Mr. ALFRED DAVIES (Clitheroe):
—by Private Notice—asked the Minister of Health whether it is a fact that a recommendation or instruction has been given by his Department to any boards of guardians that relief should not be granted in cases where the head of the family is not at present employed in consequence of the dispute in the engineering industry, and, if so, will he state the reasons for this action?
Is it a fact that these instructions have been issued, and that such instructions constitute taking sides on the part of the Government? Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that although the works have been thrown open —which is the excuse given by the right hon. Gentleman—the lock-out notices still appear posted on the gates of the works locking out these men? Will he therefore take into consideration the withdrawal of such a recommendation?
I have already stated that I have made no recommendation and sent out no instructions, nor is it my duty to do so. Where I have been asked by boards of guardians to advise, I have had to advise them on the law as the Court of Appeal has decided it. If a workman applies for work at a works and the employer cannot employ him, the case would he different from that to which I have referred.
Does it not apply to a general case of work being there for individuals who are of that particular trade? Is it not the case that in this particular instance there is a dispute in the industry, which has thrown a large number of men idle, that the lock-out notices are still posted, and that any decision come to by the Court of Appeal in a previous case is not on parallel lines, and consequently cannot apply to this particular instance?
The question dealt with previously by the Court was the question of the coal strike in South Wales. The Court of Appeal then laid down the law on the subject, and to it I refer the hon. Member. It is not my duty to interpret the decision of the law, but to draw the, attention of boards of guardians to the law laid clown by the Court, and to leave them to take what action they think fit.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the advice of which he speaks has had the effect on certain boards of guardians making them discontinue the relief which they were giving to then who were thrown into a state of idleness through the lock-out? Does the right hon. Gentleman mean that work is now available for all the men in the engineering trade who may be disposed to return to work on the employers' terms?
The facts may be as the right hon. Gentleman states. It is not my duty to investigate whether it is a strike or a lock-out. It is my duty, if I am asked by a board of guardians what the law is, to refer them to the case which the Court of Appeal has decided. I am not a judicial authority. It is for the boards of guardians to interpret the decision of the Court of Appeal as best they can, and to keep within the law. I am not seized of the fact whether or not there is work in these factories. Neither is it my duty to inquire.
I have stated that already. I have referred them to the ease of the Attorney-Generalv. the Merthyr Tydvil Guardians, 1900, as reported in the Law Reports. I would advise the right hon. Gentleman and his friends to read that case, of which they do not seem to be aware. I have said that if the boards go outside that decision they are acting outside the law. I have informed the boards of guardians of that.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Clerk to the Manchester Board of Guardians only yesterday told some members of that body that he had received an intimation from the Minister of Health that a lockout no longer existed in the engineering industry and that in consequence no relief could be given unless employés could show that no work was available, and that, acting on that assumed authority of the Minister, some guardians have already refused to give relief, and that those who give relief are told that they were liable to a surcharge?
The hon. Member has given me no notice of the particular case he mentions. If the Clerk of the Board of Guardians asked the Ministry for advice I have no doubt the Ministry gave him the proper advice by referring him to the law of the land as it exists. We neither make the law nor alter it. The law exists.
The right hon. Gentleman is aware as to whether or not it is the habit of the Ministry of Health to send out circulars to Poor Law guardians. Where Poor Law guardians ask the Ministry for advice, we conceive it to be our duty to advise them on the law as it stands, to enable them to keep within the law and not run the risk of being surcharged.
In view of the observation made by the right hon. Gentleman during the putting of the question by the leader of the Labour party, will he state to the House whether he is of opinion that the lock-out is ended? [HON. MEMBERS: "Order!"]
Mr. ALFRED DAVIES:
In view of the unsatisfactory reply to the question I have previously submitted, I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, "the action of the Minister of Health in influencing boards of guardians in the withholding of relief from families, where the breadwinner is unemployed in consequence of the dispute in the engineering trade, which action is causing immediate distress and suffering in many quarters."
That is not a Motion which I can accept. The Minister has distinctly stated that he has not tendered any advice or recommendation. The limit of what he has done, in reply to a question, has been to refer inquirers to a case decided in the Courts. Therefore, clearly the Minister has not exercised any administrative power in this matter, and it is only on an exercise of administrative power that he can be brought to account under Standing Order 10.
In view of the effects following from the action of the right hon. Gentleman, as stated in the Motion now submitted, are we not entitled to ask for an opportunity to call attention to that action, in view of the grave distress that has followed upon it?
If an opportunity be given, that, of course, is not a matter for me. What I have to do is to interpret the Rules of the House and this particular rule. If this opportunity be given by the Government I will accept it.
In view of the, statement made by the Minister of Health in submitting to certain boards of guardians a decision of a Court on a coal strike, as he said, and seeing that the particular dispute that is presently going on is not a strike but a lock-out, does not the fact that he has transmitted to those boards of guardians a decision upon another question entirely influence those boards of guardians in a dispute which is not a strike; and, consequently, does not this particular Motion come within the category of a definite matter of urgent public importance?
Is not this quite a new departure on the part of the Minister? We have not heard of anything similar taking place in this dispute until the last day or two. It seems to me quite obvious—and it will be to the man in the street—that it is being done for a definite purpose.