HC Deb 24 February 1927 vol 202 cc1955-65

I beg to move, in page 1, line 11, at the end, to insert the words, Provided that, before any such relief as is proposed shall he given, the parish council for the area affected may decide to take a ballot of the ratepayers in such area in order that such ratepayers may decide whether the relief proposed shall or shall not be allowed, and the grant or avoidance of such relief shall he determined by the decision indicated by such ballot. Such ballot shall he conducted by such parish council on the lines appropriate to a parish council election, and the expenses thereof shall be a charge on the rates of the parish affected. I think I am justified in saying that the speeches which we heard on the Second Reading of the Bill in different parts of the House indicated the desirability of an Amendment of this character. It is common ground, and the fact is rather deplored, that this Bill, although, I believe, only a temporary Measure, introduces an entirely new principle in regard to the Poor Law in Scotland, and I hope the Lord Advocate, particularly after his speech when the Bill was previously under discussion, will agree that this is an Amendment which might fairly be accepted. It seeks to restrict as far as possible the operation of this new principle during the period for which the Bill will last. Having before us the possibility of a comparatively early revision of the whole Poor Law, I hope it will be agreed that meantime the operation of a new principle like this should be restricted. There are several reasons for doing so. None know better than the Labour Members the effect of a rise in rates. None appreciate better than they do the fact that a rise in rates is an interference with and a burden upon industry as such. They realise, as we all realise, that increased rates tend to depress industry and increase unemployment. For that reason alone, any principle which has a tendency of that kind ought to be restricted as far as possible. There is no denying the fact—despite the statement of the Lord Advocate that there is going to be a revision of the Poor Law which will render this Bill a temporary Measure—that there is throughout Scotland a serious feeling of discomfiture at the very introduction of this principle. The Amendment gives some assurance to the people of Scotland that the Measure is only tmporary. If the Amendment were accepted, the fears of the people of Scotland would be decreased, because before any extra burden could be put upon the rates, the matter would be decided by the ratepayers themselves. It has long been the cry that we should trust the people. This Amendment simply asks that we should trust the people. In view of the tenor of the speeches from all parts of the House on Tuesday, and in view of the attitude of the Lord Advocate himself in introducing the Bill, I hope I am right in thinking that there will be comparative unanimity in regard to this Amendment and that it will be accepted. I ask the Secretary of State for Scotland to consider, first that this is a new principle, and, secondly, that the Measure is only temporary. He should have consideration for the almost unanimous feeling of suspicion expressed in different parts of the House and the alarm expressed in Scotland, and, with all these facts in view, I ask the right Ion. Gentleman to consider whether this Amendment is not entirely justified and one in which he ought to concur.

The LORD ADVOCATE (Mr. William Watson)

The Government cannot accept this Amendment for at least two reasons, which, I think, will be sufficient to dispose of it. If it be right and proper that this relief should be given in the appropriate circumstances described in the Bill, then I do not think it would be right and proper to leave it to depend on the wishes of the other ratepayers in the locality at the time. It seems to me that it is either right or wrong to give this relief. If it is right, then it ought to be given whatever the other ratepayers may think about it. The second objection is even more insuperable. What is to happen to the unfortunate person who desires relief and is justly entitled to relief while this ballot is being taken? Are we to have two or three weeks' delay—putting it in the most moderate sense—while a ballot is being taken? I do not think the proposal is either workable or just.


