HC Deb 19 October 1932 vol 269 cc264-90

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Margesson.]


I think the House will not expect that I should make any excuse or apology for raising questions connected with the disorders that have taken place both in London and the country, because, although it is true that the Home Secretary is not directly responsible for the day-to-day administration of these matters in town and country, he is the representative of this House as the custodian of law and order. I think the right hon. Gentleman himself will agree with that statement. I think the House will also agree that on other occasions, we on this side have called attention to the growth of crime of every description in the country, and have asked again and again that the condition which creates disorder and the growth of crime should be dealt with. I do not want to raise the whole economic issue this evening, but I think it important that the House should understand the position in which all of us in this place find ourselves.

We are here mainly because we believe in political democracy. It may be that there are some Members who since their election or during their election have been converted to one form of dictatorship or another, but our very presence here means that we believe in political democracy. We are in danger, I think, of standing before the nation in a self-condemned manner because of our failure to deal with conditions which are apparent, which all of us can see, and all of us, if we will, can understand. The disturbances have been very widespread in the country, and have been brought about by various causes, but the main cause has been unemployment, and the conditions laid down for the treatment of unemployment, by the late Government and the Governments before that, and this Government, not merely since the War, but before the War.

I do not want in any way to minimise the fact that I, myself, have, over and over again, taken part in demonstrations agitating the unemployed, organising the unemployed, and doing all I could to induce the unemployed to advertise publicly their condition. As far as I am concerned if I felt that I was doing more useful work in that way than I am doing in the sort of social and political activity in which I am now engaged, I should still do that work. I think the masses who are out of work have an absolute right to bring their condition to the notice of the public, and I think that if any of us belonged to the unemployed, we should feel that we wanted to be with them in. doing so. As I told the previous Home Secretary, I think it is the duty of the police and of those who are charged with the maintenance of law and order to provide facilities for peaceful demonstrations. Instead of the authorities frowning on them and trying to injure them, they ought to encourage marches and. demonstrations. I have passed from one end of London to the other with demonstrations of men and Women, times out of number, without any disturbance, but very effectively making people understand what unemployment meant.

I do not know whether there is any one left in the House who remembers those days, but I sat under that gallery in the years from 1903 until 1906, and in those three years there were some of the most wonderful demonstrations of the unemployed ever held in this metropolis, and they were quite peaceful. As a result of that agitation, in which the late Keir Hardie and others took part, a Tory House of Commons, for the first time, passed legislation dealing with unemployment, and the man who had most to do with it—hon. Members can look it up in the OFFICIAL REPORT—Was the late Joseph Chamberlain. I have said in this House on previous occasions that he was the one statesman who, years before then, had laid it down that unemployment should not be treated as a purely Poor Law business, and that men and women out of employment should be treated, not as paupers, but as ordinary citizens in misfortune. I call attention to these matters because of this fact. The tendency has been to get another kind of police in the metropolis, and I read the other day of another sort of police in Birkenhead, I think, where half-a-dozen on motor bicycles charged a crowd as if it were an armed crowd. In London we have these new horse patrols who carry long staves, and use them on occasion very effectively.

It so happens that on one memorable occasion John Burns, who afterwards became as respectable a member of society as any one else, and Doctor Annie Besant and others took part in a demonstration, and the soldiers were called out to Trafalgar Square. Before the military took any action, however, the Riot Act was read. Now, these police, who are heavily armed in my judgment, can take action and charge without the Riot Act being read or any magistrate being present. I call attention to that circumstance because of an incident which I am informed occurred last night. I will give the Home Secretary the name of the street in Lambeth where it is said to have taken place, and I will give the circumstances to the House exactly as they were given to me. I am also interested in this case, because I am told that one of my constituents is among those who were injured. I am told that there is a place in Lambeth—one of the centres where disturbance took place—where young men gather together every night and simply talk and pass the time away. There is no meeting. It is simply a matter of standing around, and last night, down that street—[Interruption.] It is very easy to be amused, but it is not very amusing for the people who underwent it.

The statement made to me can easily be verified, and, as I say, I will give the Home Secretary the particulars. It is that the patrols charged from the two ends of the street and met, as it were, in the centre, that it was absolutely impossible for any ordinary persons to get out of their way, and that in that, charge a very considerable number of people were hurt who were not doing anything but going about their ordinary business. I am told that the people who went into the houses went there simply to escape. People opened their doors and allowed them to go in, and the pelting from the houses was due to the fact that the police commenced to batter at the doors to get at the people who had gone inside. Whether that be true or not, I do not know.

The SECRETARY of STATE for the HOME DEPARTMENT (Sir John Gilmour)

Where was that—what street?


In Lambeth. It was Wackwood Terrace. It is a good name, I do not deny. There are people in Russell Gardens who will give you information, and I will give you the name of the person afterwards, but I want to say that on this question I am speaking not merely of what happened in this particular part of Russell Gardens and Wackwood Terrace, but I know of my own knowledge, because I have been in a street when the police have done this thing, when they have come in at both ends and had the crowd in between them; and it is quite easy to discover whether that happened last night.

