HC Deb 25 July 1934 vol 292 cc1787-813

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £38,904,000, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1935, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Ministry of Labour and Subordinate Departments, including sums payable by the Exchequer to the Unemployment Fund, Grants to Associations, Local Authorities and others under the Unemployment Insurance, Labour Exchanges and other Acts; Expenses of the Industrial Court; Contribution towards the Expenses of the International Labour Organisation (League of Nations); Expenses of Training and Removal of Workers and their Dependants; Grants for assisting the voluntary provision of occupation for unemployed persons; and sundry services, including services arising out of the War.

3.28 p.m.


I beg to move to reduce the Vote by £100.

I regret that, on the first occasion on which the right hon. Gentleman has to face the House in his new office, I should be called upon to move to reduce his salary, but I think it is rather the right hon. Gentleman's misfortune than his fault that he should have to face to-day what is practically a Vote of Censure upon the Government. Without undervaluing the right hon. Gentleman's talents and abilities, it does seem to us that this is a matter upon which not only he himself should answer, but some representative more highly placed in the Cabinet, in view of the criticism that we have to make.

On the 19th April, the Government decided that they would send out Commissioners to four of what are known as the distressed areas, to investigate the conditions prevailing in those parts. That is more than three months ago. I do not suppose that the most ardent supporter of the Government thought, when he heard the Minister of Labour make his statement, that the House and the country were to wait three months before we had any decisive action. The view was held, not merely on these benches but, also, I think, by hon. Members opposite, that there was really no need for investigation into the condition of these areas. Reports had been issued in 1932 of a very exhaustive character. The inquiries were conducted by very able investigators, men and women of detached mind, who submitted their reports in considerable detail, with reasoned conclusions. Anyone who looks at them can see how thorough was the work. One member of the Unemployment Board was appointed, I should say, almost purely in respect of the work that he did on that occasion. It was held generally that there was no need to have another inquiry.

The Government may say, as the Minister said, that the information was not up to date, but the Ministry of Labour is perhaps the best Government Department that there is in respect of these matters, and they could have got up-to-date figures immediately from their splendid statistical department as well as an accurate statement of the general condition in those areas. But, even though we held the view that there should be immediate action, we held our tongues. We refused to criticise. We said, "We have waited for some years. If the Government mean business, we are not going to seek for a moment to use this situation for mere political ends." Indeed, I think the Government would be prepared to say that we not only held our hands but we gave what help we could in order to see that what information was possible should be given to the Commissioners and what proposals were possible should be made. I think it will be agreed that the whole of the local authorities' organisations in each of those areas have heartily co-operated in the task. Our belief that the Government might be going to do something is not only developing into scepticism, but I am inclined to become rather cynical as to their intentions. No one will say that the "Times" is any other than very balanced and cautious in its judgments. On the day after the announcement was made, the "Times" Parliamentary correspondent said it was not expected that the report would be in the hands of Ministers for at least two months. He apparently never dreamt of three months. The "Times," in a leader the following day, said: These inquiries are to begin without delay, and it is to he hoped that they will also be completed without delay. The bare facts of the human desolation in the economically lifeless areas are known. Day after day there has been confirmation in these columns of the silent tragedy in those places without a future which have lately been described with graphic sympathy by our special correspondent in Durham. In other localities, not in Durham, there is a similar state of economic collapse. It is essential that before next winter comes the problem of the derelict areas should be in a fair way to being solved. I quote those statements to show that I believe that there was in no quarter of the House anticipation for a moment that the House would rise without any statement of policy whatever—we should not have it until November and that nothing would be done in the meantime. If that be so, it would appear to me that there will be no concrete result from all these investigations before the spring. The Government have been very cautious over this matter. They are not so cautious when they consider the interests of the people who are behind them. They are very quick in taking a shilling off the poor man's unemployment benefit, but when it comes to dealing with the question of work there has to be secret ceaseless investigation, and they 'go very slowly. When it comes to subsidies for interests which usually support the Government, there is very quick action.

I should like to ask the Government what was their intention when they set up this scheme. What was the cause of it? Was it merely a sop to the Prime Minister to keep him quiet for the time being, or was it merely to get over the strong public feeling prevailing at that time with no real intention to do anything? It certainly seems to me that, if they meant well in April, their good intentions have evaporated since that time. That is the only interpretation that the most charitably minded can place upon their intentions after the three months of investigation.

I want to ask, too, are we not to be allowed to see the reports. I understand from statements by the late Minister and by the acting Prime Minister that they are not going to be presented to the House. Apparently, the Lord President of the Council would go further than that. In answer to a series of questions by myself he told us that the Government were not prepared to give us the facts as to the surplus workers in those areas, and the consequent surplus population. At least, we had that information in the surveys to which I have referred but, apparently, we are not to have even the plai4test and simplest of statements made to the country. I suggest that it is almost without precedent that Government representatives should be making thorough investigations into a very serious matter and that at the end of those investigations, for which this House pays, there is to be no record submitted to Members of Parliament. What is the Government's reason for that action? Are Members of Parliament not to be trusted, or are the Government afraid of the country knowing the facts? I understand that the reply will possibly be that the reports are not all in. It is well known that one or two reports are in. I saw a statement to-clay from which I understand that the last report is now in. Why should we not have the reports that have been in the possession of the Government for several weeks?

