I should like to refer for a moment to the subject upon which you, Mr. Speaker, found the hon. Member for Barnstaple (Sir B. Peto) out of order, namely, the subject of industrial assurance. My hon. Friend made a sufficiently long speech to make clear to the House the gravity of the problem involved, but it was made equally clear that the recommendations of the committee which inquired into this problem could not be discussed to-day because they would infallibly involve legislation. There is, on the other hand, a small field of administrative endeavour which we might explore and to which I should like to draw the attention of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. I do not think that anyone who has made any investigation of this problem can fail to be aware of the hardship suffered by numbers of the working classes who are insured, on account, first of all, of illegal policies into which they are induced to enter, and, secondly, on account of under-payments offered to them—indeed, forced upon them very often—when their claims become due.
It is true that there is in London a commissioner, with an office, to whom an appeal may be made, but it is not unreasonable to suppose—indeed, it is undoubtedly the fact—that the functions of the commissioner are not anything like sufficiently widely known. He has no branch office, and I should doubt if 10 per cent. of insured persons under industrial assurance policies know of his existence. It would be impossible for him to deal with the whole volume of complaints, if such volume of complaints reached him. I believe it is a fact that in one of his latest reports he says that approximately 15,000 letters of complaint reached him during the year. Administratively, under the Act as it stands, I think there would be no difficulty in setting up branch offices, in providing for very much greater publicity for the work of the commissioner, and indeed in generally informing insured persons that they have a right of appeal, and that they may expect to have to appeal in a very great many cases.
It is a very remarkable thing, but I happen to be acquainted, as are some of my hon. Friends, with a Mr. Mashford, who resides in Hull, and there, apparently from a benevolent point of view, acts as a sort of prisoner's friend, in an honorary capacity, taking only a very small percentage on the total claims to meet, expenses, and acting on behalf of insured persons who complain to him that they think they are being ill-treated by companies or societies. In a letter dated the 1st March he states:
As proof of my assertion that large sums of money are due to policyholders all over the country, I may say that quite apart from the large amount of outside work I have had to do this year, I have, since the 1st January recovered moneys for 57 Hull families amounting to approximately £560, and I am quite sure that I am not touching even the outer fringe of the question in this City.
He goes on to say:
What indeed must be the position in other parts of the country where the people have had no one to assist them in past years in the same manner as I have.
That is the point which I wish to make. It ought not to be left to the private endeavours of public-spirited men like this to bring home to the companies and societies the just claims upon them, and I think there would be no difficulty—there should be, at any rate, no difficulty—in extending the work of the Commissioner's office to cover at any rate great centres of population and at the same time to make it known, widely known, persistently known, that these offices are there in charge of responsible persons to see that insured people get their rights.
The gravity and extent of what I can only call the organised swindle that goes on under the name of industrial insurance calls for immediate action. Nobody can read the annual report of the Commissioner of Industrial Insurance without being aware that the state of things constitutes a very grave scandal indeed. Although I am unable to refer to the recommendations of the committee or to press on the Government in this Debate their enforcement by legislation, I can ask them to take what steps are in their power to enforce the law as it stands with what rigour they can, and to see that the very welcome, useful and necessary functions of the Commissioner are extended throughout the large centres of population in this country. That is an administrative action of which the whole House will approve, and it would be an enormous blessing to the vast mass of the working classes.
Lieut.-Colonel Sir ARNOLD WILSON:
The Financial Secretary has expressed such gratification at being subjected to pressure, that I have no hesitation in continuing the process which he, apparently, appreciates. I wish to draw his attention, as the Minister in charge of the Stationery Office, to the very unsatisfactory circumstances which have attended the issue of this Report of the Committee on Industrial Insurance. It was placed in dummy on the Table on 5th July last, and was not available in the Vote Office until 22nd July, although it had been sent to the press 10 days earlier and received only one-quarter of a column notice in the "Times." I have been an attentive reader of Blue Books all my life, and I do not think that any Blue Book has left more serious impression on my mind than this; yet I found only a quarter of a column in the "Times" about it. When I went to the Vote Office to endeavour to obtain a copy, I found no copy was available. There was not one in the Library until 20th July, although the papers had had it 10 days earlier. The effect of a document of this importance coming at the fag-end of a long Session just before the Adjournment, and not being available for 10 days after it had been reviewed in the Press, was undoubtedly very unfortunate. It did not receive the publicity it should have had either inside or outside the House. In fact, I do not think that I am exaggerating in saying that not one Member in 10 has ever received the report or read it until quite recently, when a certain amount of interest was vouchsafed to it in consequence of questions being asked.