I want to go a step further about that. I think that before mounted police, armed in the fashion in which our police are armed to-day, charge a crowd some notice should be given that that is going to take place. People can easily be killed by being trampled down by horses or batoned by these clubs, or they can be injured for life that way, and quite innocent people may be injured, and very severely injured, under those conditions. I hope that the Home Secretary, together with those who are his advisers, will devise some means by which the crowds can be warned before they are charged by the police under these circumstances.

There is a further point that I want to make, and I am very glad the Prime Minister is here, because I want to make it to him. Before he came in, I said that respect for political democracy, which he supports and which I support, is in danger of being wiped out altogether, and for this reason: At Birkenhead after the riots a great concession was made to the men who had gone there to demonstrate, and at Belfast the same thing has happened. I know that the right hon. Gentleman will say that if concessions are made within the next few days, it has nothing whatever to do with the disturbances. People will never believe that, because these concessions should have been made long ago, and I want very much to press the right hon. Gentleman that if we are going to turn over a new leaf with this business, he should make the announcement now. If he cannot make it to-night, let him make it to-morrow. Do not let us go on leading the people to believe that the only way to get any concession is to have disturbances of this kind.

It does not very much matter whether every particular of every case that is given to me is right or wrong. What is true is—and no one will deny it—that tens of thousands of people were in the streets, that a great deal of property has been destroyed, both in the East End and in South East London, and that the same thing has happened all over the country. Therefore, when concessions come, following those things, people are bound to say, "You will never get anything until you create disorder." I am still stupid enough to be a pacifist, because I believe that in this world in the long run that is the only way by which we shall win out, but I am bound to say that circumstances and conditions over and over again have proved that apparently I am wrong. Last week I met, on five nights running, many of the unemployed in my Division, and at every meeting I was asked, "Why will you not join in these demonstrations organised by the National Unemployed Committee?" I gave one answer: "I will not advise men to go and fight armed men anywhere, and I will not encourage men to go and fight armed men, unless I can go and stand in the centre with them and take the consequences with them."

Whatever my hon. Friends below the Gangway here may say about me, I have never on any single occasion left any crowd in the lurch anywhere. On a famous occasion, when a whole crowd came into Whitehall and I led those men into Whitehall, when the whole of the place was crowded full of police, with soldiers in reserve, I marched the men and women with me right through, and while we might have been batoned and might have been smashed, I never thought for a moment that my place was other than with them; and I was almost the oldest man there. To-day, if I believed in riot, if I believed in disorder, I would go out with them and stand with them. I repeat that these concessions made after violence do give those who do not believe in political democracy the right to say, "You riot, and you will get some concession made."

That is what I want to press upon the House and upon the Prime Minister. The conditions in London and in South Wales—I will leave others to speak of Scotland—but the conditions as I know them in England and Wales to-day are worse than I have ever known all my life. I have never known my district as it is, and I have never known the people treated as they are being treated to-day. I see one of the members of the London County Council here. In my district you are saying to people that 11s. a week with rents paid is enough for people to live on. It is not enough for them to starve on, and when you say that it is the Communists and the National Unemployed people who are stirring them up, they could not be stirred up if it was not for the conditions they are having to meet.

Banditry, thieving, robbery are going on widespread throughout the country. Every day you pick up a newspaper and you see what is happening. Then on top of it we have these demonstrations and these unhappy men marching from all corners of the country to London. I would like to see the Government organise hospitality for them and send them back home with a message that the damnable means test is to be revoked, End that you are going to treat them not on a uniform basis of the lowest level to which you can cut them down, but as human beings, as the victims of a system which, the right hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do, is responsible for their condition. I beg the House to remember the young men, the boys, the youths, the girls and the young women. Think of them, and realise that a nation can go down and be ruined not merely by bloody revolution but by economic and moral decay. That is the greatest enemy of our country to-day. When I see it I could weep tears of blood. We spend millions of money educating them. We turn them out full of hope and courage and believing that they are going to do well, and then you smite them down by not allowing them to earn their bread. You can see them in every industrial centre. I appeal to the House, to the young, the middle aged, and the old Members in this House; let us come together and find a means to help these people. We cannot stop it all at once, but let us find a means to stop the deterioration and to give them at least a chance of a decent existence.

10.0 p.m.


