HC Deb 03 December 1928 vol 223 cc977-86

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


I am sorry to detain the House, but I think the subject I wish to raise is one which really ought not to need an apology at all. I put a question to the Prime Minister to-day which I had hoped he would answer in a direct manner. The question I asked was whether he would not appoint a Committee of this House to consider whether it is not possible to devise some means of bringing more generous assistance to the unemployed of the country. I was not more concerned with the mining areas than with other parts of the country. I was concerned with the fact that there are 1,300,000 men and women out of employment, and a considerable number of others who are not registered in the ordinary way. I would like to point out that under the present Government's administration there has been a considerable tightening up of all the measures previously taken for the relief of the unemployed. First of all, there was the cutting down of the grants for public works and assistance to local authorities to put works into operation. There was also the cutting down of the work connected with the making of new roads which had been carried on, and which we understood would continue to be carried on. All that work has been restricted and in some cases actually cut down. Then the unemployment benefit, uncovenanted benefit, and the benefit men had obtained before 1924 have been very rigorously cut down. Finally, Poor Law relief for able-bodied men has also been severely restricted. The Minister, in his answer to-day, said that it was perfectly true that the Ministry had decided that relief under the Relief Regulations Order was not to be administered in the future in the mariner in which it had been administered in the past and that only in certain areas—I would like to know which particular areas—would he allow relief to be given under sudden and urgent necessity, which is the particular article which has allowed a very considerable number of unemployed men to get outdoor relief up to within a couple of years ago.

The figures given show that in one year there has been a reduction of about 7,000 able-bodied men who have been struck off relief for one reason or another, and in the provinces probably from 2,000 to 3,000 men. If you take the year 1924 and compare it with 1928, the figures would be much larger, because the statistics issued by the Ministry of Health shows that that is so. It may be a matter of congratulation to the right hon. Gentleman that he has cut down the numbers in receipt of relief, but that is no criterion of the state of industry, and it does not prove that the men have any employment at all. The proof of that lies in the fact that the Prime Minister, the Lord Mayor of London, and other distinguished people have been obliged to send out charitable appeals in order to make provision for the necessaries of life for those who have been pushed off Poor Law relief and unemployment benefit. That fact proves that the Minister of Health has not dealt with the problem, but has just pushed it on one side. I say that the right hon. Gentleman has increased destitution in this country by his policy, and he has done nothing to deal with the very terrible problem of unemployment and the pauperism arising from unemployment.

The fact that the right hon. Gentleman has compelled young people to maintain able-bodied fathers and mothers and their younger brothers and sisters, or bas compelled aged people to keep able-bodied sons and daughters, and in some cases has compelled even war pensioners, because of the family income rule, to be responsible for the maintenance of able-bodied men-all that has not proved anything except that he has just shifted the burden from the community on to the shoulders of individuals. Legislation is being passed in order to deal with the injustice of making a small community bear what it is considered that a larger community should bear. Surely, it is equally wrong to make a family, or individuals of a family, bear what ought to be a national responsibility. Therefore, to-day, I put a question to the Prime Minister as to whether, seeing that the Government's policy has failed in this matter, the time has not come when this House itself should appoint a Committee to inquire whether it is not possible to alleviate the terrible suffering and misery that is going on to-day.

I tried at Question Time to point out, and I point out again now, that during a very much smaller industrial crisis in this country, a crisis which arose owing to the American Civil War and which brought about a cotton famine, the Government did take in hand the difficulties arising from that very critical condition of affairs for Lancashire, and did put in hand works of public utility. They did something more, as a letter in the "Manchester Guardian" last Saturday pointed out; they recognised the terrible evils of either giving people something for nothing, or allowing them to starve, or bringing down the standard of life of the family. The Government recognised that, although it was not possible to put everyone to work, it was possible to put some people to training, and keep them in training and keep them in decent condition until the war in America should end and the cotton famine should be overcome.