I want to ask the Financial Secretary to consider re-issuing this exceedingly important report—a report of far greater importance from the point of view of the people of this country than the Simon Report—in an abbreviated form at 3d., in the same way that the Simon Report was issued. There are 30,000,000 people in this country who have a direct or indirect responsibility for policies on their lives or on the lives of others. There are 80,000,000 policies in force, 10,000,000 are annually issued, and 4,750,000 lapse every year—a complete loss, for all practical purposes, to the insured person. There are a body of men, insurance agents, not one in a hundred of whom has ever seen or even heard of this report. They are an honourable and useful body of men. The report shows that they are subject to ruthless and relentless pressure from their head offices to obtain new business by fair means or foul. The report shows without any reservation whatever that certain companies which are named actually threaten the agents with deprivation of their posts or pensions unless they not only maintain business, but add a minimum of so much a week to the premium income. That is a very serious state of affairs, and, as far as I can make out, it is not one that would be sustained by the courts were it to be made a matter of test.
I do not think that legislation is in all respects essential to give effect to many of the recommendations in the report. What is wanted is publicity for the benefit of the agents, so that they can know the extent to which they have some recourse to the Industrial Insurance Commissioner, who is one of the greatest and most useful public servants we have ever had. The insured persons themselves might well, I think, receive a leaflet to show what recourse they have and what the real conditions are. I suggest to the Financial Secretary that there could be, if not a lucrative, at any rate an exceedingly educative market for a cheap edition of this report, as in the case of the Simon and certain other reports. We are dealing with the most important financial question outside the Budget that interests this country. The annual premium income is 25 per cent. greater than the whole sum received by the Treasury by way of National Savings Certificates every year. The amount of that premium income is nearly £60,000,000. Of that not more than £30,000,000 ever gets back to those who contribute. If that money were placed in National Savings Certificates, it would have a profound effect upon the Budget and on our whole financial position.
There are certain other aspects of this problem, and I do not wish to pursue them all. I will merely suggest once more that the Financial Secretary, as the Minister in charge of the Stationery Office, has a definite responsibility when he publishes such documents to see that they get the maximum publicity. For a document of this sort to be published at the very end of a long Session immediately before the Adjournment, to be kept back from the House for 10 days after it has been reviewed in the "Times" exceedingly briefly, and practically ignored by every other national paper, is a dereliction of duty on the part of the Stationery Office and perhaps inevitable in the circumstances. If a fresh, abbreviated and cheap report were issued, I should hope that the great insurance companies would be only too glad to send it to every one of their policy-holders.
I know a little about this insurance question. The troubles are not the fault of the agents or even of the head office. There is an enormous expenditure in collecting the premiums. The agents keep books which are sold and almost passed from hand to hand, and the overhead costs are colossal—at least 65 per cent. I was interviewed in the Lobby by somebody who wanted to reduce it to 45 per cent. I said I would not help him, because I took the view that it would be far better for this money to be put into a stocking instead of in this wasteful form of insurance. The true remedy is for employers of labour to have bulk insurance. I knew a firm in Edinburgh with 600 employés, and the chairman of the firm paid the premium for their insurance out of his own pocket. He paid 12s. a year for each man, and at death the widow received £50. The same amount collected by weekly instalments would have given only £10. Of the £50, £10 would be spent on funeral expenses, leaving the widow with £40. The cost was much less than would have been the case if the men were individually insured under industrial insurance.
The enormous amount of insurance that is engaged in with these agents is evidence of an extraordinary desire for thrift and the fear of every working-class family that the breadwinner may be taken away without leaving a shilling in the house. That fear is played upon, I do not say unjustly; but until firms realise how cheaply they can undertake bulk insurance, the troubles associated with industrial insurance will persist. As I said, that employer insured 600 men for 12s. each a year. When a death took place a note was sent in to say simply "So-and-so; number so-and-so has died," and back came a cheque for £50. There was no trouble, no delay. No medical examination was required; there were no collecting expenses. It was worked through one of the big insurance companies. It is what is done in the United States. That is the new remedy for this problem of industrial insurance. Until we can get rid of this silly process of the tally-man going up and down the stairs week after week collecting twopences and threepences, we shall never make progress. It would be as foolish to sell postage stamps by special messenger; that would be as costly.
