HC Deb 10 December 1929 vol 233 cc366-76

The Minister may make regulations, respect of such industries as may seem to him desirable, whereunder vacancies in such employments as are prescribed in the regulations made under this Section may be notified in such areas as are prescribed in such regulations in accordance with special arrangements to be concluded between the Minister and the employers and the associations of workpeople concerned; and the regulations made by the Minister may prescribe that claimants to benefit who are insured in respect of the employments covered by such regulations and who, having complied with the prescribed conditions, have failed to secure employment, shall have established a prima facie claim to benefit.—[Mr. Graham White.]


Before I call on the hon. Member for East Birkenhead to move his proposed new Clause, may I ask him a question? Is not this proposal covered by Section 35 (1, b) of the Act of 1920?


I may answer your question, Sir, in the negative. I do not think that the aims which we seek to accomplish in this new Clause have figured in any previous Measure.

Clause brought up, and read the First, time.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

9.0 p.m.

This is a Clause to which we attach considerable importance. As I have just indicated, it seeks to establish a new principle which we think will enable an attack to be made upon one of the most serious blots on our industrial system. We have this evening added to the Bill what is really the first constructive new proposal which has been made in connection with it. That is the new Clause moved by the Minister of Labour and, in spite of the observations of the Noble Lord the Member for Hastings (Lord E. Percy), I think we ought to try to introduce here proposals which, if not actually insurance, have a constructive purpose which is cognate with the general subject of insurance. That is the nature of the proposal in the new Clause. During the Second Reading Debate I drew attention to the extraordinarily chaotic conditions under which labour is engaged in this country, and I expressed the opinion in connection with Clause 4, over which we have spent so many dreary hours of Parliamentary time, that the right solution of the difficulty with which we were trying to deal was the minority report of the Morris Committee coupled with a constructive Measure for dealing with the engagement of labour. This new Clause has as its object to make a beginning with new and constructive proposals for the engagement of labour which will he complementary to Clause 4 as it was in the original draft of the Bill and as it probably will be when it comes back to the House of Commons on the Report stage. I think it is relevant and indeed necessary to my present purpose that I should remind the Committee of what I said on the Second Reading. I drew attention to the conditions under which large numbers of men congregate outside works without the slightest protection against the weather and without the slightest sanitary conveniences. At the end of their period of waiting they are often dismissed with scant courtesy. It is an experience which no man would undergo unless he were genuinely seeking work. When these congregations of men break up, they not infrequently do so without any signal or sign from those inside the works, and when the crowd has melted away—to use a popular expression—there may be half a dozen who remain at the street corner when the bulk of the men have gone away. These quietly go into the works when the other men have gone, in accordance with an arrangement made on some previous occasion—an arrangement which is very often neither honourable nor worthy and which is often accompanied by some sort of consideration for the job.

If all the vacancies which become available in industry to-day were notifiable to the Employment Exchanges, we should have had no long discussions in Clause 4. We should have had no "genuinely seeking work" condition. We should have had no problem, and we should have saved an immense amount, not only of Parliamentary time, but of distress and hardship of the kind which we have been discussing during the past few days. The right hon. Lady has indicated that it is impossible to make all the jobs notifiable to the Employment Exchanges and also that it is undesirable to do so, and I agree. There are, in the first place, physical objections to it. We could not, with the present volume of unemployment, make all vacancies available for the simple reason that large masses of men could not come to the Exchanges. They could not be contained in the Exchanges.

