Notwithstanding anything contained in the Unemployment Insurance Acts, 1920 and 1921, all persons in the employment of any railway company or a joint committee of two or more such companies who have completed or shall hereafter complete three years' service with such company or committee shall be exempt from the provisions of the said Acts, and the contributions paid under the said Acts by any such company, or committee, or any persons in their employ which would not have been payable had the provision herein contained been contained in the Unemployment Insurance Act, 1920, and made to apply as from the date on which that Act came into operation shall be refunded.—[Mr. Thomas.]
I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."
This Clause is one which I feel the Minister ought to accept. It is moved as much in the interest of the Government as of the men themselves. The real difficulty is that when the original Act was passed railwaymen were exempted from its operation. There can be no doubt that, so far as the Minister himself was concerned, in the discussions we had over this matter, he said he was absolutely clear that the railways were exempted. We accepted that assurance and assumed there would be no difficulty whatever, but soon after the Act became law it was discovered to be necessary to apply to the Minister of Labour for exemption, as provided in the original Act. We then found ourselves up against this difficulty, that the railway companies, in applying for exemption, had practically to vary their contracts of service. They had to say, in substance: "So far as we are concerned there can be nothing to compel us to retain a man in our employ, and, if we are compelled to dismiss him for any circumstances whatever, we have only to plead this particular exemption in order to justify our position in a Court of Law." It is only fair to say that, so far as the unions were concerned, they never accepted that position. We said quite frankly to the railway companies: "No, we do not intend to put you in a stronger legal position after the passing of the Act than you were in before." Unfortunately, however, there was considerable difficulty.
I am not putting it too high when I say that up till a few weeks ago from 20 to 30 railway companies felt themselves unable, on the advice of their own legal departments, to themselves apply for the exemption, with this curious result, the men thought that they were exempted by statute, the railway companies thought that they were exempted, and further than that the men paid their contribution every week, and the railway companies paid their contributions, but immediately any man claimed benefit from the unemployment exchange, he was told, "You are not exempted from the Act." Therefore the men were paying the contribution for this period, yet immediately they became unemployed, they were actually refused the benefit for which they had paid. It must be obvious to this House that that not only led to misunderstanding but to a very.strong and serious feeling. Fortunately we have got over the difficulty, but it is only fair for the House to remember that that difficulty can crop up in the same form every year. I want my right hon. Friend to realise that this Clause does not take away anything from the existing Act. It does not exempt anyone who is not already exempted, it adds nothing to the Act, and it is strictly in accordance with the draft agreement come to between the right hon. Gentleman and ourselves. It enables him, however, to get out of the unfortunate difficulty we have been in for the past 18 months, and it is for that reason I move its adoption.
I am afraid that this new Clause is going to do a great deal more than the right hon. Gentleman suggests. The principal Act of 1920 enabled exception from Unemployment Insurance in certain cases. Among others employés of railway companies were excepted under certain conditions, and one of the conditions was that the employé should not be liable to dismissal except for misconduct or neglect of duty. But many railway companies felt themselves unable to give the necessary certificate, and as my right hon. Friend says, there was very great difficulty in arriving at an understanding as to what would satisfy the law. But we got round the difficulty, and I believe that, with one exception, all the railway companies have come into line and will be able to give the requisite certificates, so that we hope to be able to satisfy the law. My right hon. Friend suggests that we are going to have this trouble every year. We do not want that, of course.
My right hon. Friend is going to cure that evil, and, if he is going to confine himself to ensuring that the law is satisfied, I shall not put any difficulty in the way. All the companies have, I understand, fallen into line with the law. T should be only too glad to avoid a repetition of the difficulty every year, but my right hon. Friend goes further than that. He says that there shall be ruled out of the Insurance Act
All persons in the employment of any railway company or a joint committee of two or more such companies who have completed or shall hereafter complete three years' service with such company or committee.
Does my right hon. Friend say that that involves permanent employment?
