HL Deb 29 July 1931 vol 81 cc1288-99

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Marley.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly:

[The EARL OF ONSLOW in the Chair.]

Clause 1:

Provisions with respect to benefit in the case of special classes of persons.

(2) The classes of persons to whom this section applies are the following:— (a) persons who habitually work for less than a full week, and by the practice of the trade in which they are employed nevertheless receive earnings or similar payments of an amount greater than the normal earnings for a full week of persons following the same occupation in the same district; (d) married women who, since marriage or in any prescribed period subsequent to marriage, have had less than the prescribed number of contributions paid in respect of them:

Provided that this class shall not include married women whose husbands are incapacitated from work or are unemployed and not in receipt of benefit, nor windows.

EARL BUXTON had given Notice to move, in paragraph (a) of subsection (2), to leave out "greater than" and to insert "equivalent to." The noble Earl said: As I stated on Second Reading, I have no hostility to this Bill. I think it is a Bill which should be passed, because it does undoubtedly deal with a considerable number of anomalies. At the same time, many of us think it would have been well if the Bill had gone rather further than it does. I should have preferred that the Bill should have gone through as it was originally introduced in the House of Commons. It seems to me that Clause 1 (2) in its original form carried out more specifically and more conclusively the recommendations of the Royal Commission than does the clause in its amended form. I really rise with the object of obtaining further information from my noble friend in charge of the Bill than he was able to give us the other day.

We had a discussion on this point as to how particular classes of unemployed are affected, to what extent it includes some and excludes others, and whether those others ought to be completely excluded. I should like, however, more information on the point, and I am sure my noble friend will be glad to give the Committee further information. I ought to preface what I want to say by stating that the point we are now discussing does not deal with the general question of unemployment. It only deals with what is called short time. There are two classes of persons, one affected by the Bill and the other outside the Bill. The first class consists of those who are on ordinary short time due to depression of trade and so on, of men who work short time at normal rates for three days a week and on the other three days claim benefit. Together these payments amount to a week's wage. Those are men who from every point of view are entitled to the benefit for which they have paid contributions. There is no dispute as to whether those men should be included.

But the other class is a more doubtful one, and I want to know how far the Bill goes in regard to this other class. I am raising this Amendment to give my noble friend an opportunity of telling me the facts. That class, as the Royal Commission points out, consists of men who habitually work for various reasons perhaps only three days a week, and they get what is roughly a normal wage for three days. They do not work, and do not intend to, for the rest of the time, and they are in quite a different position from the ordinary workman who is earning a normal wage. These people earn a normal wage for a short time, and the rest is made up to them to a certain extent by the benefit. The question is how far that other class of men ought to receive benefit from the Insurance Fund. It appeared to me that the Committee thought, roughly, that these men ought not to continue to be allowed benefit for days on which they are not working, because they are not unemployed in the true sense. It certainly does seem that these men should not receive benefit.

We ought not in any sense to subsidise wages. What we want to do is to enable men who are out of employment for some considerable time, or even a short time, to keep their homes together and carry on in the ordinary way, as they could not have done if the Act had not been in force. The point is how far the second class to which I have referred are also entitled to benefit when they are already earning a very considerable wage at not less than the normal rate. Generally speaking, I should have thought that this class ought to be excluded.

This was certainly the view of representatives of the Government in another place, of the Secretary of State for War and the Minister of Labour. The Bill, as it went through the House, was amended after considerable discussion to the form in which we now have it, and it seems to me that it might be held that the clause did go rather further in excluding from the purview of the Act certain classes which it was not intended to include in the original Bill. It is really to find out how the matter stands and how far we are justified, on the grounds that I have mentioned, in accepting the Amendment that was made in the Bill in another place that I have moved this Amendment. I should have thought that, even if the Bill was held to include some of these persons who, on the face of it, ought to be excluded, it would be better to have that clause because, after all, this Bill provides for the appointment of an Advisory Committee to help employers, employees and also the Treasury to consider all the intricate and difficult questions as they arise. I think this was really a matter for the Advisory Committee, whose opinion would be of great value in amending the abuses that, I am afraid, now exist in some cases.

