliamentary Secretary are also getting to that frame of mind now. But 961 —and this is what I want to emphasise—if they are getting to that frame of mind, it seems to me to be most deplorable, and a most discouraging sign, that they show no signs of taking the first steps towards a reform of the Poor Law, steps which had already been marked out by the preceding Government, and in regard to which this Government have done nothing. I allude particularly to the Rating and Valuation Bill.
I must not, of course, be led into a discussion of any of these Measures, but I think it is universally admitted that for any permanent and scientific treatment of the Poor Law you must reform your whole system of local taxation. The late Government did undertake that most unpopular task, but the present Government have hitherto refused to give any indication as to whether they propose to take that Measure up in any form. In any case, it will have to be subject to modification, because the views of the local authorities have now been received upon it, but the Government have made no announcement, and when I asked a question on the subject, and when the hon. Member for West Middlesbrough (Mr. T. Thomson) some time ago asked a question on the subject, we were, as usual, asked to wait. That is not an encouraging sign. I hope my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bethnal Green will, at any rate, admit that the late Government were prepared to take the first steps towards a scientific treatment of the subject, and to incur unpopularity with that object. But what are the Government prepared to do? They call a conference between all the parties, which is a comfortable way of avoiding unpopularity, but are they going to give us any guidance? I am not making any party point.
§ Lord E. PERCY
Nothing that I have said has been in the least in a party spirit. I will freely admit that of the Governments I have known, the present Government, the last Government, and the Coalition Government, the first two went out of office, and the present one, I fear, will also go out, after having merely considered the problem, and before taking a definite line upon it, and I am anxious that, whatever Government is in power, we should come to an end 962 of that state of mind. There is plenty of material at the Ministry of Health. This is a question for the administrator of the day, on the facts before him, to make up his own mind and to give the country guidance, and I want to ask the Government whether they intend to take that responsibility on their own shoulders, or to have it merged into an amorphous conference for agreement between all the parties. I am not complaining of the conference. I think it is most important that any Measure of this kind should, so far as possible, emerge as an agreed Measure from previous consultation between the parties, but those consultations will be no good unless the Government have a definite policy of their own, and unless they are prepared to take the first step—the very dull step—of the reform of local taxation and so on. What are the Government doing? What reason have we to suppose that the Government are even considering the problem with a view to giving this House and the country a real lead in the matter? I want to ask the Under-Secretary to give us some more assurances on the subject before we part with this Bill.
§ Mr. P. HARRIS
The Noble Lord the Member for Hastings (Lord E. Percy) went out of his way to say that he had no party spirit, but he rather jeered at the proposed conference between the three parties. I am not quite sure, at a time like this, when the Government have not a majority, whether, if the Government really mean business, it is not wise to consult the other two parties. It is only by co-operation that they can possibly deal with a big social problem like this. I do not agree that this Government are not in a position to produce a scheme. After all, they have, as a Member, in the President of the Board of Trade, a gentleman who probably is the greatest expert on this particular problem in the country. At any rate, he always led us to understand that, as soon as he had the opportunity, he had a scheme up his sleeve. We would like him to produce it. At any rate, if we have this conference, he may put his proposal before us, with the assistance of the Under-Secretary.
I contend that in London this problem is more acute than anywhere else, because the system of London government is so 963 complicated and involved that the Poor Law breaks down more obviously in London than elsewhere. In Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, you have one area and one authority treating the people to be relieved, belonging to one town, but in London you do not even follow the ordinary municipal areas. You have 28 borough councils and 31 Poor Law unions; I think two are to be amalgamated shortly, but, at any rate, you have 30 Poor Law unions. The consequence is that the machinery is far more obviously bad. At the present time the Government are bringing in several Insurance Bills to deal with unemployment. I have always contended that you cannot efficiently deal with the problem of unemployment through insurance and leave all the old antiquated machinery of the Poor Law unions in existence. There ought to be one authority, and one authority only, dealing with destitution, especially when it takes the form of unemployment, and I believe that the line of least resistance would be to utilise the machinery of the Employment Exchanges, which are supposed to have at their disposal knowledge of all the people out of work, why they are out of work, and what are the conditions of the industries within their area.
