HC Deb 05 December 1928 vol 223 cc1351-64

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


Yesterday a Bill was introduced into the House by the hon. Member for Wallsend (Miss Bondfield) which was unique in the history of Parliament in that it was backed by all the unofficial women Members of Parlia- ment. In speaking on the Adjournment to-night, I want to raise a further point. That Bill dealt with the need for the provision of boots for children in necessitous areas, and to-night I desire to draw the attention of the Government to the urgent need for clothing for the children in those areas, and to ask whether it is not possible for the Government to give a Treasury grant in order that this appalling need may be met. It is not, of course, only the milling areas that are concerned, terrible as are conditions there, but in the areas where the basic industries are affected, such as the great iron and steel areas and some of the shipbuilding areas, the distress is almost equally acute.

I want to ask the House to face the position which now exists. We are beginning the seventh winter of abnormal distress, and, really, in regard to this question of the need for clothes, as with the need for boots, the facts cannot be disputed. It is merely a matter of arithmetical calculation. We know that of these 1,250,000 men who are out of work, many are married men with families and are either on the unemployment benefit or else receiving poor relief from the guardians. Neither of these sources of income leaves any margin whatever. They are barely sufficient—in fact they are not sufficient—to provide the necessaries of life. I have received only to-day a letter from one of my constituents in which he informs me that he gets for his wife and family unemployment pay amounting to 28s. per week. Of that sum, 8s. goes for rent, 2s. for arrears, 6s. for coal and gas, and that leaves 12s. to buy food for a family of five. This is the case of a highly-skilled workman, and 12s. in the case of his family will not buy sufficient food, to say nothing of the necessary clothing. The result is that the condition of the children of this unemployed man who have to go to school is very terrible.

It is said that the guardians can give clothes, but in some of these poor areas the guardians are at their wits' end to provide sufficient money for food, and what the guardians can afford to give in the shape of money is barely sufficient to pay the rent and provide food. It has been said that sometimes these poor people can accumulate a little margin over their requirements, but, if a man in receipt of Poor Law relief cashes his relief voucher at the co-operative stores and makes a little dividend upon it, he is unable to use that dividend to buy clothes or boots, because, when he receives that dividend, he is not technically destitute, and the amount of the dividend is deducted from his relief. Under conditions like that there is no possibility of these poor people accumulating any margin to purchase clothes. However careful some of these poor women are, their clothes are often patched and do not keep out the cold Hon. Members should recollect that this is the seventh winter through which these poor people have been suffering in this way. Some of them have been totally unemployed all that time and others have only had irregular employment at wages which are so low that they are little better than the Poor Law relief or unemployment pay. Many of the school children I have seen are clothed in very thin frocks, and I know that many of these poor children wear only a little cotton frock, and there is no possibility of them obtaining warm underclothes. I have received a letter from a teacher in which she says: I have 18 children in my class who have no undies except a cotton chemise. Think what that means. In the mining areas destitution is reaching the limit. I have received a report from a woman in South Wales, and she informs me that in many cases the mothers there have sacrified their own underwear for their children, but even that source of supply is now finished. Just think of these poor children in their thin clothing going to school under weather conditions like those prevailing to-night. Here we are all well fed, but these children are underfed and badly clothed, and consequently they have not the power to resist inclement weather. It is not only the clothing of the children, but it is the most appalling diet. The medical officer of health has pointed out the ravages of rheumatism on the children, and we know the liability of these children to any epidemic disease that is about. I know it very often said that we should leave this to charity, but what has charity been able to do? It has been left to charity. The Lord Mayor of London has issued his appeal for funds, and has done everything that one man can do. His appeal has been backed up by appeals from the most influential people. Sir Charles Batho, speaking at the Mansion House, said that they had received about £120,000, and that merely touched the fringe of the problem. I want to ask the Government another question. I understand that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour, speaking at the Mansion House to-day, said that the Ministry of Labour had accepted contributions from the Fund for the transference of juveniles—

It being Eleven of the Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

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


I was saying that, speaking at the Mansion House to-day, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour said that the Ministry had accepted contributions from the Lord Mayor's fund for the transference of juveniles from the coalfields to other areas. I want to put it to the Minister that a very difficult situation is going to arise, even in regard to charitable funds, if the Government are going to accept part of those charitable funds in order to conduct work under the Industrial Transference Board, which we have assumed would he met out of Government funds. I can think of nothing more likely to stop the flow of charity than the feeling that it is being used for other purposes than that for which it has been subscribed.

