HC Deb 17 March 1926 vol 193 cc550-62

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

I would like to make a few observations on this Bill, with which, no doubt, many Members are already familiar. It extends for two years, until April, 1928, certain temporary provisions of the Local Authorities (Financial Provisions) Act, 1921, which was extended by the 1923 Act and by the 1924 Act. Four provisions to be extended by this Bill. First, it is to continue the arrangement whereby the cost of all indoor relief is charged on the Metropolitan Common Poor Law Fund at the rate of 1s. 3d. per head per day, and the cost of outdoor relief is charged on the Fund at a maximum rate of 9d. per head per day. Hon. Members will remember that this Fund was established in 1867 with the object of spreading the burden of certain items of poor rate expenditure over the whole Metropolitan area, the idea being to relieve the poorer unions by getting contributions from what may be called, for this purpose, the richer ones.

Indoor relief, up to the Act of 1921, was limited to 5d. per person in various institutions, but owing to the increase in cost it was increased to 1s. 3d. by the 1921 Act. As regards outdoor relief, prior to 1921 this was not chargeable upon the Fund at all, but the Act of 1921 brought this charge upon the Fund subject to what was then known as the Mond scale. It was generally recognised by people in all quarters of the House that if there was to be equalisation of rates there must be some sort of standardisation of methods and scales of relief. In 1923 the Mond scale was abandoned, and an agreement was arrived at by what may be called the paying unions and the receiving unions. I remember that occasion very well, because I was present at the conference when the agreement was arrived at, and the figure, which was of the nature of a compromise, was fixed at 9d. as a maximum rate. So far as this Bill is concerned, we are asking that this arrangement should continue for the period mentioned.

We have received representations both from the unions who have to pay and the unions who receive, and the only matter upon which they both agree is that there must be a temporary extension of this particular Measure. Beyond that, I at once admit there was very little agreement. The receiving unions urge that the rate fixed is inadequate, and they point to certain figures which in their view indicate a rise in the payments that they have to make in respect of Poor Law relief. The paying unions have also made representations to the Ministry of Health urging that the charge upon the fund in respect of outdoor relief should be limited to 75 per cent. of the actual expenditure, or to 8d. per head whichever is the less. In that respect, and in support of that representation, they say that there has been considerable extravagance in the administration of certain unions; that the cost of many of those unions is very high indeed, although the cost of living has fallen, and they think the present arrangement is not fair to them.

I think I can at once say that if there were any question of making this Act permanent it would have to he altered very considerably. There is no doubt about it that the chief objection to the principle contained in the present proposal is that it allows each individual union to draw upon the Common Poor Fund for outdoor relief to an extent which is practically unlimited, and I do not think anyone would now support a proposal of that kind without much more control of such expenditure than is provided in this Bill. As the House knows, the Minister of Health and the Prime Minister have announced that next year we hope to bring in an important Bill dealing with the reform of the Poor Law, and we are now engaged upon the task of endeavouring to arrive at some form of agreement with the interested authorities, and we intend to make proposals to the House dealing with the whole matter next year. I think that is the best answer I can make to the proposal that has been made by the unions who have to pay very large sums of money in respect of Poor Law relief at the present time. Their objections to this Bill are really fundamental, and what we want is a bigger Measure altogether dealing with the various objections which they have raised.

On the other hand representations have been made to us by receiving unions that more money should he paid, but I do not think we can ask those unions which pay such considerable sums to increase the amount that they have already to pay. Under those circumstances, all I need to say is that in this proposal we are simply following the example of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Shettleston (Mr. Wheatley), who brought forward similar proposals when he was in office, and we are only asking to continue the present arrangement for another two years. My next point is in reference to certain provisions in the Bill to extend for two years the time within which local authorities may borrow for current expenses for a period not exceeding 10 years. Another Section allows certain loans by local authorities not to count against the total amount they are allowed to borrow. We propose that the limit should be temporarily removed. A further provision suspends for a further period of two years the obligation on the Minister of Health to hold local inquiries in certain cases. That is the extent of the provisions we are now asking the House to adopt.


As the representative of the poorer part of one of the contributing boroughs I wish to express my disappointment that the Government have continued the provisions of this Bill, which are so absolutely unsatisfactory from a scientific or even from a representative point of view. The hon. Gentleman who moved the Second Reading has himself admitted that these proposals bear hardly upon contributing boroughs who have to pay very large sums of money without having any voice in their distribution or control over the expenditure. It is of course true that a very great step was taken in 1921 when, for the first time, there was charged upon the Common Poor Fund the cost of outdoor relief. Up to that time the Common Poor Fund had borne only the cost of institutional relief, and there has been a very large and growing expenditure in this connection during the last five or six years.