Surely, the proper line to take is to assume that your fundamental problem in Poor Law is unemployment. Such things as destitution caused by ill-health, by old age, and by the desire to evade the law can quite easily be dealt with through the existing machinery of the municipalities, which have all the organisation to deal with them. Actually many of the infirmaries are already changing their bias. Owing to the existence of the insurance benefit, it is now found to be an anomaly to treat infirmaries as Poor Law institutions, and in most parts of London now they are changing their name, and not only are being treated as, but are being called, hospitals.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
To embark on a discussion of future Poor Law reform would be more than is justified on the Third Reading of this Bill.
§ Mr. HARRIS
I bow to your ruling, Sir, but I have, said enough to indicate that my view is—and I believe that it is the view of the majority of Members of this House—that the time is now oppor- 964 tune to deal with the whole problem, not in a piecemeal way, but in a large, statesmanlike way, with a big scheme dealing with unemployment, insurance, and health, and making the Poor Law only one side of a very much bigger question.
§ Sir K. WOOD
I wish to express my disappointment at the attitude of the Government in this connection. This is only in keeping, I suppose, with what we might expect. On matters such as unemployment and housing we have had no real proposals put forward, and I dare say hon. Members will remember how, in previous Sessions, Labour Members, when they sat on this side, were full of Poor Law reform and stated that, if they could only get into office, the whole Poor Law administration of the country would be reformed, the problem would be solved, and everybody would be happy. Instead of that, we have the Bill introduced with which we are now dealing, which follows the usual procedure of the Government, namely, they are taking over a Measure from their predecessors, they are introducing a stop-gap proposal. There is in it nothing fresh. There is not a single original idea that they have put forward, and now, after a lot of pressing, the Under-Secretary for Health, at the fifty-ninth minute of the eleventh hour, says that he is going to have a conference between the parties with a view to bringing about Poor Law reform. I should have thought this Government would have had proposals of their own, but to endeavour to put off, at the last moment, a reasonable proposal such as I made, which would have put some time limit in this matter, and then to tell us that negotiations are proceeding, is not very satisfactory. When were they started? Why is it that they have been mentioned only this afternoon?
This matter has been before this House itself for nearly two months, and this afternoon, when the Government get into a difficulty, they suggest that the other two parties should come to their rescue. That is not a proper position for the Government to take up. I remember that the hon. Member for East Ham North (Miss Lawrence) spoke in a very different tone when she was sitting on this side of the House. She did not know what would happen unless the Poor Law was reformed, and talked of how all the people from Poplar and East Ham would 965 come up to Westminster and demand the reform of the Poor Law; yet to-day she, and the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury), sit quietly down while this Bill is going to continue the present state of affairs for two years. The Government will get very little glory out of their proposals this afternoon, and it is another illustration of how, when the Labour Government are brought up against practical propositions and find that speeches are of no avail, they turn round and say: "Let the other parties in the House come to our rescue, and let us have a conference and see whether any proposals can be made." It is a very good illustration of the position in which we find ourselves to-day.
I only hope that something will come out of this Conference, but I should have thought that the best thing would have been for the Government to have tabled their own proposals. The hon. Member for Bow and Bromley talks about time, and how two years can roll by and everything will be all right, but why do not the Government bring forward their own proposals and let us see what they are? Instead of that, we have this makeshift suggestion this afternoon, whilst hon. Members are compelled to agree to continue the present methods in operation, because the Government are bankrupt of ideas. I wish to register my protest against the third failure of the Government, and that is, to deal with Poor Law reform.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
I wish to put some further questions to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, mainly in reference to the announcement which he made in the Debate just now. I then asked what progress had been made in the negotiations. We were told that the Whips had been approached, and I understand that that is accurate. Perhaps the hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite (Commander Eyres Monsell) will be able to tell us what reply he has given, and whether it is owing to the obstructive methods of the Whips that no real progress has been made. At the same time, I wish to state that, in my view, this is not the right Parliamentary way to deal with the problem. The party which the Government represent always told us that they were very fertile in ideas regarding Poor Law reform. The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, who was on the Front Bench a few 966 moments ago, and who has unfortunately left the House, has made a reputation on this subject.
