HC Deb 17 December 1929 vol 233 cc1357-67

1. "That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding£3,500,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1930, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Ministry of Labour and Subordinate Departments, including the Exchequer Contribution to the Unemployment Fund, Grants to Associations, Local Education Authorities, and others under the Unemployment Insurance, Labour Exchanges, and other Acts; Expenses of the Industrial Court; Contribution towards the Expenses of the International Labour Organisation (League Of Nations); Expenses of Training and Trans- ference of Workpeople and their Families within Great Britain and Oversea; and sundry services, including services arising out of the War."

2. "That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding£10,650, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1930, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Department of Health for Scotland, including Grants and other Expenses in connection with Housing, Grants to Local Authorities, etc., in connection with Public Health Services, Grants in Aid of the Highlands and Islands Medical Service, Grants in Aid of Benefits and Expenses of Administration under the National Health Insurance Acts, certain expenses in connection with the Widows', Orphans', and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act, 1925, and certain Special Services."

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."


I wish to make one or two remarks on the Report stage of this Estimate. Unfortunately, this Estimate was brought on very late last night, and I was unable to say what I wanted to say. It is important that we should discuss this matter not at any great length, but still we should discuss it because it has a very vital bearing upon what has been taking place during the last few years. In my opinion, this Supplementary Estimate which is the estimate for the No. 1 Bill which we had in the House of Commons last July is the beginning of what I might call turning the unemployment scheme into a relief scheme. I noticed a particular phrase which the Minister of Labour used last night in the few remarks which she made on this Estimate. She told us that the House had passed the Bill to which I have referred without a Division, and therefore she did not consider it necessary to say much upon this Supplementary Estimate. I think we are entitled to look at the result of that Measure for the reason that we did not go very fully into its merits upon a former occasion. That Measure was the first step towards unlimited State money being put into the unemployment scheme changing the insurance principle and making it a dole. That principle was developed worse and worse in the Bill which passed its final stage in this House yesterday.

I hope hon. Members will not think that I am wasting time if I say a word or two on the subject of this Measure. There is one question that I particularly want to ask. When this Bill was first taken in the House, the unemployment figures were comparatively low. Since then the figures have risen. Certain figures were given last night, particularly by the Financial Secretary, which I wanted to study, but, unfortunately, the Debate took place so late at night that. the figures were not in the OFFICIAL 'IMPORT this morning. That shows the inadvisability of taking these Debates after Eleven at night, if it can possibly be avoided. The figures were low then, and have risen ever since; and I saw to-night on the tape machine that the figures have risen by yet another 6,000. I would point out that always, for the last few years at any rate, the unemployment figures have fallen considerably before Christmas, and particularly the figure corresponding to the one that we have had to-night, because of what is known as the Christmas trade. That has invariably been followed by a considerable rise, as all these people who had been taken on for temporary work at Christmas have lost their temporary jobs again and have had to sign on at the Employment Exchanges. This Christmas, however, for some reason, the unemployment figures have risen very considerably instead of going down, and I am afraid that, because of that, in a week or two we shall find that the figures, after the temporary work for Christmas has come to an end, will rise again to an almost unprecedented height. I have heard it said that the figure might go up to as much as 1,500,000. That I do not know, but anyhow it is bound to rise, unless this year is different from any other that we have had.

I want to ask whether account has been taken of the fact that the figures, instead of dropping, have risen before Christmas, and are bound to rise still further after Christmas, and, if so, whether this Supplementary Estimate is enough to cover the increased number. Personally, I had hoped that by this time the Government would have thought of some better scheme than either the No. I or the No. 2 Bill to deal with this matter, and I am afraid that this Supplementary Estimate will be useless for this purpose. I do hope, however, that the Government, instead of bringing forward another Supplementary Estimate even bigger than this—and it must be bigger for the No. 2 Bill—will really set their minds to the problem of trying to divide up unemployment insurance and relief schemes, and so avoid these Supplementary Estimates. The question to which I particularly desire an answer is, whether the Government have realised that this year has been different from every other year and that the unemployment figures are bound to go up considerably in a week or two, and whether this Estimate, which was made in July, when the figures were very much lower, will adequately cover what will, I am afraid, be the unemployment figure in a few months' time.

Commander WILLIAMS

There are two or three questions which I think we ought to ask of the Financial Secretary at this time. The first is, is the hon. Gentleman quite certain that the figure in the Estimate is accurate? I am not. It will be seen that the original Estimate was£11,998,000, and now it is£15,498,000. The additional sum that we are voting is£3,500,000. I am not in the least sure that that sum is accurate, and I will give my reasons. I am not certain that, coming at this particular time, that sum is the requisite and proper amount to carry us over until we next meet, and I think the hon. Gentleman ought to tell us very clearly whether this is really the proper sum, or whether he may not yet, even before we rise for Christmas, have to come to the House for yet another Estimate.

