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1936 Trades Union Congress report on Unemployment Assistance

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the Labour Party campaigned hard on behalf of working people during the hard economic conditions of the 1930s. Most Labour MPs were supported by trade unions to some extent. Labour MP, Arthur Hayday, spoke to the 1936 TUC conference about the treatment of the unemployed under the government's proposed Unemployment Assistance Board Regulations. Unemployment Assistance Boards (UAB) were created in 1934 to administer benefits to the unemployed, taking over from the Public Assistance Committees (PAC).

Questions to consider

  1. In what ways did the trade union movement contribute to the debate about helping the unemployed?
  2. Do you get the impression that the government listened to the points the TUC was putting forward?
  3. How would you describe the tone of this speech in terms of its attitudes to relief for the unemployed?
  4. What can we infer from this source about relations between the government and the TUC?


Perhaps you will forgive me if I take five minutes in recounting the part that we in the Trade Union Movement have endeavoured to play.  You will remember that in 1931 the Trades Union Congress put before the Royal Commission on Unemployment Insurance a scheme under which the unemployed could be provided for on a basis of citizenship without distinction between them.  Then the National Government adopted the cruel and unfair system peculiar to their psychology.  The household means test was imposed as an economy measure in 1931, and has now become a permanent feature.  You know full well that the workers demanded there must be no separation of the victims, no method of treating one section as though they were lepers.  I remember some of the phrases used then - that men of a certain age had been unemployed for so long that it would not be long before they become unemployable, and it was necessary that they should be put in a separate category and not become, as some were wicked enough to put it, hangers-on to the unemployment insurance principle.  So they were divided into those two sections, and at the moment the one section is exploited to the tune of £5,000,000 a year on the assumption that there is a big debt.  You all know how those assumed liabilities were incurred.  It is assumed that the debt must be carried by those who are making their contributions, and £5,000,000 a year must go to them, while the others are treated more as though it was a system of beggary.  The Government boasted in 1934 that they had established the principle of national responsibility for unemployment, but experience has shown that what they really did was to put the responsibility not upon the nation, but upon the homes of the unemployed.  Early in 1935, you will remember, the regulations, in consequence of the revolt of public conscience, only operated for just a few weeks, and had to be withdrawn, and the new regulations were assumed to have rectified all the defects of those regulations.  But the new regulations still retained the principle of family responsibility, and not national responsibility, and they tried to mislead the public into believing that because an unemployed person had drawn for a certain period, he should be thrown back upon the sacrifices of members of the family.  The pockets of every member of the household were to be carefully and systematically searched: as a matter of fact more systematically and more keenly than the customs officer examines baggage for possible smuggling.  Here and there the new regulations may be an improvement upon the old, but while that central principle remains young men and woman struggling to get a start in life find themselves saddled with the burden of unemployment, because they happen to live in the same household as somebody unlucky enough to be thrown out of a job through the play of economic forces over which they have absolutely no control.  They are, as we have always said, the victims of a vicious economic system.  I wish all of those well intentioned people outside the Trades Union Movement would give us a little more of their practical support, and a little more of their backing through the ballot box, because after all is said and done these things are capable of being remedied when we come down to a measure of sound common sense and real appreciation of our responsibilities and duties.  If after all this humiliating pocket-searching inquisition they can find nothing, and there are no resources of any kind, the sum of 10s, a week will be given to an adult single man, or 9s, to an adult woman.  This has to keep them not only in food and clothing but in a state of respectability.  I know you feel just as strongly about it as we do, when you have an adult single woman having to live on 9s a week and having to provide for everything out of that.  I will wager that if you search the records during the past few years and study coroners' inquests, you will find instances of many who, rather than sacrifice virtue, have been prepared