Lieut.-Colonel J. WARD:
I beg to move,
That leave be given to introduce a Bill to provide for insurance against unemployment.
On 22nd February the Ministry of Labour issued a circular letter to the trade unions and the employers' associations in the country on the subject dealt with in this Bill, namely, that of unemployment insurance by industry, in which it was stated that the Ministry had for some time past been considering the question of the extent to which unemployment insurance might be provided for and administered by industries themselves, rather than, as at present, by the central Government; and that is the proposal which I desire to make to the House in asking leave to introduce this Bill. I am not introducing the Bill on my own authority, but—and I would particularly ask hon. Members to note this—at the instance of the General Federation of Trade Unions, which is the only great purely industrial and non-political organisation—[Interruption]—of workers in this country. Affiliated with that federation are 129 registered trade
unions, with a membership—not merely a delegation membership, but an actual daily, weekly or monthly paying membership of 1,426,000 trade unionists; and it does not seem to me that that is quite the sort of combination that ought to be met with such cheers—[Interruption]—as have emanated from those who are supposed to represent Labour in this House.
There is, no doubt, one section of the Labour movement that attaches the greatest possible importance to the State in every effort connected with industrial progress. On the other hand, there are those—just as good workmen and just as representative of the class to which they belong—who have not that definite and decided faith in the efficacy of the State in improving and controlling everything connected with the working man. The question is referred to in the Geddes Report, and in the circular letter issued by the Ministry of Labour they mention that Report as a justification for reconsidering the method by which Unemployment Insurance should be dealt with in this country, But the federation to which I belong, and for which I am now speaking, had been considering this matter for over a year before the Geddes Committee was ever appointed, and, by resolution in conference at Bangor last year, decided to inquire into the whole subject, with the view of seeing whether it was not possible to sever the question of unemployment entirely from State control, and to place it as a duty on the great industries themselves. The management committee of the federation, after long consideration, drew up a memorandum on the subject, and I cannot do better than quote from that memorandum to inform the House of the principle that has prompted the federation in its action, and of the object which it hopes to secure through this Bill. The memorandum, as it states, is in no sense an attempt to indicate the causes of unemployment or to put forward real remedies. Those are left for separate treatment. The memorandum aims rather at examining some proposals for relieving the distress which unemployment causes. It aims also at determining which of these proposals offers the greatest benefit to the unemployed at the smallest administrative costs and with the least loss of moral fibre to the people themselves. It goes on to say:
To-day the common assumption is that both Boards of Guardians and Employment Exchanges have failed. The failure of the machinery hitherto set up for the relief of distress is presumptive evidence of its un-suitability…. The chief points of Employment Exchange criticism are that they do not fulfil their primary functions—that of providing the employer with the worker he needs, or the worker with the employer he needs, and of affording media of relief to the genuinely unemployed without pauperisation…. While it may he argued that some are too poor to buy a paper, none are too poor to visit the free libraries, where many papers may be consulted; nor should the practice of displaying 'Wants' Advertisements at up-to-date newspaper and trade union offices be overlooked. One of the main arguments for the maintenance of the Exchanges has been drawn from the fact that many thousands of workers do not belong to trade unions. That is mainly their own fault. To-day every worker in every occupation can find unions which are competing for his membership. If the skilled refuse him, the unskilled embrace him. If there is a residuum which cannot be placed, it must be very small or reprehensibly obstinate…. If the industries themselves provided the funds and controlled their distribution, the State would be relieved of enormous administrative charges, and many persons would have inducements to mendicancy removed further from them. The trade unions have had experience of unemployment benefits; they know their people, and statistics prove that they administered with a consideration and with an economy far surpassing that of any Government Department.
It is because the great trade unions are not influenced entirely by politics, but look at trade organisation from the point of view of the amount of benefit that it will give to the worker who is a member as an industrial unit in the country—purely as a means of bargaining with his employer to get a fair share of the results of his labour—that we say that this method of dealing with the subject is quite out of date, is antiquated and useless, places a burden upon the taxpayer almost equal to the benefit received by the workman, and is a thing that ought to be abolished. Therefore, I am asked by this organisation to move for leave to introduce this Bill.
