HC Deb 19 June 1925 vol 185 cc1030-4

I beg to move, in page 45, line 13, to leave out the word "reasonable," and to insert instead thereof the word "such."

This Amendment and the succeeding Amendment hang together, and I should like to argue the two together. The Amendment is designed to overcome the difficulty which has arisen by the decision in another place with regard to what constitutes reasonable wages. The idea of what is reasonable varies, and the object of this Amendment is to take the vagueness out of the Clause, and remove the danger which exists at the present time of authorities being surcharged, because in the opinion of an accountant the wages paid are not considered to be reasonable. By taking out the word "reasonable," as I propose, and inserting the word "such," and, at the end of the Sub section, inserting the words "as in their absolute discretion they think proper," it will give the local authorities the requisite powers, and remove a danger. This Amendment is not designed to allow local authorities to pay any unreasonable wages. That question is safeguarded, as the local authorities are always in the hands of those who elect them. It certainly does seem to me the Clause needs to be rather more definite than it is at the present moment.


I beg to second the Amendment.

This Amendment is of very considerable importance to those who are concerned at all with local government in this country. To myself it is, perhaps, a matter of first-rate importance, because only about five days ago I received an intimation from the district auditor that, with my colleagues, I was surcharged to the extent of £46,700, which made me feel that I must be rich. The position is very serious for local authorities at the present moment. Possibly the framers of this Bill have tried to meet the question by putting in the word "reasonable." but they are really leaving the discretion in a worse position than it was before, because the question has to come in what constitutes reasonable wages and salaries, and who is to decide? The whole thing seems to be left in the hands of auditors, or different auditors. One district auditor has come along and said that £1 above trade union rates is reasonable. Another auditor has come along and considers that 15s. is reasonable. A third auditor might have still a different view. Local authorities will not know where they are. So far as we in Poplar are concerned, we were acting absolutely bona fide under an Act which said we could pay the salaries we thought fit. Supposing some very powerful trade union, by reason of having a watertight organisation in a particular key industry, is able to demand a tremendous wage, are we to be surcharged when the auditor comes along, because we have paid what he considers to be too high wages, though we have not been able to escape from it because of the industrial conditions?

We do not know where we are, and I hope the Government will consider the whole question of the powers of the district auditor, because they are affecting the powers of local authorities. There is the case, in the London County Council, with regard to school journeys—a very useful educational piece of work—which they had to give up. Then there was the case of Westminster with regard to pensions. Fortunately, the Court decided in favour of this authority. It happened to be Westminster, and not Poplar. Everyone engaged in the work of public administration at the present time, leaving political questions apart, recognises that the decision is an invasion of the rights of local authorities.


May I appeal to the Mover of this Amendment not to press it? As a promoter of the Bill, I do not want to have a battle royal on the Report stage over such a big question as this. It is a question in regard to which one must have a good deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend, but I do not think this is the time to discuss such a large question. A question was raised as to what was considered reasonable, and why we have inserted this in the Bill. Many authorities, I am glad to say one is my own authority, interpret the word "reasonable" as meaning the trade union rate for the district. In my own opinion that is a reasonable rate of pay. I do hope, however, that the hon. Members will not press this Amendment, which must open out a very vexed question, and will cause a considerable amount of discussion and division. Time is getting on, and I am going to make an appeal to the promoters of the Bill to withdraw the Amendment. This is not, in my opinion, the time or the place to discuss such an important matter.


The matter is not quite so simple as the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken seems to think, or, possibly, I might be inclined to agree with him. It is a most extraordinary thing that whenever this question is raised the time seems not to be opportune; but there has not been a question of this sort raised in respect to the officers of the different bodies. The medical officers of health lay down the rule that we must pay a certain rate, and although we do not agree with them, we feel compelled to pay it, because the medical officers are strong enough to make us. In like manner the engineers come along to those of us who are members of local authorities, and because they are in the economic position to do so they demand that we must pay a rate of remuneration that they have laid down. Is that a trade union rate? [An HON. MEMBER: "Yes!"] The doctors, the medical officers of health, and other people in professional positions can almost make us pay, and even go so far as to tell us that they are going to withdraw the doctors from our public institutions if we do not give them what they ask. We are placed, therefore, in relation to the people who are in our asylums, our mental hospitals, our infectious diseases hospitals, placed in the position I have indicated. [HON. MEMBERS: "NO!"] We were threatened in our district of West Ham that all the doctors were going to withdraw at a time when there was an epidemic if we did not pay them the money for which they asked. If you get a sufficient number of people in the one direction they can hold you up to ransom. When, however, it is a question of the men who are doing necessary public work of a menial nature they are not supposed to demand £4 a week. That is too high. The rate is to be just enough to keep the man going for the time being—with the possibility of less later on. The hon. Gentleman opposite, of course, represents Reading. He is a professional gentleman. Perhaps he thinks that dog biscuits are sufficient for some people to live upon?


On a point of Order. Is the hon. Member right in imputing motives to another hon. Member?


It is only the humour of the hon. Member for Silvertown.

3.0 P.M.


All I was suggesting was that the hon. Gentleman believes in dog biscuits because he represents the place where they make them. We want to know where we are in this matter. Who pays the wages at West Ham and Poplar? Who pay all these local rates? We get no assistance from London at all, although geographically we are part of London. The whole is to be paid by the people in the locality. Are those outside then to come in and lay down a law that we have not the right to pay wages we consider reasonable? If people in the locality elect the council, and that council says that they are going to pay a reasonable rate of wages to the workmen, well and good. If the men do not agree that the wage is a right wage they strike. We had a local authority mainly composed of Labour men and the Labour men laid down a minimum rate of wages. It is not supposed to be reasonable by some people; but we stand up for the right of the local authorities elected by the people to decide what shall be the wages paid to the people they employ. We believe that we have the same right as a private employer in this matter. No man in his senses will say that £4 a week is too much to pay a man, a dustman or a scavenger, who has a wife and a family to keep, and in London, too! Yet we are told that the neighbouring authorities to us are going to be surcharged some thousands of pounds because they have decided that £4 a week was not too much. Some hon. Members in one day this week put that much on the horses. I am not blaming them for doing that. I hope they lost their money! So far, however, as we are concerned, we want the people to realise where we are. We have a right to say what shall be the rate of pay and conditions of labour in our boroughs. The principle of the Amendment carries that out, so that we may decide for ourselves, as local authorities responsible to the majority of the ratepayers, and for the money of the ratepayers. We have been challenged on this matter. What we say is that we propose to pay what we consider reasonable in these matters, and I am going to see those who object in hell before I will give in to them.


We think the Bill a desirable one in many respects, but I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.