Another point with which I want to deal, and which I know is frequently put forward, is that, while the conditions in the mining areas have to be met, the miners brought those conditions upon themselves. [An HON. MEMBER: "Hear, hear!"] I am grateful to the hon. Member who said, "Hear, hear." I thought that, if I said in this House what I have just said, people would say that it was not possible for Members to say, "Hear, hear." I would, however, remind the hon. Gentleman that, whatever his views may be about the miners, the children have no responsibility, and it is the children about whom we are concerned to-night. These thousands of children are faced, throughout this terrible winter, with having to go to school underfed and underclad, and even the children under school age have hardly any clothes at all. The women Members of Parliament are all unanimous in pressing upon the Government the fact that only a Treasury grant is of any use. As the Lord Mayor himself has said, charity can only touch the very fringe of the problem, and even that it can only do in a few selected areas. A Treasury grant is the only possible way of dealing with this matter, and we want to appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to give us the views of his Government to-night. As to the hon. Gentleman below the Gangway, I can only remind him that this is a Christian country, and that it has been said: Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my little ones, ye have done it unto Me.

The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of EDUCATION (Lord Eustace Percy)

I am grateful, and I am sure the whole House is grateful, to the hon. Lady for raising this question. I am sure it will be felt that it is of the utmost importance that the House should speak on this matter with one voice. The hon. Lady has mentioned the meeting at the Mansion House this afternoon. Whatever views we may have in this House as to how much or to what objects the State should give, and as to how much or to what objects voluntary effort should give, we are all agreed that the condition of the distressed areas, and especially of the children in the distressed areas, requires every penny that the public can subscribe voluntarily in any case. Therefore, it is of vital importance that we should try to put before the public a just and balanced view of what the situation actually is, in order that we may stimulate subscriptions to that fund. In a campaign for subscriptions of this kind three things are essential. You must leave public opinion under no misapprehension whatever as to the urgent seriousness of the problem, and nothing I can say in the time at my disposal can possibly exaggerate the extreme seriousness of this problem. The second thing you must do is to convince public opinion that they are doing more than touch the fringe of the problem, and that at any rate, so far as these children are concerned, every pound they subscribe is of real effective service in saving the children, and that they are not merely pouring their money into a bottomless pit which can never be filled up. Thirdly, you have to avoid changing the character or object of your appeal in the middle of your campaign, thereby confusing the public.

Early this year we had a Debate, and I said, dealing with the children in the schools, that the proper division of labour was that the Government and the local authorities should look after the nourishment of these children, and that voluntary effort should be looked to at the moment to provide boots and clothing. The question before us to-night is: Has that policy failed, and, if so, to what extent has it failed? Do we really need to change our appeal? Do we really need at this moment to say that voluntary effort has so far failed to do its part of the job that we must take it over out of State funds? Let us see how this joint effort of the State and the local authorities on the one hand, and voluntary effort on the other, has worked during the last few months, and let me take, as the first instance, South Wales. So far as nutrition is concerned, on that occasion it was pointed out that the difficulty about feeding the school children was that the food given them was deducted from the parents' relief by the guardians. As a solution of that problem we put forward feeding on medical certificate after careful, continuous and steady medical examination of all the children, and on that basis we came to an agreement with the guardians that no deduction should be made. Monmouthshire and Abertillery are still feeding on the old basis, but I think in practically the whole of Glamorgan feeding is now proceeding on the basis of medical certificate.

