§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
THE PAYMASTER-GENERAL (THE DUKE OF SUTHERLAND)
My Lords, this Bill arises out of difficulties in Poor Law administration in Scotland consequent upon differences in the Poor Law in Scotland and England. These difficulties were rendered acute by a decision in the Court of Session, in December last, declaring illegal the Poor Law relief which had been provided by parish councils in Scotland to the dependants of 425 the legality of giving relief in Scotland to the dependants of persons involved in the trade dispute was not free from doubt. They decided, however, that, in a dispute equally affecting England and Scotland, it would be administratively impossible to maintain a position under which the dependants of strikers in England could be relieved out of the poor rates, in terms of the judgment in the well-known Merthyr Tydvil case, while similar dependants in Scotland could not be so relieved. It would have been unthinkable, having regard to the legal position in England, that Scottish wives and children should be allowed to suffer physical and possibly mental deterioration through lack of food. The Government had also to consider the maintenance of law and order in the mining communities. A denial to Scottish dependants of what was regarded as a right to English dependants might have had serious consequences. A hungry populace, smarting under a sense of injustice, would continually have been a potential, and possibly an actual, source of danger to property. These considerations and many others led the Government to take the course which they did and the circular which was issued to parish councils in Scotland was, in essentials, similar to that issued at the same time to boards of guardians in England.
Most parish councils acted on the suggestion contained in the Government circular and granted relief to wives and children in cases where acute destitution threatened to cause suffering, and from such investigations as have been made as to the results of the action taken, it would appear that the physical condition of the wives and children has not deteriorated. One effect of the circular was also to secure a much more uniform administration of relief in the different parishes than would have been the case if the circular had not been issued. Parish councils, on the whole, are to be congratulated on the manner in which the relief was administered. Inquiry by officers of the Scottish Board of Health shows that the local administration was carried out with care and discrimination and that all possible means were taken to limit the relief to cases of real destitution. The total expenditure on the relief in question is estimated at £650,000.
426 Before proceeding to describe the details of the Bill, it may be expedient to state briefly the conditions to be fulfilled before a person is entitled to poor relief in Scotland. Prior to 1921 there was no power to give relief to an able-bodied person in Scotland; in other words, before an applicant was qualified for relief he had to be disabled as well as destitute. But in that year, owing to the widespread unemployment with its accompanying distress which emerged after the War, the Government of the day decided that it was necessary to extend the Scottish Poor Law so as to enable relief to be given to the able-bodied as it had been given in England since the time of Queen Elizabeth. The Poor Law Emergency Provisions (Scotland) Act, 1921, was therefore passed and it authorised relief to able-bodied persons who satisfied the parish council that they were "destitute and unable to obtain employment." That Act, as its title signifies, is a temporary Act and has been renewed from time to time.
The provision in the Bill now under consideration which authorises relief being given to the dependants of able-bodied persons involved in a trade dispute, as was pointed out by the Lord Advocate in another place on February 22 last, is really an ancillary part of the 1921 Act, designed to assimilate Scottish law and practice more closely to those which obtain in England. But while this is so, it should be observed that there will still remain very important differences between the Poor Law systems of the two countries and that complete assimilation of the Scottish system with that of England (even if such were desirable) would involve radical changes in the administration and machinery of poor relief in Scotland. There are quite a number of things in Scotland that are so different to the English form that it would be very difficult to assimilate the two forms of relief. For instance, in Scotland the institution of some form of work test and training facilities would be necessary. These are entirely absent in Scotland. At present the Poor Law authorities do not even possess the machinery of the English workhouse and compulsory powers for the detention of inmates, as well as penal provisions, such as are possessed by boards of guardians in England, would be necessary. Moreover, the 427 area of administration in Scotland is still the parish, which is much too small an area for providing effectively for the care and maintenance of the able-bodied poor. Changes of so important a character would, however, he quite inappropriate to a temporary Bill such as that now under consideration, the provisions of which are to expire on May 15, 1930.
Clause 1 legalises the expenditure which, as already mentioned, was incurred on the Government's suggestion and has since been declared by the Courts to be illegal. The clause also provides that relief may lawfully be paid to the destitute dependants of strikers in any further trade disputes that may arise between now and 1930. I know it is often said that this Bill is a very good thing as far as the past is concerned. That has been said to me by several people, who think it ought not to be extended to 1930. I should like to point out to your Lordships that if another strike were to occur between now and 1930 exactly the same position would arise and the parish councils would come once again to the Board of Health and ask for exactly the same advice and assistance as they have had at this time. The reason for making this further provision is that, as previously indicated, the maintenance of a different position in Scotland from that in England could not be justified. The Government feel it to be necessary to bring the laws of the two countries more nearly into line, and they propose that the Scottish law should be amended so as to bring it more into conformity with the English law in this respect. As a further approach towards uniformity in the two countries, the Bill, in Clause 3, empowers a parish council to give relief on loan.
Clause 2 provides for payment out of Exchequer funds of a grant equal to 40 per cent. of the expenditure which was incurred in the provision of relief to miners' dependants during the recent dispute. The parish councils have made representations to the effect that as expenditure was incurred on the Government's recommendation it should be met wholly out of Government funds. The Government cannot agree to accept complete financial responsibility, nor do they agree with the implication in the parish council's representations that the expenditure incurred was wholly due to the Government's action in issuing the 428 circular. In many cases the parish councils merely anticipated by a few days the payment of relief that they would have been bound to give under the law as it at present stands. It has always been recognised in the practice of the Scottish Poor Law that relief to a destitute able-bodied man without other means of subsistence cannot be withheld for more than the few days, or perhaps the few hours, that separate a condition of able-bodiedness from that of disability due to lack of food. Recognising this, the Central Department., so long ago as 1878, advised Scottish Poor Law authorities that in considering the question of disability in the case of a person really destitute the letter of the law should not be carried to an extreme, but that immediate relief should be afforded without waiting for the actual physical disability that would arise from lack of food.
