§ Brought from the Commons; read 1a; and to be printed.
§ Then, Standing Order No. XXXIX having been dispensed with:
§ THE PAYMASTER-GENERAL (LORD ROCHESTER)
My Lords, in moving that this Bill be now read a second time, I only want to point out that it is designed to give legislative authority for certain special arrangements in connection with the new scheme of unemployment assistance which is embodied in Part II of the Unemployment Act of last year. Prior to January 7 this year, unemployed persons who had exhausted their rights to unemployment insurance benefit were provided for by a system of transitional payments, based on a determination of their need, by the public assistance authorities, but, as from that date, the responsibility was tranferred to the Unemployment Assistance Board and the needs of the persons concerned fell to be determined by the officers of the Board in accordance with Regulations made by the Board and approved by Your Lordships' House and the other House. These Regulations were framed with the intention of effecting an improvement in the general situation of the unemployed who would come under their operation, and I think it is common ground that in a large number of cases they have had that effect. It was not to be supposed, of course, that a measure designed to achieve a reasonable uniformity in the treatment of cases throughout the country would result only in increases and involve no reductions.
As was perhaps inevitable, however, in bringing into operation a novel and gigantic change of this character, dissatisfaction has been expressed with the manner in which the Regulations have operated in individual cases and in respect of certain classes of persons. What precise substance there may be in the complaints made is not a matter which it is possible to determine without extensive and detailed investigation, but the Government have taken the humane 941 and courageous view that, as this is an essentially human problem affecting the daily lives of men and women, it would not be fair, if hardships are being inflicted, to allow those hardships to continue until such time as a necessarily lengthy examination of the position can be concluled. The Government have decided, therefore, to propose an interim arrangement to cover the period required for adequate investigation by which, if the new Regulations have in any case given an increased payment that increased payment shall remain, but where the Regulations have resulted in a decrease the person affected shall be put back for the time being to where he would have been under the transitional payments system previously in operation. It is that arrangement to which it is sought by this Bill to give legislative effect.
Taking the Bill in detail, Clause 1 provides, in effect, that an applicant's payments shall be determined by reference both to the amount which he would receive under the Board's Regulations and to the amount which he would receive by way of transitional payments. If no transitional payments assessment was actually current in his case immediately before the first appointed day—that is, the 7th January this year—or if his circumstances have materially changed since that date, comparison is to be made with an estimate of what his transitional payments assessment would be in his present circumstances. He is to receive whichever amount proves to be the more favourable to him. Furthermore, it is proposed that the arrangements should operate retrospectively as from and including the 7th January, and that the applicant should be paid the difference between the two rates for the period for which the lower rate has been applied in his case.
The amount of any difference payable to the applicant will be regarded as a supplementary allowance added to the allowance determined under the principal Act, and the supplementary allowance will carry with it an unrestricted right in the matter of appeal, and in other respects will follow the substantive allowance. If the applicant earns money during the week it may be necessary to make a deduction from his allowance on that account, but that deduction in any 942 case would have been made under the transitional payments scheme while it was in force and, equally, it would be made under the Board's Regulations. But there, again, the money earned will be treated under whichever of the two systems is the more favourable to the applicant.
Clause 2 provides for the postponement of the date of the second appointed day, which had been fixed as the 1st of March. This is an unavoidable consequence of the interim arrangement and the additional work which it entails. It would in the circumstances be quite impracticable, as your Lordships will appreciate, to take over the new classes which it was intended to transfer on the 1st of March. It is realised that this will affect the financial arrangements under the Unemployment Act with the local authorities, and further legislation will be required at an early date to make any necessary financial adjustments for the period of postponement.
It is extremely difficult to give any reliable estimate of the cost of the proposals in the Bill. Any such estimate depends on the forecast which can be made of the number of persons in the transitional payments class who, but for the operation of the Bill, would have received allowances less than they would have received if transitional payments had continued and on the average amount of the difference. This forecast must be largely conjectural. About half only of the recipients of transitional payments have as yet had their cases assessed under the Regulations. Fresh cases come up for assessment at the rate of about 100,000 a week as the individual periods of the determinations of transitional payments expire. When the Regulations were in preparation it was roughly estimated that if the conditions prevailing when the estimate was made and the circumstances of applicants as ascertained by the local authorities remained unchanged, the total of the allowances payable would be about £3,000,000 a year more than the cost of transitional payments—that is, that the amount of the increases under the Regulations would have exceeded the amount of the reductions, which it was known would be made, by about £3,000,000 a year. But that estimate has not yet been confirmed by the experience of the short period which has elapsed since January 7.