The next question that I wish to raise is this: Last night the hon. Gentleman was asked why he did not bring in this Estimate earlier, and he gave the most astonishing answer that it was because it was not wanted. The whole argument for bringing in the Estimate earlier is that, as was pointed out to-day, there is a very great disadvantage in bringing forward Votes such as this, which bear very heavily on the taxpayer, at a late hour and late in the Session. If this Estimate had been brought in early in November, we could have had adequate time to discuss it, and we should not have had what was so much condemned by the President of the Board of Trade in his opening speech this afternoon, namely, the discussion of important matters at an hour getting on for midnight, to which I particularly object. Then I want to know precisely what is the amount in the Fund, what is the deficit, and how much the hon. Gentleman anticipates he will have by the end of January, when presumably he will have to bring forward an Estimate. Last night he intimated that this sum of£3,500,000 was rather in the nature of a transfer. We are in a difficulty, because we have not the OFFICIAL REPORT which gave us the points last night. Perhaps he will tell us what was the position he took up last night. Is it something in the nature of a transfer, that is to say, that you relieve the loss in the Unemployment Fund by a national grant? If it is that, the position of the House is perfectly clear in regard to this Estimate. All we are doing is granting a very large sum of the taxpayers' money to this fund, and the result of that is not to 'do any good, not to help anyone but that so many tens of thousands of people will be thrown out of work. To put it into simple language, it means roughly that 20,000 people at£3 10s. lose a job, and that is the contribution the Government are asking us to make. I am thoroughly convinced that the policy of the Government is unsound and I think the Estimate needs explanation.


I think it is necessary to remind the House what we are really asking for in this Supplementary Estimate. In July last, the House decided that the State should make a one-third contribution towards the Insurance Fund. That principle being accepted by the House on the Second and Third Reading, the next step is to give effect to it. We have heard a good deal of the Blanesburgh Report in the last week or two. This is one of the principles that the Blanes-burgh Report laid down very clearly. The hon. Member asked me how long this was to last? Were we quite sure it would keep the fund going until the end of the year? I may tell him that it was stated from this box last night that this contribution of£3,500,000 will keep the Fund going until February, when there will be another Supplementary Estimate needed.

Commander WILLIAMS

Of how much?


That is a matter which we cannot tell just yet. When that Supplementary Estimate comes on, we shall then be able to discuss the reason for the Estimate, which will involve the figures dealt with by the hon. Member opposite. That is really the position. This is the£3,500,000 which implements the Bill passed by the House of Commons without a Division on a principle which was accepted unanimously in the House. When we come to the further stage—that will be next year—I think it will be permissible to discuss the need of the money in relation to the figures of unemployment. One could do that to-night if it were necessary, but I would point out to the House that those figures have no relation to the£3,500,000. I do not think it is necessary to throw any further light on this particular matter. One could say, if it were permissible to discuss the figures, that perhaps the figures arise because of better registration; because there are men on the fund who have been disqualified in the past and who have become, in some cases, an unjust charge on the Poor Law. I do not want to go into that matter to-night, because I do not think those figures have any relation to the present sum for which we are asking. I ask the House to give us this Vote, because the matter has been discussed at various stages. It was discussed in the earlier part of the year on the Second Reading, the Committee stage, and the Third Reading of the Bill, to which I have referred, and it was discussed last night. The principle has been accepted. When the Supplementary Estimate comes up in February, the whole of the facts and figures can be dealt with at that time.


In what a pathetic position we find ourselves tonight: The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour said, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Torquay (Commander Williams), that this Vote will carry us to February, and that at that date a further Supplementary Estimate will be introduced. He has put this Vote, in fact, in the position of being a mere token Vote. [Interruption.] That really is so. We are asked to-night, so far as unemployment insurance is concerned, for a token Vote of£3,500,000, which it is estimated, will carry us until February next, and we are asked to pledge ourselves to an unlimited liability in the future. That is as I see the position. We are asked to-night at this late hour to say that we will give£3,500,000 on the Report stage of this Vote—the taxpayers' money—without any explanation as to what is the liability of the country. I do not ask the hon. Gentleman to explore this subject and go into it in all its ramifications, but I think he should give us an indication, that, while to-night we are asked to Vote£3,500,000 to carry us up to February, the Government estimate that the additional charge will be, roughly, say£5,000,000,£15,000,000 or£50,000,000 or whatever is the sum. Let us know the forecast of the amount to which we are committing ourselves in this House. If there is one function that this House has to discharge it is that of guardian of the public purse. We are here to watch strictly and to protect the public exchequer. Hon. Members opposite will admit that that is one of the primary functions of this House, yet the Parliamentary Secretary passes off with a phrase this Vote for£3,500,000 by saying that it will carry us over until February, but as to the amount for which we stand committed by the Act which was passed last July, there was not one word of guidance: not one word to indicate the liability to which we are committed. While I make no quarrel as to whether this Estimate is right or wrong, I do say that we are entitled to more guidance from the Government as to the commitments to which we are pledged.