I do not intend to reply to any criticisms in the speech of the Leader of the Opposition for in the main I agree with what he has said, but during the right hon. Gentleman's speech he turned to the two occupants on this bench when he spoke of leaving men in the lurch. I have not been as long in Parliament as he has, but I hope that he was not inferring that we ever left a crowd, or that we ever left anybody whom we led in politics. As far as we are concerned, our political lives are very open, but there are sitting beside the right hon. Gentlemen men who earned a reputation for being good revolutionaries but who as time went on deserted the ideas for which they stood. It is well in this discussion that we should get to know the nature of the men's demands. These men have one purpose only, and it is as well that we should get to know it exactly. They demand two things. They demonstrated that they might ask the London County Council to provide them with work. I think sometimes that the men are wrong in making that demand, but, whether it be right or wrong, they demanded work. Then they set out some very modest and elementary principles for which they stood, and the Prime Minister, whatever he may say about economy, cannot dispute the demands they made, for it so happens that they coincide with the demands he accepted when he was the leader of the Labour party at the Birmingham Labour Party Conference. They ask for increases for children to the same level for which he stood, and they ask for the same increase for adults that the executive of the party of which he was then a member asked in evidence before a Royal Commission. Therefore, when we are arguing this question, please bear in mind that, whoever the people behind the demands, the demands that were being made were neither Com- munist demands, nor Independent Labour party demands, but simply demands that the Prime Minister had already accepted in his public life. The Leader of the Opposition said that the Communists could not make these troubles if the conditions did not make them possible. The Homo Secretary said, in replying to a question, that the organisation was a well-known Communist group. That may very well be so. One does not deny it or seek to affirm it, but is the right hon. Gentleman aware of what is happening not merely in London but in every part of the country? I will single out Belfast, not because I am going to argue that particular case, but because I think that it is significant in giving the lie to the statement that the disturbances were merely a Communist manoeuvre. I worked in Belfast for a long while, and I know it fairly well. It is renowned for two things—its Catholic and its Protestant elements. If there is one section which it is difficult for the Communist to move, it is the Roman Catholic population. I know them and respect their views, and I know how difficult it is for the Communist to make any inroad on their faith; yet the worst disturbance that has yet taken place and the most violent demands, if they he violent, that have yet been made, have occurred among the Catholics where the Communist must have found a most difficult and hostile atmosphere.

I have always differed from my Labour colleagues and have always refused their election addresses because they demanded too much. I have said repeatedly that I would sooner promise a shilling and give a shilling than promise two shillings that I did not intend to give. The Minister of Agriculture and the Home Secretary know my division, and they know that I have never promised the people to do extreme things. Let us face facts and be realists. What are the facts? Disturbance after disturbance has taken place. When the police in the Glasgow disputes chased the men, the men went back and only the hon. Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern) and one or two men remained firm. There is an important difference in the case of the disturbances last night. It is that the crowd, when the police, as they thought, became the aggressors, fought back. When a crowd like that, though almost without an arm, almost without equipment, fight back against a body of disciplined and equipped men, they do not do it because they are foolish or because they want to do it. They have fear in front of them, the fear of the police; but the fear behind them is greater—starvation.

The Communists may be active, but if these things go on they cannot in the nature of things be confined to Communists or even to Labour men or I.L.P-ers. As Belfast showed, others will come in, men having no political connection at all, and they will throw up a man—not the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) or the right hon. Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury) or a prominent Communist, or myself, but a new man. He will be a simple man, he will be honest, he will be trusted. Anybody who has read the history of this country at the time of the Gordon riots knows that to be true. They will throw up a man, and then we shall not quell them so easily—because now the agitation is met by political agitators for their own ends. I said the other night to the Procurator Fiscal of Glasgow: "You have the duty of preserving law and order in Glasgow, and if you are wise you will send a letter to the Prime Minister to-night telling him that you intend to restore the benefit to what it was before it was cut, tell him that you intend to sweep away all this means test and refusal of benefit." Do that, and it will be cheap; because what happened last night has cost money. If you put these people away it only costs you more to keep them in than to keep them out. The thing against prison life is that it turns good men into bad men and bad men into worse.

I know that by superior force we may beat the men. There is the power and the equipment, and we may win. But shall we win in the end? Take the case of the Germans. Who, looking back now over the years, will say whether we won or they lost? This movement will not be dealt with by a display of force, it has got to be met by a policy of humane treatment. I heard sneering when the right hon. Gentleman mentioned that incident of the young men at the street corners. Of course, he was asked for evidence. In these matters decent men come to the right hon. Gentleman, they come to the hon. Member for Bridgeton and others, and tell them their story, tell it honestly. The police tell their story honestly—honestly. I interviewed a man who, in his own way, has some learning and some scholastic ability. He informed me that they went into a public house and chased some of the people outside. He may be wrong; on the other hand he may be right. I am not standing here and saying that the police are all telling untruths, nor am I going to say our informants are telling untruths. We may say a word for the police in this House, but you go down to those men, down to the localities, and say a word for the police, and the jeers that we get there will then be meted out to you. These poor people honestly hold the view, and I largely agree with them, that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor.

We talk about "the traffic." Traffic! Go out on almost any week-day and you will see a fashionable wedding in Westminster, see a royal display—mere show—and the whole traffic of London upset in its busiest place and at its busiest time. The whole business of London interfered with for a show! Yet if a few thousands—comparatively few—come forward to demonstrate about their wrongs, not at the busiest time and not in the busiest place, we are told that they must be batoned because they are interfering with traffic. Never was there a more slipshod and more contemptible excuse. If you are going to baton, say that you think things are coming to a danger point, say you think these things are no good, but for goodness' sake do not try to make traffic the excuse, because it will convince nobody who sees these other rich displays. We have all seen them. I have tried to come to this House, to our work here, when there has been such a wedding on, and have had to travel right away round to get into the House—though it is a foolish display and often a mockery.

I am one of those who believe that there is very little hope—I frankly confess I have lost faith. The one thing that I have against my late colleagues is that when they, as I thought, deserted their principles I lost faith in men and mankind. I have little faith outside almost of death itself. In my own division I see decent people put out into the streets because they cannot pay rent. It is not human to expect them to be silent. They would be wrong if they were silent. Men or women who could see their children suffer and be silent would be wrong. They are coming to the view—one that I almost hold—of not caring whether it is death one way or death the other way. That is the problem which is facing millions of our fellow beings. Then it is said that untruths are told. It may well be that some of these people do exaggerate. All of us do that.

