HC Deb 13 July 1932 vol 268 cc1309-18

I rise to draw attention to the working of the means test, but before I enter upon that subject I should like to touch upon another matter which has only come to notice this morning. I refer to the question of the Irish Free State (Special Duties) Act. Those who watched the passage of the Measure through the House understood from the Dominions Secretary that some time would be given before the Act was brought into operation. About 6 o'clock last night Black Rod came to the House to announce that hon. Members were required in the House of Lords to listen to the Royal Assent being given to certain Bills, one of which was the Irish Free State (Special Duties) Act. We expected that some time would be given before the powers contained in the Act were put into operation, but anybody who reads the "Times" newspaper today will see that effect is being given to the Order, and that it will come into operation on the 15th. Judging by the Debates of Monday and Tuesday, when we listened to what had happened at Lausanne and Geneva, and when the spirit of good will and tolerance was being emphasised, one would have thought that a little more time would have been given to the Irish people to try to come to some kind of settlement rather than that we should use the mailed fist and say, "Now that we have the power we intend to exercise it. There will be no tolerance or good will towards your people, and we are going to get all we can from you, let the result be what it may." The House of Commons ought to protest against the putting into operation of the Special Duties Act so quickly, and I take the opportunity of emphasising my feelings on the matter as being the first speaker from the Labour benches this morning.

We have been told from time to time that if we could prove that the working of the means test was not being carried out properly the Minister of 12 n. Labour and the Minister of Health would take some kind of action. All of us have received post- cards with regard to the Disarmament Conferences and other kinds of things, and many of us have also received protests from our constituents in reference to the working of the means test. From Glasgow Green to Leigh Market Place meetings have been held every week voicing the censure and the protests of a vast number of people because they are not satisfied with what is taking place under the Act. Only this morning my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Rhondda (Lieut.-Colonel Watts-Morgan) presented a petition signed by 10,000 people asking that something should be done to alleviate the sufferings caused by the Act in South Wales. It was only last week that the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) presented a petition signed by 53,000 people calling upon the House of Commons to pay attention to what was happening. I have had a petition sent to me signed by 40,000 people in Lancashire with regard to the general position. In my division they have set up a council of action and are getting people to sign a petition to be presented to the House of Commons—4,000 people have already signed it—asking for attention to be given to the matter. It is on these grounds that we ask the House of Commons, on this the last day before the Recess, not to depart without doing something in respect of domestic affairs. We have spent two days discussing matters in the international field. I know that international affairs are important and worthy of attention, and that unless we obtain a settlement of international affairs no good can accrue, but, at the same time, I realise that unless we are able to allay the discontent among the vast number of people who form the backbone of the British race no real settlement can be obtained either internationally or in any other respect.

When we discussed this matter on 10th December, 1931, and pointed out what had happened, the excuse of the Minister of Health was that they had not had lime to see the result of the working of the Act, and that it would be the duty of the Government to see what could be done. He also promised that if we could bring direct evidence of the unfair working of the Act his Department would only be too glad to put matters right. As he said that on that occasion, and if we are able to satisfy the Minister of Labour and the Minister of Health today of the unfair working of the Act, something ought to be done at once to deal with the matter. I will give the example of my constituency. Lancashire is a peculiar place as far as the working of the Act is concerned. It is divided into two parts. There is what is called the administrative parts of the County of Lancashire, and there are about 18 county boroughs who deal with their own cases separately and apart from the administrative county. The county boroughs comprise a population of 3,400,000, and the administrative county comprises a population of 1,800,000. Lancashire cannot be said to vary very much, taking it in vast areas, and one would expect that in the working of the Act there would be very little difference in its administration, and that therefore there would not be great anomalies in regard to the number who get full transitional benefits, those who only get part benefit, and those who may be, cut out altogether. Yet we find that in two parts of Lancashire, almost identical in regard to the conditions under which they live and work, there is a tremendous amount of variation in the administration of the means test. That is what is causing so much trouble all over Lancashire.

