HC Deb 16 December 1935 vol 307 cc1429-49

Order for Second Reading read.

3.58 p.m.

The MINISTER of HEALTH (Sir Kingsley Wood)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

A full Debate on this matter took place last Thursday, at the end of which the Committee gave approval without a Division to the Financial Resolution. I suggest to hon. Members, therefore, that a brief explanation of this Bill may be all that is necessary to-day. I hope that hon. Members who were not present on the last occasion will not think it is any discourtesy on my part that I do not go into this matter at great length. I shall be happy to answer any material question as to the proposals contained in the Bill.

As I have stated, the proposals arise out of the postponement of the second appointed day referred to in the Unemployment Act, 1934. Briefly, they continue the arrangement that was made under the Unemployment (Temporary Provisions) (No. 2) Act, 1935, whereby grants were made from 1st March, 1935, to 30th September, 1935, for the purpose of placing the authorities concerned as nearly as might be in the financial position in which they would have been, had the second appointed day not been postponed. In these circumstances, it is pro- posed that the grants shall be continued for a further period from 1st October, 1935, to 31st March, 1936, or to the date appointed as the second appointed day, whichever be the earlier.

The method of determining the grants will be the same as that provided in the Act of 1935. The annual rate of grant is estimated to be approximately £4,000,000 for England and Wales and about £1,625,000 for Scotland. Under the No. 2 Act, payments of grant have been made on provisional figures obtained from the local authorities for the period of seven months from 1st March to 30th September this year. I have now asked for certified figures to be provided. In the result, the sum has proved favourable for nearly all the local authorities in the country. In the last Debate an hon. Gentleman suggested that on that account there was something wrong with the basis of the fund. I wonder what he would have said if the result had gone the other way.

The basis for calculating grants laid down in the Act will clearly commend itself to the general sense of the House because, on the whole, it has fulfilled the Government's intention that postponement of the second appointed day should not injuriously affect the local authorities. As a matter of fact, the great majority of them will be better off—by a sum of £425,000. There are a few authorities who have lost by this transaction. No county councils have lost, but a few county boroughs lose comparatively small sums and I have already given an undertaking on the discussion of the Financial Resolution, that I am prepared to take steps in those few cases. I therefore ask the House to give us the Bill as soon as possible in order that we may make the necessary payments to the local authorities. I conclude by saying that on the whole the local authorities have done quite well under these arrangements and that the various Associations have expressed themselves as satisfied with them. I claim that, taking the great majority of the local authorities, the effect of the proposals of the Bill is fully to implement the Government's intention that the postponement of the second appointed day should not injuriously affect the local authorities of the country.

4.2 p.m.


The House will remember that when the stand-still arrangement was reached we were promised—it was as near a promise as anything that it is possible for any Minister to give—that the delay would be a question of only a few weeks, or at most a few months. It is now 10 months since that stand-still arrangement was arrived at. The present Government seem to have no greater knowledge of the ending of the stand-still arrangement than had the Government which they have replaced. As the right hon. Gentleman said, there is a provision in the Bill to carry on for a further period beyond that to which they originally wished to carry on. The stand-still arrangement therefore, might be indefinitely postponed. No information has been supplied to the House, nor in replies to letters and deputations that have visited Ministers from various local authorities, as to when the new regulations are likely to be submitted to the House. Consequently we are justified in taking it for granted that Ministers themselves are not aware of the date upon which the regulations are likely to be ready for discussion.

Whatever unction the Minister of Health may take to his soul with regard to the nature of these proposals, there are numbers of authorities who are not as satisfied as the right hon. Gentleman would like the House to believe. He has only to consult his colleague, the Secretary of State for Scotland, to discover that in Scotland at least there are quite a few authorities who are not satisfied, including the authority of the very area which the Secretary for Scotland represents in this House. The City of Glasgow, the second largest city in the Kingdom, has sent innumerable deputations to the Secretary of State for Scotland and to the Minister of Labour, and it sent deputations to the late Minister of Health, and I am certain that the present Minister of Health has had his share of the deputations that have come to London not merely from Scotland but from various parts of England, objecting to the methods by which this Government and the previous Government have made their allocation of grants to the local authorities. It is true that in this Bill there is a date fixed, but it is fixed by a phrase which gives the Government power of extension. Consequently we are correct in assuming that, should certain circumstances arise, the Government can extend the provision in the Bill for an indefinite period.