I think I am expressing the general feeling of the Committee in saying that I am glad the Government are not going to accept this Amendment—this wonderful expression of opinion on the part of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Kidd). He is asking us to establish in a Bill of this kind the principle of the referendum. I have no objection to the referendum being established on a national basis, but I object to the referendum upon such a purely local basis as this would undoubtedly turn out to be. If you are going to have a referendum of this kind in a particular area, what is going to happen? Glasgow, for example, contains practically two parishes, Goven and Glasgow, and Glasgow would undoubtedly carry the principle of this Bill by an overwhelming majority. But what about Cathcart? You would find there that on a referendum in that parish the principle would be defeated. I feel certain the Mover of the Amendment does not seriously desire to put it before Scotland, or he would not have brought it forward as an Amendment to this Measure. He is making a gesture, and I hope it indicates that he is being gradually converted to the principle of the referendum; that he is starting by applying it to local circumstances, but that soon we will find him wedded to the idea of a national referendum. I hope on that idea he will be able to introduce a better Amendment than the one he has moved to-day.

4.0 p.m.

There is another thing to which I object, and it is that the hon. Member for Linlithgow should take it upon himself to speak in the manner in which he has spoken about the loudly-expressed and widespread feeling in Scotland upon this particular question. I am quite satisfied, from what I know of the industrial towns of Scotland, that they welcome a Measure of this kind, and that there is no real dissatisfaction or apprehension in the matter. The only objection they have is that, in their opinion, the amount that is going to be granted by the Government, according to the Financial Resolution, is not sufficiently large. I am confident that if the hon. Member went through the parishes in his own constituency, and put the question to the representatives of the parish councils there, he would find that they would express themselves very definitely and clearly in favour of the Bill and against his Amendment. I think, therefore, that the hon. Member, having made this gesture, and having made this public statement about having some idea and some favour for a referendum even in a limited form, will withdraw his Amendment and let us get on to the real business.


I was particularly glad to hear the Lord Advocate use the words, that it was a, question of it being either "right or wrong." The fact that these words have been used is sufficient admonition to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Kidd) to follow the right path in regard to the question of local option. This is a moral issue. It has been recognised by the Law Courts and now by the Government, and, since it is a question to be determined on the principle whether it is right or wrong, we hope that the hon. Gentleman will keep to the right path in future and keep off local option.


I cannot but respect the moral admonition of the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Scrymgeour), and, since I put the Amendment down with considerable hopes that it would be received with sympathy on the Labour benches, having brought it forward as the result of strong representations from my own county, and since the Lord Advocate shares their views, I beg to ask leave to withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


I beg to move, in page 1, to leave out from the word "force," in line 15, to the end of line 16, and to insert instead thereof the words "until the thirty-first day of March, nineteen hundred and twenty-seven."

The Government have been accused of undue haste in bringing forward this Bill. So far as that part of it which refers to the grant of a sum of money and to legalising the action of the parish councils is concerned, I do not think that that accusation of hastiness can be properly sustained. The Secretary of State for Scotland has defended himself from that accusation, but there is another reason, to which I would like to allude, why this legislation should be brought forward at once. The people in Scotland at the present time are refusing to pay their rates under the judgment of the Court, therefore, it becomes necessary at the earliest possible moment that we should legalise what has been done and vote the sum of money with which we dealt with yesterday. So far as that matter is concerned, there has in my opinion been no undue haste. But with regard to the other matter which is contained in the Bill, the alteration of the law of Scotland, there is, if we consult the Press, the Resolutions which have been sent to us from various bodies, and the letters which have been written and so on, some justification for the accusation of hastiness.

My Amendment would have the effect of making this Bill apply to the emergency—it is called the Emergency Provisions Bill—and would enable the parish councils to deal with the emergency in the way which, I think, we all approve, while leaving the other matter as before. I propose that the provisions regarding the issue of relief to depen- dants should be legalised, but that those provisions should cease on the 31st March this year. I mention that date, because there may be still pending some cases which are the result of the labour dispute, and it is a convenient date to fix. Apparently, the Government are putting forward these alterations in the law of Scotland temporarily, to last until 1930, because it is assumed that before that date there will be a general overhaul of the Poor Law, both in England and in Scotland, and that the two countries will be brought into line during that time. That is too long a time to leave an important matter of this kind in suspense. I know that there is a great volume of opinion behind me in this matter. A great many people in Scotland do not approve of the alteration in the old law of Scotland. It may be considered more harsh than what prevails in England, but, if the two countries are to he brought into line, would it not he possible to alter the law of England? We in our country are in the habit of saving that in many respects we manage things better than our southern neighbours, and I therefore make this suggestion.

