HC Deb 06 November 1930 vol 244 cc1207-14

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 which I raised at Question Time to-day, the answer to my question by the Minister of Labour not having been satisfactory. The terrible state of depression in the cotton industry is too well known to need any recapitulation. We have known for some time that such depression was inevitable. We knew, too, that amongst the first victims must be the working people of Lancashire. But there were two things which inspired hope and confidence in our own people. One was the fact that for years they have steadily con- tributed to an insurance fund by which they might be insured against this very possibility, and the other was the hope and expectation, to some extent realised last year, that when the crisis came their own representatives would be in office for their protection. Now we find that the catastrophe is upon us, and hundreds of thousands of cotton operatives are unemployed, amongst them a very large number of women.

Many of the cases that have come to the notice of my colleague and myself are cases of people who have been working as long as six years continuously at their employment, who have been unemployed in many eases for a less period than three months, and then have been offered work which they consider unreasonable and unsuitable, as an alternative. The work offered to them has often been in the nature of domestic service, in military canteens, or seasonal occupation in hotels at Blackpool and elsewhere. There are many cases I regret to say, because it seems to me to aggravate most seriously the position in which canteen employment has been offered to young girls under the age of 20, and I have many cases here on the official papers in which it has been offered to girls of 18. In my judgment, most rightly and properly, their parents and they themselves have objected to accepting service of this kind. I hope there will be no kind of doubt as to the intense feeling that has been aroused throughout the whole cotton area of Lancashire in connection with this matter. These girls, some of whom, when working, were earning an average wage of from 30s. to 35s. a week, have been asked to go at ridiculous wages. I have actually cases here of girls offered employment at hotels at Blackpool at a wage of 10s. a week and tips. The suggestion "and tips" is quite enough, without any elaboration from me. Some of the canteen occupations were at distances as far as 200 miles from the homes of these girls. The case which I have to put to the Minister is, that, in, view of the contract that has been made and in which the State is a participator, these women are entitled, when unemployed, to receive benefit unless reasonable alternative work is found for them. I state most strongly that domestic service and service in military canteens is not reasonable alternative service for cotton operatives.

I do not know what would be the position of these girls if in any revival of industry they might have an opportunity of returning. Unsuited as they are bound to be after years of factory life, to domestic service they would quickly become unsuitable for a return to their own occupation, much of the skill depends upon the suppleness and nimbleness of their fingers. It appears to us—at least I so regard it—as an attempt to use the present industrial depression, in order to conscript these girls into domestic service. They object to it, and rightly object to it. Their contract has not been honoured; they are being forced into conditions of work which are deteriorating, as compared with their present position, and seasonal occupations about which there is no guarantee. I have had a case reported to me by one trade union in Oldham, of a girl who was sent to Blackpool and who, not only was found unsuitable, but had her return fare deducted from her wages. But for the kind intervention of the police she would have spent at least one whole night on the streets of Blackpool. That is not the kind of treatment of our people that we expect to be permitted when we are here as their defenders. I will not detain the House with an expression of my opinion on the proposal to send young girls to service in canteens, but it is asking them to tread a most dangerous path, and I have received, and I am not surprised at it, letters from religious societies and individual clergy, and from the parents of these girls, in reference to this proposal.

I desire to say no more than this, that these women and girls, at present representing the most depressed people in our land, have the right to expect that they shall not be denied simple justice and social decency. I am making this appeal, I hope very politely and properly, but very earnestly, that this disqualification should be removed. Many of them have had their unemployment pay suspended for three separate periods of six weeks each for no other reason than that they have refused to allow themselves to be forced into these unsuitable positions. I hope my appeal will not be in vain. At any rate, the conflict between us will not conclude until there is this measure of justice awarded to these women and girls. If it be said that there is no power, I hope that we shall relinquish the administration of an Act which denies justice and honour to people whom we represent.


I should like simply and shortly to support the dignified protest made by my hon. Friend. I was in Mossley on Sunday night, and while there I was approached on the same matter. We cannot describe the suffering that is now being undergone in Lancashire. The unemployment figure is ever so high and it adds insult to injury when you are asking these girls to go miles from their home towns under conditions that are a disgrace, in my opinion. I want to second the very dignified protest made by my hon. Friend and say that we will not allow it to rest here if we do not get satisfaction.

The MINISTER of LABOUR (Miss Bondfield)

I very much regret that we differ very seriously on this question. Take first the question of the canteen service. I quite understand that immediately people hear about the canteen service they think about drinking places, with soldiers coming in and a general atmosphere of temptation. That is what the word suggests. That may have been true at one time, but I want to say most emphatically that it is not true to-day.

