Orders of the Day — Unemployment Assistance Act, 1934.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 22nd July 1936.

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Photo of Hon. Joseph Maclay Hon. Joseph Maclay , Paisley

I apologise to the Noble Lady for my interruption at the beginning of her speech, but I have been sitting for 22 hours and through the night; and when I saw the Noble Lady sail in, without being here all night, and get called before me I felt, as a Northerner with a northern constituency to represent, that I had to say something about it; but I gladly confess that I would willingly have sacrificed three-quarters of my speech for that of the Noble Lady.

I rise to oppose the Regulations because of the retention of the household or family means test. I regret having to do this very much indeed. I have tried during the last five years to give as consistent support to the Government as I could. At the last General Election I came to the conclusion, after careful consideration of the position, not only in my constituency but in Scotland, that the household means test was a bad thing and the chief source of bitterness among those who were affected, and that it could quite properly be left out, and I still hold that view. I have no option but to vote against the whole of the Regulations. There are no Amendments possible and therefore I have no option, owing to the position in which I find myself. I have listened all through the night to the various speakers. I cannot agree in the main to the line taken by the official Opposition except in so far as it applies to the household test. I admit that the Government, inasmuch as they are working on a household test, have considerably eased the position, and I believe that the Regulations otherwise have been carefully drawn up, and that, with one or two exceptions which I shall mention in a moment or two, are a considerable improvement on the past position, and that if carefully administered locally they should work well.

I should like to draw attention to the words of the Minister of Health when he said—and every area should know this—that: There is an absolute duty upon the Unemployment Assistance Board to meet the needs of those who are entitled to look to them for assistance. The Board are limited by no scale. They have complete discretion to give whatever assistance is necessary to ensure an adequate supply of food as well as other necessaries of life. … The scale laid down in the Regulations is not to be applied rigidly."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st July, 1936; cols. 398–399, Vol. 315.] That in itself should console those who are worried about a repetition of what occurred last year. Hon. Members who represent textile constituencies and a constituency such as I represent at Paisley, see the more difficult and the worst side of the household test. It is only in respect of the household test that I intend to vote against the Regulations. There are several thousands of mill girls in Paisley and there are many fathers, middle-aged men and men under middle age, who have been willing to work but quite unable to find work, not for a few months but for years. That is the sort of position which has forced some of us in such constituencies to give special consideration to the household test. The result is, as I have found it—and I have not limited my inquiries to my own constituency—that middle-aged men, anxious for work and unable to get it, find themselves dependent upon earnings of their children, not for weeks or months, but sometimes for years on end. They are uncertain even of their scale allowance if the family are living with them, but certain of it if the family move next door. Surely that is inconsistent and bad legislation. I admit readily to the Government that my experience has shown that the conditions have not broken up a great many homes. That is to the credit of the families. But these conditions have produced constant, long-felt irritation and friction and in some cases, especially when—and I say this respectfully to the other nationalities—you have the much valued Scottish independence of character, humiliation on the part of fathers, and also a tendency to remove parental control, which, whether you like it or not, usually lies with the person who has the cash. From the point of view of the earners in the family we have this long-continued position producing a feeling of discouragement among the younger generation. There is a tendency to leave home, though I do not stress that fact too much, and strained relationships at a time when one would like to see relations closer.

I was going to address the Noble Lady the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Viscountess Astor) but she is not here. I agree with the Noble Lady that these conditions are endurable and possibly right as between children and their parents for a time, for months even, possibly for more than a few months also if the parents are in old age, but where you have parents, especially a father, who for years on end has been willing to work but unable to find it and is in the prime of life, it is not right to expect the children willingly constantly to contribute to support him. I would also except times of national crisis or extreme national financial stringency. That was why I supported originally in 1931 the Unemployment Act, although I admit that when the first Regulations were brought up in this House in 1934 I should have protested against the family test. I did not fully realise the difference between family contributing for a short period and for a long period. That is the difference. That is my objection. It is making wage-earners, and, in my experience, the lower-paid wage-earners, take a part of the burden which the Government should bear.

The whole tendency is for unemployment to become a national burden, and I think that if that was interpreted broadly it would do away with the household means test. I have found in going about, that the objection of the wage-earning class is not to a means test but to this family test, and from a purely political and material point of view I am surprised that the Government did not find it possible to do away with the family test. That would have removed what would seem to be the strongest plank in Labour's programme at the last Election or any Election to come.