One would think that it was merely Members of Parliament who were making protests and that it could be brushed on one side as mere propaganda, but when we find that all over Lancashire bodies of men and their representatives are making daily protests and sending deputations, it is time that something was done. I pointed out in a previous speech that the representatives of the Lancashire miners had joined with the textile workers in meeting the authorities at Preston to ask them if they could not do something with respect to the matter. They made their protest. Since then they have met the Minister of Labour or his representative. I was not able to be present, but I understand that they stated their case in such a manner that he was impressed by what they said. Those are two very large bodies of trade unionists in Lancashire. Moreover, we are having meetings all over the Lancashire Divisions and are emphasising the different variations with our town councils. A letter appeared some time ago in the "Manchester Guardian" from a man who sits on the Lancashire County Council. This is what he says: The charge against the Public Assistance Committee of the county council is not that they have refused benefit in cases where the applicants' circumstances would have obviously disentitled them to benefit in the mind of every reasonable person. The charge is a two-fold one: (1) That they refused benefit in cases where the assets are inconsiderable and insisted upon these small savings being first exhausted. If anyone has a few pounds saved they have insisted that those savings shall be spent before they can get any benefit. (2) That they are administering the Order in Council more unsympathetically than many of the county boroughs who have, happily for their inhabitants autonomy in this matter (subject only to the Order in Council) and also than other county councils. I have had cited to me an instance of a man who, on removing from a county borough to the administrative county, found his transitional benefit reduced without any alteration whatever in his circumstances. I have also full details of the scales and conditions acted upon by one large authority in the county. Under these small savings are not penalised as they are in the county. For instance, savings up to £100 are exempt and income at 5 per cent. on balance is taken into account. Further allowances are made on a more generous scale. The importance of this lies in the fact that the Public Assistance Committee of the county shelters itself behind the Order in Council and contends that its scales and conditions are the limit permitted by that order. That this must be inaccurate is shown by the fact that other authorities are permitted to continue and act upon the same Order in Council much more generously and sympathetically. What they are doing can be done by the county council if the will to do it be there. That letter is from a man who sits on the county council and he has voiced his protest in public because he is not able to use his influence in the county council. The council of the administrative county consists of 140 aldermen and county councillors. Of this number fewer than 30 have Labour views. The other 120 are made up of Independents, who are always against us, diehard Tories or Liberals. They are taking an outlook on those matters which we say was not meant by the administration of the means test. I would like to refer to one further protest which I have received from representatives of the textile unions in the Ashton area who met last night and passed a resolution describing as: unduly harsh and unnecessary the conditions imposed by the Lancashire County Council when dealing with transitional benefit under the Unemployment Insurance Act. All round we are getting protests against what is called the unfair administration of the means test.

I have pointed out the population of the two areas and I should like to give a few figures in regard to administration. The percentage of cases granted full benefits in the Lancashire County Council area is 17.4 and in the County Borough areas 28.4. Partial benefits in the administrative county have been granted to 56.5 applicants and to 53.5 in the county boroughs. Those who have been disallowed benefit represent in the administrative county area 26.1 per cent. and in the county borough areas 18.1 per cent. Those are the latest figures which I have been able to get from the period from 12th November, 1931, to 20th February, 1932. If the Minister has any later figures that will show that the comparative figures are more in keeping with each other, then I shall be satisfied that our protests are doing some good, but if the figures are not coming nearer together and this big divergence continues in the payment in the different areas, then satisfaction cannot be obtained throughout Lancashire. I do not want the Minister to say at this juncture, as I believe has been said by some representatives of the Government, that some county boroughs are more generous than they ought to be. It has been urged that my protests may mean that the more generous county boroughs will be brought down to the level of the meaner ones. I hope the Minister will not agree to that and that he will regard our protests as genuine. If our protests are set on one side I can promise him that there will be far more trouble in the future than he has had from these benches up to now.