I cannot understand why this Report has not been published, and why the Press has not taken more notice of it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Advertisements"] Yes, there may be something in that. I notice that if any of the big combines have something to put across to the public the papers are always full of their advertisements; otherwise, we do not hear a word from it. The Press is becoming a public danger in some respects, because of this god of advertisements. But some form of publicity for this matter will have to be secured. I do not suppose much notice will be taken by the Press of what the hon. and gallant Member for Hitchin (Sir A. Wilson) has said to-day, but I hope that the advice which he has tendered will be considered, and that a pamphlet will be issued, so that the public will be able to read it. The first thing to do is to secure publicity. Publicity is far better than an insistence on legal rights. They are far too difficult and far too expensive to enforce, and spread far too much money among a very deserving class of the community. Publicity is the thing to put it right. In that way we may get the remedy, which is bulk insurance of the workers, under which the whole of the money that is paid in is net instead of being subject to enormous deductions.
I rise to support what has been said by the previous speakers on this subject, because I feel that in the main the trouble, particularly among the poorer classes, does not arise from the fact that legislation is not sufficiently strong to protect them, which is frequently the case, but from the fact that they do not know what the legislation is and the remedies which exist. On previous occasions I have referred to other phases of this important question. Some time ago we were discussing a question in which Poor Persons Rules were involved. I pointed out at that time Chat while facilities exist for poor persons to get legal assistance the chief trouble is that they do not know how to go about it or do not know that the facilities are there. They do not know that lawyers are prepared to give assistance under these rules in an unlimited and generous manner.
In this question of industrial insurance we have a tremendously important problem to deal with. I have some facts here which have been collated by the same gentlemen to whom my hon. Friend has referred. During the past 14 years the policies which have lapsed number nearly 100,000,000 and the owners of them lost upwards of £100,000,000. The income of companies and societies was £772,468,183; the management expenses and dividends to shareholders amounted to £314,981,597. The policy holders received in return only £271,599,864. The invested funds increased by £215,000,000. The dividends to shareholders have more than doubled in that period. Therefore, this is a most important problem, and we who are accustomed to meet from time to time constituents of ours who have been troubled by these matters know that very often when the individual is persuaded to take out a policy he really does not understand what it is all about. The proposal form is on occasions not properly filled in by him, and he has to rely upon the agent, the man who, as we have heard to-day, is frequently forced from a higher quarter to take action, is forced to this because pressure is brought to bear upon him to get business which assures him a livelihood. Sometimes it is the only means he has of obtaining a livelihood. The whole thing has in certain directions resolved itself into a very serious scandal.
What can be done? To suggest legislation would be out of order to-day, but we ought to make known to the people who take up policies, which means a very large percentage of the poor people of this country, what legislation already exists for their protection. Instead of the insurance commissioner having, as at present, only one office, there is no reason why offices should not be opened in other parts of the country, particularly in the bigger cities. There is no reason why, as suggested by my hon. Friend, the report should not be published, or an abbreviated form of it be issued at a popular price. I see every reason why this question should be aired as much as possible, so that the man in the street may know the remedies which are available for him and understand the kind of contract he is entering into.
A large number of illegal policies have been issued. I do not say they are fraudulently illegal, though no doubt there are a number of these. I refer to those which are illegal because of the fact that there is no insurable interest vested in the policy holder. The companies receive vast sums of money from the policy holders. It may be that the individual sums are small, say, £5 or £10, but that represents a tremendous fortune to the poor man who has been induced to take out a policy. The companies receive that sum and in some cases the policy holders get back no more than £2 or £3, and in many cases nobody receives back anything. These facts should be made known, and the methods of dealing with the problem should be made known. There should be, as I have said, offices of the insurance commissioner in the bigger towns, so that they may be more easily accessible to policy holders. Until further legislation is passed, which must of course be considered at a later stage, the question of acquainting policy holders with their rights under existing legislation ought to be in the minds of the officials of the Department. The fullest publicity should be afforded, so that policy holders and others may know what the position actually is.
I would like to support what has been said by the three previous speakers as to the possibility of something being done through administrative action to cure this really stupendous evil. Like a previous speaker, I very much regret that we cannot discuss the further legislative action which is so obviously necessary. Much might be done even without legislation. I am particularly struck by the suggestion made by the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Johnstone) that there should be local offices of the Insurance Commissioner. Such offices should be in the various districts of London and in provincial cities, and might be of immense value in warning people of the possible snags, and making it less likely that they will become victims of the swindles of insurance societies by putting information before them as to the operations of those societies.
