HC Deb 08 May 1934 vol 289 cc1019-24

8.52 p.m.


I beg to move, in page 16, line 30, to leave out from "made," to "together," in line 31, and to insert: under the said section before the coming into operation of this section.

This Amendment and the next two Amendments are consequential on the alteration of the Clause dealing with what will happen to the fund on 1st July.


These words are formal in view of the possible date of the commencement of the Act.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: In page IV, line 10, leave out "commencement of this part of this Act," and insert "coming into operation of this section."

In line 21, leave out "commencement of this part of this Act," and insert "coming into operation of this section."—[Mr. Hudson.]


I beg to move, in page 17, line 24, to leave out "half," and to insert "eighth."

8.53 p.m.


The Chancellor of the Exchequer explained at a previous stage exactly what this meant, and while there were cheers from those behind him because of the very small concession, I think he must have felt that he got off very lightly indeed in view of what he rather expected at an earlier stage of the proceedings. I gather that what it really means is that he has given something like £500,000 a year. When the microscope is put upon it, I do not know that it is even costing him that. Our attitude towards this generally is, Thank you for nothing. At a certain stage of the proceedings, when the public began to understand what it meant to lay upon the unemployed the weight of this great mass of debt, what it meant to the fund and how unjust it was to lay this debt upon people who had no responsibility whatever in the main for incurring that debt, not only the public but certain very responsible semi-official newspapers began to get rather alarmed as to the feeling that was prevailing among Members behind the Government. Those Members were beginning to be rather disturbed. It looked as though the Government were to have rather a rough time. Some of what I would term the semi-Government journals began to be very ponderous as to whether the Government should not really accept responsibility for either the whole or at least part of the debt. It would be possible to give quotations from papers like the "Times" to show that they really were very perturbed about the matter, and that Members behind the Government were not satisfied.

At that stage the voice of the City spoke. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillhead (Sir R. Home) came along, speaking for the City, I suppose, and for big business, and asked for what appeared to be something, but which was really nothing. He became, as it were, the head and front of what appeared to be the opposition behind the Government. In reality it was an attempt to side-track the really serious consideration of the responsibility for this debt and its effect upon the fund, so that a nice piece of by-play was taking place. The right hon. Member for Hillhead, with that capacity for terse statement and appearance of great knowledge of finance, speaking with all the weight of big business behind him, made Members round about him believe that he was really doing, and asking for, something. Then the Chancellor of the Exchequer rose and said that he really thought there was something in the position which was being put up by the right hon. Member for Hillhead. Really, the right hon. Gentleman on that occasion had a speech prepared to answer the case against those who held that the Chancellor of the Exchequer ought to bear the whole weight of the debt. He was delighted to find a sort of coalition between himself and the right hon. Gentleman behind him, and was really pleasantly surprised to find how easily the Members behind the Government were taken in by the Amendment moved by the right hon. Member for Hillhead.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer appeared to give something, but in reality he gave nothing. The Members behind him were satisfied. The City was happy. The newspapers which thought that there was something in the case for the State bearing the debt, were apparently satisfied, and were taken in by that very expert move. We hear to-night that the right hon. Gentleman is giving effect to this very slight arrangement which he made, for which we shall not even say "Thank you" at this or any other stage. The case still remains where it was. While we shall continue to pay interest to those who loan money, and shall accept the financial responsibility, we say that to lay a great burden of debt upon men who are already afflicted by unemployment, and who have no right to have to accept such a financial responsibility, is the same old story: To him that hath shall be given, and to him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.

9.0 p.m.


The Amendment does not in any way alter the position which has been taken up from the beginning in so many parts of this House and the country with regard to the neglect of leaving this debt on the fund. The whole difficulty of the matter is that any proposal that could have been made from anywhere except from the Government Front Bench which would have been of any use would have been out of order, because it would have put a burden on the Exchequer. Anything that tended to put a burden on the Exchequer was no use, and therefore the right hon. Gentle- man the Member for Hillhead (Sir It. Horne) did a substantial service in this matter in that he introduced an Amendment upon which a general discussion might take place in order that the feeling of the House might be known. I think that that feeling remains exactly the same.


