HC Deb 13 July 1932 vol 268 cc1319-44

Question again proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."


There was a certain right hon. Gentleman who said yesterday that his only claim to be listened to was that he was an old Member, and he had the same experience as I have had this morning, of having his speech broken in two. I wondered what crime I had committed, Mr. Speaker, when you cried out "Order!" just now. I do not want to go over all my points again. The request that I am making to the Minister is for a more generous treatment in this particular matter. Every Member of the House recognises the financial difficulties of the Government at the moment. It is perfectly true that the country cannot go on spending money ad lib, but I believe that in all questions of economy, particularly in these cases, it is not true economy to bring these men and women down to a state of pauperism. I believe that we are going to pay dearly in a loss of health in future if we bring these people to a terribly low standard of living. I ask that these people be treated not so much as criminals, but as unfortunate people who for the moment find themselves in difficult circumstances.

I have always felt that it was an unfortunate thing to have handed over the administration of this particular question to public assistance committees. Yorkshire men are apt to be of a very independent turn of mind, and it is a tragedy to our people when they have to appeal to the Poor Law. I think this system has had a very bad psychological effect. I believe it would have been far wiser, even if it were the same body, to have set it up independently of the Poor Law. If we could do anything to take away the feeling that people are asking for charity, which perhaps may be true, we can take away the feeling of bitterness. Will the Minister give way to the requests from every side of the House that there be some uniform instructions given with regard to the computation of income, and also that these people be treated as generously as the financial conditions of the time permit?


I wish to speak on the means test and to raise matters which may concern the Department of the Minister of Health. I cannot agree with the last speaker in many of the points that he has made. Once we accept the principle of a means test, a test must be made. That involves the setting up, no matter whether the test be generous or mean, of a huge staff for administration and investigation. Assuming that the test be a generous test, nevertheless every claim must be investigated. The result is that if you have a generous scale you still have all this expenditure on administration and investigation just the same as if you had a mean scale. If you have a generous scale, your savings, when offset against the huge cost of administration, are so little as not to be worth while. Once you go into the question of the means test you find that there is no half-way house in this matter. You have either to be mean or else it is not worth while having a means test at all and you might as well abolish it. The Minister in his anxiety to cut down expenditure has altered the arrangement by which each case was reviewed at certain intervals in the interests both of the applicant and of the Department. It used to be at intervals of a month. He has now increased the interval to eight weeks, but even with that change a tremendous cost must constantly arise in respect of administration and investigation. The result is that where the scales are increased to a sufficiently high level, it means, in effect, that the means test will not be operated at all by any Government because the savings to be made from it will be so small when put against the cost of administration.

That was my constant reply to my late Labour colleagues who used to say, as the late Lord Privy Seal used to say, "What about the man with £1,000 or £2,000 or £3,000?" I have always argued that in order to catch that man you have to set up a whole department for the investigation of every claim, and I think that every Conservative will admit that a number of men possessing thousands of pounds is very small in relation to the whole number of claims. The Glasgow Corporation carried out an investigation and found that the number of people with thousands of pounds was infinitesimal as compared with the total number on benefit. To set up elaborate administrative machinery for the purpose of dealing with a few, a very few cases of that kind, would not be worth while. There- fore, those who advocate the means test must be prepared, either to have it mean in its working or else abolish it entirely as not worth while. They have to face that alternative. It would have been easy to have had a generous scale if you had had no administrative and investigation difficulties, but the choice is as I have described it.

I see that in some quarters an. attempt is being made to apologise for the means test. A weekly Labour publication the other day, referring to criticisms passed on some of those who led the Labour party, said that they had always been against a family means test. I cannot follow that reasoning. The moment you start to go into the question as between a family means test and an individual means test you find all kinds of crosscurrents. I can see a family means test being a shockingly bad thing, but I can see an individual means test being equally bad. I think the time has come when Members of this House facing the electors ought to speak calmly and openly about this matter of the means test. We ought to state the position plainly and face the alternative of having a means test involving large administrative expenses, a means test which means in effect fearful hardships to the people concerned, or on the other hand a means test which will not effect any saving worth while. I honestly would face the implication in the latter case of abolishing it entirely and of maintaining the unemployed, not at the cost of fathers or mothers or other relatives, but at the cost of the State. If perchance a man has accumulated savings to the amount of thousands I submit it is the State's job to deal with those thousands of pounds, not by any trick in connection with unemployment benefit, but by the ordinary State mechanism of taxation.

I think that a means test must inevitably be mean but there are one or two points which I would put to the Minister in the hope that he may be induced to do something, administratively, at least to modify the present position. Under the former Unemployment Insurance Act passed by the late Labour Government one of the reforms inaugurated was that by which a person once he had received benefit was continued in benefit until the court of referees decided that the benefit was not to be continued any longer. That was the law which applied to all unemployed insured persons, but under a recent decision that law has been altered as regards transitional benefit. Now we have this position. Under the transitional benefit arrangement a man's claim may be sub judice.. It may be before the court of referees but pending the decision of the court of referees that man is differentiated against because he is on transitional benefit. His benefit stops the moment the case is put before the court of referees and does not continue while the decision of the court is awaited. That man's position has been very much worsened. I understand that the umpire has decided that transitional benefit claims must be decided differently from standard benefit claims in this respect. As I was net sure that this matter would be raised to-day I have not had time to go into the Act with great thoroughness, but in the limited time at my disposal I have examined the position and it seems to me that the Minister has power by regulation to overcome this difficulty if he desires to do so.

I would ask the right hon. Gentleman, in common fairness, at least to maintain the position for the transitional benefit man, the same as for the standard benefit claimant in this respect. Mark you, the claim has been allowed by the public assistance committee and it is not a question of the man's means. The point at issue is whether he is entitled to transitional benefit or not within the meaning of the Unemployment Insurance Act. Surely it is not too much to ask that he should be given benefit until the decision of the court of referees has been given. A man in the position I have described is hurt very much in this way. He is refused benefit. Very often the public assistance committee say: "You have been allowed benefit but we must discuss your position now that you are claiming public assistance benefit." And they do not give a decision until some days later. Then the court of referees must be given a reasonable time. The result is that for a week or 10 days the man receives nothing. Then the position arises that the public assistance committee refuses to pay the money; the Unemployment Insurance Fund refuses to meet any obligations and the poor devil for a week or 10 days receives nothing at all.

I turn from that to a point that concerns the Minister of Health as well as the Minister of Labour. When the recent Health Insurance Act passed through this House, I raised the case of a man on sickness benefit whom it was deemed desirable to send before the regional medical officer. A man has been drawing sickness benefit, and at a certain time his approved society thinks it desirable to send him before the regional medical officer, who examines him and gives his decision that he is now fit for work. But that man—or it may be a woman—may not get that decision until a week afterwards. I have a case in my pocket in which a man did not get the decision for a week. He appeared before the regional medical officer on the Tuesday, but he got no decision until the following Tuesday. That man is in the position that he still claims to be sick, and his panel doctor says that he is sick, but the regional medical officer says that he is not sick, and the result is that the man does not apply for unemployment benefit, but he gets a note a week later saying he is now fit for work.

He has not been able to receive sickness benefit because of the decision given, but he has not signed on at the Exchange, because if he had and had then been declared to be sick, it would be practically an illegal offence, because it would be said that he was attempting to get two benefits. Therefore, he does not sign, and then, when he signs at the Exchange, he has to wait for a week. Surely the man does not need to be suspended in mid-air for days awaiting a decision. If, in the judgment of the authorities, he is fit for work, surely to goodness they can give the decision that day and allow him to sign at the Exchange the next day. If that cannot be arranged, I ask the Minister of Labour to say that that day or two should not be counted against the man in respect of benefit. This would not mean great cost or much investigation, and I think it would be but an elementary act of justice to the man.

I want to turn now to the question of seasonal workers, and I do not want the Minister to reply that their treatment is under the Labour Govern- 1.0 p.m. ment's Act. I know that it was a deliberate, malicious Act, passed by the Labour Government to deprive seasonal workers of benefit. Neither the Labour Government nor anyone else can escape from the fact that it was done with malice and deliberation, and was meant to be done, and I hope that that will not be the answer to-day. The fact is that I feel about the means test as strongly as anybody, but about the seasonal workers I feel even worse than I do about the means test. I think the treatment of the seasonal workers is the most shocking treatment of all under the Unemployment Insurance Acts. At least there is this to be said about the means test, that a man or a woman gets 26 weeks' standard benefit for his or her payments, but what happens in the case of seasonal workers is this: I have a case which I have taken up to the Minister of Labour, of a woman who was working at a Scottish depot and who had 40 weeks' work regularly every year, and no grumble against her employers, but just for a certain period her services are suspended, and so she has been treated as a seasonal worker. A person under the means test at least gets 26 weeks' benefit, but this woman can pay year in and year out and never even get 26 weeks' benefit, and I say that it is worse even than the old rules which we fought when we first came to this House.

Under those old rules there was one week's benefit for every six weeks' contributions. The rule was called the "one in six" rule, but under the Anomalies Act that has been taken away from the seasonal workers in the most brutal and callous fashion, and I would ask the Minister, if he cannot meet us wholly with regard to the seasonal workers, whether it is not possible for him to return to the "one in six" rule for them. I do not want him to meet me in this matter by giving these people the power of exemption from insurance. Some hon. Members say, "Give them the power to exempt themselves from insurance," but I know decent seasonal workers, girls, who go to seasonal work at places like Bournemouth, Brighton, Gleneagles, and so on, who are among the very finest type of girl. Their parents in many cases are very poor, and in many cases they are without parents, and what they want is some sort of income to keep them clean and tidy, so that they can get their job back when their unemployment period finished.

