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Unemployment Insurance (British Migrants)

Volume 226: debated on Tuesday 5 March 1929

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I beg to move,

"That leave be given to bring in a Bill to render British migrants entitled to unemployment insurance benefits."
Of late I have been employing the ample leisure between Divisions in this House by stealing off into the Library and reading some of the so-called histories of the world. I have galloped through Gibbon, and have even waded through H. G. Wells; and I find that, of all the theories that provoke historians, the one that disturbs them most is the decline and fall of nations. Each and every one of them expends much time, and move ink in unfolding the causes of collapse of the lost empires of the world. Some of these causes, which are gone into at great length, need not be detailed here. But there is one symptom of decline which is common to every diagnosis, and which seems to be the chronic forerunner of imperial dissolution. In every case these historians admit the presence of an ominous excess of population, which cannot be absorbed and has to be maintained in charitable idleness by the State.

It would be insulting to ask whether that symptom is present in our community to-day. Opening the newspaper this morning, I discovered that over a million and a quarter people are still workless in these Islands. Some of them have been out of work since the War. Some of them are the best material we possess. People speak of them as being shirkers and thriftless, but the truth is that some of them are the finest elements in the country. They went over the top in the Great War, and they were heroes then. They did splendidly on many a front. They realised the high level of living in those days, and they came back to this country under the promise here of an endless El Dorado; but they were crushed instead into sunless slums, and have been forced to partake of the crumbs which fall from civilisation's table. Is it to be wondered at that some of them have become what the world calls shirkers? Men who were independent freemen originally, have become inevitably shameless devourers of the dole, and, in the enervating atmosphere of subsidised sloth, sometimes the noblest heroisms have melted away. For the pittance which is drawn by these cheated citizens is not valid for any State purpose. What is the use of it? It does not keep the person who gets it in a proper condition; it produces no extra employment; it creates no wealth; it cures no malady; from start to finish it is waste, waste, waste. It simply perpetuates chaos, and it does one thing which is even sadder and more tragic than anything else—it blinds millions to the bankruptcy of conditions here, and to the illimitable solvency of conditions overseas.

For while this country is congested, the Empire is empty. We need not argue about it. We are always being told that Australia is as big as Europe without Russia, and it is a strange fact that, if to-day we could hook on to Australia and tow her into the Atlantic alongside this country, so vast is she that we could walk across to the United States dry-shod; and yet the population of that great Continent numbers 6,000,000 people at the most. New Zealand, again, has barely 1,000,000. What about Canada? Professor Seeley, the great Imperial exponent 50 years ago, told us this, that in ten years from that date Canada would have a population of over 12,000,000. Her population to-day is under 10,000,000.

While the Mother Country is a tangle of towns glutted with human beings, the bulk of the Dominions remain vast, void tracts. While England is to-day semi-suburban, five-sixths of the Empire has never felt the foot of man. Empty continents gape to be filled, the rich earth cries out "till me"; the rivers call aloud "navigate us"; the woods wait for the axe. But where are the hands to glean in these fields? They have fallen feeble in ten years of torpor over here, and the sad thing is that there is no magician with a wand which he can wave to effect the mighty exchange. I am aware that in 1921 there was an Imperial Conference, and it was followed by a grant by the Government of £3,000,000 a year in order to assist migration. We all know that the results of that grant were lamentable and the expenditure under it has been pitiful. We know that not only has the £3,000,000 a year never been reached, but that in certain years not even £35,000 was reached to assist emigration.

Our Governments have all along blamed the co-operation of the Dominions, which has not been up to the mark. But the truth is that a mediocrity of outlook has all along doomed overseas settlement to disrepute and failure. The question is this. Why has no more money been spent? Is it the fault of the Dominions? Is not the truth really nearer at home? Does it not lie in this simple fact, that in eight years we have spent over £400,000,000 on unemployment? Every week we are spending £1,000,000 on the unemployed. It costs, I think, 17s. 9d. a week to demoralise a Briton. This money is paid out and what is the object of it? It finds no work. It creates no wealth. But it does one thing. It keeps the recipient here. And so you have this incredible anomaly. Governments with one hand dealing out money to invite the unemployed to pack up and go, and with the other hand bribing them to stop.

