§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 4.0 p.m.
§ The MINISTER of HEALTH (Mr. Chamberlain)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
The Bill to which I am asking the House to give a Second Reading this afternoon comprises two Clauses. The first Clause prolongs for a period of five years certain provisions which were first enacted in 1923, subsequently re-enacted without amendment in 1924 and 1926, and would expire, in default of further legislation, on the 31st March this year. The extended provision will be found in the Schedule to the Bill, and the House will see that they deal with two subjects, first, with the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund, which, of course, concerns only London, and, secondly, with the borrowing powers of local authorities, and the procedure connected therewith applying to the whole country. I do not think it is necessary for me to say anything about those borrowing powers which are already in existence, the necessity for continuing which, I think, is acknowledged by everybody. I propose, therefore, to confine myself to that part of the Clause and the Schedule which deals with the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund, and with the second Clause, which introduces a new procedure for the supervision and control of the Fund. In order to do that, perhaps I ought, for the benefit of any hon. Members who may not be familiar with the facts, to explain what the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund is.
The Fund was originally established in 1867 under the Metropolitan Poor Act, and it was set up for the purpose of equalising over the whole of London the charges of the guardians in connection with the maintenance of lunatics, sick poor in asylums and infirmaries, salaries of officials, the cost of medicine and drugs and various other minor items. In 1870, three years later, an amending Act was passed which introduced into the items chargeable to the Fund the cost of indoor relief, but the amount which might be charged to the Fund was limited to the 1746 sum of 5d. per head per clay for the persons receiving indoor relief. After that there were various other amending Acts but not of any importance, and substantially the Fund remained in the same position until the year 1921. In that year, a further Act was passed which raised the limit on the amount chargeable in respect of indoor relief from 5d. to ls. 3d. per head, and for the first time the cost of outdoor relief was made also chargeable to the Fund. It was considered then that for outdoor relief and indoor relief there should be some limit upon the amount which should be charged to the Fund, and that limit was sought to he imposed under the 1921 Act by means of a scale and conditions laid down by the Minister of Health. That was a temporary Act, which only lasted until the end of 1922, and in 1923 I introduced a further amending Act, under which the scale and conditions, which had been found cumbersome and impracticable in working, were abolished, and we substituted for them a limit on the same lines as that which had already prevailed in respect of indoor relief, and made the limit of outdoor relief 9d. per head per day. That Act, which was also a temporary Act only lasting for one year, was extended for two years in 1924, and again for another two years in 1926, and it is that Act which has remained in force up to the present time.
The working of the Fund is as follows: Each half-year the guardians in every union in London draw up a statement of their expenditure during the preceding six months upon the several items chargeable to the Fund. That statement is duly checked and audited, and they are credited in the account books of the Fund with the amount of their expenditure. At the same time, they are debited with the amount which they would have spent upon these items if the whole of the expenditure of all the unions were spread evenly throughout the whole area in proportion to the rateable value of each union, and it is the difference between the two sides of that account which constitutes the amount which is due either to or from the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund. A union which has spent more than the average amount draws the difference from the Fund, and a union which has spent less pays the difference into the Fund. The general result of the 1747 operation of this scheme has been that the richer boroughs in London make very substantial contributions towards the expenses of their poorer brethren, and those contributions have increased very considerably as time goes on. In 1913, the total amount which was paid out of the Fund was a little over £400,000. Last year it amounted to about £2,500,000, and, therefore, the various receiving unions, by means of the Fund, have been relieved of a very large proportion of their total expenditure. Last year, for instance, Shoreditch drew 31 per cent. of the total expenditure in the union out of the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund, Greenwich drew 35 per cent., Stepney 35 our cent., Bermondsey 38 per cent., Bethnal Green 43 per cent., and Poplar 48 per cent.
The receiving unions, therefore, have benefited to a very considerable extent by the operation of the Fund. Anybody would suppose that they would have been well content with such results as those, but not a bit of it. They are always asking for more, and on every occasion when it has been proposed still further to prolong the operation of the system, both the paying unions and the receiving unions have approached the Minister of Health by representation and by deputation, and have asked for a change in the respective limits on the amount that can be charged for indoor and outdoor relief. The receiving unions have invariably asked that the limits might he raised, and the paying unions similarly have desired that the limits might be lowered: but successive Ministers, after hearing what the representatives of the two sets of unions have had to say, have never been able to find sufficient justification in the figures and facts submitted to them to alter the limits that were first laid down in 1923. The House will observe that in the Bill before it this afternoon it is not proposed to make any change, but to leave those limits where they have been for the last five years.
The paying unions, however, have made another claim—a claim of rather a different character, and one which it is not so easy to dismiss. They never maintained that the principle of equalisation was unfair. They never said that they ought to be relieved from all contributions to these charges, which, I think, 1748 everybody recognises are more or less common to the whole of London; but what they do say is, that if there is to be an equalisation and a standardisation of charges, then there ought, at the same time, to be a similar equalisation of the methods of administering the items which are charged to the Common Fund. They do not claim that they have any right to interfere with the discretion of the individual unions which are drawing money from the Fund, but what they do say is, that if certain unions choose to adopt methods which are different from those adopted by others, and which result in very largely increasing expense, then the extra cost thus incurred ought to be at the charge of the ratepayers in the areas of those unions, and not at the charge of London as a whole, which has no control whatever, and no voice in the administration of the Fund. They go further than that. They maintain that the very fact that certain bodies can draw out of the common purse almost ad lib without proportionately raising the rates in their own areas, has a direct influence in encouraging extravagance, laxity and carelessness in the administration, which, in turn, again raises the expenditure for which they have to pay.
In considering a claim of that kind, I thought it was desirable to investigate the figures, and see what actually has happened. The House will observe that under the system which we are working, a system which limits the amount chargeable to the Fund to a certain sum per head per day, what really governs the amount that can be drawn out of the Fund is not directly. at any rate, the actual scale of relief. or the amount of relief given to individuel persons, but the number of persons who are drawing relief. If, therefore, it be true that the effect of the Fund hoe been to increase the number of such persons, then that ought to appear in the comparative figures which are to be investigated. I have been looking at these figures, and they do certainly seem to me to show some rather astonishing results. I have taken unions in pairs, and compared the number of persons in receipt of relief at the end of February, 1920, with the similar number at the end of February, 1928, and I tried, in picking the pairs, to take two unions which started from 1749 approximately the same point. For instance, here is Fulham, which in 1920 had 333 persons in receipt of outdoor relief: in 1928 that was increased to 1,764. Compare that with Bethnal Green. They started on the earlier date with 146 persons—less than half: in 1928 that had risen to 11,575.
§ Mr. HARRIS
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the same party is in power? It is a non-party organisation running the guardians, and they are quite detached people who do not desire to put any person on the Poor Law unless they are convinced he deserves it.
§ Mr. CHAMBERLAIN
I do not know why the hon. Member speaks of party at all. I never mentioned party. I am comparing one union with another to see how the practice has varied.
§ Mr. ERNEST BROWN
Does not the right hon. Gentleman consider it unfair to take 1920? The boom of trade did not break until June or July of 1920. Will he give us 1921?
§ Mr. CHAMBERLAIN
It does not matter very much what year you take so long as you take the same year for both unions. I will take another pair. This is Hackney, which started off with 1,163, compared with Stepney, which started off with 1,030. In 1928 Hackney had risen to 5,434, about four times, and Stepney had risen to 16,320. Finally, one more pair. Islington started with 2,532, at a time when Poplar had 2,934. Islington has risen to 5,807 and Poplar to 23,913. There is another way of making a test of what has happened in London, and that is to take the numbers in receipt of outdoor relief in London per 10,000 of the population and compare that with the number taking the average of the country as a whole, and I find that in 1913 London's rate was 65, compared with 106 for the rest of England and Wales, and in 1927 London's rate was 328, compared with 245 for the rest of England and Wales, so that whereas the increased percentage in the case of England was 147, in London it had gone up 430 per cent.
§ Mr. CHAMBERLAIN
The point of the comparison is that London has increased 1750 very much more than the rest of the country and one has to find some reason for that increase.
§ Mr. CHAMBERLAIN
This is a safeguarding Measure that I am engaged upon. Hon. Members interrupted me just now and said it was not a fair comparison to take these pairs. I suppose their argument is that the conditions were so different in the two unions that that would be sufficient to account for this astonishing difference in the number of persons in receipt of outdoor relief. I must say I think they will find it hard to produce evidence which would substantiate that contention. Although it is true that the amount chargeable to the fund is governed by the number of persons rather than by the amount of relief per person, yet it is the general experience throughout the country that where you have a high scale of relief, and what I call extravagant administration, the result invariably is that you get large increases in the number of persons on outdoor relief. That is, of course, illustrated by what happened in West Ham. Under the old administration in West Ham the number of persons on relief was very large. Taking in each case a figure in the middle of July, in 1922 the number of persons in receipt of outdoor relief in West Ham was 67,800, in 1923 it was 74,500, in 1924, 68,000, in 1925, 57,000, and in 1926, 60,000. Then the appointed guardians took office, and in 1927 it dropper to 31,000. I think that is conclusive, evidence that the number of persons varies with the general tone and attitude of the guardians. The higher the scale, the more liberal the amount of relief given, the more persons come along to get relief, and, of course, where relief amounts, as it sometimes does, to more than a person can get, when he is in full work, that is not likely to act as a deterrent to people seeking relief.
§ Mr. WALLHEAD
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us how the firms in those localities get their work done with so many men refusing to work? It is astonishing how they keep their trade going.
§ Mr. CHAMBERLAIN
It is a tribute to their enterprise, and it is quite 1751 possible they did not do as much work. I conclude that a case has been made out for some control of the expenditure throughout London, and the next question to which I have to address myself is, What should be the nature of the control if control is to be set up. There are various ways, and there have been various suggestions as to the way in which control might be exercised. Some people have suggested that the Minister himself should exercise control. I have no hesitation in rejecting that solution. Quite apart from any personal inconvenience, I think it would be an undesirable thing that the Minister should be asked to administer judicial functions in a matter which is frequently the subject of party controversy, and where, however impartially he exercises his judgment—the same thing would apply to whatever Minister were in office—it would always be suspected that he was being at least influenced by partisan motives in the decision he might give. Therefore, I put that aside.
Then there is another suggestion, that some Commission should be set up—a big three—to administer control. A big three is often very effective in exercising control, but I am very unwilling to add still another body to all those that already exist in London. Moreover, seeing that I regard the arrangement in this Bill as only temporary—the Bill is only timed to last for five years—it would appear to be giving ourselves more trouble than is necessary to set up a special body for this purpose, which after a time would find its existence terminated and its functions handed over to someone else. I would much rather find the control that is required here in some body already existing in London. There is, of course, the London County Council but I doubt very much whether the London County Council would be welcomed in that capacity by the metropolitan boroughs, and I doubt very much whether it would care to undertake such a task, and certainly it is a body which has not hitherto been concerned with Poor Law administration, and I do not think in this case it would be particularly well fitted for the work.
There remains a fourth alternative, which is the one adopted in the Bill, and that is the Metropolitan Asylums 1752 Board. The Metropolitan Asylums Board is composed of 73 members, 55 of whom are elected by the various unions themselves in proportion to rateable value, and 18 nominated by the Minister of Health. It is true the functions of the Metropolitan Asylums Board have hitherto been mainly directed towards the carrying on of the various institutions. There are the infirmaries, the cost of which is, of course, a charge on the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund.
§ Mr. LANSBURY
What infirmaries? I think the right hon. Gentleman is making a mistake. They have no control over the local hospitals, or what are called infirmaries. They are only in charge of fever hospitals, fever ships and so on.
