28 NOVEMBER 1931, Page 6

The Week at Westminster

THE past week in Parliament has seen the trans- action of the most important business of this part of this session. Last Friday Mr. Runciman completed the skilful pilotage of his dreadfully named Abnormal Imports (Customs Duties) Bill into port, and gratified a House bent upon drastic action by publishing a preliminary list of duties the same evening. The proceedings on the Bill gave his Under-Secretary, Mr. Hore Belisha, the biggest chance yet accorded to a junior Minister in the present Parliament. Mr. Hore Belisha stained the polish of an otherwise excellent performance by a peroration of fulsome flattery of an evidently embar- rassed chief. The compliments were fully deserved, but any experienced member would have told him that they should have been reserved for a time when his chief was either absent or ac cused of incompetence. No one in the House has in fact even whispered any such charge. On the whole there has been singularly little echo in Parliament of the carefully-nourished suggestions from quarters outside that the new duties are trumpery. Some feeling has, however, been expressed about a gap in the experiment, namely, the exclusion of agricultural produce from it. There are, no doubt, critics upon these lines who would like an immediate commit- ment to widespread food taxes, but the bulk of members are pressing for nothing more than a general declaration of policy, not necessarily or exclusively upon tariff lines. Ministers have so far restricted themselves to hints that a quota policy is under. active consideration, but there can be little doubt that there will be some definite pronouncement on this project before Parliament rises. The desire of agricultural members for a declaration which must affect the seasonal plans of farmers is natural enough, and a general promise of an experiment in quotas would probably satisfy them. _ Mr. Chamberlain has definitely promised to announce the fate of the land taxes before the recess. These taxes are not due to be imposed until 1933, and amend- ments made during their consideration by the late Parliament guaranteed that they would in themselves he relatively innocuous, at least during the first year. Meanwhile the valuation upon which the taxes are to be based and the principles of which are by no means so innocuous is proceeding. Two new factors have arisen since Parliament approved this scheme. In the first place, the need for economy has become more urgent, or rather more admitted ; and the valuation will cost anything up to £1,500,000 before it is corn- plete. In the second place, the instability of sterling nosy makes any present valuation futile as a criterion of value at a future date. There can, therefore, be little doubt that the whole scheme will be postponed. * * A further awkward topic during the week has been the conditions under which the new means test shall be applied to unemployed persons applying for transitional payments. The new provision limiting benefit to twenty- six weeks in the benefit year has increased the numbers in this class to over 900,000. The chief point of difficulty is whether local authorities, in making what are now properly recognized to be relief payments, shall take into account such resources as disability pensions and capital assets. The House did not like the Govern- ments decision to leave this matter to local discretion, subject to an injunction that every case should be sympathetically treated. Local discretion, indeed, is bound to result in local variations in the means test, though not necessarily in a harsh interpretation of it anywhere. But members probably did not realize that dictation of a means test by the central authority would bring into existence a new Poor Law system side by side with and contradictory of the old. The truth is that nothing less than local discretion. is com- patible with local administration ; and if that is found to mean a serious crop of anomalies, the only final result is that Parliament will have to carry through a general reform of the Poor Law, possibly on the lines of central responsibility for all the able-bodied unemployed.

The most interesting feature of the week has been the first open breach between the Government and a section of its supporters upon the Statute of Westminster Bill, which puts in writing the meaning of Dominion Status as agreed at the last two Imperial Conferences. The crucial point was that the Bill reposed the same trust in the loyalty of the Irish Free State to the Crown as in the loyalty of the other Dominions. The sub- stantial point, of the critics was that the secession of 'Ireland from the Empire, if it ever came, should he at least illegal if not preventible, and that the Bill would make it legal. The answer of the Government was that no State could be called a Dominion and then treated as though it was unworthy to be a Dominion. Mr. Thomas stuck manfully to his guns. The Solicitor- General powerfully argued that the Irish Treaty was not affected by the Bill. Mr. - Amery pointed the way from a political to an economic Empire ; but an awkward division • after the first day's debate was only avoided by a promise to review the matter in the light of the criticisms offered by Mr. Churchill, who, apart from tremors as to what Dominion Status might mean in India, wished explicitly to reserve • the Irish Treaty from the Bill. But when the debate was resumed oil Tuesday the critics overplayed their hand. Mr. Marjori- banks, who has only the extravagant dress of a Disraeli. pitched his fears and his insinuations too high. Colonel Gretton, patently honest, can never be persuasive. Lord Hugh Cecil, looking regrettably frail, based himself on the potential revolt of Ireland under a statesman who is not in power. Mr. Thomas really ended the debate by reading a letter from Mr. Cosgrave asserting the inviolability of the Treaty ; but Mr. Baldwin clinched the matter by pointing out that the Imperialist critics were really endangering the good relationships of the whole Empire. The decisive division gave the Govern- ment a majority of 300-350 to 50—which showed conclusively that the rank and file of new members did not like the company of the rebels.

*- * The list of early individual successes must certainly include Lord Lothian, who made an admirable speech on terrorism in India in the House of Loi-ds on Tuesday ; and it is often forgotten how much Ministers in the Lords can contribute to the reputation and stability of a Government. It would be idle to deny that Mining operations against the Government continue unabated in certain quarters, and receive, perhaps unconsciously, support from the badgering operations of many Com- mittees. It is very difficult for the private member to strike the happy mean between a useful and an obstreperous existence, between encouraging the Govern- ment to pursue a national policy and badgering the Government to adopt a party programme. eUSTO-,.