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Part of Orders of the Day — Supply. – in the House of Commons on 15th March 1929.

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Photo of Mr Joseph Batey Mr Joseph Batey , Spennymoor

On Wednesday, the Noble Lord the Minister of Education, in introducing this Estimate, delivered an optimistic speech, a rather too optimistic speech, which has made an altogether wrong impression in the North of England. When I read the "Northern Press," which is one of the chief Conservative Newcastle journals yesterday morning, I found these big headlines: Trade Improved in the Distressed Areas.Encouraging Statement by Lord E. Percy. The Relieved Industries.Achievements of Local Committees. The impression conveyed by the Noble Lord's speech was that distress in the distressed areas has been very much relieved and that any fault for not using the money of the Lord Mayor's Fund rested with the local committees. I read and re-read the Noble Lord's speech, and I want to direct his attention to some of the things that he said. He said: In the first place, we can now say that in all these areas there is no reason why any child in the schools should be inadequately shod or clothed, or should be suffering from inadequate nourishment…. I confess that at the end of last year the position did give me some cause for anxiety in certain districts in Durham and South Wales. I think that the operations of this fund have relieved us, or should relieve us, from all anxiety on that score."—(OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th March, 1929; cols. 1154–5; Vol. 226.) The only construction that one can put upon those words is that now there is no need for any anxiety and that the distress which was so great at the end of last year has been largely relieved by this time. Some of us who live in the North of England cannot see what grounds the Noble Lord had for making that statement, and we say that the distress in the North of England is almost as bad to-day as it was at the end of last year. As a matter of fact, the Lord Mayor's Fund has scarcely touched the fringe of the distress in the North of England, and it is altogether wrong to give the impression that the distress there has been relieved because of what has been done by the Lord Mayor's Fund. I took up another paper, that was issued in the North of England last Monday, and strange to say it is also a Conservative newspaper, the "Sunderland Echo," which has an interesting article on the Lord Mayor's Fund.

The headings were: Relief Fund Work in Durham.Dissatisfaction and Complaints.Distribution Works Slow. The article says: The administration of the schemes in the County of Durham under the Mansion House Fund has given rise to considerable dissatisfaction, and even yet there are many complaints on all sides. It is felt that the winter is going, and yet the work of distribution has never been really set in motion. That, in my opinion, touches the very kernel of this question. The winter is going, and there is going to be no real relief of distress until after the winter is over. When the Noble Lord throws the blame on the local committees, I very much question whether they ought to share that blame. If it does rest on the local committees, I have no hesitation in saying that, whether the majority of the members of those committees belong to my school of thought or not, they stand to be severely censured for the lax way in which they have been dispensing or attempting to dispense the Lord Mayor's Fund, but I very much question whether the local committees deserve so much censure. I am rather inclined to agree with this statement in the newspaper, that it is really the cumbersome machinery which the National Executive has set up that is to blame.

First of all, we have got the national executive for this fund. Then we have got the district committees, then the local committees and, before the money can drift from headquarters through one committee and another, the people are simply being starved. The machinery, which is altogether new machinery, for the dispensing of this relief from the Lord Mayor's Fund is very cumbersome, and even up to the present time has not been set in motion. In spite of the fact that this Fund has been in existence so long, and in spite of the appeals which have been made, the distress in the North of England has not been relieved by this Fund. As a matter of fact, the amount of money which has been spent shows that very clearly, and better than anything else, that while we have got a fund to which the voluntary contributions have been £752,000, and the Government contributions, after this Vote has been passed, ought to be £735,000, making £1,487,000, there has been paid out of that huge sum only £493,456. In view of the severe weather through which we have gone and all the distress, to have paid out only £493,456 is in itself a sufficient condemnation of the cumbersome machinery, and the slow way in which this money is being dispensed. It shows the need for something to be done to speed up the relief that is so much needed. The money still lying in the Fund seems likely to lie in the Fund until the bad weather is over and there is not the desperate need which exists at the present time for relief.

I want to say a few words in regard to the distress, because I am far from agreeing with the noble Lord that there is no need for anxiety in the North of England. The words of the noble Lord applied merely to children. In re-reading the right hon. Gentleman's speech, one notices that, to a large extent, the speech applies more to children than to anybody else, and the "Newcastle Journal" yesterday, in a leaderette upon the Noble Lord's speech, said: It was a satisfactory statement which Lord Eustace Percy was able to make in the House of Commons yesterday with regard to the distribution of the Mansion House Fund in the distressed areas and the relief which is being afforded to suffering people. 12 n.

I submit that, apart from children and one or two isolated cases, there has been no real relief to the suffering people in the North of England. One reads the big posters in London appealing to people to come to the relief of the mining classes in the distressed areas, and one large poster says "Sympathy is not enough." As far as the bulk of the people in the North of England are concerned, they are not being touched by the Lord Mayor's Fund, and, speaking from one's own experience, I very much question whether in the county of Durham there is no anxiety as regards the boots, clothing and feeding of these children. Leaving aside the question of the children, there is still the condition of the men and women. Only yesterday, in the ascertainment for the county of Durham, the number of unemployed people is dealt with. The ascertainment, which is based upon the January figures, shows that there were 735 more men employed in January than in December, and that, compared with 1924, the reduction of men employed in the county of Durham is 45,859.

