HC Deb 04 March 1912 vol 35 cc38-49

May I ask the Prime Minister if he has any statement to make as to business?


Perhaps the House will grant me its indulgence if, in reply to the right hon. Gentleman, I rather exceed the limits ordinarily prescribed for an answer to such a question. The House has been kept informed, as far as possible, of the progress of the negotiations going on during the last ten days; but I am sure it will be an advantage if I am allowed, by the indulgence of the House, very briefly to put together a more connected narrative, as far as possible, of the actual progress made. It is just a fortnight ago that the Government, who had been closely watching from the very beginning the various stages of the controversy in the coal industry, and who have had the advantage of the most skilled and experienced advisers in such matters in this country, came to the conclusion that it was their duty and in the general interest actively to intervene. I accordingly, in the name of the Government, issued invitations to the representatives of both the interests concerned to confer separately with myself and my colleagues, with two objects: in the first place, in order that we might acquire from the best and most authoritative sources first hand knowledge of the case as it presented itself both to one side and the other; and, in the next place, that we might be able to ascertain the measure of the gap which lay between them, and form some estimate as to how far it was possible that it should be bridged. Both sides, I am glad to say, responded, and responded readily, to that invitation, and I am paying a debt of obligation when I say that each of them in turn presented its case with fulness of knowledge, with ability and skill, and with an admirably calm and cool temper, which very much helped us in arriving at a definite conclusion.

I need not say to the House that we who represented the Government in the matter listened to the cases so presented with an absolutely impartial mind, and without any kind of prepossession one way or the other, but having done so—these conferences lasted over several days—we unanimously came to certain conclusions. The first was that there are cases—I do not, at present, pretend to say how numerous, but they are substantial in number and in circumstances—in which underground workers in the coal industry are prevented by causes over which they have no control, and for which they are in no sense responsible, from earning a reasonable minimum wage. We came further to the conclusion, in which we were equally unanimous, that such cases ought to be met, and must be met, by the recognition and application of what, if I may use a compendious expression, I may call district minimum wages, but, at the same time, we were equally strongly of opinion that if that principle was to be recognised and to be applied, it must be subject to two conditions. In the first place a minimum wage, varying district by district, according to the very diverse conditions under which the coalmining industry is carried on in this country, must be a reasonable one, and next the concession, the universal concession, in all the coalfields of the country of a minimum and reasonable wage must be fenced in and accompanied by adequate safeguards to protect the employers against abuse, and, in particular, to provide against such a diminution in the output as would in the long run be disastrous to all concerned in the industry itself.

These are the conclusions at which we arrived, and the way in which we proposed to translate them into practice was to invite both parties to meet together in District Conferences, where a representative of the Government would be present to give them any assistance, and at which we hoped and believed, and still hope and believe, a reasonable minimum rate might be arrived at; but in the last resort, in the event of failure to agree, a figure, varying as I have said, district by district, should be fixed, after full consideration and after hearing all the interests concerned, by those whom the Government had so delegated to represent itself. That is the position which we had reached in the early part of last week, and these conclusions, in the shape of four propositions—the first two stating the agreement at which we had arrived, and the second two stating the practical machinery by which we proposed to give effect to these arrangements—were submitted to both parties. They were accepted, I will not say willingly, I daresay with great reluctance in some quarters, but they were accepted, and genuinely accepted, and in the best spirit, by what now turn out to be quite—measured by the number of persons employed and by the output of the industry—65 per cent, of the coalowners of Great Britain. The coalowners of Northumberland held back for a moment, but, I am glad to say that after a few hours they joined their fellow coalowners, and we may now say that the proposals of the Government have been accepted by practically the whole of the coalowners of England and North Wales, and the only sections of coalowners who are at present unable to see their way to accept them are those who represent South Wales and Scotland. That is the case as regards the owners.