We on these benches are always accused of taking party advantage of this business, and it is forgotten that in this House on two occasions, speaking for the party, my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee (Mr. Johnston) has asked for the appointment of a Committee representative of all parties to hammer our schemes for dealing with the situation. I have made that request again to-day, and, if the Prime Minister were here, I would ask him whether he does not think, seeing that there are 1,300,000 people out of work, many of whom are told by the Employment Exchanges that there never will be a chance of their getting work, that insurable employment will never be available for them, that suitable employment would never be available for them—I would ask whether it is not right that the House of Commons itself should appoint a Committee to consider the matter.

There is just one other suggestion that I want to make to the Prime Minister. We very often go down into Westminster Hall to meetings of the Empire Parliamentary Association, and we discuss there at great length questions of migration and emigration. From the beginning of my public life, I have always maintained that the unemployed should be dealt with by the community, that they should be dealt with in a variety of ways, and that men and women who desire to migrate to the Dominions should be allowed to do so, but that they should get the necessary training here to fit them for it, and that there should be jobs for them when they get to the other side. I cannot understand why we could not have an all-party Committee of the Empire Parliamentary Association hammering out this problem, rather than leaving it in the air as it has been left for all these months. Others are sent here for one reason and another, but I am sent here mainly to deal with this question. It is the one question that affects all my constituents and the one question which has been with them all the 60 years I have lived among them. Because that is so, and because the policy of the Government does nothing to mitigate it, but makes the evil worse than it was before, I would plead with the Prime Minister, if he were here, to let us have this Committee to see if it is not possible to do something.


I desire to support my hon. Friend's plea. I think the time has arrived when the Government ought to come to grips with the terrible destitution existing all over the country. The figures have often been repeated, but I do not think we can realise what 1,300,000 unemployed mean and the poverty, destitution, misery, discouragement and absolute dismay of our people. The Government must make up their minds not only to inquire into this, but to co-ordinate and correlate some of the schemes that are now being talked about. Transference, migration and alternative employment should be dealt with by a Committee which can make recommendations and summarise the points of the investigation and bring schemes that can operate with the least possible loss of time. I am indeed disturbed, living in Wales, to find that week follows week, and month follows month, and the conditions are not improved but rather worsened, and that as time passes more people feel the pinch of hunger, more and more people are breaking their hearts, and are tired of looking for any relief from the Government or from those who are in a position to help.

We are faced with very good intentions. There are grand schemes of help. One town adopts another, and there is the Lord Mayor's fund in London, showing that there is a deep, broad fund of charity that can be used if properly organised, but they are not likely to do very much because an indiscriminate, disordered way of passing on old clothes and boots and that kind of thing does not really get down to the problem. I am convinced that with an equal measure of charity and more wisdom, and more direct, intimate, knowledge of the task, much useful work could be done in a very short time, if a committee or some body were responsible for directing the flow of charity. I was speaking at a town in the South of England last weekend, and I found a man who had come from South Wales. He convinced me that he had been there, by repeating a few Welsh words which he had picked up. I found that he was a native of this town and had been in Wales for a time, married a Welsh girl and had a family. He had gone back to his native place and obtained employment at 34s. or 35s. a week, of which he sent 20s. to his wife and children at Bargoed. He wanted assistance to bring his family from Wales. A lot of effective work could be done, not in the transference of wage-earners, but of their families while the men are away seeking work and preparing a new home. Something should he done immediately, nonparty if you will. This is much bigger than party. If any man allows party to stand in the way of doing the most he can for the people in my part of the country he must be a very narrow party man and a very small citizen. I suggest that the appeal which has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury) be given most sympathetic consideration and treatment by the Government. Everybody ought to be glad to try to do something to relieve the greater part of the admitted distress of our people to-day.


May I add my word of appeal to the Minister along the lines of that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lane-bury)? The point I want to put to the Minister is this: The time for relying upon private charity is really gone. The problem is much too big for private charity to cope with. We are all very grateful, of course we naturally ought to be, for all the charitable efforts that have been made on behalf of our people up and down the country. After all, let us face the facts. The total sum that has come from the general appeal of the Lord Mayors of London, Newcastle and Cardiff is round about £120,000. That is inadequate to meet a huge problem like the present one. Clearly we cannot rely upon that. Everyone admits that the problem is a very terrible one. Independent investigators have been sent down to South Wales by the leading papers of London—Tory, Liberal and Labour. All these investigators agree that the problem is challenging in its immensity. I cannot help remembering that many of these people belong to my own family, and seeing these people, with whom I have been brought up, whom I have been taught to respect, and whom I know to be honest, industrious people, in the slough of despond through no fault of their own, I must appeal to the Minister to do something, on non-party lines or on any lines, to bring some relief to them.