Constructive proposals have been made. If the Government have not at their disposal the whole of the reports what have they been doing with the reports that have been in their possession for some time? Have the Cabinet not had time to give serious consideration to the reports, or is it that the Cabinet or the Government do not intend to act upon any reports that they may get? On that score, I want to put two questions to the right hon. Gentleman. Is the House to have no statement at all of a detailed nature? If it is not to have the reports, is it to have any statement of a detailed nature giving the bare facts with which the Government have to deal and which the House may be called upon to consider Do the Government intend to make a statement of their policy at any time as to their procedure, the works which they intend to carry out, and their general policy in regard to these areas? The House may think that those questions are equivalent to carrying coals to Newcastle. It is assumed that the Government will make a, statement. We have assumed on our side that the Government will make a statement to the House, at least on the bare facts, that they will make a, statement of policy and that we shall have an opportunity of discussing it before anything is done. I am beginning to wonder, as I have watched the Government's activities, whether they intend to do that or not, and I say that because of the methods of the Government during the past two or three years.

I think it would be true to describe the Government as being absent from duty for three years with respect to these areas. In October or November, 1931, the Minister of Labour came to the House and told us that the Government were going to give the voluntary societies a few thousand pounds to do certain work. No one would pay more tribute to many of these voluntary organisations for their work than I, but when the Government took up the attitude that they were going to use these organisations for their own purposes we said: "You are using these voluntary organisations, some of them of a work nature and some of an educational nature, as a substitute for Government policy, and in so far as that is done we are going to be hostile to those activities." I and a good many of my friends have refused to lift a little finger in reference to these voluntary organisations.

Viscountess ASTOR

You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.


I have taken the opportunity of stating here now what I have said in public very often. I did it because we knew that the Government were going to use these organisations to do in an inefficient way work which the Government ought to do themselves.


Shelving responsibility.


When I said that the Government were giving a few thousand pounds for these organisations to do work which the Government ought to do, the Minister of Labour challenged that statement.

Viscountess ASTOR

May I ask a question?


No, you cannot. Even while the Minister of Labour was making that statement the Prime Minister was making a statement by broadcast telling the world how we were going to settle unemployment by making duck ponds, or something of that nature. From that day to this the Government have never, until they sent out the commissions, shown the slightest interest in these areas. Everything that we said at that time about the voluntary organisations being prostituted to the Government's end has turned out to be absolutely accurate. The Government suppressed the Unemployment Grants Committee. They suppressed all activities in respect of public works. I do not for a moment think that public works are going to deal with this problem in a fundamental way. The Government will have to go much deeper than that. The question of alternate industries has to be seriously considered. But at least public works have the virtue that they help men to keep a grip upon life for the time being. I wish hon. Members could see some of these public works in action and note the difference in the men who are working compared with their condition when they are idle.

I had a revelation in regard to this only this year. On one occasion, being nearly 2,000 feet above the level of the sea, I saw what appeared to be countless silver strips on the side of the Pennines, they were really small streams which go to make up one of the rivers Just below me I saw a great reservoir in the making, men were tunnelling and drilling, 600 of them being engaged in the making of this reservoir, which was to drain some thousands of acres of land and make use of the water. Those 600 men would have been standing idle in the market place and at street corners, physically wasting away. I know that there are those who think that long idleness does not have any bad effect on the individual.


Who ever said that?


I hold strongly the view that long term unemployment has not only a bad effect upon the individual but ultimately a bad effect on the nation. That reservoir could not have been made but for a grant from public funds, through the Unemployment Grants Committee, and certainly at a time like the present, when water is extremely precious, no one will deny that public money spent in making reservoirs is anything but well spent. As I looked at this public work I thought of all the gloomy economists who always give us lots of figures to show how public works are wasteful, that only a few men are engaged and a large sum of money spent; I thought also of the long arguments we heard from the Government bench in 1931 and 1932 and how inadequate those arguments were in face of the fact that those 600 men were working in the open air with a grip on themselves and upon life generally.

The Government have broken public works. The Minister of Health says that anyone who wants to have a loan can have one, under certain conditions. I have never understood the conditions, but as far as I can understand them they are designed to make sure that nobody shall get a loan. For three years the Government have put nothing in the place of public works. Now they have set up Commissioners to investigate the facts, but these facts are to be kept secret from the country. I am not here to ask for charity, in fact, I hate raising the question of allowances in this respect. The one thing that is necessary, first and last, is to restore these people to work, to restore their self-respect. But we are compelled by the facts to face up to the question of allowances. Hon. Members will agree that during the discussions on the Budget the general impression was that the 10 per cent. was to be restored not only to people on benefit but to those people who were receiving the maximum allowance on transitional payment. I do not know whether the Minister of Labour is going to deny that, and I do not care whether he does or not if he will only explain it.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer when he made his Budget statement was greeted with shouts of joy and cheers by hon. Members opposite when he made the statement about £3,500,000 going to transitional payment, and we on this side were jeered at by hon. Members opposite. I sat on this bench and I saw two of the leading Members of the Government pointing to me particularly when the Chancellor of the Exchequer made his statement, because I had previously said that as the law stood it was almost impossible for people in receipt of transitional payment to receive the 10 per cent. The Chancellor of the Exchequer led this House and the country to believe that people receiving the maximum amount on transitional payment would get the 10 per cent. That cannot be denied.