Is not that identical with the words of the certificate of exemption? Those words are taken from the certificate of exemption. The three-years' Clause was the Clause mutually agreed upon between the railway companies, the Ministry of Labour and ourselves. That is the Clause which is in operation now, and it is in order to regularise that that these words are put in.
That is not my reading. The two forms of statement, either of which would satisfy my right hon. Friend, are as follows. The first is:
The Departmental Committee on Bail-way Agreements and Amalgamations who
heard witnesses on behalf of employers and employed reported 'that one of the main inducements to compete for admission to the railway service is the strong presumption of the permanence of employment during good behaviour. (Paragraph 181 (ii).)' With regard to all railway servants of the classes above described it is the practice of the company not to dismiss them except on the grounds above mentioned, and it is proposed to continue this practice. It sometimes happens that employment is not available for every member of the class on full time, but even in that case dismissal would only take place if the circumstances were most exceptional, the available employment being distributed among the members of the class at less than full time by agreement between employers and employed.
The second form of statement is as follows:
The employment is, having regard to the normal practice of the employer, permanent in character. The employed persons have completed three years' service in the employment, and the other circumstances of the employment make it unnecessary that the employés referred to in this application should be insured under the Act. It is intended to maintain the present practice.
My difficulty is that, although I have the three years, I am not assured as to the permanence of the employment. I am not really opposing my right hon. Friend, except that I do not want him to make such a breach in the scheme of this Bill as to let out persons who may need the protection which it provides; and it may be that the difficulty will arise year after year. Do not let us have that. If, however, before this Bill leaves another place, I can get words which will ensure that the railway servants' occupation is permanent in character, I will give the matter very careful consideration. I cannot, however, take it in this form, because I assure my right hon. Friend that he is making it much too wide, and, by these words which he proposes, would undoubtedly let out a very large number of employés of all kinds who may be the subject of dismissal, and who may need the protection of this Bill. Nevertheless, if we can come to some agreement between the parties which will give us a Clause which will avoid trouble year after year, no one will be happier than I.
I say "if"—it does not alter the position in any kind of way. The right hon. Gentleman remains exactly as he is at the present moment. The only difference will be that at the end of the year, when the certificate terminates, it will be unnecessary for the railway company or the trade union to apply to the right hon. Gentleman for a fresh certificate. Now it is necessary, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby has said, to apply to the Minister for a fresh certificate. What would be the position in the event—which is not an improbable event—of there being another right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Ministry, who might not take the view which is taken by the present Minister? Immense complications would then ensue and very great difficulties would arise, because the railwaymen, who have hitherto been exempted from paying these contributions, would certainly feel very much aggrieved if they were obliged to begin or to resume contributions to which, up to the present time, they have not been subject.
Exactly. As has been said by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby, all the companies are now in line. Let me point out to the right hon. Gentleman that what he is doing at the present time is taking contributions and refusing to pay benefit to the men. He has done that on two occasions. On one occasion I wrote to him and saw him, and said: "You have taken from the men in my employment their contributions; they have now left that employment, and you actually refuse to give them the benefit for which they have paid." That was last autumn, I think—I am not sure that it was not even last summer; and nothing has happened. The right hon. Gentleman has taken the money and has not given it to the men whose right it is. I wrote to him a week ago with reference to another case, pointing out that not only had he refused to give the man in question his proper benefit under the Act, but he had actually refused to return him his contributions. The man in question says, "If I cannot get the benefit for which I have paid, and for which the company has paid, at any rate, return me my contributions"; but this has been refused. In these cir- cumstances, is it not absolutely absurd for the right hon. Gentleman to refuse to accept this Clause? He is not going to lose a single shilling—unless, of course, he is under the impression that perhaps one or two companies would not come in, and that he would be able to take their contributions and then refuse to give the men or the companies that for which they have paid. I do not know whether that was in his mind, but, unless it was in his mind, I cannot conceive why on earth it is that he cannot accept this Clause. I would make an earnest appeal to him. I had the honour of supporting him in the Lobby this afternoon, and now I would appeal to him to accept this Clause. It will not hurt him in the least; it will not cost him a shilling, unless in the circumstances to which I have just referred, and I am quite certain that he does not mean to do that. It will, on the other hand, save him a very great deal of trouble. It will not hurt him in the least, because, if he accepts it and finds afterwards that it is really absolutely impossible—although I am quite certain that he will not—he always has a remedy in another place.