§ Mr. CHAMBERLAIN
I am much obliged to the Hon. Member if he is correct. I put, that aside. But whatever it is, they are reponsible for the care of institutions and not of outdoor relief. That is the point I was endeavouring to make. Of course many of its members have been personally very familiar with the administration of outdoor relief and have been engaged in it themselves, and on the whole it seems to me you could not possibly find in London any body which was generally, by its composition and by the experience of its members, so well fitted to exercise the sort of control that we have in mind, as the Metropolitan Asylums Board. I have examined the numbers of the representatives of the various unions and classified them according to whether they were receiving or paying unions in order to see whether it could be alleged that the paying unions had an undue representation on the Board. I find that, of the 55 members, 28 would be representatives of the receiving unions and 27 of the paying unions, so that, as it turns out, they are almost exactly evenly divided between the two, with a very slight majority on the side of the receiving unions. Of course, there are also the nominated members who constitute a third of the elected members. They are not selected as representing any particular class of union. They are chosen for their general competence and for their experience in the work which they have to carry out. On the whole, I am satisfied—and I think the House may be satisfied—that they are 1753 members who will be prepared to carry out this work with fairness, with impartiality, and generally with confidence.
One word about the period for which this Bill provides. Previous extensions of the system have never been for more than two years at a time. On this occasion, we are proposing to extend the period to five years. I observe that hon. Members opposite have assumed from that that the Government have abandoned all idea of what is called Poor Law reform. That assumption is far from being warranted. Five years have been purposely chosen in order to make it quite certain that it will cover the date at which would take place not the introduction of a Bill but the operation of an Act to reform the Poor Law system. Anybody who has studied the question must he aware that the changes involved in the reform of the Poor Law system are so considerable that it would be quite impossible that it should come into operation immediately from the passing of an Act. There must necessarily be a substantial period for the adjustments which will be required to be made, and, therefore, we have thought it desirable to save the House the trouble of having to pass another prolongation Bill before our altered Poor Law system becomes operative, and we have put in this period of five years for that purpose.
I notice from the Amendment upon the Paper that the Opposition speak of subjecting the policy and expenditure of elected boards of guardians to the caprices of the Metropolitan Asylums Board. I suppose that word "caprice" is a synonym for a form of control, because whatever body you set up to exercise control it is quite certain that those who do not like its decisions will speak of them as being actuated by caprice. I venture to think that this House will consider that it is time that the rates of London as a whole cease to be governed by the caprices of boards of guardians who are not responsible for a large part of their expenditure to the people who have to find the money. If the hon. Members object to this Bill, they must tell us where they stand. They must tell us whether they object to any kind of control at all.
§ Mr. CHAMBERLAIN
That is what I want to know. I want to know whether they object to any kind of control at all, and whether they desire that these unions which are charging from 35 to 50 per cent. of their expenditure upon the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund are to be allowed to continue in that course. If they agree that some form of control is necessary and if they take exception merely to the particular body which is suggested in this Bill to exercise that control, then it is up to them to provide us with an alternative which will be equally competent and equally appropriate.
§ Mr. ARTHUR GREENWOOD
I beg to move, to leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof the words:whilst in favour of legislation continuing the extension of charges on the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund, this House protests against the continued neglect of the Government to deal comprehensively with the question of Poor Law reform, especially the problem of the able-bodied unemployed, and declines to assent to the Second Reading of a Bill which subjects the policy and expenditure of elected boards of guardians to the caprices of a body created for entirely different purposes and composed partly of irresponsible nominated persons.We have had from the Minister a safeguarding speech. As I understand it, his object on the whole is to safeguard the interests of the well-to-do ratepayers as, against the interests of the poor. We are not surprised that that should be so, and I rise to move this Amendment to show that the party with which I am associated do not regard this Bill as being merely a London Bill. We regard it as one which raises large questions of policy. I agree, and we all agree, that because the present Act will soon cease to operate another Bill is necessary in order that financial assistance should continue to be provided, and I had assumed that the right hon. Gentleman would have been satisfied to reintroduce the Bill which was passed in 1924 and in 1926. I cast round in my own mind as to the possible way in which the right hon. Gentleman might amend this Bill. and I could not think of a way. I thought he had done his worst with the Boards of Guardians (Default) Act and with the Local Authorities Audit Act, and that there was nothing left for him to do. But now, his appetite having been 1755 whetted by the pursuit of those poor wretched boards of guardians, he has discovered another method of making life extraordinarily awkward for them. To-day he is, in fact, introducing a glorified Boards of Guardians (Default) Bill—a Default Bill applying to the whole of London, a more extraordinary Measure, if that were possible, than the Boards of Guardians (Default) Act itself—a Bill for passing over the final financial control of all the boards of guardians in London who receive money from the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund to the tender mercies of the Metropolitan Asylums Board. That is really the purpose of this Bill.
The right hon. Gentleman puts a perfectly fair question as to whether we desire any kind of control, and whether we are prepared to accept any kind of control. I am prepared to say that we do accept the principle of control. We are perfectly willing to discuss ways and means of control. Our objection to this Bill is not that we object to there being some unified financial policy for the whole, of London. Our objection is, that we regard this as being one of the most unsuitable of all methods that might have been devised. if the right lion. Gentleman is prepared to consider alternative methods of control, then we are prepared to consider with him what proposal we might make for dealing with this particular question. But we regard the Metropolitan Asylums Board as being an unsuitable body for this purpose. We have already been told that it consists of 55 representatives of boards of guardians and 18 nominated members. I must say that, having looked over the list of the 18 nominated members, I am not prepared to place any financial control in their hands at all. I look at their names and I look at their addresses, and I know perfectly well beforehand which way they are going to vote. The vast majority of those 18 nominated members will on all occasions vote with the 27 paying unions. So far from being equally divided, the Metropolitan Asylums Board on this question will consist of 28 unions who are receiving from the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund and the vast majority of those who remain will be opponents of those receiving unions. To suggest that there can be fair, inde 1756 Pendent treatment for the receiving unions from the Metropolitan Asylums Board is saying too much, because it is quite clear from the composition of that body that it is not likely to be able to give a square deal to the necessitous unions in the London area.
My second objection is this: The Metropolitan Asylums Board was established for specific purposes. It is perfectly true that certain of those purposes do touch Poor Law administration, but what is needed now is a body which has to exercise financial control. The fact that the Metropolitan Asylums Board is an admirable body for running fever hospitals and asylums for mentally deficient persons does not mean that the Metropolitan Asylums Board is fitted to exercise financial control, because as understand it the new duty which is going to devolve on the Metropolitan Asylums Board as regards this matter is admittedly a financial question. I do not think that, from the point of view of the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund, the Metropolitan Asylums Board is any better than the Port of London Authority or any other London authority at the present time. Indeed, I should imagine that the Port of London Authority would even be a better body than the Metropolitan Asylums Board. We object, therefore, to this portion of the Bill which hands over very substantial powers to a body which is partly nominated and a body which, in any event, was set up for other purposes. If I understand the Bill aright, it means that the approved expenditure of receiving boards of guardians will be exempted from too close scrutiny from the District Auditor, but it is a direct hint to him to surcharge other expenditure, if there be any other expenditure. Although we are told that the estimates are to be submitted in a form to be prescribed by the Minister, I think the form matters a very great deal. It may very well be that outside the approved estimates of a particular board of guardians there may be during the current year perfectly legitimate additional expenditure which ought to fall on the Common Poor Fund and which certainly ought not to be subject to special scrutiny by the District Auditor.
Our main objection, however, to this Bill is that it does not deal with 1757 what is the fundamental question. There have been times past when it was impossible to deal with the large issues. This is a Bill which is to be passed for the fifth time and is now to operate for five years—only five years, says the right hon. Gentleman—and we are promised in a very shadowy way that something in the interval may be done with the Poor Law system. It is the fifth time since the War that this Measure, or something like it, has been brought forward. This is the fifth time that this House has been called upon to deal with results rather than with causes. The disease from which London and the country as a whole is suffering was diagnosed by the Royal Commission on the Poor Law, which reported in 1909. That diagnosis was followed by a prescribed course of treatment. Nothing happened until in 1918 Sir Donald Maclean's Committee, accepting the previous diagnosis, made slight alterations in the form of treatment. Nothing happened even then. When the present right hon. Member for Carmarthen (Sir A. Mond) was Minister of Health in 1920, an announcement was made by the Government that something was to be done about this matter, but in the following year the same right hon. Gentleman as Minister of Health introduced the parent legislation of this particular Bill, the Local Authorities (Financial Provisions) Bill. That was a piece of emergency legislation. It was first aid legislation. We have been going on from that time until now with this first aid treatment of a serious problem, diagnosed nearly 20 years ago. That is a very serious state of affairs. Everyone has realised the importance of dealing with the fundamental root trouble, which is one of machinery and powers, both as regards the State and as regards local authorities.
I would like to carry the mind of the House back to the Debate on the introduction of the Local Authorities (Financial Provisions) Bill. That Bill was introduced by the present Member for Carmarthen when Minister of Health. And the Noble Lord who is now President of the Board of Education used these words in the course of the 1921 Debate:Six months ago the Minister of Health found himself in command of a thoroughly unseaworthy ship. It was unseaworthy enough before the War, but it has sprung many leaks since, and no one knows better 1758 than the right hon. Gentleman that all that he is now doing by this Bill is to cover those leaks with another coat of paint.He went on to deal with what was the real problem, and it remains the problem to-day:There are four main questions with which I wish to deal. Some of them are London questions, others are general questions, and I wish to point out in regard to them that the Government has specifically in the case of London failed to do its duty during the last three years. The first is the general question of the government of greater London. The second is the question of the equalisation of the burden of poor relief—in the special case of London by the equalisation of rates as between boroughs, and in the country generally by grants-in-aid from national funds. The third question is that of the proper constitution of Poor Law authorities in the future, and the fourth is what authority is responsible for unemployment?That was 7½ years ago. Noble Lord went on to ask for immediate action on the part of the Government to deal with these fundamental problems. He reminded the House that in May of the previous year, 1920, the Government had given an undertaking to deal with the problem. He concluded his speech with this statement:This House must ask the Government, now that this Bill is before it, showing clearly the absolute ineffectiveness of the present system, for an assurance that these questions with regard to Poor Law authorities in the future, and the equalisation of the burden of poor relief between poor and rich authorities, and indeed the whole question of local government administration, shall he made the subject of early proposals by the Government; and when I say 'early' I hope it will he earlier than the immediate attention' which the Government of 5th May, 1920, was going to give to it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 28th October, 1921; cols. 1225 and 1227. Vol. 147.]With those words I agree. I do not saddle the present Minister of Health with responsibility for that situation. But here was a Member of the present Cabinet, presumably at that time a supporter of the Coalition Government, who felt called upon to make that very strong statement about the need for dealing with the really fundamental question, and who regarded the Bill which was then before the House as a thing of shreds and patches. Then in 1923 the present Minister of Health re-introduced his Bill as the Local Authorities (Emergency Provisions) Bill. It was passed. In the following year it was my duty to introduce 1759 the same Measure from the Treasury Bench. I asked that the Bill should be passed for two years, and I was told by the present Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health that that was an iniquitous suggestion. I had not one but 20 reasons given to me why the Bill should not be introduced for so long a period as two years. I was brought to book and was asked what the Government were going to do about the question of Poor Law reform. On the Second Reading of the present Bill I want to remind the Parliamentary Secretary of what he said then, because what he said seems to me to be very wise indeed. These were his words:The Minister of Health will he prepared himself to say that this can only be regarded as a stop-gap measure, and I hope he will expedite what is a very urgent matter.… I agree with the hon. Gentleman opposite that it is rather unfortunate that it should be intimated that we are not to have a reform of the Poor Law until 1926.I had used the same argument as the right hon. Gentleman this afternoon—at the end of two years we might expect a reformed system. The Parliamentary Secretary concluded his speech on the Second Reading by saying:I hope we shall have some intimation from him this afternoon that at a very early date he will bring in his proposals."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th March, 1924; cols. 1239 and 1241, Vol. 170.]That was four years ago. On the Report stage and Third Reading the present Parliamentary Secretary worked himself up into a state of moral fervour which I had never seen before and have not seen since. I did not expect that one of his normally placid temperament could have become so enthusiastic about the question of the break-up of the Poor Law and Poor Law reform. On the conclusion of his speech on the Third Reading he said:I wish to register my protest against the third failure of the Government"—I do not know what the other two were—and that is to deal with Poor Law reform."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th May, 1924; col. 965, Vol. 173.]In the course of that Debate I had undertaken, on behalf of the Government then, that the problem of the Poor Law was to be dealt with. We said, in effect, "We are getting tired of this first-aid treatment when a serious 1760 surgical operation is needed." I was asked what we were going to do about it. I said we had already taken steps through the usual channels to get together—I think that is the proper phrase —representatives of the three political parties in the House for a, round-table conference, to see whether there could be an agreed measure. I am within the recollection of people who were then present in saying that that proposal was received very coldly. The Noble Earl, the present Under-Secretary of State for India, discovered an interest in the Poor Law, and waxed eloquent on the absurdity of dealing with it in this particular fashion. When the surgeon who was prepared to operate wanted the advice and co-operation of the people who thought they knew all about it, that advice was rejected, and the present Secretary of State for Air got up at the conclusion of the Debate and said: "Well it is all very well about this conference, but there is nothing to it, and we cannot touch it." So far as we were concerned in 1924—for eight months and not five years—our record is a little cleaner at any rate than that of the right hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. GREENWOOD
The right hon. Gentleman the present Minister of Health knows that the plan is there. He has got it.
