HC Deb 18 November 1926 vol 199 cc2050-5

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. F. C. Thomson.]


This Motion offers a very wide range of discussion, and within it a number of my hon. Friends wish to refer to the action of the Home Office, and particularly the steps taken by the Home Secretary in connection with the suppression of meetings in different parts of the country. But before I say a word by way of introduction on that subject I want to speak for a few moments as the Member for the Platting division of Manchester, and refer to a question which is very seriously disturbing the minds of the local authorities in that city. I need not refer to Manchester as the greatest industrial centre of a great industrial county. That is well known, but it is a county which for long has been exceptionally affected by continued depression in the cotton trade, and that continued and widening depression has prejudicially affected the prosperity of the county and has tended to intensify the conditions of unemployment which, as a consequence have arisen. Some time ago, as I gather, the Minister of Labour reversed the policy with regard to the grants to be made to various towns and cities for relief work in order to lessen unemployment, and this was decided upon without consultation with this House or reference to it. It is a reversal which, as far as I know, has received no Parliamentary sanction. Its effect upon schemes which cities like Manchester might undertake is not only prejudicial but extremely serious indeed. Manchester at this moment, as figures show, has a list of some 34,000 unemployed. That number has not been very materially increased as the result of the prolonged coal stoppage, for even before the coal stoppage began there was an enormous list of unemployed, and I can recall the time a year or two ago when it exceeded some 40,000. We must remember, in a case like Manchester and these areas where there has been depression for a long time, that in addition to a state of absolute unemployment the very wide condition of under-employment and short time, ranging over a period of years in the case of the Lancashire cotton industry, is a matter of common knowledge, and that industry may be classed, I think, as the second greatest industry of the country viewed from the standpoint of the number of people employed, the capital invested and the general range of the industries that are affected.

I understand the Minister of Labour has entered upon this new policy upon the ground that in Manchester the percentage of unemployment is only 8 or perhaps below 8, and that he has fixed what is termed an average level of unemployment. Therefore, a place must be at or about the average level if it is to continue to receive any financial assistance, and Manchester being below that average, or what I understad the average to he, it cannot expect any support of the kind previously received. I should be interested to hear the theory or the principle upon which this new law of averages has been decided. I think it is extremely harmful. You cannot properly judge the intensity of the effects of unemployment in a particular area by applying to it some general principle of averages of that kind. Surely, it ought to be enough for the Ministry to know that, according to official records, at this moment there are 34,000 people described as being wholly unemployed, and probably many more thousands under-employed and suffering conditions of short employment. Surely that condition entitles an active, earnest, willing and enterprising municipal authority to a continuance of the steady support which formerly it has received. Let me close this part of my remarks by reading to the Minister a telegram which I received yesterday from Manchester, which will indicate the state of apprehension of the local authorities in and around that city. The telegram, which was addressed to me by the Town Clerk of Manchester, says: I am requested by conference of Lancashire and Cheshire local authorities held this afternoon to transmit to you the following resolution: 'That, in the opinion of this conference of Lancashire and Cheshire local authorities, it is imperative that works for the relief of unemployment should continue to be provided by local authorities during the present winter, and that such work can only be undertaken with adequate financial assistance from the Government, and that the Government be urged immediately to restore financial assistance on the terms operating prior to the 15th December, 1925.' I will only add the fact that I understand quite a number of undertakings have been prepared, plans have been made and preparations generally designed and fixed for undertakings and for continuing such works, and that it will mean that plans that have been arranged and definite settlements that have been fixed will be completely upset unless adequate financial support is afforded to the City, in order that these undertakings can be carried forward and completed. A few words on the other subject which a number of my hon. Friends intend to bring before the notice of the House. I am certain that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department will admit, in the absence of his chief, that a condition of peace has been uniformly maintained during this prolonged dispute which may be said to be without precedent in any part of the world. I doubt whether in industrial history there has been a dispute affecting so large a number of people and entering, as it were, more or less into the homes of most of us and giving rise to such questions of deep personal interest and discomfort, where there have been so few instances of breach of the law or of illegalities of one kind or another. In spite of this—

The MINISTER of LABOUR (Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland)

It has been suggested to me that the right hon. Gentleman is now entering upon a debate in which a number of his friends wish to take part. I have no wish to do anything other than what the right hon. Gentleman would desire, but if he would like me to reply at once to the point which he has raised in the first part of his speech, so that he can speak again, by leave of the House, after I have replied, I should be perfectly willing to do that. I think the House would be perfectly willing to agree to that course. I make this suggestion because he is raising two distinct subjects, and he might prefer to deal with the second subject without being interrupted by my getting up to reply, and disturbing the thread of debate.


What I have to say on the second subject will not take long, but perhaps it would be better if my right hon. Friend dealt with the first part of the question which I have raised.


I take it that it is the will of the House to agree to that course.


I am ready to reply, and quite briefly, to the subject raised by the right hon. Gentleman. He has referred to the policy of the Government with regard to the Unemployment Grants Committee and the giving of grants for unemployment relief. In the course of his remarks my right hon. Friend said that there has been a reversal of policy, without any Parliamentary sanction having been given, and without the matter having been brought before this House so that the House might have an opportunity of expressing its views upon the change in policy, such as it was. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that he is under a misapprehension on that point. I have in my hand a copy of the OFFICIAL REPORT on the date when I brought this proposed change in policy, quite definitely, before the House, and gave the reasons for it. Therefore, my right hon. Friend may, at least, rest assured that as far as this House is concerned it had full notice beforehand of the change which it was proposed to make, and it had a full opportunity of debate.


What is the date?


26th November, 1925, and the change was brought into effect after that date. In regard to Manchester, the position is this: It has been treated in the same way as other towns and cities in the country with regard to unemployment. In the modification of policy in regard to unemployment grants we were of the opinion, as I stated on the previous occasion, that to give these sums on a large scale would, under the existing circumstances, which, as far as this point is concerned stills holds, tend rather to increase unemployment in the ultimate result than to diminish it. But we were willing to continue grants under somewhat restricted conditions, namely, that where particular circumstances singled out areas for special sympathetic treatment, then these grants would still be entertained. Of course, from that point of view we had to consider what areas needed special sympathetic treatment. There was no rigid law of averages applied, no rigid set of figures. It was perfectly clear that the past history of any area would be an element in the calculations and would have to be taken into account.

By whatever standard it could be applied, it was quite clear that as far as Manchester was concerned—although I should be the last to minimise the hardship of unemployment in any town where it exists—it could be compared not unfavourably with most of the other areas in the United Kingdom. Consequently, our attitude as regards Manchester has been the same as our attitutde towards other places in the same position, and we were obliged to reply, as I did in my letter to the right hon. Gentleman and other Manchester Members at the end of August, that we were unable to modify our attitude there as regards the general question of unemployment grants. I can only assure my right hon. Friend that Manchester has received in this case no exceptional treatment. It does not come in the category of those towns which deserved from their position peculiar sympathy. Perhaps I may mention to him that with regard to one scheme—I am not sure whether that is the only one—which was already under consideration, that in so far as it was under consideration, I understand there is every possibility in regard to that of a further grant being given to Manchester. Therefore, I trust my right hon. Friend's apprehensions are not well-founded, and that there will not be such a dislocation of the schemes that have already been taken in hand. I hope I have made the situation clear. I am not to-night giving again an explanation of the whole modification in policy that was made, but I have tried to make it clear to my right hon. Friend how it was that the decision as regards Manchester was reached, and to assure him that in this respect no injustice has been done to Manchester as compared with any other towns in the country.