Chiefly to avoid misunderstanding outside this House, the Members on this side of it desire me to say something in opposition to the main principles of this Bill. We do not propose to carry our opposition to the length of forcing a Division on the First Reading. The Bill is not in print, and we have had no details as to its provisions. We doubt very much indeed whether my hon. and gallant Friend can speak with due authority even for the Federation of Trade Unions with which he is associated.
For myself, I am prepared to listen with the greatest respect to anything that my hon. and gallant Friend may have to say on such a subject as this, for, although we differ from him on many matters, we know him as one who has not only rendered very valuable services to his class, but also most notable services to his country, and he is entitled to be heard on a question of this kind. We understand that by this Bill he proposes completely to transform the principle upon which unemployment insurance to-day rests. The principle now is that insurance must be the acceptance of a risk collectively, and that there must be a collective payment of a contribution for relieving those who suffer from conditions of unemployment. The Bill, as we understand from the little that we have heard about it, is one to place upon each separate industry the obligation, financial and administrative, of meeting whatever may be the needs of the unemployed class within the particular trade or calling. In the first instance, it would, I think, be impossible for anyone, sufficiently or accurately, to define a separate industry, and particularly would it be impossible for a separate trade union to undertake the administration of unemployment insurance within its own borders, for every separate industry within that trade union. I myself am connected with a trade union numbering, roughly, some 500,000 members, but covering not less than 300 different classes of trades and industries within its general membership.
We would, however, be opposed to the Bill, so far as we understand it, even if it were capable of efficient and satisfactory administration, for the reason that insurance has always been accepted where- ever and in whatever connection it has been applied as a pooling of the risks which have to be incurred. One trade is not beset with unemployment. It suffers comparatively little when set beside another class of trade, unfortunately subject to a great degree of unemployment. Why should those in that occupation, favoured by circumstances, be free from their share of the financial and other liability which a state of distress demands in the case of those who have to suffer very severely indeed? I fail to understand why my hon. and gallant Friend who so long has been connected with the least fortunate class of men—the navvy, the outdoor worker, and the general labourer—for whom he has done great work in the past, should associate himself with a proposal to throw upon those who are faced with all these unusual hardships the great obligation of trying to provide for themselves, while saying to others that they can be free from liability and payment in the state of good fortune in which they are placed.
This is a Bill which, if it found effect in law, would set up, not one scheme or plan of relieving unemployment in place of that plan, defective and insufficient as it may be, which now exists, but a thousand schemes. My hon. and gallant Friend was cheered when he said that this would relieve the State of the cost of administration, but anyone giving a moment's deeper thought to it will sec that it would be totally impossible. Under such a great number of schemes as this Bill would involve, you could not have any saving of expense. You would merely have a transference of it, and my hon. and gallant Friend, if he proposes to throw upon the workshops—upon the employers and trade union organisations—the cost of this administration, will find that both of them will reject it. We say that unemployment ought to be, even more than it is, a State responsibility, and that, in the acceptance of that responsibility the State should call upon the industries to bear a real and substantial share of the financial and other obligations which have to be incurred in connection with these schemes of relief.
I suggest to my hon. and gallant Friend that his Federation, if it is really seriously taking this view, is not giving sufficient trial to the attempts which the State so far has made to deal with this problem. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Labour has recently modified his views upon this question, but I suggest that we had only just established conditions of relief to the unemployed through the State agency when the War broke out, and that we have not yet had any reasonable period of normality in which to test the conditions of this State experiment. [HON. MEMBERS: "Divide!"] I think hon. Members who so readily cheered the first sentences which we heard on this question, ought to be willing to hear one or two ideas on the other side. Any matter dealing with the subject of unemployment, if not of overpowering interest in this House, is of enormous importance outside. I hope that I am not overtaxing the patience of the House, but it is not so much a question for a Division as for understanding, and I put it that we have not yet justly or adequately tested this very great State experiment. We have had two periods which have been abnormal—the War period and the after-War period—and I suggest that the middle of this second abnormal period is not the right or fitting time to propose the introduction of a Bill of this kind.