§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
My Lords, this is a Bill which in the main concerns the administration of London. It proposes to continue in substance the temporary legislation of which your Lordships have 904 already four times approved. There are, however, certain new features in this Bill which make it desirable for me to recall to your Lordships some of the details of the former Acts. In 1921 the existence of unemployment and distress in certain London districts led the Government to prepare a scheme whereby the burden of relief should be distributed over the County of London as a whole. The method adopted was the enlargement of the scope of the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund.
The functions of this Fund had hitherto been confined to the provision and maintenance of certain institutions and their inmates. Under this new scheme all boroughs have for some time contributed to the Fund according to their rateable values, and have drawn on it in accordance, in the first place, with a scale specially prepared by the Minister. In the course of time it became apparent that the form of control by this special scale was unworkable, and it was laid down that in future the boards might draw on the Fund up to a certain sum calculated on the number of poor persons relieved per day. The sum eventually fixed upon was 9d. per head per day. It is apparent that in a scheme of this kind, where some boards contributed more than they received and others received more than they contributed, a considerable difference of opinion would prevail as to the exact figure at which this sum should be settled. This has been the case, but the Minister, after considering the matter very fully, has as yet seen no reason to alter the figure of 9d.
It was also argued that the mere laying down of a certain sum per head did not shut the door to certain boards being unduly extravagant, especially in regard to the numbers relieved. Perhaps I might give certain figures which compare various boroughs with each other in regard to the average numbers that they relieved at the commencement of this scheme as compared with the present time. For instance, the Borough of Hackney relieved 1,163 persons in 1921, and Stepney relieved 1,030 persons; while in 1928 the figure for Hackney had risen to 5,434 and that for Stepney to 16,320. Islington started with the figure of 2,532 at a time when Poplar had 2,934; and Islington has since risen to 5,807 and Poplar to 23,913. I think that those 905 figures show that there is considerable discrepancy as to the method of relief in different boroughs. After considering this argument it appeared to my right hon. friend only fair that, since this Fund represented money belonging to the whole of London, which amounted in the last half year to something like £3,000,000, some person or body should be appointed to act as a kind of trustee in the interests of London to prevent the expenditure of money in ways such as are generally accepted in administrative circles to be unsound.
In this Bill he merely gave effect to the principle that I have mentioned, and he submits that this control should be instituted. For the purpose of exercising that control he has selected the Metropolitan Asylums Board. It may be said that there is no theoretical reason why this particular body should exercise these functions of control, as it certainly was not originally created for this purpose. That is perfectly true, but it is also true that this body, which contains some 55 representatives of boards of guardians and 18 members nominated by the Ministry, is both by its position and its experience in Poor Law administration particularly well qualified to perform this task. The Minister might, of course, have appointed himself as the controlling authority, but he considered that any decision that he might make in that capacity might be interpreted by aggrieved boards as being based on Party and political prejudice. He might also have appointed a special ad hoe body, but he was unwilling to add still another body to those already existing in London, particularly in view of the immediate prospects of a general reform of the Poor Law. The whole of this Bill is, of course, very largely overshadowed by the intended reform of the Poor Law, which would involve the disappearance of separate boards of guardians in London, of which there are now 25, and of the Common Poor Fund, while the present Bill and the Act of 1921 would automatically cease to operate, although the four years have not yet expired.
The machinery by which it is proposed that this Bill should operate is as follows. Before the commencement of the half year the estimates submitted by boards of guardians of their expenditure during the half year on each of the heads under which a charge may be made on the 906 Fund will be reviewed. There will also be a review of the amount of the charge to be made on the Fund, which may be less than the expenditure in respect of all the different heads under consideration. It will be this second set of items that the Metropolitan Asylums Board will be empowered to criticise and, if they think fit, to reduce, and where they make a reduction it will be the duty of the district auditor, before giving the prescribed certificate on which payments out of the Fund can be made, to reduce the charge which would be made by the guardians apart from the proposed control if it exceeds the amount approved by the Metropolitan Asylums Board. In certain circumstances it will be permissible for boards of guardians to submit supplementary estimates.
I think that this really covers the main substance of the Bill, but I should like to point out in conclusion that the Bill does not prevent guardians from spending money how they like, provided that it is their own money. In regard to London's money, it embodies the principle that London should have some say as to how this money is to be administered. The body selected by the Minister to represent London may be unsuitable in name, but from every other point of view it has, in my right hon. friend's opinion, all the required qualifications, not the least of which is the capacity to do its work. In my right hon. friend's opinion it has shown considerable municipal patriotism in consenting to undertake the task. I submit, therefore, that this is a much needed reform, and that the machinery is efficient and economical and will prove suitable to this task, which will be in any case a very short one.
Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Gage.)
§ VISCOUNT HALDANE
My Lords, perhaps the noble Viscount will tell me whether I am right in this. It seems to me that this Bill does really only two things. It carries on the existing system for four years, till 1932, it makes no provision about figures, the 9d. is not altered, and it substitutes for the existing machinery the introduction of the Metropolitan Asylums Board and the district auditor as the people who are to pronounce on whether the estimates which the various local bodies set up as measuring their requisition are just. 907 So far as I can find the Bill does nothing more than that. No doubt it does something in so far as it brings in under the clause upon the second page the new authority which is to advise upon the subject, but it makes no difference, except in the introduction of the Metropolitan Asylums Board, to the present system. I do not think that this can remain as a permanent system, and I assume that the Government have in view to deal on a large scale with the government of London, carrying matters further, but so far as it stands this Bill seems to me to go no further than what I have said, and I would ask the noble Viscount to tell me whether that is so.
My Lords, I think the noble and learned Viscount is right in his assumption. The new authority will exercise a kind of supervising control. The figure of 9d. will still act as a guide to the authorities in making their claims. The new authority will have power of supervising those claims and, if necessary, making an overhead cut in the general total.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.