HC Deb 03 April 1912 vol 36 cc1253-61

My apology for delaying the House at this hour is the very grave situation that has arisen and is likely to develop in the railway world. I am going to speak not only aw a Member of this House, but with a full sense of responsibility for the great organisation that I am connected with, of the action that may result unless this House, as represented by the Board of Trade, takes immediate steps to deal with the situation. During the discussion on the Minimum Wage Bill considerable capital was made on the other side of the House of what was termed the breaking of contracts on the part of the men in certain districts. In the case which I am going to submit to the House we allege a breaking of the contract on the part of the railway companies, and at a time when the whole industrial situation was likely to be affected by it. The House will remember that there was set up machinery in the railway service to, as far as possible, readjust differences between employers and employés, and while some of us were dissatisfied with that machinery, and a very large majority of the men decided that, rather than accept that machinery, they were prepared at Christmas to have had another railway strike, the efforts of myself and other officers of the organisation were directed to the maintenance of peace; and, in spite of the opposition of the men and the criticisms we were subjected to, and the hostile audiences we had to face from August to Christmas, some of us risked that hostility and risked our own personal popularity in the organisation in order to try if possible to avert a strike. Last Christmas we succeeded in doing so, and, having done so, we were at least justified in coming to this House and saying that we wanted this House, with the Board of Trade, to do its duty, and to see that the other party to this bargain faithfully carried out its obligation.

The history of this case, briefly, is as follows. In the recommendation of the Royal Commission, which was eventually accepted by the railway companies and the representatives of the men, it was set out that if any railway employés were desirous of setting up a scheme of conciliation they themselves had to sign petitions and present them to the railway companies for consideration. Let the House mark the point, that if the men themselves were desirous of accepting the principle of conciliation, that was the line of action they had to take. The Central London Railway men, who up to this case had never had a scheme of conciliation, were anxious for one, and in accordance with the recommendation of the Commission they set about getting their fellow workmen to sign petitions, not for improved conditions of service, but to ask the directors to put into operation the recommendation of the Royal Commission, and as to which the Board of Trade assured us that they would use their influence. Immediately a number of these men began to get petitions signed—and here I would say that so general was the feeling in favour of conciliation that they succeeded in obtaining 80 per cent. of the men's signatures—and the petitions were sent to the railway company, immediately on the receipt of these petitions, signed by 80 per cent. of the men, the general manager sent to the one who was most prominent among them and threatened him. His actual words were these: "He did not care a damn for Parliament; he was not going to have any conciliation scheme, and, if this man persisted in his action, then he would have to look out for himself."

This was the statement made by the general manager to one of the men responsible for getting up these petitions. Unfortunately, I have not with me the date of this statement, but it was made since the last settlement, and that would be in February. At all events, the society itself sent to the company the petitions which brought forward this statement of the general manager to which I have just referred. But no action was taken at that stage, and let the House remember that. The general manager did not give effect to his statement at that stage; he simply called the man up and threatened him. But remarkable action followed. A counter petition was encouraged by the management, and the foreman himself obtained signatures to this counter petition. He practically asked the men to say that they did not want a Conciliation Board, after 80 per cent. of them had signed a petition in favour of it; the object being, of course, to play off one section of the men against the other. Incidentally the House should note that if the foreman himself tries to obtain the signature of a man that man is in a very difficult position, and it practically means intimidation. At all events, those were the circumstances prior to the coal strike. When it became known that the strike was inevitable the great trunk lines of this country issued notices to hundreds of thousands of their staffs—the Great Western, the Great Central, and other railway companies. We, as an organisation, recognising the difficulties that might arise by thousands of men being discharged when this coal dispute was taking place, recommended, through the Conciliation Boards to the railway companies, that instead of discharging any man the men would agree to forego their guaranteed week—that is, instead of the railway companies paying a week's wages when there was not a week's work for them, they would suspend that guaranteed week and agree to share the time equally. The result is that during the last five weeks we have had nearly 70,000 men working not more than two or three days per week and in a large number of instances getting no more than a pound per week, but they have cheerfully borne the loss so that no man should be dismissed, and so that everyone should share the small time there was for distribution.