Out of that great army of unemployed men in the county of Durham, there were, in January, only 735 more men employed than in December. Since January, we may have had another 200 or 300 men employed, but they can be reckoned in very few hundreds, so that we have at the present time in the county of Durham still this great army of 45,000 unemployed, who are not being touched by the Lord Mayor's Fund. I put a question to the Minister of Health recently asking how many unemployed men there were in Durham who were receiving Poor Law relief, and I confess that he gave figures far beyond those I expected. He said that in December last there were in the county of Durham receiving such relief 45,188 cases classified as unemployed. With this big army of men, women and children having to live upon Poor Law relief in the county of Durham, for the House to get the impression that there is no need for anxiety now in the North of England, that the Lord Mayor's Fund has abolished distress, and that everything in the garden is lovely at the present time, is altogether a false impression.

The Noble Lord remembers that there was an official visit paid to the county of Durham in the latter end of January or the beginning of February, and the organising secretary of the Lord Mayor's Fund accompanied the Prince of Wales in those districts. The Prince was simply staggered at the poverty, and the reports in the Press of that visit staggered the public, too, to think that at the latter end of January there was such enormous poverty in the county of Durham. If one can rely on the statements one hears, the Prince was so impressed by the poverty that the language he used at times could not be described as Parliamentary. In one of the colliery villages in my Division which he visited, he said, in regard to the poverty: "Surely, this is bedrock!" We ought to have an official report of that visit, because the Prince of Wales was accompanied by the organising secretary of the Lord Mayor's Fund; they went where they pleased, and if we had an official report, it would show, like the report of the medical officers of the Ministry of Health, that there was still real cause for anxiety about the distress in the north of England.

A huge machine has been set at work under the Lord Mayor's Fund, but everything is ending in the machine. It may be satisfactory to some people to think that a great machine has been set up, but we are able to see the impoverishment of our own people, and people gradually sinking. In spite of that, the Lord Mayor's Fund is doing practically nothing to mitigate their sufferings. We were frightened that the Government would have allowed the transitional period of the Unemployment Fund to expire in April. We are glad that the Government have decided to bring in a Bill next week to extend the period for another 12 months, because we were afraid of the effect upon our people if the period had ended. I have a letter from my brother, who is in a district where from 8,000 to 10,000 miners are living, and a huge number are out of work. He says: There is nothing doing about the Lord Mayor's Fund here yet. How is it that Shields is not under the distressed areas for the transfer scheme? Of course, the likes of me with no little bairns will receive no benefit under these charity schemes, in spite of the fact that I have been out of work for 3½ years. In spite of cases like that, we are asked to believe that there is no cause for anxiety in the North of England. I have only one pair of boots, that in which I am standing now. I generally have two pairs, but last week my wife sent the other pair to a case which she considered more deserving in the county of Durham, leaving me with just the one pair. There is no question that there is real cause for anxiety in the county, and an urgent need that something should be done to speed up the Lord Mayor's Fund, so that the money can be paid out during the severe weather.

I want to say a word about the Government's policy in bringing forward this Supplementary Estimate. Some of us believed that the Government were trying to evade the promise of the Prime Minister, and trying to put off as long as they could bringing forward this Estimate. That has been in keeping with the whole Government policy in regard to distress in the mining areas. The hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Richardson) put a question to the Prime Minister on the 10th November, 1927, asking him whether he was aware of the distress in the mining areas, and what he was prepared to do. The Prime Minister said that he was prepared to do nothing, and did not intend to do anything, and the matter closed there. In the spring of last year, when we had a Debate on the distress in the mining areas, we argued that it was a Government responsibility and that the Government ought to find the money for the relief of the distress. The Minister of Health said that it was not a matter for the Government, and that a public appeal ought to be made. That started the Lord Mayor's Fund, but it did practically nothing for the distressed mining areas right up to the end of the year; then, because of the efforts of some of the Press, a wave of public sympathy swept through the country.

That affected the Prime Minister, and he came to the House on the 19th December and said that the Government had considered the matter, and were prepared to give a pound for every pound subscribed to the Lord Mayor's Fund. I then criticised that action, because I thought that to give only a pound per pound was disgraceful. When the Government had given £1,500,000 to the Irish loyalists, are prepared to pay up to £1,000,000 a year to the North of Ireland Treasury for the Unemployment Fund, and are giving £400,000 to the brewers, it is a shabby action to give only a pound per pound for the distress in the mining areas. The Government ought to have been prepared, as they are responsible for the distress, to have given far more. Even when they promise to pay a pound per pound, there is a difficulty in getting them to pay up. It is said that there are only two bad payers in the world—those who pay too soon and those who will not pay at all. The Government almost come in the last category, and they have held on to the money as long as they dare.