If ever a Minister ought to be safe, my right hon. Friend ought to be. He knows that anything proposed from this side, if it were dangerous, would, by the very nature of things, be safeguarded by my right hon. Friend the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury). The Minister can sit on that bench absolutely content and assured that, if there were any proposal from this side that would be dangerous to him, the right hon. Baronet would be there, ever on the alert to protect him. What happens to-day? I make a proposal, and the right hon. Gentleman not only says that it is a good proposal, but he says to the House of Commons as the guardian of the public purse and to me in the interests of efficiency and economy: "Do not make a mistake now that you have got the chance." If the right hon. Gentleman or any other Minister had the backing of the right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London and of myself, he would be absolutely safe.
A new coalition; and I am quite sure that if such a Clause, backed by such opinion, went to the other House, it would not attempt to interfere with it. The difficulty in which we are is this, that, if we go to a Division, we shall get a number of hon. Members who have not heard the merits of our ease coming into the Lobby on the instructions of the Government Whip. That would be unfortunate for us. We should have the moral victory, but the right hon. Gentleman would have the plums, and I am too old a Parliamentary hand to allow myself to be led into that position. On the other hand, neither the right hon. Baronet nor myself wishes to put the right hon. Gentleman in a difficulty. We do not want to exempt anyone who is not now exempt. We do not want to add one solitary individual to the exemption list to which we have all agreed. All that we want to do is to prevent the misunderstanding and difficulty and, indeed, serious friction which has arisen. The right hon. Gentleman's point is not on the merits of our Clause, but he is afraid that it goes much too wide. If he will accept it now, and if he finds, in consultation with his advisers between now and then, that it does go beyond what we clearly say it is intended to do, and therefore will place him in a difficulty, I certainly shall be quite content, if it is amended in another place, to accept that Amendment, provided only that it meets that difficulty. I would suggest that that is a very fair deal. The object is to get the right hon. Gentleman, as well as ourselves, out of a difficulty which has caused endless trouble to the Gentlemen sitting under the Gallery, who, with the Minister and myself, have been trying to get over this difficulty. The very fact that the right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London and myself have formed a coalition in his interests will, I hope, move the right hon. Gentleman to accept the Clause.
I am very much touched by the spectacle of my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby coming arm in arm with the right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London to appeal to the Ministry of Labour. I feel very much inclined to say "How happy I could be with either," but I do not feel quite easy when I am with both. My right hon. Friend the Member for Derby says that he does not want us to exempt anyone who is not already exempted, and if the conditions of service remain such as to secure the exemption—
—it gets rid of most of our difficulties. All we want to see is that there will not be perhaps another interpretation as to what the law really is and have the whole difficulty all over again. For that purpose I am asked to accept the Second Reading of the Clause and both my right hon. Friends say, "if it does more than you wish or than we desire amend it in another place." I would rather put it the other way. I would rather say, let this be rejected on the understanding that I will do my level best to frame a Clause, with the Parliamentary draftsman, which shall secure that which both my right hon. Friends desire. I hope they will accept that offer.
We have had a perfect example of collective bargaining and it is a tribute both to the trade union and to the business side. Last year when the former Bill was before the House I stood for contracting out generally, but I do not believe, generally speaking, after that principle has been rejected, in any particular organisation coming and claiming that right. In this case further there is this to be said that the industry generally is exempted with the exception of the Great Northern Railway.
I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman if this is the right interpretation. Do I take it that, if this agreement be arrived at, people who are sure of permanent employment will be allowed to come out of the ordinary Insurance Act?
The position is this. Those who are already exempt by the conditions of their service remain exempt. I will give an undertaking to see, for the avoidance of trouble year by year, that their case is perfectly stated in the Act. I assume that the particular railway company which came in last will be covered by that Clause.