943 It is not possible, pending the thorough examination of the records which the Unemployment Assistance Board have in hand, to estimate with any approach to accuracy what the rate of expenditure under the Regulations would have been. It is clear, however, that it would have been substantially less than was anticipated. It is estimated that this Bill, to which I am now asking your Lordships to give a Second Reading, will increase the expenditure upon unemployment allowances by some £4,500,000 or £5,000,000 over and above the expenditure under the Regulations whatever that may prove to have been. That estimate of £4,500,000 or £5,000,000 is a very rough forecast based on a number of assumptions which must, in many cases, be little other than conjectures. I do not want to weary your Lordships, and I think I have given you as briefly as I can, but. I hope adequately, an explanation, both of the reason for the Bill and of the Bill itself. It is a measure whose purpose, I think, will commend itself to the sympathy of your Lordships. It has been framed in the desire to ensure that no one is made to suffer from the effects of any miscalculation which may have been made and in the desire to remove even the possibility of any unintentional hardship being inflicted on those for whom life is, in any case, difficult. It is with this in mind that I submit this Bill to your Lordships for Second Reading.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Rochester.)
§ LORD PONSONBY of SHULBREDE
My Lords, I rise on behalf of my noble friends on this side of the House, not to impede in any way the swift passage of this Bill through your Lordships' House. The Motion moved by the noble Viscount the Leader of the House is not unusual, but it is reserved for very special occasions, and we note that this is a very special occasion. In fact, there is an atmosphere of panic in which we are legislating to-day. That requires some consideration, and I propose to make a few remarks upon it. We had the Draft Unemployment Assistance Regulations before us on December 20 of last year. The noble Lord, the Paymaster-General, who was responsible in your Lordships' House on that occasion and is responsible to-day for bringing the matter before your Lordships, has my very deep sympathy. 944 He is not connected with the Department, but he is obliged to put the Government case, which he does with very great lucidity, and although he had to turn a somersault to-day, he did it with all the air of having really produced a final solution of this vexed question. But we, on this side of the House, are not taken in.
The noble Lord mentioned what has been mentioned before—the great courage that has been shown by the Minister of Labour and the Government. We do not quite see where the courage comes in. It would have been extremely courageous if the Government had gone on with the old Regulations, and had stuck to the old Bill, and had disregarded the very strong expression of opinion that had been given in the country. It did not require any courage to do what has been done. It was simply a matter of being driven by a demonstration in the country, by no means of a Party character, which has made the Government swallow their words and repeal a measure which they passed only a very few months ago. This Government can disregard the small Opposition in the two Houses of Parliament, but they wisely did not disregard the very strong opposition which had demonstrated itself in the country. Therefore, there are no congratulations for courage. The Minister of Labour is undoubtedly a master of the conciliatory method, as we all know. He has had to bow before the storm.
Whatever results may accrue from this hopeless bungling on the part of the Government, we, in this House, have in one particular been gainers, because as a result of the Unemployment Assistance Act of 1934 the then Minister of Labour was elevated to the Peerage and is now a welcome member of your Lordships' House. I am sorry he is not in his place to-day so that I might congratulate him on being here. As he was a deservedly popular and able Minister, he is a great addition to our membership. It certainly would not have been any part of my task to attack the noble Lord. By no means. The responsibility does not rest on his shoulders. The responsibility must fall solely on the Government of the day. If I wanted to indulge in strong language, I should collect my adjectives, not from my honourable friends in another place—they have been very moderate about this—but from Conservative Members of Parliament and from articles in the Con- 945 servative Press. But it is really enough for me to say that the Government, in spite of their enormous power numerically in Parliament, and in spite of their incorrigible habit of boasting, will go down to posterity as having committed an act which will be an historical example of pitiable incompetence.
Let me take just one of the incidents connected with this deplorable affair. As noble Lords know, the City Council of Sheffield, acting with great promptitude, sent two of their councillors to Whitehall to say that they intended not to wait a week before the cuts were restored, but that they were going to act there and then. Some astonishment in all quarters was expressed when it was found that this decision of theirs was going to be accepted. And it was not simply a matter of Sheffield. This necessarily involved a great many other districts in the country. Therefore, it was a matter of considerable importance and a question was put to the Prime Minister in another place asking him what was the Government policy with regard to this, and what exactly had been done. The Prime Minister's reply was:I have been trying all this morning to get into touch with the Departments. As a matter of fact, it was not a Government deputation about which I know anything. I only knew about it when I opened my newspaper this morning.Could anything be more pathetic? Could anything be a better illustration of the method of this Government in this matter, of acting in compartments without consultation, without co-ordination, and leaving the head of the Government high and dry, not for the first time? The comment of The Times newspaper—a supporter of the Government, although finding it week by week more and more difficult—was very just on this point. The Times said, in reference to this exhibition of the Prime Minister in another place:The impression of lack of cohesion, lack of decision and lack of calm in dealing with this minor and preliminary point of a difficult problem is unfortunate. That is not the spirit in which the difficulties of the interim period and the question of amendment to the Regulations need to be considered.That is an illustration, as I say, of the methods adopted by the National Government.
This question of unemployment, the general question, is undoubtedly one of 946 extreme difficulty and extreme complexity, and we, on this side of the House, are the first to admit that. We know that within the framework of the capitalist system there is practically no hope of dealing with it with any really great and beneficent result. Our attitude has always been that these unfortunate victims should receive either work or maintenance; but our emphasis has always been on work. We do not care for this system of doling out money to the unemployed. We know that unemployment, even with the means of livelihood, has a demoralising and, in some cases, even a degrading effect on the sufferers. But the present Government have quite deliberately discarded the whole idea of work. Only last month, on January 7, in a Memorandum which the Government sent to (I think) the International Labour Office at Geneva, they informed the League of Nations of their intention not to attempt any more public works on a large scale; and we know that that is their policy. Therefore they have got to fall back on maintenance, and that is the difficulty with which they are confronted to-day.