I want to ask the Home Secretary this question. Has he sent out any instructions to the police of the country that these demonstrations must be firmly and severely dealt with? If he has, I want to know the nature of them. If he has not, then in my view the Home Office ought to say to the authorities that the unemployed in their demonstrations should be allowed the fullest freedom to air their grievances. This winter, as I think everybody agrees, things must be worse. Things are getting no better, but the unemployed feel that there is for them a better way, and that they could get it if the Government wanted to give it to them. The Government could do this to-morrow by conceding the decent terms which the unemployed have. a right to demand. If you do not do that, these unemployed demonstrators will demonstrate, they will face your police and will take the consequences—the gaol, the baton, even death. When next this happens, you will not find the demonstrators to be the so-called street-corner men, but you will meet an even more formidable force, which will either wreck your system, or be wrecked in the attempt.


I am sure that the the House will realise that, coming as I have done very recently, into an office so responsible as that of the Home Secretary, I speak on some of these problems with a certain diffidence. I have, however, been long enough familiar with them, as I have had experience in another office of dealing with some of the problems. The Government to-day welcome this opportunity and have shown their desire that the House should have the very fullest opportunity of discussing this matter.

The Leader of the Opposition who opened this Debate has made it clear that, so far as he is concerned, he has no sympathy with and does not give support to, those who stir up trouble and who will not face the racket themselves. It would be right that I should show the House as simply as I can, what are the results of the investigations that I have made into the circumstances which preceded what happened in London last night. I want the House to realise that the demonstration yesterday was no spontaneous movement. It is quite clear, as I stated this afternoon in reply to a question, that the National Unemployed Workers' Movement, a Communist organisation, or in the main, a Communist organisation has been at the root, and has been the instigator, of these difficulties. It is well known as a Communist organisation, but its membership is not entirely confined to Communists. There are some quite respectable and decent men who are members of it, for the reason that they get certain legal advantages when their claims come before the court of referees. But I think it is clear that the committees and branches of this body, which is, I think, admitted, even by my hon. Friend the Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) to be of a Communist complexion, are functioning throughout the country, and that they exist at the present moment to the number of something over 300. I am not going to alarm the House, nor am I going to say that this organisation is solely directed from Moscow, but it is quite clear that there is a very material connection between those in Moscow and some of this organisation. I need only refer to the Resolution of the Twelfth Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, and I will quote what appears in the "Daily Worker" on the 17th instant: The XII Plenum of the E.C.C.I. directs the special attention of all sections of the comintern to the tremendous and ever growing political significance of the unemployed movement, which is being directed more and more directly against the capitalist state (the struggle for food, for relief, social insurance against forced labour, etc.) The struggle of the unemployed has up to the present time been prepared by the Communist vanguard and organised by it to a much less degree than the strike struggle of the proletariat. The Communist party and the revolutionary T.U. organisations have not succeeded in organising serious mass activity by the employed workers in defence of the interests of the unemployed, although it has been found possible more and more frequently to get the unemployed to support actively workers on strike. I need not trace in detail the methods by which effect has been given to this policy in this country, but I may perhaps take as my starting point the campaign organised for February last by Mr. Sid Elias, the Chairman of the National Unemployed Workers' Movement. In an article in the "Daily Worker" of the 18th February, I find this: From reports already received at the headquarters of the N.U.W.M. it is clear that there is a need for an intensification of our preparation and work among the unemployed, leading up to 23rd February, the National Day of Struggle Against Unemployment. On 23rd February, our work must result in the bringing out on to the streets of the thousands of unemployed affected by these issues, and particularly directing them against the Government and the public assistance committees who are responsible for the enforcement of the cuts and means test. I direct the attention of the House to these next words: By mass struggle in the streets and by tremendous pressure on the public assistance committees we must compel the authorities to abandon the operation of the means test. The outward manifestations of this propaganda were, as I understand it, a little disappointing to the organisers. The London contingents made a demonstration in Parliament Square in support of a deputation which was coming to this House, and some slight disturbance resulted, but in an article which appeared in the "Daily Worker" it was admitted that these deputations had failed to get the support which had been expected. The next. step was the organisation of a national march against the means test, which was timed to arrive in London on the day then fixed for the opening of Parliament, the 27th October. In pursuit of this decision contingents have assembled in Glasgow, Tyneside, South Wales, the Midlands, and other areas and are now on their way to London where they are due to arrive on the 26th instant with the ostensible object of presenting their demands to Parliament by way of a national petition.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me what had happened in other parts of the country. Actual disorders as the result of this campaign first broke out at Bristol on 9th June last where there were disorderly demonstrations of the unem- ployed in which some 600 to 800 persons took part. The demonstrators refused to obey police instructions designed to prevent obstruction to traffic and to the public and assailed the police with stones. Windows were broken and damaged and four arrests were made. During August and September there was a marked increase in the number of unemployed meetings and demonstrations, resulting in clashes with the police and arrests at Castleford, Bristol, Birkenhead, Liverpool, West Ham and North Shields, the most serious incidents being at Birkenhead and Liverpool. It was said in the Debate to which we have just listened that the police to-day are adopting different methods of dealing with obstruction and with large crowds and with those who will not obey their orders. On the other hand, it is worthy of noting that at Birkenhead the technique of street fighting which has been advocated by the Communist International has been considerably developed. For instance, the police found at Birkenhead that trip wires—barbed wire in one case—had been stretched across the road about a foot from the ground, lamps had been extinguished, and manhole covers removed. These examples which I quote are constantly referred to with approval in the Communist Press.

