HC Deb 19 December 1934 vol 296 cc1165-75

Order read for resuming Adjourned Debate on Amendment to Question [17th December], That the draft Unemployment Assistance (Determination of Need and Assessment of Needs) Regulations, 1934 dated the eleventh day of December, 1934, made by the Minister of Labour, under the Unemployment Assistance Act, 1934, a copy of which was presented to this House on the said eleventh day of December, be approved."—[Mr. Stanley.]

Which Amendment was, in line 5, to leave out "be approved," and to add instead thereof: will be inadequate to ensure the maintenance of unemployed persons and their dependants in health and physical efficiency."—[Mr. Greenwood.]

Question again proposed, "That the word 'be' stand part of the Question."

3.43 p.m.


When the House parted with the Unemployment Insurance Bill this year I fear that I probably was not alone in having misgivings as to the magnitude of the task which the House had imposed on the board. It was a novel task, and one beset with almost insuperable difficulties. It was no less than that of erecting a national system, which should possess both uniformity and flexibility for meeting the needs of the able-bodied unemployed who were under Part II of the Insurance Act. We have now reached the stage at which we have to consider the first work of the board, and I join with the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) in saying, as he said, that the duty of preparing regulations has been discharged by the board with conspicuous success. A good deal of the criticism which has raged round the regulations in the last two or three days has been, I think, directed, impotently rather, at the Act which imposed these duties on the board than at the regulations themselves. It is manifest that the discussion has been necessarily somewhat circumscribed, and circumscribed by the decision that Parliament reached when it passed the Act.

I shall have a word to say in a moment or two about the attitude adopted by the official Opposition towards these regulations, but let me first say how, for my own part, I reacted to them. It appeared to me that the board had not only discharged its duty with complete success, in the words of the right hon. Member for Wakefield—that we, at any rate, should have expected of the right hon. Gentleman who presides over the board, and whose reputation for humanity, discretion, tact and vision is so well known to every Member of this House—but that they had done more than that. These regulations mark a very real advance both in the method of treating a frightfully difficult problem, and in the generosity of that treatment itself, notably as regards children, as regards the element of rent and also the application of the means test, which I think anybody who fairly examines these regulations must conclude has been shorn of some of its worst features.

The first thing which, as it appears to me, many hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite have overlooked is that these regulations are no law of the Medes and Persians. This is the first instalment; this is no more than a general framework; and, indeed, the Act which we recently passed, by Section 52, provides that it shall be the duty of the board to lay before the Minister regulations "from time to time." So that what we are discussing here is the skeleton, which I have not the smallest doubt will have to be modified and will have to be invested with flesh in accordance with administrative experience based upon the working of the scheme in the course of the next two or three months. It is necessarily somewhat experimental, and I think the hard cases to which attention has been called by many speakers opposite are cases upon which we cannot pronounce now and which must be reviewed in the light of further working. I therefore welcome very much indeed the promise of the Minister, which I hope will be implemented and supported by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary when he comes to reply, that when some experience has been gained we shall have placed in the Library of the House specific instances showing how the commissioners are exercising their discretion in individual cases and in individual circumstances.

Nothing could have been more difficult than to attempt to obtain at one and the same time uniformity and flexibility. It is an almost impossible task. On the one hand the lack of uniformity, the disparity in the assistance given between one area and another, was, I think, universally condemned. On the other hand many of us felt that the system of local administration did afford a contact and an understanding of specific problems which might be lacking in the case of a nationally-administered system. I was delighted therefore when I looked through the regulations to find that they were plastered with opportunities for the use of that discretion which alone can make the administration of a somewhat bureaucratic scheme humane.

A good deal of criticism was levelled at the fact that the procedure under which these regulations come before the House is unsatisfactory, that the House is unable to alter a line or a comma of the regulations. I very greatly regret that half an evening should have been devoted to a completely futile discussion over whether a letter in a certain word was a "t" or an n". I for one felt that it might very properly be said of right hon. Gentlemen and hon. Gentlemen opposite that they were so bankrupt of ideas upon which to formulate an attack upon these regulations that they had to take refuge in a technicality in order to escape that criticism.