Having regard to the practice which has obtained for nearly half a century therefore, it may confidently be assumed that parish councils, on their own initiative and without any special instructions from the Board of Health, would in many cases have afforded relief to the dependants of men involved in the trade dispute. As a matter of fact, members of a deputation recently received by the Secretary of State for Scotland stated that they would have done so. The expenditure incurred in so doing would have been entirely borne by the local rates. Moreover, in cases where parish councils had not relieved in that way, the physical condition of the children would have compelled education authorities and public health authorities to provide food under their statutory powers to much larger numbers of children than was found to be necessary under the procedure actually adopted in the recent dispute. So far as the education authorities are concerned the whole of their extra expenditure, and so far as the public health authorities are concerned one-half of their extra expenditure, would have been a charge on the local rates.
While His Majesty's Government cannot accept complete financial responsibility, they recognise a moral obligation on their part, owing to their circular and other reasons, to meet a portion of the expense that was incurred on their advice which the Court has subsequently declared 429 to have been incorrect. They also recognise that is is impracticable, by means of retrospective legislation, to recover any of the relief from its recipients in Scotland such as is now being done by boards of guardians in England under their powers of giving relief on loan. In the circumstances, therefore, the Government have decided to make a grant to parish councils equal to 40 per cent. of their expenditure in so far as the same shall he approved by the Board of Health. In arriving at that figure, the Government have had in mind not only the amount of relief that might have had to be given by parish councils in any event, but also the fact that by obtaining the grant, which is partly to compensate them for having had no power to give any of the relief on loans, the councils will be saved the expense and delay of recovering loans by small amounts spread over considerable periods.
Clause 3 confers on parish councils a power to give relief on loan in cases where they so direct, one object of this being to maintain to some extent at least the personal liability of the head of the household for the maintenance of his dependants and also to protect, as far as possible the interests of the ratepayers. Under the clause as it stands, that discretionary power may be exercised in respect of any relief which parish councils may give, including relief to the non-able-bodied poor under the Poor Law Act, 1845, but the Government propose to put down an Amendment to limit the exercise of the discretion in the case of relief under the 1845 Act to cases where relief is originally given either under the 1921 Act or under the Bill and where, owing to a change in circumstances, the case may develop into one where relief is, or could be, given under the Act of 1845.
This limited application to ordinary poor relief is necessary to avoid administrative difficulties which would arise through the case falling now under one and then under another of the Statutory provisions. The procedure for the recovery of relief on loan will be the same as for the recovery of an ordinary debt. For instance, if we were to cut out from this clause the power to give relief on loan under the 1845 Act, administrative difficulties would arise in this way. A man in receipt of relief which had been 430 given on loan under the 1921 Act becomes disabled, firstly, by sickness. Therefore he would be a proper object of relief under the 1845 Act. On his recovery, still being unemployed, he would again come under the 1921 Act. These changes from the 1921 Act to the 1845 Act, or these cases of "ins" and "outs" as they may be called, would be a source of great administrative trouble to parish councils. It is for this reason that we are not able to exclude the 1845 Act altogether.
I come now to Clause 4 of the Bill. On account of the continuance of trade depression, it is necessary to extend for a further period the Poor Law Emergency Provisions Act of 1921, which expires normally on May 15 next. It is proposed to continue it until May 15, 1930, without amendment, except as regards the power to give relief on loan which has already been referred to. Clause 4 further provides that the Bill now under consideration will also continue in force until that date. They are thus both temporary measures. The provisions which they contain will have to be reconsidered before 1930 and dealt with as part of the general question of reform of the Scottish Poor Law. It is the definite intention of His Majesty's Government to reform the Scottish Poor Law within a very short time. The relief that is now being legalised has been given by parish councils in the past by different humbugging methods and by getting round things in various ways. Therefore the Bill only legalises what has been going on for a very considerable time. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Duke of Sutherland.)
§ THE DUKE OF BUCCLEUCH, who had given Notice to move, That the Bill be read 28 this day six months, said: My Lords, in putting forward this Amendment I do so with the knowledge that this House is disinclined to reject any measure brought in by His Majesty's Government. There is, however, such a very strong feeling, not only about the Bill itself but as to the way in which it has been brought in and the way parish councils and other authorities have been treated over it, that I am bound to make some strong protest on this Motion for the Second Reading. So far as I could understand 431 my noble friend's case for the Bill, it was very much the same as the case made by the Lord Advocate in the House of Commons. Though I quite admit that he has made a good case for a Bill I do not think he has made a case for this Bill.
§ What happened? My noble friend said that under the instructions of the Government the Board of Health issued Regulations very similar to those issued by the English Ministry of Health. To that extent the Board of Health is responsible. But although the Board of Health is not either very efficient nor very economical—I think it is generally recognised that to carry out its duties properly it requires thorough reorganisation—of course responsibility for this does not rest entirely with the Board of Health, but with the Scottish Office and the Government. Obviously such a very large question has to be made a matter of Government policy and it would not be fair or just to criticise the action of any particular Department or Sub-Department. Is this Bill really necessary? It is necessary as regards condoning or whitewashing illegalities committed by His Majesty's Government, but is it necessary that by this Bill the Poor Law of Scotland should be fundamentally altered without any discussion and without any investigation, when, as my noble friend has just said, the whole question of the Poor Law is going to be dealt with by the Government in a short time?