I think that the explanations given so briefly by the Parliamentary Secretary, so far from relieving our minds, has rather added to our disquietude. My hon. Friends have pointed out the feeling of uncertainty in which this leaves us. It is all very well for the Parliamentary Secretary to say that this Supplementary Estimate is in order to carry out a Vote of this House in regard to the State bearing an equal third with the other parties as contributors to the Unemployment Insurance Fund, but it seems to me that this is merely an example of what we might call Socialistic finance in connection with this matter. We have heard, in speech after speech from hon. Members opposite, that not only this Bill but other Measures are only instalments, which is a phrase coined to soothe the rather ruffled feelings of hon. Members behind them. If ever there was a case of an instalment this has been proved to be so out of the mouth of the Parliamentary Secretary. We are asked to pass an instalment that is to carry us over the Recess. We have the word of the Prime Minister that he can carry out his political duties much more efficiently when this House is not sitting than when it is sitting, and here we are asked to vote something when we are about to break up for the Christmas Recess. We are asked to hand over to the Prime Minister and his colleagues a sum which is going to carry them over the time when the Prime Minister can work more efficiently. This question of an instalment does not merely finish with the question of carrying out the Measure which this House passed and which alters the contributions to the Unemployment Insurance Scheme, so that the State contributes one-third, in common with the employers and the employed. As we have seen from what has happened during the last few days the whole basis of that Act can be altered. The Insurance Act has been changed from an Insurance Act into a Benefit Distributing Act, and there seems to be no reason why, at any moment, the State, which now contributes one-third equally with the other parties, may not be asked to pay a constantly increasing share of the contributions. In other words, when we have once committed the country to departing from the strict insurance basis, it matters little whether the Supplementary Estimate whereby the taxpayers are to be mulcted in an extra burden is to carry us over to February, or whether it is to bear a half share or whether the Exchequer is to be requested to make grants-in-aid to a bankrupt fund. In these circumstances we are entitled to a more intelligent forecast and to the amount we shall be called upon to provide when we reassemble in January.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."

Captain BOURNE

There is one small point on this estimate—I am not objecting to it—to which I want to draw the attention of the House. This is a Supplementary Estimate to carry out the terms of a Bill which has not yet received the assent of both Houses of Parliament. So far as this Bill is concerned I understand that it is a Money Bill and that it is very improbable that another place will make any amendment, but I should like to be assured that the Bill will receive the assent of another place in time to receive the Royal Assent simultaneously with the Consolidated Fund Bill. This is a very undesirable procedure because we know that we are never quite certain that a Bill will necessarily go on the Statute Book in exactly the same form as it left this House, and cases have arisen where a Supplementary Estimate has been introduced and passed in respect of a Bill which was not then passed, and the Lords have subsequently made Amendments in it. Consequently, we have had to alter the Estimate in order to meet the Amendments made. I hope this Government will not follow the bad example of introducing a Supplementary Estimate before a Bill has passed both Houses of Parliament, and the terms of the Measure are certain. I realise that in this case there is urgency in the matter, and I do not wish to push my objection any further.

Lieut,-Colonel HENEAGE

May I ask why these words are inserted: "Any balances made or unexpended up to March, 1930, will not be liable to surrender to the Treasury" I should like an explanation why they are there. It is rather an unusual form of words, and perhaps we ought to send for the Lord Advocate to explain them.

The SECRETARY of STATE for SCOTLAND (Mr. William Adamson)

The hon. and gallant Member for Oxford (Captain Bourne) is quite right in saying that the Highlands and Islands Medical Services Bill is practically a Money Bill and therefore very unlikely to be altered in another place. I would remind him that the Bill was agreed to by all sections of the House, and no Amendments were made in Committee stage. I would remind the hon. and gallant Member that this is not the first time that a thing of this kind has been done. We have precedents. In 1924, under similar circum- stances, there was an Estimate of this kind, and only last year there was an Estimate in exactly the same category. With regard to the point raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Louth (Lieut.-Colonel Heneage), the principle to which he drew attention is a principle that has been in the Highlands and Islands (Medical Service) Acts since 1913, and no change has been made. As there is urgency, I hope the House will see their way to give me the Report of this Estimate.

Commander BELLAIRS

We have been told that this is practically a Money Bill. May the House know whether it is a Money Bill or not? If it has been certified I think we ought to know.


I am not yet sure whether it is or not.


I respectfully suggest to the Government that it is most undesirable to take Supplementary Estimates, both Committee and Report stages, after Eleven o'clock at night. We did not prolong the Debate on the previous Estimate as we might have done, in view of the fact that the Minister in charge then said that we should have time to discuss it at greater length. This Estimate is a matter of urgency and we desire it to go through but in any case to take Supplementary Estimates after Eleven o'clock is scarcely giving the House that opportunity of review to which it is entitled. I am sure that the Secretary of State would not have taken it to-night if he could possibly have avoided it. From the point of view of Scottish Members, it is most undesirable that Scottish business should always be taken in this way, when it is impossible for them to go into matters in the way that all Scotsmen desire.


One word on the point of the hon. and gallant Member's protest. He is aware that this Bill is an agreed Bill, and that it is common ground with all parties. This money must be got if the doctor and nurses engaged in this service are to get their salaries. He is aware also that we have been trading upon unexpended balances since the end of the War, and that on every occasion when this Bill has been before the House or the, Standing Committee it has been unanimously approved.