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Orders of the Day — Ministry of Health Bill.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 26th February 1919.

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Mr. THOMAS:

I was, unfortunately, unable to have the opportunity of listening to my right hon. Friend; negotiations of another kind were the real cause of my absence. Nevertheless, I desire to say that there is no Minister who has worked harder than my right hon. Friend in connection with this Bill. For eighteen months, week after week, he was engaged, against tremendous opposition, pressure, and prejudice in meeting many conflicting elements; and I am perfectly certain that he is not responsible for the delay in bringing forward this measure. It would be idle to deny that there is no piece of legislation so necessary as this Bill. It is rather a disadvantage that it required a war, with all its horrors and sacrifices, as well as the patriotism so magnificently displayed by our people, to bring home to all sections of the community what a handicap there was in the health of our people. We have read of C3 men. We have been acquainted with young men who at the call of duty responded to the call. They did not hesitate to offer their services. They repeatedly offered them on many occasions. It was a sad reflection, I repeat, on our social system that these men had to be rejected, and could not serve in the War, because the country itself had neglected to do its duty in looking after their health. I would be deceiving the House if I did not frankly admit that, so far as the Labour party is concerned, we look upon this Bill only as a first instalment. One virtue of the Bill is that it for the first time co-ordinates the many authorities dealing with health questions. The fact that so many authorities at this moment are charged with this duty means that nothing is being done. [An Hon. Member: "Question!"] At least we have this particular advantage in co-ordinating the whole health services under one administration. It wilt be impossible for right hon. Gentlemen opposite to excuse their mistakes by passing the blame on to somebody else. In other words, we will at least be in a position to hold someone responsible. If the Minister, whoever he is, in charge of this matter—I hope the Act will be in force in the very near future—is kept to his job, and Parliament recognises its duty and responsibilities, then I am perfectly certain that something will be done.

I must, however, confess that I am somewhat apprehensive if this measure is transferred to the Local Government Board. My views on the Local Government Board are well known. I believe that the Poor Law arid Poor Law administration stink in the nostrils of all progressive men today. I boldly declare that there is much responsibility for the delay in bringing forward this measure due to the "dead hand" of that particular Department. If it simply means that all these magnificent Clauses, all these great proposals, and all these wide and extensive powers are merely to be transferred to this body, and nothing more is heard of it, then, instead of the Bill being an advantage, it will be mere camouflage. What I desire to impress upon my right hon. Friend is that we want a change of spirit in the Local Government Board. We want them clearly to recognise that there has got to be some driving force, and a different atmosphere, or this measure will not be so advantageous as some of us want it to be, and as, I believe, the whole House expects it to be. That, I put to my right hon. Friend, will clearly necessitate some driving force. For instance, I want the advisory councils that are proposed in this Bill to be real live bodies. I want them to be composed of people of all sections, men and women with experience, knowledge, and interest in the particular question. Whilst, of course, the Minister must always be responsible, we, at least, expect that he will look upon these new bodies as a sort of consumers' council, acting as a driving force to see that things are done.

I want my right hon. Friend also to recognise that if this Bill is to be really effective we must have large Exchequer Grants to the local authorities in order that they may be able to do their work. Anyone in this House, or connected with local administration, knows perfectly well that the great difficulty to-day in dealing with all these questions is that the local authorities always excuse themselves on the ground of the rates, often justifiably! They are entitled to say that the question of the public health is not exclusively a local matter. They are entitled to say that often local authorities are crippled by circumstances for which they have no responsibility. This occurs mainly in the poorer of our authorities. They are entitled to urge that at least the Government shall not be behindhand in giving them substantial Exchequer Grants to enable them to do their work. I know the difficulty with the Treasury. Just as one may say that the Local Government Board retard progress in some directions, so in others my right hon. Friend will be up against the Treasury. My only comment is that, whatever might have existed in 1914, whatever might have been tolerated in 1914, is not good enough for to-day. Our people will not stand it. Our people demand something better. Our people have already shown that they are entitled to something better. By the Minister in charge recognising that I am quite sure he will be able to persuade the Treasury that they must not adopt the usual policy—they must recognise the changed times.

I should like to see some more provision made in connection with the taking over of our voluntary hospitals. No one can do other than pay a tribute to the magnificent work that they have done and are doing. No one can do other than appreciate the magnificent services that have been rendered by the medical provision of our voluntary hospitals. After all, however, so far as the working classes are concerned, it is one of two things which is open to them—charity or the Poor Law. So far as the Labour party is concerned, they are quite clear, and quite determined—and they believe the time is not inopportune—that instead of these great institutions being maintained and being dependent on the charity and good will of the public, they shall be real national institutions, provided and paid for by the public, and administered for the public as a whole. There are many other points that one might deal with, but I do welcome this Bill as a first instalment of the election promises of hon. Gentlemen opposite. Every Member of this House on either side is committed to a new England, no matter to what party he belongs. When we recognise, as we are compelled to do to-day, that the homes and conditions of our people are such that breed disease, we are all satisfied that something must be done. Just imagine for a moment the waste of public money to-day, even under the Insurance Act, which, by the way, was the very first attempt to ascertain the health of the people. In that Act we provided 30s. to at least give some chance in the most critical period of a woman's life. We provided also, in order to prevent her going to work following maternity, that she was at least to be paid four weeks' benefit. But after that, so far as the State is concerned, there is no more concern for her or the baby, with the result that you can go into many of our industrial towns and see a procession of women coming out of the factories, and they rush into some hovel to find the baby that has been left to the care of someone else. After all, the child life of this country should be an asset to the nation, and it should be our first consideration, because these children are the citizens of to-morrow.

In welcoming this Bill we of the Labour party recognise that it is the first step forward, and we will give all the assistance and help we can to the speedy passage into law of this measure. I hope that the same determination, enthusiasm, and energy which my right hon. Friend opposite has displayed with many conflicting interests during the past eighteen months will be shown by the Minister in charge of this Bill, and I hope that the same energy displayed in the administration of the Insurance Act will be the kind of energy that will be displayed in his Department. In other words, I hope that, whilst these things are transferred to the Local Government Board, it is to be a new sort of Local Government Board, and it is not to be conducted on the old methods of the past; and, above all, I hope that the pledge which is here given to put into the operation the Maclean Report, which means the abolition of the Poor Law, is one not to be embodied in this Bill, but is to be given immediate effect to as soon as circumstances warrant. As my right hon. Friend knows, there is a very strong feeling in the trade union and friendly society movement on this question. We only accept this Bill as an instalment with a distinct understanding that the Maclean Report is to be followed by immediate legislation, and I hope that this first Bill to create what I have referred to as a new England will only be the first stage in this House towards many reforms dealing with the social condition of our people as a whole.