HC Deb 16 August 1911 vol 29 cc2045-9

I understand that hon. Members desire to put certain questions to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I, therefore, propose to move the adjournment of the House, and then later on, with the permission of the House, to withdraw the Motion.

I beg to move, "That this House do now adjourn."


I desire to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer, first, whether he has any further information he can give to the House as to developments in connection with the threatened railway strike; and secondly, whether the following statement which has been published quietly in the Press this evening is an accurate statement of the Government's intentions and of what they have done in regard to this matter. The statement, which is given to the Press on the authority of the railway managers who have met at the Board of Trade to-day, is as follows:— The Government having assured the railway companies that they will give them ample protection to enable them to carry on their services, the railway companies are prepared, even in the event of a general strike, to give an effective, if a restricted, service. I desire to ask whether that accurately represents what has taken place at the Board of Trade to-day?


I understand that the President of the Board of Trade has been in communication to-day with the various interests concerned—with certain representatives of the railway companies, and also with representatives of the men. An invitation has been given to the executive of the men of the various societies, which has been sitting at Liverpool to-day, to meet at the Board of Trade tomorrow, and I believe arrangements have been made for that purpose. I sincerely hope that, as a result of the various communications, it will be possible to effect a satisfactory settlement, or, at least to put things in train, with a view to arriving at a satisfactory settlement later. With regard to the statement in the Press, the position of the Government was stated by me earlier in the day.

The position of the Government is that we are bound to protect life and property. That is the first duty of a Government, and as it is applicable to other interests, I believe it is equally applicable to the railway interest. Our responsibilities, I conceive, do not end there. We also deem it our duty to do everything in our power, to exhaust every resource at our command, to see that fair play is given to both parties. It is not merely a question of the protection of life and property. We have got a duty that we owe, not merely to the men, but to the community at large, to see that they get fair play in these matters. Nothing is further from the mind of the Government than to intervene in favour of the interests of any party to the dispute. It is essential, I think, that the Government should preserve an attitude of complete impartiality in matters of this kind. The moment they departed from that attitude they would cease to have any influence in the settlement of the dispute. Were it imagined that they were biassed in favour of either party, or had made up their minds to give an undertaking that they would see one party or the other through, then I think all their influence in endeavouring to effect a settlement would be destroyed. As I once pointed out to the men when I was endeavouring to settle a strike, if it was thought that the Government, under any circumstances, were taking either side, then it would be hopeless for us to go on. Our attitude is an attitude of strict impartiality—to see fair play between the parties. We certainly do not mean to give any guarantees, to lend any countenance to the theory that we had undertaken, whatever happened, to back in advance any party to the controversy. I do not think any reasonable man would ask us to do that.

I do not know what the statement in the Press referred to by the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Wardle) means. Certainly it is not a statement issued by the Government; it is not official. [A newspaper was here handed to the right hon. Gentleman.] I say, at any rate, that it is not a communication that has been sent by the Government, and I very much regret that it should have appeared. It conveys a completely wrong impression as to the posi- tion of the Government. It suggests that the Government have given some sort of undertaking. It is a very unfair thing to have done. It is a very misleading thing to put down. I object to it very much in the interests of the railway companies, the men, and the community— because it is so important that the Government's position of strict impartiality should be preserved. That rather conveys the impression that the Government have given a certain undertaking in the interests of one party without any regard whatever to the rights or wrongs of the question. That is not our position; it never has been our position and never will be to take sides.


May I put a question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Before this communication was made to the Press, can the Chancellor inform the House whether the railway managers informed the Board of Trade that they intended to communicate it? And was this conference, held at the Board of Trade to-day, with the railway managers, a private conference, or one from which it was expected any communication would be sent to the Press?


Before the right hon. Gentleman answers, may I ask him whether he wishes to add to, or take away from, the statement made by the Home Secretary in very explicit terms this afternoon?


My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade tells me the conference at the Board of Trade was private, just the kind of interview that takes place whenever there are disputes of this kind, and it is very important they should be kept private. It is almost impossible to conduct them unless they are quite confidential, and in my experience nothing of this kind has ever been done. In the case of previous disputes, there was no communication with the Press, except the announcement of the mere fact that representatives of the various parties visited the Board of Trade; there never was any communication of what happened. All such communications must necessarily be partial at this stage. There is always a very free interchange of views, and if observations made are partially communicated to the Press they are fatal.


The Home Secretary made a statement similar in effect of that published in the Press.


No. I was not present, but I have made some inquiries, and I find the Home Secretary did not say anything of the kind. He did say, as I said on behalf of the Government, that protection was to be given to railway property and to the life.


And to foodstuffs?


Protection to property and to life, and seeing that the railway is not damaged or impaired necessarily involves that. Otherwise there might be great destruction to life and very great destruction to property. The same protection must be given to the railways as to any other property, but I deplore these partial communications, completely unauthorised, of private and confidential interviews which take place at the Board of Trade. They are fatal to the progress of negotiations, and I deeply deplore them.


May I ask the Under-Secretary of State for War if he has any recent information as to the state of things in Liverpool?

The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for WAR (Colonel Seely)

No, Sir; there is no news from Liverpool except that the situation is quieter and more reassuring. There is some trouble apprehended in neighbouring towns, but I have not any precise figures to give the House, but in regard to Liverpool the situation, I am informed by telephone communication, was quieter throughout the day.



May I pursue one step further what was said by the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He told us the Government would remain impartial between the railway companies and the men. There are many of us here who do not represent either the railway companies or the men, but who are interested in the general community. It is one thing to say you should protect life and railway property, but those of us who heard the Home Secretary make his most important statement on behalf of the Government—perhaps the most important made in connection with this matter—understood him to mean that the Government deemed it part of their duty in the interests of the community to take such steps as to see that the food of the community was preserved or safely delivered, or words to that effect. That really is the important question. The Government make a declaration on the authority of the Home Secretary that in the event of, or in consequence of, the railway workers refraining from working such part of the railways——


The Motion for the Adjournment now lapses (Eleven o'clock). The right hon. Gentleman can renew it.