4.0 P.M.

Then, how did we fare with the men, the miners themselves? The miners were, I think I may say, satisfied—they had every reason to be satisfied—that the Government had recognised, and that 65 per cent. of the owners had recognised, the principle of a minimum wage for which they had been contending. They did not demur to, on the contrary, throughout all these proceedings they have recognised to the fullest, and in the most candid way, the necessity for accompanying the grant of a minimum wage with adequate safeguards. There has been no demur of any sort or kind to that proposition—I do not say we have come to an agreement yet as to the precise machinery by which it is to be worked out. They agreed further with us, and it was part of their case, that it was impossible to fix a uniform minimum wage for the whole country, and that the matter must be dealt with district by district and area by area; and, finally, I am sure they will agree with me when I say they all accepted what is too obvious to need demonstration, namely, that if you have a minimum wage, it must be fixed at a reasonable amount. The point at which difficulty arose was this: Accepting all that, which I might almost describe as common ground, they insisted as a condition preceding the entering into any further negotiation or arrangement, that not merely the principle of a minimum wage, varying district by district according to the circumstances of the various areas, should be accepted, but that the actual figure in each district should be the figure they themselves had arrived at and announced to be their irreducible minimum in certain resolutions which the Miners' Federation passed on 2nd February last. I will come back to that in a moment when I deal with details. That was the position. That schedule of theirs was to be treated as beyond the range of negotiation or of revision. That was the condition of things which we had reached on Thursday last, and on that day, at the suggestion of my colleagues—and accompanied by my three Tight hon. Friends, who went through all this anxious and laborious time with me and who gave me invariable and unfailing help—I went to the Foreign Office, and having not merely the executive, but the whole of the conference of the men present, I addressed them. There is a certain amount of controversy about what I said. I said nothing to the men at the Foreign Office last Thursday which I am not prepared to repeat upon the floor of this House. A report was published the next morning. Of that report I wish to say that it was an accurate report and, as far as everything material is concerned, an exhaustive report. I do not say it was a verbatim reproduction of everything I said—I know there were corrections of phraseology, perhaps even of grammar—at any rate prunings of repetitions and excrescences such as I think always occur in impromptu speeches, and my speech was absolutely impromptu, without preparation of any sort. The process to which that report was subjected is one with which, I think, almost every hon. and right hon. Gentleman here is perfectly familiar—a process which takes place in the interval between the time when he rises and emits upon the floor of this House his opinions, to the time when they appear in the OFFICIAL REPORT. But I said nothing in that speech—and I am borne out in my recollection, not only by my right hon. Friends who were with me, but by the President and Secretary of the Miners' Federation, which in substance or in any material respect differs from or goes in advance of the published report.

I was very much surprised to be told that there appeared in some of the newspapers to-day, a statement by one of the miners' representatives, that I had said that at this Conference of miners that I and my colleagues, His Majesty's Government, regarded the grant of the minimum wage in the coal industry as the first step to the attainment, apparently by legislation, at any rate by some form of compulsion, of a minimum wage in all the industries of the country. If I had said that it would have appeared in the report. I am not in the habit of engaging in sly flirtations of this kind with Socialism and then trying to conceal from the public the manner in which I have been employing my time. Not only did I not say anything of the kind, but anyone who takes the trouble to read my speech will see that it is absolutely inconsistent with the whole drift of the argument which I addressed to the miners; for my argument was this: I was trying to impress upon them that in getting as far as we had we had made an enormous advance from their point of view. It was all important to them to agree to conference, deliberation and negotiation with regard to the actual figures of the minimum wage. I pointed out, and laid the greatest possible stress upon it, that in this respect the industry in which they were engaged, the coal industry, had peculiar and indeed unique features, and it was those peculiar and unique features which justified, and even necessitated, on the part of the Government, an intervention which otherwise would have been wholly unwarranted. To suppose, when that was the main drift and gist of the argument I was addressing to the men, that I put in a plea that this was going to be the first step towards the application to the other industries in which those conditions did not obtain, is entirely to ignore the foundations of the case I addressed to them. Several hon. Gentlemen opposite have given me private notice of questions. I hope they will be content with that answer on that point at any rate. One of them has asked me whether there were informal conversations or whether anything further was said. What wais published to the world was my speech. It is an accurate and exhaustive reproduction of what I said. There- were informal conversations—there always have been—which followed the delivery of my speech, an interchange of opinion in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer took part as well as myself, of a perfectly friendly and conversational kind between the representatives of the miners and myself, but on no substantial and material point did what was said in that conversation differ from what was said in the speech.

I hope the House will forgive me for having gone into the matter at such length. I think I am entitled to be somewhat hurt by the insinuation that I could deliberately or even inadvertently allow to go to the world as an authentic account of what I had said a report from which were omitted or suppressed material and substantial matters. What did I say? I do not want to weary the House by repeating the speech I actually delivered, but it is important for the purposes we all have in view that I should emphasise the points I put before the miners on that occasion. I told them this, after enlarging on the peculiar, indeed the unique, conditions of their industry. I said, you are now, to-day, in a position which a year ago, six months ago, six weeks ago, you would have thought it would be almost impossible to be placed in. What have you got? You have 65 per cent, of the coalowners of the country agreeing that a reasonable minimum wage must be established in your industry. You have got, further than that, the representatives of the responsible Government of the country declaring they are convinced of the reasonableness and justice of that principle, and that they will take whatever means are necessary, not withstanding the reluctance or even the resistance of what we hope and believe is a dwindling minority of owners who still take the other view, to carry out that principle throughout the coalfields of this country. I said to the men. I think I was entitled to say, that is wonderful progress you have made; you are within sight of your goal. You have got the principle for which you have been fighting and contending recognised practically by the employers and recognised in terms by the Government of the country. What remains? You do not deny the necessity, you admit it perfectly fully and frankly, for adequate safeguards against abuse, so that is out of the way. What is left? Merely the question of fixing the amount area by area.