In Rhondda, for instance, something over 1,000 children are being fed on medical certificate. I sent down a medical officer a few weeks ago to look thoroughly into the question of how far the standard applied was too stringent or whether it was a proper standard. The report that I received was that the work was being thoroughly well done, and that the ground was being covered, but that it was necessary that the medical inspection should be continued. That, I believe, is being done at the present time. I think that on that side we are holding our own. That is to say, my reports are that we are preventing any serious physical deterioration among children on the nutrition side. With regard to the voluntary effort in supplying boots and clothing, on that question I conducted inquiries recently. I had better not quote any figures which were given, I believe, at the Mansion House to-day. I will give the result of my inquiries. My quite recent inquiries in South Wales are to this effect. It must be remembered, in considering this question, that it was only at the beginning of the winter that intensive distribution of boots was really begun, and the distribution of boots by the Cardiff committee is only just now being completed. The information which I get from directors of education and from people in a position to know, shows that, taking the area as a whole, probably 75 per cent. of the need for boots has now been met. The percentage was higher in some areas in South Wales and lower in others. Since then, I have been informed that the Cardiff Committee have ordered 33,000 additional pairs of boots for distribution in January. I think you can say that as regards boots, in South Wales the needs of the school children have been met by voluntary effort up till now. [An HON. MEMBER: "What about Durham"?] I am coming to Durham in a moment if hon. Members will allow me to speak.

I have stated what in my judgment has been done. What needs to be done? Not nearly so much can be said for clothing. It is possible that in South Wales on the average between 25 and 50 per cent. of the need in the schools might have been met. I do not put it higher than that. There is no doubt that the chief and urgent need at the present moment in the schools in South Wales is clothing, to a much greater extent than it was last year. When I went down a year ago, the main need was boots, but to-day the main need is clothing. I am sorry that it has not been sufficiently advertised in the Press and in the country that the committee at Cardiff, like the committee at Newcastle is collecting garments as well as money, and it is very important that that should be very widely known. That is the first main need of the present moment. There is a desperate need in the schools for clothing. Further the distribution of boots which was made at the beginning of this winter will not suffice to last the winter through. In February, or early in March another distribution will be essential. I do not like to put a figure on the amount of money which will be required for the distribution in South Wales, but in any case it will not be a penny less than £30,000 which will be required in new money at that time.

Let me say, in a summary of the South Wales position, that the need has not been fully met by voluntary effort. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough East (Miss Wilkinson) asked me whether I am satisfied. Of course I am not satisfied, but I do say that what has been done in South Wales does show, to my mind, that this problem of boots and clothing for the children in the schools is not beyond the resources of voluntary enterprise at the present time. I would ask the House to consider this point, that this is the most attractive item in the whole of the appeal to public opinion for subscriptions. It is the thing which will make your appeal go far quicker and become more effective than any other appeal that could be made. Moreover, the facility and ease of distribution makes it peculiarly suitable to a private subscription fund. You do not need a great deal of improvised organisation as you do for a great many other forms of relief. You have the whole of your teachers' organisation and you have your other school organisations. You have the children collected in the schools and you can judge their need. Voluntary organisation has little to do except the actual ordering of the boots. There is no phase of this problem more suited for voluntary enterprise or more likely to elicit private generosity than this particular phase.


Can the Noble Lord say what is likely to be the effect of his own appeal for voluntary funds if the people know that the Government is taking part of the amount for industrial transference.


Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that he is dealing with human souls?


Of course he does!


Why does he not show it?


Does the hon. Member for East Middlesbrough realise that the helping of transference by making up the difference between juvenile wages and the cost of living when working away from home was one of the declared objects of the original appeal issued by the Lord Mayor? Let me turn now to the North-East coast. In regard to that district I have not got full information. I shall be in Newcastle next Tuesday, when I hope to look further into the question there. As regards feeding of the kind I have mentioned, that is going on in Northumberland and to a certain extent in some other areas there; but nothing is being done in Durham. I do not want to go into that question. I have conducted investigations into the question of nutrition in Durham. I think it is necessary that a certain amout of feeding should be done in Durham, as I have stated in the House already. The local authority has not seen its way to begin feeding in Durham up to now.

