HC Deb 04 August 1926 vol 198 cc3038-44

Question again proposed, " That this House do now adjourn."


This subject of unemployment and the administration of unemployment insurance may not be quite so important, or loom so much in the public eye as other questions which have been before the House; notwithstanding, it is to a large number of people one of the greatest importance. I wish to raise, mainly, the question of unemployment in the city which I have the honour to represent in Parliament. A few days ago I put questions to the Minister of Labour regarding a number of disallowances in the city of Glasgow, and I also asked whether any fresh instructions had been issued by him narrowing or altering the scope of inquiry by the Committee or by his various managers throughout the country. With regard to disallowance, I want to say a word or two at the outset both with regard to men and women. On Monday last I asked the Minister of Labour how many applications for extended benefit had been made in the city of Glasgow, and how many had been refused, and I find there were 111,423 such applications, and out of that number 19,392 had been refused. In other words, something Like one out of every nine had been refused benefit.

Let me quote figures which are even more alarming. I asked the Minister of Labour how many females had made application for extended benefit, and I find that, during six months in Glasgow, roughly, 18,000 females had made application for extended benefit, and no fewer than 5,000 of them had been refused benefit, or more than one out of every four. When you take the whole of the unemployed in Glasgow, roughly speaking, it is one in nine, but when you separate the males and the females, the females amount to more than one in four. I want to ask, in the first place, why there is this great discrepancy between the treatment of male and female workers? The treatment of the male is shocking, in all conscience, but, in the ease of the female, it becomes even more severe, and is open to even more condemnation. One of the main reasons, if not the actual reason, why this benefit is refused now is that the applicant has not had a reasonable period of work during the last two years. Hitherto, the reason was that the applicant was not genuinely seeking work, but in the last 12 months that has been supplanted by the reason that the applicant has not had a reasonable. period of work within the last two years. I remember the Minister of Labour under the Labour Government was severely taken to task, not only by Labour Members, but occasionally by Tory Members, for the Regulation, " not genuinely seeking work." It was hard to define what were the qualifications which fulfilled the test of "genuinely seeking work," and the Minister always replied that that was in the discretion of the Committee.

if that qualification were harsh—and it was extremely harsh—this new qualification is much more severe on the unemployed. Whereas an applicant for benefit always could prove, or had a chance of getting proof, that he was genuinely looking for work during the last two years, or during a lesser period, under the new condition of not having worked a reasonable period during the last two years, the applicant, in effect, is permanently refused benefit. In Glasgow, almost 10,000 applicants during the last six months have been refused benefit because, during the last two years, they have not had a reasonable period of work. Glasgow is mainly and essentially a shipbuilding and an engineering centre. That is the life-blood of the city of Glasgow. it may be argued by some Members opposite that this has been largely caused by the coal stoppage. I think the Minister of Labour will admit that, long before the coal stoppage, this problem was acute, and the qualification of " a reasonable period of employment " was operating harshly then, and the figures to which I have referred cover a period before the coal stoppage, and operated very adversely against the worker.

The Minister of Labour, in reply, no doubt will say that this is an insurance fund, that this fund is based on a certain calculation of income and expenditure, that you must keep a relation between those two sides of finance, and he will argue that this thing must he actuarially sound. Let us assume that this insurance fund is not to be dominated mainly and solely by the relief of unemployment, and that it is merely to be dominated by the relationship of income and expenditure, and within those limits all other humane considerations must be shut out. That does not end the responsibility of the Minister of Labour. It only ends his answer for the insurance fund. What I want to ask him is, what is to become of the persons whom he rules out? Humanity has not reached the stage when you are going to march these people to an open field, and dispose of them in a speedy fashion. I assume that the Minister of Labour will agree that they have still got to live, and, accepting the right hon. Gentleman's actuarial basis, accepting his solvency of the fund, what does he intend to do with these people who have not had a reasonable period of employment during the last two years? I know he will say there are boards of guardians and parish councils, whose duty it is to relieve destitution. But the parish councils are not carrying out their work in that respect. Many of these men have been out of work for three, four or five years.

1.0 P.M.

I understand the Minister of Labour quite recently made some investigations, I think it was at Newcastle. I understand those investigations were for the purpose of further economy, to see what would be the result if he raised the number of weeks from 20 to 30 or from 30 to 40—I am not sure which. I understand the reply he got was that this would have very little, if any, effect on the figures, in view of the decision as to people who have not had a reasonable period of employment during the last two years. These men who have been out for two years are in the most depressed industries, and unless the Minister of Labour can either get the shipbuilding and engineering industries at work again on the old scale, as they were before the War, or get these people into some other industry, it looks as though they will be permanently out of work for some years. I ask the Minister of Labour not to be too much taken up with the question of the solvency of the fund. The fact that men have had in benefit twice or three times the amount they have paid in does not end his responsibility for their well being. They are still human beings, and the nation ought to keep them in efficiency until they are needed again for work.

The problem is bad enough in all conscience in the case of the males, but it becomes even more acute in connection with females. One cannot read that 5,000 women have been refused benefit in Glasgow during the last six months—not on account of the coal stoppage, because a large number were refused benefit prior to the coal stoppage—without serious reflection as to the effect this state of things may have on the moral problem. The Minister of Labour must face the question of paying benefit to these women or of turning them into other channels of employment, and I ask him not to enforce rigidly this Regulation as to a reasonable period of work during the last two years. I hope he will say that everyone who has been genuinely looking for work during the last two years shall be given either unemployment benefit or found some new wink, I visited recently one of the Exchanges in Glasgow and found that, roughly speaking, 70,000 people were signing-on. Out of that 70,000, 10,000 could not get any benefit at all, and are being supported, for the most part, out of the rates. That is 10,000 at one Exchange alone: there must be many more in the city of Glasgow as a whole.