§ Now, as regards this illegality, a great deal has been made of the case which was brought before the Courts, but I cannot help thinking that the Law Officers of the Government could not have been by any means astonished at the result of the case, and that their opinion even at the beginning was that the relief given was illegal. I do not think we have had any definite pronouncement on that and it would be of interest to know whether the Law Officers said at the time that they considered the relief given was legal. There is another thing which I think the Government might have done. There was great delay in taking this case. I am not acquainted with legal procedure, but I am under the impression that if the Government had liked they could have had this case tried very much earlier, possibly in time to have had legislation during the autumn sittings. 432 But over and above that there is another point, which my noble friend has not mentioned. It is perfectly well known throughout Scotland that whether the relief given was excessive or not—I not wish to enter into that—it was, anyhow, more than the parish councils could pay under the law, apart altogether from the question whether the giving of relief was legal.
I believe I am right in saying that the law as regards parish councils is this. Section 89 of the Act of 1845 says:—
And be it enacted, that if the parochial board of any parish or combination shall find it necessary in any year or half-year to make disbursements for the relief of the poor beyond the amount received of the assessment applicable to the expenditure of such year or half-year, it shall be competent for such board to borrow money on the security of such part of the assessment as is still due and unreceived, but not to an amount greater than one-half of such part of such assessment; and when any money has been so borrowed as aforesaid on the security of assessments, it shall not be competent to borrow on the security of any future assessment until the money borrowed as aforesaid shall have been paid off.
I shall be contradicted if I am wrong, but I know of many cases in the month of August where these parish councils had come to the end of their resources, had no more security to give and were accordingly unable to borrow money. I venture to say that this was quite well known to the Board of Health and, I presume, to His Majesty's Government in the month of August, but they still went on. They might have remedied the trouble in the autumn sittings, but they did nothing and continued this illegality. Although the councils had no security for borrowing from the ordinary sources, some money, I gather, was provided from what I believe is called the Goschen Fund. I am afraid that I am so ignorant that I do not know what that Fund is, but perhaps the representative of the Government will inform your Lordships how this money was obtained and on what authority it was paid. I maintain that, even if this case had gone the other way, it would in many instances have made very little difference, and I am not sure whether this Bill, even if it is passed, will meet that point.
§ Another question that arises is how far the Government of the day are justified in breaking the law. If any ordinary 433 individual breaks the law he is liable to be prosecuted and either fined or imprisoned, but apparently, if His Majesty's Government breaks the law, they have only to come to Parliament afterwards to be effectually whitewashed and told that they have performed a most patriotic action. I think there ought to be some kind of check on these proceedings, and I maintain, with regard to this Bill, that the Government should have either brought forward proposals to legalise the position in the Autumn or, if they could not get such proposals through then, they should have introduced a Bill or made proposals which could have been considered by the authorities in Scotland and thoroughly discussed by them during the Recess. I do not wish to criticise this relief or the manner in which it was given, nor to argue whether too much was given or too little, or anything of that kind, but I do want to criticise the action a the Government and the way in which it has treated Scotland in this matter. I do not think that the Government quite realise what very strong feeling there is throughout the country.
§ What happened? Everybody thought that there would be a Bill to legalise the position in one way or another, but the Second Reading of this Bill was moved in the House of Commons only twenty-four hours after people in Scotland knew of the contents of three-quarters of it. It is true that your Lordships have not much power in regard to such Bills as this, but these rating authorities and parish councils have certainly been very badly treated. Surely there might have been some conference, consultation or inquiry. It Must be remembered that many people consider that the Scottish Poor Law at the present time is superior to the English Poor Law, and they also maintain that up to the present, in spite of this Bill, they have been able, under the Scottish Poor Law, to deal adequately with all these cases without any starvation or great hardship resulting. That point may be argued on one side or the other, but such is the contention of a very large number of people. But it is now proposed to make the Scottish Poor Law the same as the English Poor Law at the very time when the Minister of Health in England is suspending boards 434 of guardians and showing the great abuses and wrongs that attend the English Poor Law. Is it not astonishing that such a moment should be chosen for bringing in this proposal, for which I believe I am right in saying that there has not been a single request from any local body or any other source in Scotland? My noble friend seems to think that we are going to have another strike of equal magnitude in a very short time. I sincerely hope that he is wrong and that it is not really necessary to continue this arrangement for another three years.
§ There is another point to which I should like to draw attention. We all knew to our cost that the coal strike was probably coming on months before the Government gave the subsidy. The Government had all this time for consideration, but apparently they were unable to frame any policy or to make up their minds, and so they appointed a Commission to make up their minds for them, in order to avoid as far as possible the onus of any action that they took. But in this case, where there is no particular hurry and they are proposing to alter the whole of the Poor Law, they rush away and bring in a Bill fundamentally changing the Poor Law of Scotland, which has lasted, with some modifications, since 1845. My noble friend says that the arrangement is only temporary, but really that is the weakest part of the Government's argument. The Bill is nominally to last until 1930, but your Lordships know what happens in cases of this kind, and no one supposes that, if this Bill is passed now, it will be allowed to drop in the year 1930.
§ There is another point that your Lordships must consider, bearing in mind the large number of protests that, I am told, have come from parish councils as to the effect that this Bill will have in raising rates. I should like to give two examples of how rates are affected. The first comes from Messrs. David Colville and Sons, Limited, very well-known steel-makers in Scotland. The rates per ton of steel in 1901 to 1913 were 3d.; in 1914 to 1917 they averaged 5½d.; in 1921 they amounted to 3s.; 11¼d.; and in 1926 they were 3s. 5d. Between those years there was a slight drop, and in the year 1923 they went down to 1s. 5½d.; but even that is a very 435 serious burden compared with the 3d. of the pre-War years.