As regards the procedure, it seems to have been forgotten that the Act provides a better opportunity of discussing these regulations than was provided by right hon. Gentlemen and hon. Gentlemen opposite. They gave the House no opportunity of discussing the regulations made under the Anomalies Act. They did not even give an opportunity of discussing regulations made under another Act which is more analogous to this Bill. I refer to the Poor Law Act for 1930, for which the Opposition were responsible. There was an Act which covered a very large number of the people whom we are now to include in the operation of these regulations. A vast number of poor people were included, but nothing in that Act provides for discussion of the regulations that are to be made by the Minister; they are simply to be made by him and that is all.

Criticism has gone behind the regulations themselves and has, as usual, mainly centered round that well-known topic, the means test. I have said before in this House, and I say again, that it is impossible to justify the administration of relief without a means test of some sort. I am convinced that what people have complained about is not the existence of the means test, but the method of its administration, and particularly the association of that test with the Poor Law authorities. I much prefer the first thoughts of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Lansbury) when, in his unregenerate days, he frankly said that he was not prepared to allow public assistance to be given without an inquiry into means to his later, old-school-tie attitude which persuaded him to sacrifice his beliefs in the interests of the team spirit and of the doctrines of the party in which he so greatly believes.

The discussion in this House on the regulations does not mirror the reaction of the country. The reaction of the country towards the regulations is far more favourable than has been made out by the official Opposition. I think that is so for a particular reason. The electoral freak of 1931 has been responsible for a good many things. It has perhaps made some of us on this side of the House insensitive to the movement of public opinion. We have been inclined to think that the large majority we possess is still reflected in the country as a whole, but I have never thought that that is true. I also do not think that the opinions of hon. Gentlemen opposite who were returned in 1931 mirror the opinions of the country as a whole. They represent, in the main, areas where the terrible canker of unemployment and distress has bitten deeper than in any other areas. They come to the House, therefore, with an experience which, happily, is not a true sample of the general experience of the country. They come from areas where there has been prolonged and devastating unemployment, and they naturally look on these regulations from the angle of those areas.

For that reason, they have, I think, a somewhat faulty perspective upon these regulations, and they ought to put themselves more into touch with the feeling of the great urban districts and the great rural districts of the country where unemployment is only a proportion of the population, and where, side by side, are people living on comparatively good wages and people who have suffered the incidence of unemployment. If they would adopt that perspective, they would agree that the suggestion that a person who is in a household and is in enjoyment of enough to maintain himself or herself and to have a surplus should not contribute towards the means of the less fortunate members of the household is an affront to the workers themselves. The compactness, solidarity and loyalty of our family life is one of the characteristics of this country. We have only to bear in mind those who are employed in service or who are working in a town distant from their homes and to recollect the way in which they send home week after week their little remittances for the support and succour of their fathers and mothers, and of other relatives, to realise that that is a spontaneous thing which comes from the feeling of family solidarity. To deny its existence, and to say that no such responsibility is recognised among those who inhabit a home, is to misrepresent the outlook of the workers.

In further exercise of that perspective, let them look in a particular working district of a town which has not witnessed quite as much the horrors of unemployment as some of those hon. Gentlemen have in their own areas, for example, a, city like my own, and consider what would be the feeling of a man earning say 45s. to 50s. a week living next door to a family into whose house from £6 to £8 a week was coming, and where one of whose members was out of work. Is it not perfectly clear that if you were to allow the level of relief to rise above the normal level of wages in the district, you would be introducing a discordant element of friction between those two households? A man in receipt of 45s. a week having next door to him people who in the aggregate were better off than himself would rightly have a feeling of resentment at the imposition of a scheme which burdened him with the obligation of finding the means of keeping an unemployed member of the family next door. His tobacco, his beer, his omnibus fares, and almost everything that consumed would go to provide the fund to meet the relief bill, while next door to him there would be a family which, in the aggregate, was well able but not unduly anxious to discharge its responsibility to one of its stricken members. I am very glad that the means test has been retained, and that it has been made humane and been deprived of much of the sting that it possessed under the administration of the local authorities.