There are other reasons which are equally weighty. The people of this country do not like compulsion in anything. It is upon the basis and the principle of making the Employment Exchanges responsible for their original purpose of providing work and notifying vacancies that the solution is to be found of all these difficulties with which we have been confronted in the last few days and in the discussions on all previous Bills. It is on these lines, and on these lines only, that these difficulties will be over- come. If it is impossible to deal with the matter in this way, it has occurred to us that the best way to solve the difficulty is to put down this enabling Clause which will enable experiments to be made on these lines, and also enable the Minister, for example, to say, when it is agreed between the employers' organisation and the association of employés in a certain district in respect of a certain trade, that all the vacancies in that trade shall be notified to the Employment Exchange, that all these outside stands shall be done away with, and that the men shall attend at the Exchange, if possible, or if not the Exchange, some other place where they may meet in ordinary comfort and be protected from the inclement weather. The conditions under which they have to meet are bad for the men, who often get wet through waiting in the open and whose physical condition deteriorates. It is bad for the men and also bad for the employers. The system by which they congregate on these stands, which, I repeat here, are the modern counterpart of the ancient slave market, is not desired by many employers and is not desired by any considerable number of trade unions. Therefore, if this blot upon the system is one of which, we can get rid, we ought to make up our minds to get rid of it and take the first step necessary towards getting rid of it, for it is a thing which we can cure and cure speedily.

This is not a question of Socialism either in our time or in anybody else's time. If we take the first step now, we can, in a short space of time, clear away this blot of the stand system from the industrial life of our country. We suggest in this enabling Clause that the Minister should take power in conjunction with the associations of employers and of employed and the local officers of her Ministry, to make such arrangements as will enable the employés to attend at a certain place, to enable all the jobs to be, notified, the employers to send, if they wish, their foreman in order to interview men they wish to employ, and the trade union delegates to attend if they wish. We further suggest that arrangements should be made enabling the attendance at such places of applicants in search of work to be recognised as prima facie evidence that a man is seeking work and is entitled to benefit. Such a thing would naturally follow, because it would be the only place in the area where a man in a particular trade could look for work with any chance of getting work.

I submit, on behalf of the hon. Friends whose names are associated with mine in moving this Clause, that the Clause should receive the favourable consideration of the Committee and also of the Minister. The right approach towards a solution of this matter is in the direction of local experiments in certain areas. I know that in Germany experiments have been tried in respect of certain employments and in certain areas. I am not sure what the results of those experiments have been, but they are, no doubt, available and within the archives of the Ministry presided over by the right hon. Lady.

There is another point which I should like to mention. In the course of these discussions, there arises from time to time references to the number of persons who, for one reason or another, are unemployable. It is a serious problem, but we do not know the magnitude of it, and we have no certain information about it. There is only one way in which the country can find out the nature and size of the problem which requires to be dealt with in that respect, and that is to carry out in each trade some such arrangement as I am foreshadowing here. The Clause which I am moving is not a mere castle in Spain, but an attempt to extend an experiment which has been made and in regard to which there has been a certain amount of experience gained. We suggest that the process of experiment should be carried further, and that it should have official approval and an official standard of regulations made by the right hon. Lady in consultation with all the local interests concerned in the matter.


I hope very much that we shall have some discussion on this Clause, because I think it deals with a matter of extreme importance, and 1 should like to know the sense of the Committee upon it. I am very anxious to develop the intention of this Clause. I have a little doubt about whether the last part of it is really in order. It seems rather to suggest the introduction of a new title to benefit. I do not think that this matter should be associated with benefit at all. In regard to the question of building up the work-finding machinery of the Exchanges in consultation with employers and trade unions, I am absolutely and wholeheartedly in favour of having such experiments made. There is one thing to which, I think, the Mover of the new Clause is clearly alive, and that is, that there is no question of being able to insist upon compulsory notification. It will have to be a voluntary arrangement entered into by the employers. We have an illustration in connection with the Potteries, where 80 per cent. of the employers in the trade have agreed to take all their labour from the Employment Exchanges. That immediately simplifies the whole problem of work-finding. It is an incalculable advantage to the whole machinery of work-finding to have these agreements with employers. I hope very much indeed that it will be possible to carry out the intentions of this Clause, and I hope that my hon. Friend will not press me to adopt the exact words, because that might be a little difficult. But, subject to that, and to what I hope may be the general expression of opinion in the Committee as to the possibility of proceeding in this direction, I shall be glad to give my approval to the proposal.


