§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 6.56 p.m.
§ The Minister of National Insurance (Mr. James Griffiths)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
This Bill is an attempt to deal with a situation which has arisen out of the war. Every person except a regular officer who serves in His Majesty's Forces raised in the United Kingdom is given on his discharge from those Forces a credit of contributions under the unemployment insurance scheme of this country which enables him to receive unemployment benefit if he subsequently becomes unemployed. That benefit is only payable if he is in the United Kingdom and while he is absent from this 859 country the credit is of no use to him. The Eire volunteer is in that position. Numbers of these volunteers joined up straight from their home in Eire, they have no home they can call their own in Great Britain, and it is only natural and right that on discharge and demobilisation they should want to return to Eire. But the Eire volunteer who returns home is likely to encounter difficulty in obtaining civilian employment because he will enjoy no special protection in finding work or in regaining his previous employment such as is given in the United Kingdom by the Disabled Persons Employment Act and the Reinstatement in Civil Employment Act. He may be at a disadvantage in this respect compared with men discharged from the Eire Defence Forces to whom the Eire Government have, naturally, promised preference. Eire insurance contributions will not have been paid for him while serving in His Majesty's Forces, and he is of course excluded from the special benefits of the Eire Unemployment Insurance Act which are enjoyed by those who serve in the Eire Defence Forces. He can thus suffer the worst of both of these insurance worlds because he will not be able to derive advantage from the special rights conferred upon ex-Servicemen in the United Kingdom and he will get no advantages if he returns to Eire.
Perhaps the best way of dealing with this problem would be, were it possible, to have a reciprocal arrangement, and indeed ever since 1923 attempts have been made to arrange such reciprocity with Eire in regard to unemployment insurance. They have always broken down because we have never been able to arrive at satisfactory financial arrangements and in recent years there has been more difficulty over the difference between benefits, particularly dependants benefits, paid in Eire and this country. However, it is hoped that under the wider powers which we have under the new National Insurance Act it may be possible to set up a reciprocal scheme between Eire and this country, and indeed I am glad to be able to state that discussions to that end are in contemplation. A suitable scheme will not be easy to arrive at for the reasons I have already indicated, but we enter these discussions with the hope that we shall be able to arrive at an early agreement on this subject. That is for the 860 future. It is impossible to arrive at final agreement without a great deal of further negotiation and discussion.
Meanwhile, I think it is a matter of general consent that something should be done now to help men and women from Eire who during the war joined His Majesty's Forces and helped us to beat our enemies. We do not know exactly how many such persons there were, but the number is probably not greatly in excess of 40,000. Of that number, it is estimated that about 10,000 have given home addresses in Eire upon demobilisation and many have already returned home. It will be remembered that questions have been put upon several occasions in this House and in another place. The Lord Chancellor and the Prime Minister have expressed sympathy with the Eire volunteers and the statements made by them in reply contained promises that a settlement would be reached as soon as possible. There have been meetings between representatives of the Eire Government and officers of my Department, and I am very happy to say that the principles of working arrangements have now been approved by His Majesty's Government and by the Government of Eire. I am also very glad to be able to say that those principles have also been accepted by the Government of Northern Ireland.
Ex-Service men and women ordinarily resident in Eire before enlistment, who served in our Forces during the war and have returned to Eire after demobilisation, will be able to obtain when unemployed unemployment benefit at our rates and subject to our contribution conditions, up to a limit of 30 weeks, provided that they satisfy the other conditions for the receipt of benefit in force in Eire. Those conditions approximate closely to our own. The arrangement will run for two years from the date of operation, but can be extended if that is mutually agreed upon and the extension is necessary or desirable. The money to pay the benefit in Eire will come from the Unemployment Fund, into which the three Service Departments and the Treasury pay contributions to enable men and women who served in His Majesty's Forces to be treated on claiming benefit as if they had worked and paid contributions for every week they served in the Forces. The Bill is necessary to make the payments under the new arrangements.
861 Clause 1 provides that the date of operation of the Bill shall be fixed by Order in Council. It is hoped that the date can be soon. Clause I also provides, coupled with the agreed arrangement that beneficiaries must be persons ordinarily resident in Eire for not less than 30 weeks before service in His Majesty's Forces. Benefit must not exceed 180 days at the weekly rates of benefit now payable under the general scheme of unemployment insurance in this country. That rate for men of 21 years of age and over is 24s. a week and the usual increases for dependants will be paid. The number of children covered will be limited to two in order to adjust the payments to the family allowance scheme of Eire, which provides an allowance for any children after the first two. The persons covered will be ordinary members of His Majesty's Forces and there will be included the Women's Auxiliary Services, nurses and the medical and dental services. The Bill contains provisions in Clause 4 for making Regulations for any adaptations which may prove to be necessary upon the coming into full force of the National Insurance Act, 1946. Such Regulations will be laid before Parliament in the ordinary way. This special provision for the Eire volunteers is in the interests of men and women who came forward spontaneously to join our Forces during the war. We want to make them feel that the United Kingdom is not unmindful of the services they rendered.
