HC Deb 05 December 1935 vol 307 cc433-44

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

10.45 p.m.


I wish to raise a question with the Minister of Labour affecting the City of Glasgow. Although it affects the City of Glasgow it will, I think, if it is allowed to go unchallenged, possibly affect other parts of the country equally. I put a question to the Minister to-day concerning the administration of transitional benefit. The position was that under standard benefit applicants for unemployment benefit with children of school age were granted ls. extra on behalf of each dependent child. Consequent upon that decision the Government, through the Unemployment Assistance Board, agreed to increase the rate of benefit in respect of each dependent child by a similar amount to that applying in regard to standard benefit. Following that, it was announced that each applicant for transitional benefit would have his benefit in respect of each dependent child increased by 1s., and that certain arrears would be paid to that particular applicant. That is the law. Those of us who were in the House at the time when the new regulations were passed will remember that following the new regulations the Government altered the decision. I am not going to argue why they were to be so treated or the reason for the the alteration. I am only stating the facts.

The Government altered the position, as a result of which there were to be two classes of unemployed in transitional benefit. Those who would benefit from the new regulations were to receive that amount, but if the amount allowed by the old public assistance committees was higher than that which was paid under the transitional payment regulations, then public assistance payments were to continue. In other words, what is now commonly called the standstill agreement was to be operative. That in brief was the law.

Following the decision of the Government to pay the extra shilling in respect of each child, this is what has happened in a large number of cases throughout the City of Glasgow. I will take a concrete example. A man applies for benefit. He has a wife, a son of 21, and two dependent children of school age. Under the scale of relief he is entitled to and receives 1s. extra in respect of each child. His son of 21 was granted 12s. per week by the old public assistance committee. That, under the standstill arrangement, should remain, but the moment that the extra shilling in respect of each of the two children was granted along came the transitional payment people and took 2s. from the son, reducing the payment to him to 10s. They argued that there was an alteration of family income, and that as the income had been increased by ls. a week in respect of each child the amount of that increase should be taken from the grown-up son. That is the position in Glasgow now. In a large number of cases the increase granted in respect of the child has been taken from an adult son or an adult daughter.

The Minister said to me to-day, in answer to a question, that the man ought to appeal. I challenge that statement almost with indignation. Even if the Board is powerful—and I do not deny that its powers are great—it should not be allowed to flout an Act of Parliament which laid it down decisively and clearly that a payment given by the old public assistance committee—unless it obtained by means of fraud, that is not alleged—should continue. Here is this Board constituting itself above an Act of Parliament, by coming down and saying that it has a right to interfere with the standstill agreement made by Parliament. It has no such right. It has a right to carry out the law. Under the old public assistance committee the man was granted 12s. The Minister may argue, as the officials have argued, that he has to go back and ask for information from the Board. But I gave notice on Tuesday to the Minister that I would raise this question to-day. Surely he has had time since then. My practice is not to come here with individual grievances, but to take them up locally with the people on the spot. Perhaps I might say without boasting that I have possibly raised more cases with the local officials than all my Glasgow colleagues put together.

All that the officials said was that this 12s. was granted to the man because the old public assistance committee wanted to give a little extra because of dependent children. But the same man in Monmouthshire would get 17s. per week. I am not concerned with the reason of the public assistance committee which preceded the Board, but I am concerned with the law. The law says that once a sum has been granted—it does not say granted for (a) reason or (b) reason or (c) reason—once it has been granted and without fraud, that sum is to continue. There is no charge of fraud here or any charge that the applicant stated the facts wrongly. I raise this issue because of the alarming view that this Board, manned as it is by lords and great men, has a right to break the law. It has no right to outwith the law any more than the most humble citizen of this country.

I say this to the Home Secretary, who is a lawyer of some distinction: I am not an expert in foreign affairs, although there are usually in Gorbals enough nationalities for me. If a poor person took from the board 2s. more than he was entitled to, he would be gaoled, although he might have hunger pressing at his door, and needy children or a house factor pressing for rent. Out of 12s. two shillings is an immense sum. On a recent Monday a poor fellow walked down to get his 12s. and, without even the decency of notice, he was handed 10s. How would any of us like that? Then you go to the officials and they refer you to the board. The Minister has a duty above the board. I am asking him to do what I have to do and what they have to do—to carry out the law and to see that the standstill agreement is applied and that payments are not reduced. I raise this question because it affects my native city, also because, if it goes unchallenged, it will not be long before it affects every part of the country.

10.55 p.m.


The hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) has put the case with his accustomed vigour and thoroughness. I do not doubt for a moment that he feels very keenly not only that a hardship has been inflicted on one or more of his constituents but that a literal injustice has been committed. I have no doubt that he feels that, keenly and sincerely. Into the correctness or incorrectness of this particular determination I am not going to follow him, because it is not my business to do so. I should, however, like to take up one point that he made on the subject of the law. I would draw his attention to a particular provision in the Unemployment Assistance (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1935, Section 1, which says: There shall be ascertained the amount which would, in the opinion of the officer, or on an appeal the Appeal Tribunal, by whom the application is determined, have been payable to him by way of transitional payments under Sub-section (1) of Section 59 of the principal Act. I would particularly draw his attention to the words: "Would have been payable in the opinion of the officer." The words in the Act are rather different from the words which the hon. Member put. As I have said, it is not my business to follow him into the correctness or incorrectness of this particular determination. It is obvious that there must be, or there may be, differences of opinion between the officer who makes the determination and the man whose determination is made, or a person like my hon. Friend who is interested in the case. It is obvious that there must be differences of opinion, otherwise there would be no object in having the appeal machinery instituted. These differences of opinion may be on the interpretation of principles involved in the Act or differences: of opinion on the actual facts at issue. The fact remains that, having regard to the circumstance that these differences of opinion are likely to arise, and, as we know, do arise because of the cases which go to appeal, the appeal machinery is set up under the Act. The hon. Member takes exception to my suggestion that if there is dissatisfaction it should go to appeal, but let me remind him that the machinery of appeal is embodied in the Act and is just as much part of the law of the land as any other part of the Act.


But this is the law without appeal.

Lieut.-Colonel MUIRHEAD

My point is, that the machinery of appeal which is to deal with differences of opinion, possibly on facts and possibly as to the interpretation of the law, is embodied in the Act and there is just as much necessity to utilise the machinery of appeal, which is part of the law of the land, as any other provision.


That is not the point.

Lieut.-Colonel MUIRHEAD

I am entitled to take up the point, because the hon. Member is decrying so much the suggestion I made to him that if there is dissatisfaction it should be taken to the machinery of appeal.


Are you to go to an appeal to decide whether you are to be robbed or not?

Lieut.-Colonel MUIRHEAD

The Act does not deal with the robbing of myself or anybody else.


Under the regulations, a man and wife should get 24s. Under the Old Public Assistance arrangements he got 26s. The law came along and said that the standstill agreement of 26s. was to remain. It does not remain as I have shown.

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

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


There is no necessity for appeal. The law says that the 26s. shall continue. He may appeal if his payment is inadequate; he has the right to appeal that his payments shall be increased.


Is the Parliamentary Secretary aware that during last Session a decision was arrived at, and that the Minister of Labour issued a circular to the Liverpool authorities advising them that in regard to those who were on a lower scale of relief than those in receipt of public assistance they should get the higher scale of relief?


Suppose the Board were to decide that throughout the country 10s. a week instead of 26s. should be paid, would the Minister take action? The amount of 26s. is laid down in the Act, would the Minister take steps if that was reduced to 10s. throughout the country? The hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) has suggested that the action taken by the Board goes beyond what has been determined by Parliament and has fixed a new sum altogether.

Lieut.-Colonel MUIRHEAD

The hon. Member has put a hypothetical case to me, may I put a hypothetical case to him? If such a thing occurred are we to take it that no one will take that question to appeal?


If the Parliamentary Secretary is asking me that question I say that we should not take it to appeal but bring it before the Minister on the Floor of the House of Commons. We should expect the Minister to deal with it, and I understand that in cases like that the Minister has power to act.

Lieut.-Colonel MUIRHEAD

The hon. Member said that he would expect the Minister to deal with that matter. Let me tell him why in point of fact it would be improper for the Minister to do any such thing. The machinery of appeal is set up to deal with differences of opinion between officers who make the determination and the man whose determination is made. These differences of opinion may arise with regard to the actual facts of the case or as to the interpretation of the Act of Parliament. But it is to consider such differences of opinion that the machinery of appeal has been set up, and it is as much the law of the land as any other words in the Act.




I think it would be better to allow the Parliamentary Secretary to proceed with his speech.

