HC Deb 21 May 1930 vol 239 cc537-42

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. T. Kennedy.]


I desire to call the attention of the House to a matter of some considerable importance, and in the brief time at my disposal I will briefly state the circumstances. It is the case of a young man named Harry Lynex, of Walsall, the town which I represent. He was sent to the training centre in Birmingham by the Ministry of Labour, and trained there for six months ending March, 1929. After March, for three months, he was receiving unemployment benefit at the Employment Exchange, and at the end of three months, before a court of referees, he was further disallowed, and for two weeks he was receiving no benefit whatever. The Employment Exchange obtained for him a situation at Southampton, and he was sent from Walsall to Southampton, a distance of some 200 miles. Within two weeks of his reaching Southampton, that young man of 21 years of age was dead. The boy died from meningitis. On the Saturday he became ill, and on the Sunday the police, acting on instructions, got into touch with his father and mother at Walsall, and informed them that the boy was lying seriously ill. On the Monday morning the father and mother set out from Walsall to Southampton, reaching Southampton in the afternoon. When the mother saw the condition of the boy she received such a shock that she immediately became ill, and both she and the father had to return to Walsall. When the lad was sent from home to Southampton by the Ministry of Labour, his mother pleaded with him not to go. I was informed by the Minister that the young man stated that he was only too glad to go. That may be so; dead men tell no tales. One cannot say anything to the contrary except that his parents were entirely opposed to his going. They had gone to considerable expense after the boy had decided to go. He decided to go because he had already had his benefit disallowed. When in my question to the Minister I said he had gone under threat of losing his unemployment, benefit it is true that if he had not gone to Southampton he would undoubtedly not merely have lost his benefit but would have had a black mark against his name in the future.

His parents, after having had to provide for him going, by spending a considerable sum of money in order to send him out respectably dressed, had to pay their railway fares to Southampton, and the father had to go down again on the Friday, after the boy had died. In addition to that, they had to pay for the transport of the body from Southampton to Walsall, and, apart altogether from the funeral expenses, the cost of the transport of the body wan £11 10s., which the father and mother, being poor people, could ill afford to pay. The Minister has said that she made inquiries, and found that no question arose with regard to the threatened loss of benefit. I have already dealt with that matter by saying, on the authority of the father and mother, with whom I have been in close contact for some months, and whom know well, that he was turned off by the Court of Referees two weeks before, and his benefit was disallowed. He was told that his parents must keep him.

I have asked the Minister whether under such tragic circumstances compensation cannot be paid. Surely the Minister can make some ex gratia payment in order to help these poor people in these tragic circumstances. I am told that this is the case of the average man or woman who may be sent to jobs in various parts of the country. Most of us have noted the remarkable changes that have taken place in regard to sending men to jobs as compared with pre-War times. In those days it was an extraordinarily rare thing for a man or woman to be sent such a long distance, because jobs were much more plentiful. To-day, the pressure of economic circumstances is such that a man would be glad to get a job almost anywhere. I am not going to deal with the fact that in Southampton, when he was sent there, a considerable amount of unemployment existed, but it is a fact which might have been taken into consideration. This House is rightly regarded as the custodian of the liberties of the people of this country; I ask that it should also be regarded as the guardian of the masses of poor people, who have a right to appeal to it in cases of this kind. I ask the Minister if she cannot, in the circumstances, make some ex gratia payment to poor people who are afflicted in this way. It is bad enough that they should have suffered the tragic bereavement which has happened to them, but that misfortune is accentuated when people in these circumstances are asked to undertake a burden of about £12. To other people that would only represent a matter of £1 or £2 in relation to their means, but it is a really heavy burden to people in the conditions which I have described. I would ask the Minister to consider the question either of making some ex gratia payment or, if she has not the power to do that, that she should regard it as high time to take power to deal with such cases. I have had to give the circumstances of the case rather hurriedly, but I hope the Minister will give me some consideration that will be worthy to take back to the people whom I represent.

The MINISTER of LABOUR (Miss Bondfield)

This case was fairly fully dealt with in the reply I gave to the question my hon. Friend put down. The facts of the case are substantially as now presented except that the information my hon. Friend gave with regard to the parents is not information that was on the file. The position of this young man—I have been able to trace his history back—was that he first came on the Unemployment Benefit Fund in March, 1928. He was in receipt of the unemployment benefit throughout that year and in October he was asked to go into a training centre in the hope that it would help him to get work. He went into the centre and took six months training, which finished in March, 1929. He was then in receipt of benefit until the next 78 days' review, when the court of referees suspended his benefit for six weeks.

That suspension was imposed on the 3rd July and took effect from 25th June, and therefore it is quite true that the suspension was operative, and had been operative for nearly a fortnight before a job was offered to him. A job was offered to him on the 12th July as a plasterer's labourer in Southampton, and he was able to start work on the 15th July.

I have made very careful inquiries and I think it is perfectly clear to everybody that not only was there no feeling against this young man, but that the Exchange was very desirous of helping him, because there were not a great many plasterers' jobs going, and he was given an opportunity of taking this job. I am sure that he responded readily and gladly to the opportunity to take the job, and he went to Southampton. No question arises about the job itself. He worked at the job for a fortnight and then became ill, with the lamentable consequences which have been described to the House.


He was dead within a fortnight.


The statutory position is as I have explained. I have no power whatever to make a grant in circumstances of this kind. It is perfectly clear that there is no responsibility on the Employment Exchange in connection with this particular case. It is quite obvious that under the statute not only can I not pay such expenses, but that it would not be a proper charge to place upon an Employment Exchange. There are many points that could be raised with regard to the adequacy of the services of this country to meet every conceivable ill which may befall parents or children, but I submit to the House that the request of the hon. Member while it does credit to his humane feelings, is obviously one which, when made to this Department is in the nature of an unreasonable request.


If the Minister of Labour has power to pay for the railway journey to Southampton why, in circumstances like these, should she not have power to pay the railway fare back?


There is a misunderstanding under which many hon. Members are labouring. There are cases in connection with the transference of men from depressed areas in which certain sums have been allowed for transference expenses, and in regard to the question of fares, under the Labour Exchanges Act I have power to issue warrants for railway fares, which are in the nature of loans which have to be repaid, and hon. Members will find in the Report of the Ministry that a, large sum of money is issued under railway warrants, the greater proportion of which has to be repaid. A certain percentage is charged to the Unemployment Fund and to that extent the workman who travels is excused the payment of fares, but only to the extent laid down in the Regulations. Hon. Members are under a misapprehension in thinking that I have power to pay railway fares to those who take situations away from their own towns. I am sorry that in a matter upon which the hon. Member feels so keenly it is impossible for me to give him the satisfaction he wants, but it must be perfectly clear to the House that the request he makes is entirely outside the law which I have to administer, and that it would be a very serious departure if such a grant was made.


Is the Minister not receiving from some anonymous donor gifts to be used in connection with her work?


There has been—shall I says?—a very pleasant surprise caused at many Exchanges by the anonymous donation of sums of money, but it would be quite improper for the distribution of those sums of money to be regarded as part of the work of the Exchanges. As a matter of fact these sums of money are being distributed through recognised agencies locally. I really think that the hon. and learned Member's suggestion is rather a good one, and that if this matter was taken up locally from the standpoint of the voluntary gifts, it might be a question for the local committee to consider whether this comes within the terms of the donor's conditions.


Will the Minister make that suggestion?


I do not think I can make the suggestion. The condition is that the money is to be spent to help the unemployed men.


Does the Minister know whether any of these gifts have been sent to Walsall or Southampton?


I believe there was a sum of money sent to one of the Birmingham Exchanges. I can supply the hon. Member with the addresses of those who have the disposal of the fund.

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