§ 5.0 P.M.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
Yes, as I am reminded, it is a joint reputation. But I think the right hon. Gentleman has co-operated in the production of more Blue Books on the reform of the Poor Law than any other individual in this country.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
I always assumed that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Rusholme (Mr. Masterman) had read them all. Not only was the right hon. Gentleman and other Members of his party concerned in the production of Blue Books, but also in the production of Bills on the subject, and in the last Parliament, when these Bills had no chance of becoming law, they were printed at the public expense. It seems very strange that now, when all these Bills are ready, and when it is not merely a matter of having them printed at the public expense and doing a little propaganda, but when there is a real chance of taking a step forward, we should never hear anything further of them. They have been withdrawn into the background. I observe that one of the ablest members of the party, a gentleman who has been one of their instructors and one of their intellectuals—Mr. Cole—is expressing some disappointment at the sterility of the Government. He says that the Fabian Society has become a wraith of the past and is fading way; that the President of the Board of Trade no longer counts and that the Independent Labour Party is defunct. I suggest that the right course would be for these bodies to look over the Bills which they have drafted in the past and that the Government should produce such a Bill and present it for Second Reading. It may be that a Bill of that character would not go to an ordinary Committee and the proper way to have an inquiry would be to refer such a bill to a Select Committee of this House. By referring it to a Select Committee a Report could be obtained which would be the basis of legislation next Session. That would be a far better method than referring the question to a hole and 967 corner committee of three persons nominated by the Whips of each party, which would sit somewhere in private and arrive at a conclusion to which no special attention would be paid. We have had, as everybody knows, Royal Commissions and Committees in the past dealing with the question of Poor Law in the abstract, but they have never had specific proposals before them. When a Government has desired to obtain the general sense of the House of Commons the method adopted has been to produce a Bill, refer that Bill to a Select Committee, if the subject was non-contentious as this subject is, and then, basing themselves on the Report of that Committee, the Government would proceed with an agreed Measure in the following Session. I think that is a plan which should commend itself to the hon. Gentleman who represents the Ministry of Health and, though not a responsible person, he might suggest that method of procedure to the Government as a means of showing the country that the Government have still some ideas and also some intention of inducing the other parties to co-operate with them in producing a practical plan.
§ Earl WINTERTON
In view of the attitude which has been taken on both sides of the House towards this proposed conference—I do not think the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Pringle) is correct in calling it a committee—I suggest it may be hardly advisable to proceed with the idea. Obviously the hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway are not greatly in favour of it, and I think Members generally on this side would like to know a great deal more about it before officially or individually giving consent to the proposal. I therefore again suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary what I have already suggested when speaking on the Amendment, that while the House may or may not be willing to pass this Bill, the House will require from the Government, either now or in the near future, a far more definite statement of their intentions towards the whole problem of the Poor Law than the Government have given us this afternoon. When the hon. Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood) referred to this matter his remarks were received with what I may describe without discourtesy 968 as rather jeering cheers from the Government benches, but I would remind hon. Members opposite that it is the habit of supporters of the Government to treat with jeers all references to any matter which is creating a great deal of attention outside, and the reception of such a matter in this House by supporters of the Government is very often in inverse ratio to the importance attached to it in circles outside this House. I have no desire to make party capital, but I dare to make this statement, and I do not think it will be contradicted, that there is not among the hon. Members sitting on the benches opposite above the Gangway one single individual who has not, either in the course of his election speeches or his election address or in speeches in this House, during the last two or three years, informed the country generally that the Labour party, if returned to power, would have a remedy for the existing chaos in the Poor Law. As the hon. Member for Penistone says, a gentleman who may be described as the principal accoucheur of the Socialist party, Mr. Cole, has been compelled to admit that in this matter the Government are showing extreme sterility.