§ 5.0 p.m.
§ Mr. GREENWOOD
Had there been any opportunity that question would have been proceeded with. The Bill of 1924 operated until 1926, and then the purist, of 1924, having changed his seat from the Opposition to the Government side of the House, introduced this same Measure again for two years, with lengthy arguments in favour of two years as against one. But the important feature of his speech in 1926 was his definite statement regarding the Poor Law. In commending the Local Authorities (Emergency Provisions) Bill he used it as an argument for fobbing off the big question and the really powerful arguments of the whole of the local authorities in London, with this statement: 1761As the House knows, the Minister of Health and the Prime Minister have announced that next year we hope to bring in an important Bill dealing with the reform of the Poor Law, and we are now engaged upon the task of endeavouring to arrive at some form of agreement with the interested authorities, and we intend to make proposals to the House dealing with the whole matter next year."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th March, 1926; col. 552, Vol. 193.]It is true that before the introduction of the Local Authorities (Emergency Provisions) Bill of 1926 the Minister had issued his circular to various local authorities. But in 1926 nothing happened. Perhaps one could not expect anything to happen. But in 1927 we did expect that the Government would deal with this problem on a comprehensive basis. The matter was dropped; the promise given was not fulfilled; and we arrive in 1928, when the question of Poor Law reform has slipped entirely into the background and has been forgotten. That has happened without any explanation to the House. We do not know whether it is that the right hon. Gentleman has fallen by the wayside or whether he has been pushed down into the ditch by the Cabinet. All we know is that the promise given and the hopes raised in 1926 have not been fulfilled, and that the present situation is to be stabilised for a further period of five years. The Minister can give us his long list of figures. Those figures do not prove anything. I have myself had some experience in the use of figures, and I am not inclined to attach too much importance to the right hon. Gentleman's figures of the number of people on outrelief. Figures or no figures, five years from now, unless the whole Poor Law system is dealt with, the situation will be precisely what it is to-day. There is a very striking passage in the Majority Report of the Poor Law Commission of 1909, which says:The case for the abolition of boards of guardians has been more conclusively demonstrated in London than in any other part of the Kingdom.That question still remains unsolved. If the right hon. Gentleman had fulfilled his promise in 1927, all he need have done to-day would have been to continue the Act for a further year. Instead of that, he is establishing a system for the financial 1762 control of boards of guardians that are necessitous. That proposal is open to objection. If the necessitous boards of guardians drew 100 per cent. of their money from the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund, I could understand him putting the power almost entirely into the hands of an outside body, but it still remains true that in every case more than half the expenditure is met out of the rates. He said that from 30 per cent. to 48 per cent. of the expenditure of receiving unions comes from the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund. Yet, although it is only a fraction of less than half of their expenditure that comes out of the Common Poor Fund, for the next five years, and for another five years unless the Poor Law system is to be revised, the whole expenditure of these boards of guardians will be subject to the approval of an external authority. I submit that that is undemocratic and unconstitutional.
I have admitted the case for control. I would accept personally, and I believe my hon. Friends would, some body composed of representatives of the boards of guardians from the whole of London who understand what the problem is, and not the superannuated gentlemen who are on the Metropolitan Asylums Board. We could get financial control that way, but the proposal in the Bill simply renders the position worse. It is the third step of the right hon. Gentleman's downfall. His recent efforts at legislation have driven one inevitably to the conclusion that his policy is to restrict the right of local authorities to control their own work, if they are composed of his political opponents. The only moral of the table which he gave us was that where the figures had gone up most, the area was under a Labour Board of Guardians. That is the truth about it although he did not like to say so. He said that the expenditure had gone up and that the administration was lax, which probably meant that the guardians refused to allow hundreds of people to continue in hunger.
The whole case of the right hon. Gentleman in the table which he quoted was a case against his political opponents. I do not mind how hard he hits his political opponents, but to utilise legislation for the purpose of crippling the policy of political opponents, who represent a majority of the electors, is most unfair.
1763 I do not suppose that we shall alter the right hon. Gentleman's view about the Bill, and I do not suppose that the Poor Law Reform Bill will appear before this Parliament. Therefore, we are left to look to some future Government to deal with a problem which this Government definitely undertook to see through. It is unfortunate that after seven years of this stop-gap emergency legislation, Parliament is again faced with another stop-gap Measure, which is to continue for another five years, without any specific undertaking and without any pledge that the great causes which have given rise to the situation are to be dealt with in a comprehensive Measure of reform.
§ Mr. NAYLOR
I beg to second the Amendment.
I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman consulted the boards of guardians represented on the Metropolitan Asylums Board with a view to ascertaining whether or not they agree with this new-found principle of auditing accounts, before he came to the decision to introduce Clause 2. This particular Clause is entirely new so far as London administration is concerned. A few days ago, the Prime Minister outlined the policy of the present Government and suggested that what the Government were doing, or were about to do, would make democracy safe. I wonder whether this Bill is the first instalment of that policy of making democracy safe and whether the design of the Bill is to prevent democracy from getting proper expression in the form of local government when democracy happens to be in the majority.
I want to point out a few of the reasons why I think the Minister is illadvised in making the Metropolitan Asylums Board the arbitrators as to the particular form of expenditure and the amount of expenditure that the boards of guardians may be allowed to undertake. I want to make a point as to the unsuitability of the Metropolitan Asylums Board as the body to supervise and analyse the estimates for the boards of guardians. The right hon. Gentleman must be aware that the expenses of the Metropolitan Asylums Board have to be accepted, if not actually endorsed, by the boards of guardians themselves. The boards of guardians pass these precepts 1764 on to the borough councils, accompanied by their own precepts. The Metropolitan Asylums Board has to obtain approval from its representatives on the boards of guardians of the proportion of expenditure that has to be undertaken by the Metropolitan Asylums Board.
This Bill says that although the expenditure of the Metropolitan Asylums Board has to pass through the hands of the boards of guardians, the expenditure of the boards of guardians has to pass through the hands of the Metropolitan Asylums Board. Does not that open the door to all sorts of malpractices, to mutual accommodation or mutual obstruction in the matter of the acceptance of financial responsibility? For instance, if a board of guardians were to pass on their estimates to the Metropolitan Asylums Board and that board declined to pass certain forms of the estimates to which the board of guardians thought they were entitled, are not the board of guardians likely to take up a similar attitude when the expenses of the Metropolitan Asylums Board have to be passed on to the borough council? Here you have two bodies which have to pass each other's accounts. It is not sound finance or sound public policy that in regard to financial transactions public bodies should have to pass each other's accounts in this way.
The Minister referred to the composition of the Metropolitan Asylums Board and suggested that it was equally balanced as between the receiving and the paying boards of guardians. So long as you have 18 members appointed and the other two are equal, it means that the deciding factor on the Metropolitan Asylums Board is not the boards of guardians but the 18 appointed members. You might as well say in the Bill, if the composition of the Metropolitan Asylums Board is to remain the same, as it will in all probability, for the next five years, that you will hand over the estimates of the boards of guardians to the present 18 appointed members or to 18 other appointed members, and say: "You will look after these estimates," rather than ask the representatives of the boards of guardians who sit on the Metropolitan Asylums Board to undertake the work. The right hon. Gentleman did not tell the House the nature of the representation on the Asylums Board. He said that there was a form of proportional representation, 1765 and that the representation was according to the rateable value of the Poor Law district. That form of representation, to my mind, is disproportional representation.
A fairer method of representation on such a body, especially when it has to undertake business of this character, is not according to rateable value but population. When we compare the representation of some of the Poor Law districts with others, I think hon. Members will agree that there is something lacking as far as real representation goes on the Metropolitan Asylums Board. The City of Westminster, which has an estimated population of 139,000, has six representatives on the Metropolitan Asylums Board, while Fulham, with a population of 163,000, has one representative. The City of London, with 13,629 population, has a representation of five on the board, while Poplar, with a population of 168,000, has a representation of one. I do not call that proportional representation. I agree that so far as those duties are concerned which are common duties performed by the Metropolitan Asylums Board for the whole of London, and the Metropolitan Asylums Board is set up merely as a form of convenience for dealing with certain municipal services common to London, rateable value has to be considered, but I do not agree that rateable value comes in when it is a question of estimating and accounts, but the number of people who are affected by the Poor Law that is being administered at the present time.
In regard to Sub-section (1), the Minister said the estimates would be in such a form as the Minister of Health may prescribe. What is the special significance of that term? According to this Clause, the guardians are not to draw up their estimates in the way prescribed by law, but are to be subject to certain Regulations to be prescribed by the Minister. If the Parliamentary Secretary is going to reply to the Debate I hope he will make a note of this particular point, and let us know exactly what is meant by "any such form as the Minister of Health may prescribe." We want to know to what extent the Minister is going to interfere with the expenditure as well as the way in which that expenditure is to be met. Another point arises in regard to the position of the 1766 district auditor. Let us suppose that the Metropolitan Asylums Board have power over certain estimates presented to them by boards of guardians, and that these estimates are returned and certified as correct. The money is spent. The district auditor comes along and finds that some of the expenditure, although passed by the Metropolitan Asylums Board, is illegal, and he takes his favourite method and surcharges someone.
If this Bill passes, and the Metropolitan Asylums Board are responsible in the first instance for passing the estimates which include this form of illegal expenditure, who is the district auditor going to surcharge? Is he going to surcharge the Metropolitan Asylums Board, the individual members, including the appointed representatives, or will he surcharge the members of the board of guardians which happens to be implicated in the illegal expenditure? That is an interesting point on which we should like further information. An hon. Member below me says that he surcharges the members who sign the cheques. That may be the case under the law as it stands at present, but a new law is being made, and I want to know what it means, whether the auditor is going to surcharge the Metropolitan Asylums Board or the board of guardians who are responsible in the last instance.
London has been looking for complete reform in its Poor Law administration, but this Bill, especially Clause 2, seems to take that prospect further away. It sets up a semi-demi authority on finance. It adds one more to the many authorities which now exist in London local government, as if we had not far too many already. Surely in a matter of this kind some consideration might have been given to the receiving boroughs with respect to the Metropolitan Asylums Board. If the Minister had wanted us to make this concession in Clause 2, surely it would not have been too much to suggest that the 9d. now charged should have been made 1s. That would have been a proposal which would have met with some support from this side, but we are asked to hand ourselves over; to crib, cabin and confine local guardians against forms of expenditure which up to now have been regarded as legal, but, possibly, under this Bill may not be so regarded.
§ Mr. NAYLOR
The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head. I hope that is true, but we know perfectly well that Bills are passed in this House on which Ministers give us an assurance that they do not mean this and they do not mean that, only to find that when the law is administered in the Courts it is something different and something worse. It is the old story over again; you are aiming at the poorer districts. you are making their sufferings appear a crime, as if the greater expenditure in certain districts of London has been brought about entirely because of the extravagance of local boards of guardians. There was an implication of that in the right hon. Gentleman's speech in introducing this Bill. He suggested that because the expenditure in certain districts had risen, and risen again, that therefore there must be something radically wrong in the administration of that particular district. It may be that the relief granted in these districts was higher than the Minister thought should have been paid, but that only affects the total to a slight degree. What affects the total expenditure more than anything else, and will always affect it, is the large amount of poverty, well marked and clearly defined in certain of the poorer districts in London as compared with the better-off districts close to them. The guardians responsible for these poorer districts deserve the help if not the sympathy of the Minister, instead of which they have seen nothing but the big stick in his hand every time they make an effort to put things right. I do not see how this House can conscientiously agree to Clause 2, and if there is to be any consideration at all of the Bill on its merits, it can only be in relation to the opinion of the House on Clause 2. I submit that it is an unbusinesslike proposition—that the Metropolitan Asylums Board is not the fit and proper authority to undertake this work, that they themselves are representative of the guardians, and, therefore, should not be in the position of being able to analyse the estimates of the guardians. I support the Amendment that the Bill should he sent back for revision.
