HC Deb 31 March 1927 vol 204 cc1565-74

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Commander Eyres Monsell.]


I should like to draw attention to the administration of the Unemployed Grants Committee. It is a Committee of which I believe a member of the other House is the distinguished chairman and the remainder of the members are civil servants. There is grave discontent in the necessitous areas as to the administration of the grants-in-aid by the Treasury on behalf of productive works which are designed to make work for unemployed men, some of whom for seven years have been standing idle around the coasts of this land in Leith, Middlesbrough, Tyneside, and the Clyde, unable to get work at their ordinary occupation in the heavy industries, especially in shipbuilding and round the docks, because of the niggardly view taken by the Treasury in grants-in-aid to the Unemployed Grants Committee. I should like to ask the Government for some statement whether or no in recent months there has been issued by the Treasury a Circular to the Unemployed Grants Committee that they should go slow with regard to the provision of funds for productive work. Surely the House and the Government will agree that in the best interests of the people as a whole it is wise to help on the provision of productive work and take men off the rates and the parish councils by getting them work to do so that they can retain their power of labour, and even if the Chancellor of the Exchequer finds it more difficult to balance his Budget it is better for industry to pay taxes than to pay heavy additional rates.

There is great discontent as to the administration of this Unemployed Grants Committee. Perhaps the Government will tell us who the members of the Committee are in addition to the noble chairman, and whether or no the Treasury have, in fact, issued a Circular cutting down the funds at the' disposal of the Committee for the provision of productive work. In my constituency there is a proposal to extend the docks, a very necessary work and one of great importance, and I understand intimations have been made to the Government that 5,000 men who have stood idle in the market place since 1920, when the slump in trade came, could be put to productive work, not merely for their own good but for the extension of trade and business, if the grants-in-aid were at the disposal of the Committee from the Treasury. I am sure the House, although it has heard a great deal about the necessitous areas, will have to hear a great deal more in the months to come, because, while there is a movement upwards in trade owing to the development of new industries in the centre, around the coasts there are great discontent and great unemployment. It is just in those districts that you get the red feeling, and the way to get rid of the red feeling is to help productive work and make the men contented and happy. I desire to have an answer from the Government as to the composition of the Committee and as to the Treasury policy with regard to the provision of work, which is' the duty of the Committee in conjunction with local bodies, such as the Commissioners of the Docks at Leith and other ports.


I have a good deal of sympathy with the hon. Member in this matter because my own constituency put up a proposition to the same Grants Committee some two or three years ago and requested that certain grants should be made towards the extension of the docks. We who are interested in the matter were very disappointed that the request was turned down, and we made a careful calculation of the amount that was paid in unemployment pay during the period of time. In two years, the amount that was paid out would have more than covered the amount of grant that was requested. The administration of this Department has not been in the best interests of the nation as a whole because much of the money that has been granted has been given to schemes which have not produced a large amount of work. There have been schemes for work which would not bring in revenue. Consequently much of this money so spent, on work such as road work, sewage work, laying out of parks and recreation grounds did not mean employing a large number of men and did not make any appreciable difference to those on the unemployment pay roll. A scheme to extend and improve docks is of national importance because it is going to provide work not only for the present but for the future. Therefore the money would be spent to far greater advantage than in merely digging a hole and filling it up. My own constituency has had to suffer in a matter of importance. It was not a question of this Government turning it down, because the biggest disappointment I ever had in my life was when I headed a deputation from my own town, before I was a Member of the House, to the Minister of Labour in the Labour Government. [Interruption.] I did expect something from him even after his statement about rabbits out of the hat.

When I left the office I remarked to some of my colleagues who had attended that conference with me, "That gentleman's name ought to be Bernard Shaw, because the reply he gave to us reminded me of the lady in Pygmalion, who said," Not—likely."It is not that this Government are to blame in this matter, but the Governments that have preceded them are to blame. We got nothing from the Labour Government. Therefore, we were very disappointed. I hope that before very long the whole question of these unemployment grants will be taken into consideration. Much money has been wasted. I am not going to blame the Government for having told the Committees to stay their hands, at any rate for the time being. It is better that they should do so until there has been a proper review of the whole situation, and then we can have a scheme brought forward which will mean getting the maxmum amount of employment for the money paid.


