HC Deb 20 February 1908 vol 184 cc1051-5

In asking leave to introduce this Bill I quite agree with my right hon. friend opposite that it is reasonable to ask that I should make some statement. I agree that the Bill is of very great importance, that it was mentioned in the King's Speech and that, as a matter of fact, it was introduced last year without any statement on my part. But I do not think it will be necessary even to take advantage of the limited opportunities which the Standing Order puts at my disposal, as the Bill was actually in the possession of hon. Members last year, and I think it will be sufficient if I explain to the House the operation of the first clause, which contains the operative provisions to secure an eight hours day for miners. The effect of the clause is as follows: In each colliery the inspector has to approve the time reasonably required for the purpose of lowering and raising the men. Let us assume that the time fixed at a particular colliery is half an hour. Then let us assume that the men start work at 6 a.m. They would have to be all down by 6.30 a.m. Eight hours is the time prescribed by the Bill for the men to be underground. It therefore follows that the first man must be above ground at 2 p.m., and the last man up must be above ground at 2.30 p.m. If the men ascend in the precise order of their descent it follows that each man would actually be underground, bank to bank, for eight hours. But it is quite obvious that it would be impossible to secure the ascent in the same order as the descent, and therefore we get not an actual eight hours for each man, but an average of eight hours for each man below ground. It works out in this way. If a man is first down and first up he will be below ground for eight hours. If he is first down and last up he will be below ground for eight and a half hours. If he is last down and first up he will be below ground for seven and a half hours, so that it is obvious the average time below ground for each man under the Bill as it stands will be eight hours bank to bank. That is really the proposal which we secure by the provisions in the first clause. The important clauses which allow overtime of one hour per day on sixty days in the year, and which allows the Government by Order in Council to suspend the operation of the Act in case of grave emergency are reproduced in this Bill as well as other clauses dealing with more detailed parts of the Bill which were in the Bill of last year. The Bill, I admit, is one of great importance in its bearing on the coal industry. It is designed to limit to a reasonable extent the dark hours of work of miners under ground. It will be and it must be closely scrutinised in its passage through Parliament in its relations to the commercial and domestic interests of the users of coal, both large and small. The Bill has been the subject for many years past of much discussion and much contention; but those who have differed strongly are not now far apart, and I am sanguine enough to hope and to believe that a satisfactory basis of agreement without disadvantage to the consumers will be found in this Bill, to the lasting benefit of the great population of miners in this country.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Coal Mines Regulation Acts, 1887 to 1905, for the purpose of limiting hours of work below ground."—(Mr. Gladstone.)

MR. LAURENCE HARDY (Kent, Ashford)

said he desired to raise a voice against the introduction of this Bill, though in view of the fact that it had been discussed on many occasions, he did not desire to divide the House against it. He wished, however, to call attention to the rather remarkable manner in which the Bill had been introduced. On Tuesday they were told by the Home Secretary that it was to be handed in practically without explanation, but although they had had an explanation, no doubt due to the Question of his right hon. friend, it was rather remarkable that the Government assumed this session to have an infallibility with respect to the drafting of their Bills which no other Government had ever assumed to possess before. This was the third Bill they had had handed in in identical terms with this, and it certainly seemed rather remarkable that a Bill of this importance dealing for the first time with the limitation of adult male labour, should be on two occasions handed in without a word of explanation, and it was also somewhat remarkable that the Home Secretary, after having had the advantage of discussing the whole of the clauses of the Bill with all the parties interested, yet thought his own infallibility was better than the opinions of anybody else, and that no words should be altered in the Bill, even after all the representations which had been made to him. Although this Bill, in a sense, had been before the House on many occasions yet they must recollect that discussions on these private Members' Bills always assumed a somewhat unreal effect, even though they were pursued to the division lobby, and even to further stages, because they were a duel always between two sections of the very persons interested; and whilst in the opinion of many the most powerful speeches had come from those who represented miners against this legislation, yet as long as the important body which those Members represented were absolutely against the principle of the Bill, everybody regarded it as a somewhat academic debate, and realised that the Bill would never pass into law in the shape in which it was presented. They had now a Bill which was different from any they had ever had as a private Member's Bill, one which was said to be the result of a Committee instituted by this Government. The House had legislated frequently in connection with hours of labour, but it had always legislated in order to protect the weak or the young or those who were unable to protect themselves. The miners' interest was powerful. It was the best organised form of labour. If hours of labour were to be limited, and they were to interest themselves in adult labour, he thought it would be better for the House to turn its attention to such discussions as they might have on the next day rather than deal with those who had by their action already limited hours of labour themselves, and who were perfectly capable of doing so now. This Bill did nothing in the way of meeting the varying circumstances which the condition of the country showed were necessary in connection with this industry. In some parts of the country a limit had been attained far below that mentioned in this Bill. In other parts of the country they were told by the Committee—the Forest of Dean and South Staffordshire—it would be almost impossible to carry out the provisions of the Bill. If he thought the Bill was going to do anything or that there was any hope that it would materially help miners either in connection with their health or for the avoidance of accident, he certainly would be the last to do anything to oppose it, because he had been too much connected with miners and appreciated them too much to take any action of that sort. The Committee had entirely dealt with the question of health, and had given grand testimony to the efforts that had been made to improve the salubrity of mines, and so far as accidents were concerned they had been also informed that there was no evidence to connect accidents with the hours of the day or the longer work. They might therefore put aside questions of health or accident and deal with the matter simply as a question of the limitation of labour. This was the first attempt to limit adult labour, and it would have a great effect upon the commercial interests of the country. From what they had seen in the last few months the miners were perfectly able to obtain advance after advance in wages, and had the same interest been taken in the hours of labour as in an advance of wages they could have obtained it by voluntary action. It was desirable that a voice should be raised against this novel legislation which he believed was not required and which he believed would be a great burden to many portions of the community.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Secretary Gladstone and Mr. Herbert Samuel.