HC Deb 28 June 1933 vol 279 cc1487-92

3.30 p.m.


I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the ascertainment and publication of the minimum cost of living, the notification of and keeping of lists of particulars of wages below the minimum cost of living and of employers responsible therefor, and for other purposes relating thereto. The Title of the Bill seems to be rather a vague one. The object of the Bill is two-fold. The first is, to draw attention to a class of wage-earners in

The House divided: Ayes, 108; Noes, 39.

Division No. 246.] AYES. [3.2: p.m.
Acland, Rt. Hon. Sir Francis Dyke Gilmour, Lt.-Col. Rt. Hon. Sir John Pybus, Percy John
Allen, William (Stoke-on-Trent) Griffith, F. Kingsley (Middlesbro', W.) Ramsay, Alexander (W. Bromwich)
Apsley, Lord Hall, Capt. W. D'Arcy (Rrecon) Ramsay, T. B. W. (Western Isles)
Aske. Sir Robert William Hamilton, Sir R. W.(Orkney & Zetl'nd) Rankin, Robert
Barclay-Harvey, C. M. Harbord, Arthur Rea, Walter Russell
Barrie, Sir Charles Coupar Harris, Sir Percy Reld, Capt. A. Cunningham-
Beauchamp, Sir Brograve Campbell Hartland, George A. Renwick, Major Gustav A.
Beaumont, M. W. (Bucks., Aylesbury) Harvey, George (Lambeth, Kenningt'n) Robinson, John Roland
Beaumont, Hon. R.E.B. (Portsm'th.C.) Hills, Major Rt. Hon. John Walter Rosbotham, Sir Thomas
Bennett, Capt. Sir Ernest Nathaniel Hope, Sydney (Chester, Stalybridge) Ross, Ronald D.
Bernays, Robert Hore-Belisha, Leslie Rutherford, Sir John Hugo (Liverp'l)
Bossom, A. C. Horobin, Ian M. Samuel, Rt. Hon. Sir H. (Darwen)
Brown, Brig.-G en. H.C.(Berks., Newb'y) Hunter, Dr. Joseph (Dumfries) Sassoon, Rt. Hon. Sir Philip A. G. D.
Browne, Captain A. C. Johnstone, Harcourt (S. Shields) Selley, Harry R.
Cadogan, Hon. Edward Jones, Lewis (Swansea, West) Shakespeare, Geoffrey H.
Christie, James Archibald Kerr, Lieut.-Col. Charles (Montrose) Simon, Rt. Hon. Sir John
Clarry, Reginald George Knight, Holford Sinclair, Maj. Rt. Hn. Sir A. (C'thness)
Collins, Rt. Hon. Sir Godfrey Lambert, Rt. Hon. George Skelton, Archibald Noel
Colville, Lieut.-Colonel J. Law, Sir Alfred Somerset. Thomas
Cooke, Douglas Lees Jones, John Soper, Richard
Courthope, Colonel Sir George L. Llewellyn-Jones, Frederick Sotheron-Estcourt, Captain T. E.
Cowan, D. M. Mabane, William Stanley, Hon. O. F. G. (Westmorland)
Crooke, J. Smedley MacDonald, Malcolm (Bassetlaw) Stewart, J. H. (Fife, E.)
Cruddas, Lieut.-Colonel Bernard Macdonald, Capt. P. D. (I. of W.) Strauss, Edward A.
Curry. A. C. McLean, Dr. W. H. (Tradeston) Sugden. Sir Wilfrid Hart
Denman, Hon. R D. Magnay, Thomas Summersby, Charles H.
Dickie, John P. Mander, Geoffrey le M. Titchfield, Major the Marquess of
Doran, Edward Margesson, Capt. Rt. Hon. H. D. R. Ward, Lt.-Col. Sir A. L. (Hull)
Dunglass, Lord Mayhew, Lieut.-Colonel John Watt, Captain George Steven H.
Eady, George H. Moore, Lt.-Col. Thomas C. R. (Ayr) Wells, Sydney Richard
Edmondson, Major A. J. Morris-Jones, Dr. J. H. (Denbigh) White, Henry Graham
Entwistle, Cyril Fullard Morrison, William Shepherd Williams, Herbert G. (Croydon, S.)
Evans, R. T. (Carmarthen) Normand, Wilfrid Guild Wood, Sir Murdoch McKenzie(Banff)
Falle, Sir Bertram G. Ormiston, Thomas Worthigton. Dr. John V.
Fermoy, Lord Palmer, Francis Noel
Foot, Dingle (Dundee) Pickering, Ernest H. TELLERS FOR THE AYES.
Foot, Isaac (Cornwall, Bodmin) Procter, Major Henry Adam Sir Victor Warrender and Mr.
Attlee, Clement Richard Grenfell, David Rees (Glamorgan) Maxton, James
Banfield, John William Griffiths, T, (Monmouth, Pontypool) Owen, Major Goronwy
Batey, Joseph Grundy, Thomas W. Parkinson, John Allen
Bevan, Aneurin (Ebbw Vale) Hall, George H. (Merthyr Tydvll) Smith, Tom (Normanton)
Brown, C. W. E. (Notts., Mansfield) Hirst, George Henry Thorne, William James
Buchanan, George Jenkins, Sir William Tinker, John Joseph
Cape, Thomas Jones, Morgan (Caerphilly) Walihead, Richard C.
Cocks, Frederick Seymour Lansbury, Rt. Hon. George Williams, David (Swansea, East)
Cove, William G. Lawson, John James Williams, Edward John (Ogmore)
Daggar, George Leonard, William Williams, Dr. John H. (Llanelly)
Davies, Rhys John (Westhoughton) Logan, David Gilbert Williams, Thomas (York, Don Valley)
Edwards, Charles Lunn, William
George, Major G. Lloyd (Pembroke) Maclean, Neil (Glasgow, Govan) TELLERS FOR THE NOES.
George, Megan A. Lloyd (Anglesea) Mainwaring, William Henry Mr. John and Mr. Cordon

