Amendment of Law.

Part of Orders of the Day — Ways and Means. – in the House of Commons on 23rd April 1936.

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Photo of Mr John McGovern Mr John McGovern , Glasgow Shettleston

I could not help noticing during the concluding stage of the Debate last night that the Government were again experiencing a rather difficult time with their own supporters. One naturally expects the Government to be opposed by all the various sections which form the Opposition, but when the Government are attacked by their own supporters as has been the case in these Budget discussions, it seems to show that the policy which is being pursued in the Budget is no more popular than the rest of their policy which has been so much criticised and condemned by their own supporters in the last few months. A number of the proposals in the Budget are being subjected to criticism. The Budget proposes to increase taxation on various sections of the community in order to raise a certain amount, mainly for what is called national defence but, before dealing with that part of the subject, I wish to allude to what I conceive to be certain very serious omissions from the Budget. Some of these have already been mentioned by various Opposition Speakers, but I desire to extend my criticism to a wider field than has been covered yet and to bring up matters which form the basis of real grievances on the part of sections of the workers.

During the so-called financial crisis of 1931—I do not intend to enter now into the question of whether it was real or sham—legislation was passed in a period of 12 months which involved a large section of our people in considerable suffering and sacrifice. We were led to believe by the then Prime Minister and his colleagues that those sacrifices were temporary and that when prosperity returned the Government would make good the losses which the people were being asked to bear. First, then, we have the question of how this affected social reform. We have always been led to expect that, in a period of prosperity, additional social reforms will be provided out of the increased productivity of the nation. As a result of the so-called crisis of 1931 social reform seems to have been relegated to the background, and since 1931 no first-class Measure of social reform has been passed in this country. Previous Governments after passing various social reforms have always allowed a waiting period in which to examine how the new reforms worked and whether there were any rough edges on them or not and whether they involved any hardships to any people. This enabled amending legislation to be introduced where necessary and during a period which is claimed by the Government to have been a period of prosperity, one would have expected extensions and improvements to have been made in various existing social reform measures.

Let me mention, first, the case of widows' pensions. We have in this country a system of widows' pensions which was instituted, I think, by Members of the present Government. One of the great contradictions in the public life of this country is that social reforms are always pioneered by one section and opposed by another, but are generally carried into operation by the party which first of all opposed them. Widows' pensions were established by a Tory Government and were extended, I ought to say in fairness, by a Labour Government, but to-day a large number of widows in this country are deprived of pensions. Once a widow's youngest child comes to the age of 14, she loses the pension both in respect of the child and in respect of herself. I had occasion to draw attention recently to the case of a Scottish widow who came to Luton from the North to secure employment but was unsuccessful. She had three children, two of whom were unemployed and on the third child reaching the age of 14 she lost the pension both for the child and for herself and had to apply for Poor Law relief in order to exist.

The number of widows affected is not very large, being a few thousand all told, and one might have expected that after a long period of experiment with widows' pensions, anomalies of that description would have been wiped out, and that every widow who had been conceded a pension would have been guaranteed it during her widowhood. Not only should these anomalies be wiped out, but every working-class widow without a decent income ought to have the power of drawing a pension without the qualification of stamps or anything else. Great hardship exists and a tremendous amount of tragedy and suffering is being caused to these people, and surely the Government might have conceded the right of a pension to this small section of widows. If there were any credit to be got from it, I would not be prepared to deny it to the Government.

There is also the question of the men of 65 who, if they draw pensions, lose the money they are drawing from the Employment Exchanges, and are worse off as a consequence. The pension at 65 was instituted with the idea of giving some comfort in old age, but in the result it causes added hardship. In common with many Members, I think that this pension should be increased by a Government which says that we are on a wave of prosperity which will become greater in the next 12 months. I have had a visit from one of these old age pensioners who lives in Glasgow. His son was on the means test and had his allowance cut because the father, who drew the old age pension of 10s. a week, had an additional pension of 10s. from his late employers whom he had served for a long period. In order not to cause hardship to his father, the son came to London to look for work. He was reduced to the lowest possible level of existence, and, after wandering round London, he was received into hospital owing to starvation. He died within the last few days. The old man, whom he had sought to protect, was compelled to borrow money in order to come to London and bury his son. He is now wandering round London seeking help in order to take back the body of his son to Glasgow. In that case we have a victim of the means test and the inadequacy of the old age pension.

I would urge the Chancellor and the Government to give serious consideration to this section of the people which is being denied the right of living in comfort in a capitalist State that can boast increased production and prosperity. Out of that increased prosperity the people who create it by their productive powers ought to have increased social reforms and greater opportunities of a life of comfort. Are the National Government going to tell us that the period of social reform is at an end? I have a strong suspicion that that is the attitude of the National Government. If, as we are told, we are living in prosperous times, the Government ought to concede to this section of the people the rights to which they are entitled. The very basis of prosperity is the man-power and the energy of the common people to produce. Every person contributes his part to the general well-being of any economic system. Therefore, we are entitled to ask the Government whether they are weary of well-doing and do not intend to bring in any further social reforms.