§ Earl WINTERTON
Then he goes further than I thought. I hope, however, that the hon. Gentleman the Parliamentary Secretary will give us some further information as to the policy of the Government in this matter. It is hardly conceivable, even though they may put forward and support a proposal for a conference between the parties to arrive at an agreed solution, that the Government themselves, who have been in office now for three months, have not a policy of their own towards this question. Presumably their only reason for not bringing it forward is that they prefer to arrive at a method by agreement first before putting forward their own policy. It is true this is only a Bill to extend certain temporary provisions, but as has been pointed out in this Debate these provisions have already been extended on two or three occasions, and meanwhile the chaos in local government, in relation to matters of Poor Law relief, not only in London but in the whole country, grows steadily worse. I happen to be interested in properties in London, both as a private individual and as a trustee 969 of one of the charities most largely concerned with the ownership of house property in the London area. Believe me, the differences of rating and the differences of the system as between the various authorities in London are so confusing, that only those who have experienced it could believe it possible at this period for such a state of affairs to exist. This chaos does not merely injure the interests of property owners, local authorities and corporations but does grave injury to the inhabitants of those boroughs and to every man, woman and child. It would be out of order to discuss this matter on the present occasion, but it seems to me that when such matters are being considered upstairs as a proposal for bettering the traffic arrangements, we should at the same time go into the whole question of local government in London. I again assure hon. Members that I make these remarks in no party spirit, but I suggest that if the Parliamentary Secretary cannot give us a definite assurance that there is going to be a real attempt to deal with this question, he should promise us that, on some future and, perhaps, more important occasion, either he or his chief will deal with the whole matter. I think if the Government make an attempt to deal with the whole matter, they will not find in any quarter of the House any lack of sympathy towards their intentions, because this is not a party matter, and we all wish to see the present state of things remedied. Matters cannot be allowed to remain as they are, and I join my voice with those of the hon. Members who have preceded me in emphasising the fact that the main responsibility must rest upon the Government.
§ Mr. LANSBURY
I would remind the House that there have been two or three agreed Reports before this House dealing with this question. This is one of those questions on which everybody says, "Oh, we are all agreed; there is no party feeling here," and yet nothing is ever done.
§ Mr. LANSBURY
The solid reason is to be found in the vested interests in the boards of guardians outside. It is perfectly easy to talk about the Government formulating propositions. Whenever any Government does so, members of 970 boards of guardians outside will bombard Members of this House, and the Bill will be blocked from the very first moment. The only way in which a Bill dealing with the Poor Law, as it ought to be dealt with, can get through this House is by agreement. We have now had three different Reports; the Reports of two committees and the Report of a Royal Commission, and the best way to approach this question is that adopted by the Government, namely, to try to hammer out a scheme among ourselves, so that we may all stand up together against the interests outside. Unless we are able to do it in that way, I am of opinion that we shall not be able to do it at all, urgent as the reform is. It is nonsensical to blame the present Minister in respect of the four months during which he has been in office. Other people have been in office for years since the Poor Law Commission. I would also call attention to the fact that when the present Government came into office there was a chorus from both sides of the House: "We are entering upon a new era; we shall now give the Government every opportunity of trying to do things; we are going to have the best of good feeling." Here is a social problem which we should be able to settle if there is an ounce of good feeling among us. This is a more favourable opportunity of settling it than we have had for years, because no party has a majority and we could deal with the question without party feeding if the party feeling were not already there. As to what has been said by the Noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton) about the differences of administration in London, there are as great differences between various towns and districts throughout the country, and you will not be able to touch London without touching the rest of the country.