As regards the disorders in London yesterday, there is little that can he added to the statement that I made this afternoon. The ostensible object of the demonstration which gave rise to the disorders was to send a deputation to the County Hall for the purpose of placing their demands before the London County Council. Intimation had been previously given that the deputation would not be received by the London County Council. I understand that it was made clear that they would not be received by the general council because in the Standing Orders that is not permissible, but the London County Council, as has been intimated in the Press since, have said that they are prepared to receive before a committee representatives of genuine London unemployed and to consider their case. May I remind the House that refusals by reputable bodies to receive certain deputations have not been confined to such bodies as the London County Council. The Trade Union Council at the meeting of the Trades Union Congress on 6th September last decided by a large majority to refuse a deputation of unemployed workers from Northumberland and Durham and, in the course of the debate on the request for the deputation, Mr. Citrine was reported in the "Daily Herald" of 7th September to have said that it was common knowledge that the march was under the auspices of the National Unemployed Workers' Movement, which was a subsidiary of the Communist party.

10.30 p.m.

St. George's Circus, which was chosen as the meeting place, is a very busy and important centre of traffic in the South of London. It is a square which is a great centre of traffic in South London, and the time chosen—and this I would ask the House to remember—was 6.30, which is the hour at which the heaviest traffic goes through. I observe that it is thought absurd to say, that the police should take no serious action for the purposes of maintaining the traffic, but the traffic, after all, is the general citizen going about the country upon his proper avocation. It is impossible under modern conditions in London to allow processions and congregations of people in really busy centres, where law and order must be maintained if the ordinary life of the citizen is to go on. And may I emphasise this fact again, that when the police have certain definite proof they exercise their duties with the greatest restraint, and always, in every case, ask people to move on. The right hon. Gentleman spoke of certain deputations in which he had taken part which had gone through the streets of London in a perfectly peaceful way. Of course they can do this, and as long as they act in a peaceful way and move on when the police request them to do so, there will be no trouble, and there is no necessity for trouble. It is when you get the danger of a very large crowd assembled in a centre such as I have mentioned that these difficulties occur. This House of itself has issued certain directions to the police, as you, Sir, are very well aware, to the effect that during the Session of Parliament the passages through the streets leading to this House must be kept free and open. It was for these reasons that the Commissioner of Police decided to divert, as far as he could, before they reached the Circus, a good many of the demonstrators. The police used every method in their power by persuasion and direc- tion, and I think it is an outstanding fact that in the main they succeeded in handling great crowds without any difficulty whatever. But, of course, they were forced to act by real opposition.

Let me remind the House again that although our police have to carry out very difficult and unpleasant duties, they were met on this occasion with stones, glass, and iron taken from the railings. I have seen some of these things. It is not a pleasant thing when you have to face a large missile, the top of an iron rail weighing from six to nine lbs., and it is useless for this House to shut its eyes to the fact that people who adopt these methods and intend to proceed to use these kinds of missiles are not really peaceful citizens who are doing any service to those they really may desire to help. Everyone has the greatest compassion for those who to-day are facing unemployment. Everyone in this House realises how difficult it is to find those means for which we all seek in order to relieve unemployment, but I want to say to the House emphatically that those who are organising these kinds of demonstrations are doing no good to many of those well-meaning but deluded people. It is not true that by this kind of method relief and prosperity are likely to come to our people.

As regards the persons injured, I have received information that the number of members of the public known to have been treated for injuries amounts to 13. The number of police officers injured was 37. I should like to take this opportunity of pointing out how greatly the difficulties of the police are increased by thoughtless people who go to look at these disturbances out of curiosity, who have no part or lot in what is taking place and who, by the very fact of increasing the numbers in the thoroughfares, lead to difficulty. Let me add that those who go into these crowds and who may not be the active agitators can have no complaint if they, mingling with those concerned and making difficult the duties which this House entrusts to the police, get into trouble. They can have no complaint except against their own folly.

I am only directly responsible to this House for law and order in this great City of London. I have been asked if I have issued instructions to the police authorities throughout the country that they should treat harshly those people who may be marching on London to demonstrate. That is not my duty. So far as I am concerned, as long as I hold my post, and I am certain that it is the view of the Commissioner of Police in London, we will use every means and methods of avoiding clashes. It is not our desire to inflict hardship, nor do we wish to have the kind of conflict that we had last night, but, on the other hand, I think the House will agree that it would not be right that we should not state very plainly that a great part of this agitation comes from people who themselves are not bearing the brunt of the battle. It is instigated by those who are not the friends but the enemies of the decent working people of this country. I trust that what has passed to-day, and this Debate, may at least clear the air and make the honest working man, unemployed or employed, throughout the country realise that it is not the Government nor the Houses of Parliament who desire to inflict injury upon them. We desire to help them, but, if that is to be done, it must be done by orderly methods, and so long as I am responsible for law and order it will be preserved.