It is important in the interests of everybody, in the interests certainly of fair play, that the House and the public should clearly understand how this question arises about fixing the minimum wage. The miners stated their case perfectly clearly. They have throughout these negotiations shown the utmost candour. The position of the miners is this. They said, we were ready to negotiate, if the principle were admitted, with the owners as to amount. We found that was impossible. It was not impossible in the federated area, where negotiations took place and very nearly reached a satisfactory conclusion, but in other parts of the country it was found impossible altogether. Thereupon, at their meeting on 2nd February last, they passed a resolution affirming the principle of a minimum wage and appending to it as a schedule a list of, I think, seventeen different rates applicable to the1 different coal areas of the country. They ranged in amount from, I think, as low as 4s. 11d. to as high as 7s. 6d. There was every kind of intermediate, variation. The miners' position was this: they said these were not the rates we should have been asking if we had been bargaining. We should have asked more, but finding that bargaining—a conclusion reluctantly come to—was impossible, we fixed the rates for the different areas as low as we possibly could, and in many cases lower than we thought was reasonable. That is the schedule which they presented and in regard to which they said they were not prepared to negotiate. I need not say that we brought this schedule in all its features very carefully before the employers who appeared before us. The employers—I am not saying for the moment now which side is right, that is not the point, and I am not pre-judging it—pointed out that there were, to this schedule presented by the miners, a number of very formidable objections.

I purposely do not go into detail, but I will indicate in a general way what were the objections the employers took. In the first place they said that, admitting, as we all admit, that this is a matter which has got to be arranged district by district, the men's schedule lumped together into a single area parts of the country which ought to be kept separate. In other words, there were too few districts in the men's schedule to meet the actual requirements of the trade. They said, next, that in the men's schedule, even in a particular district, which was admittedly one capable of being treated as a whole, sufficient allowance had not been made for what they say is an undoubted fact in regard to the actual working of the coal, namely, that although the characteristics of the district as a whole may be similar, there are great variations as between particular pits, so there again they said there is not enough elasticity of latitude in the scale. Thirdly, and, of course, this is a much more serious objection, they said that the rates as a whole—I do not say they attacked them all, nor do I go into any question which rates were more vulnerable than others—but, taking them as a whole, the effect, they said, would be that in many parts of the country the less productive pits, the pits in which working has been carried on under the most unfavourable conditions, must be closed. They could not afford to pay the minimum wage on so high a scale, and the result of that must inevitably be the curtailment of the area of production, and consequently, in the long run, a diminution in the amount of employment.

These are the two cases. I carefully abstain from expressing any opinion which was right and which was wrong. It may be that the men's scale is in all respects a reasonable scale. It may be, as I said, that it will probably turn out to be the case there is a lot to give-and-take in the matter, that some criticisms are well founded, and that others are not. The point I put to the men is this, and it is the point I put to the House now—I am not adopting a contentious attitude, as the House will see, my whole object is peace—the point I put to the House and the point I put to the country—that great body of public opinion which, after all, dominates and, in the long run, controls us in matters of this kind—was it possible for any Government, even when it had recognised, as we had, the principle of a reasonable minimum wage—was it possible that we were going to ask Parliament, and eventually the country, for that is what it would come to, to coerce those responsible men who out of the fulness of their knowledge and experience have presented this formidable array of criticism and objection—to ask Parliament to coerce one of the two parties in an industrial dispute to accept, not merely the principle, but the very figures which had been dictated by the men without inquiry, without negotiation, without any machinery for arriving at an equitable determination? I put that argument to the men, and though I have in the course of my life, professional and political, had to present many cases, often, I am glad to say, good eases, sometimes, perhaps, indifferent cases, I will not say bad cases, it has never been my good fortune to present a case which seemed to me so irresistible from the point of reason, justice, and common sense. And as I watched these men, the very flower of the mining industry of this country, while I was speaking—I was over-sanguine—I flattered myself, and I think some of my right hon. Friends shared my opinion, that I had almost persuaded them. Well, I did not.