What the right hon. Member for Hillhead did was to hinder a general discussion upon the Clause.


My memory does not carry me to the same effect as that of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Lawson), because I happen to remember that by the indulgence of the Chair we were, in point of fact, allowed an extremely wide latitude on the Amendment going beyond its actual terms. What has happened is that the Amend-went which is now being carried is merely a consequence of a proposal which was originally nothing more than a peg on which to hang a discussion. It has no greater importance than that to-day. As it is in its terms a small concession, I cannot imagine that it will be voted against in any part of the House, but it would be a great mistake for anybody in the Government to suppose that they were not putting first things first, and were not, in dealing with this matter, giving their own Bill a fair chance, allowing the new edition of Unemployment Insurance to come out with a fair prospect of success. That feeling remains, I believe, wherever it was originally felt. It may be muzzled in some quarters at the present moment, but I believe that it will be felt very widely up and down the country, and that nothing we do to-night will make any difference to it at all.

9.3 p.m.


The two speeches to which we have just listened are really very amazing when one considers whence they came. One would imagine, listening to the two speeches, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is imposing this burden upon the fund for the first time. In fact the duty was deliberately imposed upon the fund by Members who sit upon the Opposition Benches, with the support of Members who now sit upon the benches below the Gangway. It is really playing with the House and the country to get up at this stage in the history of the fund and charge the Chancellor of the Exchequer with imposing the burden, whereas in truth and in fact he has relieved the fund of a very substantial part of the debt imposed upon it by the Labour Government.

9.4 p.m.


I was rather surprised to hear the indignant speech of the hon. Member for West Nottingham (Mr. Caporn). I do not know whether he was in the House at an earlier stage this afternoon, but if he were he would have heard a very elaborate dissertation upon the question of the debt on the Unemployment Fund delivered by his right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour. The Minister of Labour was defending the Statutory Advisory Committee, and was again informing the House that the main function of that Committee was to get the Unemployment Insurance Fund solvent. In the course of his argument he called our attention to the fact that a whole series of Governments from 1920 had not had the courage to face the deficits on the Unemployment Fund as they have grown during those years, and that because of the lack of courage on the part of a whole series of Governments, Tory Governments as well as Labour Governments, the huge debt on the fund had been accumulating. He went on from that to justify the setting up of the Statutory Advisory Committee so that in future the fund might not run into debt.

I should not have risen but for the indignation of the hon. Member. He seemed to suggest that nobody was responsible for the debt on the Unemployment Fund except members of the Liberal party and the Labour party, perhaps a Labour Government, whereas the right hon. Gentleman clearly demonstrated that a whole series of Governments are responsible, because none of them have had the courage to face the situation as the debt accumulated. In view of the history and the causes of this debt I think that the concession the Chancellor has made is a very meagre one. Why should he penalise the unemployed of the future because of a lack of courage on the part of various Governments in the past?

9.7 p.m.


We, of course, accept the concession, small though it is. Our objection is to the method that has been adopted. It is no use saying that the object is to clear away the debt altogether and then to accept this first small concession as if the whole thing were being cleared away. The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. Caporn) had no right to attack the Labour party. The debt was accumulated for the purpose of doing good to a small body of people, and no one can lay any blame at the doors of the Labour party for what they did. We were hoping to start the fund again clear of debt, and that for the future the contributions would be equal to the calls made upon the fund. That is our position. That is the policy for which the right hon. Member for Hillhead (Sir R. Horne) argued. I fully expected that the arguments of a previous Chancellor of the Exchequer would have had some effect on the present Chancellor of the Exchequer. What troubles me is that hon. and right hon. Members who know all about high finance get up and talk. I keep listening to them, but one says, "This is the right method," and another says, "No, this is the way it ought to be done." We poor people who do not know anything about high finance and who would be glad to know something about low finance, wonder whether they do know anything about it. The more I listen to them the more I am in the dark. I was hoping that we should have got a larger concession, but we accept it, however small it is.

Amendment agreed to.