When this matter came up before your Lordships' House on December 20 my noble friend Lord Marley, who spoke for the Opposition, made some very pertinent criticisms. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, whom I see in his place, scoffed and sneered at the remarks of my noble friend, he seemed to insinuate that his criticisms and strictures were entirely beside the mark, and prophesied very great things from the Regulations which we had before us then. In fact one would have inferred from his speech that all the sufferers of unemployment were going to find their grievances and their ills remedied, and that throughout the country there would be general satisfaction with the scales which were going to be adopted. I do not intend, and this is not the place, to enter into technical points, but while we regard this Bill as the cancelling of a considerably bad bit of bungling on the part of the Government, we are looking to the future. Perhaps the noble Lord in charge of the Bill will be good enough to answer one or two questions of a general and not of a technical character which I should like to put to him.
Firstly, can he hold out any hope as to the time when the new scale and the 947 new Regulations are going to be brought before Parliament? Secondly, will the local authorities be refunded the loss which they must incur owing to the postponement of the allotted day? Then, is any difference going to be made in the procedure with regard to the framing of these Regulations, or are they going to be framed behind the scenes, produced and set before Parliament, and therefore incapable of amendment, and having either to be accepted or rejected en bloc? Lastly, is it the intention of the Government to take the wise course of a drastic amendment of the original Bill? Because nothing short of that, in our opinion, will really meet the case.
This has been a serious matter, which has very considerably shaken the prestige of the Government. We have been accused of making Party capital out of it. My Lords, what are we here for? What is the Opposition in either House there for, except to criticise and to attack the Government? Do the present Administration really think that Parliamentary business ought to be conducted by boasting on one side and by subservient adulation on the other? That may be their view of it; but it is not our view. That is not democracy, that is not representative Government, that is not Parliamentary government. We are here to criticise the Government, and in this criticism we have the backing of a very large volume of opinion in this country. We are wondering whether this bad mistake on the part of such a powerful Government is going to cure them of the sort of obsession they have of their infallibility. I do not think they will be able to get that over now, either in the country or elsewhere.
There have been very effective demonstrations against them in the country, and in not many months time there will be a better organised and still more effective demonstration against them in the country when the General Election comes. If they are going to the country as a National Government when that farce has worn so thin, and when the impossibility of working this Government has now been displayed and publicly demonstrated, then some of us may hope that that will be the end of this régime. If, as many noble Lords opposite hope—and I have every sympathy with them—this farce is to be ended and a clear-cut Conservative Party is to emerge, then we can get back 948 to the conflict of opinion of sincere Parties striving in quite different ways for the good of the country, and that is the only healthy sort of Government you can have in this country. These Regulations have turned out to be shortsighted, wrongly conceived, utterly inappropriate, misleading, described in altogether fantastic ways, and definitely unworkable. We are ready for the passage of this Bill, which is an admission that these charges which I make are true.
§ THE MARQUESS OF READING
My Lords, I approach this question on behalf of those with whom I am associated in this House not quite from the same standpoint as the noble Lord who has just spoken. He has stated what he conceives to be, and what is generally accepted as being, the duty of an Opposition; that is to say, to oppose and criticise. I have ventured once before to criticise that statement—not from the noble Lord, but it has been made a great many times in the past and it has high authority. I should have thought that, particularly in this House, what we really desire to do, on whichever side of the House we may be sitting, is to ascertain what is in the interests of the country and what will best conduce to remedying the condition of the unemployed and the situation as it now stands, rather than to look for mere means of opposition or criticism. I have explained our situation in that matter before and have stated the position which we occupy in this House. I would only repeat that when I approach this question and look at this Bill and at all that has happened, I do it with the object of ascertaining what is best to be done for the country.
This Bill is introduced. Should it be rejected, should it be amended, or should it be passed by your Lordships? In that respect, I gather, there is no difference of opinion between the noble Lord and myself. That is to say, we are all agreed that the Government have been right in introducing this Bill, and that it should be passed. It may be that some Amendments may be introduced at a later stage—I do not know—but in substance what the Government are now proposing is right, in the interest of the country. Therefore we certainly support this Bill, and in whatever way we can we will assist the Government to pass it. I must, however, make one or 949 two observations on all that has happened in the country and in another place in regard to this very unfortunate handling of a most important question. There cannot be any doubt that there is hardly one single matter, with which we can have to deal in Parliament, that can compare in importance with the question of the unemployed. We are all interested in it, on whatever side of the House we may be sitting, and it certainly is lamentable that in these circumstances there should have been this most unfortunate mishandling of the situation.