What has happened? The Government's representative, the Commissioner —I am going to charge the right hon. Gentleman with being directly responsible—in Durham, is paying men under 50 years of age, single men, who are receiving the maximum transitional allowance, 9d. per week extra instead of ls. 9d. They are receiving 16s. instead of 17s. per week. The Government have a liaison officer acting between the Ministry of Labour and the Chief Commissioner in Durham, and I cannot think that the Chief Commissioner would have arrived at such a decision without first consulting the Ministry of Labour. I am certain that he would discuss matters with their officer, that is the go-between between the Ministry of Labour and the Commissioner. Therefore we have this situation, that while the Government led these people to believe that they would get ls. 9d. per week the Government's representative in Durham is paying less than ls. 9d. to the people to whom the 10 per cent. restoration was promised. I wonder if the Government gave him his baronetcy for this. He seems to be doing fairly well. I do not want to use my position here for the purpose of making any attack on any civil servant, but if he is not responsible then the Government must take the responsibility for the action.

In 1834, when commissioners were sent to make investigations in respect of the Poor Law, in many places the people made them fly. We are getting to a stage in Durham when not only will the persons concerned be involved in some activity, but even those of us who stand as representative people of the county will probably be involved in it, too. We are not going to sit silent much longer and see the kind of thing that is going on in Durham at the present time. Let me give the right hon. Gentleman a case. A very fine young man whom I know lost his wife. The pair of them were esteemed in the locality. He returned home to his father and mother. He was working. His father, one of the finest craftsmen in the mines, unfortunately has not been able to get work for some time. Immediately the son returned home with his child in grief-stricken conditions, that man lost the whole of-his allowance. He has the knowledge that not only he and the boy's mother have to do what they can for their son and take care of the child, but they are conscious that they are living upon the son merely as a result of their kindness. I have the details of this case and quite a number of cases, but I am not going into them to-day. I have, however, written to the commissioners about this case. I want to know why a Member should have to write to a Government subordinate continually. I do not take to it kindly, but I have written to him, and I have had the reply that it is in accordance with the conditions. Is the Minister, or whoever is responsible for the giving of the allowances in those areas, going to justify that kind of thing? Then I would ask what they have to say about the 10 per cent. restoration in the cuts of transitional payments.

I am, however, more concerned, as I said, about the question of work. There is a general belief, I think, that when the President of the Board of Trade started to make these trade pacts, it was going to benefit industrial areas. In fact, it has not done anything at all for those areas. It may be said, of course, that it has hindered bad from becoming worse. I am not going to argue that question to-day. All I know is that, as time has gone on in the industries in those areas, the number of employed has got less. I am not going to trouble the Committee with a number of figures, except to say that in the mining industry in 1928, there were 920,000 employed; in 1931, there were 840,000 employed; and in 1934, the last figures were 771,000. All experience is one of continual reduction. Sometimes the Government say that things are better. When you ask where they are better, you are told that they might be worse. We who are in industrial areas are pretty certain—at least. I am as regards the coal industry—that the change in the fiscal system of this country, whatever it may have done for the country generally, has damaged the coal trade, and it has particularly damaged those export areas where the real trouble has been growing for many years.

Whether that be so or not, one thing is certain. The logic of the Government's policy is that they have got to take hold of those areas, and re-plan the country. It is not my business to-day, and, in fact, the Chairman would not allow me, to make alternate suggestions, but, as a matter of general principle, I think that the Government have to make up their minds that they have got to get alternate industries in those areas, that they have got to be very grim and determined in order to direct such industries into those areas, and that, generally speaking, they have got definitely to plan this country so that, at any rate, the people who have helped to make the country's prosperity in past years, are not made the victims of a policy which may be beneficial to people in lighter industries.

I have taken the opportunity of making this demand upon the Government, that we should have a statement of policy, that they should issue this report and that the Minister should answer the one or two questions I have put to him. It is not the first time that the Conservative Government have applied the policy which it is applying here. I remember on one occasion that a well-known public personage went north. The Press went with him. Unfortunately, I cannot mention names, but the whole country was stirred by that royal visit. That personage expressed himself, and the Press gave publicity to his statements, in such a way that it was said that the Conservative Government at that time actually interfered with the proposed visit to South Wales. At any rate, there was no statement made with respect to that visit officially. The people in those areas did not care, because the personage concerned was not only considerately received in those areas, but was highly respected because of the forthright way in which he expressed himself as to certain conditions there.

The Government, of course, had to set up a board which was known as the Transference Board. They had to state the facts, and the facts were stated. Why should it not be done now? It seems to be most incomprehensible that the Government should take a step of this nature, and the only explanation is that they want to hide the facts. I am not one of those who say that the way out of this problem is easy. It will be many-sided, but, at any rate, the people of the country ought to know the facts with which we are dealing, and I am sure, from knowledge gained from conversations and from letters generally, that this inactivity on the part of the Government does not at all represent the view which is held by great sections of opinion in this country. lE trust that the right hon. Gentleman to-day will give the Committee some satisfactory statement, a definite promise that this report is to be published, and that the Government at a very early date are going to take action of a beneficial nature upon that report.