I do not know of any question about which there has been so much shilly-shallying and shuffling as the means test. We are told from all side of the House that it should be dealt with; the Government spokesmen have stated time and again that it will be dealt with; and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) has expressed views about the hardship that is caused by the means test. The right hon. Gentleman does not, however, go as far as we do in urging the complete elimination of the test. If the Government supporters have given pledges that it will be tackled in a definite way, they ought to get on with the business and end the policy of drift and shuffling that has been going on. We are told that drastic changes are in contemplation. If the fund shows a surplus, if the Government are willing and Members are anxious to pass the legislation, why is it not presented? This controversy has gone on since 1931, and, in the meantime, the means test has been causing tragedy and suffering in the homes of countless thousands of workers. Cases have occurred of women actually giving birth to children in homes where there were no blankets and sheets on the bed, and being denied the little luxuries and nourishment which they ought to have during the period when they went down the valley of death bearing a new life. The Government remain callously indifferent and unable to make up their minds about what changes should be made in the means test. I ask the Government to give us a definite date when these changes are to be brought before the House.

I pass to a point in connection with national health insurance. Changes were made by the Act of 1932 that took the right of maternity benefit from a large number of wives of unemployed men, and also took away medical rights, actual benefits. Surely we ought now to annul those extreme measures taken in 1932 and give these people the security to which they are entitled. Surely the nation's financial stability is not so much affected that it is compelled to take away the grant of £2 to an unemployed man's wife during the period when she is bringing new life on the earth. The policy of the Government is one of National Defence, and if I could agree, which I do not, with the expenditure of vast sums on National Defence I should still say to the Government, if I were an enlightened Conservative "If you are going to provide armaments wherewith to defend this country, then you ought to give to these women, producing the children who may in the future provide cannon fodder, some comfort and security in their hour of need and darkness." The maternity grant ought to be given back as a right. The children are guilty of no offence, and the husband is unemployed, and if the State is unable to find work for the husband it ought to provide income, nourishment and assistance for the wife.

We were told when these economies were brought into operation that it was necessary to prevent the national health insurance scheme from getting into the financial muddle of the unemployment insurance scheme, but if more people are now in work and more contributions are coming into the insurance funds, surely the Government might loosen their purse-strings and give these people back their rights. It would cost only a paltry £2,000,000 or £3,000,000. These matters ought to have the serious attention of the Government. If they cannot restore these social reforms let them go to the workers and say "We do not intend to restore them, whether there is prosperity or not, and we are going to build up armaments for National Defence"; and if National Defence means only the defence of the bank balances and investments of the ruling classes, the working class are entitled to say "We will give no service to the country when it gets into extreme difficulties."

Let me pass to the subject of National Defence. I do not want to say a great deal about it, because I have time and again given, the point of view of the party I represent. We say that the prosperity of a nation depends not on the number of guns, battleships and aeroplanes which it can collect, but on its happy citizens, on a contented working class and on the opportunities given to child life to develop into manhood and womanhood on a healthy and decent basis. Nobody knows the amount of money which is ultimately to be spent on National. Defence. We have a Government who are incapable of giving a definite answer to the many questions put to them on the point. They seem, every one of them, to be infected with the attributes of the late Prime Minister, who was unable to give a definite answer to any single question. Just as people become contaminated by association with smallpox victims, so the Government seem to have been contaminated by the influx of the National Government supporters into their ranks.

On the eve of the Election I listened to the Prime Minister and heard him say definitely, "You will be told in the many speeches which will be made attacking the Government that the sum will be £200,000,000 or £300,000,000, or some other., figure, but whatever amount is stated it will be wrong. Disbelieve those statements because they will all be guess work." The one man who could tell the country the sum required was the man speaking on the wireless on that evening, but, of course, as he had earned the reputation of being an honest man he could proceed to do all the dishonest things that the usual crafty politician can do, and he avoided telling the country what sum would be required. I ask again, probably with no hope of success, but as a duty, whether the Government will tell us the amount which is to be expended. We have been told that it will be £200,000,000, £300,000,000 or £400,000,000, and I see that an Australian paper puts the sum at £500,000,000. It is suggested in many quarters that it is such a fabulous sum that the Government are afraid to announce it, for fear of sickening and frightening the country.

What is the policy on armaments? A year or two ago it was a policy of collective security. Now we have a combination, we have the collective security system nominally in operation, but we are building for the day when this country, with certain allies, will be expected to go into war in defence of the investing class in the country. No modern war is undertaken for the defence of the working class; it is undertaken to protect the trade, the bank balances, the investments and the property of the ruling class. I believe in the story told of a man living in a, model lodging house in Glasgow who was asked to enlist during the late War in order to defend the country, and who refused. He said, "I have a feeling that if the Kaiser came over here this old model lodging house would still be here, and I should still be in it." I believe that that represents the position of the working class. They get in any country the standard of living and of freedom for which they are prepared to fight. They are not conceded to them as a right by a benevolent ruling class, but are only conceded after the ordinary struggles that go on in this country and other countries.