May I say, in reply to the right hon. Lady, that it was not the intention of the Clause to stake out any claim or any form of claim for benefit.


The object of the new Clause is, clearly, of enormous importance. My difficulty about it is that it says that the Minister may prepare regulations, but it provides no material for making regulations. She can at the present time make arrangements with employers, as has been done in the pottery industry, by which vacancies can be registered. The new Clause suggests that she should make regulations. About what? Imposing what compulsory power? Imposing what penalty? Offering what advantages? It is suggested that the Minister should make regulations for inducing employers to come to an arrangement, but the only inducement offered is not an inducement to the employer but an inducement to the insured worker, with regard to benefit. What we really want is to offer an inducement to the employer to notify all his vacancies and to make proper arrangements for engaging his labour. Until you do that and until you have some sort of penalty on the employer who maintains an absurd margin of casual labour over and above his requirements, you will not attack the real root of this evil. You need to decasualise labour. You need to ensure that, as far as possible, the employer shall not engage his workmen in such a way as to make the workmen largely of the casual labour class. All that is done by this new Clause and its suggested regulations is to say to the employer that, if he will notify all his vacancies, then all the people that he will require will gather in one particular street or one particular building. That does not really help to decasualise labour.


In reply to the noble Lord, I would point out that there are many subsidiary advantages which would arise to the employer under this arrangement. For instance, he would have the knowledge that he was protecting public funds by increasing to an enormous degree the better administration of the Unemployment Insurance Fund. He would know that the men whom he wished to engage were always to be found in the same place, and that he could send for his own men. The Clause does not interfere in any way with the right of the employer to engage the men whom he wishes to engage. In the practical working of the idea, so far as it has been carried out in practice, there arc many advantages which the employers have found of benefit to themselves.


Take the case of the docks. There are arrangements by which the dock employer knows exactly where he can engage his men, but we know that that arrangement alone does not prevent the dock employer from maintaining on his dock register an enormous surplus of casual labour. That does not result in the decasualisation of labour.


I am not sure whether the new Clause in its present form is necessary, especially the last few lines, in view of Clause 4. The re-drafting of Clause 4 would in any case necessitate the re-modelling of the last part of the new Clause. Whether the new Clause as a whole is necessary or whether it requires to be re-drafted, I think there is tremendous importance attaching to its objective. It is a misfortune that almost ever since Unemployment Insurance was instituted, the Minister of Labour has had to face an abnormal situation, in which the original function of work finding has been almost entirely absorbed by the function of paying out benefit. Anyone who is familiar with the inside of an exchange knows from experience that so great is the pressure upon the machine by the necessity of paying unemployment benefit to many hundreds of people each week that the job-finding function of the exchanges throughout the country has been subordinated to what was originally the least important of the two functions of the Ministry. So far as we can see ahead, there is no prospect of that matter being put right within the Ministry for a very considerable time.

If in the earlier days a smaller unemployment problem had been dealt with, and the machinery for finding jobs had not been subordinated to the necessity of paying out unemployment benefit, probably the work-finding side of the Ministry would have developed in such a way as to keep pace with the necessities imposed upon it. That has not been the case, and, with an unemployment figure of over 1,000,000, it probably will not be the case for very many years to come. In these circumstances, it seems to me that tremendous importance attaches to devolving the work-finding function of the Ministry. In my own town of Wolverhampton, it is a pathetic sight to see men drawn up day by day, standing in a barn-like building, or down a flight of steps or outside a yard, waiting, in all kinds of weather, because the whole function is concentrated within that particular building. It ought to be possible to devolve that function and to distribute it in various parts of the town. That is one of the objects of the new Clause. Subject to what the Minister may say as to whether the new Clause is necessary, because she already has power to make arrangements, I think the sense of the Committee, including the fourth party, is in favour of encouraging the Ministry to proceed as far as possible along the lines suggested.