4.11 p.m.


Like the previous speaker, I regret that on this the first occasion on which the present Minister of Labour is to address the House for his Department, my remarks should be more critical than they usually are. I regret that on personal grounds, because we all in this House highly respect the Minister of Labour, and would wish him very great success in the management of the great Department to which he has been called. After all, the Ministry of Labour is a Ministry which affects directly a larger number of people than, perhaps, any other Ministry. It is engaged in a thousand and one tasks which affect directly the lives of a great number of citizens. Such a work cannot possibly be done effectively without great skill, tact and enthusiasm on the part of the staff of the Department, and from my own observation I think that the Minister is to be congratulated upon the great efficiency of the personnel over which he now has the honour to preside. The task of the Ministry of Labour, I think, can be briefly stated as that of facing the human problem in this country—a problem described in the term "Unemployment." At one time in the history of this country that problem was not a great one. Unfortunately, ever since the War, it has been an increasingly difficult problem, and now embraces something over 2,000,000 people.

In recent months—indeed, I think, in recent years—we have become accustomed to statements being issued by the Ministry of Labour showing a diminution in the unemployment figures, and an increase in the number of people at work. No part of the House fails to receive such announcements with gratification. We are always glad to know when there is a decrease of unemployment and an increase of employment, but I do feel at the present time that we are in danger of deluding ourselves by these small improvements in the situation. While it is admitted that there have been improvements since the year 1031, we are in danger of becoming satisfied with those slight improvements. The danger of comparing our present situation with the situation of 1930 or 1931 is that it may lead us into an almost irretrievable pass. The fact is that the year with which we should make our comparisons is not 1930 or 1931, but 1929. If we take a look at our unemployment and trade figures and compare them with those of 1929 we are bound to admit that we have a tremendous distance to go before we retrieve the position which we enjoyed in 1929.

It is not inappropriate to recall that in 1929 we did not regard the position as a position of happiness. The year 1929, to which we look back now as a good year, was in fact the last year of a long series of bad trade years which gave us a very large problem and an increasing problem of unemployment. It was the years from 1923 to 1929 which really created the problem of what we now call the distressed areas. During the eight or nine years before 1929 we had an unemployment figure which seemed to remain static at round about 1,000,000 to 1,250,000. The astonishing thing is that in those years our unemployment was confined very largely to five or six main industries: it did not spread itself throughout the country, but remained confined to those areas which we now call the depressed areas. From 1929 we, of course, came into an even more depressed field.

But I want to bring the Committee back for a minute or two to the mentality which we had in 1929. The hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Lawson) has referred to the travels of a certain personage in 1928. In 1928 public opinion in this country was aroused on the problem of the distressed areas in a way in which it had never been aroused before and has not been aroused since. Large movements of social service were started, and I take this opportunity of dissenting from the remarks of the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street with regard to that social movement. I would like to pay a tribute to all those ladies and gentlement in every part of the country who, by voluntary service during those years of depression, have lightened in any way the burden of less fortunate citizens.


I do the same thing. As a matter of fact, up to the time when the Government began to use this movement for its own purposes, as it certainly did, I was one of the most active supporters of it, and the Minister of Labour is aware of that fact. From that time I ceased to have anything to do with the movement, for the reasons I have stated.


I have no desire to do the hon. Member an injustice, and I am sure he will be obliged to me for having enabled him to make that explanation. Whether or not the Government are using these services for their own political purposes, I am certain that the people who are engaged in the movement have no thought of supporting political parties. I am only anxious that nothing should go forth from this Committee which would deter public-minded citizens from engaging in any way in work which they think will help the lot of their fellow men. In 1928, when all this movement was started, the total unemployment in this country was 1,250,000. The distressed areas, of which everyone became cognisant almost for the first time, were less distressed then than they are now. If we compare the position of the distressed areas to-day, and indeed the position of the country to-day, with what it was in 1929, we recognise that things are very much worse than they were.

Take the case of my own County of Durham. Looking at the figures to-day we are encouraged when we see that there are only 34 per cent. of the insured population out of work, for official figures tell us that this is a decrease of 7 pet cent. on the previous year. Everyone is rather inclined to ride off on that statement and to be satisfied. But the fact is that although it is an improvement on 1931, when the percentage was 37, it is worse than 1930, when the percentage was only 31. In 1929 in the County of Durham, when public opinion was directed to its condition in such a strong manner, the unemployment was only 16 per cent. of the insured population, compared with 34 per cent. to-day. That means that there is more than twice as much unemployment in Durham County now as there was in 1929.

Then take my own constituency. To-day we have 53 per cent. of the insured population out of work, and again we are encouraged to think that that is a decrease compared with last year. In 1931 we had 54 per cent, unemployed. It is true that in 1930 things were even worse, and that 72 per cent. of the insured population in my constituency were then out of work—a really terrible condition of affairs. We are thankful, I personally am thankful, that to-day it is only 53 per cent. But compare that figure with 1929. In 1929 there were only 29 per cent. out of work in an insured population of 10,900. In 1931 the insured population was 11,030, with 54 per cent. out of work, and to-day the figure is 53 per cent. Those are figures which tend to show that, whatever improvement there may be in certain trades and districts, the hard core of unemployment In the depressed areas in not being diminished. Indeed, it is growing.

