MR. JAMES LOWTHER (Kent, Thanet)
I beg to ask the President of the Board of Trade whether his attention has been called to a letter signed "George Rowley," in The North Wales Observer and Express, of 8th January, 1897, in which he states, with reference to his appointment as Local Labour Correspondent to the Board of Trade, that his duty as correspondent was to obtain all information possible from the locality from secretaries of associations, etc., and forward them to the Board of Trade; that he received his appointment through the recommendation of several Welsh Members, well-known Radicals; that on labour questions he had been a trade unionist all his life, taken a leading part for more than twenty years, and had had a large experience of strikes of all kinds; that he was President of the Miners' Federation for some years; and only the other day was Chairman of a Welsh meeting at Cefnmawr for the purpose of raising subscriptions on behalf of the Bethesda men; and, whether the writer of this letter was specially instructed by the Board of Trade to visit Bethesda for the purpose of making inquiries as to the dispute at the Penrhyn 1059 Quarries, and his report thereupon received previous to the Department openly intervening in the matter?
§ MR. RITCHIE
I have just seen the letter, and assuming it to be as printed, it is a highly improper letter, and Mr. Rowley's explanation has been called for. Local correspondents are not permanent officials of the Board of Trade but persons able to supply information with regard to employment, and their reports are considered along with information obtained from other sources. The statement in the letter as quoted with regard to the mode in which the selection of Mr. Rowley was made is incorrect. When the Board of Trade first became aware of the prospect of a serious dispute in the Bethesda Quarries, they instructed Mr. Rowley in the ordinary course to supply them with information as to the facts, and a report was received from him under the date of September 15th. I think it would be satisfactory that I should read it to the House. It is as follows:—As instructed, I have visited the quarry district of Bethesda for the purpose of making inquiries as to the dispute in progress at the Penrhyn quarries I find that Lord Penrhyn is at present investigating the alleged grievances, and is in communication with the leaders of the men with a view to an amicable arrangement. The men continue working, but much anxiety exists in the locality owing to the decided inclination of the men to strike. Feeling runs so high that the slightest hitch in the proceedings will bring the men out. Every effort is being made by the committee and leaders to counteract this. It is thought that by Lord Penrhyn personally investigating the grievances matters will be put right. Public, sympathy in the locality is with the men. They say that the wages earned in some instances by good practical quarrymen are much lower than what has been reported, only that the men do not care to come forward. Great dissatisfaction is expressed at the way in which contracts are let to non-practical persons, to the exclusion of the men who have been apprenticed to and worked at the trade all their lives. The quarry is worked in ponks or galleries of 100 or 150 yards in length, in which the quantity of rubbish and quality of the slate varies. The most unprofitable parts are sublet to the men who have not been fortunate in securing a gallery, and this, as a matter of course, places them at a great disadvantage; and these are the men who are seeking a minimum day's wage, or a more equal distribution of the advantages with the disadvantages. This information I received from different individuals in the neighbourhood of the quarries. I passed through the quarry as an ordinary visitor during the dinner hour, and I saw several meetings of 1060 the men hero and there discussing the situation. The decision of Lord Penrhyn is anxiously awaited.It is true that I interposed during the speech of my right hon. Friend the member for Thanet on Thursday last, owing to the repetition by him of an allegation which had been previously made by my hon. Friend the member for Macclesfield to the effect that the Board of Trade had been guided during their negotiations with Lord Penrhyn by information derived from the local correspondent of the Board of Trade. This allegation I then denied. This denial I emphatically repeat. I stated that no communication had been received from the local correspondent during the time of the negotiations. This statement is strictly accurate, but on the following day I ascertained that under the date of September 18th, prior to the commencement of negotiations and nearly a fortnight before the date of letter No. 1 in the published correspondence, which was the first letter asking for the Board's intervention, a communication had been received from the local correspondent. It was of no importance, and contained no advice to the Board, and no opinion whatever on the merits of the case. This communication had entirely escaped my recollection, and I at once ordered a copy of it to be sent to may right hon Friend, as I wished to be perfectly frank with him. ["Hear, hear!"] No further communication was held on the subject with the labour correspondent. In fact any such further communication with him was forbidden. No advice was asked. No advice was given, nor was any concealment attempted. On the contrary, Mr. Rowley's report was shown to Lord Penrhyn by Lord Dudley when he saw him at Penrhyn Castle, so that all along Lord Penrhyn had been in full possession of the communication referred to. ["Hear, hear!"]
MR. JAMES LOWTHER
Do I understand the right hon. Gentleman to say that the report which he has read was in reply to a special request addressed to this person to go and make enquiries?