§ Colonel VAUGHAN-MORGAN
I think, quite contrary to the apprehensions 1768 of the Mover and Seconder of the Amendment, that the House will welcome this Bill providing machinery for the better administration and distribution of the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund. Both the Mover and Seconder of the Amendment mentioned that he had no objection to the principle of control. The control which it is proposed to exercise under this Bill is not control over the financial operations of the guardians in the distribution of the funds raised by themselves, but that someone should exercise control in the interests of London as a whole of the funds raised from the whole of London. I would also observe that while a good many criticisms have been offered with regard to the choice of the Metropolitan Asylums Board as the instrument for the reform which the right hon. Gentleman is introducing no alternative suggestion has been offered as to how the present emergency should be dealt with. But everyone knows that we have not yet received the final proposals of the Ministry for the reform of the Poor Law, and until that can be brought about, until it can be brought effectively into operation, certain steps are urgently necessary in order to deal effectively with circumstances for which reform is practically admitted on all sides. Having said that in regard to the general welcome which I feel sure the House will extend to this Bill, I should like to ask the Minister two questions in regard to its provisions. Clause 2, Sub-section (2) reads thus: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 as the Metropolitan Asylum Board may think fit to make.I want to ask the Minister whether the effect of this is that the Metropolitan Asylums Board will have power to reduce estimates sent up in certain respects if judged desirable, and, further, what machinery will he placed at the disposal of the Metropolitan Asylums Board for the acquisition of information or inspection. Will it be able to secure the guidance of Government inspectors, will it be furnished with their reports, or is it suggested that it should set up machinery of inspection of its own? Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will be good enough to give the House information on these two points. I welcome 1769 the Bill and I trust it will receive the approval of the House and will assist in the better administration of the fund which is judged to be necessary.
§ Mr. HARRIS
We understand now why the Minister has taken this particular course. The hon. and gallant Member for Fulham (Colonel Vaughan-Morgan) on behalf of the London Conservative Members has given the Bill his blessing, and stabilises our present Poor Law system in London. That is what it amounts to. Five years is a considerable period. We understand now why the Poor Law system has not been tackled. It is not because the Minister of Health is not desirous of doing so, or because he does not understand the question. No one has been a greater student of the problem of local government than the right hon. Gentleman, and his Parliamentary Secretary. It is because his Tory supporters in London are not prepares to give him the necessary backing. If he could be assured that he had the support of his party in London I am satisfied that a Bill would be forthcoming. The Minister in his usual lucid way—whatever faults he may have no one can accuse him of not being clear minded—referred to the problem of London and said that it has a problem of its own. That is the reason why we have to have special Bills every few years. It ought not to be so. There is no special reason why London should not have the same form of government and the same administrative machinery as any other great city.
Take, for example, Birmingham, of which the Minister is such a distinguished representative. It is true that he is changing from one of its divisions to another, but he is still loyal to the city which his family has graced for so many years. Could the right hon. Gentleman imagine a Bill of this kind being tolerated for one moment in Birmingham? Could he imagine a conglomeration of authorities and a complex system like this being planted on Birmingham? But, after all, if it is good for London why should it not be good for Birmingham? London is still more important as a city than Birmingham, and London has an equal right to proper treatment in this matter. The present situation in London is due to the fact that the City of London has always refused to extend its borders. It 1770 has always taken a selfish attitude towards local government. If the same thing had occurred in Birmingham, they might have all this machinery to deal with their problems there. I represent a borough which is just outside the City of London and nearly all my constituents work in or adjacent to the City. There are clerks, warehousemen, packers, street traders and other workers, and the majority of them are connected with "the one square mile." They have been gradually pushed outside the City walls to make room for banks, offices and business premises, and they have been pushed into a comparatively poor district.
I have been studying the comparative statistics of the City of London and the borough of Bethnal Green. Curiously enough the actual geographical area is about the same in both cases, but they are not alike in population or in the number of poor. It is, no doubt, very satisfactory to the Minister in his official capacity to know that in the City of London on 1st January, 1926, the total number in receipt of relief was 425. In Bethnal Green on the same day the number in receipt of relief was over 10,000, and of these nearly 8,000 were in receipt of relief because of unemployment. In the City of London only 91 were in receipt of relief on account of unemployment The night population of the City of London is only 13,000, while the night population of Bethnal Green—consisting almost entirely of people working in the trades and industries of the City of London—is 117,000. That is the problem which the Minister and this House have to face. The assessable value of Bethnal Green is £5 per head of the population. The assessable value of the City of London is £486 per head of the population. If you levy a penny rate in Bethnal Green, it only brings in £2,600; whereas in the City of London a penny rate brings in £32,000. The consequence is that they have low rates in the City of London. The City can hold up its head with pride and hon. Members can glorify the economy of the City, because, forsooth, it has a rate of only 9s. in the £, while Bethnal Green's rate is 22s. in the £.
It is, however, a mistake to think that the City is economical. On the contrary, they throw their money about there on street lighting, street maintenance, street cleansing, as well as banqueting and 1771 other luxuries of that kind. They have the advantage of accumulated money which belongs really not to the City of London but to the people of London as a whole. That is the problem which successive Governments have had to face, and all have run away from it. No one has had the courage to tackle it. They are all afraid of the City of London with its immense powers, its City guilds, its State banquets, its Mansion House and its Guildhall. Any Minister who seeks to tackle this problem is quickly persuaded to come to a dinner and, somehow or other, his enthusiasm begins to wane.
§ Mr. HARRIS
I do not say that at all. I was just going to remind the Minister of a dinner which I attended and at which he was also a guest. I remember enjoying that occasion particularly because of the right hon. Gentleman's very charming and attractive speech. I am too modest to suppose that the right hon. Gentleman remembers my speech. It was a dinner in connection with local government officers in London—very able and competent officials they are—and I stated that if the Minister would produce a Bill, which would really tackle this problem, then, whatever my party did, I would give him my support. I believe had the right hon. Gentleman produced such a Bill he would have had the support of the majority of Members of this House, but he allowed his coattails to be pulled by some of his supporters. He saw the light but he had not the courage to follow it and that is why we have the present Bill. The hon. Gentleman who moved the Amendment—with which, substantially, I agree—referred to the Royal Commission on the Poor Law. I suppose that Commission's Report is now almost dead and buried. I should be the last to ask for another Royal Commission, knowing that that is a method of shelving problems, but at the same time, that Commission was composed of very able men and I would quote again some words which have already been quoted—with certain additional words which were not quoted. The Commission said:The case for the abolition of the boards of guardians has been more conclusively demonstrated 1772 in London than in any part of the Kingdom. The first reform necessary, in our judgment, is the total abolition of the present boards of guardians and the establishment of a unified London for all purposes of public assistance.That was in 1909 and, as I understand it, the Minister accepts those principles. I have here an excellent memorandum which was issued on the subject by the right hon. Gentleman. Like everything emanating from his pen, it is very lucid, clear and precise and based on sound principles. Whatever quarrel we may have with the right hon. Gentleman, we recognise that he is an expert in local government. This memorandum is dated 1925 and can be bought for 2d. It is not very expensive—evidently the right hon. Gentleman was anxious that it, should be circulated broadcast. It came to me in my capacity as a member of the London County Council and the right hon. Gentleman may have forgotten the fact that it was accepted, with practical unanimity, by the elected representatives of the people of London in the London County Council. The first line dealing with London contains the words,boards of guardians to be abolished.Now the Minister comes along with this Bill to entrench the boards of guardians and strengthen their position. In the very next paragraph we find the words,relief of the able-bodied to be correlated with unemployment insurance.Has the right hon. Gentleman had any reason to depart from those principles? We have had a Measure dealing with the system of unemployment insurance and, no doubt from the right hon. Gentleman's point of view, strengthening the weak spots and bringing it up to date, but in the light of experience, why is he running away in 1928 From his memorandum of 1925? Is it possible that he has not the courage, or is it because he has not the backing of his own Government and his followers? Does the right hon. Gentleman now want the Poor Law guardians to remain? He made reference to the Poor Law union of the district which I represent. In Bethnal Green we have very bitter political fights. I have been through one in the last week or two, when we had no fewer than four parties contesting the honour of representing the borough. We are not without party differences and political propaganda, but the Minister knows, or 1773 ought to know, that in Bethnal Green the present guardians are not elected on a party footing at all. They are mostly either ministers of religion or social workers like the head of Oxford House, who are above party, and they have given the most unselfish and devoted service to the care of the poor, the sick and infirm, the unemployed and, particularly, the children. They have endeavoured, with all their skill and capacity, to discharge very difficult duties, but they have come to the conclusion that the machinery is wrong, and that it is not fair that an area so small, so poor, and with so many different problems, should have the whole responsibility of dealing with this matter, as it must if the present system is continued. Of course such a system must endure if we are going to keep our present Poor Law—I go further and say it will have to be extended.
The system is fundamentally wrong. It is not on sound principles of finance. It is not right, in principle, to take money from one district and hand it over to another district to be spent there. That course must lead to suspicion, however careful the guardians may be. The guardians in my own borough are most careful custodians of the money in their charge and give devoted service, but, however devoted they may be, there must always be suspicion, as they are not responsible to the electors who have raised the money. The Minister must know that the system is indefensible, and he should have had the courage to produce a Bill on the lines previously indicated. He cannot say that he has not time. He said so in 1926. Last year he made the excuse that the general strike—or lockout—had altered things, and that he had to deal with other problems arising from the trade dispute. But he promised a Bill in 1928. No one can say now that Parliament is too busy. I am all in favour of the "flapper" vote. That is not a question of bitter political controversy, and that is the only big Bill which the Government have been able to produce.
There is plenty of time in this Session of Parliament to deal with this question scientifically and thoroughly on the lines of the right hon. Gentleman's own memorandum. A good many of my friends here accept the principle of his memorandum. 1774 It is true that it is always possible to amend arid improve a Measure—that is the function of the House of Commons—but the principles I have mentioned are those for which the Liberal party has voted for many years. We always contended that the Poor Law was all right in 1832. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I will correct myself there and make myself clear. It might have been all right in 1832, but it is quite unsuited to us in the twentieth century. It offends all sound principles of both legislation and administration.
The Education Act of 1870 altered the whole position of the child. In 1832 there was no proper machinery for dealing with the care of the child, but since 1870 there has been built up the organisation of the education authorities, which has been gradually extended, in the light of experience, till you get to the Act of 1918, put into one form by the Act of 1921. The child should go out of the Poor Law entirely into the hands of the education authorities. Even now many of the children have been taken out of the Poor Law institutions and are being trained in the ordinary schools. That is a great improvement, but they should go right out of the Poor Law. It is the same with the old people. In 1832 there were no old age pensions, but now the old age, pension machinery recognises the obligation of the State to the old people, and that has been extended by the Contributory Pensions Act, which lowered the age and brought in a large number of additional people. Then we come to the sick. We have all this paraphernalia of Poor Law hospitals, but the idea of a Poor Law hospital is wrong, as is recognised, because many of the Poor Law infirmaries are now calling themselves hospitals. But the local authorities and borough councils are building up a whole system of public health to deal with sickness and disease alongside of health insurance, and it is an anomaly that Poor Law authorities should be dealing with sickness at all. The sickness authorities should be the local councils, correlated, if you like, with the whole system of health insurance.