These distressed areas have been a problem which the country has failed to appreciate. For some reason or another public representatives in these areas have not been able to make the impression upon public opinion generally which the condition of the area really warrants. To me the most distressing thing in unemployment is the plight of the juveniles, who cannot find work from the day when they leave school. Boys and girls are growing up in those areas without a chance of developing the capacity to earn a livelihood. That is the worst side of the problem. But a problem which gives me equal concern at the moment is the fact that with a total of 2,000,000 unemployed the number of cases of long-term unemployment is increasing. Long-term unemployment is tending to increase, and the number of people going on to transitional payment forms a greater proportion of the unemployed population than it used to do.

The next effort which brought the attention of the public to the distressed areas was the action of the "Times" in sending special correspondents into these areas. I think the nation is indebted to the "Times" for the action which it took. The articles it published have been of great value; they served the purpose of focusing public attention in a, way that nothing else had done since 1928. I will read one quotation from a "Times" article. The writer on Durham said: There are parts of Durham where one feels strongly, and sometimes angrily, that London has still no conception of the troubles that affect the industrial North. Then later the writer said: In the North-West of the coalfield, round Bishop Auckland, for every 42 working there are 58 out of work.


Does my hon. Friend not think that it was the visit of the Prince of Wales about that time which concentrated national public attention upon the North-East district particularly, when His Royal Highness came with a truly regal gesture to that distressed part of the country?

The DEPUTY-CHAIRMAN (Captain Bourne)

It is not in order to refer to a member of the Royal Family in debate to influence the Debate.


I am sorry, but it is a fact all the same.


I am glad to find the hon. Member in such agreement with me. But that visit was in 1928, and the articles of the "Times" were published in March, 1934, six years afterwards. When the visit took place the total unemployment was only 1,250,000, and today it is over 2,000,000, and the percentage of unemployment in Bishop Auckland is far higher now than it was when public opinion was directed in that way to the situation.


It shows that neither of those visits was of any use.


I dissent from that view. Anything which calls attention to the actualities of the problem is of service, and the "Times" certainly did a public service when it published those articles. I think the Minister will agree that the writing of those articles was the chief cause of the appointment of the Commissioners who have been sent into the distressed areas. I take this opportunity of paying a tribute to the Commissioner, the hon. and gallant Member for Hornsey (Captain Wallace), who has visited the County of Durham. He has applied himself to his task with great enthusiasm and great skill, and, whatever may be the outcome of his report, I am sure that we are indebted to him, and that we would not be fulfilling our duty if we did not recognise the effort which he has made. I would ask the Minister on what lines the reports of the Commissioners are to be drawn up, and on what lines the investigations have been made. Are they purely regional investigations or are they investigations along the line of industries? If they are purely regional I would respectfully, suggest to the Minister that they should be accompanied by regional inquiries throughout the country. Otherwise, the Government are not going to get a complete picture of the problem as a result of these reports. If, for instance, a Commissioner finds that juvenile unemployment is a special difficulty in a _particular area and recommends transference of some sort, unless regional inquiries have taken place in the other districts to which the Commissioner thinks those juveniles ought to be sent, the Government will not be able to judge of the absorptive capacity of the districts recommended.

Especially do I fear that unless we have regional inquiries, areas may be omitted altogether which call for investigation as much as areas to which commissioners have been sent. Have the Government any thought for instance of investigating the affairs of Merseyside? Tyneside has been the subject of a social survey. A commissioner has been there, but I have yet to learn that a commissioner has been sent to the Merseyside and yet I understand there are real problems of special importance to that area. If, however, the investigations are on the lines of the different industries then we are brought up against the problem to which the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street referred when he spoke of the continued diminution of the number employed in our heavy industries. There is going on a steady diminution of the number employed in the mining industry alone, and while we cannot in this Debate indicate the course which we would like legislation to take, I repeat that it is my firm conviction that we shall never find a satisfactory solution of the problem of the mining industry until we take the older people out of the industry and provide them with a sufficient maintenance by means of pensions.

I would reinforce the appeal made by the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street for the publication of the commissioners' reports. I am aware that when the announcement of this inquiry was made the Minister stated that the commissioners reports would not be published. I can understand that, the assurance having been given, there may be difficulties in publishing the full reports, because it meant that the commissioners would write and speak to the Cabinet in a way which they possibly might not do but for that assurance. That however does not preclude the possibility of these four gentlemen coming together and submitting to the Cabinet a report which they know will be published. As I say, the "Times" articles were, I believe, responsible for the appointment of these commissioners, and in to-day's issue that newspaper makes the plea that there should be published, if not reports from the individual commisioners, at all events a joint report or statement from the four commissioners in order that the public may know the conditions.

