THE INSURANCE BILL. T HE Insurance Bill will be through the
Report stage by the time these pages reach our readers' hands, and will be ready for Third Reading. That being so, it may be worth while to set down some of the salient facts con- nected with the measure and its passage through the Commons. The last, and perhaps in some ways the most important, of these is the sudden growth of the agitation for excluding domestic servants from the Bill. We are far from saying that we agree with this agitation. We dislike the Bill in its final form intensely because we think that, while it has the one good feature of being contribu- tory, it carries out the contributory principle so badly that this redeeming feature is rendered almost nugatory. Still, if there must be a Bill, even though a bad Bill, we should be sorry to see a class to whom thrift is com- paratively easy, and who stand greatly in need of thrift, though not, -perhaps, of the particular form dealt with in the Bill, entirely left out of it. But though we may not like many sides of the servants' agitation, and should not care to see it successful unless it should operate to cause tit* withdrawal of the whole Bill and the alter- nate substitution of a better measure, it is absurd to pretend that the agitation is unreal or is produced by the Daily Mail and the other popular newspapers that have made themselves its spokesmen and instruments. No newspaper, however well organized and enterprising, could possibly have created the movement in question. It is a perfectly genuine one, and it is based, we are certain, upon a well-marked dislike of the Bill among domestic servants. In the beginning no doubt the mistresses played a certain part in the movement, but this interest was soon what the Americans call " snowed under." The Albert Hall demonstration was overwhelmingly a servants' demonstra- tion. If it is asked what makes the servant class so strongly against the Bill, the answer is, not that they are indifferent to provision for sickness or for thrift generally, but that they feel that, as a rule, they are provided against the more immediate evils of sickness by the custom of the employers to give them medical attendance and comforts during illness. But though for this reason they have no great dread, at any rate, of temporary sickness, they do dislike most heartily the diminution of their wages and the interference between them and their employers which will be caused by the Bill. They want, in other words, to be let alone. They want it because they instinctively realize that those who wish to dispose of their services or of anything else they have to sell to the highest advantage are handicapped in doing so by the kind of interference with free contract established by the Bill. Undoubtedly the tendency of the Bill is to effect a check upon hiring, i.e., the demand for servants. But no one who wants to be hired, as servants must naturally do, at the highest rates obtainable can wish to see even the slightest limita- tion of demand.
Another essential fact in regard to the Bill is its intense unpopularity with the doctors—with the profession with- out which the Bill could not be worked, and whose interests are therefore bound up with the measure as closely as are those of the recipients of the benefits. The profession of medicine in this country is unfortunately one which, as a whole, is distinctly ill-paid. Of the general condition of the profession it is scarcely too much to say that it is hard and precarious. The struggle for life is very fierce among doctors. That being so they feel the greatest possible dread of a measure which must profoundly alter the conditions under which they get their living. If passed in its present shape they realize that it must greatly add to their work, while it is only too likely to decrease their total remuneration. Further it is almost certain to make medical practices unsaleable. Already the value of practices tends to be a diminishing quantity, and the Bill will enormously stimulate the tendencies that have produced this result. Finally the doctors dread, and very naturally dread, being placed under the power of the friendly societies. They feel that the provisions in regard to health committees which are intended to prevent this result are wholly inadequate. No one, of course, can tell exactly how the Bill will work out, but it is pretty certain that, whatever else may happen, the position of the doctors will not be improved, but the reverse. Remember that the doctors' opposition to the Bill has nothing whatever to do with politics. A very large number of the protesting doctors are Liberals. Yet a feature of the agitation has been the solidarity of the profession.
Another fact which stands out in regard to the Bill is one which affects not any section but the whole popu- lation. The Bill is going to prove a tremendous burden on the national finances. No one, and least of all the Government, seems to have any clear idea of what the cost is really going to be. But in public finance uncertainty as regards cost invariably means that the charges will prove far heavier than anyone could possibly have foretold. Let us recall what happened in the case of old-age pensions, where the effect was much more easy to estimate. Mr. Asquith asserted that the total annual cost of old-age pensions could not be more than six millions a year when the scheme had got into full opera- tion. It has already reached thirteen millions. Mr. Lloyd George in introducing his insurance scheme, and before he had made a great many of the very costly concessions which he has since made, placed the cost to the Exchequer when the Bill was in full working at something under five millions a year. It would, we feel quite sure, be safe to double this estimate, as we doubled the official figures and proved to be right in the case of old-age pensions. Indeed, in all probability it would be safe to treble it. Let us, however, assume that the cost to the State will not be more than ten millions. How is this ten millions to be obtained ? If we increase the taxes on articles of general consumption, that is, the taxes that affect the poor, the effect on their incomes must be oppressive. If, on the other hand, an extra ten millions is placed on the income-tax and the super-tax we shall have very nearly reached the absolute limit of direct taxation, and thus have little or nothing left for a war fund. It is pos- sible no doubt that Mr. Lloyd George may contemplate as the ultimate source from which to get his money some scheme for taxing luxuries imported into this country. If he does, however, he will soon learn, as other tariff manipulators have learnt, that the taxa- tion of so-called luxuries draws very little. To make an indirect tax a. good drawing tax it must be placed not on luxuries but on necessaries. It must be remembered, however, that the ten millions or so which the Exchequer will have to find does not in any way cover the cost of the Bill to the country. All persons who know anything about taxation will agree with Mr. Bisgood, who in his speech at the Albert Hall declared that there is no such thing in the world as compulsory contributions. Such contributions are taxes and nothing else. He estimated that the Bill would in effect impose a total charge of something like £40,000,000 a year upon the nation. We should not be surprised if his estimate proved correct. This calculation of course makes no allowance for the waste which is bound to occur if, as many people believe, malingering should be enormously stimulated by the Bill. There is no truer maxim in life than that you can have anything you care to pay for. But there are certain aspects of the Bill which go perilously near to establishing premiums on ill health and premiums on unemployment.