§ Let me give some figures from the same firm regarding their costs. Taking the same amount of output in pre-War years and in 1925, workmen's compensation and national insurance accounted for £1,158 before the War and £13,118 in 1925. Rates were, before the War, £2,414 and in 1925, £15,901. Wages for the same periods came to £217,850 before the War and £450,262 in 1925. So that, whereas the wages had a little more than doubled, the rates were seven times as much and the workmen's compensation and national insurance charges about twelve times or very nearly. If that goes on it does not matter whether we have strikes or not. The whole of the industries of the country are going to be burst up, and so far as I can see the only possible result of the Bill will be to make parish councils less careful how they handle the rates, because they will have great powers to waste money. My argument is that no one has asked for this Bill and it is unfair to make a great fundamental change in the Poor Law in Scotland without ascertaining the views of the authorities who have to deal with this question. I hope, although I suppose it is a vain hope, that the Government will either accept my Amendment or withdraw this Bill or portions of it, or will agree in Committee to restrict the period of its operation to one year or at the very outside two years. I beg to move.
Leave out ("now") and at the end of the Motion insert ("this day six months").—(The Duke of Buccleuch.)
§ VISCOUNT YOUNGER OF LECKIE
My Lords, this Bill is described, as the noble Duke has said, as an emergency measure, and in so far as it deals with the difficulties which arose in 1926 it is a correct description of the Bill. But the Bill goes a great deal further. It is, I think, quite justifiable that the Government should have brought in an Indemnity Bill to excuse and cover the illegality in which they instructed parish councils to indulge during the coal strike. I think it has always been understood—I do not go quite so far as the noble Duke in his criticisms of that—that in an emergency of a national or very grave character Governments are entitled to break the 436 law and trust for protection to getting an indemnity Act passed by Parliament.
The position in Scotland was made very difficult for the Secretary of State. I think he had a very difficult part to play. He found on his side of the border very great restrictions as compared with the laws which were being administered by guardians in England, and no doubt he had to have regard to public order, which in some parts of Scotland, I dare say, might have proved to be very seriously invaded. On the whole, I think he was quite justified in taking the action he did and that he is entitled not only to an indemnity of some sort but to the thanks of parish councils in Scotland for having extracted 40 per cent. from the British Government. I can imagine the difficulty which he experienced, especially having regard to the state of the Exchequer. In the past strikes and such occurrences have been dealt with under the ordinary law, which was sufficient for the purpose, but all the same I do not think it would have been quite fair to criticise the action taken and I think we ought to be satisfied—I believe most people are—with the part which the Government played in the matter.
I have no serious objection to make to the haste with which the Bill was treated, so far as it deals with the emergency created last year, but I do protest strongly against an Emergency Bill being used in order, not to deal with the emergency question alone, but entirely to change the Poor Law of Scotland. I think it is quite improper that anything but the actual emergency should have been dealt with by the Bill. The Poor Law of Scotland should remain as it is until careful consideration has been given to the whole question and some justification is shown for making the alteration which is now proposed. That is my objection to the measure. I have no other objection to offer, and I hope that in Committee the Government may be willing to restrict the measure, and not extend its operation until 1930. I agree entirely with the noble Duke as to what is likely to be the case then. We should probably get this Bill extended, and the haste with which this Bill has been brought forward and pushed through the other House is surely in itself a reason for objecting to this very great principle being embodied in the measure. I cannot think it fair 437 that that should be the case, and I hope that we shall see some Amendment.
Public opinion in Scotland is very excited about the matter. One's letter box is absolutely full of protests from parish councils, chambers of commerce, and other bodies, and I think that some regard should be paid to that state of feeling. After all, there is the Expiring Laws Continuance Act, passed each year to deal with expiring laws, and if the necessity arose to continue this measure it could be dome by means of that Act. That is quite sufficient protection against anything which is likely to happen in the future. I hope and trust that no serious emergency such as happened last year will again arise, but if it should, I think the Government would be very likely to perform the same illegal act as they performed last year, notwithstanding the Constable judgment. They knew quite well that their action was illegal, but I have no doubt that in such an emergency they would have as little difficulty in breaking the law again as they had last year.
But I do not know how the money is going to be procured if there should be another disastrous strike between now and 1930. It certainly will not come from the banks in Scotland. The banks had a very good fright last year, and they will be sure to refuse to give anything more. They are not in a position to tie up their money for years in a transaction of this kind. They require their money to finance industry and commerce, and will not be prepared to tie it up and get a slow return over a period of years. Where, therefore, is the money to be got? It can only be got from the Government—from this Goschen Fund, whatever it is. We have heard about the Land of Goshen, and I hope that this Fund is of a similar character. It will require to be pretty large to meet the obligations which it will have to discharge, and I hope that when the noble Lord replies he will tell us what this Goschen Fund is, what it amounts to, and how it will be chargeable. I am quite certain that the money will not be got from the banks, and that the Government will have the responsibility of financing any loans of the character described.
Loans are better, no doubt, than grants. The honest man will endeavour to pay back anything he borrows, but 438 there are many people who will accept a loan without the smallest intention of repaying, and will never think that there is any necessity for doing so. I understand that in some cases in England these loans have been repaid. Probably it has been a very great hardship to the men to have to do it just after a long strike, but I doubt very much whether that is not creating a very great deal of trouble now in England. I am told there is very grave objection, very grave discontent, at the pressure put upon these people to repay these loans, and I should be sorry to see the same thing happening in Scotland. I hope, therefore, that the Government will be asked to restrict this Bill to the particular emergency with which we are asked to deal.
I do not think it is proper to extend this period of emergency to 1920. There are plenty of ways of extending the operation of the Bill, if necessary. And there is another thing. We are promised that our Poor Law is going to be looked into, and probably to be changed. Let us leave an incentive to the Government to do it. If you limit this Bill to a proper period over which this emergency has to be dealt with, you can always keep at the Government and see that they fulfil their promise to go into the whole question and to put the Poor Law into whatever form they think desirable. Without that incentive I am perfectly sure, knowing the very leisurely way in which Governments act in these matters, that it will be a very long time before we see the Bill to alter the Poor Law of Scotland. I hope, in Committee, to reopen this question of the Bill lasting till 1930 and I trust the House will support an Amendment on that particular point.