No one who reads this most deeply interesting report will doubt that a great deal of illegal insurance goes on which is not done contumaciously, but is largely the result of the ignorance of the policy-holders. One page of the report contains the statement that the committee estimated that in 1929 at least 200,000 children were over-insured in England. The hardship of over-insurance is that children are insured for a larger amount than is legally claimable, and such over-insurance may be made intentionally by a person who is given an interest in the child's death, but also innocently, and the unfortunate policy-holders lose the benefit of the insurance. A curious case is given in the report where a child had been insured first by its grandmother, and secondly by its mother. The grandmother claimed first and got the insurance, and the mother, although she had borne the whole of the expenses of the funeral and had put in her claim, was unable to receive a penny because the child had been over-insured.
It is not unduly harsh to the insurance societies to say it is obvious that they are not likely to be anxious to draw attention to, or to remedy, a form of over-insurance which is so highly profitable to themselves. All the premiums goes to them, when payments are limited to the legal amount of the insurance. The proposed local office could warn insured persons so that they might know that they were risking a penalty and probably the loss of the money by which they were over-insured. It is necessary to guard working people against the illegal action or unjust administration of the insurance societies. What can be done in that matter is strikingly illustrated by the work of Mr. W. E. Mashford, of Hull, who was alluded to by an hon. Member who spoke previously. Here was this man, not a wealthy man, working from enthusiasm for the subject. Testimony was paid to him by the committee of inquiry, because they gave up two and a half days to hearing his evidence. They were not able to adopt all his recommendations, but they expressed their belief in his sincerity and in the value of his work. The Industrial Assurance Commissioner visited Hull for the purpose of dealing with cases of dispute, and Mr. Mashford brought before the Commissioner, or assisted the policy-holders to bring, 36 cases, of which 21 were won, eight were lost, and six were adjourned. One was not dealt with. Only eight of the 36 were lost.
Here are a few particulars which he gave of the cases: For a widow, whose husband had been killed a short time previously, and whose child had been subsequently born, he reclaimed £30 13s. For another widow he reclaimed 19s. and for another 17s. 6d. For another poor woman who had six children to maintain, he reclaimed £15. For a man whose wife had disappeared, leaving him in charge of three children, he reclaimed £15. For another man, he secured £14, which is the fifth amount, according to Mr. Mashford, secured for this family this year. That is an interesting illustration of the point made in the report that some families hold a very large number of policies. In another case the husband had committed suicide and the widow was a physical wreck. How many people circumstanced as these people are, with burdens of very large young families, are likely to have the legal knowledge to enable them to know when they are being swindled? Why should their protection be left to a private agency? I do not know any counterpart of Mr. Mash-ford in any city, but I hope that some more organisations of the sort will be set up by private enterprise, although this is a thing which ought to be done by the community as a whole.
We are proud of the great mass of our social legislation, but in this respect the ordinary working man or woman has a very poor chance of knowing or enforcing a legal right without the advice and the constant assistance of some authority. Even in such a matter as housing, a provision was recently put into a Bill that local authorities might give advice to persons. That is the kind of thing which occurs only very rarely, but in the case which we are discussing there are 80,000,000 policies operating in this country, a number nearly double the figure of the entire population. The vast majority of those policies involve payments of about 2d. per week, and the average premium is £14 8s. Millions of weekly transactions are involved. Men come round and talk to the woman, because the man is out at work; and they are able to put up any sort of a tall story as to the benefits which she will get out of insurance. If ever there was a case where the ordinary individual needed the protection which only an agent of the community can give, here is such a case.
It is possible for local offices to be set up without any further legislation. Their cost would be recovered over and over again. Who can doubt that the appalling strain upon the resources of the working class involved in this grossly wasteful system of insurance results in large burdens upon the community and upon public assistance and unemployment authorities, hospitals and charities of every kind? It never pays in the long run to allow the resources of the community to be frittered away. Nobody can read this document without feeling a burning shame. I have seldom read a blue book which went more to the heart than this one does. There is an ugly side to it. When we meet again after the Adjournment we shall be considering a Betting Bill. I doubt whether even in that rather sordid and ugly subject there is anything uglier and more sinister than the form of betting upon human life which is dealt with in the report. Where you have people insuring their relatives, sometimes fairly distant relatives, or young men and women getting married and insuring their aged parents, who are already amply insured for purposes of funeral benefit, in a sort of gamble on the possibility of their death, it has a very ugly and sinister sound. A great deal could be done, simply by publicity, to bring the light of public knowledge on to this subject and to deter people from being inveigled into the appalling waste of their resources which takes place through these wasteful, and in many cases illegal, forms of insurance.