this country whom, in our discussions, both in public and private we are apt too much to neglect. In these days of very severe unemployment, it is perhaps too hastily assumed that those who are fortunate enough to have employment are necessarily beyond the reach of want. Not only is that not so, but there is a large class of employed persons in this country who are not only not beyond the reach of want, but who have no body charged with their protection. It is impossible to obtain, officially or unofficially, accurate figures to show what proportion of the population they represent, but it is not unreasonable to assume that it may be counted in millions. There are approximately 18,000,000 persons registered for National Health Insurance; 1,250,000 have their conditions of employment regulated by a wages board; some 4,500,000 persons are in trade unions, and I should think that it would not be unreasonable to suppose that there are at least another 4,500,000 whose conditions of employment are regulated by trade union conditions. The number may even be larger. There is the agricultural population whose conditions of employment are regulated by the agricultural wages board, there are other categories of employed persons whose wages are regulated by conciliation boards, and so on. That leaves, in addition to the unemployed, a very large proportion of the employable and employed persons in this country who have no official body to look after them and who, in many cases, are receiving a wage which is below the subsistence level.

I do not believe that any hon. Member would consciously wish that state of things to be perpetuated. It is too easily assumed that the unemployed are the only persons who are suffering from misery. That is not the case. There are, I am sorry to say, large classes of people, contributing by their labour towards the wealth of the State, who are receiving grossly inadequate remuneration, and that is not only unfair to them, but it is unsound industrially, financially and economically. That brings me to my second point, which is that much of the economic misfortune from which the world is suffering to-day is due to under-consumption. If the consumption power of the class to which I have referred could be raised by some percentage which I leave vague—let us assume that it would be 25 per cent.—that would go far to help, not the whole way, but would go far to resolve the difficulty of under-consumption which is so great an affliction in this country and other countries.

To come to the provisions of the Bill. They lay down that it shall be the duty of the Minister of Labour to plan out the country into ascertainment areas, which would be large areas in which it would be assumed that the cost of living was similar and homogeneous. In those areas it would be the duty of the Minister to ascertain, by any means that he wished, what was the minimum cost of living for an adult person of either sex and for an employed person of either sex. As soon as that ascertainment was finished, it would be published. The next portion of the Bill enforces the registration at employment exchanges by employers of all cases in which they are paying wages below that ascertained minimum. There is naturally an unwillingness to suffer compulsion, or to disclose what are thought to be private concerns, but in this case I think that there are two valid arguments in favour of the Bill. The first is that where an injustice is being perpetrated which is completely out of touch with the sympathy and with the spirit of the 20th century, it should be brought to light; secondly, good employers have everything to gain and nothing to lose by publicity of that kind.