It would be cowardly merely to criticise and not offer an alternative, and I therefore will describe the essence of the Bill which I and those with me are introducing. In effect it amounts to this. Instead of merely continuing unemployed pay in a country of vanished markets, it is suggested that the workless who migrate overseas within the British Empire, should receive up to two years' unemployment pay. It is further suggested that a wide scheme for training would be migrants should be launched, and that farmers and other employers of labour should be approached and invited to take selected migrants and educate them. These employers would receive the unemployment pay of the migrants towards the payment of the full local wage to these trainees. To-day it costs £50 per unemployed person yearly. It will cost in six or eight years another £400,000,000 to £500,000,000. We may be saving per person perhaps £200 if he emigrates. And the benefit is two-fold: it encourages the workless to leave empty markets, and it makes them welcome overseas.

This in outline is the Bill. It is a sad fact that in this matter we have forgotten the British Empire. I wonder, if Germany had won the War, whether she would have forgotten? She went to War, after all, to get our place in the sun. If she had been victorious, she would have poured out her citizens into the uttermost parts of those realms. To-day Italy is without a dominion into which to send her surplus population. What would Japan give for a continent into which the leaking reservoir of her teeming population could overflow? Unemployment is a scourge under which none of us can sit idle. It is an Imperial issue. I hope that it will never be made the football of faction.

I should not have risen to oppose the Bill but for the speech which we have just heard. I am absolutely tired of hearing this talk about the demoralisation of the dole. I am prepared to admit that there is something in the statement that the subsidising of idleness is demoralising, but it is a remarkable fact that that demoralisation is only discovered when it is the working class. There are plenty of idle people in this country who do not belong to the working-class, and never intend to belong to the working-class, and will never intend, either, to migrate to the Colonies. So long as they can find plenty of opportunity of living in idleness in this country, they will leave the sparsely populated Colonies to look after themselves. It is only our workers who have to go over, although they fought for this country.

I am not prepared to admit that this nation is as overcrowded as the hon. and gallant Member suggests. It is relatively overcrowded, it is true, but when the hon. and gallant Member tells us that we have to encourage farmers to get hold of the best blood and stock of this country and to train them for the cultivation of land overseas, the thing that occurs to me, and to many on these benches, is that we want our best blood and stock in this country, and that there are millions of acres of land in this country which are not cultivated at all. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where?"] The figures are beyond dispute. In every part of the country there is land that is idle and, compared with the year I was born, just over 50 years ago, there are very nearly 3,000,000 people fewer directly or indirectly engaged in the business of agriculture. These facts are significant enough as to the way in which agriculture has been depleted and ruined by the policy of successive Governments.

4.0 p.m.

Something ought to be done to cultivate that part of the British Empire which lies at home. We are as much a part of the British Empire as the Colonies are, and it is a dangerous thing for any country to have to depend upon foreign sources for its food supplies and upon the exploitation of mineral resources and foreign trade as completely as we have to. From one point of view, the more you depend upon your foreign exports, the more are your standards of life governed by the lowest denominator of foreign conditions, and surely there is a great deal to be said for spending money at home in again making this country what she was in years past, a premier agricultural country. This country, after all, is the only country in the world which has not a prosperous agriculture as its basis. Even those countries which commercially are successful against us in foreign markets, have their agriculture to depend upon as a basis, and the country which allows its agricultural basis to slip from it is always a country which is upon the slippery slope to economic ruin. That is the position which the Socialist party have taken up for a good many years—that we ought to make the best of our own country and the best of our own people. When I hear hon. Members, such as the one who has asked leave to introduce this Measure, talking so glibly about sending our best men abroad to cultivate the land there, I feel that it is about time to protest, not that I am so much opposed to the idea, which is a very minor one, expressed in the Bill itself, but that it is based upon a wrong assumption, namely, the idea that it is economically good and sound for a country to lose its agriculture. It is our business as a nation to see that we do all we can to utilise our own resources, our own stock and our own blood, and then, if we have anything to spare from them, by all means develop our Empire. For that reason, I take the opportunity of opposing the Bill, although I do not intend to vote against it.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Commander Oliver Locker-Lampson, Mr. Smedley Crooke, Viscount Sandon, and Sir Newton Moore.

Unemployment Insurance (British Migrants) Bill

"to render British migrants entitled to unemployment insurance benefits," presented accordingly, and read the First time; to be read a Second time upon Monday next, and to be printed. [Bill 67.]