As regards boots, I should say that in Durham they need as much money at the present moment as I have suggested South Wales will need for the remainder of the winter. In Durham they have distributed about 40,000 pairs of boots, but they need at least £25,000 or £30,000 immediately for boots. I do not think, on the information which I have, that the situation has been as yet as fully met in Northumberland and Durham as in South Wales, but again I am perfectly sure that the example of South Wales shows that it can be met by voluntary means, and I should be very sorry in many ways to withdraw from the scope of the Lord Mayor's appeal that particular object of providing boots and clothing for school children, which seems to me to be peculiarly calculated to appeal to public opinion and to be peculiarly within the scope of voluntary enterprise. The great difficulty in appealing for voluntary subscriptions is the danger that people may feel that their money may do a little temporary good but that there is no end to the problem they are asked to meet; that they are only touching the fringe of the problem, and that therefore it is no good subscribing. The provision of boots and clothing for children—I want this to be realised outside—is a business—[An HON. MEMBER: "For the Government!"]—in which every pound subscribed does bring permanent good.


So little.


The account I have given of South Wales shows that it is not so little in the sense that you can cover the ground.


What area?


We are dealing with the area for which the Lord Mayor's appeal was issued, that is, the area of South Wales, Northumberland, and Durham. There are other areas, I am perfectly aware, but those are the areas to which we are dealing at the moment. In these areas, these subscriptions do enable children to pass through the school and out of the school, and get work, either in the area or outside the area, without serious physical harm during their passage through the school. [Interruption.] Every pound subscribed is a solid stepping-stone for saving the child from the harm and danger which it would otherwise suffer.


How many?


That process of saving these children is going on at the present moment in these areas, and the subscriptions are effective for that purpose. My final word is this—


Thank heaven!


Hon. Members opposite feel very strongly, and the public and hon. Members on this side feel very strongly—


Why is the Poor Law restricted? The guardians could give this relief.


The volume of distress in these areas is so great that something more than voluntary assistance is needed. That is a very serious question. It is a very serious possibility. What I have said shows that we are, by the reports of our medical inspectors, carefully keeping in touch with the needs of these localities.


Why cannot the Government give a grant?


Why not give a grant from the Goschen Committee to the Poor Law?


The question of Government assistance in relief of this distress is a question which has to be considered and will be considered, but—


What consideration does it need? It is, surely, a simple proposition.


I suggest that whatever may be the need for Government assistance, whatever views we may hold on that subject, we should not at this moment attempt to separate particular little bits of the problem and say, "That little bit of the problem is something that ought to be dealt with by Government funds the rest shall be left for voluntary funds." You run the risk, if you do that, of taking out of your appeal for voluntary funds precisely those objects that appeal most to the public. [Interruption.] There is no use in treating this problem in water-tight compartments. I do not personally agree that we should take a bit of this problem—


The children are not a "bit."


I say that we should not take a bit of the problem and say that it is a subject for State assistance and the rest is a subject for voluntary effort. I agree with the hon. Lady that the children are not a bit of the problem. They are my responsibility, and I am prepared to bear that responsibility. I have worked to the best of my ability and to the best of my judgment, during the last 12 months especially, to see that the children are preserved from the danger and the risk of physical deterioration. I believe that up to now we have succeeded in that work. It is only by continuous effort on those lines that we shall continue to succeed and. I ask the co-operation of hon. Members opposite.


We have protested continually in this House against the restrictions on out-relief which have been imposed. The reason why children are starving and have no clothes in South Wales, and the reason for the distress in Durham is the restrictions on poor relief which have been carried out by the order of the Minister of Health. Before we superseded the guardians in Chester-le-Street the children there were not barefooted and hungry and cold. Every day the out-relief orders are becoming stricter, and every day the auditors under the Measures of the Minister of Heath are cutting down out-relief, and when the President of the Board of Education comes here and says he is watching the matter, what he is watching is the result of the policy of his colleague the Minister of Health, in district after district including my own district. In my own district two years ago I knew there was no one cold and hungry. Now there are those who are cold and hungry. It is due to the policy of the Minister of Health if these children are going cold and hungry in Durham—

It being half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.