I would have preferred that the Home Secretary had not replied until I had had the opportunity of putting the case in regard to Merseyside. I am not a follower of an insurrectionary movement nor am I concerned with the propagandists or the propaganda of the Communist party. I have to fight that in the particular section of the country to which I belong, and I have also to use a restraining influence on a body of people who are suffering penalties to-day. My remarks are directed to the Prime Minister, because we have heard it stated definitely to-night by the Home Secretary that he has no power except his influence and power over the Metropolitan police. Therefore, it must of necessity follow that if any restrictions are to be made or if any law is to be passed they must be engineered through the Prime Minister. I am not concerned with the effect but with the cause. I am not concerned with the post-mortem examination, but I want to know what has been the cause of death. I want to know why when this House had sufficient information months ago in regard to these difficulties, the responsible Ministers have not taken action.

Only three months ago I called the attention of the President of the Board of Trade to the question of coolie, lascar and black labour in Liverpool. 60 per cent. of the seaport population of that city went to the Great War in the marine service, but now I find the whole of that marine population at the street corners. Patriotic shipowners of this House are running coolie labour, black labour and chinks in their shipping, while a discontented body of Englishmen are standing at the street corners. How in the name of all that is good and holy can you stop Communist propaganda when our sailors have to spend their time at the street corners, and British ships are manned by coolies and black labour, when some most efficient officers have to sail as able seamen while coolies can sail out of a British port in British ships? When I raised this matter I was told in this House that it does not matter. Sailors and firemen come to me and ask, "What are you doing?" and I ask myself: what are you doing? [Interruption.] Why do hon. Members laugh. I can find men with masters' certificates without ships; but I can also find ships sailing from the city of Liverpool with coolie and lascar labour.

I remember in the police court one morning trying a case of children who had been left; and when we inquired why the aliens were not chargeable for the children they had left behind we were told that arrangements had been entered under which the company took the men away at the end of three years. Thus you have aliens sailing out of the Port of Liverpool in British ships and leaving black children in the City of Liverpool. And I am asked: "What about Communist propaganda in the City of Liverpool; and why this grumble?" I am grumbling not at the Communist party, because I have not time for that particular body. In my division we have to fight it, and we shall fight it. But what about our own flesh and blood who went down to the sea in ships during the War and who see this type of labour going out in British ships? I am laughed at in the British House of Commons when I mention the incident. Some of these men I know were brave enough to face the dangers of the sea during the War. They were torpedoed three and four times, six and seven times, and still were not afraid to risk their lives for their country. Now under the system of transitional payments—I do not want to be insulting because I want to gain my end—when they ask for relief the few shillings a boy or girl has is taken into consideration, and they are told that they must sell the piano because in good times they were able to have one. It is considered that it must be sold now.

These are things that cause resentment in the average Britisher. If any Member of this House had suffered as these men have suffered, would he be afraid to speak at the street corner of his troubles? My sons went out to the War to fight. I had given them a trade. We lost all because they went out in defence of their country. I would rather see them buried than that they should have the humiliation of standing like paupers and pleading poverty before tribunals, in order to get a few shillings a week. If you Britishers are proud of your name you will defend the interests of the down and out. I speak, not for Communists, but for men, whether they be Communists or anything else—men who have the right to live and have a right to proper treatment in a Christian land. The system of the transitional benefit and the means test is immoral. The Archbishop of Liverpool denounced Communism only a short time ago. We are creating Communists daily by mismanagement and misgovernment in the working of a system that ought to be as dead as the dodo.

I appeal to the Prime Minister, because I dread as much as any man the growing influence of the pernicious propaganda work that is going on amongst our people. Who can hold them back? Once the flame starts I do not know where it will end. There are men who risked their lives in defence of their country, and they will certainly risk their lives in defence of their own kith and kin. No body of soldiers or police will be able to keep back infuriated men who demand food for their wives and children. I ask that the abominable system be swept away and that humane treatment be handed out. If Ministers will use their wise discretion and do their duty for the good of all, there will be no more propagandists.


I wish to associate myself with the request of the Leader of the Opposition that a different policy be pursued, in regard to unemployment, from that which has been pursued hitherto. In the main the demonstrations of unemployed hitherto have been very restrained; they have been distinguished for their quietness and their pathetic sadness. The men and women who have taken part have desired to catch the attention of those who have not felt the pinch of hunger. They have taken the opportunity to go into the streets and to join in orderly processions, hoping in that way to direct the attention of the authorities to the very grievous injustices under which they suffer. On this occasion some of my own constituents were associated with the appeal made to the London County Council to receive a deputation in order that certain scales of relief might be revised.

