HC Deb 07 October 1931 vol 257 cc1112-21

Schedules agreed to.

Bill reported, without Amendment.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."


I want to make a few observations upon the Third Reading of this Measure. The House has agreed to Estimates providing a certain amount of Supply, and those Estimates are covered by this Bill. I understand that part of the money dealt with in this Bill is connected with the administration of the Ministry of Labour, and I would like the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour to tell me how the Ministry intend to work the arrangements for paying out the money provided for in this Bill in connection with the testing of applicants for transitional benefit. I want to know whether the word "institution" includes offices of Poor Law authorities. The word "institution" may be taken in a more limited sense, and I would like to be clear as to the assurance that has been given by the Minister on this point.


I think hon. Members are in a difficulty as to the last line in the Schedule, and that we should have some more information upon it. We want to know how the money is to be expended. It is important that more light should be thrown upon the question as to the amount of additional expense which will be entailed by the proposition to make inquiries into the case of men whose transitional benefit is in jeopardy. As far as I can understand the policy of the National Government during its period of office, it has consisted in making attempts to limit the opportunities of employment for practically all classes of the community. It is clear that there will have to be new premises erected in which the applicants for transitional benefit may be examined as to their needs. It is also clear that there will be a great many additional clerks needed to conduct the investigations required under the legislation already passed by the National Government. If I were advising anybody who was looking for a job, I should say that the likeliest possibility of getting one at this moment is to apply for a clerkship to examine the unemployed as to whether they should have their unemployment benefit considered or not. As far as I can see, that is the only contribution that has been made by this Government to the unemployment problem as we see it to-day, and I make a present of it to all the supporters of the National Government. When they go to the polls they will be able to say that the Government have at least done this one thing, that the very last moments of the present House of Commons were spent in providing money for the opening of new offices for the purpose of inquisitorial examination into the means of the unemployed, and for providing additional clerkships and inquiries so that those unemployed people may unbosom themselves in order that economies may be effected in the national income.

I want, however, to get from the Minister, if possible, some precise information on these two points: Does this Bill make provision for any approximate number of new clerks, and if so how many; and does it provide for any considerable addition of new premises? If we understand the answers of the Minister of Labour at Question Time, these men are not to be examined Poor Law institutions, which we know familiarly as workhouses. I was rather sorry that the Minister of Labour rode away from my supplementary question as to whether they were to be examined in Poor Law offices, because the administrative office of the Poor Law may not be the workhouse, but may just as easily and just as rightly be regarded as—


On a point of Order. Is it in order, Mr. Speaker, for hon. Members to read newspapers in the House?


No; there is a very well understood rule that it is not in order.


I am sorry that, on a matter which affects very vitally a great number of unemployed men and women in this country, and when an effort is being made to discover what provision there will be for the examination of these men and women and whether they are to be spared from the pauper taint, the only contribution that comes from the opposite benches is a frivolous interrup-tion—


On a point of Order. Is it in order, if a question is raised in defence of the Rules of this House, for it to be referred to as a frivolous interruption?


It is a matter of opinion. Hon. Members may always raise, on a point of Order, anything that they think it is important to put to me.


All I can say is—and you would, of course, have called me to order had I been out of order—that in my opinion, if it was not a frivolous interruption, it was a very unseemly interruption, considering the importance and seriousness of this issue to large numbers of unemployed people in this country. I want to press my hon. Friend on Ole Government Bench on these two specific points: What is the estimate of the additional aceommodation that will be required for these inquisitorial investigations into means; and, secondly, has he made any estimate of the number of additional staff that will be required in order to carry out the purpose of the Bill? Obviously, the Rear relieving officers are simply going to be crushed by the burden of work that will be imposed upon them by the Measures of the National Government, and I hope that they are going to be adequately relieved of that great burden by proper and effective assistance being granted to them. I take it that the Ministry has gone into that point, and will be able to tell the House how much of this money it is contemplated can be ear-marked for that purpose, and also what is the estimated cost of the renting of new offices or buildings for the special work which is entailed by the Measures which have been adopted by the National Government.


I want to put the point which was raised by the hon. Member for Camlachie (Mr. Stephen) definitely before the Parliamentary Secretary with regard to my own constituency. Applicants for out-relief have their circumstances investigated at four separate points. One is the old Poor Law institution, which consists of the infirmary, the casual wards, and so on. I understand that applicants for transitional benefit will not have their circumstances investigated there. In addition to that place, there are three other places. One is the office of the defunct board of guardians, where a relief committee meets. That is not an institution; it is more than a mile and a half away; but, of course, the investigations there have hitherto been solely concerned with Poor Law cases. There are two other relief stations in other parts of the borough, where relief committees meet and investigate cases. As I understand the Minister's answer, it merely amounts to this, that the first place I have mentioned, namely, the institution, may not be used, but there is nothing in the answers given by the Minister that would preclude the use of the other three places for the purpose of investigating these cases. I wish to say nothing more than that. It puts the point quite specifically before the Parliamentary Secretary, and I hope we may get a perfectly plain answer to what I think is a perfectly plain question, straightly put.