As I understand from the Government, this Bill is of an experimental nature, and they are waiting for further action when the Royal Commission reports later on. I admit that if this excludes from the purview of the Act any person who ought not to be excluded, that fact does give some reason for revision. There is no doubt that these inclusions will cost a certain amount of money. In these days we are all anxious for economy, and I think that is rather a serious matter. I am asking for information on the matter because I think that this Bill is by no means perfect and that it could have made a much better Bill. It is a very small part of the recommendations of the Royal Commission, though it does to a certain extent get rid of some anomalies and abuses which have undoubtedly undermined public confidence in the way in which the Fund is administered. I should be sorry if this Bill should be defeated, though it is a very minute instalment of the Royal Commission's recommendations. But at the same time I should be glad if my noble friend could give us some in- formation in regard to this clause. We do not desire to exclude anyone who ought to be included in the Bill.

Amendment moved— Page 2, line 8, leave out ("greater than") and insert ("equivalent to").—(Earl Buxton.)


My Lords, this seems a very good Amendment, and I shall have pleasure in voting for it.


I will do my best to explain the meaning of the clause under discussion. It does seem to me to be complicated, and I can only promise to do my best to explain it. In the first place, as I said when I was speaking on the Second Reading, the clause as it stands refers only to those men who get more than a normal week's wage for less than a normal week's work. That is to say, if a man gets a penny more than the normal week's wages, he is then subject to the regulations and action of the Committee. If he gets less than a normal week's wage, he is then not subject to this Bill and is entitled to draw unemployment insurance benefit for those days on which he is not in work. Therefore, the Amendment, so far as I can understand it, seems to deal only with the case of the man who is actually getting, for less than a week's work, a wage equivalent to a normal week's wage.

Accordingly, the difference between us, so far as this Amendment is concerned, and quite apart from my attempt to explain the meaning of the clause, is a penny or thereabouts. It is very little indeed, and the number of additional people who would be involved, so far as I understand it, by the passing of this Amendment would be comparatively few—those few who are getting actually an equal wage. That is the position so far as I understand it. I am not going to say what the Amendment does. I have tried to think about it very carefully. If it was meant that the wage that would bring a man out of the purview of this Bill was an exact equivalent, then it is surely too narrow, because it would exclude all those above or below. I think probably what the noble Earl meant was "not less than"—


Yes, I did.


In that case the difference is also very small. It might be one penny, and it is really hardly worth worrying about, I should have thought, for there is so little in it. The Secretary of State for War was quoted. What he said was: The Minister gave a very definite promise that before the Report stage she would draft words which would carry out the intention of the House, which was that the ordinary unemployed person, working for normal wages—either short-time or wholly unemployed—would not be interfered with, and that the only person to be interfered with would be the person who systematically worked short time in a concentrated way for high wages that were higher than the normal wages and that that wording would be found to put that definitely into the Bill. This wording does meet the contention which was raised in Committee, and implements the promise made by myself on Second Reading, by the Dominion Secretary, and over and over again by the Minister. I quite understand what was intended by the Amendment, but I am not sure what the Amendment might be taken to mean by other interpretations, and if I were to adjudicate I should be inclined to void that by reason of uncertainty. I am not a lawyer, but I should be doubtful as to exactly what it meant in law. I hope I have made clear the exact position. I have tried to do so, and I hope in those circumstances that Lord Buxton will not feel it necessary to press this Amendment.


The noble Lord has told us what happens in cases where a man gets less than the normal, and in those cases where he gets more, but, I have not followed him as to what happens if he gets equal pay.


When he gets equal it is equivalent to a man who gets less, and it is only those who get "more than" who are included in subsection 2 (a) of the Bill.


If Lord Buxton would be prepared to move to insert "equal to or" before "greater than" I should be prepared to support him, and if he is not prepared to do so I am prepared to move it myself.


The only point is that the Minister gave, the promise that "more than" was what the Government intended. It is a very marginal case, and I should point out that this is not a normal case. There are not very many men who work less than a week and receive more than a week's pay.


But you are dealing with those in the clause.