I went into this question most carefully myself. I examined not only the methods adopted by the Navy, Army, and Air Force Institutes and their method of recruitment, but I went myself to the canteens to see under what conditions these girls are asked to work, and I can tell my hon. Friends quite candidly and from my deepest conviction—and I do not think anyone will say that I stand for subjecting women to unfair temptations, because I have spent my whole life in trying to make life a little safer for girls in industry—that not only is this canteen work suitable for the right type of woman, but that it is work that is definitely adding to the general uplift of the situation in these camps. [Interruption].


I have children in domestic service, and they are as good as the children of anyone in this House. It is an insult to the women in domestic service, which is as good as any other.


I invite my hon. Friends to allow me to make arrangements for them to go into the matter, and see precisely what are the conditions in these canteens. The terms of service are much better than the terms of service generally for similar classes of work in restaurants or hotels, and the safeguards built up around these girls are much more adequate than the average safeguard in any factory or mill where there are large numbers of the opposite sex employed. I think there has been a very great deal of exaggerated misunderstanding with regard to this question.

Finally, on this point, let me say that the point at issue is very largely a question of whether a girl is willing to try a new occupation. If she is living in a district where there is not merely present distress, but where everybody knows there is bound to be a permanent displacement of those who have been in a particular trade, it is a terrible and hard thing anyhow, but it is really necessary that we should face the fact that some of these younger women in particular must be asked to face an alternative employment to the cotton trade, because they cannot hope, all of them, to be employed in that trade in the future. This is one of the great problems the miners have had to face and the women in Lancashire have to face it in connection with the cotton trade. No one will be employed in these canteens unless they can pass the standard that is set up, and the point is whether or not a girl is willing to allow herself to be interviewed for the purpose. She will not get a chance of going into a canteen unless she is a suitable kind of girl, with enough character to be of real influence in the work of temperance which these canteens are trying to do.

The other point is in connection with domestic service. I feel very strongly on this point. I am in favour of every effort that can be made to improve the conditions of domestic service. It was not so long ago that Carlyle wrote: "All work is noble; even cotton-spinning is noble." When he said that, it was a most degraded trade. To-day it is a highly respectable trade, and I believe I shall live to see the day when domestic service will be looked upon as a highly respectable occupation. [HON. MEMBERS: "It is now!"] We will do everything we can to make it so. We are doing it through our training centers, and we are steadily improving the status and the quality and the payment for domestic work. I deprecate this constant suggestion that there is something derogatory to the womanhood of the nation to be engaged in domestic work. All our mothers were engaged in domestic work. It is an honourable occupation—[Interruption.]


Then let the rich women do it themselves.


Domestic work and domestic service are different things.


The domestic work which is suggested here is work in connection, very largely, with the hotels, boarding-houses and places at Blackpool. I do not honestly believe that there are a very large number of women in Lancashire who regard going to Blackpool as being asked to go to some place with which they are not familiar, or to some place which is not a suitable place in which to perform their work.


Why not make it voluntary?


It is not compulsory except in this sense: suppose there is a girl who appears to be suitable for domestic service, she is asked whether she will take a situation. If she declines and in the opinion of the exchange manager she is a suitable applicant he must in the ordinary course of his duties report to the court of referees. The court of referees is composed of assessors, one employers' and one workers' assessor, and in a cotton town one is almost certain to be connected with the cotton trade. They know the local circumstances and probably know the girl, and they either agree that she should not fake the situation or think that she should. If she is not satisfied with the decision, her trade union official can then take her case to the umpire. I have here two umpires' decisions. In both cases the trade union official was there. In one case the umpire turned down the claim, in the other he agreed that it was not a suitable situation. I cannot think of any machinery which could be devised which would give more equitable results than we are getting under this system; and it must be remembered that while that case is under consideration she gets her benefit; that is not stopped until a decision is given against her. I cannot think of any system which could be fairer to the individual than the system of the court of referees and the umpire, particularly if the girls are members of their own trade union. In an isolated case such as that where a girl was sent but did not get the job, I will investigate any such case and try to put it. right, but on the general question of whether a girl should be asked to consider a situation which is regarded as suitable, I simply cannot agree with the attitude taken up by the hon. Member.

In this most difficult time, when we know the cotton industry has got a much larger proportion of persons than it can ever hope to employ under any conditions we can imagine in the next 10 or 15 years, it is not helpful, but is definitely unhelpful to try to put checks in the way of getting girls into some other occupation. In the matter of their insurance rights we actually have a section in the Act by which we can extend to four years, in the case of a woman, who is asked to go in for seasonal work or for occasional work while she can get no work in her own trade, the period in which she will not lose her insurance rights. The women are entitled to go back to their trade if they can find a job, and are entitled to pick up their insurance where they left it.


Once they get a seasonal occupation, they no longer get unemployment benefit.


That is not true.


I know of no cases where they have got it. It has been refused in every case.

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