This new Clause seems to raise a rather serious question. I gather that the intention is to provide for regulations whereby a voluntary arrangement will be made under which employers' associations may notify vacancies. There seems nothing to prevent penalties being inflicted for failure to notify. While it may well be that circumstances may arise in which it may be right and proper for penalties to be inflicted for non-notification, that would be far too serious a matter to put into the hands of any Minister, without qualification, because, while it may be true that such associations of employers and associations of workpeople may have consented to the arrangement, and would thereby be consenting to their own liability, once the regulations were made, they would have a wider application, and they might affect employers other than those who had assented to the arrangement. There would be power given to the Minister to involve others in liability to penalties of a quasi-criminal character, without this House having the smallest say in the matter. While the principle of the new Clause is extremely good that notification should be encouraged, if we are to take a step which may involve the question of penalties, there ought to be more adequate safeguards than there are in this Clause.


I can realise the force of the criticisms that have been made. We had no intention in regard to penalties when we drafted the Clause. We drew the Clause in its present foam, allied to benefit, because we thought we might not get it in in any other way. In this Clause, we approach the notification problem from the simplest end. The most difficult part of the unemployment problem must always be to supply single jobs, or jobs in small numbers. Here you are dealing with large masses of men going to a particular place, say, in a shipbuilding or engineering town, where no adequate accommodation is provided. Our intention is not to suggest a penalty, but to give the Minister power to facilitate arrangements suggested in the Clause, and to make it possible that a man may sign on there, and thereby make a prima facie case that he is genuinely seeking work, as he is now asked to do. At the moment it is impossible to check large masses of men unless you have a special arrangement and a clerk of the Ministry calling the roll at the end of the job. We are not concerned with the words in the Clause, but we do regard the issue raised by it as one of the very biggest which can be raised in connection with this matter.


We appreciate the sympathetic reception given by the Minister of Labour and Members in all quarters of the House to this proposal. It is recognised that this new Clause touches questions of very great importance and suggests a reform which is eminently desirable in the interests of those who are temporarily without work. Our present arrangements impose very great hardships on numbers of working people and are really uncivilised in some respects and unworthy of a highly-developed industrial community such as ours. The hon. Member for West Wolverhampton (Mr. W. J. Brown) stated, quite rightly, that when the Employment Exchanges were first established it was intended that their. main purpose should be that of Labour Exchanges. I was a Member of the Government of that day, and certainly our intention was that the chief object of these new institutions should be to save people from the hardships and discomforts which arose from searching and struggling for work in large competitive crowds. Unemployment insurance came into force at the same time, and naturally the two schemes were linked together, and in the course of events which have since occurred the unemployment insurance side of the work of the Labour Exchanges has become much more bulky and far more conspicuous than the other.

The purpose of this Clause is to suggest to the Ministry of Labour that it should take more active steps if possible to introduce more rational methods of enlistment of labour and to promote its decasualisation. It was not intended that it should have a compulsory effect. It would be useful if in an Act of Parliament there were some kind of declaratory Clause expressing what is the desire of Parliament. Such a Clause would stimulate the Ministry, and make it its clear duty to perform those functions, and arm it with further moral authority in approaching employers. If there is a Clause in an Act of Parliament, when circularising employers that Clause would no doubt have considerable influence upon them and be a reason for the Ministry to approach them and be a direction by Parliament to proceed along those lines. In those circumstances, it does seem to us desirable that there should be a Clause of this nature in this Act when it finally leaves this House. As my hon. Friends have said, we are not tied to the precise wording that we have suggested, and we recognise that the latter part of the Clause is open to some objection. In view of the very sympathetic reception that has been given to it by the Minister and by the Committee, I would propose, if this Clause were now withdrawn, that she should offer to prepare a Clause with the assistance of the Department and the draftsmen, which would effect what is obviously the desire of the whole Committee, while freeing the provision from such objection as may reasonably be raised against the present drafting.


I very gladly accept that suggestion and will consider the preparation of a declaratory Clause which will meet the case.


I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Clause.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.


The hon. Member for Spennymoor has four new Clauses on the Order Paper, and I propose to take the second one.