Of course, we have in view what I think must be in the minds of everybody when he comes to think over this matter. What is proposed to be done is really an encouragement of labour disputes. The responsibility for the maintenance of a man's wife and family rests upon the man himself. That is recognised by the law of Scotland. A man can be compelled by law, if he deserts his wife and family, to contribute towards their support, and, if the Inspector of Poor has to give relief to his wife and family, the cost may be charged against him. You are really saying to people who are likely to engage in labour disputes: "Go ahead with your labour dispute, the parish will look after your wife and children while you are out of work." That is a tendency in the wrong direction altogether, and any alteration in the law which we make should be in the opposite direction. I do not think that we can really properly be accused of any harshness or cruelty in this matter. Those sort of taunts are very often thrown across the Floor of the House or are used outside, but members of parish councils, Members of Parliament, and private individuals who have to deal with these matters, and who have expressed opinions about them, are not dealing with their own money; they are dealing with public money. They have the responsibility of dealing with money which has been contributed by other people.


The hon. Baronet seems to me to be going into the question of Poor Law relief as a whole, but the Amendment deals only with the emergency period, and the question whether that period should terminate on the 31st March next or continue as long as the Emergency Provisions Act lasts.


I am sorry; I will not pursue that matter any further. I was merely trying to defend myself in advance from any accusation of want of sympathy with the poor that might be thrown at me for having proposed this Amendment. I have, however, done with that subject, and I have already dealt with the subject of the Amendment which proposes to bring the relief to an end on the 31st March next instead of as proposed in the Bill.


I regret that we cannot accept this Amendment, Consideration for a minute or two, I think will convince my hon. Friend how impracticable it is. I ventured the other day to try and get at the essence of what we are doing, and I certainly regard as an important part of this Bill the principle to be followed in the future. You cannot know how to deal with the gap until you have settled what your policy in the future is going to be, and it seems to be a necessary corollary of dealing with the gap in the way we propose that we must continue the system for some time, at least until we are considering the big question generally of the reform of our Poor Law. I would just like to try and visualise for my hon. Friend's benefit what would happen if his Amendment were given effect to. Assume that we accepted this Amendment and the result was that these provisions, which after all are a corollary of what we did in 1921, and the relief to the dependants who are to be benefited under this Bill, come to an end on 31st March this year, and assume—one does not want readily to assume it—that there is this summer a dispute similar to that which we suffered last year, what will be the position of the parish councils and these dependants? They will be faced with the judgment of Lord Constable of last December, and the result will be that they will not be able to give a penny to any of these dependants. I am not going to talk about starvation or anything of that kind, but I do ask my hon. and gallant Friend to visualise what the position will be. The parish councils' hands will be tied and they will be in the same difficulty. I assume that the same Government will still be in office with the same policy. What are the Government to do? Are they to issue another circular? How can they in face of the Constable judgment? Therefore, it does seem to me that the only practicable way to deal with this matter is to continue the provision unless and until we are considering the general question of the reform of the Poor Law, including the 1921 Act and all its consequences. I suggest to my hon. Friend that he should not press the Amendment, because it would just reproduce once more the very difficulty which we experienced last summer, and which, on his own argument, we are perfectly right in putting right at the present moment. Why should we not put right any possible recurrence of that difficulty within a reasonable period?


In view of what my right hon. Friend has said, I ask leave to withdraw my Amendment.