I am not attempting to cast blame on anybody. I do not know any more about it than has been stated in the House, and, as has been quite rightly said by the noble Lord, the responsibility is that of a Minister. To do the Minister justice he has objected to the responsibility being east upon anybody else, and he has said that it is for him, as head of the Department, to assume the responsibility. As soon as it was discovered that there had been this unfortunate handling of the situation he set himself to work to remedy it, and I think he is entitled to all credit for that. It is perfectly true—I do not dispute it—that, as the noble Lord has said, the situation was one in which there was no other course open, but it might have been possible to play with it and dally with it. Whether that was possible or not, I think we are entitled, and ought, to give credit to a Minister who, when he discovers that in dealing with a most difficult situation there have been serious errors, immediately takes steps at once to admit it, and to remedy those errors to the best of his ability. I really little care whether you apply the word "courage" to that action or not, for it was a candid admission of serious error.
Let us examine what it meant. I suppose we must all be ready to accept that the situation covered by these Regulations was one of tremendous complexity. No one can dispute that, and it does not surprise me that in handling a question of this kind, when attempts are being made to discriminate between Regulations as applied to particular situations, it is found that in a number of places those Regulations worked less well than they were intended to, and in some cases inflicted injustice and hardship. As I understand the situation—and I rather 950 think the noble Lord who has spoken will agree with me in this—the Government introduced their original Bill with the best intentions of remedying the conditions dealing with unemployment and the assistance to be given to the unemployed; they did so, not with a desire to reduce the benefits that would be given, but with the intention of increasing them to a certain extent. I do not for a moment suggest that that meant in every case. As the Paymaster-General has said, you have to balance the decreases which have to be made in certain cases and the increases which have to be made in others, and according to the Government's intention and plan the result was to be an increase of some £3,00,000 paid to the unemployed, as compared with the situation hitherto existing.
That was the result of the Bill intended by the Government. Now it has turned out, that very great hardship has resulted in certain cases from the decreases. I am not going into detail in regard to that. It has been discussed very much in another place, and the Government have had to step forward and deal hurriedly with a situation which calls immediately for a remedy. The result has been the introduction of this Bill, and all I desire to say with regard to it—and those who are associated with me will agree—is that we hope the Government have now dealt with the situation in a way which will turn out to be satisfactory, and will give to the unemployed the benefits which were intended.
One thing stands out in my mind, listening to what has been said here. It is as to the effect which this matter may have on the electorate. I am not in touch with the electorate now; but when the electorate realise what has happened—that the Government set out, as is the plain fact, to improve the situation of the unemployed; that when they found that those intentions were not carried out as they had intended, but that in consequence injury was caused in some quarters, they then increased the benefits they had intended from the first, with the result, as I understand, that some £4,500,000 or £5,000,000 more at least will have to be spent—I should think, if I were a supporter or candidate in support of the National Government, that that action would be an asset. If one could 951 tell the constituency that the Government have given £4,500,000 to £5,000,000 in order that their intentions should be carried out, then that fact, if proved, ought not to react against the Government, but rather to assist them. It can be said, of course, that there has been an unfortunate blunder, but that has been corrected, and what I hope is that, as a result of this measure, and of other steps which will have to be taken, because this is not the end of it, the Government will have remedied the situation and removed all hardships.
The only further observation I would like to make is this, that far greater importance in one respect, and from one aspect, attaches to getting the unemployed at work and finding more work for them. It is, in itself, one of the means of remedying the situation which we are attempting to correct, or at any rate to palliate, by this Bill and similar measures. To me there is not such a terrible amount of injury caused by spending money on public works. I do not quite understand why there is this desire to avoid spending money on public works. I agree that to spend it in finding work which is of no value has many objections, but there are undoubtedly many schemes into which money could be poured at this moment, and I am perfectly sure that the Government must have some of them under consideration; we know, in fact, that they have to a certain extent succeeded in some directions. But apart from such attempts as these to help the unemployed, what we desire is that there should be less unemployment, and that the reduction in the number should not be obtained by the way in which the law is put into operation, but by means which would reduce the actual numbers of the workless.
THE EARL OF LEVEN AND MELVILLE
My Lords, may I assure the House in intervening in this debate that my last intention is to take any course or to say anything which would in any way embarrass the Government at this most difficult moment. But if I discourse for a few moments upon the situation which has so suddenly and so curiously arisen, it is not because I wish to find fault with anybody, it is simply because I wish, as I am sure that all your Lordships would wish, to suggest a course or 952 put forward a proposal which might remove the possibility of such a mistake as this occurring a second time. I do not claim to have any experience of England. My experience lies in Scotland, in that I am closely connected with one of those local authorities which, until the other day, were responsible for the administration of transitional benefit. What I cannot understand is how this mistake—because a mistake, I suppose, it surely must have been—has occurred. The scheme was evolved by a great central body, composed of men who—as I suppose every reasonable man will readily admit—had no desire to do anything except to treat the unemployed fairly. They produced their scheme and presumably they thought it would work all right. How was it, I ask myself, that when this scheme, considered right by this great central body, came down to the individual man who had to administer it, it was realised in a few minutes that it was going to involve immense reductions in the allowances to many of these unfortunate people who were unable to find employment? That, in my experience, is what has happened, and I cannot quite see how it was that the central body failed to perceive what the local officers concerned with the administration noticed the moment they saw the Regulations.