Another fact in regard to the Bill closely allied to this is that on the one hand the Bill has not been properly discussed in Parliament and on the other that Mr. Lloyd George has heaped concession on concession and new clause on new clause to such an extent that it has passed the wit of man to say how the Bill now stands. Some of our correspondents have been taking us to task this week for misrepresenting the Bill by speaking of clauses being in existence which Mr. Lloyd George threw over months ago. We plead guilty, but we are bound to say that we cannot use the conventional form of apology, that we cannot understand how we came to make the mistake. On the contrary we understand it very clearly. It was most natural that we should have blundered. We believe that, in regard to the Bill as a whole, the country is exactly in the condition in which we found ourselves over a par- ticular clause. It supposes many things to be in the Bill which are not in it, and, on the other hand, it believes the Bill not to contain a great many things which, owing to new clauses and amendments, it does in fact contain. This is due to Mr. Lloyd George's disastrous determination first to push his ill-considered and ill-digested Bill through in an Autumn Session, in which there is no time for proper discussion, and next to have a Bill of some sort at any cost. The result is that he has been bribing his way through the mazes of his measure by concession after concession, utterly regardless of the effect upon the BilL So long as he can by his concessions disarm the criticism of the moment he is content. When a deter- mined opposition has been raised to the Bill on a specific point he has not asked himself whether it is possible to make the concession without damaging his measure. Instead he has asked : " Are these people powerful enough to wreck my Bill if I do not buy them off ? " If the answer has been " Yes, they are," the next step has been to buy them off—as cheaply as possible, of course, but to buy them in any case. Accordingly we have witnessed the very disagreeable spectacle of the Chancellor of the Exchequer higgling with deputations and arranging to pay whatever blackmail was necessary to allow his Bill to get through. We have no desire to take a high moral line in regard to these tactics, for we are aware that in principle they are those of poli- ticians generally, though the " deals " are seldom so openly acknowledged. We must point out, however, that when these tactics assume the gigantic proportions which they have assumed in the case of Mr. Lloyd George's Bill the result must be thoroughly inefficient, and therefore evil legislation.
From these considerations emerge the fact, and it is a cardinal one, that the Bill is in a desperate muddle and that in all probability it will now pass the wit of man to put it straight. If we lived not under a strict party system but in a world of reason we should suggest that the best plan of all would be to take the Bill as it leaves the House of Commons at the Third Reading and refer it to a small Joint Committee of the Lords and Commons, reinforced by a certain number of financial and insurance experts, with the instruction to take the Bill and rearrange and redraft it, keeping before them the intentions which underlie the Bill. That course might no doubt still produce an undesirable Bill, but at any rate we should know where we were and not be laying up for ourselves a mountain of costly and dilatory legal proceed- ings to elucidate the measure. We are, of course, well aware that nothing of this kind will or can be done. It therefore remains for the Lords to determine whether, in the very exiguous time allowed to them, they can do any- thing to straighten out the Bill, or whether they will be obliged to adopt the plan which we have already strongly urged upon them—a plan which we are delighted to see has received the endorsement of the Times—of referring the Bill to the country and asking whether they really want "The National Insurance Bill, 1911," to come into operation, or whether they would not rather wait till a better and more workmanlike scheme can be presented to them. That the Lords are placed in a very difficult position we fully admit. On a review of the whole situa- tion we maintain our suggestion for the addition of a Referendum clause, and this though we are fully aware that the course we favour is open to certain very important objections. It is, indeed, as is so often the case in politics, a choice of evils, but on the whole we believe the greater evil to be the passing of the Bill. As to the threat that the Government will treat the addition of a Referendum clause as the throwing out of their Bill, and will proceed, not to pass it over the heads of the Lords by the machinery contained in the Parliament Bill, but will instead drop their measure and introduce a non-contributory scheme, we will only say that the threat is as impracticable as it is unworthy. A non-contributory scheme would apparently mean the addition of some £20,000,000 to £30,000,000 year to the taxes. The present Government dare not place such a burden on the existing tax-payers, and they also dare not introduce a universal or wages income-tax—which in truth would only be a contributory scheme under an alias. If the Bill is dropped, not passed over the heads of the Lords, we shall hear no more of it. But Mr. Lloyd George may quite conceivably prefer the Referendum to dropping his Bill. It is therefore, and in spite of their protestations, by no means absolutely impossible that, after all, a Referendum might be agreed to by the Cabinet. It might prove for them the easiest way out of their difficulties.
Before we leave the subject we must protest in the strongest possible way against the monstrous suggestion, made by one of the speakers at the Albert Hall meeting, that if the Bill passes an attempt should be made to organize "passive resistance" against it among the servant section of the community. That is a very wrong and a very unwise proposal, and we sincerely trust that it will not be carried out in any way whatever. Resist- ance to the law ought only to be used in those extreme and fundamental cases where a citizen is deprived of some essential right or liberty—when, that is, govern- ment has outstepped its functions. We fully admit that such a case will arise if the Government rejects every pro- posal to allow any county in Ulster which so desires to remain outside the Home Rule scheme and forces those units against the will of the local majority under the rule of a Dublin Parliament. It does not arise in a measure like the Insurance Bill, bad as it is. Those, then, who preach or encourage passive resistance to it must deserve the condemnation of all good citizens.