Certainly. There are not very many, and the point is that the Amendment will hardly bring in any more. The difference is between £2 19s. 11d. and £3 0s. 1d., and the only question is whether the £3 man goes above or below, I would submit that the difference is so very small that perhaps Lord Buxton will not press his Amendment,


I have listened to the Minister, and I am bound 'to say that I do not think he has conveyed to the House quite what my understanding of the Amendment is. No doubt it is because he does not wish to disparage the value of his own Government's handiwork. The truth is that this paragraph is practically meaningless as it stands. There are hardly any cases which will come within it, anyhow, and probably the Amendment will hardly add half a dozen people. The clause applies only to people who habitually work for less than a full week and yet get paid more than the normal earnings for a full week of persons in the same occupation in the same district. On the Second Reading stage the noble Lord in charge of the Bill gave instances of cases in which the normal wages were £3 a week. In such a case supposing a man worked for three days instead of a full week, and was fortunate enough, by night-work or overtime, to earn £3 0s. 1d., he would then come within the meaning of subsection (2) (a). Supposing he earns £2 19s. 11d., then he does not come within this subsection at all.


"Habitually works."


Yes, it only applies to a man who habitually works less. If he earns £3 0s. 1d. he comes within the paragraph. If he earns £2 19s. 11d. he is outside the clause, and the only man affected by the Amendment is the man who earns £3. This provision does not deal with the grievance to which the Royal Commission called attention. That grievance is that there has grown up in certain occupations a habit under which people work for three days and then idle for three days, and in that way their wages are supplemented by the unemployment insurance benefit, and you may get, for instance, a man working for three days and earning let us say £2, and then being off for three days and drawing unemployment insurance benefit of 15s. On the other hand someone else can come on for the other three days and in turn draw from the Insurance Fund 15s., and so the Unemployment Insurance Fund is being used as a kind of subvention for wages in that particular occupation.

It is not the fault of the workmen, and I would not wish to be thought to say that it was. It is an arrangement between the workmen and the employers in certain trades where, under pressure of taxation and other things, they are anxious to find any way by which they can economise or ease some of the burden. By using the Insurance Fund as a kind of subvention of wages they benefit. That is the grievance which really needs dealing with and to which the Report of the Royal Commission drew attention. That is a grievance which is not touched by this clause at all, and I do not suppose there will be a thousand people, or even five hundred people, in the whole country who will be affected by subsection (2) (a), nor do I suppose that the five hundred will become more than 510 if this Amendment is carried. I do not think, in view of the fact that the wording of the Minister's assurance is satisfied by subsection (2) (a), and would not be satisfied by the Amendment, that it is worth our while to create a difficulty and insist upon the Amendment, which would have little effect and not meet what is the real grievance. If it were possible to amend the clause so as to deal with a matter which really ought to be dealt with, I should find myself in a different position.


I find myself very considerably in agreement with the noble Viscount who has just spoken, and I would also go as far as my noble friend who has proposed this Amendment. Indeed I am not sure that I would not be prepared to go further than either of them if the time should come. The real point of this is that we are seeking by this Bill to deal with anomalies, upon which there has been an Interim Report of a Royal Commission. It cannot be disputed that this Bill deals very scantily with anomalies. It does not attempt to grapple with the real grievance. There was some attempt at first, but evidently there has been considerable opposition in the House of Commons to the Bill as originally brought in, with the result that an Amendment was introduced which has produced the clause that we are now discussing, and it is worth observation, especially after what the noble Viscount has said, that there was in the House of Commons no Division upon this Amendment at all, which I confess surprised me very much. But I do not want to discuss the matter, more particularly because we have to bear in mind that there is the final Report of the Royal Commission on Unemployment to come, and this Bill is a very small drop in the ocean. There is also the Report of the Committee on Economy, which, according to the newspapers, is to be issued this week, and by which we may get some light thrown on the enormous expenditure that we are incurring in relation to unemployment.

I am not suggesting for a moment that there should not be such expenditure when there is genuine unemployment, but I think all Parties must agree that in these days we should not spend more money than is proper and legitimate in relieving those who are unemployed. Above all, we should not approach this matter of unemployment benefit as if it were the business of the insurance authorities to guarantee a normal wage. Unemployment insurance is directed against destitution from unemployment. It need not be complete destitution. Obviously there must be some datum line, which apparently has not been discussed, certainly has not been formulated for the purpose of this Bill; but there must be a datum line. If this is to be taken as embodying the final words of the Government, it goes much further than was ever intended, I should have thought, because what it does is to guarantee for the man who has worked for three days a week that he should receive unemployment benefit which will bring the wage, with the benefit, up to the, normal wage; that is, if you put it in very plain language, treating the matter as if you were paying a premium, not in order that the man should receive unemployment benefit but in order to bring his wage up to that which is normally paid to a person who is working full time.