The London County Council, in dealing with the question of the application of the means test and in calculating the amount of relief, have been taking into account the price of children's meals at school. They have assessed that against the individual who has been claiming some relief from poverty. It has been said from these and other benches time and time again that these men and women who are thrown out of employment, with no resources at all, have nothing but their power of labour, although they have been enriched with education and taught some kind of sense of civic pride. They are thrown entirely on the mercy of events without knowing whither they are going—either to beg, borrow or steal. They must either become beggars or bandits; there is nothing else for them to do. They met to try to call the attention of the authorities to their plight, and in this instance, as in others, the authorities who have given directions to the forces are more responsible for what has happened than the forces themselves. The forces in this country have been generally regarded as being guardians and not as persons employed for the specific purpose of bludgeoning and batoning people who have just grievances and desire to ventilate them. If this present policy is to be pursued with mounted police charging into crowds, and if this batoning of people goes on, willy-nilly, there is bound to be resentment aroused.

I have taken part in unemployed demonstrations and deputations, and have gone before the authorities to try to press their claims. These men and women who take part in demonstrations of this character are unarmed. They are weak because they have not had proper nourishment. They are without arms, but if this kind of treatment is to be meted out to them, in the very nature of things they will find ways and means of trying to defend themselves, and no force will be strong enough to put them down. They will penetrate any force. The force of hunger is greater than any force of law and order which can be temporarily employed for the purpose of putting them down. The authorities give instructions to our police forces, either mounted or on foot, but particularly to the mounted police, to charge into crowds in the way they do. Those who have been in crowds know that when a horse conies jumping into a crowd it is extremely difficult to extricate oneself. The Home Secretary said to-night that they should not be there. Our place is with the people who are suffering and to associate ourselves with them and see that they are not separated from the other part of society. It is by no desire of theirs that they are unemployed or poor; they are poor because of the general conditions that society is imposing on them.

I do not know whether the Home Secretary has become a member of the Communist party, but certainly after the great advertisement he has given them the organisers will be applying for an increase of wages because of the wonderful influence they have over the unemployed, according to his statement. These mounted police will be hated and loathed if you keep on giving them these instructions, just as the Cossacks of Russia were hated and loathed by the way they charged at the crowds. You will not get law and order observed by this kind of force which itself begets force. The provocation of these people is the tragic plight they are in, and which forces them to come on the streets and demonstrate it in order to call attention to it. I hope the Prime Minister will tell us what proposals he has got in view to deal with this matter, and will be able to allay some of the fears in the minds of very large numbers of people.

It will be the sorriest mistake if this Government think that police charges will serve in lieu of bread. You will get no respect for law and order unless you recognise the rights of these people. Mere "booing" by a crowd who are righteously indignant at the plight they are in, is no justification for attacking them. Crowds can "boo" if they want to do so. I am sure that in this general misery there are some who want to associate with crowds, in order to do some fishing where they think there is fishing to be done—undesirable people who, perhaps, would have no other opportunity for carrying out their own designs. But that cannot be generally charged against the unemployed and I hope that not only will the Government make inquiry into these matters but that they will temper the application of force to the situation and give the people the right to meet and express their grievances. We know the heartbreaking condition of these millions of people, dreading as they do this winter and with no hope as to what is going to happen to them in the next few months. Their cup of misery is full to overflowing and I say "Do not, by battery and assault, aggravate their misery." [Interruption.] I know that the hon. Member opposite wants to ask me why the Trades Union Congress did not receive them. I will anticipate his question and answer him by saying that the Trades Union Congress cannot give them relief. They have already tabulated their demands for the unemployed. [An HON. MEMBER: "You could have listened to them."] The Trades Union Congress have asked successive Governments to give these people a certain standard of benefit. The Trades Union Congress have organised unemployed. Apparently the Home Secretary's detectives have not been at work long enough to find out the organisation which has taken place. The Trades Union Congress has designed organisation to deal with the unemployed and. to marshal them in a right and proper way.

Every one of these unemployed is a living example of the failure of private enterprise in this matter and some other steps ought to be taken. The Prime Minister says that we have not got 3,000,000 registered unemployed, but it is well known that there are at least 3,000,000 unemployed and these 3,000,000 human beings, brothers and sisters of our own are 3,000,000 reasons for giving consideration to our demand. They have all the frailties and emotions of human beings, all the dreams of human beings and the hopes of being able to take part in and enrich civilisation. I ask the Prime Minister not to recognise the argument as to the "price which we have to pay for keeping people in idleness." That is not our demand. We want an economic organisation to ensure that instead of idle hands we shall have busy hands and employment for all these people in the development of the natural resources of the earth and the enrichment of humanity in general. Those who have taken all that the labour of these people can produce have a right to give them decent assistance. We ask you to recognise the right of these people to assemble and present their grievances. We ask you to instruct your forces to withhold from savage and brutal attacks upon them and we ask that substantial relief shall be given to them in their misery and suffering until changed conditions lead to general employment.

It being Eleven of the Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn." —[Captain Margesson.]


Before the Prime Minister leaves the House, may I address a remark to him? I want most seriously to ask him to consider, if he will, what I will put before him very briefly as a very serious aspect of this question. There are a good many of us on this side of the House who have been met very seriously with the problem of rioting. The right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary has mentioned the rioting in Bristol. It was not rioting on one occasion; it has been rioting on many occasions. Many of the members of the Labour party who are working there have been doing their utmost to try to get the unemployed away from the evil influences, as we believe, of the Communists. It is a tremendous task, and what are we to say to the unemployed of Bristol who point to Birkenhead? We who are daily trying to persuade them that they will achieve nothing by rioting, that they can only achieve by constitutional means, are met at once by the argument, "But what happened in Birkenhead? What happened in Belfast?"