I am also glad that a brilliant and successful attempt has at last been made to separate as a distinct element the provision of shelter. Until rent is sorted out from the family budget, it is impossible to say what is the revenue for the maintenance of a man and his wife and children. This provision, introduced into the regulations with imagination by the Chairman, is one which, will have far-reaching effects upon the social policy which we shall devise in future years in this House. I have nothing to say in regard to the depressed areas, because I am not familiar with the problems of those areas in the detail that would qualify me to express an opinion. Judging from the speeches which I have heard and read from hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite, it may very well be that in areas where the quantum of savings has been diminished, where unemployment has been chronic for a considerable period, and where therefore the balancing element of small savings or of an additional wage earner in the household does not come in to assist the family budget, these regulations will need to be revised.

I feel some sympathy, therefore, with the request made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield that at the end of a period, say three months, a report should be made upon the working of these regulations with a view to seeing whether in these specific areas of the country they are operating with humanity, as I am satisfied they will operate, taking the country as a whole; but it must be borne in mind that the only way in which you can really secure any parallel of alleviation of distress as between the depressed areas and the other areas of the country is to get the depressed areas back to work. There is no substitute for that. Without offence, it is possible to conceive that you might make their position even worse by the indiscriminate application of relief, and that certainly would not assist the problem. In one or two ways it would make it more difficult, because all the reports from the commissioners on this subject show that one of the difficulties which beset industries in these areas is that the people are riveted to the spot by the fact that there is, at any rate, a social service upon which they can fall back, and which prevents them from reaching the uttermost bitterness of misery which under any other system they would have reached.

For these reasons, I feel that these regulations command, and ought to command, the support of the House, as they certainly command the support of public opinion outside the House. The organ of the right hon. Gentleman and hon. Gentlemen opposite, representing as it does a very much larger area of opinion than they themselves do, has accorded this scheme a very real and genuine welcome. It was not confined to the "Daily Herald," because looking through my local newspaper, which is an organ of the Starmer Press, not very favourable to the Government as a rule, one of the syndicated Liberal journals of the Starmer Press, I read: The scheme is well entitled to a reasonable administrative trial. Our National Government has implemented nothing more satisfactory to the nation's social conscience than this children's starting point. This has, of course, been made possible by the policy of the Government which has provided the funds, which has buttressed the unemployment insurance position in such a way that this starting point could be made upon what is nothing less than a real social revolution. I look upon it as an edifice on which we can build, and an edifice which nobody opposite, I venture to think, will attempt to tear down when their time of responsibility comes, if it ever does come. I look upon it as an edifice of real, national, mutual succour and support for those for whom we have done little enough at a time when they deserve all the help we can give them.

4.4 p.m.


The Government have been suffering from a regular spate of criticism from their own supporters of most of the Bills brought before this House in recent months, and I think the hon. and learned Member who has just spoken has fulfilled the role of critic, on more than one occasion. That being so, I am sure the Government will be very well satisfied to know that on this occasion they have the hon. and learned Member's support. He said that these regulations are no law of the Medes and the Persians—they are an instalment. We hope so, but we are not so sure about it. It is quite true that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) asked that there should be a report in a short time to give us an opportunity of seeing what is being done, but I do not know that it has been promised. We hope that it will be granted, but we are very much afraid about it, because this is a bureaucratic machine. It is, I think, brought forward for the purpose of getting a kind of machinery that can keep away criticism that can be levelled against such things in the House of Commons and by the elected representatives on the local authorities. I think it has been made bureaucratic so that that kind of criticism could have no effect.