It is of the utmost importance to this House and to this country that these women should have some kind of income for a period, because, as we know, in that type of work the employers want a neat, trim girl, decently dressed and fairly attractive. A girl can only keep that way if she has some form of income to provide the necessaries of life during her unemployment period, and one of the bad things that that last Act did was that it left this girl derelict, not even subject to the means test. Her case is entirely a Poor Law charge, because she is entirely cut off from unemployment benefit. The problem at the end of this summer season is urgent. I have met decent girls who are looking to the end of this summer season with dread. Some of them approached me only the other day to see if I could get the Minister, not to give them exemption—they want to pay their contributions—but at least to put them back on the old "one in six" rule that was the Conservative rule before I entered this House.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman if it is not possible to get something done for these seasonal workers by regulation now. It will be a terrible tragedy if in the winter time these girls are flung out of employment, their only resource being Poor Law relief, not even transitional benefit. I do not want to make people's flesh creep, but the Labour party, in passing that Act, can never have thought of the social consequences of turning a young woman of about 24 or 25, neat, good-looking, on to the great streets of our cities and towns without any income. The social consequences of such action can easily be forecast. Those responsible for it, particularly the woman Minister, will, I hope, never be treated as they have treated these poor people; it is terrible that a woman who had £4,000 a year should take benefit from people who have not a penny of income. I turn to the question of the relation of the Minister of Health to unemployment benefit. I was in Nottinghamshire recently when two decent men came to me. The great mass of people are decent; even a criminal population may be decent, and I know that it is only by an accident that I do not happen to be one of them. So I have no theory about who is good and who is bad, and I think that it is best to treat everybody as decent. Related to what these men told me is the action of the Minister of Labour with regard to the Rotherham authority. That authority strove to pay more than the scale and to be over-generous. That is, in fact, the crime that they committed, and it is a great credit to the men who took the responsibility for it. I am not going to argue their case, but merely to contrast their action with that of the local authority who dealt with the cases of the two men I have mentioned. In one case the man was granted 18s. a week for himself and his wife, and in the other 25s. for himself, wife and three children. I asked the men if they were authentic cases, and they actually signed their names to a statement that what they said was bona fide.

I would say to the Minister of Health and the Minister of Labour that if they are going to use the strong and firm hand with authorities like Rotherham for exceeding the amounts laid down, it is not too much for us to ask them to use the same firm hand to bring the reactionary authorities up to a standard of decent treatment—or, at any rate, semi-decent treatment—for the unemployed. In one or two places in Scotland the same thing is happening. When the Minister of Health spoke last he told us that he was asking authorities to meet in various parts for the sake of getting uniform administration. Can he tell us what progress has been made? There was some force in the contention of the hon. Member for South Bradford (Mr. Holds-worth) that the Minister ought to lay down what is to be done throughout the country, but I am very doubtful about it. If the Minister intervened, the tendency would be to pull down the standard to the level of the lowest. I remember an experience of this kind of thing. We used to hold rota committees for the granting of unemployment benefit, and there was a constant demand that the Minister should issue uniform instructions to the committee. They were issued, and the effect was that the decent rota committees were pulled back to the position of the worst. I would not therefore support the issue of regulations by the Government in this matter. I would sooner have the means test administered locally because usually local administra- tion is much kinder than national administration. I hold no brief for the means test; I would sweep it away and crush it, but Members must be very careful—


I want to make it quite clear that I would pray the Minister to hold his hand if it means tightening up the instructions.


The whole tendency at the moment is for tightening the expenditure of local authorities. An inquiry is going on now about the block grants, and any attempt to regulate the expenditure of local authorities from Whitehall must be in the nature of tightening up. That is what I fear very seriously. The Minister may reply that these are matters for the consideration of the Royal Commission. That used to be a joke, but it is no longer a joke; it is dead and buried. I have forgotten the number of times we have been put off with that excuse, and it is time the Government gave us some other excuse. The Commission is still sitting, and as far as one can see, is likely to go on sitting. I appeared before the Commission for a day, and that is the impression with which I left it. I could see the whole bag of tricks exposed; it is a compromise Commission which, in the nature of things, cannot make up its mind. Suppose the Commission does not report for another six or 12 months. What will be the position? I know that the Minister expected the report before this. He should not seek to deny that, because he has a reputation for straight dealing, and he ought not to allow this Commission to take it away. He expected a report from the Commission ere this, and there is not a Member of the House who is interested in this matter who has not expected the report.

The May Committee on economy, which had a much more complicated task, reported much earlier. The Minister should tell us what is to happen if the Commission do not report. He cannot for ever give us this excuse. It is time he took action. If a Commission which has been appointed to do a job does not do it the Minister ought to intervene. But, after all, the Minister knows better than I do that the report of the Commission will not matter much. The Treasury hold the key to the problem. If the Treasury will grant a lot of money, then a generous Bill can be drafted, but if the Treasury are mean then it will be a mean Bill, and what the Commission say about the matter will not matter very much. Everybody knows that the matter will be determined by the money received from the Treasury, and is it not time that this "cod," this farce of letting commissions wrangle away at some place in Westminster, was brought to an end. They are having a right good battle there, a right good snarl. It seems impossible to get compromise. Labour men say "No" to this and employers say "No" to that.

What is to be the policy in the intervening months? The means test is causing great concern. The other day Mr. Justice McCardie drew attention to the great increase in crime and said that a grievous feature of it was that it was confined to persons under 30 years of age. I cannot speak for what goes on in England, but in my native city there is an appalling increase of crime among comparatively young men, and I say that the means test and this increase in crime are interlocked. It is not sufficient for us to say that those men should not do this or that. The House should face up to the question whether it is prepared to spend money on keeping men in prison or is prepared to spend the same amount on keeping them outside prison. We who sit here, small as we are in numbers, have fought the means test from the beginning, and will fight it to the end, because we think it is disrupting family life and the peace of the community, and we hope that the Government, if they cannot go all the way to meet us, will at least take immediate steps to carry out some of the small reforms which I have enumerated.