§ Mr. Austin (Stretford)
My right hon. Friend has made no reference to volunteers in the Merchant Navy. If there has been spontaneous volunteering into the Merchant Navy by residents in Eire, is provision contemplated for them likewise?
§ Mr. Griffiths
The Bill is confined to those who served in the Forces. For those who served in the Merchant Navy, contributions would have been paid by the people concerned. The Bill provides for men and women who served in the Army, Navy or Air Force. I do not think there is anything contentious in the Bill. It enables us to do something for people for whom we have a deep regard because they came forward and volunteered to help us in the war.
§ 7.5 p.m.
§ Mr. Osbert Peake (Leeds, North)
The Bill, like the last, will prove to be of a non-contentious character. Inglorious as 862 was the attitude of Eire during the great crisis through which we have passed, we shall all agree that everything possible should be done to safeguard the position of that large number of gallant volunteers who came from Eire to assist us in the struggle. Therefore, we welcome the provisions in the Bill. They are necessarily rather nebulous in character. I do not think I have ever before seen a Bill begin with words like these:It His Majesty by Order in Council declares that arrangements have been entered into, and are in force"—for certain purposes, then—the Minister of National Isurance … may during the continuance in force of the arrangements make payments out of the Unemployment Fund.Everything turns, not upon what is done in the Bill but upon what is contained in the arrangements into which the Minister is going to enter. The right hon. Gentleman has kindly given us some description of what those arrangements will be. It will be the first opportunity the House has had of endeavouring to appreciate precisely what those arrangements are. The right hon. Gentleman will therefore forgive me if I ask him or his Parliamentary Secretary to answer one or two questions about them. I would say, in the first place, that I am very glad to see that the Bill gives no recognition of any sort or kind to the endeavour which has been made on the other side of the Irish Channel, to establish a separate Irish nationality. The definition of these persons, both in the long Title and in the main operative Clauses of the Bill, is:persons ordinarily resident in Eire.I am particularly glad that that is the definition chosen by the Bill. It would have been a great disaster had we given any colour to the claim by Mr. de Valera that persons who reside in Eire are not British subjects. As I understand it, the plan is that these gallant volunteers, if they should fall unemployed at any time during the next two years, or within two years after their discharge from the Forces, draw unemployment benefit, broadly speaking, at the rate which is in force in this country. My only fear is that the arrangements themselves will tend to throw these men out of employment. The Minister said there was a possibility, almost amounting to a likelihood, that there would be some discrimination against these men in Eire.
§ Mr. J. Griffiths
It is essential to get this point clear. There have been very amicable discussions and negotiations, and the decision is that these men will get preference because of the fact that they served in our Forces I do not think that that ought to be represented as discrimination.
§ Mr. Peake
I am very much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for making the position clear, but what I am afraid of is this. So far as these men are concerned—I think there are 40,000 of them —if they fall out of employment in Eire, the cost will fall not on the Eire unemployment insurance funds but upon our own unemployment insurance funds. Therefore, it will be seen that if there is to be a certain amount of unemployment in Eire, it is greatly to the advantage of the authorities there that these men should be unemployed, rather than persons who have a claim upon their own insurance funds. I am, therefore, sorry that the arrangements contemplate an actual cash payment by us of the precise cost of paying unemployment benefit to these particular men. I would rather we had made a definite contribution, calculated upon some hypothetical basis, to the Eire unemployment insurance funds. That would not have led to any inducement to discriminate so far as employment is concerned, against men who have served in our Forces.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman has considered these arrangements from that point of view. It would be a most deplorable thing if, out of our goodness of heart, in endeavouring to do the right thing by these people who volunteered and served in our Forces, and rendered us help in the war, we did something which, in fact, would turn out detrimental to their prospect of obtaining and retaining a steady job at a good rate of remuneration That is the only thing I fear about the arrangements proposed in the Bill. I hope the Minister has considered it and that he has planned in some way to meet it.
I take it that the actual administration of these benefits will be in the hands of officials of the Eire Government, and that we shall play no part in the day to day administration. We shall receive, I take it, certain records setting out lists of men who have registered as unemployed and at the end of it all we shall be pre- 864 sented from time to time with a bill which we have to pay. It may be that the right hon. Gentleman has entered into the only arrangement which it was open to him to agree to in this matter, but I express my own fear that the nature of the arrangements, which are intended to be generous, and generous as I believe them to be, may in fact prove detrimental to the prospects of men upon whom we seek to confer these benefits.
§ 7.14 p.m.
§ Sir Ronald Ross (Londonderry)
I have great satisfaction in being able to welcome this Bill, which does no more than justice to a very gallant band of Irishmen who came to fight in the cause of freedom during the recent war. Their position at present is a very unhappy one. I do not know whether hon. Members here realise the very trying position in which they find themselves. As has probably become apparent to some hon. Members in this House, we in Northern Ireland have a disinclination to becoming subject to the state of affairs which exists in Eire, and one of the reasons for that is the extraordinary inadequacy of their social services. Even if these men were getting unemployment benefit on the Eire scale, they would be infinitely worse off than they should be. When one considers that there are frozen wage levels there, and a very high cost of living, one appreciates how necessary it is that these men should have this assistance from us to whose help they came when there was greatest need.