§ Earl WINTERTON
May I be allowed to say I was not making any reflection on the management of the London areas, as far as the ratepayers are concerned, but was merely stating that my experience was of London, and that I thought nothing could exceed the chaos in London.
§ Mr. LANSBURY
I do not desire to misrepresent the Noble Lord. I think he is as anxious as I am that something 971 should be done. What I am rather sick about is that we should go on talking as we have talked at least half a dozen times this Session. The Government have asked us to sit down and try to agree to a scheme, and I cannot imagine that the Government are such lunatics as to go to that Committee or conference without any proposals to put before it. If they ask representatives of each section in the House to meet them they will have something to say to those representatives when they do meet. In any case I hope the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Evesham (Commander Eyres-Monsell) and his department will not turn down the proposal for a round table conference without thoroughly considering it. I think this is about the sixth time since February last that hon. Members have stood up here and solemnly told each other that this question is to be settled, that it is urgent and that it is a nonparty question. We are not going to be humbugged any longer.
§ Mr. A. GREENWOOD
When this question was raised earlier this Session, it seemed to the Government that all parties were equally anxious that something should be done. There was a universal desire that the Poor Law system should be overhauled. It was not at all clear that the various parties could agree as to details of policy, but, in view of the fact that it did seem to have been lifted broadly—I do not say there may not have been differences of opinion—above party feeling, the most desirable method seemed to be that of co-operation from the start. I do not know at what stage the negotiations are. The intention was that if the Leaders of the parties could agree to a conference of this kind, the Ministry of Health should put before it concrete proposals, both as to procedure and policy, not overlooking the Rating and Valuation Bill to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings (Lord E. Percy) referred, and that out of that conference might come agreement before the actual Bill was drafted. That seemed to be a reasonable method of approach, and, if I may say so, one which was likely to lead to results more quickly and more satisfactorily than any other method. I can assure the House it was because we thought this method offered an opportunity for an early settlement 972 that we brought it forward, and I have no reason to think that that method will prove to be a failure, and, indeed, judging from what Members in the House have said with regard to the urgency of the Bill, I am quite sure that, given goodwill in this matter, there is no reasonable doubt that, as a result of this party consultation, all parties will come to some agreed scheme.
§ Mr. GREENWOOD
This suggestion was not made four months ago because the question of the Poor Law had not been raised four months ago.
§ Mr. MASTERMAN
Will the hon. Gentleman inform the House as to what exactly is the nature of his and the Government's idea of what this Conference should be? Is it to be a selection of Members appointed by different parties in the House, to which the Ministry of Health will submit proposals, which will then be criticised, I hope in a friendly spirit, and something in the nature of a Select Committee agreement arrived at, if possible? Or is it to be something of a different character to be arranged in some indefinite fashion? I think a good deal of the difficulty experienced by hon. Gentlemen on this side of the House, especially by my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Pringle), would be removed, and certainly there would be no need to divide against this Bill, if my hon. Friend would give us some definite statement on that matter.
§ Mr. GREENWOOD
I thought I had made it clear. The intention is that the parties should choose their own representatives to meet representatives of the Government to consider proposals put before them by the Ministry of Health, with a view, if possible—and I hope it will be possible—to arriving at an agreement.