I feel sure the House will congratulate both itself and the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) on the moderate and reasonable tone of the speech he has just delivered. I do not agree with most of it, but for the first time I have heard a speech on this subject from one of the hon. Members who think with him which has really explained to me their point of view. I have never before been able to understand why it is they object so strongly to the means test in principle. I still think their attitude is illogical. The hon. Member said that he would abolish the means test, because, however high a figure was selected, the administration was extravagant; and he went on to say that if anybody who was not claiming benefit had more than a certain amount of money he would take it from them by the means of taxation.


I said that if the country thinks it is wrong that they should have that sum of money the country should take it by means of taxation.


I quite appreciate the point of the hon. Member, but surely no one would suggest that everyone, whatever his means, should draw unemployment benefit if he happens to be out of a job. I do not suppose he would agree that if a millionaire Member of this House were rejected by the electors he ought to claim benefit as one of the unemployed.


If he were an insured person and stood in one of the long queues at an Employment Exchange waiting for it I would give him unemployment benefit—but I am very doubtful whether that would be the right place for him, and whether it should not rather he an asylum.


I have never been able to understand why we should investigate the means of a person when we are taking money from him, as we do in the case of taxation, and not employ a means test when we are giving people money. When we advocate the means test we are accused of being brutal and of insulting the unemployed. There is no such intention. I am just as sorry for the unemployed, and claim to have just as much sympathy for them, as the hon. Member opposite. I sit on a guardians' committee which administers the means test, and there I see these people, and I yield to no hon. Member opposite in the pity I feel for them, but I do not confine my pity to them only. Through no fault of their own they are in the unfortunate position of not being able to support themselves and have to look to the State for support. Our contention is that if the State, that is the individuals who are in a position to support themselves, have to support these other people, they have a right to know beyond question that they are deserving of support, and they can only know that through some form of means test. It may be argued that the present means test is too low or too high, but I cannot see how any hon. Member can justify the giving away State money, which means other people's money, unless it is known that the money is needed and will be well spent. To my mind that is the full and complete justification of the means test.

The hon. Member for South Bradford (Mr. Holdsworth) made a speech to which we all listened with interest and sympathy. I hope he is not now going away. He pointed out the hardships of some of these people, and said that he would feel it to be a dreadful thing if the time came when he had to be supported by his daughter. I quite agree with him. I have not a daughter, but I have a son, and I should dislike to have to be supported by him, but it must be remembered that those who are receiving this money are being kept by other people's sons and daughters. I want hon. Members and their friends to realise that the money does come from other individuals. They may argue that we cannot hurt the Surtax payer very much, although I think that view is wrong, because a tax on the richer members of the community is reflected to the full among the poorer members of the community.

I come from a constituency where, for the first time in the depression that has lasted so long, serious unemployment is only just beginning to rear its ugly head. We have not had it to the extent to which other hon. Members from other parts of the country have known it, but it is coming now. Four cases out of five that one encounters on Monday morning, one can attribute directly to the highness of taxation in this country, and to the consequent decrease in purchasing power. The hon. Member for Gorbals makes speeches in which he rightly says that he represents his constituents and is trying to put their case. I do not think he will grudge me my right to say that it is taxation which is producing this hideous thing, and no one better than hon. Members opposite knows what a hideous thing unemployment is. I shall be pleased to show any hon. Members any Monday morning what is happening in my constituency. It is right that I should resist, on behalf of those people, anything that is going to produce more Government expenditure or more taxa- tion, and therefore more unemployment. That is the stand taken by those who support the Government in their economy measures. I yield to no one in my sympathy for those people, and I know that there are many hard cases which I hope will be dealt with, if possible.

I want particularly to join with the hon. Member for Gorbals in the case which he made about the sick man. It is a question of administrative difficulty, and I confess that I do not see how it is to be got over. That is not the case of a man receiving benefit when he ought not to have it, but of his not receiving it when it is the intention of everybody that he should receive it. If that case can be dealt with, I shall be grateful. I ask the Government that, in yielding to the sympathetic appeals made by hon. Members in all parts of the House to deal with the genuinely hard cases, which no one can listen to without sympathy, they should realise that there is a financial crisis at this moment, and that, if they yield to those, out of generosity, from public funds, they are simply aggravating the evils. It will be far better to cure the disease than to have a constant application of bandages, which worsen the disease, and which must ultimately come to an end.


I want to raise matters concerning the administration of transitional payment, particularly two matters arising in the area in which I live and which affects my own constituency. They arise, to some extent, out of an answer given to me on 30th June by the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Labour. I asked him if he was aware That the Mansfield Guardians Area Committee have refused to continue the determination of transitional payments to the unemployed; if he will state the reasons for this refusal; and what steps he has taken to deal with the situation. In his reply the Minister of Labour said: The Mansfield Guardians Committee of the Nottingham County Council ceased to carry out their statutory duties after illegal determinations given by them had been revised by the public assistance committee of the council. The Public Assistance Committee have now appointed an emergency committee under powers conferred by them by the Order in Council, to discharge the functions of the Guardians Committee in relation to transitional payment."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th June, 1932; col. 1983, Vol. 267.] I have read the answer because—and I do not think the right hon. Gentleman did it consciously—his answer was a distortion of the facts of the situation. To make that quite clear, I shall have to make one or two references to the Nottinghamshire county scheme in general. For the purpose of administration in Nottinghamshire, the county council has htherto had five area guardians' committees, of which Mansfield was one, and, for administrative reasons, the Mansfield area committee is broken up into four sub-committees in order 1.30 p.m. to make the determinations for transitional payments and for relief. There are about 20, or slightly more, of these sub-committees functioning in the various parts of the county. I want to read a passage from the report of the public assistance officer for 29th December, 1931. In that report, he says: With the exceptions of the Mansfield Woodhouse and Hucknall District sub-committees, I am satisfied that, generally speaking, the applications have been dealt with in the manner laid down in the Order and Regulations of the Minister of Labour, i.e., 'as if they were estimating the need of an unemployed able-bodied person who applies for public assistance'. The only question at that stage was that the three sub-committees mentioned in the report were being challenged because of the nature of the determinations that they were making. It is true that those two sub-committees had given 100 per cent. favourable determinations. I will not submit that, in the case of these two sub-committees. I am not challenging that point at all. Following upon that, the public assistance committee received a letter from the Ministry of Labour which I think I had better read. I am quoting now from the minutes of the Nottinghamshire County Council: The following letter with regard to the administration of the Order has been received by the clerk of the county council from the Ministry of Labour: 'I am directed by the Minister of Labour to state for the information of your council that he has received a report, from the general inspector of the Ministry of Health for your area, from which it appears that the guardians' sub-committees'"— I want the Minister to note this— 'in the Mansfield Woodhouse and Hucknall areas have adopted methods in determining the needs of applicants for transitional payments which do not appear to be in conformity with Article 1 (4) of the Unemployment Insurance (National Economy) (No. 2) Order. As your council are aware, this Article requires a committee or sub-committee, in determining the needs of an applicant for transitional payments to make certain inquiries and otherwise deal with the case as if they were estimating the need of an unemployed able-bodied person who had applied for public assistance. The Minister understands that your council have the matter under active consideration, but he would be glad to be favoured with a report at your early convenience on the steps which the council propose to take to secure compliance with the law on the part of these sub-committees'. Before making any comment, I want to call attention again to the fact that in the sub-committee minutes of 2nd February, from which I am now reading, the public assistance officer of the county of Nottinghamshire reported in the terms which I quoted in the early part of my speech. I would ask the Minister to bear these things in mind while I put my argument to him. Up to 19th March, so far as I have been able to ascertain, nearly 25,000 cases have been dealt with by the guardians or their committees in Nottinghamshire. Mansfield area committee have dealt with 9,813 cases, of which 8,975 had the full rate of benefit, 773 had part rate of benefit, and 65 were refused Here I think I had better quote some other figures, because Nottinghamshire is very much different in its different areas. There is an industrial area and an agricultural area. I have given the figures for the industrial area. The figures for the agricultural area are that 1,313 cases have been dealt with, 947 being given the full rate of benefit, 268 part benefit, and 113 being refused.

The upshot of the Minister of Labour's letter was that the county council set up a revision committee, presumably on the evidence I have submitted, to revise the determinations made by the two subcommittees whose determinations had been called into question. All that I want to say about those two committees is that one of them was functioning in a small, exclusively mining township where there has been depression since the lockout in 1926, and the other was functioning in Hucknall, a mining town with other subsidiary industries, but of which the main industry is mining. Those are the two committees which have given 100 per cent. of favourable determinations. The revision committee of the Nottinghamshire County Council, which had been set up in response to the letter of the Ministry of Labour, began its work on the 5th May. I have the reports here, and could give all the facts, but I will not do so, as I know that others want to take part in the discussion. At its first meeting, the committee only dealt with the two sub-committees to which attention had been called, namely, those of Hucknall and Mansfield Woodhouse. On the 20th May, however, it brought the work of another sub-committee under review, and on the 28th May it was reviewing the determinations of five different sub-committees, against which previously, so far as I know, the Ministry of Health inspector had made no complaint.

The Mansfield Guardians' Committee, as a protest against the drastic revisions which were being made by this committee, even in determination made by committees whose action up to this stage had not been challenged by the public assistance officer of the county council, resigned as a protest against the cuts which were being made by this revision committee, and then the county council proceeded, as the right hon. Gentleman informed us in reply to a question the other day, to appoint what was called a special urgency sub-committee, which proceeded to make the determinations which the Mansfield Guardians' Area Committee had refused to do. I have here an account of the results of its activities. It had a sitting on the 22nd June, to which I want to make particular reference. On that day the Committee sat for four hours and dealt with 951 cases—at the rate of four a minute. I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman if he thinks that a committee sitting in the City of Nottingham, the members of which are in the main unfamiliar with the facts of the situation in the areas to which I have referred, can deal with cases at the rate of four a minute and ensure that justice shall be done to those who are in need of transitional payments? It more than astonished me to see in a local paper on Friday, the 24th June, the report of a speech made on Friday, the 17th June, in Mansfield—a speech made at the opening of a new wing of a conservative club. It was made by Lord Galway, a member of the Nottingham County Council and a member of this public assistance committee. In the course of his speech, he said—I am not deriding his views— We do not want the Government to have to intervene and send officials down to settle Mansfield's business. We think that Mansfield should be perfectly capable of looking after its own affairs, but I have this from the Minister of Labour himself, that, unless we get this thing put right and the 'dole' administered in Mansfield as it should be, the Government will have no hesitation in taking the strongest action and sending representatives down to see that the work is properly carried out. I notice that many hon. Members opposite frequently express, not only in this House but outside, their passion for the observance of the law. That is always noticeable, and is not unjustifiable, in their speeches. Whether there is always the same enthusiasm for justice and equity in dealing with the need of the unfortunate victims of the economic system under which we live, is an entirely different matter. I want to ask the Minister what is the real reason why this abnormal pressure—I do not think I exaggerate—has been brought to bear in the case of the Nottinghamshire Public Assistance Committee? Is it that the Ministry of Labour, regardless of the needs of some of the unemployed, have decided to effect so much savings in each division of the country; and is it in pursuance of that policy that they are determined in certain areas to push the committees to a point where they will make the necessary savings? Are they determined to extract from these various areas their respective quotas towards the amount of savings that they wish to make? All kinds of quotas are fashionable nowadays, but I thought that the unemployed, having regard to the cuts in their benefit which have already been made, had contributed their quota to national economy, and that it was entirely unnecessary that further pressure such as I have illustrated in this case should have been brought to bear on this particular public assistance committee.

There is an interesting corollary to all this. I was present at the meeting of the public assistance committee on the 28th June, and I heard the chairman of the finance committee read out some estimates for the next six months. I found that in those estimates there was a sum—I know that this will be paid by the Ministry of Labour and is not coming out of the county rate; I do not want to be regarded as creating that impression—there was a sum of £1,200 for the payment of salaries to the officials of the Ministry of Labour who have been loaned to the public assistance committee for this work in the county of Nottingham; and, in addition to that, the finance committee recommended that grants amounting to £230 should be made to the relieving officers for the special work they have performed in regard to transitional payments and £60 to the indoor staff for the special work that they have performed. I want to ask the Minister, is he quite sure that the results which he will obtain from the methods which are being pursued will justify the expense involved? Is it merely a matter of taking something from the unemployed who are in dire need in order to pay gratuities and salaries to officials because they are carrying out this process?

It seems to me that all this pettifogging inquisition which is going on, with all the paraphernalia of a revision committee and an emergency sub-committee, all in the name of economy, is nothing less than a scandal. What does it amount to in effect? You are really setting up in regard to this matter a new dictatorship of officials. The Minister knows how these guardians' area committees are constituted. He knows that they are constituted of representatives elected by local authorities in the area. He will know that the Mansfield Town Council have six, the Mansfield Woodhouse Urban District Council four, and the Sutton-in-Ashfield Urban District Council a similar number; and so I could go on over the whole area. He knows very well that these are the only people, and that they are only indirectly elected on to these bodies. He knows very well that all these authorities, like the Mansfield Town Council, the Mansfield Woodhouse Urban District Council, and the Warsop Urban District Council are protesting against the action of the county council towards their representatives on these particular bodies. I want to know from the Minister if it is a fact that the pressure which is being exerted on the Nottinghamshire County Council is coming from his Department, with the sheer deliberate intention of effecting a certain amount of saving in that area.

I gave notice yesterday at Question Time of another matter which I wanted to raise to-day, affecting the Ministry of Labour. I will deal with it very briefly. It has to do with a question which the Minister answered for me yesterday with regard to German workers coming into the hosiery trade in this country, and it particularly concerns my constituency. I had better explain briefly to the House that my constituency, until relatively recently, was the centre of the fine-gauge full-fashioned silk hosiery industry in this country. These machines pan be made in this country, but that is not the point that I want to stress at the moment. Since the Silk Duties of 1924–25 I am quite prepared to admit that this section of the hosiery industry has had a relatively prosperous period and, when we returned to the Gold Standard in 1925, it was obvious that the relatively high purchasing power of our money on the Continent contributed in some degree to the hosiery manufacturers wanting to import machinery from Germany. In July, 1931, I put a question to the President of the Board of Trade about the importation of this machinery, and I was informed that the following quantities had been imported, in 1926 355 tons—the number of machines is not specified in the Board of Trade return. To give an idea of the number of machines involved, the average weight of one is somewhere about five tons. In 1926 there were 355 tons imported, in 1927 582, in 1928 1,286, and in 1929 1,536 tons.


Not all fine gauge.


Not all, but a large proportion. On 28th June I put a question to the President of the Board of Trade and was informed that in 1930 there were 85.4 tons imported, in 1931 820 tons, and in the first quarter of 1932 615 tons. I have no objection whatever to mechanics and fitters coming to erect this machinery in this country if they are bona fide carrying out the job of erecting it and getting it to work, but I cannot understand the number of permits granted to Germans to come here in connection with this machinery. I have recently put to the Minister three questions about German mechanics. I was told yesterday that, for the 854 tons of machinery that came in in 1930, approximately—presumably the Department do not get accurate records—20 erectors and technical workers came in. In 1931, for the 826 tons, approximately 20 men came in. For the first quarter of 1932 there were 615 tons of machinery and 60 Germans came in for that period. To me these are astonishing, figures, because these machines are only a modification of an English patent which has been operated in this area for the last 50 years. The only difference between the fine gauge and the coarser gauges is a slight difference in the gadgets on the machine. Any skilled operator in the district could be put on to manipulate the new gauge in a few hours. Some of these machines are being operated by Germans unnecessarily in actual production. The Continental method of manufacturing hosiery is different from ours in this sense that on the Continent you have a machine with semi-skilled labour and perhaps a mechanic in charge. No manufacturer here who valued the quality of his goods would want for a moment to introduce the Continental method.

Will the Minister take special care that these permits are only granted in future for short periods to mechanics and fitters who come to erect the machinery, because in the local area I am convinced that instructors are not necessary? They may be necessary if you get a new factory on the outskirts of London or Liverpool, but inside the recognised hosiery area they are not. I do not want these Continental workers operating these machines in this country and introducing a new system which will definitely lower the standard of our own operatives.

The MINISTER of LABOUR (Sir Henry Betterton)

I can assure the hon. Member that I am just as anxious as he is that no foreigner should come over here to take a job which can just as well be done by an Englishman or woman. The question about which he is in doubt is as to whether we have not, perhaps, let in more foreigners to do work which he thinks could be equally well done by native labour. This is a matter which we have under our scrutiny, but it must not be forgotten that, according to my recollection, there are German machines and, if you put someone who is unaccustomed to them before he is taught how to work them, you may not only be doing harm to the machines but may be defeating the very object that you have in view. A second point is this. Clearly it is to the interest of this country to encourage foreign capital to come over and, if foreign capital employs British labour, which we hope it will do, and which it is in fact doing, that is a matter which also must be borne in mind, but I am quite willing to discuss personally with the hon. Member—because we have precisely the same object in view—this question of foreigners coming into the district which he represents. Of course, the time of the permit is limited in each case—sometimes 12 months, sometime six—but I am quite ready to discuss that with him in order to achieve our common object.


Will my right hon. Friend also consult with the local manufacturers of the machines, with Black-burns', for instance, to see how far they can supply them?


I will certainly do that. If we can do anything to avoid what the hon. Member thinks is a disservice to his own constituents, I will certainly see what we can do.

With regard to the question of the Mansfield sub-committee, the position, as far as the Ministry of Labour is concerned, is quite clear. We look to the county councils throughout their jurisdiction to see that the law is obeyed. In the case of Mansfield, the committee declined to do any further work at all or to act in accordance with the instructions of the county council, and the council thereupon appointed another committee to administer their statutory duties, and this was clone with the full responsibility of the county council. But I cannot think the hon. Member is serious when he suggested that I had laid down or was considering laying down a quota for any particular area. There is not a syllable of truth in that. I am quite sure that the hon. Gentleman, when he made such a suggestion, did not believe it himself. The hon. Gentleman also asked whether the Ministry of Labour had loaned officials to the public assistance committee. Of course, they have not, and I am sure that he knew the answer to the question before he asked it. The hon. Gentleman who opened the Debate raised the question which has often been raised before of discrepancies in Lancashire. He put the point very fairly and clearly and gave certain particulars. He said that, according to the figures which he had, the county council percentage of nil assessments in February was 26 per cent., and that the nil assessments in the county boroughs in February was 18, and, there- fore, on that he drew the conclusion that the administration in the counties was more stringent than the administration in the boroughs. That was the point he put.


I tried to show that the difference was felt during the period from November to February, and that it was not merely confined to the month of February.


I meant to say up to February. The hon. Member went on to say that he would be satisfied if he could be assured that those two administrations would be brought more nearly together in order that the discrepancies might be smoothed out or reduced. I am satisfied that very much has been done both in Lancashire and in other parts of England by means of discussion and deputation, and by the assistance of hon. Members like the hon. Gentleman himself, to remove discrepancies, or to smooth out what, to begin with, no doubt, seemed to be a discrepancy between one area and another. The latest figures I have with regard to Lancashire relate to the 4th June, and I will give them to the hon. Member in order that he may see how considerably those discrepancies have been reduced. He has said that up to February the percentage of county council nil assessments was 26. In June they were 23 per cent., so that therefore the proportion with regard to the county has gone clown. With regard to county boroughs—and he stated that the average for the county of Lancashire was 18 per cent. of nil assessments up to February—if you take six county boroughs of Lancashire, you will find that the nil assessments of Blackburn were 19 per cent., Bolton, Burnley, and Bury 29 per cent., Oldham 21 per cent., and Preston 31 per cent. He will see that the process which he has been urging for so long is going on and that the discrepancies are being reduced. I think that it is very creditable both to the authorities in the county and in the boroughs that they are arriving at a more uniform method of dealing with the matters before them.

I only intend to say a word or two about the speech of the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan). The hon. Gentleman raised a very technical point relating to a gap in the case of transitional payment between the time when the claims stopped, arid the tran- 2.0 p.m. sitional payment began. He said that there was an umpire's decision which covered that point. I can assure him that if it be true, as he suggests, that I can by regulation do anything to remove what appears to be an injustice, I will inquire into it, and, if I can, I will do it. But I have not the decision of the umpire in mind, and as the point is very technical I would rather not say more. The second point he made was with regard to seasonal workers. The hon. Member has referred to cases in which he thinks that grave injustice is being done by the rigorous operation of the Act. He asked me what is the position if the Royal Commission do not report this year, next year or at all. The position is that on the 30th June or the beginning of July, to all intents and purposes, the present legislation in regard to unemployment insurance, including the Anomalies Act, comes to an end, and unless something is done by the end of June—I am speaking from memory—my impression is that there will be no benefit paid to anyone after the end of June unless the House legislates in order to provide for it. Therefore, he may be assured that the questions and the very technical points he has raised will be considered by me.


What about the sickness?


I prefer to read what the hon. Member said in the OFFICIAL REPORT in order to see exactly what the hon. Member had in mind. Every point will be considered before new legislation, which is inevitable in the next seven or eight months, is drafted.


Does the right hon. Gentleman seriously believe that we can get the report?


I certainly do not say that I do not expect a general report. I said that the responsibility is the responsibility of the Government, and that before the end of June they will have to legislate, and the points which the hon. Member has raised will be borne in mind. Much of the Debate has really proceeded upon the footing that the transitional payments are benefits. They are not benefits. I have said over and over again—and it has been said in this Debate to-day—that those payments are in fact relief. When the hon. Gentleman tells us that we have been harsh in deciding when benefits should stop and when transitional payments should begin, I would remind him of the position. This is very relevant to the point which has also been raised as to whether this thing is really right or wrong. As the House knows, the right to benefit is deemed to cease after 26 weeks. Let me remind the House that a man, wife and three children, under benefit scales, get 29s. 3d. per week. Benefit for 26 weeks at that rate costs £38. To provide that £38 absorbs six years' contributions, of which the employed person only pays one-third. If we take the employed person's own contributions, it would require 18 years at 10d. a week to produce that £38. I cannot say that I think that that is an ungenerous scale or that 26 weeks is, in the circumstances, an unfair term at which to put the right to insurance benefit. In Germany, which perhaps is a country with a system more resembling our own than any other country—of course there are many points of difference—they, like we, until comparatively recently had a 26 weeks' limit. They found it necessary to reduce the 26 weeks to 20 weeks. There was also a proposal, which I understand has since been made statutory, by an emergency decree, which reduced the period from the original 26 weeks to six weeks. Therefore as compared with Germany our system is far and away more generous to the unemployed person.

It must be obvious to anyone that it would be unfair to pay relief, which is what transitional payments are, State relief, to persons without any inquiry as to whether or not they need it. That would be unfair to a large class of persons who are not insured at all and whose weekly income or wage is perhaps little more than that which is received in benefit. Take the agricultural labourer. I am not concerned to argue the rate of wage of the agricultural labourer—I wish it was higher—but I am just stating the facts. In many parts of the country the statutory wage of the agricultural labourer at this moment is not more than 30s. a week. The agricultural labourer may have himself, his wife, and three children, and possibly a great many more children, to keep out of his 30s. a week. Furthermore, the agricultural labourer is a very highly skilled man and deserves as well of this country as any other. How can we pay that 29s. 3d. a week to an insured person without inquiry as to whether he needs it or not, when a whole class are getting practically the same amount as the 29s. 3d. which is given to an insured man, his wife and three children?

A second class of person to whom it would be unfair to make this payment without inquiry as to means is the very small Income Tax payer. We were compelled last October to produce revenue by a variety of ways and one of the means by which we were compelled to produce revenue was by greatly lowering the Income Tax scale. That demand which we made has been an embarrassment to many men and their families throughout the whole year. It may mean that some little luxury or some short holiday has to be abandoned in order to meet that payment. The Income Tax which they pay goes to the general revenues of the country. How can we then, in justice, pay out of the revenues of the country to people without inquiry as to whether or not they need it a sum which is relatively little lower than the income of those who help to provide the money?

A third class of person to whom it would be very unfair to pay out under the name of transitional payment moneys without any inquiry as to means, is the insured person himself, the man who may be in receipt of standard benefit. It must be unfair to ask a man to subscribe perhaps all his life or for many years to a fund out of which perhaps he has drawn nothing until the present slump came, and then to tell him that he is to get just the same amount as the man who is drawing transitional payment, without any inquiry as to whether the recipient of that transitional payment needs it or not. These are the grounds upon which it seems to me the means test is justifiable. With regard to the administration, as I began by saying to the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) and other hon. Members, as far as I can, within the limits of my power which do not extend, as the hon. Member below the Gangway suggested, to the issuing of instructions, I have done and I am doing all that I can to ensure that indefensible discrepancies shall be smoothed out and that this matter shall be administered fairly and justly in the interests of all concerned.