With the old people gone, with the children gone, and with the sick gone, what is there left for these anomalous bodies to do? There is only the able-bodied poor, but we have been gradually 1775 building up a system of National Unemployment Insurance, working through the Employment Exchanges. I see almost every day down in Bethnal Green the absurdity of a man who is out of work being chivvied and chased between the Employment Exchange and the Poor Law union. For so many months he becomes a child of the nation as a whole, and then the next month he is suddenly shoved on to the Poor Law authority, which is not anxious to receive him, but is only desirous of pushing him back again on to the State. I say that, owing to the existence of this organisation of National Unemployment Insurance, the Poor Law guardians have become an absurdity.
However, the Minister is nothing if not ingenious, and he has now brought in another Bill. I remember Mr. Burns saying of the "M.A.B.," as we call it familiarly in London, that he had it on his list, and it never would be missed. It is certainly a very antiquated, old-fashioned authority. The Government have a great affection for boards, and I believe that if they had their way they would board London up. There is the Water Board, one of these Conservative creations, the Traffic Board, which was a Labour Government creation taken over from the Tory party, and now they are going to strengthen the foundations of the Metropolitan Asylums Board. If this is really the right authority, why not give them the whole responsibility? How absurd it is to make an authority that is elected and nominated in such a complex and underground way the authority to supervise a lot of elected councils. It, simply will not work, but will lead to friction and to wire-pulling, and in the end it must break down. My quarrel with the Minister is that he has sinned against the light. He knew well enough the right thing to do, and he knows it now, and I say that it is unfortunate that a Minister with his history, his tradition, his training and his knowledge should produce at this time of day a Bill of this character, that does not deal with the question but only postpones a problem which sooner or later must be dealt with on proper and sound lines.
§ Captain AUSTIN HUDSON
The subject under discussion to-day is one of particular interest to London Members, 1776 and I think I may say for the Members of the Conservative party that on the whole we are not at all satisfied with the way in which the administration of Poor Law relief is carried on. One speaker said that the Minister of Health, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, hinted that the administration was not all that it might be in some of these areas which spend so much money. I do not know why my right hon. Friend merely hinted that, because I think it is only fair to say that a great many Members on this side think the administration is not all that it should be, an opinion which is to a great extent backed up by reports which have appeared from time to time from the Inspectors of the Ministry of Health. Frankly, I am sorry that the Boards of Guardians (Default) Act could not have been brought into operation on certain occasions in London as well as in the country, because the working of that Act—and we have discussed it on more than one occasion in this House—has shown that there were very glaring instances of maladministration in the three areas, Bedwellty, Chester-le-Street and West Ham, and that the taking over of those areas had a very good effect, not only among the people who were taken over, but also in adjoining areas, which saw what was being done.
When we look at some of these areas which are what we might call receiving areas, we find that in Bermondsey there are nearly 17,000, out of a population of 110,000, on Poor Law relief; in Deptford one in 15 is on Poor Law relief; in Greenwich one in 18: and in Shoreditch one in 12. Take the Report of the inspectors in regard to another two areas which are receiving and not paying areas. Take Southwark, where a return made by the guardians on 22nd June stated that of 1,258 able-bodied men, then receiving relief, 391 had been in receipt of it for between one and three years, 96 for more than three years, and 113 for more than four years. The inspector stated:Among the long-standing cases included in these figures, there are individuals noted on the guardians' records as idle and indolent men, who are satisfied with the relief they obtain, and do not genuinely seek employment.That is why, when these reports are made, we feel that something should be 1777 done as regards the administration of these areas. Take the Woolwich area, of which I have some slight knowledge, having sat for the London County Council there and failed to get in. The inspector reported there:The expenditure of the Woolwich Guardians on outdoor relief is at the rate of £140,000 per year, which represents one-half of the total expenditure. One-third of their outdoor relief is given to able-bodied persons in contravention of the Relief Regulation Order, 1911.… Where nearly £50,000 per year is spent on outdoor relief to able-bodied persons, and, having regard to the serious problems of public interest that are affected by this branch of Poor Law administration, it is of the first importance that the relief committees should be fully attended. In the year ended 31st March last, however, out of 23 guardians available for 27 relief committee meetings, four guardians only attended once, four attended less than 10 times, four less than 20 times, with the result that there were numerous occasions when there was not the prescribed quorum.There are innumerable cases to show that some of us on this side have good ground to suspect that the administration in these areas is not all that it might be. The trouble, and what we are trying to get over here, is the fact that other areas have to pay money towards what we call these badly-administered areas, but have no say whatsoever in how the money is spent. The Minister of Health mentioned an enormous increase lately in the money given by, comparatively speaking, rich areas to the Common Poor Fund. The City of London, which in 1920–21 gave £261,000 had risen in 1927–28 to £874,000, and Holborn had risen from £5,000 to £143,000. Of the areas to which the money was given, during the same year, in 1920–21, Poplar had risen from £64,000 to £564,000, and Bethnal Green from £49,000 to £218,000, and I could give many more figures to show the enormous increase—
§ Captain HUDSON
£64,000 in 1920–21 and £564,000 in 1927–28. The point of this is that we feel that he who pays the piper should call the tune and that these areas should, when they are rated out of all proportion for the Common Poor Fund, have some means of seeing that that money is not rashly spent. Equalisation is absolutely necessary, and I do not believe there is a single Member on this 1778 side who is against the richer boroughs looking after their poorer brethren, but they want to see that the money is properly spent.
One word as to the suitability of the Metropolitan Asylums Board. It is, as many hon. Members have said, rather unfortunate that its name includes the word "asylums." They are used perhaps to seeing strange things happen, but I am sure that when they go into the administration of some of these boroughs they will see stranger things than they ever saw in an asylum. You have to consider, in trying to get a body to administer a fund to look after this money, what other body could have done it. The London County Council already have an enormous amount of work, almost more than they can do, and the same remark applies to the borough councils, which in many cases have not the time to take on such a very large job as this. There is also another great disadvantage, and that is that both the London County Council and the borough councils are elected bodies, and I think it would be a great pity if this controlling body was a body elected by those who wore going to be the recipients of the money which they raised. I make no secret of the fact that I wish that in this Franchise Bill there had been a disqualification of recipients of Poor Law relief. In fact, I had a Motion on the Paper last Session to discuss that matter, but unfortunately time did not permit of its being moved.
§ 6.0 p.m.
§ Captain HUDSON
I would not, because I think they are not parallel cases at all. I say that the man who receives actual money from the State for nothing should not vote for the guardians who actually pass him that money. I cannot pursue that point except to say that I consider the Metropolitan Asylums Board, not being a directly elected body, is a suitable body to carry out this particular duty. The hon. Member for South-East Southwark (Mr. Naylor), who seconded the Amendment, said that he understood the Board was under some system of proportional representation, and that the members were returned according to the amount of wealth of the areas concerned.
1779 I did not know that until he said it, but I cannot conceive any more suitable system, because the people who give to the Poor Fund have to see that it is wisely administered. As for the 18 members who are nominated by the Minister of Health, they are public-spirited people who simply go on to the Board in order to do what they can in a duty which is very useful and which brings very little praise; nobody really knows exactly how much work they have to do. The Minister has chosen a very suitable body for dealing with a difficult situation. It was mentioned that this Bill might be called a stop-gap. The whole system of Poor Law will, sooner or later, have to be dealt with. It is not dealt with more quickly because we cannot get agreement. outside the House as to the way to do it. This Bill is a step in the right direction. It is morally right that, when large sums of money are spent, there should be adequate control. That principle is carried into effect by this Bill, and I hope that the House will give it a Second Reading and pass it into law at the earliest possible moment.
§ Miss LAWRENCE
The speech of the hon. and gallant Member who has just sat down rather amused me. In giving his views about the Poor Law he not only trod on the Minority and Majority Reports of the Poor Law Commission of 1909; and of that of the Maclean Committee; not only did he not know that the London County Council had accepted unanimously the principle of the Maclean Report, but he trampled on the Minister's own Bill which has been circulated. He did not want an elected authority; he did not want the London County Council to do it; he wanted this special secondary elected authority to do it. He went against every constructive Clause of the Bill which the Minister himself has circulated. He can settle that little matter of difference with the Minister. I have no doubt that the Minister, or the Under-Secretary, or one of the officials, will explain to him what are the ultimate principles of Poor Law reform of the Conservative party. We have had an extraordinary profusion of little Poor Law Bills in the House. Three months do not pass without the Minister of Health bringing us some little Poor Law Measure, 1780 and they all bear a family likeness. The reason is not very far to seek; it is because they are all stop-gap Measures.
The Minister of Health, almost alone in the Cabinet, has never had charge of a big Bill in this House. It is a curious thing, because the opportunity is not wanting. The whole country is calling aloud for a reform of the Poor Law and of local taxation. It is not because there is no interest in the matter. Not merely local administrators, but captains of industry and the man-in-the-street, are talking of the burden of local rates. It is not that there is not electioneering capital to be got out of it. So great was the Government's concern, that in the King's Speech they had to reassure the electors that the Cabinet would inquire into the Minister of Health's Department. It is not even that the Minister of Health has not turned his attention to the matter. Two years ago nobody spoke so loudly and repeatedly on the sound principles of Poor Law reform as the Minister of Health, and yet at this day, in a most powerful Government, we are still in the stage of stop-gap Measures.
It is a strange thing, because the right hon. Gentleman knows a good deal about local government. He is a very ingenious and an industrious man, but a man who, somehow or other, cannot get things done. When he has the opportunity, when the whole country is looking to him for a lead to reform on one of the most important questions, we get nothing but silence from him. The truth is that he is not a good fighter unless he has got a very weak opponent. He likes to play the great Roman Statesman when he is dealing with one little board of guardians, but, when there is a hint of trouble, he shies away from it. He dropped Poor Law reform because there was some trouble about it in the country. He cannot even bring in a Valuation Bill for London, for as the Parliamentary Secretary explained, it might be that, in spite of the assurances of the London County Council and the borough councils, some Member of Parliament would make a speech against it; and so London rating, which is not a little thing, has had to drop. We now have the sixth or seventh little stop-gap Measure, which is designed to patch up a fundamental difficulty which could only be dealt with by 1781 a big Bill. For some reason or other, the Minister dislikes the trouble of having to force a big Bill through the House. This Bill is a bad stop-gap Bill.
I want to address the attention of Members to Clause 1, which the Minister passed over in silence, because it is an important Clause. That Clause extends the borrowing powers under the Local Authorities (Financial Provisions) Act, 1921. These powers are, roughly, that where a board of guardians cannot meet its current expenses out of rates, it may borrow with the consent of the Minister under the conditions set out in the Schedule. That was in 1921 and 1923 a very strange and anomalous principle of local finance, and it has been operated to such an extent that nearly half of England and Wales is borrowing for purposes of current expenditure. The last time I looked at the list, £14,000,000 had been authorised and £10,000,000 had been borrowed. This is as bad a piece of administration and as dangerous a thing to local finance as can be imagined. It is running through all local government. These local authorities have pledged the resources of their ratepayers for many years ahead. These frightful sums of £10,000,000 and £14,000,000 are not spread over the country as a whole; they are concentrated in industrial districts in proportion to their depression and their poverty. It is a danger of which Members of the House have frequently spoken. It is a thing which is producing very great depression in our industrial life. It is the reason the new industries that are springing up are coining south of a certain line—the line of depression.
§ Miss LAWRENCE
The continuation of the provisions of the Local Authorities (Financial Provisions) Act, 1921, which enables the Minister to extend the time within which sums borrowed under Section 3 are to be repaid and so forth. These are provisions which make possible that very great debt which the necessitous areas now have, and the proposal is, I understand, to extend these provisions for another five years and to allow them to borrow for an unlimited time within the Minister's discretion.
§ Miss LAWRENCE
But the Minister can, when the sums come up for review, make a fresh loan with which to repay the old loan. This plan of ladling out money is a great danger, and it is a pity that we should extend a very unsatisfactory system for five years. London administration and finance are in an extremely unsatisfactory and chaotic condition. That is no new discovery. It was said in 1909 and 1913; it has been said by the London County Council and by the Labour party in many publications. London is in a shocking state, both financially and administratively. The total expenditure of boards of guardians is somewhere over £7,000,000, and the total amount chargeable on the Fund is well over £5,000,000. That means that, with regard to over 80 per cent. of their expenditure, they are relieved from real responsibility. It works both ways. It works to the boroughs which are charged, as well as the boroughs which receive. If so much is allocated, and so much taken from the other boroughs in proportion to your rateable value, it has the same effect of taking direct financial responsibility off your shoulders. It is a shocking thing. It is a bad thing that the raising of local money should be divorced from all control over expenditure.