I suggest to the Minister that it is about time the Government, finished all this shilly-shallying with the unemployed and the local authorities of the country. When the Unemployment Act was being discussed in the House we were assured that the appointed days would cause no inconvenience whatever, that they would be fixed in such a way that the Government would be able to carry on from the dates appointed. Yet there we are in a new Parliament still wondering when the second appointed day is to be fixed, still wondering when Ministers are going to make up their minds, and still wondering when the Unemployment Assistance Board is going to bring forward its new regulations. The people in the country who have to depend on relief are still unaware to what particular body they have to apply, which body is responsible for providing them with money week by week. It is no wonder that the people are asking themselves what sort of Government we have, what sort of individuals compose the Cabinet that rules the nation. Unemployment has broken several Ministers of Labour. I do not know whether it is likely to break the present Minister. It broke the last Minister of Health because of the anxiety it caused him and the large number of deputations that waited upon him and the manner in which they quoted against him speech after speech that he had made in this House and outside, as well as replies made by him to deputations.

I do not know whether the present Minister of Health is going to apply to his task the same diligent methods as he applied to the Post Office, over which he exercised a very efficient control. If he does so, very few of us will have reason to grumble, but when he acts in this way from the very beginning I have my doubts, not of his willingness, but of his ability to carry on properly through the maze of unemployment legislation. I suppose that eventually we shall find ourselves back at the beginning again, and several members of the Assistance Board resigning because the regulations cannot be made applicable to the unemployed under transitional payments. Scotland is to get £1,600,000 and England £4,000,000. The Secretary of State for Scotland has met a number of deputations from Scotland which demanded that larger sums be allocated to Scotland. I should weary the House if I were to quote the figures; they have been submitted to the Government time and time again. Glasgow, a town of larger population than Birmingham, is being asked to contribute more to the Unemployment Assistance Board than Birmingham, but London, with eight times the population of Glasgow, is to pay only £250,000 as against Glasgow's £400,000.

The thing becomes absurd when one goes into all the figures, and realises that the Government, in the speeches of its spokesmen during the passing of the Unemployment Act, told the House and the country that they were going to make the maintenance of the able-bodied unemployed a national concern, that the nation was to bear the cost. Yet when we come finally to the figures we find that the most distressed areas in the country, those hardest hit by unemployment, have to bear more than their share of the burden, that after having borne that burden five, six and even 10 years in some cases, they are being asked to-day to find a larger proportion of the money than are districts which have been least hit by unemployment. We cannot accept lightly the statement made by the Minister of Health this afternoon, that the Government are taking over nationally the maintenance of the unemployed, when he still asks that heavy contributions should be made by the most hardly hit areas.

I have a host of figures here, but I should only weary the House in quoting them. The previous Minister of Health and the Secretary for Scotland have heard our case time and time again. We have met the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Minister of Health and the Secretary for Scotland, and on all occasions the effect of the answer to us has been, "Nothing more can be done. Wait until we have fixed the second appointed day and then everything will be well." Now we have the Measure before us, putting off the second appointed day once more for an indefinite period. A fixed date is in the Bill right enough, but the Government always insert a safe- guard, a funk-hole. If an earlier day can be managed the Government will take that day. That is in the Bill. It was also in the last Bill. The earlier day did not arrive, the later day did not arrive, and a new Bill is now before us to carry the date further on and, if possible, make it indefinite.

I should like to ask the Minister whether he has any information from the Unemployment Assistance Board as to the possibility of the regulations being placed before the House at an early date. The unemployed want to know. They are in an anomalous position. They do not realise their situation. They are between public assistance relief and transitional benefit, and they cannot appreciate to which body they must apply when they want to appeal or when circumstances within their homes demand that they should seek an increase in the scale that they are being paid. As between the Ministry of Labour, the Unemployment Assistance Board, the Unemployment Statutory Committee under Part I of the Unemployment Act, and the public authority which looks after public assistance in the locality, those who are unemployed and have gone out of standard benefit do not know where they stand as regards their relief and the payments made to them.

