HC Deb 13 April 1926 vol 194 cc169-78

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Commander Eyres Monsell.]


I beg to call the attention of the House to the fact that on 24th March last I put a question to the Minister of Labour and had such an unsatisfactory answer that I could not expect to satisfy my constituents if I did not raise the matter this evening. On 24th March I put the following question to the Minister: To ask the Minister of Labour if his attention has been drawn to the practice of the Employment Exchanges of Pontypridd to call upon skilled coalminers who are unemployed to accept casual work on occasional days to carry advertisers' boards through the streets of Pontypridd, and to stop their unemployment benefit if they refuse this particular work; and, in view of the fact that this enforcement Is causing resentment amongst the mining population of Pontypridd, will he undertake to put a stop to this practice? The only answer given by the Minister was this: Certain colliery labourers and others fit for light employment only, were offered casual work of this nature on one occasion recently. The claims of those who refused the offer were referred to the chief insurance officer who allowed benefit to continue."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th March, 1926; cols. 1191–2, Vol. 193.] It is quite evident from the reply given by the Minister that either he was not fully informed by his local officials of the real facts of the case, or else he failed altogether to realise the importance of the issue which was raised. A very large number of miners who were unemployed in Pontypridd were ordered, during February last, on several occasions, to take up casual employment as sandwich men. The local officials connected with the Employment Exchanges had picked out a number of partially disabled miners whose disablement was due either to accidents in mines or the disease known as nystagmus. Under the Unemployment Acts all men who are partially disabled are liable to take light employment, but it is also understood that such light employment should be reasonably suitable for them, or reasonably comparable with their own trade. In this case the Employment Exchange officials told off a number of men suffering from nystagmus to go to a certain shop in the town which had been opened by a London firm of clothiers, and they were engaged to parade the streets for a period of from seven to 10 hours per day. Most of these men, I am glad to say, refused to do this work. Most of them are men with families, and they have been out of work for years. A few of them were absolutely bullied into taking this work, otherwise they were told that they would lose their unemployment benefit, and some of those who refused the work were actually refused their unemployment benefit. Some of them had been out of employment for many months, and some for years.

There is in this particular district and in other districts where there is industrial depression very little likelihood of light employment being found at all, and those who take on this work are generally paid 6d. per hour for 10 hours, or 5s. a day for carrying for 10 hours these heavy boards through the main streets. Another lot of these men were paid 8d. an hour for seven hours. What I cannot understand is the mentality of the Employment Exchange officials deliberately selecting men suffering from nystagmus for this particular kind of work. The town of Pontypridd has very narrow and busy streets, and even if the men selected were in a good state of health, to carry heavy boards about of this description is a great task. These men were not able-bodied men, but they were partially disabled and suffering from nystagmus which is one of the most distressing diseases contracted in the mining industry. They suffer from this disease as the result of many years' work underground, and it is mainly due to the effect on the eyes of the miners' lamps while they are at work. It is easy to detect men suffering from this disease, because their eyes twitch in a very distressing way, and they have to hold their heads very high even in normal walking. A man in that state of health is certainly not fit to do that kind of work. In addition to that, even if the pay had been good, even if there had been no financial objection and the job had not been dangerous, the chief and sufficient ground of objection is that sandwich-men's work is degrading for anybody; and when it is remembered that these men were miners, who had been in the business all their lives, who had brought up large families, and were in this condition through no fault of their own, it will be realised what it must have meant.

Those of us who are provincial Members, on coming to London for the first few times, are struck, when we walk in the public streets, with the large army of men employed as sandwich-men. One of the first impressions I had, as a young lad coming to this City, was the horror of thinking that human beings were carrying these boards about in the streets in that and I believe that even in London the opinion generally is that the man who takes up this kind of job does so as his last resort, because he is down and out. I ask the House to appreciate what must be the mental effect upon people in the provinces and in our small towns. I can say, as regards my own district and throughout South Wales, and I believe I can say, from my experience of going up and down the country, throughout Great Britain, that everyone looks upon the man who is forced to become a sandwich-man as one who has reached the depths of poverty and social degradation.

When I tell the House that some of the men carrying these boards were men well on in years, 60 or 65 years of age, with grown sons and daughters, some of them grandfathers, and their sons came home from their own employment in the pits and saw their old fathers carrying these boards in the streets, the House will appreciate their feeling in the matter. Strongly as their sons felt, I can assure the House that the feeling of their womenfolk was even more bitter, and if the womenfolk of Pontypridd could have got hold of the officials responsible, they would have treated them in the way they deserved. I can assure the Minister that nothing in the administration of unemployment benefit in South Wales has created stronger resentment than this foolish policy of the local officials in employing those men in this way. I have received strong protests in letters recording official resolutions passed by the miners' lodges in my Division on this matter.