The MINISTER of HEALTH (Mr. Chamberlain)

I always listen to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Morgan Jones), who has just spoken on this subject, with respect and with pleasure, because I recognise that in what he says he is actuated by motives of the purest sincerity, and the same thing applies entirely to the other hon. Gentlemen who appealed for the treatment of this subject on non-party lines. It is far too big and too serious to be made the subject of party controversies. I regard the situation in the mining areas as, in its way, the most serious position that has happened in this country since I have had anything to do with politics. It is an extraordinarily difficult question. It is not the same problem as unemployment in general. It is different almost in kind as well as in degree, because with the ordinary kind of unemployment one can fairly consider that the cause is a temporary one, and that the People who are out of work will in due course, when a particular trade improves, find work. But with this particular problem we are up against the very strong probability, almost the certainty, that there will not be, in the lifetime of many of these men, work for them again in the mines.

The Government as the House knows, many months ago appointed a commission to investigate the circumstances; it was known as the Industrial Transference Board. They suggested that the real solution of the difficulty was to get people away from the areas where there was nothing for them to do and to get them into some other areas, either in this country or abroad, where there was a better chance for them; hut they recognised what enormous difficulties there were in carrying that policy into effect, and in carrying it into effect in quick time. All the experience we have had since in endeavouring to carry out the various recommendations made by the industrial Transference Board have only confirmed their own views as to, The difficulties of the situation. Hon. Members have appealed for the setting up of a new committee, that is, a Committee of this House. I will inform my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister of the views that have been put forward, but I must say now that I doubt whether a Committee of this House is really going to be a useful body in this connection. What can they do? They could investigate, but, after all, it must be the Government who have to find the remedy for a case of this kind.


They could recommend to the Government.


They could recommend to the Government. We can easily get recommendations. I will bring the suggestion to the notice of the Prime Minister, but I do think the Government, who have to bear the responsibility, and cannot escape it, must be left to find what remedy they can. I do not think that the resources of civilisation are exhausted yet. I was rather sorry to hear the hon. Member for Caerphilly say that the resources of charitable appeals had been completely exhausted by now.


I did not say that.


I agree with the hon. Member that what has been produced already is totally inadequate, but the public has not yet realised what the situation is. It is, perhaps, beginning to wake up to it now. As the hon. Member says, various investigations have been made, and I do think that the public are beginning to realise more than they did that these are devastated areas, and that we owe them all, and more than all, that we owed to the people of France, who were so generously treated by many towns in this country. Therefore, I do not at all despair yet of seeing still further and much greater efforts made in that direction. I also agree with the hen. Member for Gower (Mr. D. Grenfell) that a coordinating agency is necessary, and that there is a danger of the efforts being dissipated. So many people are making appeals which have not very much to do with one another—already one town has adopted a village—without proper coordination in order to see not only that everybody gets something, but that one person does not get twice his share.

I am in a very difficult position. I have to try to steer a steady course between what would end in financial disaster to the localities on the one hand, and a course which, on the other hand, would allow such an accumulated process of under-nourishment and mental exhaustion to take place as to inflict per- manent injury on the community. I am trying my best to see where the rocks are and to steer a course between them, and I mention now that, without waiting for this question to be raised, I sent my chief inspector about a fortnight ago into the South Wales area, accompanied by a competent medical man, to make a thorough investigation on the spot, not merely to ask officials what was going on but to go himself into the homes of the people. He is being assisted by some of those who have taken a special interest in this matter on the spot, and I hope before long that I shall have a report from him which will show me more accurately and more completely than anything hitherto I have been able to get, the situation in that area. When I get that report I shall have to take very serious thought as to what may arise out of it. I am not in a position to say more than that to-night. I thought I should let the House know that I was trying to make the best efforts I could to find out the true position of the matter.

It being half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, with out Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.