I am very interested in the figure the Minister has given as to the probable number of volunteers as far as can be computed—40,000—because that is about the figure which I always thought was probable. Some rather extravagant claims have been made from time to time and I have never been able to find any grounds for supposing them to be accurate. That therefore is the quantity, and as regards quality, we can all agree that the contributions received from the fighting men of Eire who were prepared to fight for liberty, was a very grand one.
I am a little anxious, as the right hon. Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake) was, about the fear of victimisation as regards this class. I do not know that I congratulate myself, or ourselves, very much on citizens of Eire being treated as British citizens because, so far as I know, 865 they are only British citizens when it helps them. When they can get any advantage by considering themselves otherwise, they regard themselves as anything but British citizens. But it is very important to see that there is no victimisation of those who fought in the cause of the United Nations. In particular, there is one class who certainly have been practically deprived of all rights of human beings. These were the gallant, if slightly irresponsible, gentlemen who were members of the Eire defence forces and who, instead of carrying out their rather less arduous duties of being neutral, deserted in order to join up and fight. I hope they will not be in any way victimised. I would be interested to know what powers our Ministry have of seeing that these funds are properly distributed to those who are qualified to receive them.
I have the greatest sympathy with the Minister as regards the negotiations which he had to carry through. I can quite understand that they were by no means easy and I congratulate him on having achieved what appears to be a working agreement. We shall see how it works out in practice. I am glad to have been able to intervene to support the Bill which, as I have said, gives no more than justice to a gallant class of Irishmen.
§ 7.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Austin (Stretford)
I am very gratified to see the reasonable way in which this Bill has been met on all sides of the House. It is also gratifying to see that in the delicate matters of negotiation we have been successful in dealing with the Government of Eire, and we must commend the Minister accordingly. To me this Bill symbolises the gratitude of Great Britain for the services rendered to it in times of stress by nationals or residents, as the right hon. Gentleman opposite said, of Eire. These residents of Eire performed valiant services in the various Forces, and the only flaw that has arisen is that mentioned by the right hon. Member for Leeds North (Mr. Peake) regarding the unfair position in which some of the 40,000 may find themselves owing to the fact that they will receive unemployment benefit from this country instead of from their own funds. Of that 40,000, I presume there were volunteers from all classes of society just as volunteers in this country were drawn from all classes of society. It may well be that 866 10,000 or 12,000 will be in no need of pecuniary assistance. However it may well be that there will be the problem of a solid core of 15,000 or 20,000 of these ex-volunteers who may find themselves in distress, who may find themselves unemployed, and kept unemployed, because of this natural pressure on the part of the Eire Government to pay unemployment benefit to their own nationals only, with the corresponding exclusion of these people.
If I may suggest it to the Minister, here is an opportunity, when we are short of labour, to set up an office in this country to which those people could apply for employment when in need. To give an illustration, I may mention that at almost every Question time, we have raised the difficult question of Polish nationals being sent to this country purely on the basis of objection to Socialism in their own country. If we want to express our gratitude to these Eire nationals, we would be rendering a service to the volunteers and to this country if we could persuade some of them to take up employment in this country in various spheres. That is a suggestion which the Minister perhaps would do well to look into.
§ 7.22 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of National Insurance (Mr. Steele)
I feel a deep sense of gratitude that in my first speech from this Bench I should be dealing with a Measure which has received the wholehearted support of the House—no doubt in the future I shall not be in the same happy position. In view of this fact, my task is easy, and I shall confine myself to short replies to some of the questions raised.
The first, put by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake), was with regard to the payment of benefit. Various methods were considered and, after due consideration, the present method was adopted because it was felt by both sides to be the best. It is true that the administration of the scheme will be in the hands of officials in Eire, but I can assure the House that my right hon. Friend will watch the matter closely and that there will be a close association between our own Government and the Government of Eire so that a check will be made of the various cases. That point was also raised by the hon. 867 Member for Londonderry (Sir R. Ross) and it was good to hear the appreciation he expressed to my right hon. Friend on this matter. My right hon. Friend will have power under the Bill to go into all the detailed arrangements of the supervision of the scheme, and, as I have said, there will be, on both sides, the closest examination of all the various cases.
§ Sir R. Ross
May I ask one question? Supposing individual complaints of victimisation should come in, would it be possible to raise them in this House with our Minister, so that he may take them up with the corresponding authorities in Eire?
§ Mr. Steele
We can really deal only with benefits; the other matter is outside the scope of the arrangements.
Regarding the suggestion made by my hon Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Austin) about the employment of these people in this country, arrangements have already been made and there is an office of the Ministry of Labour in Dublin. Anyone who wishes can make application to that office for the various types of employment which are open in this country as a result of the present man-power shortage and we have in fact already about 106,000 workers from Eire here now. My right hon. Friend dealt very ably and frankly with the history of this matter as has been appreciated in all parts of the House. We recognise that it is a special problem which has arisen out of the war, and that it will be for a limited period only. With those remarks I trust that we may now have the Second Reading of this Bill.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole. House, for Friday.—[Mr. Collin-dridge.]