I think it is necessary that we should try to view this question from, if I may say so without disrespect, a sane plane. After all, while the Report does contain a great many
things which I admit are undesirable, those undesirable things are of comparatively a small order when one considers the vastness of the problem, involving, as it does, some 80,000,000 policies. That undesirable portion has, however, been used to cover the whole, though my hon. Friend the Member for Barnstaple (Sir B. Peto) has said that he was not prepared to allege that the cases were all bad, and that there were examples which might well be followed by others. I think that to-day we have been led away by some statements which, if I had the time and the opportunity, which I do not propose to take at this moment, could be very largely refuted. I am not denying the work that Mr. Mashford may have done, but I think it is very desirable that the House should take note of what is said by the committee in paragraph 3 on page 2 of their report. After referring to the nature of Mr. Mashford's work, they say:
In the course of this work Mr. Mashford has formed strong opinions as to the need for reforms, and as a consequence of the large number of points which he submitted to us it was found necessary to devote 2½ days to his evidence. It is proper to say that while, for a variety of reasons, he failed to convince us in regard to a number of his submissions, we were much impressed by his sincerity and by his desire to protect the policy owners, especially those who are ignorant of their rights.
They do not, I think, give an approval of the statements which have been made here to-day, and which, as I have said, could in many instances have been refuted. After all, this is a comparatively small part of the problem. It may be argued that tins state of affairs must exist in very large proportions all over the country, but let us see what the Committee said with regard to it. May I here ask the House clearly to understand, with regard to the opportunity that insured persons have of laying their complaints before the proper authority, that, since 1923, it has been a statutory condition that, upon every policy issued after that date, there should appear the name and address of the Commissioner, to whom any questions of dispute or trouble could be referred? It may be, of course, that the insured people do not read their policies, but that was an attempt on the part of the Legislature—
Has my hon. Friend seen any of these policies, and does he think he could read that notice with ordinary eyesight? I suggest that not even a highly educated person could read it, or even understand what it was.
At all events, whatever form has been adopted, these persons have the opportunity of knowing where they may apply. With regard to the duties of the Commissioner, the Committee say:
We are informed, however, that immediately after the Act of 1923 was passed policyowners began to write placing their troubles before the Commissioner and seeking his advice…. It was his intention to adjudicate personally, at any rate in the early years of the new system, and it was essential on this ground, as well as in the general interest, that the formal procedure should not be invoked in a multitude of trivial cases where no real dispute existed.
They go on to say:
The success of this procedure is indicated by the fact that, while in the year 1930 the number of cases submitted was 15,758 (the number of letters received in this connection being 46,350), the number of formal disputes arising out of these cases was only 1,522 "—
that is to say, only 10 per cent. of the cases which came before him. The report goes on:
We recognise the difficulty by which the Commissioner is continually faced when, having his judicial functions in view, he is besought by policyowners for help in their troubles (sometimes real but often fancied).
Therefore, although there are some 80,000,000 policies, and when, the policyowners having received an intimation that any dispute or complaint can be referred to the Commissioners, some 15,000 cases are submitted, only 1,500 are found to involve questions of dispute; and the Committee say that they include a number of complaints which are sometimes real but often fancied. I submit that we need to deal with a matter of this sort in a quiet and proper manner, and not be led away by exaggerated statements. I can say, on behalf of some of the largest and best companies, that they have every desire to see that this business is conducted cleanly, and I think it would be very desirable if, instead of forcing legislation upon them, we were to endeavour to encourage them in the great improvement which has been made in the past 25 years. Some reference has been made to the average figure for expenses. It has come down to 34 per cent. from over 40 per cent., but in some of the larger organisations it is
only in the neighbourhood of 25 per cent. Many of the recommendations contained in this report are in operation to-day. It has been stated that this is a matter which requires legislation, and in the meantime the request is put forward that the Commissioner himself should be placed in a better position for putting himself in communication with those persons who have complaints to make, and that other offices should be set up. I see no objection to that at all. In the main this insurance is conducted on proper lines. There are millions of policies against which nothing can be said, and many offices in the case of which no question can be raised as to their conduct or that of their agents, and their example might be followed. If the Commissioner's offices could be extended, I am sure that many of the exaggerated complaints which have been referred to would be found to be non-existent, and that we should in a very short time arrive at that ideal state which my hon. Friend the Member for Barnstaple desires.
