HC Deb 06 April 1938 vol 334 cc483-8

Postponed Proceedings resumed on Question, That a sum, not exceeding £278,650, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1939, for expenditure in respect of labour and health buildings, Great Britain.

Question again proposed.

11.12 p.m.

Mr. Viant

Large sums of money are mentioned in this Vote, and I should like to know whether the Minister can give a little information concerning certain of them. On a number of occasions in the last two years questions have been raised in connection with the rebuilding and adaptation of buildings for Employment Exchanges. I find on page 16 of the Estimates that there is an expenditure of £16,920 in connection with the exchange at Ashton-under-Lyme; at Bath, £15,650; at Cardiff, £33,250; and from the list I have extracted Manchester £102,000 and Newcastle £93,590. The Committee is entitled to have some information in connection with this expenditure permitting us to appreciate why it is embarked upon. In some cases, I presume, it is the intention of the Department to erect new exchanges and in others that old exchanges are to be rearranged and adapted.

In previous Debates one of the questions that have arisen is that of conveniences in the new exchanges. The Department has said it was a matter for the local authority. I agree that the officials at the exchanges endeavour to meet this point, but in spite of their arranging a rota system for men and women who have to attend to sign the register and to receive their payments there are occasions when persons who have come a long way have to wait at the exchanges. We feel that when new exchanges are built or old ones altered they should be made as much social centres as possible, and provide the necessary conveniences for men and women. In view of the promises made last year I should like to know whether the suggestions then made are to be accepted. At Hounslow there is to be an expenditure of £15,370 on an occasional centre. I should like to know whether we have a centre there already, and whether this expenditure is for its extension or adaptation, or is for a new centre. On page 32 there is an expenditure of £500,000 for the Moss-side Institution of the Board of Control. Is that to be a new building or an extension? In the West End of London there is to be an expenditure of £101,500. Is that for a new exchange, or in connection with an existing exchange, or is it for some special exchange in connection with the industries carried on in the West End? I had intended to raise a number of other points, but in view of the lateness of the hour I will content myself with replies to these.

11.18 p.m.

Mr. Tomlinson

There are one or two questions I should like to ask on these Estimates. On page 14 there is an increase of £580 for rents of Employment Exchanges and other buildings, but I want to draw attention to a saving of £26 in rent on a sub-office in a little place where I live, Rishton, in the Blackburn area. Some time ago, when trade was bad, an office was opened in a schoolroom and was in use for many years. Later, in spite of opposition, the Ministry partially closed that office, so that now it is open for only two days a week. The saving in rent is 10s. a week, but while such a saving may appeal to the Government from the point of view of economy, it has only been effected at the cost of great inconvenience to the people in that little town, who are now compelled to walk 2½ miles, very often, in order to register when they become unemployed. The regular attenders, if I may so call them, attend at the office on Wednesdays.

The Deputy-Chairman

I must point out to the hon. Member that the Office of Works is not responsible for those arrangements. If he wishes to raise such points he must wait for the Vote of the Ministry of Labour. The Office of Works merely acts as an agent to do what is requested. He cannot on this Vote raise the question of whether or not that office should be open.

Mr. Tomlinson

Well, then, may I ask the Office of Works to inquire into the saving of rent in the district I have mentioned? On the question of new buildings, I take it that the Office of Works are acting for the Ministry of Labour and that they will have something to say about the design of these buildings. While we are spending such a large sum of money on new exchanges in various parts of the country I would put in a plea for something of the drabness to be taken away from these buildings. I have in mind an exchange which was built in Farnworth not many years ago. Although the local authority of the town at that time had been taking down old buildings and erecting or re-erecting houses of a pleasing design, yet in a particularly drab part of the township an employment exchange was put up looking like a gaol. If the unemployed are compelled to attend, these places should look less like gaols and more like municipal buildings. I am not complaining about the cost, and I do not think that these places should be elaborate, but the design could be improved without adding to the cost.