The scandal is not so great in regard to the receiving boroughs. If they were receiving 50 per cent. from the Government, nobody would say that they had not sufficient interest in their administration, but it is the case that the receiving boroughs are not free from all forms of responsibility any more than the schools are. The case of the paying boroughs is very hard indeed. It is a very bad plan to use local rates for purposes over which those who pay the rates have no control. It is a vicious plan. The second bad point is that there are no uniform rules of administration, particularly with regard to out-relief. Take the, case of two boroughs, very much of the same character in municipal life, both of them paying boroughs, the borough of Holborn and the borough of 1783 Kensington. Note the number of men relieved on account of unemployment, that is, the heads of families. Holborn relieves 444 men, and Kensington 14. Those were the figures on 1st January, 1926. I ask boards of guardians whether they desire no men to be relieved on account of unemployment, as is practically the case in Kensington, or whether they desire to do something along the lines followed in Holborn. In Holborn 151 able-bodied widows and in Kensington one solitary able-bodied widow were in receipt of out-relief on 1st January, 1926. Then take the children of widows. Holborn, which is a very careful, prudent union, with a small amount of poverty, was relieving 381 children. Kensington—the Royal borough—with its bitter poverty, was relieving four. The Minister said that if some boards of guardians followed a practice different from that of others, and costing more, then the union ought to pay more. In practice all differ from one another.
There is no general rule in London about even the widows and children, and I think that is a very great evil. Not merely we of the Labour party, but the London County Council, the Royal Commission on the Poor Law, and even the Minister in his draft Bill, have all expressed disapproval of the extraordinary confusion in London. The Minister asked us what we want. We want the Maclean Report. I want the Maclean Report because, amongst other reasons, I do not want the work of dealing with the unemployed and with the widows and the sick to be lumped together. The widows and the sick require treatment which is diametrically opposite to what is necessary in the case of unemployed men, and we only create horrible confusion by mixing them up. That is a point upon which all who have ever dealt with the poor agree. There ought to be two authorities, one a committee for the sick, the helpless and the children, and another committee, of county size, to deal with the unemployed.
It is now proposed to put the whole of this business on to the Metropolitan Asylums Board. I have several things against the Metropolitan Asylums Board. The Minister said it represented both the paying and the non-paying boroughs, but, in addition to their representatives, 1784 it includes 18 nominees of the Minister. Another thing against the Metropolitan Asylums Board is that they have no staff with which to do the work. The only thing approaching to out-relief work which they have ever done is dealing with casuals; and according to the last figures I have looked up they deal with only between 500 and 600 casuals in all. They have no staff with which to make the necessary inquiries into cases, though it is necessary to have committees in the different areas to look after the sick and the decrepit, because each of their cases needs careful inquiry. The Royal Commission spoke of the fallacy of dealing with such cases by general rules; they need individual attention. Another thing was that the Metropolitan Asylums Board were to exercise control by approving estimates. That is a vicious plan. If there was a central committee whose business it was to lay down the rules and formulate the policy, and then prepare estimates on that policy, I could agree, because estimates must follow the broad lines of policy of the body responsible. But you get no effective control from criticising 28 different sets of estimates, each based upon a different policy. It would be too complicated. I do not believe the Treasury could do it. You could not do it, because there would not be the data with which to check the expenditure. The opportunity to check the expenditure comes when you formulate your policy and prepare the estimates.
I have said that in the case of London, I want to have a county committee dealing with the relief of the unemployed—the county council have accepted that plan—and laying down the rules by which the metropolitan borough councils should administer Poor Law out-relief. That could be done if there were a central body to lay down rules. "But,'' the Minister will say, "I cannot introduce a Poor Law Reform Bill"—and I believe him! I do not think he is the man for the job. I believe he will never introduce Poor Law reform, and I want some stop-gap Measure to satisfy the perfectly legitimate demands of Westminster and Marylebone and the City and the other paying districts. The Minister could make London into one district for out-relief if he were pleased to do so. He could do that just as readily as London 1785 was made into one district for casual poor. He could introduce a short Bill to dive that united district the task of superintending the grants from the Common Poor Fund. Then, instead of having a body divorced from practical administration, and without competent officials, we should have the guardians of London forming a joint committee for the purpose of dealing with out-relief. That committee would not be staffless, but would have the services of all the clerks to the guardians in London, and could call for reports from every one of the relieving officers, thus obtaining all the information required. That committee would be able not merely to criticise the estimates, but, with full knowledge, would be able to lay down the lines of a policy. The paying boroughs would have their proper place on that committee, where their administrators would sit on equal terms with those from the receiving boroughs. We may quarrel about these things in this House, but we can do them when it comes to the localities. When we from Poplar, after we had been in prison, went to Westminster and put to them our case that we could not raise the rates demanded, we had not the slightest difficulty in agreeing with Westminster about a contribution. I have always thought that Westminster in 1921 showed real statesmanship, but they firmly believed that they were only going into this scheme for a temporary period.
I would ask my fellow Londoners whether they really want the Metropolitan Asylums Board, from the depths of its ignorance, to criticise their estimates? They would not think it an agreeable thing to have to hand over the best part of their administration to a body so understaffed, so inexperienced and so unfitted for the work. I hope the London Members will make common cause against this Clause in the Bill. We all agree that we desire a central authority for London, we all agree that diversity of administration is a great nuisance and a great wrong to the citizens and the recipients alike, and we all agree that it is a disgraceful thing to have to pay the piper and have no voice in calling the tune; but at the same time, I suggest that to set up the Metropolitan Asylums Board over all the guardians is as bad a device as could well be suggested. I 1786 would ask those who are in substantial agreement with me whether they will not unite with me to get a united district out of the Minister, and give that united district the power to administer a common fund for out-relief. Then we could all lie down together, knowing that we had simplified the position with regard to out-relief.
§ Mr. GATES
With much that the hon. Lady the Member for East Ham North (Miss Lawrence) has said I am in cordial agreement. As one representing a borough which, with Westminster, had much to do with inaugurating the 1921 Act, I am not going away from the principle that the richer boroughs ought to make a substantial contribution to the emergency expenses of the poorer boroughs. In 1921, the borough I represent agreed to make such a substantial contribution, but they had no idea that the obligation was to be continued for such a long time. No doubt they were beguiled by the eloquence of the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury). They understood it was an emergency, and they were only too ready to help him to foot the bill. The time has come in their opinion, and in the opinion of the Borough of Kensington, when a halt should be called to the amount they have to provide for an administration over which they have no control. The Borough of Kensington has to contribute a sum equivalent to a rate of 1s. 6d. in the which is distributed through the Common Poor Fund to Poplar and other districts. In the opinion of the Borough of Bensington, this money is spent in lavish outdoor relief and, to a large extent, in a way which demoralises the people of those districts.
When the Act of 1921 was passed, we agreed to the charge for indoor relief being raised from 5d. to 1s. 3d. At that time there was a condition attached to outdoor relief expenses which were chargeable that they should be in accordance with scales and regulations drawn up by the Minister of Health. When the 1923 Act was passed, it stabilised the outdoor relief expenses at9d.per head, and we heard no more of the regulations or of the scales. At the present time the relief is administered on an exceedingly lavish scale which the Borough of Kensington would be ashamed to adopt. The hon. Member for East Ham North has referred 1787 to cases of outdoor relief in Kensington. I say at once that the Guardians of Kensington make the strictest inquiry into all cases of outdoor relief, and they see whether there are relations who can help. In consequence of this strict investigation the charges for outdoor relief in Kensington are amongst the lowest in London. We pride ourselves, not upon being hard-hearted, but upon having a strict administration that is fair and just to the ratepayers of the borough.
I do not welcome this Bill, and I think it is a poor thing. To a great extent, I agree with the hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Mr. Harris) that the time has come when there should be a real reform of the Poor Law. Both the central and local authorities are in agreement that there should be a real reform of the Poor Law. I am not enamoured with the authority set up by this Bill to deal with the estimates of the guardians; and still less do I approve of the Metropolitan Asylums Board, which is the authority set up, being charged with this duty for so long a term as five years. I have some admiration for the work done by the Metropolitan Asylums Board in dealing with fever hospitals, casual wards and other duties, but, after all, the greater part of the members of that body are appointed by the boards of guardians, and I should have thought that that was not the best authority to supervise the expenditure of the guardians. I would prefer the appointment of a small special committee like that which the Minister has placed in charge of the administration of the Poor Law in West Ham, Chester-le-Street and other boards of guardians in the country. Those special committees consist of officials who have rendered very great service in the administration of the Poor Law and they have added to the tone and spirit of the locality.
I do not understand what the Metropolitan Asylums Board are going to do with the estimates of the boards of guardians. I am sorry that I was not in the House when the Minister of Health made his opening speech, but as I understand the question, what they are to do is largely a matter of arithmetic. I understand they are to 1788 receive the estimates in such a form as the Minister of Health may prescribe and they have to report to him what expenditure they propose to incur. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will give us some idea of what that means. As far as I can see, it means very little. Speaking from the point of view of one of the contributory boroughs, I should think it means that it would not prevent boards of guardians continuing their extravagant expenditure, spending their money in a haphazard way, and giving the fullest measure of relief to every unemployed person. This Bill does not give the Metropolitan Asylums Board any power to deal with the various questions affecting the control of the administration of the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund. Does this Bill mean that the new body which is to be set up will be able to deal with the able-bodied people in some of the districts? Will it be able to deal with those boards of guardians who supplement from the rates the money which is drawn from the Unemployment Fund? In many boroughs where outdoor relief has been distributed indiscriminately to people who have been convicted and who live in common lodging-houses, will it enable the Metropolitan Asylums Board to prevent boards of guardians dealing with people of that kind? Unless it does, the control of the Metropolitan Asylums Board is absolutely illusory. Does the Bill enable the new body which is to he set up to deal with the scales of relief which are now fixed at 9d. a day for outdoor relief and ls. 3d. per day for indoor relief? Those scales were fixed some years ago, and the cost of living has gone down since that time by about 50 per cent. Would it not be right and fair that those scales should be reduced. Not long ago a deputation waited upon the right hon. Gentleman in order to impress this point upon him, and they received a very courteous reply. It is not clear in the provisions of the Bill whether the Metropolitan Asylums Board are to have power to deal with the scales of outdoor relief.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the MINISTRY of HEALTH (Sir Kingsley Wood)
The Minister of Health went very thoroughly into both those points, and it is rather unfortunate that the hon. Member was not in the House to hear what my right hon. Friend said.
§ Mr. GATES
I think I have now raised all the points I wish to raise. I regret that the Bill is drawn up on its present lines. I am not prepared to vote for the Amendment, and I shall certainly go into the Lobby in favour of this Bill. I hope we shall have some opportunity in Committee of making alterations calculated to make the Bill more acceptable to the contributory boroughs.
§ Mr. SCURR
I rise to support the Amendment. The hon. Member for North Kensington (Mr. Gates) said that the borough he represented contributed to the Common Poor Fund an amount equal to a rate of 1s. 6d. in the £. May I point out that, according to the latest return issued by a special committee of the London County Council, the highest contribution to the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund was made by the City of London and it was 1s. ld. in the £; Lincoln's Inn paid 1s. 1d., Westminster 1s., Hampstead 11d., and Kensington 11d. in the £. Those are the official figures for the year 1926–27.
§ Mr. GATES:
I know the amount of the contribution by Kensington is £199,000, and that is equivalent to a rate of ls. 6d. in the £.
Mr. SCU RR
The hon. Member forgets that Kensington gets some of that money back again. The figures I have quoted have never been challenged. The Labour party are not in a majority on the county council, and consequently there cannot be any partisan feeling in regard to the figures which I have quoted. It is rather interesting to note that this Measure is not receiving a very cordial reception from the Opposition or from the supporters of the Government, particularly in regard to the Clauses of the Bill which relate to the authority which is to be set up to control expenditure in the future. I cannot understand what was in the mind of the Minister of Health when he selected the Metropolitan Asylums Board for this purpose. It is possible that the permanent officials of his Department represented to him that the Metropolitan Asylums Board was the only Poor Law authority in London with some experience of central government, and as the right hon. Gentleman may have said, "Any old thing 1790 will do," the Metropolitan Asylums Board was selected.
