Orders of the Day — Unemployment.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 29th July 1936.

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Photo of Mr John Leslie Mr John Leslie , Sedgefield

I am sure that Members on this side have listened with very great sympathy to the speech of the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Mr. Morgan). I only wish that more sympathy of the same kind was expressed from the other side of the House. We feel very disappointed by what the Minister of Labour has said. After all, what is the use of talking about the alleged prosperity of the country when we still have a hard core of nearly 2,000,000 unemployed? I want to deal specially with the question of hours of labour. I have been at Geneva on several occasions, and this year is the first during the last five years that a responsible Minister of the British Government has been present at Geneva when these labour questions were under discussion. Previously, a civil servant has always been sent, with instructions either to oppose or to remain neutral—sometimes willing to wound but afraid to strike; and we Britishers who were present felt very sore that the Government had not sent out a responsible Minister.

The other night, when we were discussing the new unemployment assistance Regulations, the Minister of Health referred to the conditions in America. We know that the United States is a land of individualism, and we also know that, as the Minister of Health pointed out, there was no unemployment benefit in America when the economic crisis arose. But what happened? The workers in the small towns rushed to the large cities, charity organisations were immediately disorganised, and crime became rampant throughout the land. President Roosevelt, soon after his election, reduced the hours of work in certain industries to 35 per week, in others to 40, and in others to 45, while at the same time raising the age of entry into industry to 16 years; and let it be remembered that, while the hours of labour were reduced, wages were increased. As a result of that, something like 5,000,000 of the unemployed workers in America were absorbed. We know that the code for the 40-hour week was declared illegal by the Supreme Court, and many people thought that that would have the effect of increasing the hours of labour—probably the wish was father to the thought; but I am glad to say that the latest report that I have from the Director at Geneva shows that the hours have not been increased. In the case of 1,200 companies, representing 25 major industries, there has been no return to longer hours, while in the mines they have still been able to maintain the 35-hour week, and in the textile industry also a 35-hour week has been maintained and a Bill has been introduced to provide for a 30-hour week.

While that has been happening in the United States, the British Government has simply been echoing at Geneva the reactionary view of British employers, and have declared not only against a 40-hour week, but against a 48-hour week. For that they make two excuses. One is that no provision is made for maintaining earnings, and the other is that other nations might not put it into operation. I think that that is a reflection on other nations, and that such a thing ought not to be said; but let us examine what other nations have done. France has not been afraid to operate the 40-hour week, while at the same time raising wages. In France there is a 36-hour week in the mining industry, and, moreover, during the past two years France has prohibited overtime in all the vital industries. Overtime is one of the greatest curses of the present-day commercial system. It means that, on the one hand, you find men and women working almost all the hours that God sends, while on the other hand you find, as hon. Members have said, men and women walking the streets unable to find employment.

The Government are sending youths to training centres, but what happens? A young man visited me in my division last week. He had been sent from a training centre to a notorious firm here in London, where they were working overtime every day in the week; they were working from 12 to 15 hours a day. Because he complained about that overtime, he was dismissed. Then he went back to the training centre. The State is maintaining these training centres and sending these lads to firms who employ them on overtime. That is a question which ought to be taken up by the Minister of Labour. No youths ought to be sent from training centres to firms that are notorious for working overtime.

I hope we are not going to make the mistake of the War period, when munition workers were working day and night, and broke down under the strain. I well remember that the medical profession at that time had to bring this question before the Government, pointing out that the ratio of sickness had increased to such an alarming extent that something would have to be done to reduce the hours of labour, and the Government had to do that. When the United States entered the War, the very first thing the United States Government did was to reduce the hours in all their munition factories to 48 per week. As to what has been done by some other nations on this question of the 40-hour week, in Czechoslovakia 750 firms work a 40-hour week, 1,500 factories are working less than 40 hours a week, and there has been no reduction in wages. In Belgium there is a 40-hour week on the Government programme, and Belgium has now entered upon a programme of public works spread over three years—roads, railway equipment, waterways, slum clearance, school construction and water supplies. I want to know whether the Government have changed their policy with respect to public works.