It is a great disappointment to me and I am sure also to many of my hon. Friends that the reports have not been given to the Government early enough to enable a statement of policy to be made before the summer Recess. When these commissioners were appointed, the people in these districts were already almost sick with hope deferred, but on that announcement being made they were inspired with new life and new hope that at last their case was going to be considered by the Government and some definite proposals made which would bring them relief. We all know the difficulties of the problem, and I am not going to criticise the Government for not having done things which I realise are very difficult and in regard to which it is not easy to make practical suggestions. But we must remember that the conditions prevailing in these distressed areas could have been known to successive Governments for the past 10 years, and though much has been done in the way of transference and grants, the central core of unemployment in those areas has not been tackled either by this Government or its predecessors. When these reports come to hand I hope that something will be done and that it will no longer be possible to say that the problem has not been tackled. I hope it will be recognised that we have in these areas a problem which is new and peculiar but a problem which once dealt with is not likely to recur in the life of the nation for many generations.

In the meantime the people suffer. They have given of their best. I would not say, however, that they are really dispirited. They are capable of throwing themselves with enthusiasm into any new plan of action which may be devised for them. But they are tired of false hopes being raised and they will not bear with patience the disappointment of their further hopes. It is because of that fact that I urge upon the Government the importance of publishing a statement in some form or other by the commissioners. The nation has a right to know the results of these inquiries. I trust that we shall have some definite proposals from the Government immediately after the Recess and that, in the meantime, by the publication of the commissioner's reports the public will be enabled to judge of the adequacy of such proposals. It is no part of my duty on this occasion, even if I had the time and the opportunity to make suggestions though I think there are suggestions which could be made with some guarantee that there was something in them. At all events, the conditions in these areas are known and there are only three courses by which a solution of the problem can be found.

The difficulties in my view are not insurmountable although the task is one of great complexity. The problem, not being insoluble, ought to be tackled. Like the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street I am not here to make political points against the Government. I honestly believe that they are making great efforts to tackle the various problems by which they are beset and I would not, on these matters, try to score party points. But I have the honour and privilege of representing a division of great traditions, an ancient township which has lived through the centuries, and which has behind it a great history. I know the people among whom I live and work, and I have seen for myself the effect of this long period of depression on the personalities of the people there. Knowing what is going on, I appeal to the Government, not in any partisan spirit but out of the sincere conviction that the problem can be solved if it is properly tackled, not to delay action and not to sicken with further disappointments a population which has already suffered many trials.

4.40 p.m.


I am sure the Committee welcomes the fact that this Vote has been put down to-day, first because it is only right and proper that before the summer Recess these grave matters affecting so vitally a large part of our population should be debated, and secondly, because it affords us the opportunity of hearing the first important declaration from my right hon. Friend in his new capacity as Minister of Labour and of welcoming him as a Minister to whom we all look for great things. He has not only character but sympathy and intellectual power, a combination which ought to make his tenure of office memorable indeed. I welcomed as I think all hon. Members welcomed the appointment of Commissioners to inquire into the conditions in the distressed areas. We welcomed it particularly because we felt that that dramatic gesture was a recog- nition of the intrinsic and outstanding importance of a problem which had been far too long obscured by official complacency.

When I first entered Parliament 10 years ago, the Member for one of the Middlesbrough divisions was the late Mr. Trevelyan Thomson. He was one of the first men to raise this question, and by a long-continued agitation, to which he devoted all his energies and finally his life, he called the attention of Parliament and the country and particularly, that part of the country south of the Trent, to the pressing character of the problem presented by these distressed areas. Indeed I am not sure that he did not invent the term "distressed areas," but the official view at that time was that it was a problem which would solve itself, and that when the various reasons for depression had been dealt with, these areas would share in the general postwar recovery. I think the Governments of those years can claim to have made some attempts by derating, by local government reform, by the weighting of the populations, by alterations of grants and in other ways to deal partially with the problem, but I do not think that any of us—let us be quite honest about it—realised how deep-rooted was the problem, how difficult it would be to handle, and how incapable it was of being solved by the mere automatic correction of adverse trade conditions.

It was, as I say, believed that the normal course of recovery would solve the problem of the distressed areas, but as the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Curry) has reminded the Committee, when one is living in a particular period and in a particular set of circumstances, it is difficult to take an objective view of the situation in which one is placed. We regarded 1929 as a year of depression. Now we know that it was the highest year of trade boom since the War—and I would recall to the Committee that the Government of that day were flung contemptuously from power because there were 1,000,000 unemployed when it went to seek the suffrages of the people, at the height of a trade boom. To-day we are in another trade boom. The figures of the production of goods and services are equal to those of 1929. The number of men employed is equal to the number employed in 1929, but we find that in this new boom we have a figure, not of 1,000,000 unemployed but of 2,000,000 unemployed. In my own constituency in 1929 which we then thought was a year of depression, but which we now find was a year of boom, one-sixth of the male population were out of work. To-day in the present year of boom one-third are without employment. I think we have realised at last that although recovery comes and goes, although one wave may go higher up the beach than another, these partial periods of recovery do not touch the core of the problem as it affects particular areas and particular industries.