§ MR. RITCHIE
It was a request made in the ordinary course of business. It is the duty of the Board of Trade to make themselves acquainted with all labour movements, and, in accordance with the usual practice, when it was seen 1061 in the newspapers that a dispute had occurred which was likely to end in a strike, the local correspondent was asked to furnish the Board, not with any opinion of his own, but with information as to the facts connected with the matter. ["Hear, hear!"]
§ MR. BROMLEY DAVENPORT (Cheshire, Macclesfield)
I would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether Lord Penrhyn was at liberty to disclose the letter which he has just read, or whether it was shown him by Lord Dudley strictly under the seal of confidence?
§ MR. BROMLEY DAVENPORT
had the following Question on Paper:—To ask the President of the Board of Trade whether his attention had been called to a report in The Westminster Gazette of last Friday, of an alleged interview with Sir Courtenay Boyle, in the course of which Sir Courtenay Boyle is represented as having stated that he had himself received a letter upon the subject of the dispute at the Penrhyn Slate Quarries from a local labour correspondent of the Board of Trade; whether, in as much as this letter was an official communication from Mr. George Rowley, dated 17th December 1896, stating that, as instructed, he had visited the quarry district of Bethesda for the purpose of making inquiries as to the dispute in progress at the Penrhyn Quarry, which letter was minuted and initialed by the principal officials of the Board of Trade, including the President himself, he will now qualify the official statement that there was no communication whatever between that correspondent and the Board of Trade, the President, or any one connected with the Board of Trade in connection with this dispute during any time of the negotiations, end no communication was received nor invited from this gentleman with regard to the dispute in the Penrhyn Quarries; and, will he explain to the House the apparent discrepancies between the statements of Sir Courtenay Boyle and himself?
§ MR. SPEAKER
The Question which stands in the name of the hon. Member for Macclesfield is irregular and ought not to appear on the Paper, because it refers to a previous Debate in this House, and questions a statement there made. But as the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, in answering a question of the right hon. Member for Thanet, did give a kind of anticipatory answer to the question of the hon. Member for Macclesfield, and went with great detail into what has taken place with reference to that Debate, I think it only fair that the hon. Member should be allowed to 1062 put his Question or ask the right hon. Gentleman any further question.
§ MR. BROMLEY DAVENPORT
I would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he adheres to the statement that no communication was received or invited from this gentleman with regard "to the dispute in the Penrhyn quarries. We heard nothing from him and we made no inquiry."
§ MR. RITCHIE
I hardly think it is necessary for me to make any further statement. I would point out to my hon. Friend that I have already said in this House that this communication, occurring as it did, prior to the opening of the negotiations, had escaped my memory. It is quite clear that in answering the question of my hon. Friend I was dealing with the period during which these negotiations had been going on, which period was closely within my recollection. In the question my hon. Friend now puts he asks whether my attention has been called to the reportin the Westminster Gazette of last Friday of an alleged interview with Sir Courtenay Boyle, in the course of which Sir Courtenay Boyle is represented as having stated that he had himself received a letter upon the subject of the dispute at the Penrhyn slate quarries.Oh, no; that is not the point.
§ MR. RITCHIE
I am asked by Sir Courtenay Boyle to say that the account, which was published without his authority, differs totally from what really occurred, and that he made no such statements as those attributed to him. Going back to the point about which my hon. Friend asked me, namely, whether Iwill now qualify the official statement that there was no communication whatever between that correspondent and the Board of Trade, the President, or anyone connected with the Board of Trade in connection with this dispute during any time of the negotiations,that was the statement I made. If I had recollected that there was this prior communication I should, of course, have stated so. I did not recollect it, because it was not within the area of the time of the negotiations, and anyone who heard me, in the Debate, use the expression I did, must have known that I was dealing with the time during which the negotiations took place. [Cheers.]
MR. GIBSON BOWLES
May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it is in accordance with the official practice for permanent officials to make statements or speeches for publication?
§ MR. RITCHIE
I confess I did not see the statement which was published in the Westminster Gazette. Sir Courtenay Boyle sent it to me on Friday night. When I saw him subsequently, he stated that someone from the Westminster Gazette came with a view of asking him one or two questions in regard to the correspondence which had been published, and that he answered those questions without the slighest idea that he was being interviewed. [Laughter.] I am afraid he showed a guileless simplicity which one would have hardly suspected. [Laughter.] But I can quite understand how it arose. Some information was asked as to the correspondence that had been published. Sir Courtenay Boyle answered with a view of making some points clear, but he had no idea of being interviewed. [Laughter.]
MR. GIBSON BOWLES
Will the right hon. Gentleman recommend his officials to exercise greater caution in the future?
§ [No answer was given].