It is true that on the 24th March the Minister, in reply to my question, pointed out that the insurance officer for the area, on the matter being referred to him, had ruled that benefit should be continued to those miners who had refused this task, but that reply does not meet the case. All it does is to prove that the local officials had acted wrongly. I think his reply on the 24th March reveals, if I may say so with due respect, that the Minister had not been given the opportunity of realising the seriousness of the matter. It might appear small on the surface, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that, if it is allowed to continue any longer in the mining districts, he will have the biggest surprise of his life. The House has the right to know to-night, and I have the right to know, as the Member for the constituency concerned in this particular case, whether the Minister approves or does not approve of the action of his local officials in putting miners on to this work at all.

This case goes to prove that there are still officials in charge of the administration of unemployment benefit who are wholly out of touch with the spirit of the Acts, and are ignorant of and indifferent to the self-respect which is characteristic of the British working class. It goes to prove that the callous administration of the Unemployment Insurance Acts is growing under the present Government, and I believe there is no limit to their ruthless policy of economising at the expense of the unemployed, if they are unchallenged in their administration. I want to say, finally, and I can say this with absolute certainly, that the British miners resent this insult to their self-respect, and they will take their own course to put a stop to it if we cannot get a definite assurance from the Minister to-night that he will put a stop to it himself. I hope he is not going to waste time by saying it is an isolated case. If it is, I hope it will remain an isolated case, it does reveal what we complain of in other respects, namely, that there are officials who do not understand the spirit of unemployment administration properly, and, when the Minister gets striking instances of this kind, he ought to see to it that they are put a stop to. I trust, therefore, that he will give us a definite assurance to-night.

The MINISTER of LABOUR (Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland)

The first thing I should like to do is to acknowledge the hon. Member's courtesy in his treatment of me, because he was raising this point on what. I think, was his only opportunity before we separated for the Easter holidays, and when I asked him to defer it, he very kindly did so. I thank him for doing so, because on the previous occasion I was not feeling up to much additional work. I then endeavoured to assure him that I would be only too glad if he would raise it on the first possible occasion after the resumption of Parliament. I do not know exactly how to account for the difference in the facts, but if the case were exactly as it was stated by the hon. Member, I too should have felt inclined to criticise it. I would only ask the House to hear the facts as I have been able to ascertain them by inquiry since the hon. Member raised the point. It was really this, that a firm asked for a certain number of men to carry the sandwich boards in the streets, and when a case of that kind is brought before the Exchange—I am not talking about the question of benefits at the moment—it is the duty of the Exchange to offer the jobs to people who would want them. That is what, I understand, the Exchange did. They offered them to about 15 men. About six men refused to take them. I think two were not really suitable, and seven took them. I think it was offered to one who came and asked for it. He was, as a matter of fact, a motor-car driver. There were one or two people who had been unconnected with colliery work. Otherwise those to whom it was offered were colliery labourers and light employment cases.

I have been approached by hon. Members opposite to find some sort of work for people who on account of nystagmus or for some other reason cannot follow the usual mining employment. From that point of view I have had their cases on my mind, but it is not possible under the conditions of the present day to find the same number of light jobs about a colliery as was formerly the case, and it is difficult to get suitable work elsewhere for that particular kind of case. That is the reason why these jobs were offered to these cases. I think, with one possible exception, it was a thing for which they were physically fit, apart from the nature of the employment. I agree that no one who Ss not hard up would want to be a sandwich-man. I do not say it is degrading. Whether it is degrading depends on the character of the person. But that is the reason why it was offered and it is precisely the kind of reason that had been put before me by hon. Members, that wherever possible jobs should be put in the way of light employment men. I have enquired further since the hon. Member raised the case by way of question, and I can assure him that so far as all the information I have been able to collect goes, the facts varied—I do not know how the difference arises—from those he has given me to-night. In the first place, I am quite definitely assured that there was no question of trying to bully the men into taking the jobs. Let no hon. Member think that I am passing any opinion of approval or otherwise as to the pay, but it was not a job at 5d. per hour for ten hours.


6d. per hour.