I want to follow up the point which has been put by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede). I put a supplementary question, in answer to which the Minister assured me that, where the offices and casual ward were in the same building, that place would not be used. I want a definite assurance upon that point, because in my Division that is the only place where investigation takes place at the moment. There is one entrance on the left-hand side into the casual ward, and the other leads into a yard where the offices of the Poor Law authority and the investigation committee are. I want the assurance made doubly sure that that place will not be used for the investigation. of the claims of these men. It is no use attempting to take away the taint of the Poor Law if you send these people to the very place which is known as the Poor Law institution and the outdoor relief place; and the Ministry ought to be careful, in congested areas like my own, if they are going to take other premises, to see that they are covered by the Supplementary Estimate. All over London, as far as I have been able to observe, outdoor relief is investigated at the present moment at offices which are next to the casual wards or the institution, and, if premises are going to be taken at a distance from those places, it will involve a much heavier expenditure upon premises and rent than I imagine is covered in the Supplementary Estimate. I hope we shall have a definite assurance that these people will not be examined at these out-relief stations which are commonly known as Poor Law relief stations in practically all the boroughs of London, and are right on top of the casual ward.


Before the House disperses, I hope the hon. Gentleman representing the Ministry of Labour will be able to give us some much better information than we have had up to the present, because before the House reassembles there is going to be considerable confusion in the constituencies and among the local authorities. Public assistance committees to-day are not only faced with all this additional work which is being thrown upon them, but the lead given by the National Government quite recently has been taken up with acclamation by many reactionary public bodies throughout the country. I gave an example at Question Time to-day that is going to mean additional work for some of the sub-committees of public assistance committees. The Middlesex County Council, the wealthiest in the Kingdom, thought they would be patriotic and follow the lead of the National Government, and they set up an economy committee of seven persons, who have now commenced to make drastic cuts in all directions. The blind persons sub-committee is recommending that half-a-crown a week be cut off the allowances. That will make additional work for the public assistance committee. In addition, the public assistance committees throughout Middlesex—and I expect the same thing is happening in other counties—yesterday found that they had instructions to reduce the scale of unemployment relief by 2s. 9d. a week. That means that all cases of unemployment relief will have to be reviewed and the circumstances gone into again and reductions made. On top of all this, probably within three months nearly 1,000,000 unemployed men are going to be brought before the public assistance committees to have their conditions investigated and have a Poor Law test put upon them. It does not seem to be a matter of great importance to me whether the Poor Law test is put upon them in a Poor Law institution or anywhere else. It is what actually happens that matters, and not the place in which it takes place.

The question I endeavoured to put at Question Time was whether it was intended that public assistance committees should hold meetings in the Employment Exchanges. Has any arrangement been made, or have any negotiations taken place between the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Health in order that public assistance committees should hold their meetings and examine applicants inside the Employment Exchanges? I hope that before we rise, the Parliamentary Secretary will give us some clear understanding as to what is going to take place. These members of public assistance committees work in a voluntary capacity. They give a great deal of time to a very thankless job. It was bad enough before the National Government came, and now they are to add to it the question of cutting down the allowances of blind people and cutting down outdoor relief allowances to unemployed people; and on top of that they are going to be asked to deal with the ordinary unemployed.

I can scarcely believe that the Government are going to rush into this thing and risk a breakdown of the whole machinery. We certainly have had no information that adequate arrangements have been made. Several things have happened within the last few weeks which have not happened in the lifetime of the oldest Member of the House. The British Navy has refused to do its duty, and there have been riots of unemployed men in many of the large towns. The teachers are in a state of discontent that has never been equalled in my lifetime. If that is going to take place before the Actual work of cutting down the unemployment benefit has really commenced, I am afraid there is going to be even more confusion when the job is tackled within the next few weeks. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to reassure us that the Ministry of Labour, in conjunction with the Ministry of Health, have really made adequate arrangements to carry out this very difficult job, otherwise the responsibility for any disturbances that may happen will rest upon them.


I am most anxious to see that some kind of genuine working arrangement is arrived 'at, knowing the difficulty, in view of the Dissolution, that you may be rushed into doing things that may be wrong from the point of view of administration. There is a conflict of opinion, or rather, to be quite correct about it, there is no opinion at all. Neither the Ministry of Labour nor the Ministry of Health has any idea in regard to how this thing is to be managed. No man living knows what you intend to do, and no body of guardians knows what the instructions are in respect of the Orders that you are going to issue. I should imagine, in view of the great gatherings of unemployed that we have had in the large cities, that one of the most deplorable sights would be an organised body of people having no definite place to go to, with no one able to tell them where they have to go. It is useless to talk about granting money when we do not know what we are granting it for. We have done many things in the House without knowing what we have been doing, and we have seen the result of it on those benches.

