HL Deb 04 July 1902 vol 110 cc811-5

Order of the day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, of all the problems we have to deal with in great centres of population in London, next to the great question of housing, I think that which stands most important is that of dealing with the unemployed and endeavouring to bring them and their work together. The Bill which I have to ask your support to this evening endeavours in a very modest manner to facilitate and make easy the providing of work for the unemployed in London. It introduces no new practice, but merely legalises a practice which has been usefully in operation for some years. Between 1889 and 1892, when there was a period of depression, a good many of the London Vestries started labour bureaux, and by means of these bureaux enabled a number of workmen who were out of employment to secure work. When the London Government Act of 1899 was passed the question arose whether the new Borough Councils had the power to apply money from the rates to this purpose, and it was pretty clear that if they did so they would probably be surcharged by the Local Government Board auditor. This Bill will remove the difficulty, and will enable the Borough Councils of London to exercise the same powers with regard to labour bureaux as were exercised by the old Vestries, which they superseded. After the bad times of 1889 and 1892 most of the Vestries dropped their labour bureaux, but even so late as the year 1900 there were still five boroughs in London which retained them — Battersea, Hackney, Islington, St. Martin in the Fields and St. Pancras—and in that year a total of 9724 fresh applications for work were registered in those five boroughs, and 6324 men, or more than two-thirds of the whole of the applicants, obtained employment through their agency. I think it will be admitted that that was very good work, and it was accomplished at very small expense indeed. I find that in the year 1892 the work of the labour bureau in Chelsea was carried on very successfully at a cost of £180. In St. Pancras the total cost of administering the bureau amounted to no more than £2 a week. This Bill does not make it compulsory on the Borough Councils to adopt its provisions. It is left perfectly optional to them to take advantage of the powers given under this Act, or to leave them alone. I may say that the Bill not, only received the support of the Local Government Board in the other House, but was amended at their hands, especially in respect to Clause 3, which defines exactly what a labour bureau is. It may, perhaps, be thought that Boards of Guardians would be more suitable bodies to undertake this work, but I think your Lordships will see that it is far better to keep all questions of the relief of the poor quite separate from the question of assisting unemployed men to get work. If this power is to be given at all, it should be given to the Borough Councils, for they are the direct successors of the Vestries, who had in the past used powers similar to those which it is proposed to sanction by this Bill most successfully, and to the great advantage of the unemployed in London.

Moved That the Bill be now read 2a.— (Lord Tweedmouth.)


My Lords, I think this Bill requires a little more explanation than it has received at the hands of the noble Lord. As I understand from his statement, hitherto, at all events prior to 1892, a good many of the London Vestries carried on a work by means of labour bureaux which appears now to have been illegal.


I beg the noble Lord's pardon. In the case of the Vestries it was perfectly legal, and it was not until the London Government Act of 1899 put the Borough Councils in the place of the Vestries that any doubt as to its legality was raised. I may say the Vestries carried on this work up to the very time that the Borough Councils came into existence, and the object of this Bill is to allow the latter to apply money from the rates for the same purpose.


The question arises whether it is desirable that Borough Councils should continue this practice of maintaining labour bureaux out of the rates. Owing to what I heard yesterday my mind is in a state of very great financial purity, and I must say that so far as my own opinion goes I do not think it is very desirable that the ratepayers' money should be spent in carrying' on these institutions. The cost is small, and I have no doubt that the money for their support could easily be obtained from other sources. I will not move the rejection of the Bill at this moment, but will listen with interest to what other noble Lords may have to say upon it.


There is one circumstance which seems to have escaped notice, and it is that the Local Government Board is not represented here today I do not wish to impugn the noble Lord who may reply for that Department, but when a Bill of this kind is discussed I think it is only right that the Department should be represented first hand. The Bill may be all that is claimed for it or on the other hand, it may merely result in the establishment of institutions which may provide occupation for labour agitators, who have nothing else to do.


My Lords the noble Lord who has just sat down made a more or less direct attack on the Local Government Board for not being represented at first hand when a Bill of this character was being introduced. I hope my explanation will be satisfactory to the noble Lord. The fact of the matter is, Lord Kenyon, who is responsible in this House for the conduct of business on behalf of the Local Government Board, happens to hold the office of Lord-in-Waiting besides, and he is at this moment in attendance on some of the distinguished foreign visitors in the Metropolis. His engagement in that capacity prevents his attendance here today. If this had been a matter of first-class importance I am sure he would have communicated with the noble Lord opposite and asked him to postpone the Bill for a day or so—a request which, with the courtesy which always regulates business in this House, would have been granted. Certainly no intentional discourtesy to the House was intended when I was commissioned by the President of the Local Government Board to state the views of the Government with regard to this Bill. I had hardly thought it would be necessary to say anything at all. The Government see no reason why the practice which was in operation for eight or ten years before the institution of the Borough Councils should not be continued. The figures which were given by the noble Lord opposite prove that these bureaux do accomplish useful work. It is a question between employers and those who act for them whether the class of labour which they get there from may be, without inquiry, always of the best quality; but, at any rate, it seems to me to be of the greatest possible importance that there should be an opportunity given, under the credit of the public authority, to those who, unfortunately, are unemployed, perhaps through no fault of I their own, and who are, in all probability, in need of friendship and a helping hand, to have their want of employment brought to the knowledge of those in a position to employ them. No objection has been raised to the operation of these bureaux in the past and, unless there is something definite to be said against them it seems to me only right that this means of helping men who require assistance should be continued, without any doubt arising as to its legality. I, myself, prefer that institutions of this sort should be under the control of public authorities rather than that they should be conducted for private gain. I think the mere function of bringing workers and employers to gether is one which may fittingly be entrusted to Borough Councils, and, on these grounds, I hope the House will accord the Bill a Second Reading.


Are there not institutions of this kind already supported by private enterprise?


I imagine that the men who would have recourse to these bureaux would be unskilled labourers to whom, perhaps, a small fee would be a complete barrier. Therefore, as the expense is so small, we had better not disturb a system which has worked well for eight or ten years, and which, I do not believe, it was the intention of the Act of 1899 to interfere with.


I desire to explain that the figures I quoted only refer to the remnant of these bureaux which remained in existence in 1900, when the new Borough Councils came into being. The work done by them during the years that were most active was on a very much larger scale.

On Question, agreed to; Bill read 2a (according to order), and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Monday next.