We can no longer console ourselves with the view that in the normal and automatic course of things these problems will solve themselves. It is for that reason especially that the country welcomed the Government's decision to appoint these four commissioners. I think they took it, first, as a gesture from London, the south of England, and the more prosperous areas, showing that they do care for the distressed areas, and, secondly, as an indication of the fact that the Government recognise that the problem can no longer be left unsolved or left to chance to find a solution. I think there is perhaps some natural disappointment at the delay and that it is not possible to have the report before the end of this part of the Session, but we quite realise that these investigations take time if they are to be of any value, and I do not think it would have been feasible to expect them to be completed in any less time than they have. Indeed, I think it is remarkable that they have been completed so soon. If we are naturally somewhat disappointed that no statement of Government policy can be made before the autumn, there is a feeling of some anxiety in regard to the publication of these reports and also in regard to the use to be made of them.

First of all, to whom are the Commissioners reporting? I understand primarily to the Minister of Labour. After all, perhaps the Commissioners are not going to collect any facts which were not known before they made their investigation. The various Government Departments—the Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Board of Trade—must have had in their possession a detailed mass of knowledge on these questions. I take it the real purpose is to co-ordinate and take a wider vision of the information already in their possession, supplemented of course by special local knowledge. I hope these reports will not be left as it were to the official survey of one particular Department. I hope they will be passed to a committee of the Cabinet, directed to the Government, and that high Government policy will result. I recognise that it would be impossible to publish reports which were confidential. No doubt there was a great deal of information given by individuals, and perhaps by individual firms, as to their financial situation and so on which could only have been made confidentially, and which it would not be wise to publish. But I do ask the Minister to consider, though not necessarily to tell the Committee to-day, whether it will not be possible to publish a statement, not about particular pieces of evidence of that character which might damage individuals, but giving in general the main recommendations and findings, to publish, if he likes, a White Paper or statement giving an outline of what in general the Commissioners have recommended, so that we may have before us when we come to discuss these matters in the autumn some more useful information on which to base our views on the policy on which the Government may ultimately embark.

The questions with which these commissioners have had to deal are vast indeed, and I am certain it has been the experience of these gentlemen themselves, and will be the experience of the Government Department that tries to base a policy on their recommendations, that it is impossible to deal with the distressed areas as a single problem. The further you go in your investigations the more you will be drawn into general policy, into high policy. It is not like a man who is ill with a particular disease, say cancer. You say you are sorry for him and would cure him if you and people who have not got cancer go on living their normal lives. The cure for the ills that oppress these particular areas, right or wrong—we may disagree about their character—will necessarily involve high policy, and I believe in the long run it will involve the formulation of the only policy by which State Socialism or State capitalism can be fought and defeated in this country.

This is certainly not the place, and it would be out of order, to go in detail into the kind of problem that will arise, but let us consider what is the reason of the distress, the cause of the collapse of these areas. It is generally a case of areas that in the past have depended on export trade and more particularly on the export of capital goods. That really seems to be the situation of these areas, and therefore the consideration of any policy, other than a palliative or short-term policy, must involve a deep investigation of the most important questions which arise between parties to-day. It must involve the consideration of foreign trade, foreign lending, the relations between finance and industry, the organisation of industry itself, the recruitment of labour and its relationship with our educational system, the control of industry, geographical control if you like, and the whole problem of local government in these areas and the remaining questions of differential rates.

These are all huge questions which arise, on which any and every successful long-term policy must be based. Of course, it is easy to recognise, and not difficult to recommend, a short-term policy which would be reasonably effective in mitigating the worst results of these harsh and oppressive features in the life of people in the distressed areas. I am not sure that unless your long-term policy is sound, your short-term palliatives may not in the long run do more harm than good. We have to face, if we decide to go back to the system of individualist capitalism of the nineteenth century, the system of laissez faire, whether it is wise to go in for housing or anything which will tend to keep people in areas from which under the nineteenth century system they would have drifted. Is it not better to face the fact that many of these troubles arise from the fact that the system is becoming rigid and has not the liquidity of 100 years ago? Are we doing a service to young people in these areas in keeping them there by a short-term policy, unless we have decided that they can play a useful part in the life of the country from a long-term point of view and are prepared to recommend the policy which will secure that result?

Are we not to-day, in many parts of the Government policy falling between two systems and getting the worst of both, destroying the automatic corrections of the old system of laissez faire without having the courage to go through to the logical Conclusion of our new idea of conscious control of our fortunes. I see in the Government policy no inclination to revert to laissez faire. Everything they have done, particularly in recent months, but in the whole three years they have been in office, has been the opposite, and, as the hon. Gentleman who opened the Debate said, we have taken the great step of setting up a new fiscal system, and it is perfectly true it has had its reactions on the distressed areas that depended so much on export trade. What the corrective is it is not the time to say. It may be that a policy of financial expansion and internal lending must take the place of what was once supported by external or foreign lending. I do not know; but we have taken the tremendous responsibility of setting up a new fiscal system. That is the overriding condition under which this Parliament lives. We cannot go back and say: "We will have laissez faire where it suits us and organisation in any quarter where it suits us." Moreover, we have decided that we will not have the old automatic correction. We will have wheat grown, and not let the fields go out of cultivation. The laissez faire school would have said: "If you cannot grow wheat at a profit, let the wheat go. Let the labourers starve and the farmer be driven from the land." We have decided to have a shipping industry for national purposes, and we are ready to spend money. We have decided in the whole course of our agricultural policy that we will not allow the old automatic corrections to bring supply into relation with demand but will set up a new system.