Beyond that, the Bill does not go. It provides for the registration of those lists of employers who are employing men or women below the wage fixed as the average cost-of-living figure. It makes no provision for enforcing higher payment; it leaves that duty to public opinion. The promoters of the Bill believe that public opinion will enforce a better standard of wages more easily and with less friction than legislation, and certainly more quickly. The public conscience in regard to these things is very much more easily stirred than it was even 25 years ago. I do not bring forward this Bill as a solution either of the unemployment question or of any other economic question, but as a reasonable and helpful contribution towards a solution of that problem. It is not primarily my work but the work of a very distinguished industrialist, Mr. Morris of Brighton, a large and successful employer himself, who has worked at this problem for many years. I am very happy to assist him in bringing these ideas, of which I heartily approve, before Parliament for approval.

3.39 p.m.


It is not general, when this House is asked for leave to bring in a Bill, for any hon. Member seriously to suggest that the Bill is not worth printing. In this case I am going to suggest that. I believe that this Bill to be so bad in its essence that the public should not embark on the expense of printing it. Everybody will agree with and sympathise with the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Johnstone) in his first remarks about his desire to do something, if anything can be done, to improve the conditions of those who, while in employment, are receiving wages below the subsistence standard—if any such persons there be. He suggested that there was a great number. He may be right, though personally I doubt it. But, however few there be, we would all join with him in wishing that something should be done for them. At the beginning of his remarks, I was inclined to be in agreement with him, but, when he came to the actual proposals of the Bill, I was a little at a loss to know which of two motives had inspired its introduction—whether he was endeavouring at the expense of the House of Commons to enhance his already considerable reputation as a wit, or whether he was desiring to add to that large class of those who do useless work at the Government expense, so that even he might find a haven of rest.

I ask the House to consider what would be the effect of the Bill. The idea is to divide the country into ascertainment areas—large areas, the hon. Member said—for the purpose of finding the cost of subsistence. But everybody knows that the cost of living varies, not only between town and town and between village and village, but almost between house and house, and even between individual and individual. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] That is a fact. What would be a good subsistence for certain hon. Members opposite would be scanty for my hon. Friend, and the House might lose or see diminished one of its greatest ornaments. That is a thing which we should all deplore. In all seriousness, however, it is absurd to suggest for a moment that any area bigger than a village could really be suitable for finding a recognised subsistence level. One of the great troubles with regard to the cost of living figure has always been that any figure that may be taken is in itself faulty for a large section of the population.

How would this Bill operate? It would, of course, involve the setting up of a large staff of paid Government officials, and would thereby put a burden on the taxes, and possibly on the rates, which would immediately have the effect of decreasing employment. People would be scattered round the country endeavouring to arrive at a figure which I submit cannot in fact be arrived at at all. The variations in the circumstances of the people of the country are so many that it is useless to try to arrive at any estimated figure in any area but a very small one. Either the areas would be large, as foreshadowed by my hon. Friend, in which case the figures produced would be perfectly useless for a substantial portion of the area, or the areas would be very small, the number of them would be very great, and the cost of the scheme would be so prodigious as to make it prohibitive. When that is done, what then? The figures are published, though I submit they would be perfectly worthless, and then employers of labour who pay wages below the published figure would, if I understood my hon. Friend correctly, be invited or compelled to notify that fact, and their names would be published. I have no objection to publication, but I am trying to point out that it would be perfectly valueless. I do not think it would be objectionable, except in so far as the whole machinery would be expensive, but I do think it would be perfectly useless.

I admit that the circumstances of a Ten Minutes Rule Bill do not give an opportunity for explaining the Bill Clause by Clause, but certain questions arise. Are these returns from the employers to give the circumstances in which the wages are earned, such as the length of time worked? If they are. I maintain that there again the expenditure and trouble involved in collection will be far in excess of any benefit received. If they are not, they will conceal essential facts. While I sympathise with my hon. Friend in his endeavour to do something to benefit a class whom we also wish to benefit, I think that his suggestion is a joke. I think that it is a bad joke, and that, if this publication were to take place at all, it should be at his expense, and not at the expense of the public, when it might find a ready sale.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Harcourt Johnstone, Mr. Dingle Foot, Mr. Curry, Mr. Pickering, Mr. Ernest Young, and Mr. Holdsworth.