Can it mean that the mistake has arisen owing to a basic policy which is wrong? I stand unashamed before your Lordships as one who says in private, and I think often in public, that I am not convinced that this great policy of everlastingly greater centralisation really works. And is this not perhaps a case where it has failed most lamentably? In my work connected with the local authorities in Scotland one change has been brought about during the last few years under the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1929, which did away with parish councils, and in my intercourse with the responsible members of local authorities throughout the length and breadth of Scotland I have been very much struck by the absolute solidity of opinion among those men on one point. They say that that Act may have had weak points, it may have made mistakes, but one mistake it certainly made, and that was that it did away with the parish councils. That seems to be, so far as I can find out, 953 almost the unanimous opinion among the people connected with local government.
Your Lordships may ask: What has that to do with this matter? As I see it, it has this. I ask myself what it is that these poor unemployed people want. They are not perhaps very vocal, or very clear in their own minds, but, so far as I can see, what they want is to be treated as human beings, and not as small unidentifiable cogs, in some slow-revolving wheel of perhaps high efficacy, but also perhaps of rather ghastly inhumanity. We lose the local touch in my opinion, and that is what caused all this trouble. In the days of these small parish councils, they no doubt seemed to a great business man going to visit them rather funny, inconspicuous little bodies. Their members made no claim to great business efficiency or wide knowledge. They might well have seemed to him to carry on their work in a manner which would be far from successful. But the member of the big central body, going to see those people, was perhaps the last person to appreciate that that little council had what the central body can never get, and that is the personal touch with all the people in their little area.
In the old days, when the Poor Law was administered largely through the parish councils, the men upon those councils looked into all the cases of hardship within their areas, and some member of such a council, in the case of every man and woman who came before them, knew that person's father or wife or husband, and his whole life history was like an open book. It was a much better system than many people think, and I ask myself, with no desire to put the Government in a difficulty, whether, after all, those little bodies, working gently along among people whom they knew, and who knew them, were not fully-competent to carry out this work of doling out allowances to people whom they knew well enough to judge, and who, in their turn, knew that they were known inside out almost from the day of their birth. If it is a question of efficiency, I know I shall be told that that will not do, because one small council does one thing and another does something rather different. I wonder whether, in this question, that is not exactly what you want up to a point. Is it really right to lay down any more or less rigid 954 rules and regulations for everybody who is unemployed in every little area, with all their different circumstances, from Land's End to John o' Groats. I do not think that works. If there are differences, the majority of those differences will depend upon the different circumstances of the different areas. If it be said that some of these little councils may jump the traces, and behave in a manner which is perfectly hopeless, well, local bodies have done that before, and I rather wonder whether it is not easier for the central body to lay down the general rules and regulations for those little committees to administer in their own way, and if they will not play properly and do their work, they must be superseded where such a course is necessary. I do not believe there will be many cases where such a course will be required.
There is another point with which I would like to deal if I am not detaining your Lordships too long. There is no doubt in my mind that the local officers concerned with administering these allowances knew beforehand that there was going to be difficulty, and there again the little local council has an advantage over the paid official. None of your Lordships who have ever, as many of you have, represented a Government Department will fail to know that local bodies like county councils and parish councils are very ready to rebel against a Government Department and very often do to some effect. That is really a healthy thing. Had the local councils had charge of this matter they would have rebelled before the people themselves eventually found it necessary so to do. But, in the case of the paid official, rebellion is a little against the grain. The urge is all on the side of the feeling: "I am only a paid official, I may perhaps lose my post, I am paid to do this work, and so I shall do it under the Regulations as best I can."
I do not wish to take up more of your Lordships' time on this matter, but I do seriously ask myself whether the whole system of these payments would not be better organised and more fairly distributed, and very possibly more economically done, if it were placed in the hands of the small local bodies who know the case of every man and every woman with whom they have to deal. I simply put to the Government the suggestion that per- 955 haps they may find it possible, in taking steps to avoid any repetition of this unfortunate occurrence, to consider whether the policy of decentralisation to local bodies might not work more smoothly and more successfully from everybody's point of view than this continual centralisation in one great central body.
§ LORD ELTON
My Lords, I would ask leave, if I may, to carry the admirable suggestions and criticisms made by the noble Earl who has just sat down a little further—into the shape of a definite suggestion or request to His Majesty's Government. First of all, as the noble Lord who leads the Opposition has done me the honour of referring to the very ill-fulfilled prophecies I made in the course of the debate when this matter first came before your Lordships' House, I would explain that in the remarks I then addressed to you I based my very excessive optimism, as the noble Lord will see if he looks at my speech, very largely upon the presence in the Bill of a discretionary power which, as I thought—wrongly as it proves—would be so important that I actually went so far as to say I understood it was an expert opinion that the number of families dealt with under the discretionary clause would come to be more numerous than those dealt with under the Regulations. In that I was completely wrong. That forecast has been falsified. It was probably wrong to expect civil servants, especially civil servants of minor grade, to make full use of discretionary authority.