I was not aware that this matter was going to be raised in the House this afternoon, or I should have armed myself with a copy of the report, with the contents of which I am acquainted; but I think that those who have raised the matter have rendered a service to the House and to the policy-holders. I should not have risen to deal with the matter, beyond joining in the protest at this state of things, had it not been for the speech of the hon. Member for Mitcham (Sir R. Meller). It may be true that there is an instruction on the back of each policy as to the name of the Commissioner and the address to which applications may be sent, but, as has been pointed out, it is not very noticeable. It may be pointed out, however, that, as those who have had to deal with the people concerned know very well, they often require a great amount of aid in explaining their own case, and the reluctance of people who are afflicted in this way is very well known, I am sure, to every Member of Parliament who has had such cases put before him. Hon. Members also know quite well that there are very bad cases.
I question whether anything can be effectively done with the matter outside very drastic legislation, but, within those limits, the suggestion of the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Harcourt Johnstone) might well be considered. The functions of the Commissioner's Office might be extended so as to enable people to come readily into contact with those who will be able to give them advice, if necessary. It has been well said that the attempts that people will make to meet their obligations in the form of thrift are almost pathetic, and those who have come in contact with some of these cases must have been struck by the gallant attempts that people make to fulfil their obligations. I trust that the Government will not only give serious consideration to the suggestion of extending the functions of the Commissioner so that people can be sure of getting ready, sympathetic and understanding help, but will also seriously consider drastic legislation.
I approach the subject from a rather different point of view from that of hon. Members who have spoken. It is my fortune, or misfortune, to have a good deal of practice in this branch of the law, and I should like to say one or two things to the House in regard to some of the statements which have been made. I think the House ought to realise, first of all, the very large figures of policy holders in industrial insurance generally. There is now £30,000,000 in the funds of various societies definitely allocated to policy holders in addition to the sums assured on their policies, and year by year the proportion of profits which the policy holders are getting from this form of investment is rapidly going up, thanks to the improvement in the management of the bulk of the companies and societies. The expenses which some years ago ate up 60 per cent. of the premium income, are now down in very many cases below 40 per cent. and, as the matter is better organised, no doubt will be brought down to some lower figure. The report speaks of the vast issue of illegal insurances. Since 1923 it has been an offence knowingly to issue any form of illegal assurance and, if it comes to the notice of the Commissioner that any company or society is doing it as a matter of practice, it results in an inquiry and the Commissioner is entitled to apply very drastic remedies, even going to the length, if necessary, of winding up the company. In practice, those who manage these associations are bound by these provisions, and, if they knowingly break the law, they are liable to have their whole business investigated and, if necessary, very drastic steps taken.
In these circumstances they are bound, if they can, to find the persons entitled to money under the policies; otherwise, again they commit an offence under the Act and are liable to penalties. It is not an easy job very often to find the persons entitled to be paid. I agree that one of the great difficulties is that very often the person does not know what his rights are. Statutes have laid down that the back of the policy has to be plastered with all sorts of Sections and Sub-sections out of the Act stating their rights, but to the ordinary working man or woman it is perfectly impossible to understand them. I certainly do not know what certain Sections of the Act of 1923 which have to be put on the back mean. On the other hand, there is a statutory provision, and a good one, that the name and address of the Commissioner has to be on the back of the policy with an invitation, in case of difficulty or dispute, to write to him. I agree that it is to the advantage of the community as a whole that it should be made easier for them to get the requisite advice from the Commissioner, but he already gets something like 50,000 letters a year from policy-holders and he would, no doubt, get twice as many if other offices were opened elsewhere. If a policy-holder takes his policy to anyone who can read it intelligently and has good eyesight—some have it in large print, while others vary—he can immediately get the address of the Commissioner, and he will communicate with the company and, if necessary, carry out an investigation.