What does the Government do with respect to public works? What about land drainage. Surely that is a very necessary work. Here is a simple illustration of what can be done. I remember many years ago that we had a distress committee set up under a Tory Government. There was an estate near Edinburgh—heavy, water-logged clay soil—fetching something like 9s. an acre for grazing. The corporation took it over for a mere song and the unemployed were put to work on the land under an agricultural expert. The city refuse was dumped there. They dug it and drained it and the following year, though it was a year of drought, there were crops that fetched the highest prices at Covent Garden, and farmers came up from Surrey and Sussex to see how it was done. That is evidence of what can be done if the Government is in earnest. What about waterways, harbour improvements and afforestation? I am glad that something is to be done with regard to afforestation in Durham. The needs of that county lie very heavy both on the minds and the hearts of the people there. Villages that formerly housed an industrial population now lie derelict. I could give illustration after illustration. I know one village quite well where 640 breadwinners used to be employed in blast furnaces and coke ovens. All that is scrapped, because these operations were transferred to another area. There is another village where 400 breadwinners have been unemployed for the last six years which now lies derelict.

I got in touch with Mr. Malcolm Stewart to see if anything could be done. He wrote me a very long letter stating that he had recommended a sewage disposal scheme. I imagined that that was something good which would employ a considerable number of those 400 men but, when I put a question to the Minister of Labour the other day, I discovered that it would employ 10 men for four months. That is one of the schemes to help this derelict area. I was very forcibly struck with the remark of the Minister of Labour the other day, when we were discussing the new Regulations, that the care of the unemployed is the concern of the nation as a whole. I wish the Government would recognise that principle instead of seeking to save the taxpayer at the expense of the ratepayer. That is what is happening to-day. The burden of the unemployed falls heaviest on the distressed areas, and the poor there are left to help the poor.

A good deal has been said to-night about the location of industry. The Minister objected very much to that. Under town planning, local authorities have a right to say where the factory area shall be, where the shopping area shall be and where the residential area shall be. If that is good enough under town planning, is there any reason why you cannot say, especially to foreign firms, who have to get a licence from the Government before they can come here, "Yes, we have some excellent sites in Durham with road transport facilities second to none and sea-board facilities ready at hand." Why should it not be laid down as a condition for these foreign firms that they should go to the distressed areas?

May I say a final word in regard to the question of the reduction of hours? I want to take you to an occupation where there can be no international complications, where there is no foreign competition—a purely domestic occupation. I refer to the distributive trades. A Select Committee recommended a 48-hours week for shop assistants but, so far, the Government have not given effect to their findings. There are at least a quarter of a million distributive workers unemployed to-day. When a Private Member's Bill was introduced to give effect to the findings, one argument was that it would increase unemployment. Surely it is a new theory that reducing hours would increase unemployment. We were under the impression that reducing the hours would absorb some of the quarter of a million at present unemployed. Another argument was that it would increase the price of commodities. When I gave evidence before that committee I took the trouble to find out whether there would be any truth in that or not, and we found that as between the shops that were working their assistants 60 to 70 hours a week and those working 48 hours or less there was actually no difference in the price of the commodities. Then we were told that it would reduce wages. Wages are so low in the distributive trades that decent employers, as well as assistants, have been clamouring for the establishment of a trade board to try to get a rock-bottom figure for wages.

We need not go to Czecho-Slovakia or the United States, Belgium or France. What about the Irish Free State? They have not been afraid to pass legislation regulating hours of labour. They have passed an Act for a 48 hours week and, at the same time, holidays with pay. I cannot understand why the Government representatives at Geneva did not support holidays with pay, because their argument against the 48-hour week was that it made no provision for the maintenance of earnings. Surely holidays with pay mean in actual fact a reduction of hours with maintenance of earnings, and ought, therefore, to have had the support of the Government, but during the past five years the Government representatives at Geneva have simply been an echo of the most reactionery British employers. British employers are constantly bemoaning foreign competition and yet, when they have the opportunity of doing something to eliminate it, they do not seize the opportunity. Whatever may be said about the League of Nations politically, it cannot be said that it has failed industrially. The International Labour Office has created an elaborate network of labour treaties setting up in many countries a standard of life which has hitherto not been possible. We who have been there during the past few years feel very sore indeed at the attitude taken up by the Government representatives, and it has not enhanced the prestige of the British Government with other nations.