HC Deb 19 April 1928 vol 216 cc437-46

I beg to move, to leave out the Clause.

I should like, with your permission, Mr. Speaker, to read part of this Clause, so that the House may understand exactly what it means. The Clause lays down that: .—(1) The board of guardians of every Poor Law union in London shall, not later—

  1. (a) in the case of the half year commencing on the first day of April, nineteen hundred and twenty-eight, than twenty-one days after the passing of this Act;
  2. (b) in the case of any subsequent half year, than four weeks before the commencement of the half year;
submit to the Metropolitan Asylums Board estimates in such form as the Minister of Health may prescribe of the expenditure which they propose to incur during that half year for the several purposes in respect of which repayments are to be made out of the metropolitan common poor fund and of the amount so repayable, and may at any time during any half-year submit to them supplementary estimates. (2) Upon examination of any such estimates submitted by a board of guardians under this Section, and after consideration of any representations made to them on behalf of any board of guardians of a Poor Law union in London, the Metropolitan Asylums Board shall approve the estimates of the amounts repayable out of the metropolitan common poor fund either as submitted or subject to such reduction (if any) in respect of any specified purpose as the Metropolitan Asylums Board may think fit to make, and shall furnish the district auditor with a copy of the estimates as approved. That is all that I need read, because it is the operative part of the Clause. I should like to call the attention of the House to the fact that this is a Bill to carry on an emergency Measure which was passed for the purpose of rectifying what I think everyone connected with local government in London considered to be a great grievance, a grievance against which the poorer districts of London had protested for many years, and with which they had endeavoured to get this House to deal. The House took action after a number of councillors and others were sent to prison for not paying certain dues to the central authority, and the arrangements that were then made between the richer unions and the poorer unions was that a fund should be instituted into which all the unions concerned should pay, but from which the poorer unions would, of course, draw much more than they paid in. As each succeeding year has passed, there have been complaints from the richer unions that more permament arrangements were not brought forward, and successive Ministers of Health have promised time after time, with regard to each renewal of the Bill, that it should be the last, and that there should be a complete reform of the Poor Law, when all these anomalies and difficulties would be dealt with.

The present Ministry has taken a course this year which I think is quite unprecedented in the history of the relationships which have existed between the central government and the local autho- rities. The Minister of Health has allowed himself to be consulted, both by the paying-in unions and by those that draw out of the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund, on the question of the rate per day for maintenance that should be paid from the Fund; but, although these representatives of those two sections of the Poor Law unions in London have met him, he has never had the courtesy to adopt the usual method of consulting with them on the proposition that he brought before this House, like, as it were, a bolt from the blue, as a measure for controlling expenditure. I think I can say quite truthfully that, until the right hon. Gentleman produced his Bill, no single board of guardians, no association of Poor Law unions, either in the Metropolis or in the country, had been consulted on the subject.

7.0 p.m.

He brought this forward, and he and the Parliamentary Secretary defended it on Second Reading on the ground that it was the only course open to them to restrain certain boards of guardians with whose policy and administration they profoundly disagreed. The Parliamentary Secretary said, at the conclusion of the last Debate, that there was nothing to reply to. I would ask him to reply to this proposition. I say that there is no need to set up this new machinery of control contained in Clause 2. The Minister at the present moment has the power, through his inspectors and the auditor, to deal with extravagance, bad administration, or anything else a board of guardians may do which is illegal. This Common Poor Fund is not a new thing: it has only been extended. That fund was under the control of Sir Hugh Owen until his death and, I believe, at the present time it is under the control of one of the principal officers of the Ministry. From that office there has always been a certain amount of control as to what could or could not be charged upon the funds.

From the point of view of control, there is no necessity for setting up any new body like this, because the Minister has already that control in his office. He may say that the business has got so large and the variety of interests and cases to be dealt with so numerous that one man can no longer, as in the past, attend to it and attend to other duties as well. There is no reason why he should not have added to the staff already at the Ministry. If he says that he cannot deal with the large number of individual cases with which the auditors and inspectors are now dealing and of which we read in the White Papers, then I say that this new body will not be able to do it either. It will only be able to carry out the control of expenditure in the same way as Sir Hugh Owen did. No one will argue that the Metropolitan Asylum Board or a committee of that body are going to be able to deal with individual cases or decide whether or not a ward or institution shall be equipped in a certain way. They will only be able to take the demand for expenditure made on the fund and say that they think it is too much. They can only deal with things in the bulk. Why, then, was there any necessity to set up this new machinery and to put it under the control of that Board? Had the Ministry not already got the machinery of control that has been used for a very considerable periods? In opposing the Metropolitan Asylum Board, we find ourselves, for once in our lives, supported by those entitled to speak for the Poor Law unions, both of London and the country. Not a single voice has been raised among the Poor Law unions on behalf of this proposition that the Minister is forcing through the House. It has been opposed everywhere by all those who have had experience of the Poor Law. The Minister of Health has treated us in London with no courtesy at all in this matter. It may be that we in Poplar do not deserve any courtesy at his hands, but I should have imagined that the City of London and the City of Westminster and the rest of the bigger London unions had the right to ask that they should be consulted before they were placed under the heel of a non-elected body.

