HC Deb 11 December 1928 vol 223 cc2082-8

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


I make no apology for raising the question of the treatment of some tens of thousands of unemployed men who are forced, through circumstances over which they have no control, to seek the shelter of the casual wards. To raise the question adequately in the time remaining at my disposal is almost an impossible task. The subject was emphasized by a question put by my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham North (Miss Lawrence) yesterday, in reference to the casual ward at Isleworth. I can assure the House that the state of affairs then described exists in probably half the casual wards of the country, owing in great measure to the great volume of unemployment, but also owing to the policy of the Ministry of Health in closing so many casual wards and thus decreasing the accommodation. If hon. Members could visualise that, to-night, there will be some tens of thousands of human beings sleeping on concrete, with no other protection than a very thin nightshirt and two or three blankets, they would appreciate why we consider this question so urgent. I shall refer briefly to some of the most pressing points and I propose to do so by way of quotation, but I shall only quote circumstances of which I myself or friends of mine have personal experience and for which we can vouch. The first quotation is from a report by one of the Minister's own inspectors, and it will perhaps bring home to the House the urgency of this matter. I do not propose to mention names in all the circumstances I am about to recount, but I am prepared to provide the names if the. Minister wishes. This is with regard to a casual ward in the South, in which one of the Ministry's inspectors said he found the conditions, in several respects, unsatisfactory. The report states: The hammocks were either too short, without any ropes for proper attachment, or too long, for, in a few cases, where ropes were provided, the hammocks touched the; floor. The consequence was that they were never used for their proper purpose, and the men slept on the floor, which is against the regulations unless mattresses are provided. The rigour of these conditions was enhanced in one of the wards where there was no form of heat whatsoever and the men slept on the boards in the cold. I shall illustrate the low standard of treatment which prevails in some places by remarking that a debate took place in a board of guardians in the North of England a few days ago on the question of whether they should give the casuals hot or cold water for their midday meal. No words of mine could better express the seriousness of this matter than the fact that a board of guardians thought it necessary to discuss such a question. May I express my appreciation of the activity which the inspector has recently shown, as evidenced by a report concerning a casual ward in Cheshire in which the master was instructed to allow the casuals to have writing facilities and also access to sewing materials such as needles and cotton on Sundays. That may sound trivial, but hon. Members should realise that the greatest degree of degradation reached by young men on the roads is caused chiefly by the fact that they are locked into a small room or cell for the whole of the Sunday with no occupation of any sort. There are about 5 per cent. of what we call "old sweats" on the road. They are absolutely vicious and bad—although instead of blaming them, we ought to thank God that we are not in their circumstances. There are, however, thousands of young men who will become the same as them if we allow this sort of thing to continue. We have pleaded with the Minister to organise some occupation for them and I believe the recommendations made in this respect are having effect.

I come now to what happens when these men protest against their conditions. I have a case here of a man who went through the usual search when he entered the casual ward and all his belongings were taken from him without any receipt being given to him. He felt indignant and he did what the majority of us probably would have done in the circumstances—he broke a pane of glass, that being the first thing which came to his mind. He was summoned, and in reply to the charge said, "I cannot be expected to have any respect for a system under which such meanness is practised." Would not we all agree with him? He was convicted, of course, but the Magistrate said the guardians ought not to take the last penny from persons coming into the union. In another case, a man ripped up some workhouse blankets as a protest against the condition in which he found his clothes when they were given back to him. In most casual wards clothing is disinfected, but, in such a way is it done in the worst wards, that when the clothes come out they are absolutely rotten. This man protested by tearing up three blankets, and, as a result, he was given two months' hard labour. Here is another man who was given 14 days' hard labour. He said, "Owing to the rats and bugs, I have not had any sleep for two nights," and therefore he refused to do his task.

Another case was one where three men refused to do their task because the porridge they had for breakfast was uneatable, and anyone who has been in a casual ward can testify to the truth of that in the majority of the wards. "To call it porridge is to call it by a wrong name; skilly is a better name—horrible, tasteless stuff, the chief effect of which is to make one vomit. One man refused to have it, and because of its quality and because the tins in which it was served were filthy and the blankets he was given to sleep in were unfit for the purpose, he got seven days' imprisonment. Every time a man protests in the only way open to him he is given rigorous imprisonment up to the limit. I said that I would not mention names, but I will mention one name with regard to the attitude of some guardians and officials to the men in whose interests they are supposed to be engaged. I refer to Horn-castle, which received a great amount of publicity, for which I am grateful. I will quote from the "Daily News" report: The Master protested against this horde of tramps who were invading his casual ward, and he said his idea was that something should be done to act as a deterrent and not as an accommodation. Not to be outdone in harshness, a Mr. F. W. Parker put his spoke in the wheel and said, 'We ought to introduce a treadmill and oakum picking,' but again the Master would not let him go on, and said, 'At present we give each man who sleeps on a straw mattress and bedstead three blankets, and I ask the Board to give me authority to reduce the blankets to two per man, and only three for those who have to sleep on the floor. I think we make them far too comfortable. There is far too much sloppy sentiment, and it is time it was stopped … They have provided a yard for exercise. They do not call it sufficient exercise walking on the road. It is all sloppy sentiment and nothing else.' The Board actually agreed to reduce the number of blankets to two. Hon. Members must understand that the men are absolutely stripped naked and are merely handed, in return for their clothes, a night-shirt, which is an insult to the name of night-shirt, and, it may be, two or three or four rugs, some of which are absolutely transparent; and here is this man, this public official, talking about sloppy sentiment. I wonder if he had been guilty of too much humanity what the Minister would have done. Would he have treated him as he has done the Chester-le-Street Guardians? When he is guilty of inhumanity nothing whatever, so far as I am aware, has been done to this person.