§ VISCOUNT NOVAR
My Lords, like my noble friend who has just sat down I do not share the anxiety of the noble Duke that we should place ourselves in the position of being able to finance another strike in just the same way as the last, but I feel obliged to support my noble friend who moved the Amendment in the protest he hams made against this sudden and insufficiently considered revolution in our Scottish Poor Law system with which we are threatened. Scottish opinion was much perturbed during the strike by the action of the Board of Health in directing local authorities to disregard and set aside Statutory 439 Regulations in the distribution of relief. Such action necessarily shakes public confidence in the stability of the law, and creates a dangerous precedent, which would seem to authorise a Department to suspend statutes at any time on the plea of their inconvenience or inconveniences.
I appreciate the difficulties in which the Government were placed, or had perhaps placed themselves by their commitments, and I should not have criticised any course the Government might have pursued to extricate themselves and the Department from the difficulty in which they were placed by the judgment of the Court, so long as that course dealt with the emergency alone, that it was retrospective, not prospective. But this Bill is not limited to dealing with the compromise in the past, it compromises the future. It abolishes—for that is what it comes to—the foundation principle of the Scottish Poor Law system, which aims at maintaining as far as possible the spirit of thrift, independence, and self-reliance for which the Scottish people have hitherto had a name. The laws and customs of a country are closely connected with its national character, of which they are the expression, and therefore those of other countries are not so acceptable as those which a race evolves for itself. Yet in one short afternoon, without consultation or adequate discussion, Scotland is to be bereft of the remnants of her old system, and fitted out with the alien Poor Law of England. No doubt the Government feel that in this dwindling Kingdom, with expanding responsibilities, it is sound policy to encourage unity and eliminate all divergence in law and administration, but at any rate let us level up, not down.
Why force on Scotland a Poor Law system which is admittedly unsatisfactory and under sentence of reform? There may be English institutions that we should do well to adopt, but in this instance I would adapt the saying of Wellington with respect to the zeal of the French Republic in copying and adopting this very same measure: They have tumbled on the worst step England ever took—maintaining able-bodied men at the public expense. Moreover, this great change is proposed because forty-five Scottish parishes out of approximately 900 were affected by the strike, and spent large sums on relief. Therefore the other 440 850 parishes are to be forced to change their custom and provide relief for a class of person hitherto outside their purview.
It must also be remembered that this Bill does not stand alone, and must be taken in conjunction with preceding Acts, which first tinkered with our Poor Law by admitting the able-bodied to relief as a temporary device, transformed the parish councils into purely spending bodies, with no responsibility for rating, gave large powers of granting relief to education authorities, and established other relieving agencies in the shape of welfare centres—all of which during the strike were actively engaged in providing different forms of relief at the expense of the ratepayers. Undoubtedly the lavish nature of the relief given in many cases prolonged the strike, and must be regarded as a direct subsidy paid to the trade union to enable it to sustain the conflict. And that subsidy comes, in the case of a localised industry like mining, from a mere handful of the population, who, much against their will, are forced to give financial support to one party in a contest which is ruining the whole country and themselves.
In a good many parishes relief was given upon the grand scale, and if the sluice gates of such relief are to be thrown permanently open it would surely be wise to take note of the recommendation of the Blanesburgh Commission with regard to unemployment insurance, to insist on some provision limiting the amount of relief so that it may not exceed the ordinary wage of the unskilled workman, and as an additional safeguard—and this is even more important—to abrogate all Regulations enforcing compounding of rates, so that all members of the community may feel and understand their incidence. The recent disclosure of the conspiracy against the ratepayers in Chester-le-Street sufficiently exposes the need to mitigate these unhappy tendencies. The pill we have perforce to swallow is gilded with promises of a revision, but you cannot revive what is dead. This Bill finally kills the Scottish Poor Law system and you cannot resuscitate it. Besides, we all know by bitter experience that there is no turning back once you enter the broad and flowery road of public beneficence. Therefore I regret that Scotland should 441 be asked to do that instead of taking her own straight and narrow way.
§ VISCOUNT HALDANE
My Lords, the vigorous speech of the noble Viscount who has just sat down has been the most Conservative of the three speeches against the Bill to which we have listened. The Conservatism is not the Conservatism of the present Government, which is a much modified Conservatism, but is a Conservatism which induced all three of the speakers to protest against the fundamental principle of the Bill. I do not speak without some sympathy for them. There is no greater delusion in this country than that the landlord, particularly the agricultural landlord, is a rich man who can bear being farther taxed. He has become a very poor man. I doubt whether he gets on an average one per cent, net out of his property, and therefore it is hard when he has to bear more burdens. But then they are burdens incident to his ownership of the land and some of them, at all events, he has to meet as best he can by borrowing or by taking from the Government or in some other way. In these circumstances I could not help feeling that no one of the three noble Lords who have spoken in opposition to this Bill had quite appreciated the difficult position in which the Government are.
It is all very well to talk of an illegality, of a decision of the Court against them, as if that made the law perfectly distinct and clear. There are plenty of decisions of the Court which have to be accepted and which are clear after they have been delivered that are not at all clear before they have been expressed by the Judges, and in Scotland we have been without the guiding light that has been in front of those who have to do with the Poor Law in England. The Merthyr Tydvil case, as it is called, laid down some years ago quite distinctly what the position of the Poor Law authorities in England is, but we had nothing of the kind in Scotland. What was the position? There came a calamitous strike, a strike of unexpected duration, which imposed an enormous burden upon the local authorities who had to raise the money to deal with it out of the rates. It is all very well to say that in Scotland it was not the principle to relieve the able-bodied poor, or, indeed, to relieve people 442 outside the workhouse. That was quite true, but it is a truth which has been cut into under the influence of a growing public opinion and the changes which this Bill embodies and which other measures of the kind show forth, are changes which are made in response to a growing public opinion that insists that burdens shall be more equally distributed than they have been in the past.