In order to strengthen my case, I will read a document issued by the Association of Poor Law Unions. This is not a Bolshevist, Labour, or a Socialist organisation, but an organisation which is almost the most Conservative organisation in the country. It is presided over by the chairman of the Fulham Board, which is notoriously anti everything that I am pro. It is a board which the Minister considers as one of the best, because it relieves the poor by giving them nothing. Even this body, Tory as it is, sent out this letter, which is dated 26th March: Local Authorities (Emergency Provisions Bill). I am directed to inform you that at a meeting of the Metropolitan Committee of this Association"— —so the Minister will not be able to say that it is men from other parts of the country who have carried these resolutions— on Friday, 23rd instant, consideration was given to the proposals contained in Clause 2 of the above Bill, when the following resolutions were passed: That this Committee views with great concern the proposals of Clause 2 of the Local Authorities (Emergency Provisions) Bill now before Parliament, whereby the estimates of the expenditure of the individual boards of guardians in the Metropolis are to be submitted to the Metropolitan Asylum Board for approval or otherwise, as such Board may think fit. The Committee is of opinion that any power given in regard to the review of the estimates of the boards of guardians should remain in the hands of the Minister.' Speaking personally, much as I detest the policy of the right hon. Gentleman, I would very much rather trust the estimates to himself and the gentlemen controlling the Common Poor Fund than to the Metropolitan Asylum Board. They say extremes meet occasionally, and on this occasion I am with the gentlemen who passed this resolution: 'That, having regard to the functions in respect of which the Metropolitan Asylum Board has been constituted by Parliament, this Committee is of opinion that such Board is not a suitable body to review the estimates of boards of guardians or to which such estimates should be submitted for the purpose of Clause 2 of the Bill.' I do not think you can get a stronger expression of opinion than that. 'This Committee is of opinion that the exercise of the powers proposed by the Bill should be entrusted to a Standing Joint Committee consisting of one representative elected for each board of guardians, an independent chairman and vice-chairman, four nominated members, of whom two should he officials experienced in the operations of the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund, and that any board of guardians should have a right of appeal against the findings of such Standing Joint Committee.' This proves conclusively my statement that the right hon. Gentleman treated London quite contemptuously by not consulting them about this fundamental change before bringing it forward. The letter continues: I respectfully add that, contrary to the usual practice of the Minister with reference to proposals for legislation affecting Poor Law administration, there has been no consultation with this Association, which comprises over 600 boards in England and Wales, and includes all the London boards of guardians. That fact alone should have impelled the House to refuse a Second Reading to this Bill, because however much you may think boards of guardians should be abolished, they are still legally constituted authorities, and have as much right to be consulted before legislation of this kind is put through as have other local authorities where their interest may be threatened.

What sort of body is the Metropolitan Asylum Board? It is a body that is constituted in the main to deal with public health. It is true it deals in a small way with sick children. It is also true that for the last ten years or so it has dealt with the casuals, but in the main it was established to deal with fever hospitals and so on. The men and women on that Board are nominated and elected by various boards of guardians throughout London, but they are not elected on any regular plan. Some boards have more members than others, and some have a higher rateable value than others and less representation, but they are a body of men and women who are selected by the boards of guardians up to a certain number, and there are added to these a number of men and women nominees of the Minister. It may very well be that on occasions the people who will have the casting vote as to whether a board of guardians is to have so much or so little money out of the fund will be those nominated by the Minister.

The assumption of the Minister in calling upon this body to do this work is that they have some special aptitude for it. I have nothing to say against the individual members of the Metropolitan Asylum Board, but I am not aware, nor do I think any other London Member is aware, of any particular piece of work that that Board has done that should give it any claim to be considered as superior to the ordinary hoards of guardians in the Metropolis. I tried very hard some years ago to relieve boards of guardians of any sort of connection or arrangements with contractors. I could not get that carried for all boards of guardians, but in Poplar I—and when I say "I" I mean a few of us banded together—persuaded our boards to do away with local contracting and to take practically all our goods from the Metropolitan Asylum Board stores. We have had to give that up, because we found, not anything corrupt—I do not want to be considered in any way as suggesting or thinking that—but that their contractors were no better than any other contractors and that we were continually in as much difficulty and trouble as we formerly were when we were contracting ourselves.