When the Prime Minister made his pound per pound promise, he said that the Government had decided to give £150,000 as an immediate contribution, and a supplementary Estimate was hurriedly passed by the House, believing that the Prime Minister meant what he said. That was on 19th December. On 28th January, I put a question to the Noble Lord, and found that that £150,000 had not been paid. That was six weeks after the Estimate had been passed, and after the Prime Minister had said that the Government were prepared to give this amount as an immediate contribution. It was not until the question had been raised that the Government tipped up the money. The voluntary fund grew and grew about Christmas time and in the new year, running into hundreds of thousands of pounds, and yet the Government do not until this week come forward with this Second Supplementary Estimate. Four times I put a question asking the Government when they were going to bring forward this Estimate, as the money was due to be paid because the Fund was increasing, and there were no signs of the Government making their second contribution. They paid the money six weeks after they first promised to pay it, although the Prime Minister said they were finding this £150,000 as an "immediate step". The winter has been with us all the time, but another six weeks has gone by before they put down the second Estimate, and I am wondering when this further money will be paid. Will they wait another six weeks after the pasing of this Estimate before paying over the money? It is a shabby action on the part of the Government.

The Government put out posters to say that sympathy is not enough, but they themselves behave in a shabby fashion in their dealings with these distressed areas. An hon. and gallant Member sitting below the Gangway said on Wednesday that we ought to thank the Government for giving so swiftly and without limit. I believe he was in earnest and really meant that; but I could have laughed when I heard him say it. A pound-for-pound offer is a shabby limit for a wealthy Government who are paying out so much money to their own friends. As for their swiftness, the Government hold out as long as they can against handing over the money. The idea in the mind of the public is that the Fund was started to relieve distress in the distressed mining areas, but what money is being spent is being frittered away in so many directions that it is doing no good. All sorts of regulations are being made under which the Fund is applied to very different purposes from what the public believed it would be. I will deal with the County of Durham, and will quote again from the same article in the "Sunderland Echo" to which I have referred before. They say: Among the new provisions under the Fund are special grants to families (up to £5 in any one case) suffering acute hardship through sickness or accident. The Durham county committee has spent £600 in meet- ing the preliminary expenses of people leaving their homes to take up work in other parts of the country or to go overseas. To give grants of £5 would be a good thing—if it were done; but I should like to know where it is done. There are many eases of sickness, and many cases of accidents—at least accidents of this description; I refer to cases where our men are not being paid full compensation, getting only partial compensation; but even though getting only partial compensation they can get no unemployment benefit. There are thousands and thousands of these cases, but we find great difficulty in ascertaining any where this grant of £5 has been paid. If the grant is given in any of these cases, the number must be extremely small.

With reference to the further statement that £600 has been spent on the expenses of people leaving home to take up work in other parts of the country or overseas, I hold that no money for industrial transference ought to come out of this Fund. I have no faith in industrial transference. I have talked to too many of the men now in London who have come from Durham. The Government appointed the Industrial Transference Board and accepted its report, and the Government are in honour bound to shoulder the expense of carrying out their recommendations, and yet £600 of this Fund has been spent upon this work of industrial transference by the Durham County Committee. That money could have been far better spent in assisting some of the poor people in Durham who, when they get one meal, scarcely know when they are going to get the next. This report goes on to say: A sum of £800 has been allocated for the transference of people from the county to other areas, and of another £800 earmarked for equipping intending emigrants not more than one-tenth has been used. Apart from all these activities, the Society of Friends is doing real pioneer work in the cultivation of allotments in the county in conjunction with the Fund, a sum of £20,000 having been allocated. This brings me to the question of allotments. In his speech on Wednesday, the Noble Lord said the Lord Mayor's Fund wanted to cure mental depression by providing allotments for distressed miners. I agree that the providing of allotments or the gift of seeds for allotments may be a good thing for the Society of Friends, but to think of curing mental depression among the miners by finding them allotments it; ridiculous. What our men in Durham want is a chance of finding work, and if we say to them, "Spend your time on allotments, that is good for mental depression, they will not be able to seek work in other parts of the country. Besides, to think of allotment work as a cure for mental depression! I can tell the Noble Lord of a far better cure for mental depression. The Government ought to insist that some of our pits should be reopened. That would be a far better cure for mental depression than allotments.

I think the Press reports about the improvement of trade may have misled the Noble Lord. I do not want to say there is no improvement in trade in the North of England, but I do say that, as a matter of fact, the improvement there amounts to no more than this, that collieries which were working short time, that is 3½ or 4 or 4½ days a week, are now working full time. Selling prices are a little better, but, so far as bringing employment to the huge army of unemployed, there is certainly nothing doing. There is still no prospect of work for them, and what I say to the President of the Board of Education is: "Do not make fun of these men out of employment by telling them to grow cabbages on an allotment." That is poking fun at them. Something more ought to be done than that. In the speech, which the President of the Board of Education made on Wednesday last, he said: There is one respect in which the Lord Mayor's Fund has been able to do very little up to now—indeed it has been able to do nothing—and that is in regard to the problem of the young single man, the most depressing problem and the most delicate and difficult to deal with." [OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th March, 1929; col. 1158, Vol. 226.] I am glad that the right hon. Gentlemen recognise that this is a real problem, in fact, it is one of the saddest things with which we have to deal.