We see it to-day. We have to face the people and tell them what you mean, and we do not know what you mean yet. If there is any time when you ought to know your minds, it is to-day. We have been long enough trying to find out whether you know your mind. Now there is a doubt, and we are entitled to know. To what board are applicants for assistance to go? Where will their claims be tried? We are told that it will not be in a Poor Law institution and not at the Ministry of Labour. What offices are you going to set up where these people are to be dealt with? I do not know any in Liverpool which will come under any designation in accordance with the answer we have had given us to-day. Surely we are not going to use the banks to deal with these cases. Surely we are not going to have a concentration of banking houses where the committees will hold their meetings.

I do not want to tax your brains too much by asking pertinent questions. It is not wise at this moment to put too many pertinent questions to you, but the people whom I represent will be more pertinent than I have been, and they want to know. I am going back to Liverpool, and I do not want to get the information in the newspapers. That is where I have got most of my political information from. I am face to face with the Minister now. Will he tell me what Department it is to be in? Rather than set up establishments, would it not be wiser that these boards of guardians and members of public assistance committees, co-opted and elected, should go to the Ministry of Labour to deal with these cases, from the point of view of expense and from the point of view of the stigma of the Poor Law We shall relieve your anxiety, which I want to protect, and see that you come back again. I am most anxious about that. I am most anxious that the taint of pauperism shall not be placed upon our people. Can we have a plain answer as to whether you are going to use the present buildings either of the Poor Law institutions or of the Ministry of Labour, or whether you are going to use the Ministry of Labour offices only, so that the members of public assistance committees will deal with those cases inside the Ministry of Labour offices?


The speeches which have been addressed to the House have shown a genuine anxiety on the part of Members of the House to know exactly what will take place with regard to this matter. I will try to explain the procedure as far as it can be explained, for Members will realise that we are having to carry out an entirely new service as far as the Ministry of Labour are concerned. The unemployed who will become applicants for transitional payments will remain essentially under the care of the Ministry of Labour. We are not turning them over either to the Poor Law or to anything else. They remain in our care, and under the Acts that have been passed their needs have to be ascertained before they can receive transitional payment. Therefore, what we have to do is to make arrangements for the assessing of their needs.

It has been decided—I am not going to discuss here whether it is right or wrong—that it is better to use the existing machinery for the purpose. Although it is used by other bodies and for a different class of persons, it is better to use the machinery which exists. Therefore, we are using the Poor Law assistance committees, who, acting as our agents, will assess the claims and the amounts to be received. As a result of that, we have had to negotiate with the Ministry of Health, and in conjunction with the Ministry of Health we are trying to arrange the most satisfactory arid effective method of carrying out the task.

I do not know that I can add in detail very much more to what the Minister said in reply to a question at Question Time to-day. Our desire is to keep this class of applicant as distinct and as remote as possible from what may be regarded as the ordinary administration of the Poor Law. That is why we have at least gone as far as saying that we do not propose, and will riot consent, except in very exceptional circumstances, to their going to a Poor Law institution. Arising out of that, a number of specific questions have been put. to me in regard to a specific city as to whether a place which is being used for dealing with Poor Law cases at the present time is part of an institution. I submit to hon. Members that it is impossible for me to give a detailed answer on a specific case as to what will be done in a specific city when this procedure is being carried out. All that the House can expect from me, I think, is that we should be quite open and plain—and I always try to be that in this House—and say what we intend to try to carry out. Our object is to get the assessment of these claims made with the minimum of friction, annoyance, and discomfort.

We know quite as well as hon. Members opposite that none of the applicants is likely to like this procedure, but we have to find some means of assessing the claims. I can assure the House that at the Ministry of Labour we shall do our utmost to remove the stigma of the Poor Law as far as possible. We do not regard that as applying to these cases at all. You have to remember that we are acting in conjunction with a public authority which is not the Ministry of Labour. The public assistance committees are public bodies. We shall use the Employment Exchanges where there is accommodation in the Exchanges, and where the public assistance committees find that they can work in that way. The intention of the Ministry of Labour is to do all that we possibly can to remove sources of friction which can be avoided, and, as regards taking fresh buildings, where it is necessary and where it is the most satisfactory and economical way of dealing with the matter, the Ministry have decided that we shall not resist the extra cost which may be involved of taking new and fresh premises where the taking of fresh premises is justified. The House must realise that we ourselves are having to explore a new situation and to work out a new procedure, and I do not think the House would ask me to do more than I have done in saying that we will do our very utmost to avoid any discomfort or friction which we can possibly help.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read the Third Time, and passed.

The remaining Government Orders were read, and postponed.


I understand that a Royal Commission is -to be held at Four o'Clock.