Lieut.-Colonel MUIRHEAD

It is perhaps fortunate that we have an extra quarter of an hour in which to discuss this matter. I would like to emphasise this point with regard to the machinery of the Act. Under the Unemployment Assistance (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1935, the appeal with regard to these questions of transitional payments is an unrestricted appeal. In other cases there is a certain amount of restriction, but as regards cases of this type the appeal is unrestricted. I take it that the cases in which the hon. Member is interested have not been taken to appeal—that the machinery has not been used. In a case like this, which is not actually sub judice in the sense that it is before a court of appeal, but in which it is within the competence of the individual concerned still to take an appeal, it would be improper for me or my right hon. Friend to express an opinion on the correctness or incorrectness of the decision. I think, probably, if there was a question of an appeal in a case in which the hon. Member was interested, and if the Minister were to express an opinion adverse to the claimant, in advance of the consideration of the case, the hon. Member might reasonably complain that the Minister was trying to prejudice the free judgment of the appeal tribunal. If that operates in one way, it operates in the other way. The remedy which the hon. Member's constituents have is to use the unrestricted right of appeal which the standstill Act provides. If it were found in a number of cases that the appeal tribunal was interpreting the Act in a sense different from what Parliament intended, it would be within the competence of the Minister to bring fresh proposals before Parliament. I do not say what action he might take in a suppositious case, but if he found decisions were obviously going contrary to the intention of Parliament that would be the remedy. That, however, is not the case in this instance. I, therefore, maintain that it would be highly improper for me at this juncture, when the machinery of the Act is open to the hon. Member's constituents, to express any definite opinion on the correctness or otherwise of the determination which has been made in this case.

11.8 p.m.


I rise for the purpose of protesting against the speech we have just heard from the Parliamentary Secretary. He started by saying that it was not his business to go into the actual determination. Having listened to him, I confess I am at a loss to understand why he should not go into the actual determination. In the first place, he has had time to discover the details of the case. There must be a reason for this determination. There must be some grounds on which the officer came to his decision and surely the House, when notice has been given, is entitled to know the grounds upon which the officer acted.

That does not imply an expression of opinion by the Minister as to whether the determination was right or wrong, but he ought to give us, at any rate, the grounds on which the decision was based. The Parliamentary Secretary's defence consisted of saying that it was possible for the applicant to take the case to appeal, but the fact that an appeal tribunal has been set up does not deprive the unemployed person of his right to have the matter raised in this House and to have an answer given in this House.

In the first place, we are not dealing with a judicial tribunal; we are dealing with an official. Surely, it is a constitutional principle of first-rate importance that when we are dealing with an official who is, in a sense, a Government official; and when there is a suggestion that he has misused his power or the discretion placed in his hands, that we should be able to raise his action on the Floor of this House and receive an explanation of why that action was taken. It seems to me that the existence of an appeal tribunal does not make any difference to that right. A man is under no obligation to go to the appeal tribunal and surely he is perfectly entitled to take the alternative course of going to his Parliamentary representative, and, through him, getting the matter raised on the Floor of the House.

That is the first question that arises, and the second is whether the law in this case is being observed or not. That question has been asked and it has not been answered this evening. Surely the Minister with all the advisers he has should be able to give the House of Commons an answer to that perfectly plain and simple question.

11.11 p.m.


The case put by the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) is not an isolated one by any means. We are getting numerous cases reported of men on transitional benefit getting a determination and, without any change whatever in circumstances, the rate of payment has been altered. Then we are told that men may appeal. If the standstill order is to apply, why should the determination be altered? I take it that the House of Commons decided that what was granted at least should not be worse than the old transitional benefit payment, but we are finding in hundreds of cases that payments are being reduced.

11.13 p.m.


After the extraordinary reply by the Minister may I take another analogy? Suppose a stipendiary magistrate was sentencing people to terms of imprisonment far in excess of the terms he was permitted to impose, and was doing that in a general way, does the Minister suggest that every one of those cases would have to go to appeal? Surely, when the matter was so flagrant, action would have to be taken by the Attorney-General to deal with it. The analogy I have drawn is on all fours with this case. The law is being broken with regard to all these people. It is not a particular case which might be dealt with by individual appeal. It is being done on a general scale and yet the Minister says, "I can do nothing. Everyone of them can appeal." It is a ridiculous doctrine that is laid down by the Minister. The Minister was given responsibility with regard to the action of the Board and he ought to take responsibility here. I hope I have made my meaning plain to the Minister. I am surprised at the way in which he seems to have been unable to grasp the point. Everyone on this side of the House seems to see it clearly. There must be something wrong with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour. This is not a question of policy. It is not a question of politics when there might be a certain unanimity of opinion. It is something apart from politics and that is what makes me think the Minister seems to be possessed of an evil spirit in this matter or seems to be afraid of interfering with the Board. I can understand that that might arise considering the mess the Board has been in since its inception and it is possible, if he were to take the steps that he ought to take as Minister of the Crown, that the Board would re- sign en masse, which would be for the good of the unemployed. I hope he will take the action that was entrusted to him by Parliament when the Minister was made responsible for the actions of the Department.