I would like to make one observation in all seriousness to your Lordships—namely, that economy is absolutely essential in the present state of the country, and that we must all agree, as far as we possibly can, with the memorable words used by the Chancellor of the Exchequer some months ago, which one sometimes thinks have easily been forgotten. Since that time circumstances and events have only strengthened those observations, and if he were to make them now he would have to put the matter in stronger terms than he did then. For that reason I do hope that, when we come to deal with these matters, we shall not deal with them as members of political Parties, but that there will be an agreement and that the three Parties will try to arrive at the best method of enforcing economy in this country, in order to reduce our Budget to more normal levels. I hope that we may all co-operate to reach the desired end without attempting to make any Party capital out of it. Certainly the Party with which I am associated will co-operate, if the Government really mean to practise economy and to reduce expenditure. Having said that, may I say, on behalf of my noble friend, that he desires to withdraw this Amendment, which was really only put forward in order to enable us to have a discussion, and in order that we might comprehend the position. I feel myself in complete agreement with what was said by the noble and learned Viscount who leads the Opposition.


I am glad to hear from the noble and learned Marquess that the noble Earl will withdraw the Amendment. That makes it unnecessary for me to say much. As the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Hailsham, pointed out, it is a narrow point that is dealt with in paragraph (a). Still, it is an important point that these people who habitually carry on work for less than a week should not habitually be in a position to obtain more than they ought to get under the unemployment scheme. Everyone agrees with that. That matter is dealt with. With regard to the wider point which the noble and learned Marquess raised, of course we all want economy, and we all want matters of this kind to be settled on a fair basis as between the Parties. This is an insurance matter, and has to be dealt with on that basis. I do not propose to follow the noble and learned Marquess, except to say that he knows quite well, from what I said the other day, that we do not take the same view as he does. The matter no doubt will be further considered when the final Report is received.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


As I threatened to move an Amendment in the event of the noble Earl not pressing his, I ought to say a word. Although I do not like running away from anything that I promised to do, after what has been said by the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Hailsham, I feel it would be useless to go to a Division, and therefore I shall not move.

LORD MARLEY moved, in the proviso in subsection (2), to leave out "nor widows." The noble Lord said: This is a drafting Amendment. The interpretation of "married women" does not include widows, therefore widows are redundant in this case. I trust I shall not be accused of attacking widows, in moving that "nor widows" be omitted.

Amendment moved— Clause 1, page 2, line 27, leave out ("nor widows").—(Lord Marley.)


Is this a drafting Amendment? It seems to me it is an Amendment of some importance; and I feel sure, if I am right, that I shall get the support of the noble and learned Marquess, Lord Reading, because, as I read it, this Amendment has two faults. First of all, it increases expenditure, because the result is that widows will still receive certain sums, a portion of which will be contributed by the Government, and therefore it is imposing a charge upon the subject, to which, as I understood, both Front Benches object, if done in this House. I think that it was only yesterday that an Amendment was objected to because it imposed a charge. If I aim right, here is the noble Lord actually proposing on the very next day to impose a charge. In addition to that, it also militates against the wish of the noble and learned Marquess that we should practise economy. For many years I have been preaching economy, and I am very glad that I have now got such a powerful leader as the noble and learned Marquess. I only hope that he will continue to tread in the good path which he has entered.


He is your follower.


No, I do not have any followers; I only have leaders. I should like to understand from the noble Lord whether I am misjudging him when he says this is a drafting Amendment, and whether, as a matter of fact, it does not increase a charge, which is wrong, according to noble Lords opposite, and also increases expenditure, to which the noble and learned Marquess objects.


I am sorry I did not make this point clear. The point is that Clause 1 (2) (d) only deals with married women; then from "married women" we exclude by the paragraph certain married women. But you cannot exclude widows from a clause in which they are not included. That is the only point.

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

Clause 1, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Remaining clauses agreed to.


My Lords, in view of the suspension of Standing Order No. XXXIX, I beg to move that this Report be now received.

Moved accordingly and, on Question, Motion agreed to: Amendment reported accordingly.

Bill read 3a, with the Amendment, and passed, and returned to the Commons.