I should like to support the appeal which the hon. Member for Leith (Mr. E. Brown) has made asking for something to be done by administrative action on behalf of the unemployed in that area. Leith is one of the districts in Scotland which has suffered most from unemployment, and to our minds it has suffered very largely as a result of the policy of the present Government. Leith depends a great deal upon Baltic trade, and has suffered very much as a result of the reduction of that trade. The question of the extension of the docks is one which has been before the public of Leith for a long time, and the need of that extension is very obvious. It is, undoubtedly, a work that would create a considerable amount of employment and would relieve a state of things which is a matter of great concern to the people of Leith and Edinburgh. If the Government are anxious, as I understand they are, to abolish Communism—[HOST. MEMBERS: "No!"]—well, we are told that they are—the}' could not do anything more effective than to endeavour to reduce the amount of unemployment in such places as Leith. I am convinced that Communists are manufactured out of the bitterness and desperation which comes when men have been out of work for years, as they have been in many cases, and have seen their wives and families suffer as a result. This, as has been pointed out by the hon. Member for Leith, is a work which would not only be useful now but it would be a permanent asset. It would not be money thrown away.

We on this side of the House are often accused of being very keen on the dole and in seeing that it is increased and given to people who do not work. We have never asked for the dole and we do not desire it. What we want is work for our people, and we say that it is a very foolish policy for this country to spend, as I understand it has spent since the Armistice, £380,000,000 on public relief, Poor Law and unemployment relief, nearly all paid as a result of unemployment. That money would have been very much better spent in various administrative schemes which would provide not only employment but would prevent also the demoralisation of the people which is almost inevitable in such circumstances. To me the matter for surprise is not that there has been some cases of demoralisation but that the rank and file of our workpeople have stood the strain of unemployment so well, that their calibre has been practically unaffected, and that we have had a tribute in the Blanes borough Report to the fact that their moral fibre has remained sound, as against what so many people have insinuated has been the case. The unemployed in Leith and other places have been patient and have stood their ordeal well, and it is time that the Government instead of doing less than was being done before should be doing more.

In the years after the Armistice there was a feeling that unemployment was temporary and that nothing drastic need be done to deal with it, but now it is quite obvious that for a long time to come we are going to be faced with a volume of unemployment which will be a serious menace to the country. With all the ability that is in the present Government, with all the ability that is in the Cabinet, with all the brain power which we have been told is possessed by this Government, we should be able to do something more productive, more constructive than the policy of negation which the Government are carrying on. Various suggestions have been made from this side of the House in the direction of a cure or a relief of unemployment and many of them have been very excellent suggestions. I am glad that as a result of our appeals we now have the right hon. Gentleman the Financial Secretary to the Treasury listening to us. On this side of the House we feel that the real villains of the piece in this matter are the Treasury. It is our business, naturally, to attack the heads of the various departments for misdemeanours for which they are responsible, but while we do that we have some sympathy with them because we realise that they are helpless in the grip of the right hon. Gentleman and his chief. Therefore, I am glad of the opportunity of making a personal appeal to him, both in regard to the Leith district and the other districts suffering so much from unemployment.

We suggest that the Unemployment Grants Committee at the instigation or at least with the permission of the Treasury should dispense some of their funds for constructive work, which will not only give a permanent asset, but will relieve a great deal of suffering and demoralisation. It seems to be the policy of the present Government to do nothing to interfere with the present state of things. We cannot understand a Government with so much power and so much talent allowing this to go on. Surely they do not admit that the problem of unemployment is beyond their powers to solve. The present Government seem inclined to do nothing. They are allowing even less to be done than was done two or three years ago. Unemployment is practically as bad as ever it was. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!" "Yes!"] It is almost as bad, and instead of less being done, something more should be done. What we on this side of the House most protest against is the complaisant attitude of the Government and the suggestion that we are going to settle down quietly, with over 1,000,000 unemployed, and do nothing. Sometimes criticisms are made about the bitterness and the extremity of speeches made from this side. The attitude of the Government is entirely responsible for that. If the unemployed and those who speak for them are content to go on quietly month after month and year after year and to make no protest about it, hon. Members opposite will never bother and we shall have this state of things going on permanently. Therefore, it is our business, as representing those most specially affected, to call the attention of the Government to the condition of these people, and to ask that the Government should use the powers which they undoubtedly possess, and permit the granting of funds which can be used for constructive work and to relieve the suffering and privation resulting in the bitterness which exists in the constituency to which the hon. Member specially referred, and to many others which could be spoken of with authority on this side of the House.