The amount was fixed in 1923 at 9d. per head per day, but when the borough I have the honour to represent, and the other contributing boroughs assented to this scheme in 1921, there was not one of those representatives who expected that these unsatisfactory proposals would go on for a term of six or eight years as is now proposed. It was said to be a case of emergency, and the contributing boroughs were very glad to help the receiving boroughs by allowing demands to be made upon them in support of the Common Poor Fund. These payments have now amounted to a very large sum, and the cost of charging outdoor relief on the Common Poor Fund up to the 31st of March, 1925, came to about £2,000,000, and my own borough has had to provide no less than £99,556, or a sum equal to a tenpenny rate in the Borough of Kensington. With all the good will in the world, it is difficult for me, as representing a poor part of Kensington, to assure my constituents that they are paying higher rents or higher rates than Poplar or Bermondsey because their borough is contributing large sums, without having any voice in the representation, for the benefit of the unemployed of those districts.

I do not for a moment wish unduly to criticise the methods of administration in any of the receiving boroughs. With an experience now of 30 years of work in the administration of London municipal affairs, including a good number on the London County Council and other central bodies, I do know something of the difficulties with which what I might call the receiving boroughs are faced in the administration of their local affairs; but I do wish to impress upon the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary what I have no doubt they already well know, that formerly the granting of out-relief to the able-bodied was a very exceptional thing, whereas now, in a great number of boroughs, it is a universal practice. The mere fact that a man is unemployed, without any regard to the duration, character or cause of his unemployment, in many parts of London constitutes an absolute qualification for free maintenance at the expense of the rates.

I know that it was, as I have said, a great emergency that the Government had to meet in 1921, and it was dealt with by rough-and-ready methods, but whether it is necessary that those rough-and-ready methods should be continued for another two years I venture to doubt. Trade and employment are much better, the cost of living has gone down very considerably, and I do urge that, if we contributing boroughs are to go on paying and levying extra rates for the benefit of the receiving parishes, we are at least entitled to ask that the Government should set up a common standard of administration, and that there should be some protection, at any rate, for the Common Poor Fund from abuse by some of the receiving boroughs. There should be a most effectual reduction in the charges made on the Common Poor Fund. I am glad to, notice that, in the estimates of my borough for the coming year, the precepts of the guardians are substantially reduced. I do hope that that is universal, even in Poplar, and that the Common Poor Fund, therefore, will be faced with lower charges for the coming year.

The evil of this legislation is contagious. If you take away responsibility from local authorities, and hand them over large sums of money for which they have not to call upon their ratepayers, but which are taken from contributing boroughs, it must weaken the sense of responsibility of the local authorities, and render them much more liable to yield to pressure and to give very much larger measures of relief than they otherwise would if they had only their own ratepayers to call upon. The Parliamentary Secretary has given, as a reason for this Measure, the coming reform of the Poor Law. I heard that story two years ago from the right hon. Gentleman the late Minister of Health, and my hon. Friend the present Parliamentary Secretary, and I ventured to remonstrate with the right hon. Gentleman. He told us then that he was going to reform the Poor Law. That was two years ago.

I hope that the present Minister may be more successful, and that we may in the near future see a Bill from him; but there is a great sound of opposition, and, of course, it is possible that that opposition may prevent his Bill from fructifying. I hope it will not, and I may say at once that I, at any rate, am, not an opponent of his Measure of Poor Law reform. I burnt my boats, at any rate, in that respect; I gave evidence before the Royal Commission on London Government to the effect that I was in favour of a measure of Poor Law reform, and that I hoped the Government would adopt the Maclean Report.

There are just two points to which I should like to call the attention of the Minister. When the Bill of the Labour Government was before the House, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary suggested a very good Amendment. I know that he cannot move it himself, but, now that the Adoption of Children Bill is through Committee, perhaps I might be allowed to adopt his bantling. He suggested that, where there were any cases of irregularity or gross extravagance by boards of guardians, and the ratepayers did not pay their rates and were summoned before the magistrates, they should have power to plead those irregularities and abuses of the Act, and, I imagine, should be excused' payment of the rates. It was a most ingenious idea of my hon. Friend's, and, as he is not able to suggest it himself to-night, I hope he will forgive me for adopting his child, and pressing it myself upon the Minister of Health.

Another point I should like to make is that, when the rates of 9d. a head per day for outdoor relief and 1s. 3d. for indoor relief were fixed, the cost of living was about double what it is to-day. I am asked to suggest that the Minister might seriously consider that the time has come when the charges upon the Common Poor Fund should be abated. The Parliamentary Secretary mentioned the figure of 8d. for outdoor relief, and I should also like to suggest that it should be 11d. for institutional treatment, leaving the medical relief at 1s. 3d. per head per day. I think the time has come when, if this Act is to be continued for two years, with the cost of living falling, and perhaps even failing more in the next few years, it is rather an unfair charge on the contributing boroughs that it should be fixed as high as 9d. and is. 3d. as in this Bill. I hope the House will not think the contributing boroughs, mine or any other, are trying to get out of any of the burdens that are common to London. They are, of course, always prepared, and always have been, to pay their fair share of the common burden of London. But the sums paid by the contributing boroughs are really very enormous.