I welcome the new Minister's appointment more than anyone in this House. I believe he has an immense opportunity in the two years that remain to this Parliament, and that it depends upon the relation which he can establish between this office and other Departments and the part he can play, as I believe he can, in the formulation of a coherent and consistent policy to replace those lines of policy which, sound in themselves, do not seem to me to be sufficiently related to one another. I think it will be found that out of this question of the distressed areas will arise all those great questions of trade policy and out of the decision of the Government on this particular part of the problem we may get the formulation of a new philosophy which in my opinion is the only political philosophy which the people of this country will accept as an alternative to Socialism. I do not believe they will ever go back to the harsh and cruel methods to produce what economists call equilibruim, which served us in the nineteenth century. I do not believe they will go back to the Whig Poor Law of 1834, wages depression, and labour made servile by these methods. I believe they have determined to be masters of their own fate. The only question is how it is to be done, whether by lion. Gentlemen who now sit on this side of the House and may in a year or two sit on the other side of the Table, or whether we, who have the support of a vast non-party population in the country, the support of an enormous amount of good will, whether the Government which is not in the position of governing a reluctant population opposing its policy but is dealing with people who are waiting to be led and asking for policy, will carry this through. On how they handle the situation which arises out of these perhaps minor questions, which will lead to the greater problems, will depend not merely their fate at the next election, though that is a matter of importance to all of us, but the development of these islands perhaps during the next decade.

4.58 p.m.


I agree with much that the last hon. Gentleman has said, but I disagree also with a good deal, and I want to make that the text of the few remarks that I should like to address to the Committee. It is a poverty stricken House, almost a depressed area, and I suppose the reason is that we do not quite know where we are. We have already had three Debates, and the reports are in the Government's hands, but we are in the dark. I want to say that I do not believe what the last hon. Gentleman and others have said is true. I do not believe we know the facts. The hon. Member who has just spoken said that we have had 10 years with the automatic system and he went on to say that there is a considerable amount of rigidity. In fact, during the last 10 years, about 1,500,000 people in this country have changed their occupations. I want, as a preliminary to a practical suggestion that I wish to put before my right hon. Friend, to analyse that change. There has been a movement, which is still going on, from the fringes of these Islands to the centre. Scotland and Wales have lost between 40,000 and 50,000 persons during the past 10 years. Cornwall, Hereford, Cumberland, West-morland, Norfolk and Suffolk, have all declining populations. The populations even of Durham, Northumberland and Shropshire have increased by only a very small number; and in Scotland all counties north of the Clyde-Forth line, except Stirlingshire, have had decreases in population.

Side by side with this you have this entirely new phenomenon, that places like Birmingham and Coventry have great increases of population. Even Liverpool has 50,000 more. Inside the depressed areas, Newcastle, Manchester and Cardiff have accretions of population. Further, although coal has lost 500,000 people, the distributive trades have taken 500,000 more; although engineering has lost 130,000, the catering and food manufacturing trades have taken an equivalent number; although iron and steel have lost 60,000, the electrical trades have increased by something like 130,000 to 140,000. During the last 10 years a very big change has taken place. We have now the new phenomenon of old industries and new industries. We have even old communities and new communities. Iron and steel, docks, cotton and wool have a large percentage of workers over 55 years of age. In the newer industries —distribution, motor manufacturing and commerce—the average age is comparatively young. At Dagenham the average age is about 23. Further along at Ilford, it is 31. At Epsom, Tunbridge Wells and Bournemouth it is going up steadily.

But that is not the end of the story. I want to put a question to the right hon. Gentleman. I cannot find the answer from the ordinary statistics. I do not believe anybody knows. There are at least four different volumes of statistics telling us about the past 10 years. I believe these commissioners have found out many new facts, and it is only by an acute analysis of the facts that we can get the answer. The more acute the analysis the more scientific will be the answer. While during the last 10 years there has been an increase in the insured population of 1,647,000, there are 400,000 fewer people in the category of "in retirement or not gainfully employed." I will allow the few people coming back from the Dominions, and also that unknown figure, of vital importance to Scotland and the North of England, of the increased number of people coming from Ireland, on which there are no statistics available. I believe the real solution lies in what the right hon. Gentleman who preceded the present Minister said, that as you increase the social services you: increase the numbers of people taking advantage of them. There are a vast number of people on the registers of social services to-day who were never counted before. No one knows how they lived; certainly they were not there ten years ago. That is the only deduction I can draw. At the beginning of this century there were about 1,750,000 people over 65 years of age. In 1931 there were 3,250,000 people over 65. In ten years time that number will go up to 4,000,000; and in 1976, when some of us will still be young, there will be 5,750,000 people in this country over 65, out of a total population of 33,000,000. The women alone in this category are going to double their population in the next 50 years. You have somehow to allow for all these factors if you are going to plan ahead. You have to think out what kind of a pension system we are going to have in the next 20 years. I will not complicate this by taking account of the figures of young persons between 14 and 18, although you can draw very interesting deductions from that.

Whereupon, the GENTLEMAN USHER OF THE BLACK ROD being come with a Message, The CHAIRMAN left the Chair.

Mr. SPEAKER resumed the Chair.

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