We are not getting away from the dreadful position of unemployment. I had thought that I might have been wrong in my ideas of the Government and that there might be some temporary success in their policy and that the unemployment figures might become less during that temporary success, but I find that that is not so. The latest figures which were given the other day show that there were 2,747,343 people on the registers of the Employment Exchanges. That is apart from those who have lost their claim for transitional payments and who probably have not signed on. The Minister may not know this fact but it is true that many people who have been struck off transitional payment do not sign on at the Employment Exchanges. They are a lost section for the time being. From 100,000 to 200,000 people who have lost transitional payment are not signing on. They refuse to go out and sign, because they are disgusted. Of the total unemployed 51 per cent. or 1,400,000 are applying for full insurance benefit, and 38 per cent. or 1,042,000 are applying for transitional benefit. This latter number of 1,000,000 come within the category that I have been describing this morning and it is a question whether they will get justice from the men who are administering the means test. We disagree entirely with the Government in the application of the means test, although we realise that it is an Act of Parliament and has to be carried out. As such we have impressed upon our men that it is their duty to serve on the Committees.

When the Government carried their legislation with regard to the means test there was such feeling in my Division that I had the greatest difficulty in meeting my people and in urging upon them the necessity of carrying out the work. I said to them "If you are public men it is not right to refuse to carry out any Act of Parliament. Sit on the committees and do the best you can. Find out the weaknesses and let us know what they are. If injustices are being meted out we can call attention to the fact in the House of Commons and ask the Minister to remedy them." I am glad that the Labour party have managed to prevail on their people in the country to carry out the working of the means test and to get the best out of it and they are doing that. But they feel very disgusted when they have sat on the committees and given a decision, and when that decision goes to a superior authority for sanction it is upset. The local people deal with the cases according to the best of their knowledge and they grant payment, but when the matter goes to Preston before 140 people the majority of them take a very different outlook. That is not right.

I ask the Minister of Labour to try to do something to regulate this matter more thoroughly than it has been regulated in the past. That is the protest we make. This is a matter of great importance to these people, and they are anxiously waiting to see what we will do in this matter. There are thousands, bordering on 1,000,000, people who are wondering what will happen about this claim which we are making this morning. In the Recess, many of us will be addressing meetings, and the question in the minds of our audiences will not be what has happened at Lausanne or the disarmament policy. The first thing asked will be, "What am I getting from the Employment Exchange? Is this right or fair?" You may talk about Lausanne and the high ideals you are trying to attain, but it does not appeal to the man who is feeling the want of food. He says to us, "Do something for the people at home first, and then we will be ready to deal with those high ideals when we have got a decent meal to eat." I am making my appeal; I know it does not hold the same status as the Debate of yesterday, but to us it is of far more importance, and we are putting it forward in the hope that the Minister of Labour will consider that our claim is just and right.


Every Member of the House, I think, will agree that we have listened to a very reasonable statement put in a very helpful way. There is only one point on which I disagree with the hon. Member. I have no objection to the means test as such. I think no one can complain of the legal obligation that when a man makes a claim his means should be inquired into, but I want to say a few words with regard to the administration of the means test, because I think there is a distinction between the two things. In the first place, so far as concerns Bradford, one of the divisions of which I represent, I believe that even the Labour members of the committee which is regulating this question agree that there is a very generous administration of the Act. That is the information given to me by one of the members of the committee. The only complaint, or, rather, I will say, the chief complaint is regarding the instructions, or lack of instructions, given to them by the Minister. I want this morning to appeal to the Minister to give definite instructions regarding the computation of income. I believe that it is impossible to lay down a flat rate for the whole of the country. I believe it is true to say that, whereas one rate might be too small for one area, it might be exceedingly generous for another area; but I believe that it is possible to obtain unification in the classification of income when assessing benefit.

I would draw the attention of the Minister to certain cases of hardship which have been brought to my notice. Let me assume that there are three men living next door to each other, all following the same occupation and all having enjoyed the same wages. The first man during his employment has spent all the money which he has earned. There is no question with regard to that man's case. He gets relief. The second man has saved a little and bought his own house. You take the rent of the house as being income. The third man has refused to put his money into a house, and has put it into a bank. Then you come along to the third man and say to him that over and above the sum of—I think I am accurate in saying in Bradford—£50 is to be spent before making any claim. I do not think it would be a great loss to the public exchequer if you were to count as a man's income the interest on his savings. Suppose, for instance, a man had £200 and the interest was calculated at 5 per cent., that would be £10 a year, or about 4s. a week; or, if £500, it would be £25 a year, or approximately 10s. a week. Could not some such arrangement be made?