Before the Amendment be withdrawn, I should like to say that my right hon. Friend the Lord Advocate used some very spacious language in his reply to my hon. Friend, which I think may be capable of misinterpretation. We are dealing in regard to this particular matter with a state of emergency, and the Bill itself is described as making emergency provisions. One of the chief features which has enabled many people on these benches to support the action of the Secretary of State for Scotland and the, Lord Advocate in this matter has been that the Government committed them to a particular course of action during the recent unfortunate stoppage, which had to be cleared up, and it was impossible to allow a more or less insolvent community to meet a bill which had been created by the action of the Government themselves. That, I venture to say to my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench, is the main motive which has obtained for them the support of these benches on this question. And when my right hon. Friend the Lord Advocate begins to talk about the future, he must realise that the majority of us who sit behind are thinking of a narrowly restricted future, and not of the spacious times which he seems to contemplate. Accordingly it is only because we have got an undertaking in the speeches which have been delivered that this whole matter is going to be reviewed, with a proper consideration of all the attendant circumstances before the expiry of this period, that we consent to give our vote for these proposals. I wish it to be made perfectly clear in this House at the present time that, so far as the bulk of the Conservative opinion on these benches is concerned, we are not prepared to say that this is a policy devised for the future which cannot be reviewed or altered. I want to make my own position perfectly clear, that I am committed to nothing but the particularly limited period which the right hon. Gentleman has placed in the Bill.


I am not aware that I suggested that I should not hold myself perfectly free to review the whole of this question of the change operated in 1921 and the change operated now at the end of three years. So far as I know, at any rate, a large body of opinion on all sides of the House is agreed that Section 4, which continues the temporary legislation until 1930, is a sound provision, and, if that is so, accepting that the emergency for which the 1921 Act was passed should be provided fog, by legislation to last till 1930, all that I have suggested and am suggesting is that this Bill, which I regard as a corollary of that legislation, should continue so long as and no longer than the 1921 legislation. If I had not made that clear, it is my fault.


I want to congratulate the Lord Advocate on the way in which he has handled this matter. The Government proposal is that this should extend so long as the 1921 Act is in force, and I want to remind the right hon. Member for Hillhead (Sir R. Horne) that I fancy he was a Member of the Govern- ment that created this impasse in 1921. For the first time in the history of Scotland, the Government of that day put able-bodied men on to the poor rate, and long after they are dead and forgotten the people of Scotland will continue to have very unkindly thoughts of that particular action. When, therefore, we get the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillhead rising in his place here to abuse the Lord Advocate for trying to clear up the mess which he helped to make, we are astonished.


I too am surprised at the action of the right hon. Member for Hillhead (Sir R. Horne), and I should be very sorry if one of the remarks that he made exactly represented the position when he said he was voicing the views of members of the Conservative party in making the declaration that he will not bind himself for the future. None of us can do that. None of us knows what the future will bring forth, but all of us know what the past has done, and what my right hon. Friend is evidently willing to bind himself to is the continuation of a system that is abhorrent to anybody who has any belief in the progress of civilisation at all. Nobody, I am sure, knows better than the right hon. Member for Hillhead that the Scotland of 1845 does not now exist and that we have to deal with circumstances entirely different from those which faced our grandfathers at that particular period. I have not lad the opportunity of saying much that is kindly about the Government on this matter, because I do not believe the Bill is sufficient, but I am bound to say that I associate myself with my hon. Friend the Member for Bothwell (Mr. Sullivan) in congratulating the Lord Advocate, who, I think, better represents the point of view of real Conservative opinion in this House in the remarks that he has made on this matter than the right hon. Member for Hillhead. If there was any argument used of a spacious character, it certainly came from my colleague the hon. Member who represents another division of the county of Lanark, for I could read much into it. We can always be suspicious of him, and I could see more in that proposal of his than perhaps some other people have any idea that we would see in it, but I do not want to go into that further now, since he has agreed to withdraw his Amendment, and I want to congratulate the Government on the stand they have taken, and particularly the Lord Advocate on the sentiments that he has expressed with regard to the matter now under discussion.

Amendment negatived.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.