I ask the three noble Lords who have spoken, what would they do? Would they leave things alone? No; they do not quite go so far as to say that, but they say: "Reform the Poor Law of Scotland generally." I want to see the Poor Law of Scotland taken in hand, I want to see the Bill for it, but I have not the slightest idea as to anything which the Government may propose to deal with the matter. It was said by the noble Duke who introduced the Bill that the Government proposed to deal with the Scottish Poor Law comprehensively. I am glad to hear it, but I would like to know when and whether we may expect it within the limits of tins Parliament. Perhaps it is like the reform of this House, one of those things which may come some day, but as to which it is not possible to assign any definite day. At any rate, I am clear that it is no remedy for the present situation to ask us to wait for the reform of the Scottish Poor Law as a whole. If that be so, what Bill other than a Bill something like this could the Government propose? Take the substance of this Bill. It is this. The Courts have decided that local authorities have exceeded their powers in granting relief, not to able-bodied persons but to the destitute dependants of able-bodied persons rendered so by the strike. Could the Poor Law authorities have allowed these people to starve?
§ VISCOUNT YOUNGER OF LECKIE
No, no, they would not. They would have made provision under the actual law as they did in other conflicts.
§ VISCOUNT HALDANE
But they have no power to give relief to the dependants of able-bodied persons unless they come into the poor house. If the noble Viscount would explain what the provisions of the Scottish Law are under which he supposes this problem could have been solved we shall be very much enlightened. The 443 essence of the Bill is that there was no such power and that the Poor Law authorities, under advice from the Government, committed an illegality which, I believe, was unavoidable in the circumstances. The Government directed them to do something for these people and, that being so, how is it supposed that the local authorities are to recoup themselves for what they spent? The noble Lord who sits opposite said, not through the banks, because the banks have had enough of them. I do not doubt that the banks were very well advised in drawing the line where they did. But if not the banks, we are driven back to the public Exchequer and 40 per cent, is to be furnished for them from the public Exchequer. I regret that it should have to do so. I am always sorry to see anything paid out of the public Exchequer in these days, but when I take the greater necessity, then I do not see to what other source it was possible for the authorities to look.
It is all very well to say this ought to have been a purely temporary Bill, limited to the emergency, but is it certain that there will be no other emergency to provide for before the year 1930? I earnestly hope there will be no further emergency, but I do not know. You have left the miners' question in a totally unsettled condition. I hope there will be no more difficulties, but we cannot be sure of that. Or there may be other difficulties and to leave these local authorities without any power to deal with the situation which at least is possible would not seem to me to be wise. Whether this is the best form in which the Bill could have been put or not is a matter on which I do not pronounce, because I have not the technical knowledge which I feel I ought to have in forming a judgment, but on the whole I am disposed to think your Lordships' best course is to let the Bill go through and to take it as a measure dealing with a situation which unfortunately has arisen and which undoubtedly has to be provided for.
§ LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM
My Lords, I am not surprised that the noble Viscount is in favour of the Bill, because it takes 40 per cent, out of my pocket and the pockets of other Englishmen and puts it into the pockets of the noble Viscount and Scottish people generally. That may be a very good thing, but it is 444 naturally a thing that does not appeal to the people who have to pay. My noble friend below me (Viscount Younger of Leckie) said he was satisfied. I am rather surprised at his moderation. I wonder he did not ask for the whole 100 per cent, to be put upon the English taxpayer and nothing put upon the Scottish taxpayer. Knowing Scotsmen as I do, I presume I must congratulate myself upon having to pay only 40 per cent, of the cost of the mistake made by the Scottish Office. The noble Viscount opposite asks where is the money coming from. Why should it not come from the Scottish rates? Why not impose more rates on Scotland to make up for the mistake they have made? Why should I pay for a mistake made by the Scottish Office?
Then I am told we are going to alter the Scottish law to make it conform to the English law. I have been something like 35 years in one or other House of Parliament. I have often been told that the English law must be altered to conform to the Scottish law, because the Scottish law was good and the English law was bad, but I have never yet been told that the Scottish law must be altered to conform to the English law. I am rather inclined to think after the speeches which I have heard to-day that my original idea, when I said to myself "I must not oppose the English law being altered to conform to the Scottish law because the Scottish are such superior people," was right, and that the Scottish law in this case is infinitely better than the English law. I do not want to go into the question of whether or not it is advisable to subsidise trade unions out of the rates, because that is really what it is and nothing else. It is against all the old principles of the English Poor Law as it was altered in 1834—I think that was the date, or somewhere about that time. If we are going to alter it I think we should not alter it until we have thoroughly considered the whole question.
Although I quite admit that, the Government having made a mistake, it would be a little hard to expect the people who have been misled by the Government to pay, I should have thought that the proper course would have been to bring in a Bill indemnifying the parish councils who have committed an illegal action and 445 to have stopped there. I do not see why on earth we should alter the Scottish law, which is apparently a good law, to conform to the English law, which is said to be going to be altered shortly and which has been administered lately in a way which certainly does not commend itself to a very large number of the English ratepayers. It is said that this Bill is only to last until May, 1930. As the noble Duke said, we know perfectly well that that provision is useless. When May, 1930, comes we might have the noble Viscount opposite in office—which I am afraid is not unlikely if the Government do not mend their ways—and if we had, is it likely that the noble Viscount would make a change unless it was to put some fresh burden upon England? It is very unlikely.