I have mentioned what it costs in outdoor relief alone in my borough, but, as regards Poplar, for ever £ they pay £7 are paid by the other authorities, and that is a very serious position. In Westminster, the figures are something enormous. They represent a rate of nearly 2s. I am sure the hon. Member for Mile End (Mr. Scurr) would not suggest that the richer contributing boroughs were in any way trying to escape from their share of the common burden, but they feel that this burden should be levied fairly and should be distributed under a common form of administration, and some form in which they have some choice and control. This Bill puts upon them for another two years a very large expenditure over which they have no sort of voice or control, and with every desire to do what is right and fair, and to help in every possible way the burdens of London, which, indeed, are centralised as regards the Poor Law to the extent of 75 per cent., all they ask for is that they should he treated with fairness and equity and should not be overburdened.


I have been very interested in the speech of the hon. Member who has just sat down. Certainly in no provincial city would it be possible for us to have the two speeches which are likely to be made by him and by me on this question, because unfortunately the whole question in regard to London is the unequal distribution of population from the print of view of social position. The hon. Member who has been talking has been lamenting the fact that he had to pay something like a 2s. rate in order to contribute towards the disability of the East End of London, but when we remember that a penny rate in Westminster will bring in £32,000, while a penny rate in Poplar will only bring in £3,700, we see at once the great advantage Westminster has, and by reason of the fact also on account of its position that it is to the interest of the Westminster Civic Authority to keep it as a. centre of business activity and commercial activity, and not to encourage within it many poor people.

It means, on the other hand, that those poor people who have to be kept for the purpose of the industrial needs of London, live in Poplar and other parts of the East End. When you come to assess the burden of which the hon. Member complains, it is in every sense of the word a. fair burden. In the tentative proposals of the Minister of Health which are at present being discussed in regard to the whole of London, if the London County Council becomes the authority for dealing with public assistance generally, and as a result there is an equalised rate over the whole of London, the hon. Member will find that the burden will be greater on his authority than under the Measure now before us.

Charges of extravagance and maladministration are made. I am a member of an East End board of guardians, and previous to this year I was a member of the Poplar Board of Guardians. I have known of that board's work for a very large number of years, and I do not believe that the Minister of Health can say that his inspectors who have come down time after time, year after year, to look into the administration of the Poplar Board are able in regard to Poor Law relief to find that it is maladministered in any sense of the word. I want to say on behalf of this board and on behalf of neighbouring boards of guardians, that they spend hours and hours investigating case after case. Because the total amount happens to be large, on account of our having a large amount of unemployment in our areas, we are charged with maladministration.

In the East End of London and in the South-East of London we have large dock areas, with the problem of casual labour, which throws upon us a great deal of responsibility which has not to be faced in Kensington or Westminster, and because our expenses have to go up on account of this, the only thing that can be thrown against us is the charge of maladministration. If maladministration exists, it must be a serious reflection upon the officers of the Ministry of Health, who have had facilities for years to examine our books and to look into our methods of administration.

My complaint is that the sum of 9d. is much too low and that the sum ought to be the one suggested by the Parliamentary Secretary, 1s., instead of 9d. I have here a return prepared by one of the unions in London, and a union not under the control of wicked Socialists like myself, but under the control of sound municipal reformers—I refer to the Wandsworth Union. It is a statement of out-relief during the five weeks ending October, 1925, and it gives some idea of the problems which face the various boards of guardians. The total number of days of outdoor relief in the Union of Kensington was 7,805, and in Wandsworth 249,501. Kensington, with its small number of persons receiving relief, is able to administer at 6. 734d., while in Wandsworth, where no charge of mal-administration can be made, because it is a sound Tory majority, the figure is 12.695d. Without quoting the figures for the various unions, I would point out that Poplar does not give the highest amount. Bermondsey gives the highest with 15.64d. The average for the whole of London is 13.003d. When you have that average throughout the whole of the unions of London—14 are under 10d., and 11 over 1s.—I claim that one shilling is a much more proper sum than the 9d. suggested in the Bill.