It is only fair to point out that the railway companies, as a whole, have acted fairly and honestly in this matter. I have no complaint of the great bulk of the railway companies, because they very readily fell in with our suggestion, and there has been no friction except this one case in a small railway in London. Immediately they find it necessary to curtail their service the Central London decide to dismiss their men. A deputation of the men waited upon the management and said they were prepared to do what every railway in the country were doing, and were prepared to share the time, whatever it was, to save any man from being dismissed, and they pointed out that although they were being dismissed other men were working overtime. Then when the manager said, "No, we have decided to permanently dispense with your services," they said, "On what basis are you going to suspend, for surely we are justified in saying, if you are going to dismiss men, then it is your duty to dispense with the junior men first?" Instead of that, the railway company actually dismissed four of their oldest hands. Four of their oldest motor drivers were sacked and two others of the shop. The astounding thing is that the chairman, vice-chairman, and secretary of the men's union are the first to receive their notice, and the other three who were responsible for the petitioning are sacked with them. The point from which the society look at this matter is that whilst it may be the fact that the railway company at this moment has a surplus of men, we say that they ought to follow the lead of all other railway companies and share the work equally. If they are not prepared to do that, and they insist on dismissing certain men, we suggest that it is only fair to argue that they should dispense first with the junior men.

If, on the other hand, they persist, as they are doing now, in dispensing with the leaders of the men, we will not let this be a sectional fight. Let the House clearly remember that it may be their policy to have a fight on a small line, where perhaps they could substitute all their men by an equal number of unemployed; but the society would be false to every principle it held dear if it allowed these men to be sacrificed in a sectional effort. We believe that a mean advantage has been taken of the present crisis by this railway company to get rid of men whom they considered obnoxious because they were society men. I am satisfied that unless it is stopped, unless the Board of Trade can persuade this railway company to see the seriousness of the situation, this fight will not rest with the Central London Company alone. The whole industrial situation at this moment is so serious that it will be deplorable if it is aggravated by some other issue being introduced. I believe that this House, through the Board of Trade, ought to express its opinion in no uncertain way. I recognise that side issues have been introduced. The Board of Trade has already been informed of statements that are untrue. We have personally investigated the case; we are satisfied that it is a good case; we are satisfied that these men have been victimised; and if as a result of drawing public attention to it in this House the Board of Trade's position is strengthened and we can do something to save complicating the present grave industrial situation, I think that will be sufficient justification for my having taken up the time of the House in making this protest.


With regard to the complaint made by my hon. Friend, I have to explain that the Board of Trade have already made investigations into the circumstances, and find that they are not in a position to take any decisive action. The Central London Company was not one of the companies affected by the Conciliation scheme of 1907, so that its employés are not covered by the settlement of last autumn. The case, briefly, is that in August last the motor-drivers and some other servants of the Central London Railway Company went out on strike. It was arranged that they should go back on condition that they signed an undertaking that they would work on a perfectly amicable footing with the other employés of the company, and would not, either by word or action, trespass on the rights or feelings of those employés who did not go out on strike. The case of the railway company is that certain of these men who have been dismissed—four, I think, are affected—have not fulfilled that pledge.


If that is so, the hon. Gentleman has probably seen a copy of their dismissal. On their dismissal, it says, "You are dismissed in consequence of the coal strike." Therefore, if it was for some other reason, does not the hon. Gentleman feel that the Board ought to have that reason stated on the notice?


That is another point. The hon. Member admits that some works—engineering and electrical—that the company had carried on were being curtailed, and that therefore some men had to be dismissed. My hon. Friend's case is that they ought to have selected the junior men instead of men of older standing. I suppose, whenever men might come to be dismissed under those circumstances, they would formally be dismissed on the score of the coal strike, or on the score that employment is being curtailed. The question whether the company ought to have written on the notice that the discharge was for non-fulfilment of the pledge upon which they were received back is another point upon which I should not like to pronounce. I will just give the House, briefly, the company's case—that is to say, the assurance of the company, that those men instead of living on an amicable footing with the other employés frequently used opprobious language to them, such as calling them blacklegs, and so on, and in that way created a bad feeling amongst the staff. The company give that as a reason for selecting these men for dismissal. After that assurance of the company, we cannot very well carry investigations further. As this company's men were not covered by the settlement of last autumn, the Board of Trade have no ground for official interference. We have represented to the company the desirableness, in the interests of labour in general, of not creating any sense of ill-feeling such as ostensibly has arisen from these particular dismissals. Beyond making these representations the Board has really no status for action. I am really unable to give my hon. Friend any further satisfaction than that.


May I inquire if the Board have this power? In the December settlement to which the Premier himself was a party, it was agreed by the Board of Trade—it is on the minutes of those proceedings—that any company that was not then under the Conciliation scheme, or even objected to come into the scheme, that the Board of Trade would use their influence, and if necessary legislative enactment, to bring them in. The point I want to put is this: we are prepared in this matter to save the situation to agree that the Board of Trade themselves shall appoint anybody to act as arbitrator, We are prepared to accept their verdict if the railway company is prepared to do the same. Let the Board of Trade itself judge and arbitrate as between us.