And even supposing we are fortunate enough to have a Conservative Government in office in 1930, are they likely to alter it? Have they ever altered the Rent Restrictions Act or any of the other Acts passed during the War which we were told would only last for the duration of the War? They have all been continued because the Government have been afraid to do anything which might lose a vote in the country. In these circumstances I sincerely trust that the noble Duke will move during the Committee stage to leave out May, 1930, and insert May, 7927. The result of that would be to indemnify the parish councils who have been misled while it would not alter a good sound law in Scotland, and would give the Government the opportunity or considering an alteration of the English law which I hope would be in the direction of making it similar to the Scottish law.
LORD BALFOUR OF BURLEIGH
My Lords, so far this afternoon we are in the rather curious position of having had from this side of the House four speeches which seemed in opposition to the Bill and from the other side one speech apparently in support of the Government. For that reason I do not want to allow the debate to close without lifting up one voice from this side in support of the Government's proposal. A great deal of confusion was caused last year by the difference in the law between England and Scotland. The Government found it necessary to issue the circular which they did and the general opinion appears to be that it is 446 necessary to pass an Act of Indemnity to make legal what was done. The question is whether or not it should stop at that. I think to stop at that would leave the position one of very great uncertainty. People are entitled to know how they stand. For that reason I do not see how you can logically limit it to that smaller measure, and for that reason I think this Bill is necessary.
§ THE LORD PRIVY SEAL (THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY)
My Lords, I really am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Banbury, who spoke just now, because I was afraid as the debate proceeded that I should be the only Englishman who dared to take part in a Scottish debate. With his important, example before me I feel I may dare. I need not tell your Lordships that it is with very great regret that I have listened to so many adverse comments upon this Bill of His Majesty's Government from my noble friends who sit behind me. I am very much obliged to the noble Lord who has just sat down for his support, but it must be admitted that Scottish noble Lords sitting in this part of the House—that is, those of them who have addressed yam Lordships—have for the most part tint been very favourable to the Bill.
Although I am not a Scotsman I should like, with your Lordships' permission, to make one or two observations upon the speeches which have just been made. Let us first face the magnitude of the problem with which the Government, and indeed local authorities everywhere, had to deal in the recent emergency. I am not sure that any one listening, for example, to Viscount Novar would realise what it meant. He spoke, I think, of 45 parishes out of 900. My noble friend seems to think you can solve the question by counting the number of parishes, but the question is: What is the population of those parishes? If my noble friend looks into it he will find those parishes contain more than half the population of Scotland. Surely my noble friend was hardly treating the House quite fairly when he tried to leave upon your Lordships the impression that this was a matter which concerned only a small minority when, as a matter of fact, if you look at it fairly—if my noble friend will allow me to say so—it involves at, least half, and I think rather more.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
That is so, but I think my noble friend will see that to leave it like that is to leave a very misleading impression upon your Lordships' House. What is the problem? In a strike the men who strike are not entitled to relief. How are you going to treat their women and children? That is the problem and I quite admit it is a very difficult one—one of the most difficult which any Government can have to deal with—because, as my noble friend suggests, if you help the women and children then, indirectly, yon help the men. That is true, but what is the other alternative? Are you going to leave the women and children to starve? Has any one of my noble friends said he is prepared to do that? No; and neither will he say so, either in your Lordships' House or before any audience in England or Scotland. Then you have to face the difficulty. How are yon going to treat the women and children? Thy, women and children were relieved. In England they were relieved under the law, and in Scotland, as it turned out, they were relieved against the law. That is certainly a fair statement of the problem. But, whatever may be said of the action of the Scottish Board of Health and of the Scottish local authorities in what turned out to be a breach of the law, we all admit that they acted in a period of great emergency, and, so far as I could make out from listening to my noble friends, none of them actually condemned the action that was taken in that emergency. My noble friend Lord Younger, who always speaks with great consideration, frankly admitted that no other course was possible. It was necessary to relieve the women and children in Scotland.
But my noble friends say, in effect I "We agree to the indemnity, to let bygones be bygones, and, in fact, we approve what was done in the past; but we say that it must stop there, that you must not go further, that you must make no provision for the future." Is that really the advice that they give to His Majesty's Government? There may be another strike within a very brief period. Is no provision to be made? My noble friends say: "Break the law again." But surely that is scarcely the advice 448 that most of your Lordships will favour. It is one thing to take a rather doubtful course when you do not know what the law is, but it is quite another thing to take the same course when the law has been authoritatively pronounced to be against you. How could the Government go on with the intention, if the event arose, of breaking the law again? I think it is quite evident that the Government must make some kind of provision. My noble friend says that we might put it into the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. I think he will hardly get the other critics of the Government to agree with him, because the very strength of their objection to this temporary Bill is that it will not really be temporary but will be renewed.
§ VISCOUNT YOUNGER OF LECKIE
I beg the noble Marquess's pardon. I said, pending the consideration of the whole of the Poor Law by the Government. I wanted to make it an inducement to them to get something done.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
The Government are considering a great many things, the Poor Law among them, but I think the whole strength of the case against the Government was that these so-called temporary Bills are always continued from year to year and that the whole business of the Expiring Laws Continuance Acts is humbug. I do not say that my noble friend said this—I would not be rude enough even to dream of doing so—but that was the strength of the case against the Government. I do not think that it would have been honest of us to suggest that this was a self-contained Bill if we intended to put it into the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. What was reasonable was to fix upon some brief period during which a temporary Bill should have effect and provision could be made so that we should not be compelled again to break the law, and then to leave the matter to be permanently dealt with afterwards.