I have very little fault to find with the amenities in the exchanges, and particularly so far as the staff are concerned, but when plans are being drawn up for new exchanges, and where it is found necessary that people should stand in queues, some attempt should be made to provide shelters. The question of conveniences ought to be considered also, in the interests of the people who go there. Who is responsible for co-ordination of the duties performed by the Unemployment Assistance Board and the Employment Exchanges? In the district which I first mentioned, people have to go, for unemployment insurance purposes, to the Exchange in Rishton, or, if there is an appeal pending, to Blackburn, whereas for unemployment assistance purposes some people have to go to Accrington. If the work were co-ordinated we might save money on the buildings. I notice in Vote 7 a question relating to the Board of Education and the purchase of a site for £20,000, for the provision of a national training college.

The Deputy-Chairman

That matter does not arise on this Vote.

Mr. Tomlinson

I am sorry. All that is under the Board of Trade.

Mr. Paling

On the matter of removals mentioned on page 24 I should like to know what has happened. The only other point is that on the next page, with regard to training and instructional centres. Is the right hon. Gentleman providing buildings as fast as the policy requires?

11.25 p.m.

The First Commissioner of Works (Sir Philip Sassoon)

In reply to the question of the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Paling), the work at Wombwell for which the sum of £1,000 was voted last year has been deferred. With regard to training centres, we are proceeding as fast as we can with the work required. The hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Tomlinson) raised a matter of which I am not fully seized, but I will certainly look into it and do what I can to obtain the necessary information. The hon. Member raised a point with regard to the design of the buildings which are being put up for Employment Exchanges. The one that he mentioned is, of course, an old building, which was put up some considerable time ago. In the case of the ordinary buildings that are now being put up, every possible care is being taken to make them as seemly and attractive as possible. I myself have taken great interest in this matter, and make a point of seeing every elevation before it goes up. I think it is the general opinion that the buildings that are being put up all over the country are of a type that will be an asset to the appearance of our towns, and everything is done, not only to make them look attractive, but to make them fit in with the surroundings of the particular towns in which they are.

The hon. Member for West Willesden (Mr. Viant) quite rightly takes an interest in the question of shelters and conveniences at Employment Exchanges. He knows the difficulties with which we have been faced in this matter, and I am sure he will be glad that I can give him a definite assurance that, in every case where a new building is put up, there will be a shelter for use in the rush hour or when, perhaps, it is raining and there are more applicants than can be found room for in the building. As regards conveniences, we are putting them into all new buildings except where there is a public convenience close by, and in various places the insured population is small, and where it is not possible at the moment. Our policy is in complete accord with the wishes of the hon. Member, and his advocacy in the past has greatly helped towards the desired end.

He will see that there is a big scheme for an Employment Exchange in the West End of London, the idea being that it should be available for people in trade in that district—needleworkers, theatrical people, film workers and the like, and also domestic servants. Owing to its size, the scheme has been slightly delayed, as we have had to consider the plans very carefully, but we hope to go ahead as soon as we can get the plans settled. At Moss Side there is an extension of the organisation, and I hope that during the next few years we may be able to do what is really essential, namely, to provide accommodation for at least another 700 patients.

In regard to the Hounslow Vocational Centre, which was referred to by the hon. Member for West Willesden, that is an extension to an existing building, and the purpose of it is to train ex-service men in civil life. It is at present under the War Office, and we think it should be put under the Ministry of Labour.

Mr. Graham White

Does the policy in regard to shelters at new exchanges exclude the possibility of erecting them at some of the existing exchanges?

Sir P. Sassoon

No, Sir. We are going to try to put them in, except where it is impossible to do so.

11.32 p.m.

Mr. David Adams

We are very much indebted to the Minister for his observations on the preservation of amenities and the improvement of architectural features in the newer buildings. I have observed in the north of England a distinct change for the better. Rather than having one's spirits depressed by the appearance of these buildings a contrary feeling is created, and that is all to the good. One cannot raise now the question of the elimination of the smoke nuisance in public buildings. On another occasion we may do that. But I know the Minister has that subject well before him. In view of the very substantial increase in the expenditure on new works, and additions this year generally in the report before us, I wonder whether the Minister has postponed, as far as is practicable, any expenditure to a time when employment will be less general than at present. I noticed that, at the instance of the Ministry of Labour, one of the great railways has decided to postpone the expenditure of £2,250,000 to a time when it is anticipated that there may be a considerable amount of unemployment. Is the Office of Works acting in a similar fashion?

Sir P. Sassoon

Yes, Sir; that is so.

Resolved, That a sum, not exceeding £278,650, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1939, for expenditure in respect of labour and health buildings, Great Britain.