The Government at the last Election brought forward a report from the Statutory Committee to the effect that, as the fund had a surplus, it was possible to give to the children of the unemployed 1s. extra per child, and the Unemployment Assistance Board some weeks later made practically the same statement. What is the situation to-day? Those who are on unemployment assistance are supposed to have 1s. extra per child, but, in the determinations that are being made locally, they are being told, "Yes, you are getting an increase of 1s. per head per child, but another member of your family is already receiving so much, and consequently, as you are at present receiving the limit of the scale, we cannot give you 1s. per head per child and still carry on the same payments. We will give you the 1s., and, if you have 2s., we shall deduct 2s. from a member of your family; if you have 4s., we shall deduct 4s. from a member of your family." They give the money to the child with one hand and take it away with the other. Surely, this is a most preposterous method of allocating transitional payments.

I have seen determination papers, and have sent them to the Minister of Labour, showing that, where a man with two children is supposed to get 2s. more, the new determination tells him, "We are going to give the children 1s. each, but we are going to assess you—the man, the applicant, the claimant—upon your unemployment benefit, and we find that we can transfer the 2s. from you to the children and bring the whole matter out square. Therefore, we are reducing you by 2s., but are giving 1s. to each of the children." It is the most farcical proceeding that has taken place under any Department. This is not merely a Scottish case. I will give hon. Members opposite the credit for being interested in the unemployed in their areas, and there is no Member in this House that cannot find scores of these cases if he goes down to his constituency and makes it known that he wants to hear from any of his constituents—not necessarily unemployed—who wish to see him on any grievances about which they have to complain. If he does that, he will find scores of cases similar to the ones I have just quoted.

I submit to the Minister of Health, the Minister of Labour and the Secretary of State for Scotland that it is high time they looked into these matters and regulated them in a different way. If an increase is to be given, for heaven's sake let it be an increase. If you are not going to give an increase, do not juggle with figures, do not tell the unemployed man that he is going to have something and at the same time take it away again, and make him wonder whether he is being made a laughing-stock by a Government that ought to know better. While we still hold the same views as we did in regard to the Money Resolution, we have no desire to block the Bill. Since the Government find that they cannot fix the second appointed day at the present time, we are prepared to carry it on a little longer, but for goodness' sake do not let them play with the House much longer, do not let them play with the unemployed much longer. As I pointed out at this Box in the last Parliament 10 months ago, although the Government of that day might consider that the Indian question, which they were then discussing, was the all-important question before the House, the question of unemployment was one which they would have to settle sooner or later, and one which might bring them down. We have found already that a Minister of Labour has had to go elsewhere because of the outcry that was made in the early part of this year against the regulations for which, unfortunately for himself, he was responsible for bringing before the House and which he had to defend here.

I submit to the Government that they had better make up their minds that the Unemployment Assistance Board shall bring forward the regulations at a very early date, so that they may not have to come forward again with another temporary Bill of this character to extend the period once more. Otherwise, we shall wonder what sort of Government it is that we have, so soon after the Election, which carries on its governing of the country by temporary Measures, extending them from six months to six months. People will begin to wonder whether they are being governed on the hire-purchase system, and will think that, if they are, the sooner they get rid of the hire-purchase Government the better.

4.24 p.m.


I was glad to observe from the closing sentences of the hon. Member for Govan (Mr. N. Maclean), that, although he and his friends are critical of this Bill, they do not purpose to carry their objections to the length of voting against it. To that extent I congratulate them on their wisdom, for, however much they may dislike the Bill, it is a very necessary Bill, and if by any chance they were successful in preventing it from passing, they would upset the finances of the whole of the municipal authorities in this country. The hon. Gentleman rather questioned the earlier statement of the Minister that the local authorities were satisfied with the proposals embodied in the Bill. I am glad to be able to assure the House, on the authority of the Association of Municipal Corporations, of which organisation I happen to be a vice-president, that in the main the proposals embodied in the Bill are satisfactory, and satisfactory to the vast majority of the local authorities.


It will be just as well to get this matter cleared up. Like other Members in all parts of the House, I have, during the last 10 months at any rate, been constantly invited to attend conferences held here in London to hear the case put before us by local authorities, and I would like to know if the hon. Member has the authority of Liverpool, for example, for the statement that he is now making to the House?


If the hon. Member had waited until I had finished my speech, he would have found that I was going to refer specifically to Liverpool, but, since he doubts the statement I have made, perhaps I may be permitted to read an extract from a letter which I have received this morning from the Secretary of the Association of Municipal Corporations. He writes: I ought, however, to state that, although this arrangement is satisfactory to the large majority of county boroughs, and, I believe, also county councils, there are some county boroughs who have suffered a loss. That statement is most explicit. The arrangement is satisfactory to the large majority of county boroughs, and, as he believes, also the county councils. I wanted, however, and here I join at once with the hon. Gentleman, to join in a plea for those authorities who are not satisfied with this Measure, and the main purpose of my rising is to make that appeal to the Minister. I should also like to say that I was very glad to observe that, when the Money Resolution was before the House, the Minister gave an undertaking that certain concessions would be made to some authorities. I want to thank him for that undertaking, and to say that the Association of Municipal Corporations also thank him for it. I would add that those authorities who are satisfied with the arrangement are very anxious that those who are not covered by it should receive the consideration which the Minister has promised.

There is another point that I desire to make, and here again I would say that, although the hon. Member for Govan has complained about the delay in fixing the appointed day, it is a fact that, although the appointed day was postponed, the local authorities have received about £400,000 more than they would have received if the appointed day had not been postponed. The local authorities, therefore, as such, have no reason to complain on financial grounds. They are, however, anxious, notwithstanding the fact that there has been some financial gain to them by the postponement of the appointed day, that the appointed day should be fixed as early as possible, and I would ask the Minister if he will bear in mind that request. We all know that he has certain difficulties in his way, and we appreciate that there are occasions when time is an important factor in the solving of difficulties, but in my judgment an extension of time would not help in solving the difficulties in this case, but would rather serve to exaggerate and increase them. Therefore I hope that the Minister and the Government, even with the difficulties that they have, will, as soon as it is convenient and practicable for them to do so, fix the second appointed day, so that there will be no further occasion to come to the House with these temporary Measures, which at all times are distasteful to the House, because the House, as I understand it, does not like to deal piecemeal with legislation. On these grounds I feel sure that the Minister will give consideration to the appeal which I have made.

4.29 p.m.


It is rather refreshing to hear a view of ours endorsed by a supporter of the Government. During the last Parliament, practically every Member on the Government side had something critical to say, and I would like to assure the hon. Gentleman that, whether the municipal corporations of this country are or are not satisfied with the financial arrangements of the Bill, that does not meet our main point against it. Not only does the Bill foreshadow a postponement of the second appointed day until the 31st March next, but the White Paper dealing with the Financial Resolution stated that there was the possibility of a still further extension of these financial provisions. We complain about the delay in fixing the second appointed day. What has caused that delay? It was brought about by the muddle of the late Minister of Labour when he first introduced the Regulations.

There is one class of person about whose position very little has been said recently, and that is the unemployed agricultural labourer. If the second appointed day had been brought in, those unemployed in agriculture would have received the benefit of the Regulations, bad as they are. The treatment meted out to the unemployed agricultural labourer in some districts is far below that meted out to those who are outside the provisions of the Regulations in our larger cities. The Prime Minister last week stated that unemployment insurance for agricultural labourers is likely to be brought in to operate from next winter. What is to happen to them in the meantime? In some districts they are treated shamefully and, if this second appointed day had been brought in, they would have been entitled to the benefit of the Regulations, even though they are not as good as we believe that they ought to be.

The present position cannot be taken as entirely satisfactory. The Minister of Labour last February, in apologising for the Government's failure to bring in adequate Regulations, told the House that under the stand-still arrangement the unemployed would not be worse off. They are worse off to-day in many districts than they were before the Regulations were brought in last February. When the ordinary transitional payments were in operation, certain public assistance committees made it a practice to give not merely an extra allowance at Christmas but a coal allowance for the winter months. The present position is that the Unemployment Assistance Board does not grant that coal allowance and, therefore, the unemployed in those districts are so much worse off than they would have been if the House had never seen the Regulations.

The Parliamentary Secretary in his reply to me to-day did not adequately explain the position. He tried to argue that the Unemployment Assistance Board used that discretionary Clause to deal with what may be termed hard eases. I admit that that discretionary Clause can be used to meet hard cases, but that is not the point that I have in mind. I want to know when we are to get the fulfilment of the promise that the unemployed under the stand-still arrangement shall be no worse off than they were before last February? The House ought to be told the real reason why the second appointed day has been put off. I believe it to be because the Ministry is in a muddle with regard to the regulations. It appears to me to be in this position. If it brings in any worse regulations than the present position, it will meet with the same howls of indignation that it got last February. If it brings in any better regulations it has to find more money, and it does not want to do that. This constant putting off of the appointed day is not treating the House and the country fairly. The House has a right to expect a definite date being put down when the second appointed day will come into operation and, even though we are not going to oppose the Bill, because we recognise that it is an arrangement between the local authorities and the Government, we think that the present situation is unsatisfactory and we hope there will be no unnecessary delay in improving it.

4.36 p.m.


I find the utmost difficulty in following the tortuous phraseology employed by the right hon. Gentleman in dealing with this question of those local authorities, whom I understand him to admit to be worse off under this arrangement than they were before. When so distinguished a member of our profession is so ambiguous as he has been, we are entitled to infer that the ambiguity is not accidental, but is deliberate. I understand that he believes that the arrangements ought to work so as not injuriously to affect any local authority. That, I am certain, is the sense of the House, irrespective of party. I understand the right hon. Gentleman to admit, further, that there are some authorities which have been injuriously affected. It is true that he says there are only a few, and that they are not injuriously affected very much, but the question of the number and of the degree is entirely irrelevant to the principle which I understand him to accept. If there is one local authority that is out of pocket by a single pound, there is a breach of the principle which I understand him to accept as the right principle, "But," says the right hon. Gentleman, "I have given an undertaking," and the hon. Member behind me was very grateful to the Government for this undertaking. But the right hon. Gentleman knows quite well that the undertaking amounts to nothing. Suppose the authorities which have lost, on his own admission, came to consult him professionally as to their claim against the Government for the amount by which they had been injuriously affected, and suppose they produced to him an undertaking in the terms that he gave to the House the other night, would he advise them to be satisfied? Would he on his client's behalf accept an undertaking in those terms, or does he agree with me that any member of our profession who advised a client to accept an undertaking in those terms would be guilty of the grossest professional negligence imaginable and would be entitled, if he lost as the result of accepting that advice, to go to his solicitor and making him personally responsible for every penny of the loss?

The right hon. Gentleman knows that his undertaking was one to examine sympathetically and to do something unspecified which he hoped would satisfy someone unknown. If he meant to give an undertaking which would make it certain that no local authority would be injuriously affected by the postponement of the second appointed day, why does he not give us an explicit undertaking to that effect? He can easily put it right in Committee. There is nothing to prevent his introducing a Clause which will make it clear and beyond cavil that no local authority shall be injuriously affected. If the right hon. Gentleman is right in saying that there are not many such cases, and that the amount by which they are injuriously affected is very slight, he can take the step that I am inviting him to take with great comfort to himself because, if he is right, it will not cost him very much. Or are we to assume that his reluctance to give that undertaking, his reluctance to put it into the Bill, and his reluctance to make certain that we do not lose, is based on his knowledge that the amount of the loss is nothing like so slight as he would wish the House to believe? He knows that the principle for which we are contending is fair and equitable. I have tried to quote it in his own words. The Association of Municipal Authorities is by no means satisfied on this matter.


I do not know why the hon. Member should question the statement which the Secretary of the Municipal Association has made. The hon. Member is new to our proceedings in the House. When a Minister gives an honourable undertaking we know that it will be implemented.


I can assure the hon. Member that I am perfectly prepared to accept an undertaking honourably given by a Minister, but the hon. Member does not seem to be aware what the undertaking was. Let me read it and ask him whether, if he were one of the persons injuriously affected by it, he would be satisfied: If there should then be any cases of local authorities which can properly be said to have suffered as a result of the arrangement, although of course I cannot undertake to give a blank cheque to make good any loss which any local authority may have suffered, I do undertake to examine sympathetically hard cases with a view to making special provision for them in such legislation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th December, 1935; col. 1197, Vol. 307.] He definitely states that, so far from undertaking that he will make it good, he will give no such undertaking. Although of course I cannot undertake to give a blank cheque to make good any loss which any local authority may have suffered. That is the undertaking which he declined to give, and which I am urging him to give, because it is the only undertaking that can implement the principle to which he gave his support in his speech to-day. He said they had tried to see, and would see, that no local authority was injuriously affected. I urge the right hon. Gentleman, if he does not wish to give the undertaking, not to pretend that he is giving an undertaking which he does not wish and does not intend to give. If he thinks that there are a few local authorities here and there which have suffered some small loss which he does not want to make good, let him say that he prefers that some local authorities shall be inequitably treated because the vast majority are satisfied. If he is not prepared to do that and thinks that the satisfaction of the vast majority is no consolation for those local authorities who have, in fact, lost as a result of the operations of the Government, then I urge him not to dilly-dally and shilly-shally about it, but to introduce a Clause on the Committee stage which will put the matter right once and for all.

4.46 p.m.


As far as England is concerned, leaving Scotland out of the case, the present arrangement is generally a satisfactory one. It meets the case of a large majority of borough and county councils. That is an undoubted fact which I am certain, would be supported by the representatives of the different localities, but it is unfortunate that there remain a number of boroughs which for certain reasons well known to the Minister are not satisfied with the present arrangement. I need not go into particulars because they are well known. It is unfortunate, when an arrangement is satisfactory to far the larger part of the country, when cases of hardship are few and when it will not cost very much to put those cases right, that something should not be done. I recognise what the Minister said, and I accept the undertaking so far as it goes, but I should like it to be rather more definite. The cases of Liverpool and of other great towns in the north of England are cases of special hardship, and I believe that the House would be pleased if justice were done to those municipalities who, through no fault of their own, are suffering under the present arrangement.

I would also urge that the appointed day be fixed, as one cannot be satisfied with the present state of things. It is very unsatisfactory that we should have to continue under the provisional arrangement, and I hope that this Bill is the last we shall see putting off the second appointed day, and that before the Bill leaves the House the Government will be able to give the date of the appointed day.

4.49 p.m.


I appeal to the Minister to deal rather more sympathetically with the matter that was last mentioned by the Secretary of State for Scotland the other evening, when, in response to an appeal from the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan), he declined to make a recommendation to local authorities that they should treat people so that the rate of benefit should be assessed in the same way as it was in respect of the people who were assessed by the board. He said that he would not like to make a recommendation which he had no power to enforce, and that perhaps might be a very good reason in Scotland for not doing it, because it may be that local authorities there are less respectful to the Minister than they are in England. Therefore, I would not ask that a recommendation should be made, but I am sure that if in those areas where the difference still exists—and my constituency is one of them—either the Minister of Health in England or the Secretary of State for Scotland were to express regret that that difference still exists, and the hope that the local authorities might find it possible to bring their assessments into line with those made by the board, it would have a very good effect in England.

I hope that before the Bill leaves this House such a statement will be made. It really is deplorable that because of the Bill—it is no fault of the unemployed, no matter who else may be blamed—there should still be differentiation in these instances. It is the desire, I am sure, of everyone in the House, irrespective of the side on which they may sit, that the treatment should be uniform and that that uniformity should be in accordance with the best standard that at present prevails. I appeal to one Minister or the other to make a statement that will encourage local authorities, who at the present time interpret the refusal of the right hon. Gentleman to make a, recommendation as an indication that he does not desire them to mend their ways, and to be more more generous in this matter than they have been hitherto.

4.52 p.m.


The hon. Gentleman below the Gangway implied that we were in favour of this Bill, but he seems to forget that there are conditions obtaining in some burghs and town councils which can only be met on these lines. He must know that if we could defeat this Bill there would be no money for the unemployed. I cannot conceive why an hon. Member should seek to make capital out of a thing like this. His remarks would imply that no one should do anything but himself. I have been on councils ever since this matter began and can say that they have been very active indeed. The Secretary of State for Scotland knows what force has been coming from the West of Scotland. He realises that the gentlemen who have visited him not only understood the subject, but were from day to day handling a very difficult position. When certain local authorities were forced to increase their rates because the Government had failed in their promise, the matter became still more serious, especially when comparison was made between an industrial area where there were large numbers of unemployed and an area which was practically without any unemploy- ment. When these comparisons were made the position became more serious in the minds of those responsible for the industrial areas.

The fixing of the appointed day does not seem to matter very much. I am more troubled as to whether anything is to be carried out or not. Any Government which sought to be honest at all would say to every local authority, "We caused you certain difficulties in making a change in the methods of dealing with unemployment. We know the difficulties you have gone through. You have done well by doing all the work that we should have been doing, and so that you shall not be responsible for the extra expenditure we shall see to it that every penny is made good." That would have been an honourable undertaking. It is not a question of only a few authorities not being pleased. Local authorities know that unless this Bill goes through they will be without money.

Small as the Bill may be, see how unfair it is to many. If there had been a sense of fairness on the part of the Government they would have separated the two questions contained in the Bill. They would have dealt with the one point in a single Clause, and would have left all other matters to be dealt with in another Bill under a general heading. They have mixed the thing up in such a way as to complicate matters. I have been on committees in relation to this matter, both in Scotland and in England, and have seen exactly what takes place. No hon. Members opposite can truly say that the proposal metes out full justice for the work and responsibility undertaken by the local authorities, and I hope that before the Bill leaves this House the Minister will give an assurance that, no matter how few boroughs do not agree, the Government would assume full responsibility financially. It is always the smallest borough or county borough that "gets it in the neck." I would remind the House that it is not always the big and strong man who is in the right, and the Government ought now to give an undertaking that no local authority should be a penny the worse for the work it has done.

4.59 p.m.

The SECRETARY of STATE for SCOTLAND (Sir Godfrey Collins)

It may be for the convenience of the House if I now answer the several points that have been put before the Government on the small Bill presently before the House. Some hon. Members, including the right hon. Gentleman behind me, expressed themselves about the undertaking given by the Minister of Health last week as to considering sympathetically any hard cases. When a bargain is arrived at, as it was between the local authorities and the central Government, there is almost certain to be a number of hard cases arising in the interpretation of it and in the action and practice when the bargain is put into force. The undertaking given by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health is well known to all Members of this House, although I can well understand people in certain parts of the country, whether in England, Wales or Scotland, not being so sure that the Parliamentary undertaking will be implemented to the full. Hon. Members who have been long in this House will know that an undertaking of that sort is implemented to the full.


What is the undertaking?


Hon. Members, I am sure, will agree with me that an undertaking of that kind is always implemented both in the letter and the spirit. In opening the Debate this afternoon my hon. Friend opposite pointed out that the burden borne by the local authorities has been a heavy one and that they had borne it for a long time. The Government during the last year or two have endeavoured to shoulder a large share of the burden. It is true that their plans have not yet come to full fruition, but they have shown an earnest and keen desire to transfer to the Treasury a large share of the burden borne in the past by local authorities. The hon. Member also touched on the question of the Treasury taking over the full maintenance of the unemployed. That was fully debated last week, and I think therefore he will not expect me to go into that in detail. It will be the Government's intention to see that the appointed day is fixed as soon as possible. Many hon. Members in all parts of the House have complained of the delay in fixing the second appointed day and many have asked whether the Government this afternoon can give any definite date for fixing the second appointed day. In regard to that I must fall back on the reply given by the Minister of Labour in October last. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Govan (Mr. Maclean) and other hon. Members have spoken of the anomalies existing to-day. Undoubtedly it is true that anomalies exist, and it is because of these anomalies that the Minister of Labour is anxious to probe the matter to the bottom. I must fall back on the statement he made in October that: In these circumstances, it will not be possible to take any action immediately and I do not anticipate that any alteration can be made in the existing position of the stand-still arrangements before next spring at the earliest."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd October, 1935; col. 2, Vol. 305.]