Let me say one word about this question of illegality. We have heard a good deal about the superiority of the Scottish law over the English law. I always hear that in Scottish debates. But I am not thinking so much of the Scottish law as of the Scottish practice. What has been the practice of the parochial authorities in Scotland in this matter of the relief of destitute able-bodied persons? Undoubtedly 449 the law in Scotland before 1921 said that you could not relieve destitute able-bodied persons, but only disabled persons. That was the law; but how was it interpreted? I hardly dare to suggest that there was a certain element almost of hypocrisy in the way in which that provision was interpreted. I should not dare to do so without very good authority, but in 1909 an Inquiry was held into the whole of this subject and a doctor was sent down to examine the physical condition of the inhabitants of the Scottish poorhouses as compared with the English workhouses. The English workhouses, of course, admit able-bodied persons in certain circumstances, but the Scottish poorhouses admit, as it is supposed, only disabled persons. Nevertheless this doctor could find no difference at all in the physical condition of the two, and the Commission found upon inquiry that the able-bodied were, in fact though not in name, as regards both indoor and outdoor relief, as numerous in Scotland as in England. It was done, of course, by a device. It was not crudely done, but it was done.
The fact was—and in that respect I agree with the noble and learned Viscount opposit—that public opinion was too strong for the Scottish local authorities. They could not refuse to relieve real destitution, and therefore they resorted to every device in order to suggest disablement. If a man became very hungry they said that he must be disabled. Even if he showed a tendency to become very hungry a little later they anticipated disablement. If a man was a rheumatic and, I am told, even if a man had a blister, they interpreted it in some parts of Scotland as disablement. In this way they got round the difficulty of relieving the able-bodied destitute person. They were not going to adopt the English law—nothing so base as that I—but they were going to assimilate their practice to the English practice and to yield, as they must yield and as everybody must yield, to the strength of public opinion. In those circumstances your Lordships will forgive me if I cannot share the horror of some of my noble friends at what they call a fundamental alteration of the Poor Law in Scotland The law may be altered, but the practice is going to be altered very little.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My noble friend does not agree with me. I am only giving him my information from those who are competent to advise me.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
Of course they were exceptional instances. I do not imagine that every able-bodied destitute person had a blister. I do not say that, but I do say that the practice in Scotland has been as I have described it.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
There was no criticism, of course, of the Act of 1921. That Act admitted formally what I have been describing—namely, the relief of able-bodied persons; but it made the exception, of course, that they must not be connected with a trade dispute, and the difficulty arose in the recent emergency in that limited class of destitute persons who were the dependants of those engaged in a trade dispute. There was no criticism made, of course, and very properly, of the 40 per cent contribution which is to be made towards the sum of money which was paid by way of this illegal relief, under the suggestion of the Board of Health, but I was asked to tell your Lordships under what powers the Goschen Committee acted. I hold In my hand a copy of the Estimates for the Civil Services for the present year, and, under the heading of Sundry Services, I read that "provision is required for allocation with Treasury approval," and so forth, of sums "by way of loans to local authorities for the purpose of enabling them to carry out approved works" and "to Poor Law authorities in necessitous areas in Great Britain who are unable to meet claims upon them for relief." And the body to whom that money is entrusted is known as the Goschen Committee. That Committee advanced the necessary money in the case which we are now discussing Forty per cent of that sum of money will be £260,000, £260,000 of it has already been advanced by the Goschen Committee. That will be repaid in the slim of money which the House of Commons will allot, 451 and also an additional £60,000, the only amount of new money which is involved.
Now I come to what I believe is really the only substantial point of difference between the Government and my noble friends behind me. How long is the Bill to last? I will not say that I have convinced my noble friends, but I think I have given reasons to show that it is not sufficient merely to deal with the past. I am told that they think that the period of three years which we have allotted for the Bill is too long. I can assure them that any proposal on that head which they can make will receive most careful consideration from the Government. I shall be very glad, of course, if we can come to an agreement, but I should like to put one or two considerations before them. One noble Lords says one year. I do not think it is possible to conceive that the Government can deal thoroughly with the Poor Law of Scotland in one year. We have to deal with the English Bill first, and that will be a big business. The Scottish Bill cannot anticipate the English Bill, and I think any one who is acquainted with Parliamentary procedure will recognise that one year is absurdly too short.
Then, what about two years? I do not reject two years, but I cannot help fancying that there may be certain extensive electoral excitement about that time. I am not sure that that would be a very convenient opportunity, and on the whole three years would seem to be a better period. When, however, we get down to points of detail like that, of course it is a matter of adjustment, as far as possible. All I can assure my noble friends is that so far as the Government are concerned we intend this Bill to be a temporary Bill. We are not satisfied with passing it, and then continuing it under the Expiring Laws Continuance Act. We think that it is not sufficient that it should deal with the past only. We must be provided with some means by which, if necessity again arises, relief can be provided for these wives and children without breaking the law. Therefore the term of three years is put into the Bill; but if my noble 452 friends can show any better proposal have no doubt the Government would most willingly consider it.
I hope I have said enough to show the real arguments in favour of this Bill. My noble friend asked, Why did you not consult the people of Scotland? I cannot believe that when the people realise the case put before them there will be any difference of opinion in Scotland. I think it is self-evident that something had to be done, and I am rather sick of Inquiries. I have seen so many Committees and even Commissions, and nothing has seemed to come of them, so far as I can make out. When you have a clear case, which does not appear to admit of an answer, it seems to me that there is only one course—namely, to introduce a Bill and hope that it will receive favour from your Lordships. I can assure your Lordships that on its further stages in Committee we shall ask for, and accept, whatever is good in the recommendations of my noble friends, or of noble Lords in any part of the House.
§ On Question, Amendment negatived and Motion agreed to: Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.