We are devoting an hour or two to probably the second most important question that can confront the nation at present. On Thursday we discussed the international question in a crowded House, with everyone tense and wondering what was likely to happen. The question that we are dealing with now is almost equal to it in importance. I am glad that we have an opportunity of asking the House to pay a little more attention than it has done to this most important question. We ask that there should be an inquiry to see if there is any way of dealing with the unemployment problem, and I should like to make one or two suggestions in order that the Minister might consider some points of view that we have in our minds.
The productive capacity of the country is surpassing almost anything that was ever thought about 20 years ago, and in its train it is throwing thousands out of work. The question before us is, How are we to catch up that kind of thing? My suggestion is that an examination should be made into every industry to see what it can absorb from the unemployed. There are about 14,000,000 workers in employment and we have 2,000,000 out of work, about 1,500,000 permanently. To absorb them it would mean that for about every 10 persons employed one would have to be engaged in industry. Surely that is not too much to ask. I think it could easily be done. If productive capacity is going on displacing men, some attempts will have to be made before long to meet the difficulty, and it can only be done by absorbing them on the line that I have indicated. Another method would be the gradual shortening of hours, so that everyone could be employed. At a time of national crisis, when there is an enemy at the gates, we range ourselves together to prevent him from coming in, and it is not too much to ask that in the crisis that we are facing now we should range ourselves in a way which will give employment to all.
The gravest feature of the question, to my mind, is what it means to the older workers. For some time I have been appealing to the Government to examine this question. I have tried to find out from the Minister how many people of 55 and over are out of work. I do not know whether he is deliberately avoiding it, but I have not been able to get the figure. Last week I put down a question in regard to the employment of these people where contracts are given by the Government—where aerodromes are being set up and Government works are being undertaken. I tried to find out how many of the aged people were taken on. The right hon. Gentleman deliberately avoided answering that. He said he did not know; he had not the power to examine it. Yet it is Government contracts in which there should be some attempt to take the elderly people. No examination of the question is being made. It is just being allowed to go on. We have a gradually growing army of unemployed with a greater increase of the elder people than ever before. It is a sad state of things that this should be allowed to go on, and we are asking that more interest should be shown by the right hon. Gentleman and the party opposite than is being done.
On Saturday I paid a visit to my constituency and I went into the unemployment hut to have a chat with the men. I found 20 or 30 aged people sitting round a little stove trying to make them selves comfortable. In industrial districts those who have a little money generally make the best use of it on a Saturday night and enjoy themselves, but these men had no money to spend. They were aged people with no chance of getting employment, and the outlook seemed hopeless to them. I tried to give them some idea of the international situation. I thought it might interest them. When I had finished my narrative, they said, "Have you forgotten about the unemployed? Is nothing being said about us in the House of Commons?" I said, "Very little. Unfortunately at a time like this what appears to be the greater issue dominates everything, and we get little or no chance of bringing your case before the House of Commons" They said it was time that something was done, and they asked me if sometime I would bring down the Minister of Labour to see how they were getting on and to see the aged people. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will pay a visit to Leigh if only to see these old people and get some idea of what life means to them. If at a time like this we are calling upon the sons of these people to give all they can, we should have at least some respect for their parents, and not allow them to be thrown on the scrap-heap. I hope we shall have some assurance that the Government are examining the question, and that we may have some hope that something will be done to relieve the tremendous burden of unemployment.