Orders of the Day — Unemployment Assistance Act, 1934.

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Robert Bernays Mr Robert Bernays , Bristol North

Having been on one occasion a little provocative I shall on this occasion be at great pains to restrain my natural pugnacity, which is already somewhat exhausted by the all-night sitting, and in any case I have very little, in substance, except with regard to the means test, to quarrel about with my hon. Friend the Member for East Middlesbrough (Mr. K. Griffith). What really seems to be the difference between us is that I am prepared to give these Regulations the benefit of the doubt and vote for them, and that he is not prepared to do so. He has made some interesting detailed criticisms, and I only wish that under our procedure it had been possible to see those criticisms embodied in Amendments. I agree with him entirely when he objects to the fact that we cannot make an alteration of a sub-clause or a semi-colon in these Regulations, and that fact has, I think, produced a dangerous unreality in our debates and may be responsible for some of the heat which has been generated. I know that this procedure is under the Unemployment Act of 1934, and I voted against it, and I do not regret doing so.

I do not believe it is possible to take unemployment out of politics. I do not believe there is any analogy between the Unemployment Assistance Board and the Tariff Advisory Committee. The Tariff Advisory Committee are dealing with abstract questions in industry, and the Unemployment Assistance Board are dealing with flesh and blood. I do not like to feel that the unemployed man who is dissatisfied with the scales of his relief has not the power to come to his Member of Parliament to present his case to the High Court of Parliament. I am a democrat, and I dislike it intensely if, when one of my constituents wishes me to raise a question, I have to say, "That matter is no longer the immediate concern of Parliament."

I was delighted at the stress laid by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour on the opportunities presented by the annual debates on the Board's Estimates and other occasions for raising the grievances of the unemployed, and I hope that my right hon. Friend, if he finds that these opportunities are insufficient, will not hesitate to come to this House and ask for amendment of the Unemployment Act of 1934. The Act of 1934 exists and we have to deal with these Regulations as they are presented to us. I should like to touch upon one aspect of the Board's functions upon which very little stress has been laid during the Debate. The Unemployment Assistance Board exists for something other than to provide unemployment relief. It exists also to enable a man to be placed in a condition that he can get employment. The Preamble of Part II of the Act of 1934 says: The functions of the Board shall be the assistance of persons … who are in need of work and the promotion of their welfare, and in particular the making of provision for the improvement and re-establishment of the condition of such persons with a view to their being in all respects fit for entry into or return to regular employment. I think the Board should direct its efforts to that vital object. How is it discharging this function? We were alarmed on reading in "The Times" that there were 500 vacancies at the Ministry of Labour's training centres. I can well understand the reluctance of a man of 18 or 23 or 24 years of age who has been unemployed. He may lose the incentive for work and may be content to draw the dole and regard himself as a victim of the capitalist system. But surely that is an attitude of mind which we all ought most sincerely to deplore and do our best to correct. As a Liberal I hate compulsion. I hate the idea of compelling men to go to a training centre, and I also think that when they are there under compulsion they probably will not derive a great deal of benefit. I wish it were possible for the party opposite to help us to put the unemployed young men into the right temper to go to these training centres. The Labour party would be doing an immense public service if they tried to stimulate the determination of young unemployed men to refit themselves and if necessary train themselves for another job, if they cannot get employment in their own industry.

An enormous amount of harm has been done by describing these unemployment training centres as concentration camps. Was that really helpful? Was it helpful to crab these efforts to give these unfortunate fellows an opportunity of raising themselves from the abyss of despair? None of us can look without horror and dismay on the wastage of young life, and we should do everything in our power to ease it as far as we can, even if it risks some temporary political disadvantage. I know it is difficult for us who are well fed and well clothed and who in a few days' time will be having a pleasant and restful holiday, we who are in receipt of £8 a week, a minimum wage of £8 per week—which is a fortune to the great majority of our constituents—it is very difficult for us, I know, to say that the scales are sufficient, but I do suggest that they represent a substantial increase. The Liberal party have always advocated a raising of the basic minimum, and I suggest that the Regulations do raise the basic minimum.

After all, anyone can trace the tremendous change in the industrial situation with regard to the unemployed which has taken place during the last 20 years. I am just old enough to remember the food tickets and the soup kitchens, which were all that was left to the unemployed. Then came the first unemployment pay, 7s. a week, which was only granted as a grant-in-aid, and now we hear that the rate to be paid is 3s. above the general rate per head paid when the Labour party was in office. It illustrates the general upward trend in the standard of life, which I contend is a peculiar characteristic of the capitalist system.

I cannot believe in the armaments argument which is used in regard to these scales. We are told that we are spending many hundreds of millions of pounds on armaments and some tens of millions of pounds on unemployment relief. What would be the use of diverting some of the millions spent on armaments to unemployment relief, if at the same time it weakened our defences? Do let us have common sense about this matter. What would be the use to a constituent of mine in Bristol, when he heard the whirr of hostile aeroplanes, the crash of falling masonry and felt the filthy poison gas creeping up the Severn, to know that by weakening our defences and our powers of retaliation we had been able to add a shilling or two to the amount he had drawn from the Employment Exchange. The unemployed, I believe, realise themselves that there are other factors in politics than their scales. It is tremendously to their credit that in 1931, when they believed that there was a grave financial crisis, they went in their thousands to the polling booths and voted away a few coppers of their dole.

What is the Labour thesis? As I understand it, it is work or full maintenance; that there should be the same rates for a 48-hour week as for idleness. That removes the incentive which now exists for work in the difference between trade union rates of wages and the dole, and when you have taken that incentive away what do you put in its place? You can only put one thing, and that is compulsion; if a man will not work he will have to be made to work.