What are the Government now doing, when the Prime Minister announces that steps will be taken to alter the means test, not, he says, because of the recent occurrences? Is anybody going to convince an unemployed man who is told by a Communist that the way in which he can force relief out of a local authority is by rioting, that these concessions have not been given as a result of force? If only the right hon. Gentleman will give some expression of those intentions, vague though it may be, it will assist those people who are trying to preserve law and order in the country, those people who are having a very difficult time.

Only a few weeks ago, I was asked by the unemployed in Bristol to lead a deputation, and I refused, because I was not going to associate myself with the rioting which I knew would probably result. But I cannot go on resisting that demand if I feel convinced that the only way to get anything out of the local authority or the Government is to do what has been done in other districts, and I beg the Prime Minister, for the sake of the country, to give some indication, now and quickly, as to whether he intends, whether the Government intend, to make some concession on the means test.

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Ramsay MacDonald)

I respond most readily, without taking part in the Debate—otherwise I might have something to say on this subject; but I recognise fully that the hon. and learned Gentleman and his immediate associates hold precisely the same views as I do on the question of creating a situation which, when rioting occurs, nominally by reason of it, is eased as the result of disorder. I think that that policy is a. thoroughly bad one, and that authorities, whatever or whoever they are, ought not to withhold humane consideration until events happen when they have to change their policy. Everybody, I hope, knows that that is my view. Very fortunately, I hope to be able on Monday to say something about the Government's intentions about the means test, and I can assure the House that very quickly a statement will be made on this subject. I cannot do it to-night. I am speaking to old colleagues who have had to consider matters like this, and they know perfectly well that proposals cannot be brought out in a day, or in a week sometimes, when the considerations are exceedingly complicated. But no time is being lost. I understand that there is to be a Vote of Censure and some opportunity, at any rate, of discussing this subject, and the Government hope and intend to make a statement in the course of the Debate which will indicate their views on the matter.

In the meantime, may I appeal to the House and to every hon. Member not to find any excuses for rioting and not to make it easier for those who are out, not to help the unemployed, but to kick up a row.


You have no right to say that.


Nobody knows better than the hon. Member that what I have said is perfectly true. When it is intimated that by reason of the Standing Orders of a Council, or by reason of the determination of a majority of the Council, it is impossible for them to receive a deputation. An attempt is made to make a demonstration, not of poverty—not at all—but a demonstration for the purpose of making conditions out of which it is impossible for the police to remain if they are to exercise their duty. I hope that none of us on whatever side of the House we sit, or whatever views we may take about force, will make statements which will allow those who are responsible for the organisation of these demonstrations to be regarded as the beneficiaries of the unemployed people of this country.


The Prime Minister has appealed to us not to encourage the forces of disorder. I have never supported the forces of disorder, but the question is the plight in which we find ourselves. The speech of the Home Secretary was deplorable. He told us about the wire traps and entanglements, and no one defends these things, but has it ever struck him why these things exist? The Communist and the Russian conspirator do not create the conditions; they only take advantage of them. So we, as a responsible House, should look into the conditions. The Prime Minister makes an appeal to us not to say anything in case we support disorder. That is futile and feeble advice to give the House. Does he imagine that we are all so lost to any sense of reality that we do not recognise that we have something like 3,000,000 unemployed and may have 4,000,000 before Christmas, and that, as has been well said by those who raised this question—though I do not agree with a great deal that they said—this House ought to do something?

One hon. Member asked, "What are you going to do?" and the question was received with laughter. I see nothing to laugh at. I agree with him. The question is, "What are you going to do?" What have the Government done? The Home Secretary, who was formerly Minister of Agriculture, has been a contributing factor in raising the cost of food to the people. That is something. [Interruption.] An hon. Member laughs but that is a fact. Then there is the question of the finances of the country. What have the Government done for our finances? I admit that there are some bright spots. I congratulated them in the past on their conversion scheme. But there are many other evidences that we are not getting out of the mess in which we are. Many of us coming down from the North of Scotland have seen ships laid up. I counted 50 of them in one loch alone. There is the terrible condition of shipping and of shipbuilding. There were riots in Belfast because of unemployment. Does it not strike hon. Members that it might be worth while to inquire why the policy for which the Government are responsible and with which the Prime Minister is now associated, is not getting us out of this plight?

We are in a terrible plight, and the Government have nothing to offer except these ridiculous proposals from Ottawa. Some hon. Members describe them as constructive, but I should call them destructive. Look at the trade of the country. In nine months there has been a decline of over £120,000,000. Does that encourage hon. Members to think that the Ottawa proposals are going to restore our trade, give us employment, and relieve us from Communist conspiracies and Russian intrigues? We judge policy by results and if we find, as we do find, that the Government's policy has brought nothing but non-success, nothing but an increase of unemployment, nothing but depressed trade, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister ought to contribute something more useful to this Debate than a mere appeal to us not to encourage the forces of disorder. A more humiliating, more miserable, more contemptible, more futile demonstration from gentlemen who attempt to govern us I have seldom heard in this House.

Adjourned accordingly at Thirteen minutes after Eleven o'Clock.