The hon. and learned Member said that there were no opportunities for discussing the regulations on the Anomalies Bill. I do not remember whether that was the case, but I do remember that we could get nothing through this House unless we got the support of some of our political enemies, either Liberals or Tories, and we were always concerned in between them about getting anything done. If the hon. and learned Member finds any satisfaction in the fact that we did not give three days' discussion on those regulations, I think he is entitled to it. Then the hon. and learned Member says that the present proposal has been well received. I dare say he goes into places where I do not, and among people whom I do not mix among. It may be that in some of those places it has been well received. I dare say among wealthy supporters of the Tory party it is thought that because a child gets a shilling or two more a week, it is the end of all things, and we have reached Paradise. There are, however, other people in my class who see differently, and who are full of fear about this. The hon. and learned Member thinks that because, as he says, it has been well received, it is going to be a good thing for them at the Election. I will content myself with saying that if the hon. and learned Member or any other of his colleagues on those benches think that these regulations at the next Election are going to provide them with a return ticket for this House, they will be very much mistaken.

During the discussion of the Bill, we were very much afraid, in regard to the second part of it in particular, that the figures to be laid down by the Unemployment Assistance Board would be very much on the same basis as the figures for standard benefit, and possibly less, and we voiced those fears on more than one occasion. If my memory serves me aright, we were told by the Parliamentary Secretary and the then Minister, that there was really no ground, for these fears, that this was an entirely new departure, and that the fact that certain benefits were paid under the other part of the Measure did not necessarily mean that the same benefits should be paid under this part, either more or less, but the assurance which they tried to give, or the atmosphere which they tried to create, was that they hoped that under this board the amount of assistance to be given might be greater and much more beneficial than under standard benefit. I suppose that, as far as children's allowances are concerned, particularly the first two or three children, they can claim that that is so. I think that that is practically, or mainly, the only claim except with regard to rent. But there are lots of other things where we are afraid that men and women and boys and girls are going to suffer. "We admit that," says the Minister, "but we think in the aggregate there is going to be more money paid out to these people than has been paid out in circumstances as they are now, and that the men and women will benefit." That remains for the future to show, but we view the working of this machinery with some element of alarm.

I want to deal, first, with the question of children. This question of children's allowances has been discussed for months upon months by all sorts of people and all kinds of scales have been drawn up. The British Medical Association considered that to preserve health the food basis was round about 3,500 calories and about 60 grammes of protein. That was promptly denied by the Ministry of Health, who contended that 3,000 calories and from 40 to 50 grammes of protein were sufficient to keep life in an adult. There was discussion about that, and what always struck us was the fact that the Ministry of Health, of all people concerned, should be talking about what was the least amount necessary to keep life in men and women—not how much we could give them out of the vast wealth of the world and all the foodstuffs now in such superabundance; not how best we could distribute these things among this most necessary part of the population, but how, in spite of all this, we could use our scientific knowledge to find out the very minimum wage upon which subsistence could be based. It struck us as being ironical, and the Ministry cannot escape its responsibility in the matter.


Is the hon. Member aware that those two committees met, and are not now in conflict?


I will tell of something else that the Ministry has done, but we will get to that in good time. There was another scale, and the people who drafted it went down to a very low level. There was a meeting of the Central Council for Health Education at which Professor J. A. Nixon spoke. It was quoted in the "Morning Post."

Viscountess ASTOR



Will the hon. Lady accept that as an authority for her party?

Viscountess ASTOR

Not my section.


A large section accepts the "Morning Post" as the be-all and end-all. This is what Professor Nixon said: The minimum amount of food which really just spells under-nourishment can be brought up to be adequate by taking a small amount of water with the meal. You may make a little food go a long way by drinking small quantities of water during the meal. Surely if the Government are interested in cutting down these scales, they might send out information of this description to the man who has been getting 26s., and who in future is to get 24s.

We have been told by the Minister that he has gone into all sorts of quarters to obtain information to enable him to lay down these scales and regulations. We have not, however, been told to what quarters he went and what policy he is following. I understand that the other House is in a better position than we are. I understand that a Committee of the other House got the lawyer of the Ministry of Labour to come clown and tell them all about these matters. I think that we might have been told also. We have got the scale and the memorandum. The senior Member for Dundee (Mr. Dingle Foot) complained that the memorandum did not tell us much in addition to the scale, and I think he was right. We might have been told more about that aspect of the matter. After the British Medical Association's scale had been laid down, the Ministry of Health appointed a committee, to inquire into the question of nutrition, and, following a Question which I put in the House, I have received a copy of its report. It is entitled: