HC Deb 29 May 1936 vol 312 cc2424-37

12.53 p.m.


I was saying that I think it is a terrible thing that a man who is a bachelor or a widower, who has no children, and who has living with him a housekeeper or a sister who performs all the domestic duties, should not at least receive unemployment benefit in respect of that woman. If he goes out side and brings in a woman off the street, and there are children, he immediately secures unemployment benefit, but if he happens to have his sister or a housekeeper living with him, and has no children below school age, he receives no benefit.

There is one other point that I would like the Minister to consider. In these days we hear a great deal, and rightly, about under-feeding, particularly of the children. I would do all that I could to assist any effort that is being made to raise the standard, but I want to-day to raise possibly the most tragic position of all. The most tragic position that I see in my day to day rounds is that of the single woman receiving only 15s. a week unemployment benefit. It seems to me a terrible tragedy in our great industrial towns, especially in the winter, for a single woman, who has little attractive ness left, in her middle age, with very few people who want her, who has lost her nimble fingers and is not wanted in factory life or in a shop, wanting decent clothes and cleanliness and trying to live in a great city on 15s. a week. An hon. Member opposite spoke about handing out public money. I only wish he could see a woman such as I have described living in one of our great industrial towns. You can split the money up as you like and do what you can with the 15s. Make it as mean as you can, it is a human impossibility for a single woman not resident with her parents, but in lodgings, to live on an income of that kind. I earnest' y plead with the Minister that, what ever else is clone, the single woman should be given not less than the single man. We demand equal pay for Civil Servants, and I can never understand why Liu far more human appeal for equal remuneration for the unemployed women is not granted. It is a far more human case than that of the Civil Servants for they at least have a minimum standard.

The delays about which hon. Members have been complaining to-day are doing the Minister no good. These Regulations are not brought in for some reason that no human being can understand. They have been promised to us over and over again and we are entitled to have some decent reason for the delay. I am not going to denounce the means test to-day because it has been denounced on so many previous occasions from these benches. I shall content myself with saying that this problem brooks no delay, and out of common hunmanity the Government ought to deal with it. Hon. Members opposite talk about the difficulty of getting recruits for the Army and every hon. Member on those benches is worried because recruiting is going down. What do you do with the reservist, however? You give him a pension of is. a day and at the end of 13 weeks he gets £4 11s. In the meantime he and his wife have been living on 26s. At the end of the quarter his unemployment pay is stopped because of his pension money. You expect people to join the Army, to fight and go and kill after that treatment. You expect them to go into the one job into which human beings do not want to go and that is how you treat them. If I were in the Army I would rather turn the guns on to those who are responsible for this dastardly conduct than turn them on the so-called invader. It is time that something was clone to deal with this problem and I hope that the Minister will take prompt action to do so.

12.59 p.m.


Everybody in the House has the utmost respect for the views of the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan), for we all agree that he probably knows more about the law and the facts about unemployment insurance than almost anybody in the House. I cannot help thinking that he was a little unjust to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Wing-Commander James), who was speaking of the abuses which undoubtedly exist when he referred to doling out money. When the hon. Member makes the point about Government doles to industry, it is worth while remembering that they were given with a view to affording employment, and it is really one form of that public work for which the Labour party in particular are advocates. I hope that when the Regulations come out they will be more generous in the main than the Standstill Order and the last Regulations, but that the generosity will be based on an in creased discretion. I was impressed by what the hon. Member for North Cumber land (Mr. W. Roberts) said when he reminded the House that we have to keep within the framework of Part II of the Act. I am not certain whether a really satisfactory relief system for our unemployed can ever be run under Part II of the Act. I have never been satisfied on that, and I am not sure that it was not that which caused the right hon. Gentle man who was the last Minister of Labour to take his courageous action in regard to the Standstill Order.

The real point I wanted to make was one that concerns the point raised by the hon. Member for Gorbals. This is not only a question of money; it is a question of the use of money. In setting up the Unemployment Assistance Board we gave them certain duties in the super vision of the use of the relief which was granted. We gave them powers to grant relief in kind in certain circumstances, and I doubt whether many members of any side would say that they were not wise powers. We have now got Boards on both sides. We have a considerable surplus of many agricultural products and foodstuffs, such as herrings, milk, cheese and potatoes. On the other side, we have the Unemployment Assistance Board. I would like to ask the Minister whether, when framing the new Regulations, he will see that the Board take into consideration the need for bringing these two forces together—supply on the one side and a great potential demand on the other. The Bishop Auckland experiment of allowing people to fetch potatoes at a cheap price has been discontinued, but it led to a great increase in the local demand for potatoes: I believe that a great deal of the trouble about mal nutrition which undoubtedly exists is due to the misspending of money and the spending of money on foods that are not really nutritious.


I view the idea which the hon. Member is propounding with a great deal of apprehension. Is it his view that a portion of the unemployment benefit should be taken and that the unemployed should be compelled to take certain kinds of food which the Government supply?


That is not my point. My point is that the depressed areas, where the great proportion of the unemployed are on the means test—about four out of five—should be treated as Special Areas and that the Unemployment Assistance Board should be enabled to set up means of supplying the unemployed, if they want the stuff, at specially cheap rates, even if in many cases it does harm to the local shopkeeper. I think that in those areas the unemployed are entitled to special treatment when they have been out of employment for more than six months. In my opinion, payment in kind is only desirable in cases where it is found that the money is definitely not being spent on food, but on betting or some thing of that sort. It is the well-meaning unemployed man who cannot get work, who needs work and who does not get sufficient to eat, and who perhaps spends his money rather unwisely on the food which he chooses.


They can choose their food as well as the hon. Member and I can.


That is true of many hundreds of them, but it is not true of all of them. If they had a cheap supply of potatoes, herrings, milk and cheese it would be a very great boon to them, it would increase the demand for those commodities and increase the taste for the things which really provide the best nutrition that can be obtained. I do not think my suggestion is entirely without value, and I wish my right hon. Friend could have spoken after me because I would like to have heard what he had to say regarding it.

1.8 p.m.


I do not wish to detain the House for more than a few minutes, but I would like to say a few words regarding the remarks of the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Crossley). I am speaking as a Member who comes from a Special Area; I have lived there all my life, and I am sure the hon. Member for Stretford will pardon me for saying that I regard my own people as the best on earth. I think it is wrong to treat these people as though they were people who had to have charity doled out to them. They are men, women and children who have all the capacity and intelligence to make of life a rich and beautiful thing. What has happened is that they have been caught in this terrible economic depression which has hit South Wales and other areas an economic blizzard which they did not create and for which they are not responsible. They ought to be treated as human beings and not as people to whom charity has to be doled out.


The last thing I would suggest is that we should treat them in that way. My suggestion was rather that, being in a special economic depression, we should apply special measures to those areas.


To speak of special measures is to create in the minds of these people the idea that they are a special sort of people. They are not. They are ordinary human beings, and the Government ought to treat them as such. An hon. Member opposite said that the sting has been taken out of the means test. If that be so, why is there this delay in issuing the regulations? Is it because the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Labour knows perfectly well that the sting is still in the means test that the regulations have not been issued? So far as the delay is due to the fact that the Minister is learning how difficult, I might say how impossible, it would be to apply a household means test without creating injustice, we shall not be sorry for the, delay, because it will mean that the Government are learning a lesson. There is no method of applying the household means test which would not be harsh, which would not be unjust, and which would not break up homes.

An hon. Member opposite said that the Government cannot abolish the means test because it is in the 1924 Act. Are the Government tied by that Act? They know far more about the means test now than they did when, they issued the regulations. I urge the Government to abolish the means test and to raise the scales. In the Unemployment Insurance Act the scales for statutory benefit were deliberately designed as a means of tiding a man over from one job to another, to enable him to maintain himself for two weeks or two months. It has been clearly stated that they were never in tended to be scales which would enable the claimant and his dependants to live upon them. But when the right hon. Gentleman fixes his scales under these regulations, he will fix them for men who have been unemployed for long periods, who have no reserves, whose savings are completely gone, who have very little prospect of work and who are therefore utterly dependent upon the assistance they get from the Board. I urge the Minister not to retain all these restrictions and means tests. Why not fix scales that are based on human needs? Why not increase the scales so that the unemployed will get sufficient benefit to maintain themselves?

There are one or two other points to which I would like to refer. Mention has already been made of the fact that we have just passed through a terribly severe winter, and every hon. Member who sits for a South Wales constituency has had brought to his notice that during the winter, because of its severity, the lack of coal in the houses of unemployed people has been a very serious matter. The consequence has been that, driven by desperation, driven by a cold and cheerless hearth, the men have sometimes stolen threepenny-worth of coal from the sidings that are stocked with thousands, nay millions, of tons of coal. They have been fined 10s. or 20s., and in recent cases some of them have been given two or three months' hard labour. This is creating tremendous feeling in South Wales. These men have spent 20 or 30 years of their life in mining coal, and now, because of the economic depression, when they steal a few lumps of coal they are sent to prison. When the Minister issues his new Regulations, why should he not give a hundredweight or two hundredweights of free coal to every unemployed family? I have already stated the proper way in which this problem should be faced—to increase the scales—but if the Minister cannot do that I would urge him to consider the measure I have just suggested.


When I suggested something of that sort, the hon. Member resented it.


There is a vital difference between bringing food to the house and bringing coal to it. Every housewife in this country likes to buy her own food, and I think the hon. Member would agree they had a right to do that. Another thing I would like to urge upon the Minister is that he should take steps in some way or another to meet the considerable feeling which exists about the way in which the "pots and pans" Clause has been worked. In issuing his new Regulations if he cannot increase the scales, as I think he ought, and thus make all these other things unnecessary, I do suggest that he should deal with this Clause. There are investigators who go into people's homes to find out whether they are in need of the things for which they have applied, and I think the Minister will agree that that is adding insult to injury. The unemployed man's house is made a centre of attraction; the investigator goes up the street, knocks at the door, and says. "This is a person who has made an application, who has applied for new bed-clothes or for household utensils." If there is anything which is driving the unemployed to desperation, it is such things. They are not being treated as human beings.

During the last few weeks in Parliament, we have had a Measure which we regard as a very puny effort to deal with the problem. I urge upon the Government to remember that these Regulations are a problem of the Special Areas and that they affect hardly any other areas. If the Government want to help those areas and their industries, they must re member also that a large percentage of the purchasing power of the people there depends upon what they receive by way of unemployment benefit and assistance. I hope the Minister, if he wants to restore life and vitality in the Special Areas, will listen to the pleas and to the warnings that have been addressed to him. I urge him to take a bold step and to abolish the means test, and to treat the unemployed as human beings. The right and proper way to deal with the unemployed in the new Regulations is to treat them as human beings.

1.16 p.m.


I do not complain of the raising of this subject or of the tone and temper in which it has been raised. I would observe, for the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan), that when suggestions of a cheery nature have been made in recent months about the Spring they have always come from the other side of the House, and not from this side. The use of the phrase "the Spring" in the Election manifesto was a warning to the country of the gravity of this problem, and of its complexity. The Government showed their prevision as to how long we should take before our pledge could be kept to bring the Regulations forward. The phrase was quite plain, and we felt it necessary to warn the electors then not to expect the Regulations soon. We put the phrase in for all those who had to analyse subjects of this great gravity and complexity. It is one thing for a Minister to hope for a result in a month or a week, but it is an entirely different thing to know when a decision will be reached and to be able to fix the date. We said," All those who are fighting the election are en titled to know what is in the mind of the Government on this matter ", and I think that what we did was fair by the electors and to the House of Commons. We said that all concerned with the unemployed might expect the improved arrangements, which were mentioned during the election, by the Spring at the earliest.

I am asked "Why?" The hon. Member for Seaham (Mr. Shinwell), in his very interesting and exhaustive analysis of the questions and answers in the House, has been perfectly plain with the House as to the difficulties of the problem, and I have only one complaint to make about the history of it. The history of this subject did not begin with the Act of 1934. This is not a departmental issue. It is one of the great social issues of our post-War period—indeed, it was a great social issue long before the War, although its magnitude was not then understood because our social services were not developed in a way that brought it to light. Very few people then, except the unemployed themselves, and those who came person ally into contact with them, knew how the unemployed were situated. The wonderful ramifications of our great social services and the extraordinary effect of the Insurance Acts has brought to light things which the nation desires to have brought to light. By 1920 it had become quite clear that the Insurance Acts, which had been ample for the limited purpose for which they were designed, were no longer adequate. Several successive Governments have had to grapple with the problem of how the nation would wish able-bodied men and women who have exhausted their right to unemployment insurance benefit to be dealt with. I am not Vie first Minister to whom has been given the charge of finding an acceptable solution of that great social issue.

I will not recite the long history. First of all we had the unemployed workers' donation, then uncovenanted benefit and later transitional payments. There was shift after shift, and the Act of 1934 was the first drastic, uniform and universal attempt to deal with the subject. I am asked why it has taken us 18 months to come to a decision, and why it has taken me nearly 12 months to face the House. The answer lies, first, in the gravity and complexity of the problem, and, secondly, in the answer to the following question: How can you best make arrangements to maintain a national system based upon the national scale and yet make your arrangements sufficiently flexible to deal with the local variations in need and in practice which are not one year, or two years or 20 years old, but are, in some cases old enough to go back far into history. That question was indicated in the Election manifesto. That is the interesting point in the question of the hon. Member for Seaham as to delay. I assure him and the House that there will be not a minute's delay on my part, although this is only one of the many problems with which a Minister of Labour has to concern himself. No Minister would keep this problem in his mind one second longer than was essential for him to put forward a scheme that would commend itself to Parliament and to the country.

The history of the last 12 months has been very interesting for several reasons, of which the first is that there has been a great deal of objection. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Welling borough (Wing-Commander James) said that at the last Election the means test agitation was not effective. It is true, regarded as a national agitation. In some areas it was effective. I have no doubt whatever than if we were to discuss in confidence with hon. Members opposite the hopes and fears which were entertained before the last Election, I should not be wrong about the hon. Members who are making statements in regard to what happens on this side of the House. I will make a guess. I think I should not be wrong in supposing that hon. Members who hoped that they were going to win the Election on this issue were disappointed with the result. The issue lies there. Those who come from the areas where there is a large number of unemployed should be careful to put their case not in an extremely extravagant way, but in a way which will commend it to the country. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) did not show in his speech his usual logic. He spoke about charity, and he asked us to request the Board to do it in another direction.


My remedy was to raise the scales of the unemployed who purchase all those things, and if that is not possible in the Regulations which are to be issued, I brought the question of coal to the attention of the Minister.


The issue arises, from where is the money for that to come? We have to remember that there must be no injustice to the general taxpayer, including the man who is getting the Board's scales and who should not be asked to pay one penny of his money to those who are not really in need. This is a profound social issue. It cannot be solved in an emotional haze. We have to solve the problem upon a firm basis and to end the various shifts which have been public policy under all Govrenments since 1920. We have to get a. firm basis, and no thoughtful man outside a small section will say that we are entitled to lay down a policy of public assistance to those who have exhausted their right to unemployment insurance benefit with out a test of need. The hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) takes the other view, but I do not think he would say that the majority of the electors share that view. The hon. Member for Ponty-pool (Mr. Jenkins) quoted the powerful plea of Mr. Beverley Nichols with regard to seeing this question in the home. Hon. Members will know that, when I went to South Wales, my face was so well known there that I could not keep my visits as quiet as I should have wished, because I wanted to make discreet inquiries. The hon. Member said that this should be seen in the home, but does not he see that that is one of the things that take time?


The right hon. Gentle man, having been to South Wales and seen the homes there, will agree that their condition was wretched in the ex treme. I want to tell him that that wretched condition still obtains, and has continued ever since his visit.


I did not suggest that there were not wretched conditions, but the idea that the conditions of every one of the people in South Wales are alike is entirely false to my own knowledge of South Wales and of the conditions in the homes of those who are receiving benefit. I went to one particular street in a certain town, not many miles away from the constituency of the hon. Member for Llanelly, where I found a household which included four brothers. Three of them were bringing home earnings of £12 16s. ld., and one young man was drawing 17s. from the Unemployment Assistance Board. In that same street there were men under the regulations, with no resources, drawing the present scale. Are hon. Members going to tell me that, in a household where three brothers are earning £12 16s. ld., the tax payers of the country, including men with no resources in the same street, should be asked, out of the general taxes, to maintain that man when the resources of his home are £12 16s. 1d.?


Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, in attempting to deal with the situation of that man, he is creating hardship for many other families not similarly placed?


The hon. Gentleman need not put that to me. He is making the case for the Minister of Labour and the Government of which he is a member making quite sure that they do the right thing with the minimum of hardship.


I do more. What I intended to imply was that the means test principle is impracticable, however desirable it may be from the standpoint of the Minister.


The answer is that I do not agree at all. A test of need has been the normally accepted rule of public assistance in this country for hundreds of years, and no body of people who have examined the idea of applying a test of need have ever been able to find any other way of doing it than by taking the household as the basis for the test of need. I desire to show the House and the country that there is another side to this matter.

The hon. Member for North Cumber land (Mr. W. Roberts) and his friends below the Gangway, before the last Election, never said that they were not in favour of a test of means; what they said was that they were not in favour of a household test. The hon. Member for North Cumberland said that he had to go away, and, therefore, I put these facts on record for his thought before the next Debate takes place. Let me put two or three questions to those who do not take the view of the hon. Member for Gorbals, that all means tests should be swept away, or the more limited view expressed by the Labour party in their manifesto at the last Election. They did not then urge the abolition of all means tests, but said that they would sweep away the humiliating means test imposed by the 'National' Government"— a very different thing. Let me put a few questions to all who talk about an individual test. It is difficult to attach a real meaning to the suggestion of an individual means test, but let me take the ease of a single man living at home, with a father and brother in work. These are the questions that any hon. Member must ask himself who wishes to satisfy his constituents of his devotion to retrenchment, and who says that he is against a means test. Are the needs of the unemployed applicant to be treated without any reference to the home surroundings in which he lives? Is he to receive the standard rate of benefit or some other fixed rate? Is that fixed rate to be determined without any reference to the differences between the resources of one household and another? If the father in addition becomes unemployed, is the assistance to the unemployed son to remain at the fixed figure, or is the authority to take into account the fact that the father's resources are no longer available in the household? Is the father to be paid a fixed rate, or is that rate to be subject to adjustment if in any respect the position of the son alters? Are savings or capital resources to be taken into account? If so, why should they be the only resources to be taken into account in the case of a test of means? Finally, how can any man or any Minister deal with subterfuges such as the transfer of such resources from the applicant to some other member of the family? It is very simple to say, "I pay my tribute to a test of means, but I do not mean a household means test; I mean art individual means test," without applying one's mind to what that means. I have done my best, with the full assistance of the Board, after a period of analysis and by weighing all kinds of alternatives, to seek actual verification. I have left London myself and gone to area after area, town after town, village after village, and home after home, and any man who will do that with the investigator will know that it is not possible to draw an abstract picture of an unemployed person's home. There is no such thing. There are no two unemployed persons' homes that are alike—


The right hon. Gentleman has stated over and over again that he has paid successive visits to the depressed areas and has conducted investigations. Is he satisfied that the Regulations under the standstill arrangement are working satisfactorily in every case that he investigated?


Certainly not; that is why I am going to ask the House to make improved arrangements. The very fact that the hon. Gentleman puts that question to me is my case to-day. The House and the country have been generous, and no one recognises that more than I do. They have been patient. The very fact that the analysis of the hon. Member for Seaham has shown that in 18 months—six months of my predecessor's period of office and a year of mine—only 32 questions were put by hon. Members on this subject, indicates that hon. Members, while they may not be vocal, are quite aware that this is a grave and complex question, and that no Minister would be justified in going to his colleagues with proposals and bringing them before the House without doing his best to make quite sure that the pledges given during the last Election will be kept as far as it is humanly possible to do so.

I have tried my best at analysis and examination of various suggestions with the Board's local officers to see exactly what the situation is. I shall not hold the decision up. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman says the Spring time. Any Minister who in November could look ahead and say that the problem would not be before the House until Spring at the earliest cannot be charged with short-sightedness. He must have the gift of pre-vision. We shall do our best to solve this problem which has perplexed us for the last 16 years. We shall do it in the terms of the Election manifesto, giving a system which is firm on the one hand and flexible on the other. If any one thinks you can solve the problem by adopting the scales of the most extravagant socialist authorities, that is not a policy that will commend itself to the country as a whole. I cannot give a definite date, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be no undue delay in introducing the Regulations.

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