The anomalies to which I was referring occur every day in regard to such matters as the increased allowance which is given to children. They arise from things which have happened subsequent to that statement of the Minister of Labour.


Undoubtedly there may be anomalies in regard to matters which fall within the discretion of the local authorities. In that case the elected representatives of the ratepayers on the local authorities may take steps if they see fit to rectify them.


These things are being done by the officials of the Unemployment Assistance Board in the various localities where these area officers and their assistants are operating.


That is a matter for the board and it does not arise under the operation of this Bill. Every hon. Member who has spoken has dealt with one or sometimes with two or three of the points I have dealt with, and although I admit I have not covered them fully they have been dealt with before in the House. As this Bill will not place any extra burden on the local authorities, but simply continues the present arrangement, I submit that it is a simple Bill and a Bill in keeping with the past practice of this House, and therefore I commend it to the House.


Will the right hon. Gentleman deal with the point I raised, of cases where local authorities pay a different rate from that given by the board? Will he say that that will end?


I was asked last Thursday to deal with that and I stated quite frankly that I was not in a position to do so. I think the point raised by the hon. Member really falls into two parts. There may be questions which are directly under the control of the Unemployment Assistance Board, and if that is the case they do not come under this Bill. If, on the other hand, they are matters affecting ratepayers and come within the jurisdiction of local authorities, then I suggest to the hon. Member that this is not a proper place in which to discuss them, but that they should be submitted to the elected representatives of the ratepayers.

5.8 p.m.


As has been stated already, the point about which all local authorities are anxious is when there are likely to be settled conditions. We are constantly getting complaints of the heavy burden on the ratepayers. I myself have given a case in which since the children's allowance was increased a member of one family has had his allowance cut down from 14s. to 12s. There were five children in the family in respect of whom an extra 1s. each was paid, but there was a son 22 years of age, and at the same time 2s. was taken off his allowance. That case I brought to the authorities in my borough, and although I have no official information I am inclined to think it has been remedied. The right hon. Gentleman has spoken about tertian boroughs being hard pressed. May I say that I question whether any borough in the country has been more hard pressed than the county borough I represent. I find that on 23rd September there were 8,443 wholly unemployed, and in addition to that we had 4,167 suspended, making a total of 12,610 in a population of just about 72,000. There is also an urban authority in my constituency, and I find that in their area, out of a population of about 9,000, there are 2,187 wholly unemployed men and women, and in addition 1,469 suspended, a total of 3,656. The total figure of unemployment in my constituency is 16,266, out of a population of about 80,000.

In the current year the rates in the borough, which stood at 14s. 9d., have had to be increased chiefly because of the higher cost of unemployment relief. The local authority has had to increase the rates by 4s. 2d. Out of the proceeds of that increased rate £20,000 has had to be spent on relief of unemployment, and the remainder of the rate of 4s. 2d. is accounted for by the necessity of building a new school and other things. An increase in the rates from 14s. 9d. to 18s. 11d. is a very serious matter and we ask that something should be done. The urban authority in my area cannot possibly go on much longer. What the local authority wants to know and what the unemployed want to know is when there are going to be settled conditions. They want to know where they stand, and I hope the Minister will look into the matter and propose as early as possible a fixed date on which conditions will be settled. At the same time I want to press for improved conditions for the unemployed. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to go into this matter and let us know where we stand and when some improvement can be made in the lot of unemployed people.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for To-morrow.—[Lieut.-Colonel Llewellin.]