If we are to have some authority to control expenditure and to give a pronouncement upon it, surely it ought to be a body which has had some experience of the thing with which it is called upon to deal. What is the Metropolitan Asylums Board? I am not concerned about its indirect election or the principle of nominated members. Its duties are largely and primarily to look after the hospitals for infectious diseases. It looks after the smallpox and scarlet fever hospitals. Every board of guardians appoint representatives on that Board and, broadly speaking, they choose their representative because they have some knowledge and experience of hospital administration. After all, I presume that any Minister, in putting forward the 18 nominated persons, would be guided by exactly the same thing. These people, therefore, whose duty it is to deal with the question of hospital administration, are suddenly called upon, like a bolt from the blue, to decide how much should be spent by a particular board of guardians in regard to outdoor relief. They know nothing about it; they have no data; they have no means of ascertaining.
All sorts of statements may be made, here or anywhere else, abut the extravagance of this or that Board; the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury) and myself have been for a good many years quite familiar with this charge against East End boards of guardians. I remember that some years ago a Report was published on the Poplar Board of Guardians, which is referred to as the Davey Report, and at that time the electors and ratepayers, who were very much in agreement with the policy of hon. Members opposite, were able to secure a very large majority on the Poplar Board of Guardians. They did so, and, until a very few years ago, there were never more than seven members of the Labour party out of 24 on the Poplar Board of Guardians. At that time they determined that they would show the world how administration should be done, and they selected as their leader a very admirable man, Captain Richard Green, a man who in every way would commend himself to hon. Members opposite. He was a public school boy, 1791 a university man, and a great industrialist, and he had all the qualifications which hon. Members opposite think are essential to administration. He came on to the board determined to cut down the amount of relief, and to show how extravagant we were, but he had not been there for six weeks before he was doing exactly what, the Labour members were asking should be done, and at the end of three years he declined to stand again, because he felt that he could not conscientiously put forward the policy with which his particular organisation had been identified.
The only other function of the Metropolitan Asylums Board is to deal with casual wards, and here we have had, just recently, an example of their incompetence in dealing with a question which is outside their general work. They have recently passed the very reactionary and retrograde proposal of going back to stone-breaking as a test for labour. I am not going to stand up, in this House or anywhere else, and say that a test should not he applied to persons who are seeking employment and are also seeking relief. I do not say that it is the duty of the State to pay out money to everyone without something in return, and I apply that to every class in society; but, in regard to stone-breaking, I think it is the most foolish thing that has ever been devised. After all, if a man refuses this particular task, it does not in any way prove that he is unwilling to work. Take, for example, a cabinet-maker who is out of employment. If this cabinet-maker, who has to keep his hands in a very fine condition in order that he may do his work, is put on to stone-breaking, he is ruined absolutely for life, and, if ever he had an opportunity of getting work at his own trade, he would not be able to do it. I could multiply instance after instance of that kind in every trade and profession. Are you going to say to a clerk, a person—
§ Mr. SPEAKER
The hon. Member must not pursue that line. It does not really come within the scope of this Bill or of the Amendment.
§ Mr. SCURR
What I was suggesting was that the authority which, under this Bill, is to look after the estimates, namely, the Metropolitan Asylums Board, 1792 has shown in the past that it is not able to do work for which it is not qualified. My point is that it is not qualified, on account of its being primarily a hospital authority, to go into matters concerning finance, and I incidentally used this other instance which had come to my notice in the last few weeks. In deference, however, to your ruling, I will not pursue it; I think I have already made my point.
I join, also, with practically every other Member of the House who has spoken, in protesting against this continuous succession of temporary Measures in regard to the Poor Law. I certainly think that the Minister has had ample time, if he had had the courage, to introduce into this House a comprehensive Measure of Poor Law reform. Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, we can throw all sorts of things at one another across the House regarding extravagance in outdoor relief and all the rest of it, but the real point is that, so far as the able-bodied unemployed are concerned, they ought to be taken out of the purview of Poor Law relief. It is not a mere matter of giving to people so many shillings per week in order to keep them alive. We on this side of the House agree, equally with Members on the other side, that it is demoralising for that to continue for any length of time. My hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Bromley has expressed that view in this House on more than one occasion, and probably he would be accused of being more in favour of lavish relief than anyone else. We on this side of the House will be as severe as any Members on the other side against persons, of whom there may be some, who have no real desire to work when every opportunity has been given to every person of having work to do.
The policy of the Government, however, ought to be comprised, not in temporary Measures of this kind, but in a well-considered Measure which would take able-bodied unemployed persons outside the Poor Law. Even during the last few years, an authority in London, which has had some experience in dealing with the unemployed, has become actually derelict. The chairman of that body, the Central Unemployed Body, was my friend Mr. Pascall—not a supporter of ours by any means, but a keen supporter 1793 of the Conservative party. He has really broken his heart in his endeavours to get Governments to deal with this question in the way in which it should be dealt with, and taken outside the purview of the Poor Law. Whatever may be done in regard. to the organisation, all that I can foresee is simply a wrangle between boards of guardians and the Metropolitan Asylums Board over the amount of the guardians' estimates. Backwards and forwards the estimates will go, and it must be remembered that the guardians have to prepare those estimates half-yearly. They are not the collecting authority, but have to make a precept on the borough council, and they have to get their estimates through within a particular time. If the Metropolitan Asylums Board is going to cut down those estimates by any amount, it is going to make a difference to the precept to be levied on the borough council. Negotiations will have to go on, which will either lead to enormous delay or, in the end, to simply destroying, in many ways, local government in London, by reason of the friction that will arise.
I think that this is a bad Bill in every sense of the word. The contribution of 9d. ought to be increased to at least what is an average amount. Certain East End boroughs are accused of extravagance, but I may say that the figure in the Poor Law Union of Stepney is a little over 12d., and in the Poor Law Union of Westminster it is practically the same, so it may be said that the price per head shows clearly that ls. is much more like the average than the 9d. laid down in this Bill. I have expressed my views in regard to the Metropolitan Asylums Board, and I also consider that we ought to have had a comprehensive Measure of Poor Law Reform. On these grounds, I trust that the House will accept the Amendment.
§ Mr. RYE
I hardly like to refer to the comparison of expenses between Stepney and Westminster, but I should like to draw the attention of the hon. Member for Mile End (Mr. Scurr) to the fact that rents and expenses in Westminster are considerably higher than in Stepney, and that, therefore, it is hardly fair for him to say that the rate is 11d. in Stepney and ls. in Westminster, and, therefore, to all intents and purposes——
§ Mr. SCURR
The hon. Member will excuse me, but the hon. Member for North Kensington said that they levied a rate of 1s. 6d., which was brought about by this scheme of the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund. I endeavoured to correct him by pointing out the extra amount returned to each of the contributory boroughs.
§ 7.0 p.m.
§ Mr. RYE
I agree that it is per head, but you cannot compare the two, because, for example, the rents chargeable for Poor Law institutions, or anything else concerned with the Poor Law in Westminster, must necessarily be very much higher than they are in Stepney. As regards the Metropolitan Asylums Board, I agree with several hon. Members in thinking that it is not an ideal body for the purpose to be carried out under this Bill; but, at the same time, I think it is going a little far to suggest that it is incompetent because, in the main, its duty is to look after asylums and fever hospitals, and to suggest that, consequently, if it is given these duties, it will net be able to carry them out. The hon. Member for East Ham North (Miss Lawrence) has drawn the attention of the House to the fact that the Metropolitan Asylums Board undertakes duties in connection with casual wards. It is true, I believe, that at the moment there are only five casual wards in London, but these duties are carried out by the body which is generally known as the M.A.B., and I have never yet heard it suggested, certainly not from the benches opposite, that in connection with these casual wards there has been any unfair treatment or any dishonesty towards any person. Therefore, it is a little farfatched to suggest that, if the duties to be undertaken under this Bill are placed in the hands of the Metropolitan Asylums Board, fair treatment will not be given. I think the best answer is that there has been fair treatment so far as the casual wards are concerned.
1795 Then there is a question, to which I should like to refer, on the Bill itself. The hon. Member for North Kensington drew attention to it, and I think he was the only speaker who did so. It is as to the period of five years. I agree with the hon. Member that there is no reason why it should go on for so long a period. He pointed out that this, in the first instance, was a temporary Measure. It was arranged, I think, partly between the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury) and the city of Westminster, and it was then carried though by the Act of 1921, the operation of which was expressly limited to a period of two years. I do not see why, because it has been extended at various periods until the 1st April next, it should go on for so long a further period, and I should like to suggest to the Minister that he might consider the advisability of making the period synchronise with the election of the representatives on the Metropolitan Asylums Board. That, in effect, would be a period of three years. As has been pointed out by the hon. Member for North Kensington, when, in 1921 and 1923, the payments were fixed at 1s. 3d. for indoor relief and 9d. for outdoor relief, the cost of living was considerably higher than it is to-day, and if the Metropolitan Asylums Board are not to have the right—and the Minister has told us that they are not—of varying those rates, I do not think it should go on for so long a period as five years. I hope, therefore, that the suggestion made in the absence of the Minister by the hon. Member for North Kensington will be considered, and that the period will be cut down to the shorter term of three years.
I would like to ask the Minister one or two questions as to the powers to be vested in the Metropolitan Asylums Board. Can they, for example, question payments to be charged against the Fund under Section 69 of the Metropolitan Poor Act of 1867? Under that Act certain charges for salaries of officials, for managers of asylums, and for dispensers can be charged upon the Fund. Is the Metropolitan Asylums Board to have any say in the payment of those salaries? Are they to look into them? Are they to question them? Again, there is the question of compensation for loss of office, 1796 which under the same Act is charged upon the Fund. Is the newly-constituted body to have the right to inquire into the amount, into the inadequacy or over-adequacy, as the case may be, of any compensation that may be payable? There are other minor matters. There are fees paid for registrations of births, marriages and deaths. There are also vaccination fees which are chargeable on this Fund. Will those be within the purview of the Metropolitan Asylums Board so that they can look into and question any charges which they consider to be unreasonable and throwing an unfair burden on the contributing authorities? If they are not to have those powers, I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that further district auditors should be appointed. I am rather chary of making this suggestion, because some people think there are already a sufficient number of officials looking after local government matters, but it might be a very important matter to inquire into expenditure in the directions I have mentioned. I, therefore, hope that, if there are no such powers as I have indicated vested in the Metropolitan Asylums Board, then further district auditors might be appointed.
The hon. Member for North Kensington referred to—although he did not mention the writer—a letter containing certain observations written by Mr. Geoffrey Drage, who, as I have always understood, is a man of great knowledge and experience in Poor Law matters. In a letter in the "Times" this morning Mr. Drage asked certain questions. He wanted to know whether relief from the Fund would be given to able-bodied single persons, whether it would be available as a matter of routine for supplementary unemployed benefit and other forms of national public assistance, for men living in common lodging-houses, or to supplement the wages of casuals or the takings of hawkers. He certainly is not clear as to whether or not such relief should be given by the body to be set up to undertake these duties. I understand the Minister has already indicated that the Metropolitan Asylums Board would have no such rights. If so, then I hope that the Minister will reconsider the matter and see that they have such rights, because otherwise what is the good of placing this matter in the hands of that Board? What are they going to do? All they can do is to examine estimates 1797 brought before them by the beards of guardians. What are they to do if an estimate is brought before them by some board of guardians that in the past, in the opinion of many people, has given out-door relief to many persons who were in no way entitled to or deserved that relief? That particular board of guardians would, obviously, on the first occasion, bring forward an estimate based on the old number of persons who had been given relief. What are the Metropolitan Asylums Board to do in that case? Are they to use their discretion and to have the right to cut it down by, say, 33 per cent.? If they do not, the result would be that they would be passing an estimate for an amount which, in reality, would be in excess of the requirements of the locality. I hope that is a matter that will have further consideration by the Minister.