On the general question, there is no doubt that greater facilities for getting advice would be to the advantage of policy-holders as a whole. There are Members who are against the system of industrial assurance altogether. They say it is unthrifty and bad. But you would never get the savings out of these people at all otherwise than by a system of collection, except in the cases which the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Argyllshire (Mr. Macquisten) suggested. This system is universal in this country, and it has grown enormously during recent years here and in the United States. There have been exactly the same suggestions made against companies carrying on this business in the United States as have been made here. I believe in the common sense of the working man. If it were true that the bulk of these policies were not obtained and people were swindled, no matter how pressing the agents are and no matter what statements they make, I do not believe the business would continue to grow unless the bulk of the people are satisfied that they get their money back ultimately and get their fair share of the profits.
This is a huge financial business which I am convinced, in spite of all the scandals that have occurred, is doing a very great deal of good to the working classes. I do not believe it would have grown to the extent it has grown under any other system than that which has been adopted. But that is not to say for a moment that administratively the Commissioner is not to be encouraged in every way possible to exercise his functions and to see that companies do not issue illegal policies or commit other offences. I agree in substance with the suggestion that the extension of his offices to some of the other big towns would enable people in the North of England and Scotland and elsewhere to get into direct touch with one of his officers more easily than they can at present.
Although the discussion which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Barn-staple (Sir B. Peto) would appear to have been so promptly terminated on a point of Order, he must derive great satisfaction from the fact that a means has been found of resurrecting it. It is a most important subject, and those who are now in the House appreciated the fact, for it is remarkable that there is only one hon. Member in the House, apart from those now sitting upon the Treasury Bench, who has not spoken in the Debate to which we have just listened. It is important from many points of view. It affects the lives of people in all kinds of contingencies, and it has, as we have learned to-day, a great human interest. Any discussion of future legislation is out of order, and I therefore confine myself to making an observation or two upon the few concrete suggestions which have fallen from hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Johnstone) thought that there ought to be wider publicity of the activities and powers of the Industrial Insurance Commission. I gather that that is the view of other hon. Members who have spoken.
In connection with any legislation which may be undertaken, it will have to be seen what practical effect can be given to my hon. Friend's suggestion. In the meantime, hon. Members themselves can render great services in their constituencies by calling the notice of the public to the existence of this most important officer whom the law has established in order to protect the weak. His existence must be more widely known than some hon. Members have thought, for although his main office is in London he does, in fact, go on circuit. It was only yesterday that I was speaking to him, and in the course of asking him where he was going to spend his Easter vacation, he told me that he was going on circuit in Scotland for the purpose of dealing with complaints. Therefore, his activities are not confined to London, as some persons may imagine. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Hitchin (Sir A. Wilson) thought—wrongly, as I think—that there had been some conspiracy to suppress this report.
The phrase was "a grave dereliction of duty" in regard to this report. The complaint evidently means that the report was published sometime in July before the House went into Recess.
I am very sorry to hear that that is the case. I have just made inquiries at the Vote Office—I agree that they are very cursory inquiries, and that I have not gone very deeply into the matter—and I learn that the report was ordered to be printed on 5th July, and was in fact printed and in the Vote Office by the 25th, so that there had not been left much of an interval for the actual printing. However, I was in- terested in the complaint, and, as I am responsible, I will inquire into it. But the hon. and gallant Member cannot place upon us any complaint that the newspapers have not given this matter the display which he thinks it merits. They are the judges of what interests their readers, and it is indeed regrettable that they do not think this subject worthy of greater prominence, but for that I am not responsible, and I can take no steps to remedy it. My hon. and gallant Friend told us that he made a great study of these publications, and I am very interested to know it. But, having the blood of so many Blue Books in his veins, he is perhaps prejudiced, for it is not everybody who desires to read these publications, and even if they were given away "free, gratis and for nothing" and distributed in the streets, a great many people who were vitally concerned with them would never bother to peruse them.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Argyllshire (Mr. Macquisten) said that he would not be satisfied until they were on every bookstall. I was going to say in that connection, that until the day comes when these publications can be written with that lively sense of humour which my hon. and learned Friend can command, they will not be read, even if they are displayed on every bookstall, and anything which I can do to assist in that direction I shall most happily do. The time to consider this matter in an operative form will be when legislation comes before the House, but I may perhaps be permitted to say that the matter is engaging our most active consideration at the moment. Everyone who has spoken has realised that progress cannot be hastened. It is an extremely complicated subject. I am at this moment in consultation with my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General as to what best can be done, but the matter is not in a form in which it can be presented usefully to the Cabinet. We have no desire to delay progress, and I hope that this discussion will have served a very useful purpose in calling even wider public attention to what is a most vital matter.