Glasgow is a shipbuilding centre, and recently a committee there composed of employers and workpeople in the ship-building industry went into the question of how to solve the problem of employment, One of the things they pointed out was the handicap the industry suffers under by reason of high rates. In centres like Newcastle, Jarrow, Glasgow and Birkenhead it is recognised that the shipbuilding industry cannot face the future because of the high rates; yet the Minister of Labour is deliberately adopting a policy which cuts people off benefit and throws them on to the rates, thereby depressing the industry and creating more unemployment. Though actually pursuing the policy of cutting people off benefit, the Minister does not seem to feel he has any responsibility for initiating new schemes of alternative work. No doubt, he will say he has no power to do so, that the power rests with other Departments, but I say it is his duty to approach other Ministers and induce them to act in order that the numbers on the registers of unemployed are speedily reduced.

Here is one way in which help might be given to the shipbuilding industry. For years past I have been asking the Board of Trade to make a new survey of all ships trading to and from British ports. The hon. and learned Member for Argyll (Mr. Macquisten) has more than once raised the question of the condition of the ships that trade between Glasgow and the Western Isles. If the Minister would inspect those ships he would find that the accommodation for the passengers was shocking, and the accommodation for the cattle too. On the one hand we have shipyard workers eating their hearts out for a job and disqualified for unemployment benefit because they have not had a reasonable period of work during the last two years—honest decent men—and on the other hand ships that are a disgrace to our country. Why cannot the two problems be brought into relationship with one another? Every day we hear about slum houses. His ship is the sailor's home, and why should we allow slum ships? The Minister of Labour ought to get the Board of. Trade to reschedule all ships, and every one not thoroughly equipped and completely up to date ought to be either repaired or scrapped. That would find useful work for men who are at present idle.

Another point I want to raise deals with instructions given to Exchange managers. I put a question to the Minister to-day as to whether new instructions had been issued to any of the Exchange managers, and the answer I got was a definite " No." I accept that, but I wish to ask the Minister whether it is not a. fact that recently managers of Exchanges, whether under his instructions or not—well, I accept his statement that it was not under his instructions—have been carrying out a new policy. Hitherto when a Member of Parliament or any other person wrote to a manager with respect to an applicant who had been refused extended benefit, if new evidence were produced the manager, according to my personal experience, very decently and kindly gave the applicant a new committee, and if the committee, after hearing the new evidence, altered their decision then benefit was granted. The manager could; if he liked, agree with the committee's decision or he could disagree with it. If he disagreed with it, then the case went to the Chief Insurance Officer or the Divisional Controller; but if he agreed with it then the benefit, was automatically paid.

What happens now? If representations are made to the manager and a new committee is granted and the committee agree, after considering the new facts, to grant benefit, the manager has either been instructed not to agree with the committee or else he is taking upon himself not to agree with them, because in every case he is sending the particulars to Edinburgh or to the chief insurance officer in order that the application may be revised. That is a very harsh Regulation. I may be wrongly informed about these matters. I have only heard of it from people on the committees, not always too well informed themselves, and if I am wrong I will be glad to hear it. This proceeding is very harsh, because the manager usually knows the applicant and knows all the facts, but the person with whom the decision is now left, away in Edinburgh or in London, has no actual knowledge of the man. If any such new Regulation, instruction or idea is dominating the Minister, I hope he will withdraw it and allow managers to act as they formally did.

I do not want to raise individual cases, but I have here a letter from a man refused benefit under this regulation as to a reasonable period of work in the preceding two years, who before he became idle was in one job for 22½ years. He has been refused benefit because, during the last two years, he has not had a reasonable period of work—as a matter of fact he has worked only one week. For 22½ years that man has been a good citizen; his son served in the Army, and was severely wounded. He has given of his best as a workman and has reared a family, and this is his reward—no benefit and only parish council relief. The Minister may say that the actuarial soundness of the fund is the main thing, but that does not end his responsibility. Admitting that the solvency of the fund must be kept in mind, it is his duty, as one of His Majesty's Ministers, to go into the problem and see what alternative employment can be found for the large mass of the people throughout the country who are out of work. Last year I was a member of a Committee of this House which considered a Bill containing a Clause cutting young men off from benefit if the income of the family was over a certain figure. I hope the Minister will reduce the harshness of that Clause.

There is only one other question, and that relates to domestic servants. The Minister has insisted, and I think rightly, that a mistress, before accepting a girl as a servant, ought to have a reference as to her past employment and to say if she be honest, clean and tidy. I do not object to that, it is reasonable for the mistress to expect that, but I submit that it is equally reasonable for the girl to ask for a similar reference as to her mistress, because mistresses are no better in character than are servants. If it is a good thing for the mistress to have a character from the girl, it is equally good for the girl to get a character about the mistress. Recent developments in the Law Courts have shown that that is becoming increasingly necessary. I hope the Minister of Labour will take every step possible to see that the girl, before leaving her home to go miles away into domestic service, is guaranteed as clean and wholesome a home as if she was living with her parents in her own place.