But where I would take up the very admirable speech which we have just heard is in saying that where many of us went wrong in our forecasts was in this respect, that the dangers of over-centralisation were suddenly and glaringly exposed. I think that when the lesson of this unfortunate experience has been fully digested it will prove to have a marked and lasting effect on the social and economic theory of all Parties in this country and not least of the Party of noble Lords who sit opposite. The fact is we are beginning to learn about centralisation what we learned a few years ago about direct taxation. A decade or so ago, from the premise that direct taxation is good, the simple deduction was invariably drawn that the more of it we had the better, and it was only experience which taught us that the point 956 at which direct taxation began to yield a diminishing return came sooner than enthusiasts expected. It is the same with centralisation.
For more than two generations centralisation has been introducing a salutary measure of order into the chaos of the old Victorian system, and a similar deduction has been drawn that the more centralisation we had the better. That certainly has been for a long time orthodox Socialist doctrine, and it is a doctrine to which all Parties in the State have subscribed. Unemployment assistance, with the grotesque anomalies that it undoubtedly contained, seemed marked out as a field in which to press that principle of centralisation to its logical conclusion. Your Lordships all know of families living in the same area, and under precisely similar economic conditions, of whom one received twice as much as the other. There is no question of adequacy or inadequacy involved. It is manifestly improper that persons in similar circumstances should receive grotesquely dissimilar amounts of relief, and when to that was added the fact that these were national funds and unemployment was a national responsibility the case for centralisation did seem unanswerable. Until 1931 that was the orthodox Socialist case which I have myself put, and have repeatedly heard put from Labour platforms.
Centralisation seemed a clear-cut and logical solution but, alas, it has proved in the experience of the last few weeks too logical and, if I may say so, with the wisdom which follows the event, we introduced it too suddenly. This is a highly individualistic country, and what suits London manifestly does not suit Lancashire. I fully accept, and I know your Lordships will fully accept, that the intentions of the Government were to raise the general level of relief, but what is fundamental in my view, and obviously in the view of the noble Earl who has just sat down, is not that in too many cases the level of relief has in fact proved too low, but that everywhere it has proved too rigid. A single scale for the whole country is really unworkable, and must be unworkable unless that discretionary clause to which I wrongly pinned so much faith were worked with the wisdom and sense of balance which it is quite unfair to expect from minor-grade civil servants coping with so 957 appallingly complicated and intricate a problem.
May I suggest to the Minister in charge of the Bill, and through him to His Majesty's Government, that it should be possible to reform this measure without any wrecking Amendments very much along the line suggested in the speech of the noble Earl, along lines which would produce, I think, a working compromise between the localism-run-riot of the old system and the over-rigid centralisation which we have just seen breaking down? Would it not be possible for the Minister to appoint regional commissions representing groups of neighbouring public assistance authorities? Could he not give those regional commissions upper and lower levels within which they could exercise their own discretion? Could not those regional commissions frame a policy within those limits and nominate local area committees, representing local experience and local activity, to deal with the primary assessments? The out-station staff of the Unemployment Assistance Board would remain in being to implement the policy of these regional commissions. I venture to suggest that some such framework could be introduced without wrecking the main Act, and that if it were introduced it would represent something much nearer than the Act at present represents, to what should be in a great social service the proper relations of the central authority to the local authority.
Just one other appeal. I myself have become convinced that it is time that the household means test for able-bodied workers over 18, except of course married couples, ought to be modified or abandoned, but I know that most of your Lordships would agree that the Government would be betraying their mandate if they allowed themselves to be thrust upon the slippery slopes which led to the abandonment of the means test itself and to all the disastrous chaos of 1931. I only venture to suggest that along these lines it may be possible for the Government to find some working compromise between localism and centralisation, and that if that compromise were found it would be far more likely than the too-rigid centralisation of the present measure, as I now believe it to be, to provide a just and a permanent settlement of this 958 extraordinarily difficult question. I know that your Lordships, like the country, are all looking for the time when that just and permanent settlement has been made, and when we can begin to look forward, away from the period of ambulance work to the work of reconstruction, away from the workless and relief scales to the worker and the wage rate. That, I believe, is what the country is waiting for.
§ LORD SNELL
My Lords, it was not our intention to intervene further in this debate, but the suggestions made by the noble Earl and the noble Lord who has just sat clown respecting centralisation lead one rather to infer that those remarks will make a greater impression upon your Lordships' minds, if the other side of the case is not stated, than would be desirable. It is always possible that centralisation in such a matter can be carried further than experience in regard to administration has gone, but there are very serious difficulties in regard to that specially localised administration to which the noble Earl referred. There is no greater tyranny in the minds of the workers, the agricultural labourers and people who live in villages, than that tyranny of the local squire or parson which decides whether they shall have this, that or the other, and the breakaway from extreme localism to some form of centralisation was made precisely to remove those fears. We want to remember that there is that side to be considered.