§ Mr. MASTERMAN
I suggest it would be well not to exaggerate too greatly the hopes that may arise in some people from the existence of such a Conference as this. My hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury) seemed to state that if party considerations were removed—as I am sure they would be removed in such a Conference—agreement could be reached. That is very far from my belief. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone suggested that I had read all the Blue Books on this subject. I have read all the Reports of the Poor Law Commission among others. For four years the Poor Law Commission sat to discuss this very subject. So far as I know, there was no party question in the matter at all. They found themselves at the end of the four years hopelessly divided. They produced a Majority Report—signed by Lord George Hamilton and others, and a Minority Report signed, I think, by the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley, and the guiding and inspiring spirit of which, I think, was the present President of the Board of Trade. What I see is that if some of us are serving on this Conference, some of the very same difficulties will crop up in exactly the same fashion as they cropped up in that Commission. Take once again the Committee to which the Noble Lord opposite has alluded, namely, the Committee presided over by the late Speaker of the House dealing with Areas. I entirely agree with the statement that the negative Report of that Committee was thoroughly unsatisfactory. If we were to adopt a negative report of the Committee, we could not make any progress towards equalisation, or adequately deal with the question of London and with the adjustment of rating. As the Noble Lord opposite also said, you are raising the whole rating question. You are raising a subject of gigantic size and importance, in which experts and men of good will have different ideas, and, very largely, ideas which they hold with the utmost tenacity.
Therefore, I would submit that we should not entertain too great hopes of the idea the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley has suggested, that we can solve a question like this by the Government, as it were, throwing the responsibility on a certain limited number of gentlemen 974 selected from the different parties who, when the time comes for the Report, may find themselves repudiated by the very members of the party they are supposed to represent. I should think any scheme dealing with the drastic reform of the Poor Law would cut right across all party divisions, and that you would find members of all parties supporting certain Measures, and members of all parties supporting other Measures. Therefore, I suggest that, sooner or later, this Government, or any Government, will have to adopt a solution, not by collecting a Select Committee, and then giving private suggestions, about which the public outside will know nothing, and hoping that that Committee of the various parties will knock them into some shape which will be agreeable to everyone, but the Government must definitely come forward with a scheme of their own dealing with a subject of enormous dimensions and of considerable controversy. Then, I am sure, the whole House—certainly, speaking for a united party below the Gangway on this side—would be only too pleased, after such criticisms as were necessary, to refer that scheme of the Government to a Select Committee. Every member would then be in an independent position on that Select Committee, having taken evidence and examined it, to choose which he would support, and which he would not, and the Government could then pass a Measure which would be the opinion not of parties in the House, but of the House as a whole, independent of parties, and so provide a satisfactory solution of a problem which has plagued the social life and social condition of this country during the whole 20 years I have taken any part in its consideration.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Sir SAMUEL HOARE
I think it must be quite obvious to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health that the general feeling of the party on this side of the House, and of the party below the Gangway, is against the proposal of this round-table conference. Personally, I am inclined to think that a conference of that kind is the worst possible way of arriving at a solution quickly. The right hon. Member for Rusholme (Mr. Masterman) has said very truly that this is a question which, of course, party divisions do not touch half as much as constituency differences.
§ Mr. MASTERMAN
I did not say constituencies. I was speaking of the differences between various types of social reformers.
§ Sir S. HOARE
Perhaps I may take it a step further, and say that constituency differences also cut across this question as well. Take London, with which I am personally connected. I can quite imagine the Noble Lord on my left, who, I believe, was thinking mostly of Poor Law administration in East London, might not agree with the views I take representing a constituency in West London, and I cannot on that account conceive of any satisfactory agreement, to which the three parties could put their names, being quickly arrived at by a conference composed of two or three members of each party. On that account, I do agree entirely with what has been said by several speakers in the Debate, that this is essentially a question for which the Government are responsible. The Government should introduce their Bill, should allow Members on all sides of the House to consider their proposals, and then, if need be, the Bill could be referred to a Select Committee. But whether that be so or not, I think the hon. Gentleman opposite need have no illusions that on all sides of the House there is a feeling against the proposal that he made at the beginning of the Debate this afternoon. That being so, if the Government really are anxious to deal with this question quickly, let them produce their Bill, and then, if need be, send it to a Select Committee.
§ Question, "That the Bill be now read the Third time," put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read the Third time, and passed.