It would have these two effects. In the first place, the man who has been thrifty asks me, "What has been the use of my thrift?" Is it the policy of the Government to encourage the working man to be thrifty or not? The second thing I find occurring is that some of these men when they have a doubt about being kept in employment for a certain length of time, transfer their savings to another member of the family. This sort of thing is actually occurring. Suppose a man knows there is some doubt about being employed beyond a given time. He knows that his savings will be calculated in the award that is going to be made to him, so he says to a daughter or a son, "I am going to give you this money," and thereby he gets over that difficulty. I do not want to encourage anyone by any word of mine to be dishonest, but I must confess that if I were in that position I should feel that I was being treated very hardly in comparison with a man who had not cared a rap the whole of his life, but had spent his money as he had gone along.

I have a case in mind, that of a personal friend of mine. I know it is an absolutely genuine case. He has worked for one firm for more than 40 years. That firm, unfortunately, has gone into liquidation. He has paid into the fund ever since the insurance scheme came into being. During that time he has been a very thrifty individual, being a good Wesleyan, and he has put a little bit away during the whole of the time. Now he comes to the point when he needs to draw on the fund. He has drawn for 26 weeks, and then is told to go home and spend the whole of the money he has saved during 30 or 40 years. The man is a very reasonable, hard-working man, but he says, "What is going to happen to me when I become 60 years of age, and too old for work?" Having spent all that he has saved, at the end, as a reward for his thrift, he has to go into the pauper class.

Here is another typical case. It is also a case personally known to me. The man is willing to work. There is no question about that, for I know the man. It is not a case that has been brought to me; I have known the man for years. He has a, married daughter living with him, and the whole of the income of the married daughter and son-in-law is taken as being the income of the family. Suppose that man had lodgings with a lady, not his daughter, and her husband, it would be a, different computation altogether. I take it that in law, when a, daughter marries, the father loses the responsibility. Unfortunately, when she marries, so far as this law is concerned, she is still responsible for her parents.

I would draw attention to something which is rather a tragedy. The Act in some cases is having a bad effect on family life in Bradford. I know of many cases where men have to depend on one or two children to keep the home going, and, although I am not defending the action of the son or daughter, I know of cases where sons and daughters have left home because of having to keep their parents. [An HON. MEMBER: "Shame!"] It is a shame. I am not defending such action for a moment. I think it is a disgrace to any son or daughter. But it is having an opposite effect, because I know of parents who are turning out their sons and daughters. Is it not possible for the right hon. Gentleman to give instructions somewhat more generous in character? It is only a minority of people who want something for nothing. If ever it comes to the day when I have to look to my daughter to keep me, it will be a tragedy for me. We are putting men into a very difficult position. They have to creep into their home almost apologising for existing.

Let me reiterate what I have said about penalising thrift. We are always told that the right hon. Gentleman possesses a kindly heart, but he also possesses a wonderful way of shifting the burden of responsibility when a question is put to the local authorities, and when I speak to the local authorities they have a happy knack of shifting it back to the right hon. Gentleman. I do not like this Box and Cox attitude. I believe that the authorities are trying to carry out the instructions given by the right hon. Gentleman but, although I claim to have a certain amount of intelligence, I must confess that in some cases no one can say definitely what the instructions mean. I have read all the instructions given on this particular subject and, quite honestly, my education must have been neglected, because someone in the Department has a wonderful gift of writing something which no one can understand. I notice that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health points across to hon. 12.30 p.m. Members opposite, suggesting that I should transfer that criticism to them. Whoever is responsible, it is not the principal point. The Government cannot shift the responsibility on to the Opposition for what is occurring now. Nothing is gained by merely making debating points across the Floor of the House.

Forward to