HC Deb 29 April 1926 vol 194 cc2288-92

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £884,100, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1927, for Expenditure in respect of Customs and Excise, Inland Revenue, Post Office and Telegraph Buildings in Great Britain, certain Post Offices Abroad, and for certain Expenses in connection with Boats and Launches belonging to the Customs and Excise Department."— [Note: £441,000 has been voted on account.]


I desire to draw the attention of the Committee to certain items connected with the Unemployment Relief Fund. In last year's Estimates certain amounts were allocated for unemployment relief work. In the Estimates now submitted these amounts have been completely erased, nothing whatever is provided, and I am rather apprehensive as to the policy that is being pursued by the Government in this respect. According to the Estimates of last year a sum of £11,890 was allotted for unemployment relief work on Post Office buildings. It has been taken out of the Estimate this year and nothing whatever put in its place. I want to ask whether it is the opinion of the Government that there is no longer any need to make this provision for unemployment relief work. I feel that there is yet sufficient unemployment in our midst to warrant a provision being made in the present Estimates. Are we to assume that it is the opinion of the Department that the accommodation and the condition of the accommodation is all that can be desired? Is the sanitary condition perfectly satisfactory? Is there no need for painting and decoration? I hope the Minister, when he replies, will not say that the Department feel that the skilled trades in the building industry are so well employed that they see no reason to make the provision they did last year for these unemployment relief works. So far as the decorating trade is concerned there is a considerable amount of unemployment, hence my desire to have a statement from the Minister in charge of this Vote as to the precise policy of the Government in this respect.

I also want to raise the question of the need for more direct employment of labour by the Office of Works. This is one of the best safeguards any Government can have to keep the prices of private contractors within bounds. The experience of the Office of Works has been such as to justify this House in asking that the Department will still retain this policy and put it into effect. Much of the work of painting and decorating could be done very successfully by the employment of direct labour, and it could be done at a time when those who are engaged in this industry are most hardly hit, that is, during the winter months. If provision is not made in the Estimate, the Department is unable to carry out this policy. The next point is in connection with a matter which I raised with the Office of Works last June or July. I have not the letter with me, but it was in connection with certain work which was let by the contractor to a sub-contractor, and it was found that the wages paid to french polishers were not the trade union rates of wages. They were receiving 2d. per hour less than the trade union rate, and the difference arose from the fact that the man who was in charge of the work had evidently retained that 2d. per hour for himself. If dangers of that kind are going to arise it is all the more justification that the Department should employ more direct labour. Evils of that kind ought not to be permitted, and I shall be glad to hear, in view of that experience, that steps have been taker, to sec that such an evil is not likely to occur again. It is not only in connection with this Vote that there has been a great deduction made in this provision, but no provision has been made in other Votes for the provision of sums for unemployment relief schemes. I hope the Under-Secretary will be able to allay the apprehensions I have in this respect, which are shared by many others on this side of the House.

8.0 P.M.


The hon. Member has raised one or two important points in connection with this Vote. He has put to me a question in connection with unemployment relief works and why it is that in this year's Estimate there appears to be no provision made for such unemployment relief. In the first place, up to a few years ago the Office of Works had a large amount of road work to be done, and in answering a question on the Supplementary Estimate I stated that the reason why that particular form of unemployment relief was not kept up was because all that work had been completed, and when these roads are finished and in a satisfactory state it is obvious that the Department cannot continue to spend money in that direction. The relief of unemployment in connection with building operations during the past three or four years also comprised arrears of painting and general maintenance. The hon. Member expressed the hope that I would not use the argument that painters and decorators were fully occupied, but he must admit that the builders, joiners, plumbers, bricklayers, and, in fact, most of the skilled workmen in the country have not at the moment a great deal of difficulty in finding employment. Thus, as we had caught up the arrears of painting and general maintenance work which accrued during the War, and in the immediate post-War period, and as there is not a great deal of unemployment in the skilled trades, it is unnecessary for us to spend more public money at the moment, in order to employ workpeople in those Trades.

There is another matter in connection with general Government policy. It is the policy of the Government at the moment to solve the unemployment problem on lines other than the provision of temporary relief work, and to absorb men as far as possible into industry and into their usual occupations. Another factor which accounts for the Office of Works not having a large estimate shown in connection with unemployment relief work, is the fact that there has been a very welcome drop in unemployment during the last 12 months. Twelve months ago it was more necessary than to-day to make some contribution towards unemployment relief. I do not want the hon. Member to run away with the idea that, because this sub-head has been done away with, we are not still most anxious, whenever possible, to provide work for the class of men enumerated by the hon. Member. What the disappearance of the sub-head means is that what extra employment can be found comes under different heads. On page 13 of the Estimates the hon. Member will find an example. There is shown an increase of £11,750 for maintenance and repairs. Very largely that is accounted for by work which normally would have been placed under the other sub-head "Unemployment Relief Work."


That is only in connection with parks. I have been discussing other Departments. I endeavoured to stress the need for still retaining a sum in the Estimates for the employment of men who are affected during the winter months— men in the decorating trade.


I gave that only as an illustration to show that we were not callous and forgetful of the necessity of giving such relief work as we could. It is true that, so far as painters are concerned, we are not making any special provision or planning any special work, unless the work is absolutely necessary. We deem it unnecessary at the moment to reintroduce the sub-head "Unemployment Relief Work."

Notice, taken that 40 Members were not present; Committee counted; and 40 Members being present


The hon. Member also drew attention to the question of direct employment. Apparently he assumed that we did not care to employ directly. It certainly is the policy of the Department, wherever possible, to carry out work in connection with buildings under their charge by the contract system, but there is a great amount of work carried out by direct employment. I would mention a few examples. There are the engineering and maintenance works in the London district and some provincial centres. The number of men employed is approximately 1,200. Then there is the work carried out in the work- shops of the Supplies Division, the industrial staff, central and subsidiary workshops. The numbers engaged there are approximately 250. Then there are various concerns under the control of the Superintendent of Stores, employing approximately 120 We carry out by direct employment the repair and maintenance of ancient monuments. Then there is the general maintenance work in the parks, where the number of labourers and gardeners employed is about 450. There are the day-to-day repairs of certain housing estates, and there is the whole of the staff at Osborne, administrative, nursing and domestic.

Therefore, to a considerable extent we meet the hon. Gentleman in the direction that he has indicated. The only other point made was as to the trade union rate of wages being paid. The hon. Member cited a case of which I was unaware, because it referred to a time before I accepted my present office, and not having had notice of it, it is not within my power at the moment to give him a considered answer. There is no doubt, I think, that that was an isolated case.


I do not for one moment think that there are other similar cases, but this was a case brought to my notice, and I raised the matter fully aware that the hon. Member was not in the Department at the time. I was anxious to know whether any steps are being taken by the Department to ensure that nothing of the kind shall arise again. Had I known in time, I would have looked up the letter and have given the hon. Member an opportunity of ascertaining the facts.


I am not complaining at all, for the hon. Member has the right to bring forward any matter that he cares to bring before the Committee. I assure him that this was an isolated case. I will see that it is investigated, and I will let the hon. Member know the result of the investigations.

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