11.17 p.m.


I think the hon. Member might have decided to take this case and put it to the Minister and the Minister to the Board. It has turned out that the Act is in many respects vague and has failed. It is well known that the Board is working from hand to mouth. It is never quite sure whether it is obeying the law or evading the law, and it is a well known fact among area officers in general administration that they sometimes hardly know where they are. Here is an instance in which it appears as though the stand-still arrangement has been set aside, yet the hon. and gallant Gentleman tells my hon. Friend the member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) that this is a case for appeal. I think this is a case that ought to be put to the Board, because I understand that there is a mass of such cases in the country. I do not know that of my own knowledge, but if that is a fact, surely this is not a case for a particular tribunal to settle, but it is a case for the Minister and the Board to deal with. In view of the admitted chaos in which the law is and on the way in which the administration is working, on a sort of hand to mouth basis, I think the hon. and gallant Gentleman ought to put this matter to the Minister and the Minister to the Board.

11.19 p.m.


I think the Parliamentary Secretary was right when he said it was not his duty to usurp the functions of the tribunal, but I think a practical suggestion might be made. It is clear that a question has been raised which ought to be decided by the appeal tribunal. It would be manifestly absurd, assuming there is a number of similar cases, for an appeal to be taken in every case, but I think a reasonable step that might be taken by the Minister would be to make representations to the Board to have instructions or advice given in a suitable case that one of the men concerned should make an appeal, as a test case, and when a decision was given on the test appeal, then instructions should be given to the Board to regard it as applying to all similar cases.

11.20 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel MUIRHEAD

Several new points have been raised, and various old points have been raised again. The hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Foot) asked on what grounds determination was made? I have no cause to believe that it was made on any other grounds than a particular officer, acting in perfectly good faith, interpreting the Act.


A junior officer interpreting the law for you?

Lieut.-Colonel MUIRHEAD

The Board's officers are given certain powers by this House to act as they think best in accordance with the terms of the Act, and I have no reason to doubt that the particular officers who made this determination were not so acting. When the House evolves a new technique, as under the Unemployment Assistance Act, giving within certain limits a wide discretion, it should realise the necessity of giving a chance for this new, technique to operate freely, and it must be prepared to stand by the result in the individual cases in which it is applied.


To the disadvantage of the unfortunate men.

Lieut.-Colonel MUIRHEAD

Not exactly to the disadvantage at all. A case like this may be acting one way or it may be acting another.


What were the instructions sent out to the Glasgow officers?

Lieut.-Colonel MUIRHEAD

We are concerned with the law. I have no doubt whatever that the official was concerned with the law. I would remind the hon. Member that the wording of the Act is as I have already quoted—


Take the case of a man getting 5s. extra for high rent for four years. Recently they have warned him that it must come off, but there has been no change in the rent. We say the standstill order should operate there. What right have they to alter the standstill order?


Was not the standstill agreement superimposed on these words?

Lieut.-Colonel MUIRHEAD

We are dealing with the Unemployment Assistance (Temporary Provisions) Act of 1935, from which I have actually quoted. The words "would have been" are supposititious and not a definite phrase; "was" is definite, but "would have been" is supposititious.


How would the Minister read these words in the light of the Minister's pledge in regard to the standstill Order?

Lieut. - Colonel MUIRHEAD

The whole burden of the hon. Member for Gorbals was, "What is the law?" and I am quoting the law The hon. Member for Dundee asked whether his constituents were to be deprived of the right to have their case raised in this House. They are not deprived, obviously. The hon. Member for Gorbals has raised the question, and I am not going to be deprived of the right of giving the proper answer in the circumstances. If, as the result of operating the machinery of appeal, it is found that the law is being interpreted in a sense contrary to what this House decided, it is competent for the House to take action and have it altered. And I do maintain again that it is not only the legal interpretation but that it is the only commonsense interpretation, and that the machinery of appeal should at all events be tested before any further pressure is put upon me or my right hon. Friend. I repeat that I consider it would be improper for me to give an interpretation one way or the other as to the correctness or incorrectness of this particular case, because the decision may at any time go to the appeal tribunal. The hon. Member for Camlachie put to me a supposititous case. I am sure he will quite understand my position if I refuse to follow him into that supposition. He also said over and over again that he hoped that he had made it plain that there was something wrong with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour. I am modest and human enough to admit that there is a great deal that is wrong with me, but I can assure him, not upon this occasion or on this particular point.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-seven Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.