Before we gave up, I tried to get some different arrangement made. No one can say I am a friend of the majority that governs the London County Council, but I am certain that if we could have had an arrangement by which we drew our stores from the stores of the London County Council, we would not have had the difficulties that confronted us again and again in reference to the Metropolitan Asylum Board. It is not an up-to-date Board. It is not a Board that anyone would describe as progressive in any way; it is not even progressive in the sense that the Young Men's Christian Association are considered progressive on the other side; it is not even progressive Toryism. Therefore why the right hon. Gentleman, in looking round to find some authority to put us under chose this particular Board passes my comprehension, except for this reason, possibly. One of the late inspectors of the Ministry, and certain of the people who gave evidence before the Royal Commission, were very much obsessed with the idea that you ought to remove Poor Law relief and its administration as far as possible away from the elected people and put the control in the hands of people who were far removed from public pressure, the pressure of the people who needed relief.

I can understand that proposition, though I should fight it probably, but I think that if this House of Commons is going to adopt such a policy as that, it ought not to adopt it by this kind of side issue, but it ought to be done for the whole of the country and not for London alone. But even so, I have discussed this matter with a late inspector several times, and I have always maintained, and I maintain now, that the Metropolitan Asylum Board is of all bodies the worst that could be suggested, first of all, because of its personnel. The people forming it are far removed from the Boards with whom they are going to deal, because as a rule the men and women who are sent there are people who do not take much interest in the rest of the work, and, therefore, I consider that it is altogether the worst kind of body that could be put forward for this purpose.

Sub-section (2) of Clause 2 states: Upon examination of any such estimates submitted by a board of guardians under this Section, and after consideration of any representations made to them on behalf of any board of guardians of a Poor Law union in London, the Metropolitan Asylum Board shall approve the estimates of the amounts repayable out of the metropolitan common poor fund either as submitted or subject to such reduction (if any) in respect of any specified purpose. … I want the House to consider that this body will be able now to determine not merely the amount of relief. So often in this House, when we are discussing questions of Poor Law, Members get their minds filled with only one side of Poor Law administration, but I would like to point out that the Metropolitan Asylum Board will be able to determine the number of officers whose salaries shall be charged to this Fund and will be able to determine, because of that power, the number of officers and the remuneration that a board of guardians may pay. I know the right hon. Gentleman and his Parliamentary, Secretary will get up and say, "But the hoards of guardians Can employ extra officers if they like." Yes, but those boards that are poor and have to look after their expenditure very closely do not want to be put into that position. This Fund was set up in order that the salaries of the necessary officers should come out of it, and under this proposition the Metropolitan Asylum Board will be put in the position of saying how many relieving officers, how many labour masters, and how many nurses there shall be, and what hours they shall work, and the general administration of the boards will be at the mercy of the Metropolitan Asylum Board.

It will be no use standing up and saying that there is nothing in this Clause which says that. There is not, but this Clause does say definitely that the Metropolitan Asylum Board may reject certain items of the expenditure that is put before it, or may reduce it, and, as I say, by so doing, it will be able to force boards of guardians to administer their institutions in whatever way the Metropolitan Asylum Board may determine. We all represent districts where there are boards of guardians, but there are also Members here who represent districts where there are town councils, urban councils, borough councils, city councils, and so on, and I want to ask any of them whether they think that the great City of Manchester, for instance, would allow itself to be treated in this fashion.

I might ask the right hon. Gentleman whether, taking his union of Birmingham, which spends relatively speaking, a large sum of money on Poor Law relief and whose income, I understand, is derived from the whole of the. City of Birmingham, he would dare to put any authority like this over that board of guardians in Birmingham. When I challenged him about this he said, "But they have not got a common fund like you have in London." I am tired of saying, as I have said it over and over again, that we do not want to spend your money without any control, but we object altogether to being given the responsibility to administer and then having somebody on top of us controlling the money that is necessary to carry on our expenditure. If you wanted to do anything of this sort at all, you ought to have adopted the proposition that was put before you by the Association of Poor Law Unions and taken the question entirely out of our hands as localities.

I will close by saying that the right hon. Gentleman has brought in this Bill for no reason that I can see except to try and curtail the activities of boards of guardians with whose policy he happens to disagree. I also want to say that his other object, so far as I can see,, is to have a run to see whether it would be possible to administer London in this way, and if it becomes at all tolerable, I do not think this House will hear much more about his big scheme of Poor Law reform. I believe that this is a trial run in London to see how it works, but there are a few of us who, under great difficulties, will do our level best to see that it does not have the run that the right hon. Gentleman and his friends are probably hoping it will have.


I beg to second the Amendment.

I think that probably Members of this House who are not representative of London constituencies must very often wonder how it is that there always seems to be something in regard to London questions which is very different from the administration and government of our great provincial cities. One of the great evils from which we suffer in London is a multiplicity of authorities, authorities which are constantly overlapping in their duties, and we are also suffering from having, in the administrative county of London, which is the same area as that over which the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund is collected, a number of cities which very largely have to bear their own burdens and are cities with very different social conditions.

It being Half-past Seven of the Clock, and there being Private Business set clown by direction of the CHAIRMAN OF WAYS AND MEANS under Standing Order No. 8, further Proceeding was postponed, without Question put.