I agree with the noble Lord who has just sat down that the results of the last few weeks will have to receive the very careful attention of those who study political science and political philosophy in this country. With regard to the matter before your Lordships' House, I do not propose to say more than this. We do not need to assume that the courage, if it was courage, of the Minister was not to he expected of him. Everybody who knows him knew that he would 'meet a difficult situation with frankness and courage and with those qualities which belong, to the distinguished house whose records he adorns. We all agree about that.
I want to say this in conclusion. Suppose this thing had happened under a Labour Government. Allow your imaginations to play upon the sustained indignation, the concentrated derision, the whole- 959 sale contempt that would have been poured out not only by every noble Lord who sits upon the other side of this House, and perhaps by some who sit on this side, too, but also by every newspaper in this country. Labour cannot govern! Gross incompetence!—and all the rest. I can almost hear the noble and learned Viscount on the other side of the Table using that very phrase. What are we to say now? We are more considerate for their feelings than ever they were for ours, and we cannot find it in our hearts to say any hard thing about them. But I do want to plead for general charity in these matters for all Governments, not only the Government that is in power at the present time, and if occasions should ever come in the future—I think it is highly improbable that they will—when other Governments may make a similar mistake, let noble Lords opposite remember that charity is required from them as well as from us. I do not believe this episode will have humbled His Majesty's Government, but it may have at least reminded them that they are not, as they thought, infallible.
THE MARQUESS OF ABERDEEN AND TEMAIR
My Lords, may I say a few words as, I believe, the only member of your Lordships' House who has actually had responsible experience in administering transitional benefit in London—not an easy job. I would first of all re-echo what the noble Marquess opposite said in such eloquent words about the conduct of the Minister of Labour. I think nobody can fail to admire his frankness in the way in which he accepted the situation and so unselfishly took upon himself the responsibility. It shows that his heart is in the work, and the Government are fortunate in having such a member to administer what is, I think, one of the most thankless offices in the Government, that of Minister of Labour.
The real cause of the trouble is this. All those who have administered public assistance in any part of its many divisions know that it is impossible to administer to human needs according to regulations set down in black and white in print. It requires the human touch to deal with human beings. Even the noble Lord who has just spoken must be beginning to realise how difficult it is to administer a scale of relief with success, even in London. Those with whom I 960 acted on the London County Council always said that you cannot lay down a scale which will fit everybody. It requires the human touch. I rather fancy that when this scheme was under consideration the idea was that the human touch would be brought in through local tribunals of appeal, composed of individuals who could go into the cases and discuss them with the individuals and administer the scale in a human way. Of course, they have not had much opportunity to function, but the mere fact that everything has gone wrong on account of trying to do it by regulations shows that there is a great deal in what the noble Earl sitting behind me has said this afternoon.
I agree that you can have too much local administration, but the Local Government Act of 1929 did improve matters so far as administration in London was concerned, because London is one place and not twenty-six places. Formerly, relief was administered in twenty-six different ways in London by twenty-six different authorities. There really was a great improvement so far as administration in London was concerned. But we made it our business to see the people themselves, to find out exactly what were their conditions, and to treat them generously, and not in a niggardly manner, but without extravagance. I claim that the administration of transitional benefit, as it left us eleven months ago, was going on extremely satisfactorily, and there was very little cause for complaint. The difficulty which I think the Government tried to meet—and it is a very real difficulty—is that if you have candidates standing for election to local authorities on matters of detail, you are liable to get people returned to local authorities by those whom they are going to help, whereas, of course, those who receive relief ought, by the laws of common sense and public economy, to have no voice in the elections. It is only within recent years that those who receive relief have been entitled to say who shall administer it. That is the real trouble which brought about this undesirable administration, and I presume that it is one of the reasons why the Government decided that no longer should relief of any kind be administered by people who have to stand for election, thereby re- 961 moving the possibility of bribery at election time.
But if you do not have the local knowledge, the local touch and the human touch, it is almost impossible to administer relief of any kind fairly, with justice to the recipient and justice to the taxpayer or the ratepayer. I hope that whatever is going to happen under a subsequent Bill, which I understand will have to come before us in due course, some method will be found whereby the human touch, the local touch, will be imported into the administration of what is not at all an easy job to do. It was my fortune, or misfortune, to be responsible officially for the administration of this service in four boroughs in London. They were not what one might call the worst boroughs, but they formed a large slice of London, and it may be realised what an extraordinarily heavy responsibility it was. I doubt whether that responsibility can be fully carried out by one who has to make his living out of administering the service. It is the voluntary element that is valuable in administration of this kind, because then the voluntary members of a committee have a fellow feeling for those who come before them, and want to do the right thing for them as well as represent those who have to find the money. I hope I have not trespassed too long on your Lordships' patience, but as one with personal experience of the administration of transitional benefit, I felt that it was my duty to tell your Lordships some of the real difficulties which we met and which, through our organisation of public assistance in London, I think we very largely overcame.
