THE problem of unemployment is twofold—to reduce by any means reasonably possible the numbers of the workless, and to provide maintenance for the residue who, when every effort has been expended, remain unemployed still. The former task is by far the more important, alike on grounds of economy and of humanity. But till it can be carried out the problem of maintenance remains, and the arrangements for pro- viding maintenance must be made as equitable and as efficient as statesmanship can make them. It is in the light of those aims that the Royal Commission on Unem- ployment Insurance, which issued its report on Monday, must be judged. Actually it issued two reports, but the proposals of the minority take so little account of financial possibilities that it would serve no useful purpose to examine them in detail. The majority begin with one reassuring conclusion, that a workable insurance scheme on a basis of unemployment figures of 3,000,000 is a practical proposition. Simultaneously the Ministry of Labour is able to make the announcement, as welcome as it was unexpected (till the figures leaked out pre- maturely), that the September total of 2,858,000 unem- ployed, instead of rising during October to close on the three million mark or over it, has dropped sharply to 2,747,000. The trough of the wave is normally reached after Christmas, when hands taken on temporarily are stood off, and a drop in employment before the usual February improvement begins ought not to cause surprise or undue dejection. But this week's figures lend solid justification for the hope that we may, after all, get through the winter without touching the three millions at all.
But meanwhile there the 2,747,000 are, some of them drawing the statutory insurance benefit, some of them the transitional benefit subject to a means test, and some of them dependent on Public Assistance—the old Poor Law under a new and better name. Judge Holman Gregory's Commission makes a number of recom- mendations for changes in the Unemployment Insurance system. The contributory system is to remain, but considerable elasticity is imparted into it by the proposal that statutory benefit may run for as short a term as 13 weeks or as long as 39 weeks, according to the number of contributions the beneficiary has paid. The proposed reduction of the single man's benefit by 3d. a week is hardly worth making, pa titularly when it is remembered that he was docked by 2s. a year ago, and dependents' allowances might have been increased by something more than the extra 6d. proposed in respect of the first child. The proposal that the railwaymen as a whole should he brought into the insurance system could with advantage have been put much more strongly, and in spite of the difficulties about insuring the agricultural labourer the Government will have to give serious consideration to that. The most important departure—the creation of a transitional benefit category, not only for insured persons who have gone out of benefit, but for able-bodied uninsured, such as the agricultural labourer, thus relieving the Public Assistance authorities of the latter—is entirely sound. The retention of a means test was inevitable, but the principles the Commission lays dc wn for its administration will do a good deal to mitigate hardships and remove anomalies. Altogether the majority pro- posals, in their main outlines, are such as the Government will do well to accept.
If the Gregory Commission has pointed the way usefully to the solution of the lesser problem, the greater problem—the reduction of the numbers of the workless —remains, and it cannot be said that the three-days' debate in the House of Commons has carried things much further. That the real desideratum is to get ordinary trade moving and ordinary employment expand. ing is axiomatic, and whatever views may be held about the effects of the Ottawa agreements m those directions, the agreements are on the point of becoming law, and must henceforth be regarded as part of the data in the case. The Prime Minister is pinning his hopes on the World Economic Conference, and it is well that he should, for a success there—meaning by that a concerted move for the reduction of tariffs and the removal of other obstacles to trade—would do more to promote economic recovery than any other single factor imaginable. There can never be national recovery till we return to inter- national sanity. But the World Conference is still some months distant. Meanwhile some palliatives must be devised domestically, as they will need to be however the World Conference results. Are there any directions in which, without expending sums which it has not got and cannot get without resorting to wholly imprudent finance, the Government can wisely foster employment? Out of the mass of suggestions proffered two make a predominant claim on attention—the possibilities of housing and of the land. Any extensive expansion of housing activity would at once provide considerable direct, and much more considerable indirect, employment, and the part the building societies are prepared to play in providing cheap money gives the proposals the Govern- ment now has before it a very hopeful colour. Various caveats must be sounded. The demand that houses should be built at 20 to the acre instead of 12 must be resisted even in this crisis. The exigencies of a moment of depression cannot justify the commission of mistakes that would stand as monuments for generations. And the class of house to be encouraged must be the house the worker needs and can afford to pay for. A cost of £400 ought to be the outside limit, and in many localities that will be a great deal too high. Subject to that, there is every reason for pushing the scheme forward.
The return-to-the-land solution involves issues very different. The question is raised inevitably in connexion with unemployment. Mr. Lloyd George raised it with effect in his speech on Monday, pointing with much force to the proportion of the population to be found on the land, not only in highly protected countries like France and Germany, but in low-tariff countries like Holland and Belgium. But how can the unemployed be diverted into an industry drifting helplessly towards bankruptcy, and adding its own quota to the unem- ployed millions daily ? British farming must be saved itself before it can save others, and the problem of its salvation is not to be handled as an expedient incidental to the general problem of unemployment. The Prime Minister on Monday expressed a vague faith in hind settlement and Mr. Lloyd George a more explicit hope. but the immediate task is to keep on the land the population that is on it already. That alone, for the moment, is a sufficiently formidable undertaking for the new Minister of Agriculture, who wisely refrained on Monday from extravagant promises and refused to be hustled into the production of half-considered plans under stress of an emergency which, however calamitous, cannot be allowed to determine the lines of long-term policies. He was able to announce voluntary agreement for the restriction of meat imports, which is, at any rate, better than enforced quota restrictions, and he Will bring imagination as well as knowledge to the main task before him. Some first-aid measures may be Indis- pensable. More can be done with small-holdings than is being done to-day, and if allotments will not provide full employment they can, Its the Society of Friends has demonstrated, do much to mitigate unemployment. Credits should be extended to the utmost. with some Government assistance if necessary. But a considered agricultural policy is something very differeht from .that. If Major Elliot can produce one that will achieve its purpose. he will live in history.