HC Deb 26 February 1904 vol 130 cc1195-204


Order for Second Reading read.

MR. OSMOND WILLIAMS (Merionethshire)

said he rose with considerable diffidence to move the Second Reading of this Bill, not because of the nature of its proposal but because he felt his personal inability to do justice to all the arguments in its favour. It had no doubt intense interest for all the miners of Great Britain, and that interest was shared by Members. With the exception of those in Durham and Northumberland, the proposal to restrict underground labour to eight hours a day had the support of the miners of the United Kingdom. The Bill was not over burdened with clauses: its effective clause simply proposed that the hours passed by miners underground in their labour should be restricted to eight, and that the proposal should extend to all underground working in the United Kingdom. Many thousands of boys were employed underground, and he would ask hon. Members if that fact alone did not constitute one of the strongest arguments in favour of the Bill. What were the claims of miners to this concession from the Legislature? The first was the large number employed in the mining industry. Then the peculiar nature of their work should plead on their behalf, seeing that so many hours had to be spent in daily labour far from the light of day, and amidst great risks and dangers. The death roll in 1902 to totalled 1,172, and how often did they hear of terrible cases, such as the aged father and mother being suddenly deprived of all means of support by the death at one time of their three sons while working in one mine. Surely it was not unreasonable to demand that the daily hours of the underground labour should be restricted to eight.

Having had but little mining experience he was not very well versed in these matters; he preferred to quote the opinions of three eminent statesmen in support of these proposals. The late Lord Salisbury in 1890 said he believed that, as a rule, eight hours a day was quite as much labour as the muscle or tension of the brain of an average man could give. Mr. Gladstone, speaking at West Calder in the same year, said that though he was not a miner he had been down a coal pit and had the feeling, which it seamed to him every man who had been in a mine must entertain, that eight hours out of every twenty-four was quite enough for any human being to labour under such conditions. And, finally, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Montrose asserted—also in the same year—that public opinion was unmistakably in favour of the proposal to limit the hours of working underground to eight at a time. Miners were paid according to the amount of work they did, and experience had taught them that shorter hours meant concentrated energy, while longer hours involved dilatory application. In his opinion long hours meant useless, inefficient, and bad work. It had been urged that because the Northumberland and Durham miners were opposed to the proposal the House ought to reject it, but he had yet to learn that any law had ever been the product of unanimous assent. It was because unanimity was impossible in a community that law became necessary. He did not wish to pass lightly over the opposition of a valuable contingent of mining labour to the Bill. He was prepared to give every consideration to the views of that group. The respect and esteem, in which its representatives were held in this House by every Member of it, and by himself in a special degree, were such that had he them on his side the burden of his task would be light indeed. He felt sure bad he this assistance it would have such an effect upon the judgment of this House as would ensure the passing of the Second Reading with accord. He begged to move.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

* MR. JOHN WILSON (Durham, Mid.)

on rising to move the rejection of the Bill on behalf of the representatives in the House of the miners of the North of England, thanked the hon. Member for the kind and sympathetic expressions which he had used towards them. But he wished the House to bear in mind that he and his colleagues did not approach this question merely from the point of view of miners. They desired to face it in its general aspect and to discuss on broad grounds its merits and demerits. The hon. Member had pleaded ignorance on the question, and he was bound to say if hon. Members generally were more versed in the technicalities of the question, and knew the difference that existed between the mines in the Midlands and the North, they would not be so ready to support the measure. He acknowledged the pathetic truth of the hon. Member's description of the effects of a mining accident, but he would have liked him to explain how this Bill would lessen the number of these accidents. It had been stated that the great majority of the accidents in mines occurred during the latter part of the day. That was not so, for the return secured by the hon. Member for Wansbeck showed that a large proportion of the accidents in mines occurred in the early part of the day. It had further been suggested that long hours in the mine tended to conduce to careless kind of work, but there again they must bear in mind that in many cases men worked by themselves and that their lives were in their own hands, and it was to be feared that if the hours were shortened the desire would be to crowd more work into the time so as to make more money, and this eagerness might in itself beget carelessness, and an unintentional disregard of the necessity for taking all proper safeguards. As he had said, the return obtained by the hon. Member for Wansbeck had disproved the assertion that accidents in mines occurred with greater frequency in the latter part of the day. It should be borne in mind that work in a mine was quite different from any other occupation. Its technicalities, conditions, and circumstances varied, whereas in the case, say, of engineering, the conditions that surrounded the men were uniform and constant. This fact had been the principal groundwork of the opposition of the North to this Bill. There was a great difference in technicalities between the North and the Midlands, and to apply this Bill in its rigid form would be an impossibility.