§ LORD ROCHESTER
My Lords, in replying to the debate on behalf of the Government I make no complaint of the reception accorded to the Bill by your Lordships' House, and, with one conspicuous exception, I cannot complain of contributions to the debate made by members of the House. It is to that one exception that desire to address myself first. I refer to the attack on the Prime Minister by the noble Lord who leads the Opposition. He read out the answer given by the Prime Minister in another place to a supplementary question put without previous notice, and I should have hoped that the noble Lord opposite would have taken the oppor- 962 tunity to express appreciation of the Prime Minister's candour on the occasion in question.
§ LORD PONSONBY OF SHULBREDE
May I say that I was not attacking the Prime Minister? I was attacking the way in which the Government treated this matter.
§ LORD ROCHESTER
I was referring to the reply which the noble Lord read out, and I feel that your Lordships' House is entitled to resent attempts made by the noble Lord to criticise and pillory the Prime Minister. To suggest that it is impossible for my right honourable friend the Minister of Labour or any Minister to take a decision upon administrative matters affecting their own Departments without consultation with the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, and without acquainting them with every detail, is, I submit, a travesty of the possibilities of modern government. I regret, and I confess I was not a little surprised at, that part of the noble Lord's speech.
I desire to reply as far as I am able to all the points raised, and I will endeavour to deal with them seriatim. The noble Lord opposite, Lord Ponsonby, put four questions, as I understand, at the conclusion of his speech. The first was: When are the Regulations to be made? The answer to that is that this Bill gives time for consideration of what should be the future arrangements, and I suggest, therefore, that that question hardly arises at this stage. All that this Bill is intended to do is to make temporary provision for the assistance of the persons concerned, while a full analysis is being made of the exact operation and effect of the existing Regulations. Whether the result of that analysis will be to suggest that the existing Regulations require amendment, or that any alteration is desirable, is a matter on which I feel it would be premature at this stage to pronounce any judgment. The next question which the noble Lord put to me was whether, if the Regulations were amended, Parliament would be given an opportunity of proposing amendments. As to that, I feel that it is fair to point out that in Clause 1, subsection (5) of the Bill it is provided that it shall continue in force until determined in accordance with an Order confirmed by a Resolution passed by 963 each House of Parliament. It is the intention of the Government to make their future proposals known to Parliament before asking it to pass such a Resolution. The debate on this Resolution will therefore give an opportunity for a preliminary discussion of the Government's proposals before any further action is taken.
The noble Lord next asked me as to the position of local authorities owing to the postponement of the second appointed day. There, frankly, I feel that I am treading on rather thin ice, and I think I must content myself with saying that, contrary to expectations, local authorities will continue to be responsible after March 1 for a considerable body of workpeople who are not within the transitional payments scheme. In these circumstances the local authorities cannot be asked to pay the contribution which would have been due from them after March 1. It is clear that, they must be assisted by a contribution from central funds. The precise arrangements will be the subject of negotiation, and I understand that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Minister of Health will take an early opportunity of discussing the matter with local authorities; but I am sure the noble Lord would not seek to pin me down to any date. I do not want to leave the impression that that conference will necessarily be held in the immediate future—I think the noble Lord will appreciate the difficulties with which the Government are faced in this matter—but that such a conference will take place I can assure the noble Lord.
The next speaker was the noble Marquess who leads noble Lords above the Gangway. I should like to thank him for his contribution to the debate. I do not think that he put to me any specific question to which he desired an answer from the Government. The next speaker was my noble friend the Earl of Leven and Melville, and I feel that the noble Lord opposite, Lord Snell, has very largely answered him. I would add only this, if I may, and I think it is crucial. My noble friend will forgive me for mentioning that I argued this position somewhat fully on the occasion of our debate just before the Recess when we were discussing the Regulations themselves, and therefore I think I will content myself to-night with saying that no less 964 than 95 per cent. of the money comes out of State funds and not out of local funds.
§ LORD ROCHESTER
Surely, therefore, the control must be central? I think the noble Earl will agree upon reflection that it has a great deal to do with it. The local authorities would have no financial responsibility if they proposed increases in the scales of allowances, assuming that such discretion were left in the hands of local authorities.
THE EARL OF LEVEN AND MELVILLE
I do not want to interrupt the noble Lord, but my suggestion, which perhaps I did not make quite clear, was that there should be a central body which should lay down in broad terms the scheme and the allowances, which could be altered by the local bodies according to local circumstances.
§ LORD ROCHESTER
I am obliged to the noble Earl; and that brings me to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Elton. I can only thank him for his constructive speech and say that I will make it my duty to bring to the notice of my right honourable friend the Minister of Labour his suggestion as to regional commissions. I think that would go some distance to meet the noble Earl. I do not think that the contribution to the debate made by the noble Lord, Lord Snell, calls for any reply. He was really replying to comments made on this side of the House. The noble Marquess, Lord Aberdeen, gave us cogent illustrations of the working of these Regulations, and I am sure that we are indebted to him for the explanations which he has given us from such a practical standpoint. Without delaying your Lordships' House further, I do ask that you will accord this Bill a Second Reading.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House forthwith.
§ House in Committee accordingly: Bill reported without amendment.
§ Bill read 3a, and passed.