The Suggestion that there ought to have been an arbitrator seems a very fair one. I will lay it before the Board of Trade. As to whether the Board of Trade shall be accepted as arbitrator is another matter. My hon. Friend cannot, of course, expect me to do anything more than make that suggestion, which I shall very gladly do. A little earlier in the Debate, some hon. Members opposite raised a point in regard to trade organisation. I did not reply at the time, because I knew that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby, had a point to raise, and as I was entitled to speak only once, I have reserved my remarks, although the hon. Members in question have left the House. Perhaps it is as well I should say a word or two in answer to the criticisms which were made. The appeal I think resolved itself into this: that the Government ought to carry further the trade organisation of the Empire by extending and developing the system of expert trade representatives in different parts of the Empire. Around that suggestion there were thrown out a number of others, though I think all involved questions of preference which you, Sir, ruled we were not entitled to discuss. I have therefore to ignore the greater part of the speeches made by hon. Members, even though they may be disappointed.

On the one point, what I have to say in a few words is that the existing organisation, the system of trade representatives, has worked very efficiently as regards the self-governing Dominions; that as regards India we are in actual communication with the Indian Government with regard to the possibility of the extension of the system there. In the meantime, the Director-General of Commercial Intelligence, Calcutta, acts as the correspondent for India of the Commercial and Intelligence Department of the Board of Trade. By establishing in India some such office as exists in the self-governing Dominions it is quite possible advantage might accrue to trade and commerce. With regard to the further suggestion that we ought to establish representatives with such staffs in the Crown Colonies, the Board of Trade has already replied that it does not see any advantage in that course. There already exists, I should say, in all the Crown Colonies and Protectorates officials appointed by the Governments of those Colonies to act as correspondents with the Board of Trade in these matters, and no doubt these are useful and efficient in their way. But when we are asked further to set up this special system of trade representatives in the Crown Colonies which exists in the self-governing Dominions, the answer of the Board of Trade is that what is wanted in these Crown Colonies is not so much the fresh organisation, but some species of organisation for the development of the special trade, which hon. Members opposite declare to be so necessary—that is, the economic resources of those Colonies and Protectorates.

That is not the sort of work that can be done by the kind of trade representatives I speak of. It is a different kind of work altogether. It certainly wants doing, and it may be the Mother-country should assist in the development of these resources, but it could not be usefully done in the way proposed. As a matter of fact, the trade that goes on between the Mother-country and the Crown Colonies is for the most part quite highly organised, and in connection with the investigations made by the Board of Trade we were assured by numbers of private traders that they have already had a system of intelligence much more complete than any which it is supposed the Government could set up. That is the case in the trade of the Mother-country with some of these Crown Colonies, and it is alike with the West Indies. Hon. Members are mistaken in supposing there is a great lack of system of intelligence in that particular direction. What is wanting, as I have said, is a system for the development of the resources of particular districts lately added to the Empire, and that is a matter to be considered on another footing than the suggestions made with regard to the Board of Trade and new representatives under the Board of Trade.


I wish to ask the hon. Member for Dumfries when we may expect to see the Patronage Secretary to the Treasury in his place; and can he give us any satisfactory assurance as to complete recovery to health?

Mr. GULLAND (Lord of the Treasury)

My right hon. Friend is now completely recovered and in very good health, and he is looking forward with very great pleasure to being in his place when the House resumes.


My hon. Friend the Secretary to the Board of Trade said that the Central London Company was under no obligation to come within the scheme as Amended and set up in 1911. If they are not liable to come within the scheme I want the Board of Trade to consider the whole question, because it becomes a very serious matter indeed. The scheme of 1907 covered all railway companies as represented through the Railways Association. I am not sure whether it was in 1907 or 1908 that the general manager of this company signed an agreement with me that they would set up a board under the 1907 scheme. If the conciliation which was adopted on the recommendation of the Railway Commission of last year is to be of any value to the railway companies, there must be the necessary pressure put by the Board of Trade to institute those boards upon every line that does not institute a voluntary conciliation board of its own. If not, the whole scheme is gone and we shall have chaos in a very short time. The only way of producing satisfactory working for the next three years is to carry out that arrangement in the spirit and the letter. Are we to be told by the Board of Trade that simply because one or two companies, or a number of them, if you like, were not brought within the working of that scheme of 6th November, 1907, they are at liberty to do as they like now. If so, what was the use of the Commission of last year? No less than 90 per cent. of those men were out on strike in August last, and if it is not a question of settling differences on the application of the men for boards to be set up we ought to know clearly from the Board of Trade what the position is. I hope the hon. Member will bear in mind the fact that the companies entered into an agreement to come within the scheme of 1907. The fact that the Railways Association signed for the whole of the companies is sufficient to show to any company by its own voluntary action with the men they are bound to come within this particular scheme.

Whereupon, pursuant to the Resolution of the House this day, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, until Wednesday next.

Adjourned at Twenty-five minutes before Six o'clock.