There need be no doubt in the minds of anybody about this—that we in this party will neither vote for this policy of National Defence nor assist in the employment of Defence Forces, nor will we encourage any man in the country to give his life in defence of the investing class. That is definite. There is no shilly-shallying about it. It is an open declaration of hostility to the Government and to the capitalist system, which we are not prepared to defend. There is in this House an almost unanimous opinion in favour of the defence of the capitalist State—almost unanimous agreement from the Trade Union Congress, the Labour party, the Liberal party, the Conservatives, the National Labour party, the National Liberal party, and all the odd sections which make up the National Government. Every section is agreed on the policy of national defence of the capitalist system. The policy in our party is that we will defend a working-class State in which economic power is held by the working classes and used by the people for the people, but we will not take part in a war to defend the looters against those who are robbed and plundered in the community.

In connection with this policy of the piling up of armaments, we know that there is a day coming when these arms will be used in deadly warfare, when young men will be expected to bear the brunt of the struggle against the enemy. The teams have not been picked so far, although the sides have been ranging themselves more definitely. The working class will be expected to shoulder the guns. They will be expected to be blinded and disembowelled and driven insane, to have their legs and arms blown off and their bodies shattered in defence of the ruling class. We welcome the fact that the Secretary of State for War has said that recruits are not coming forward in the way that the Government would like. The Government are hounding on employers of labour, almost to the point of the dismissal of men who refuse to join the armed forces of the Crown. Firms are putting it to their men that they must join the Territorials, and if they are not prepared to join they are treated accordingly. It is an insidious method of conscripting the youth of the nation.

Deadly warfare is bound to ensue. Every nation says that arms are only for the purpose of defence and that, arms will ensure peace. We know that they do not ensure peace. The armies of Germany and Britain and France and Russia did not ensure peace in 1914. Therefore, we welcome the fact that the youth of the nation, those who have been placed on the means test, are refusing to serve in the armed forces of the Crown. We welcome that refusal as the dawn of intelligence in the ranks of the working class. In spite of the fact that every political party in the country is applying the utmost pressure to them the working class refuses to enlist. The working class says to the ruling class, "We have been the victims of your capitalist system during the period 1931 to 1936, we endured suffering from 1914 to 1918, and we refuse again to become the cannon fodder of the ruling class." In this House the policy of national defence and the provision of large sums of money for it are treated in a happy-go-lucky manner, but when it is a question of the salvation of human life the most niggardly, cheese-paring, brutal and cold policy is enunciated. When prosperity returns to the country these people have no share in what they have created for the idlers of the country. We have made undoubted progress, both mental and physical, amongst a large section of the people in the last 100 years. We have marched through a period of evolution. We have trained the primitive feudal worker and brought him from the mud hut into the Park Lane establishments of this country; but during that time, while that evolution and social change and uplift have been taking place and have resulted in the ascendancy of a certain class, a large submerged mass of the people have remained in poverty and slumdom.

In Glasgow recently the Monarch of this country paid visits to the slums. He found 13 persons in a single apartment living in the most miserable conditions—children living in boxes, and four, five or six to a wooden bed. When a birth takes place the members of the family have to go out of the house for days in order that the ordinary forces of nature might operate in some decency and privacy. People of that class have never changed their economic position; they are down to-day in the depths of poverty and slumdom just as they were in prewar days. If you talk to me of prosperity, I reply that in Glasgow there are hundreds and thousands of cases of people who are living 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7 and 6 in a room. If Members of the Liberal party or of the Tory party were living under such conditions they would start a social revolution within 24 hours. If the right hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) were compelled to live under such conditions he would set himself at the head of an insurrectionary movement in order to get justice for the class he represents.

I content myself to-day with saying, "Go on with your war preparations; go on with your battleships and submarines and destroyers and torpedo flotillas, your aeroplanes and airships and bombers; go on with the arming of the Navy, the Army and the Air Force; pile on large sums of money made out of the suffering and poverty and cruel tyranny of the people, but one day that system will come to an end." The ghouls are at work to-day taking advantage of the nation's necessity and making fabulous profits, in order that the working class may be thrown on the battlefield at some distant date. But the system will come to an end. When before the French Revolution freedom was suppressed and every radical advocate in France was under lock and key, the army officer, the politician and the Monarch spread it abroad that this action was taken as a measure of freedom. But on the following day revolution broke out in France and swept away the whole of the bombastic ruling class, which paid a terrible price. We do not want the ruling class in this country to suffer the indignities and hardships and poverty from which the workers suffer, but we do say, "If you want to maintain even a semblance of power in this country, do not count on the fact that you can keep the people in subjection." Reason is on the move.

If in this country there is a continuance of this capitalist preparation for war, we say, as representatives of the working class who address large sections of the people every other day, that if war should be declared they should use the weapons and use their power to sweep out the ruling class, to end the poverty and indignity of slumdom, and to give the working class real economic power for the first time in the history of this country.