The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the TREASURY (Commander Eyres Monsell)

The Eon. Member for Leith (Mr. E. Brown) has been out of the House BO long that he has evidently forgotten one very important observance in this House, and that is, that when these questions are raised on the Adjournment, due warning should be given to the Minister.


Will the hon. and gallant Gentleman forgive me? The Debate suddenly collapsed, and I seized, as I thought, my opportunity to do my duty to my constituents. I regret if it is thought that I have been guilty of any discourtesy, but in the ordinary way I should have given notice. My task, as I understand, is to put the case of my constituency at every chance I got. I took the first chance, and that is my apology.


I am not accusing the hon. Member of any discourtesy, but I only regret he did not give notice so that we could have had the presence of the appropriate Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Womersley) has no such excuse, and I am sorry ho has so far fallen from grace. I am not quite sure what Department is concerned, but I shall endeavour to find out, and I shall convey the remarks of the hon. Member to the appropriate Minister. I may say, in conclusion, that I am only thankful there are not more representatives of unfortunate constituencies present.


I was a little sorry the Financial Secretary to the Treasury entered the House when he did, because, judging from the appearance of the Patronage Secretary, who is always very sympathetic, and who is about the most powerful member of the Government, we were in high hopes that in the absence of the Treasury representatives we might have secured some promise of help. But the appearance of the watchdog of the Treasury seemed to affect the Patronage Secretary, with the result that we have what amounts to a blank negative to the appeals which have been made from this side of the House—appeals even made by the hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Womersley) who told a somewhat fishy story.


It is an absolutely true one.


Fishy stories always are.


All interruptions are thankfully received. The hon. Member for Grimsby, who related some experience which he had when the Labour Government was in office, left the impression on the House, though he did not say so in so many words, that the damping down of the operations of Lord St. Davids Committee was due to the malignant activities or inactivities of the Labour Government. That is a complete inaccuracy.


My point was not about Lord St. Davids Committee, but that we got a very peremptory note from the Minister of Labour when we took a really good scheme to him to provide work for the unemployed.

10.0 p.m.


I should like to hear the comments of the Minister of Labour upon the scheme. I was dealing with the further point made by the hon. Member for Grimsby that it was due to the Labour Government that the beneficent work of Lord St. Davids Committee had been damped down. That is completely inaccurate. Lord St. Davids Committee had its work damped down by the present Government. A Circular was sent out from the Treasury, and for this purpose I am glad to see the right hon. Gentleman the Financial Secretary. It was the Treasury which sent out the instruction to Lord St. Davids Committee limiting their functions. As a result of that instruction, the Committee circularised every public authority in the country—the Circular was given in full in the last published report of Lord St. Davids Committee—asking them to damp down their unemployed relief work. I happen to remember a Debate which took place in this House about a fortnight or so ago, and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour stood at the Treasury Box and justified a policy of cutting dawn the work of Lord St. Davids Committee on the ground of financial cost to the State, but he never answered the points put from this side regarding the exact financial cost to the State. It is true the State expended £40,000,000, since the inception of the work of Lord St. Davids Committee. But the State had saved £32,000,000 on the unemployment dole, leaving a net loss to the State of some £8,000,000. Against that there were public utility works and works of national importance, certified by Lord St. Davids Committee to the value of £104,000,000. Certainly a large proportion was created by moneys subscribed by local authorities, but that £104,000,000 was wealth created in this country for a net expenditure of some £8,000,000, and Lord St. Davids Committee in the last annual report show us that they have been the means of finding work of useful national importance for what amounts to over 600,000 men, fully employed for a period of one year. One of the first acts of this Government was to send an intimation to Lord St. Davids Committee asking them to damp down these relief works. They, in turn, sent out an instruction to the local authorities declaring that only from exceedingly distressed areas were they considering further projects at all.

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present; Rouse counted; and 40 Members not being present—

The House was adjourned, at Seven Minutes after Ten of the Clock, until To-morrow.