There is also a very important question which has not been referred to, and that is that there is no right of appeal from the Metropolitan Asylums Board to the Minister. In all these cases, as a general rule, there is a final right of appeal, or rather the Minister has the right to step in. What is going to happen if the Metropolitan Asylums Board runs amok? Supposing they pass extravagant estimates or, in the converse case, supposing they act in a niggardly spirit, is the Minister prepared to be powerless for three or five years? I am going to suggest to him that, in the interests of the ratepayers and of the persons who are to be in receipt of relief, he ought to reserve the right to step in, as he can do in other cases, and put an end to the mal-administration, if it happens to be the case of the Metropolitan Asylums Board, and to say to them, "You are not dealing fairly and reasonably with the boards of guardians who come before you. You are dealing in a cheeseparing, niggardly and unfair manner, and I wish to put an end to it and to supersede you." He is not getting these powers under this Bill, and when the Bill is passed the position will be that the Metropolitan Asylums Board, whether it acts fairly or unfairly, will be the master of the situation. The suggestion has been made that they do not know their duties. The 55 of them are nominated as guardians, and it has been suggested that the boards of guardians 1798 nominate persons who have no particular knowledge of the Poor Law, but who have knowledge of asylums and hospitals. If that be so, and they are incompetent people, Heaven only knows what they may do! They may be taken in by some of these boards of guardians. They may come alone with some of their costly and extravagant estimates based on their past mal-practices, and these poor innocents on the Metropolitan Asylums Board may accept them. That is going to be no good whatsoever. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will hear that point in mind and will see whether he cannot put in a Clause in Committee giving him the power to step in in emergencies and act in such a way as may be proper.
Finally, and I speak as a Member of the City of Westminster, which is the largest contributory body to the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund, although there is no desire on the part of the City of Westminster not to assist the poorer people in the poorer parts of London, but we congratulate the Minister on taking a step which goes to some extent towards control of the funds which the contributing bodies have to find. It is something for which we are grateful. It is not as far as I should have liked the Minister to have gone, but it is the third step he has taken to put an end to maladministration in Poor Law guardians and borough councils and I congratulate him most heartily on the efforts he has made to put an end to a state of affairs which was rapidly becoming intolerable.
§ Mr. MARCH
I happen to be one of those people who have never been members of a board of guardians. I do not speak, therefore, as a guardian, but as a representative of a very poor district where a very large number of people have, unfortunately, to go to the guardians to get some assistance to keep them alive. I have never yet come across anyone who has been getting from the board of guardians what I would call lavish relief. I was rather surprised to hear the hon. Member for North Kensington (Mr. Gates) talk about the lavish expenditure of the boards of guardians. Has he had the experience of getting assistance from the boards of guardians and trying to live on it? If he and many others had to go to the board of guardians for their subsistence, they would 1799 soon speak differently about lavishness. I have always found in this House that hon. Members who speak about lavishness never speak about what they are getting themselves. It is very nice to sit here and hear hon. Members, who have never known what it is to want a crust of bread, talking about other people getting lavish assistance. I would like them to try to exist for a year or two on what even the Poplar Board of Guardians have been allowing the people in that district. I get many of them coming to me and complaining of the action of the board of guardians and of the interrogations of the relieving officers and of the committees. It seems to me that those remarks are made by people who do not mind spending and lavishing money on those who have already got it, but who describe as lavish anything that is given to those few unfortunate people who have nothing upon which to exist.
Has the Minister ever taken into consideration the fact that we have had a Great War? When he talked this afternoon about the increase in the numbers on the board of guardians, has he taken into consideration the number of men the Ministry of Pensions have struck off from assistance and who have had to go to the board of guardians? Has he taken into consideration the number of widows and children that have to go to the board of guardians now in consequence of the seven years' limit? Day after day I meet men and women whom I can remember well looking bonny, healthy, hearty people but who are now gradually deteriorating and going down and down. It makes one's heart almost bleed to meet them. You cannot pass without giving them a cheery word and if possible rendering what little assistance you can. When they know you are prepared to render some little assistance, you have many people coming along. When one has worked and lived with them for 50 years one knows fairly well those who will work and those who will not. One knows fairly well those who, maimed and injured through the War, cannot and never will get work. The employers do not want them and, as a matter of fact, cannot have them, because the insurance companies will not accept the liability in case they should meet with accident. 1 know a man with whom I used to work who is left with one eye, through unfortunately 1800 chopping a piece of fire-wood at home. The piece of wood flew into his eye, and he lost his eye. He was a vehicle worker. I worked beside him. He has not got a job since. Where is he to get a living when he has finished his sick pay? His living has to be on the board of guardians. Other people more fortunate have to help to keep him. If you allow him 15s. a week for board and lodgings he has not got a lot to be extravagant upon, and I wish some hon. Members who talk so ridiculously about lavishness would try it for a year or two.
The papers come out with phrases such as the "Daily Mail" did the other day, with its placard, "Six years on the boards of guardians." I know another man who was injured at his work and lost the use of both his legs. He is going about now on crutches, and has been on the guardians six years. Probably he is the man they meant. He goes about on crutches because he is so deformed in his legs that no one will employ him. Where is he to go for a living? Why do you not come out boldly, as you have done in other cases, and say you mean to have a dig at the board of guardians to see that they are looked after by a body like this? Why do you not say to these people: "It is nearly time you went into a lethal chamber"? You have not the courage to do that kind of thing, or to tell the people they ought to starve because they have been unfortunate and have got deformed, as this man is. He has been on the guardians for six years, and is likely to be for another six if he lives, but you are trying to see that they cut down the amount they allow the people of this kind so that they may soon go off the earth through being semi-starved. You will not have it that it is starving them, but they get so deteriorated that it is nothing but starvation.
The Minister tried to convince the House that the Metropolitan Asylums Board were a fine body of people. He said they had practically half the paying boroughs and half the receiving boroughs, and only 18 nominated people. Most of the nominated people are getting fairly decent pay or superannuation. Most of them have had great experience in charity organisation work, in investigating and interrogating and going right down to the bottom of 1801 people's birth to find out whether they were actually born as they ought to have been, and if they were not, they had to be badly treated for it. These nominated members will be able to nullify any decision to which the others come. The half from the receiving boards will have a big job to convince those from the paying boards that their estimates are reasonable and fair, and when they have convinced them they will have the other 18 to contend with, and they will be able to nullify the decision arrived at by these two sections. This body, to my mind, is nothing like the proper body to deal with this business. We hear from the Minister that assistance is given in accordance with the numbers on assistance or relief, but when it comes to the representation of these boards it is on the valuation of the borough. The consequence is that the receiving boroughs are very much handicapped by the representatives of the paying boroughs.
I remember quite well that this was arrived at because Poplar took the action it did. Poplar said, "We had heard from Tories and Liberals for many years that unemployment was a national question and, because the nation did not do its duty, we decided that we would do it for them," and so a conference was called and we met the representatives of the richer boroughs and the poorer boroughs. We cannot call them otherwise. It is owing to geography, I suppose. They happen to be placed in this position. The richer boroughs could not live without help from the poorer boroughs, in some instances at all events. In my borough we have railways and docks to upset us every hour of the day and night. We put up with all the inconvenience and take the goods to the West End that they may enjoy themselves. If we do that, surely we are entitled to some consideration from them, because we tear our roads up and go to a big expense in carting the goods up to them, and tear the roads up again coming back. Therefore, the richer boroughs, as they term themselves, found they were called upon to give some assistance to the poorer boroughs. We are inter-dependent; we are not dependent upon ourselves, and as the Government will not take up its responsibility of finding employment for the able-bodied unemployed, they have done everything 1802 they can to prevent the guardians giving the help they ought to give to keep body and soul together. Even if many of these men had an opportunity of getting work they could not do it, because they have not been able to keep up their stamina on account of the impoverished manner in which they have been served by the Minister and his Regulations. He has brought such pressure on the guardians that they cannot do their business by these people as they ought to do, and the Government themselves will not do their share as they ought to do. We have asked the Minister over and over again to open up a colony where the men can have proper training, but he does not feel inclined to do that. Put these men to work and then test them. After you have fed and clothed them, give them reasonable work to do, and if they fail to do it, you are entitled to call them slackers, but you have no right to call them slackers until you do that. You have no right to half starve men and women and children, as they are being half-starved in my district owing to the shortage of what they ought to have to keep them alive.
The Minister also forgets that for over six years we have had over 1,250,000 unemployed registering, and the unemployment pay has not been enough to keep them in condition to work when work turns up, but they have had to go to the guardians for supplemental assistance, just as many pensioners and many old age pensioners do. That is how it is that the numbers have jumped up on the list of the Poplar Board of Guardians that the Minister read to-day. Before the War pretty well 25 per cent. of our people were on casual employment, doing a day, or half a day, or a couple of days' work a week. That has not improved. There is still a very large number on casual work and those on casual work at the docks, through the arrangements that are made, get some help by the work they do and some help through the Employment Exchange because of the nature of their work, and if it were not for that assistance where would they have to go but to the guardians? I can quite well understand the same thing applying to Bethnal Green and various other places. You could not expect half the people who are living in Bethnal Green to do road work, and if you put 1803 them on to it you would spoil them for any work they might obtain afterwards in their own trade. In Bethnal Green there is a large number of cabinetmakers, French polishers, bootmakers, slipper-makers, and so on. When work is slack in their trade, it is no use putting them on to road-making. They could not do it. They were never built for it. They have never lived up to it. You term them loafers, as hon. Members are very prone to term men and women who, by force of circumstances, have to get assistance from the guardians. That assistance is not half enough to keep body and soul together and to keep them fit for work when work comes along.
Even the master carmen in the East End of London, bad as they are, if they have no work for their horses turn them out to grass, and when they fetch them back they feed them, clean them and have them properly housed before they put them to work. You do not do that with the unemployed, and you expect a man who has been out for months and months, and sometimes for years, to carry on as though nothing had happened. You put them alongside men who have been well trained and, because they do not keep up with them, the foreman puts them off and says on their paper they are no good to him, and the Minister says, "You are discharged on your own account." Where is the man to go? You have not found a lethal chamber to put him into, and he must go to the guardians. Then you grumble at the guardians for giving him some assistance. I wonder whether the Metropolitan Asylums Board are to have the right to look through the applications of the people who come to the guardians? What is going to happen to any who have been convicted? No one wants them. Where are they to go? They must go to the guardians. They must not steal. If they steal, they are run into prison. They will get better attention in prison than they will get from the guardians under the conditions laid down by this Minister of Health.
Suppose a man gets convicted for stealing because he is hungry or wants something to clothe his children, and serves a term of imprisonment. When he comes out, nobody wants him. He is 1804 harassed by the police. Where is he to go for assistance? He must go to the guardians. Are the guardians to be blamed because, through force of circumstances, he had to go there? What happens to many of the higher-class people who take their thousands and get convicted? There is a great to-do, and people say, "We must do something for this man. We must try to get him out of this. He never ought to have been there. Look at the character he had. Look at the job he had." He had such a good job that he ought to have been able to live on it and keep himself honest. The majority of working-class men and women do not get enough in wages when they are in full work to keep them as they ought to be kept, and then some people think, as the Minister does, that they ought to live easily for a week under his regulations without having to get any assistance from unemployment benefit. That is the week that they want something. He has not been able to get enough to put by to enable him to live a week without getting some assistance. Boards of guardians are established for the purpose of giving assistance to the needy, and when they are in want you should allow the guardians to use their discretion as to what is enough to keep body and soul together. When they have given what is reasonable, along come the Minister and his auditors and say, "This is unreasonable because you are much better fed than those people who are being treated reasonably." I hope working-class men and women will soon realise what you are after. You are trying to starve them into submission so that they will do anything the employer wants them to do for any pay he likes to give them. When someone on this side said they are not paid enough to keep them and their means have to be supplemented by the guardians, the Minister says, "That is business-like. I congratulate the employers on being able to get their work done." I do not congratulate the employers on getting work done on low wages. I want to see men get wages that will enable them to live and keep their families together without going to the guardians at all.
§ It being Half-past Seven, of the Clock, and there being Private Business set down by direction of the Chairman of 1805 Ways and Means under Standing Order No. 8, further Proceeding was postponed without Question put.