The mover of the Bill had said it was a simple measure. That was true. He remembered reading at school the old story of the bull-dog and the bull, in which the bull-dog said it was his breeding that made him attack the bull, whereupon the bull replied that in that case his breeding had destroyed him. The simplicity of this Bill was its danger. It declared that every man in a mine, regardless of the nature of his work or the necessities of the mine, should work eight hours a day, no more and no less. Suppose there were 300 or 400 men going down the mine. Between the going down of the first and the last of those men half an hour would elapse. What guarantee was there that the first man down would be the first man up? Different men had different distances to go when they reached the bottom of the shaft, and that fact alone showed that the Bill required some modification in that particular. The measure was promoted by the Midland Federation. It was with much sorrow he remembered that since last session the most prominent figure in that Federation had been taken from them. Though at times some of them regretted what they considered to be his obstinacy, they all acknowledged his sincerity, and they believed that he promoted this Bill firmly believing it would be for the benefit of the men he represented. But they who opposed the Bill contended that it would be unjust to the men themselves. Some worked in the fresh air at the shaft; others worked in the wagon-ways where the air was fresh and the work light; others were engaged in the arduous coal-getting in cramped positions, sometimes in seams eighteen inches or two feet high; therefore, if the measure was to conduce to the welfare of the men all round it should allow an arrangement to be made whereby the men engaged in the lighter forms of labour might work longer hours to meet the necessities of the mine, while the men employed in the more arduous departments worked less. It was this want of elasticity of which the North complained. The average number of hours of the coal-getters in Durham was not 6¾ per day from bank to bank. The men could not be down the mine for longer than seven hours a day. By an arrangement which had been in existence for fourteen years a difference was made between the lighter and the more arduous forms of work, and thus justice was done to the men themselves. Two ideas had prompted both the promotion of and the opposition to this Bill. One was expediency. If he admitted that his colleagues in the Midland Federation were anxious for the welfare of their men, he claimed that the leaders in Durham and Northumberland were equally solicitous with regard to the men in the North, and it was because of the expediency of the matter, the difficulty of the universal application of the principle, and the revolution that it would cause in the coal mines of Durham and Northumberland, that they strongly opposed the measure. He regretted exceedingly the difference of opinion that existed between the miners' leaders on this matter, but he and his friends spoke of what they knew and with the sanction of the great majority of the men they represented. If the Bill passed he believed it would be the worst day's work the House of Commons ever did so far as miners were concerned.

Reference had been made to the views of three statesmen, but he assumed that the idea they had in their minds was that of eight hours actually at work, not eight hours in the mine. He had shown that in the North they considered eight hours' work too much, as their average was 6¾ and the men were allowed twenty-five minutes to travel a mile, so that if a man's work was a mile from the shaft he was allowed fifty minutes for travelling in and out. Numbers of people in the country believed the Bill meant eight hours' work in the mine, but that was not its meaning at all. What it meant was eight hours from the time the man left the surface. When the proposal was first brought forward two main reasons were urged—the necessity of the men for more leisure and an opportunity to improve their minds. "Humanity" was the generic term for the motive that prompted the Bill. But what was the reason now? It was not humanity, but a desire to settle competition between districts. ["No."] In 1894 the Bill was read a second time, and on the Committee stage the senior Member for Merthyr Tydvil secured the insertion of the "local option resolution,"viz.— In any county in which this Act should be adopted by a majority of the working men employed underground therein in the manner hereinafter provided it should become law. Immediately that resolution was carried the promoters refused to proceed further. Why? There was no humanity in it, for one of their own spokesman, Mr. S. Woods, said— It would put the districts in a very unequal position with regard to competing one with another. What we want is not to create inequality, but to cure it by putting all on the same level.…We want to give them equal rights and equal facilities for competing in the markets of the world. That showed that Durham and Northumberland had not stood in the way of the other districts getting an eight hours day. They were willing then, as they were willing now to vote, for an optional Bill The Midland districts could then have their eight hours, and the men of the North if they came to the same way of thinking could do the same. They had recommended option; they had recommended negotiation. Parliament in it; care for the welfare of the people had certain functions to perform, but there were certain matters that were better taken out of the purview of this House and placed in the hands of the people themselves. To settle these matters he suggested negotiation between men who knew the circumstances, whose minds were full of compromise and mutuality, and who were willing to arrange matters in a manner that would conduce to the welfare of the mining community as a whole. Many Members would vote for this Bill who ought first to put their own house in order—men whose employes in shops and elsewhere worked fourteen or sixteen hours a day under conditions not conducive to health. How could they consistently vote for such a Bill? His teaching was "Physician, heal thyself." If he wanted a thing done for other people he first of all did it for his own and then he was able without hypocrisy to vote for it in regard to other people.

COLONEL PILKINGTON (Lancashire, Newton)

, who spoke amid cries of "Speak up" and "We cannot hear a word," was understood to say that the opponents of this Bill deplored the accidents in mines as much as anybody could, but it was well known that every care was taken to prevent them. The Bill was an impossibility. It provided for eight hours in the pit from bank to bank, but of that eight hours a large part would be occupied in going to and coming from the work. Persons unacquainted with the conditions of work in the mines when they read about an "eight hours' day" naturally supposed it meant eight hours' work, but that was not the case. Out of the eight hours would have to be taken the dinner hour and the time occupied in going to and coming from the work, so that the actual labour would be reduced to about six hours. Therefore all the work of the mines would have to be carried on under conditions of rush and hurry, and matters which were now carried out at considerable leisure would have to be crammed into the six hours. All authorities connected with mining considered that the passing of the Bill would lead to an increase in the number of accidents. It would certainly reduce the amount of work done, as it would be perfectly impossible for the men to do their present work in six hours. In all probability the output would be reduced by 25 per cent. Moreover, it would be impossible to employ any except the younger men. All middle-aged men and men of experience would be eliminated from the mines. ["Why?"] Because they could not work at the pace required by such conditions. The reduction of the output would reduce the wages and increase the price of coal. Cheap coal was one of the vital necessities of the country; it was the basis of all our large manufactures, the foundation of the wages and occupation of the workmen, and the material of all others which was required in every hamlet in the land.

MR. OSMOND WILLIAMS rose in his place, and claimed to move, "That the Question be now put;" but Mr. SPEAKER withheld his assent, and declined then to put that Question.

And, it being half-past Five of the clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Thursday, 14th April.

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