I rather object to this continuous renewal for two years. The hon. Member spoke of the time of the great crisis which existed in 1921 when this legislation was first introduced. I had something to do with that crisis, and I was present at the conferences at which this arrangement was made. I agree that the contributing areas did recognise their responsibilities to the East End of London, but unfortunately employment has not gone down to any appreciable extent, and we have still to meet this tremendous expense. speaking as the Chairman of an East End board of guardians, the last thing in the world we want to do is to constantly give the public assistance we are compelled to give. We do recognise, every one of us, some of the disadvantages which arise from having to keep people for a considerable time in receipt of public assistance, and I regret to see that apparently there are no proposals for finding work for these people instead of Laving to receive assistance from the Poor Law authorities. We spend hours and hours on the Stepney Board of Guardians in examining case after case, and then re-examining them in order that we may deal properly with the money which has to be distributed. We know the great burden which we shall have to place on our own local ratepayers as the result of this expenditure, and we feel that a greater share ought to be paid by the richer boroughs, which after all enjoy the amenities they do enjoy because the poor are living altogether in East and South-East London.

The reason for these two years is the fact that possibly there is going to be a reform of the Poor Law discussed next year. I submit that this Bill should have been made a permanent Act, and that the figure should be increased to Is. until such time as the Poor Law reform is passed. If the right hon. Gentleman carries through his proposals next year the whole of the country will have to wait for a further year before we can deal with the London problem, because of its complications, and we shall find that we will then have to renew this Act for a year or two in order that the adjustments might be made. I hope in Committee he will allow it to be extended for a period of five years and will increase the 9d. to 1s.


I do not quite agree with my hon. Friend that it is desirable to make this Bill permanent. One of its good features is that it is temporary, because the fact that the Minister will have to come down and get powers to renew these provisions gives the House an opportunity of bringing pressure to bear on the Government to have a real and drastic reform of the Poor Law. I was amused when I heard the Under-Secretary eloquently defending the provisions of this Bill. Only two years ago he stood in the very place where I am standing now and roundly denounced a renewal of the Bill. Now he is the parent of the child he denounced. I have his speech, but I will not weary the House with quotations from a speech made so short a time ago as two years. No doubt the Parliamentary Secretary never anticipated that within two years he would be in charge of the Bill in an official position. But he did take an opportunity then of pressing on the Government the need of having real Poor Law reform.

I am very glad to notice that he is again promising that within a short period we shall see the provisions. I would this Bill to be for one year only, because. in 12 months' time we would again be able to bring pressure on the Government to deal with this problem on sound lines. I agree with the hon. Member for Mile End (Mr. Scurr) that the present situation is most unsatisfactory. The borough which I represent has a board of guardians beyond reproach. Its efficiency has never been questioned. It errs, if anything, on the side of caution. It is not tainted with any extreme views. But the members are finding their work most heart-breaking. The powers that they have are strictly limited. They can deal only in the way of relief.

I have been asking questions during the last two days with reference to the Central Unemployed Body, which was established before the War with the idea of making provision for treating relief on more scientific lines for London as a whole. It was a good idea and a. sound proposition. That body still exists. It has officials and a revenue and headquarters. It is doing some work. But somehow or other the Ministry apparently does not view with great favour its activities, and is making no effort to stimulate it to larger schemes. Every Member, including the hon. Member for Mile End, agrees that nothing is more demoralising than constant relief. If only work could be found, any kind of work, it would be better for the self-respect of the recipients and for the community.

In London the provision of work is almost impossible because the areas are so small. While the Government is trying to hatch out its scheme for a real reform of the Poor Law, I beg them to see whether they could not use the Central Unemployed Body for initiating work and making some attempt to deal with this problem for London as a whole. Something might be done at the Hollesley Bay Colony and in other directions. There is really no central authority for London. The County Council as such is not a Poor Law body. Its powers are extremely restricted. It is quite impossible in London, apart from the provinces, to do anything substantial in order to find work, unless you have some central authority in existence to carry out the schemes. The Central Unemployed Body seems to provide that machinery.

I hope that the Minister will press on with his scheme, and will not be afraid of vested interests, and will not listen too much to existing authorities who may be prepared to follow out on large and broad lines the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Poor Law. They showed that to treat London satisfactorily from the point of view of the Poor Law, it is necessary to treat London as a whole. You cannot divide London into 28 watertight compartments. That has been proved by the financial expedients which this Bill re-enacts. I do not think anyone will consider these expedients to be satisfactory. They go against all sound principles of taxation through representation, and can only be justified as a temporary measure.

Therefore, I press upon the Government that in the next 12 months they should take their courage in both hands and produce a Bill. I for my part am prepared to back them up—[HON. MEMBERS: "And the Liberal party ! "]—yes, and the Liberal party are prepared to back them if the Bill is conceived upon sound, generous lines and without consideration for vested interests. I hope the Government will recognise the principle that the care of the poor of London is the responsibility of London as it whole and that they will see to it that the poor districts are not asked to shoulder the responsibility for the poor, who congregate in a poor area just because of its poverty. If we get those assurances from the Government then we shall let this Bill go through without much criticism or delay.

The remaining Government Orders were read, and postponed.

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