It was, as far as I know, the recognised rate that there was in various towns in South Wales, which was 6s. per day for an eight-hours job. If anyone asks me whether that is magnificent pay for such employment, I do not pretend that it is any such thing.


I ant not raising so much the point as to the rate of pay. I am raising the whole principle of whether sandwich work is to be applicable to miners in the future as in that case.


All I would say in reply to the hon. Member is that it is the duty of the Exchange to offer such jobs as are going, and I always tell them to do so. They were quite right in offering jobs of this kind, because of the appalling difficulty there is, when there is hardship and unemployment about, in finding work for hard cases. It was not a case, as far as I am aware, of bullying. I do not believe that any officer would wish to bully men into taking jobs in the way which, quite sincerely, the hon. Member has suggested. As a matter of fact, they were not refused benefit when they refused the work. I am trying to put the ease in its proper perspective, because I do riot think it is such a great matter as the hon. Member thinks.

When they refused the work, all that was done, and quite rightly, was to refer the matter to the chief insurance officer. Benefit was only suspended for reference to the chief insurance officer as a borderline case. He considered the matter and allowed the benefit to go on. That is the whole matter. I can assure the hon. Member that I would not wish to put an insult upon anybody, and this was not intended as an insult. We have to offer the jobs that are going. When the job in this case was offered certain men refused it and others accepted it. One or two people definitely asked for it on their own volition. In respect of those who refused it, the case was merely referred to the chief insurance officer, who on consideration allowed the benefit to continue. I hope that with that explanation the matter will be put in its proper light. That is the information which I have been able to glean from the locality.


There appears to be a very definite conflict of opinion and evidence between the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. Mardy Jones) and the right hon. Gentleman. The right hon. Gentleman seems to suggest that there was nothing in the nature of bullying. May I ask him whether the men concerned, apart from the officials, have been asked to give their account of the interview at the Employment Exchange and whether the right hon. Gentleman is prepared to consider holding a formal inquiry into the allegations made by the hon. Member for Pontypridd? It is of vital importance that people who have, unfortunately, to go to the Exchanges should be guaranteed that they shall have their position clearly and sympathetically considered, without any allegations arising, such as have been made by the hon. Member for Pontypridd that they have been bullied. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether he has any information from the men concerned as to their view of what happened at the interview, and whether he will have a formal inquiry into the matter?


I did not inquire directly of the men concerned, but I have had inquiries made on the spot from the officials. If the hon. Member will give me any substantial facts as to any unfair treatment, I will very gladly have further inquiries made.


There are eases all over the country.


The hon. Member says, "All over the country." I respectfully deny that. If the charge is made that this is another instance of the callous administration of the Insurance Act I deny that there is any desire to treat these people carelessly or callously, or to bully them at all. I absolutely deny that. If any case of ill-treatment is brought to my notice I will gladly do what I can to have it investigated. I agree that men are not all saints, on the one side, nor are they all sinners on the other. There is a certain amount of give and take, and I have no doubt that not every applicant for benefit has addressed the whole of his language in polite phraseology. I have no doubt there is a certain amount of sharpness, but that is another thing altogether, and the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. D. Graham) knows that all people are not saints, and that all people are not sinners, and that a man, being an ordinary human being, is subject to change. But there is no evidence of any general callous treatment in dealing with these unemployed people, and if there is any case which the hon. Gentleman can bring to my notice, I shall be just as ready to deal with it as he himself. I have given the best answer I possibly can on the present occasion, and I hope it will satisfy the hon. Member.


The right hon. Gentleman has not really replied to the point. We want to know as miners, and if he does not answer us to-night he will have to answer the Miners' Federation. We strongly object in principle to any miner being called upon to do sandwich-men work, and I say frankly that, law or no law, the next official who suggests it in South Wales will be ducked in the river absolutely. We will not stand it.


I wish to ask whether the Minister can give an assurance that at any of the Exchanges, if a man refuses to undertake sandwich work, there will be a ruling that there is no necessity for the case to be referred to the insurance officer?


I am not going to give any general understanding on any hypothetical case. As to the allegation of bullying, may I point out that the same thing can be done on two sides? If a statement is made that any manager who does a thing of which the hon. Member does not approve, is to be ducked, it seems to me that the hon. Member is not encouraging in others that same self-restraint which he says is desirable in the staff of Employment Exchanges.


That is righteous indignation.


It is a question as to what is righteousness and what is indignation, but that is not the way to encourage people—

It being Half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.