Here is another case, where men refused to do a task because they said the blankets were verminous. One man said he had no nightshirt given to him, and another said that his nightshirt was all torn down the back. The defendants were sentenced to seven days' hard labour, and they left the Court smiling. Why? Because an in-creasing number of casuals are deliberately seeking prison in preference to the casual wards, as in prison they are better fed, better clothed, better accommodated, and they have security. Let me read what the Home Secretary gave to me in reply to my question regarding the diet of a man undergoing hard labour. A man in a casual ward has, from one year's end to the other, this for food: bread, margarine, cheese, skilly, potatoes, tea, and water. A criminal sentenced to a term of hard labour has all those, plus preserved meat, beans, bacon, pressed vegetables, soup, suet pudding, and beef. Yet you wonder why men seek prison.

What we are asking the Minister to do is to raise the standard of the food of the casuals at least to the standard of the food of the criminals. At Oswestry the other day they were discussing the question of Sunday occupations and, to show the way some people look upon this question, it developed into an argument AS to whether the cowman should give the casuals drill on Sunday afternoon or whether the chaplain should be engaged in preaching to them. When we realise the harshness of the treatment of these men, we have sometimes to get behind the minds of the people to see why they impose it. I have a report of a vagrancy committee in the South of England, the chairman of which said he thought it would have a deterrent effect on the admission of men to casual wards if they were searched to see if they bad any tobacco, food or money. I have tried to find out why this degrading searching is imposed on the men, and now I can understand that it is simply to act as a deterrent to them in order to try and drive them somewhere else. That is the whole policy of the treatment of casuals —drive the men from one ward to somewhere else where they try to treat them humanely.

Again, to illustrate what is behind the minds of these people, let me refer to a meeting of the Louth Guardians. A Mrs. Thompson declared that the present wards were not fit for animals, and a Mr. Reid said that the men who occupied these wards were very little better than animals, and were not worthy of anything better. What is the Minister doing about boards of guardians which have representatives like that? Is he taking the same steps to put these people in their right place as he would take if the reverse were done? I am going to make some suggestions in order that something may be done before Christmas. Will the Minister use his influence to ensure that boards of guardians give the casual inmates the same food on Christmas Day as they give to the other inmates of the institution? And will he ensure that where men are compelled to seep on concrete, boards are given to them to lie upon?


It is obviously impossible for me in the few minutes that are left to deal in anything but general terms with the case which the hon. Gentleman has put before the House. The treatment of these unfortunate men has given considerable anxiety and has been the source of considerable thought by successive Ministers of Health. I remember that when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Shettleston (Mr. Wheatley) was Minister of Health, he was confronted with very much the same sort of difficulties to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. I recall that on one occasion he was asked in this House, referring to the tasks to which the hon. Gentleman alluded, whether he was prepared to abolish all tasks in the workhouse in relation to casuals, and he said he certainly was not. At the time opium picking and stone breaking were freely performed in the workhouses of the country. Since my right hon. Friend has been Minister of Health, certain steps have been taken which I think commend themselves generally in all quarters of the House. We have abolished oakum-picking for these people. The food and the dietary were reconsidered and revised in 1925. I could elaborate this to the House if I had time. In those two matters there has been a considerable improvement of the state of affairs as it was a short time ago. The hon. Gentleman has devoted a great deal of attention to-night to the condition of the various casual wards. In that respect my right hon. Friend took steps almost immediately after he again became Minister of Health, and in March, 1925, addressed a special communication to the boards of guardians up and down the country, in which he pointed out that there were a great many defects which he was advised still remained to be remedied. The letter went on: He is satisfied that further substantial improvements could he effected without any considerable expenditure. Therefore, he requested the guardians to take into their practical and immediate consideration the nature of the provision at present made by them for the relief of casuals and the improvements, if any, which are required. If the hon. Gentleman looks at this communication he will see very many recommendations and suggestions, a great many of which have since been carried out.


Stone floors?


Perhaps the hon. Lady will allow me to pursue this matter. For the improvement of the condition of these people, for instance, it was suggested that every opportunity should be afforded to a casual to alter his mode of life, especially if he were an elderly man, by entering the institution. Similarly it is important that children should not be allowed to grow up to a life of vagrancy. In connection with the treatment of children in workhouses, very considerable improvement has been made during the last two or three years. With regard to extensions and additions to the casual wards, I find that during the two years to the end of June, 1928, some £98,000 was spent on extensions and additions and major improvements to wards; and between that date and the end of November, 1928, a further £30,000 has been sanctioned in respect of similar provisions. Therefore, on all these three very important matters in connection with this unfortunate class of men, it can be asserted with confidence that at no time have so many steps been taken to improve their condition; and certainly, so far as the present administration and the present Minister of Health are concerned, at no time has so much money been spent and so many efforts been made, not only to help these men, but if possible to reclaim them. Therefore, nobody has any right to get up in this House to-night and say that, at any rate, a great step has not been taken in the direction the hon. Member desires, and certainly a more humane system is in operation now than at any time in our history. It is only fair to say in defence of the boards of guardians that they are dealing with a very difficult problem. Finally, I hope the hon. Member will be prepared to support the proposals now before the House in which at least a good many of the functions of the boards of guardians, particularly in this connection, are going to the larger authorities of the country, and I assure the hon. Member that I shall look with confidence to him to support our proposals in that direction.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.