I regret to say that a few hours later on the same day, and again on the next day—I ought to add this, since something has been said about my speech, that I pointed out to the men, whom I was supposed to have been flattering, I pointed out to the men in quite as plain and direct language as I could possibly use in this House, the enormous and terrible responsibility which they were incurring in arriving at a decision and entering upon a course in which the sufferers—the immediate sufferers, and perhaps the ultimate sufferers—would be neither themselves nor those with whom they were contending, but the great bulk of the population. Well, as I have said, the men—I am not blaming them, I am not attempting at this stage to impute praise or blame, or to apportion responsibility—came for reasons which seemed to them good and 'Sufficient to the conclusion that they could not accept the proposal of the Government which, adopting the principle of the minimum wage, would have left the adjustment of the precise figure in each district to the conference of men and masters. Thereupon, on Friday morning last the negotiations on which my colleagues and I have, I venture to say, expended as much labour and a3 much anxious desire to arrive at a pacific conclusion as it is possible for men to do, came not to a breakdown, but to a deadlock. I would venture to say that if any apology were needed, I do not think the time and labour expended upon them has been wasted. We have advanced a great deal, a long way, upon the road towards a possible settlement as compared with the position in which we all stood, say, a fortnight or three weeks' ago, and I must say that I have never seen in all my experience, nor do I think has anybody else, an industrial controversy in which such large interests were involved where there was the same spirit of fairness and good feeling between the parties concerned. From beginning to end of these discussions there was no trace of anything in the nature of bitterness or envenomed feeling between the employers and employed. So far so good. But the result for the moment is, of course, lamentably insufficient.

I have spoken of what took place as a deadlock rather than as a breakdown. I cannot but hope and believe that as time goes on—and time in this matter is of vital, I may almost say of fatal, importance—there will be a bringing together, an approximation of points of view, possibly of machinery of adjustment, which last week seemed remote. But so far as the Government is concerned we have done all we could, and we shall continue to do what we can with that object. But, quite apart from that, we are not idle now. We have felt it our duty under these conditions—being as strongly of opinion as we ever were that the best way of fixing a scale for a reasonable minimum for the various districts is by agreement between the parties, and we are still hoping that that may be done—nevertheless we have felt it our duty to undertake, and we are undertaking, with such materials as we can command, a careful and rigorous examination of the figures that have been presented both on one side and on the other. I cannot say more than that at the present moment. I think the House will agree that that was our bounden duty. The stoppage has begun. The consequences which it is en- tailing on the comfort, the prosperity nay, even the daily life of the community, are at least as formidable as anybody could have foreseen, and as they develop they will increase day by day in intensity and in volume.

In these circumstances I venture to say to the House of Commons, if they think, as I hope they will think, that the Government has shown and is showing an adequate sense of the magnitude of the task imposed upon it, I say to them, although it may become, and probably will become, necessary that we should debate the whole question here, I hope it will not do so to night. I speak advisedly and with a full sense of responsibility on this matter. I have laid before it an absolutely full and candid account of what has happened. I deplore more than, perhaps, anybody else can deplore, that so far our efforts have been unavailing to avert a national catastrophe. But I do say this, and these will be my concluding words—and I ask the universal assent of every man in every quarter of the House—the responsibility of those, be they the Government or be they either or any of the parties to this dispute, or of those who advise or have influence with them—the responsibility of those who, having it in their power to take any step to minimise and shorten this terrible national calamity, do not use it to the full is a responsibility which history will not measure.


I need not say that under any circumstances I should not have dreamed of saying anything by way of criticism of what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, but, more than that, I had already come to the conclusion that he has recommended to the House that no possible good could be gained by a discussion of this subject, at least from our point of view. I do not intend to take any part, and I can assure the right hon. Gentleman and his Government that, while we recognise that the responsibility is that of the Government, we recognise also that there is a responsibility on everyone who has influence within this House, and we shall certainly do nothing which lies within our power to avoid to increase the difficulties of the Government in this matter. That is all I wish to say except this: I think it is not only right, but my duty, on behalf of my Friends for whom I speak, to thank the right hon. Gentleman for the clear and frank statement which he has laid before the House.


I beg to ask the Home Secretary a question of which I have given him private notice, namely, what measures he proposes to take to preserve the lives of 400 ponies at Whitburn Colliery, near South Shields, where it is reported that the miners refuse to allow anyone to descend into the pit?


My attention has not been drawn to this matter until the hon. and gallant Gentleman's question reached me an hour ago. I will make inquiry at once, but I am not aware that I have any statutory power in the matter.


May I ask the Prime Minister whether in view of the appalling suffering which has already taken place in the ironworks districts, an opportunity will be given to the House of Commons at an early date—although the Leader of the Opposition does not want that opportunity—to enable the views of Members representing mining constituencies to be expressed. His Majesty's Government have not yet had the opportunity of hearing the matter discussed.


I am rather sorry at the ungracious remark of the hon. Baronet. I cannot imagine anything more patriotic than the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition. Certainly an opportunity for discussion will be given, but I hope in view of the appeal which I have made, that the House will allow me to defer at any rate any such discussion.


The right hon. Gentleman used the word "negotiation." Might I remind him that no negotiations are taking place at the present moment.


May I ask the right hon. Gentleman will he take into consideration whether some sort of organisation might be begun at once for feeding the poorer classes in case the strike lasts very long. It is a very serious question.

The PRIME MINISTER indicated assent.