HC Deb 27 March 1917 vol 92 cc280-95

After the very full Debate which we have had on the subject of blockade, I do not propose to pursue this topic, but I would like very briefly to refer to another matter of vital national importance at this moment, and that is the question of the production of coal. The House will remember that we had soma notification, before the House rose for the Christmas vacation, that the Prime Minister intended to introduce a scheme or State control of the mines of this country. That scheme did not come to fruition until the beginning of the month of February, when a Coal Controller was appointed. I understand that the Order which was made appointing him also brought under his control the whole industry of this country as from the 1st day of March. The decision of the Government to appoint a Coal Controller was one of very great importance to the nation, because no one can disguise the fact that upon the sufficient production of coal at the present moment really depends the success of our efforts against the enemy. Much was hoped for from the new appointment, but I am bound to say that hitherto the House has received very little information indeed as to what has been done by the Coal Controller and what his policy is to be. I have on different occasions addressed questions to the Board of Trade on this subject, and I quite recognise that the hon. Gentleman who represents the Board of Trade is in a position of some difficulty in not being able to answer in detail all the questions which have been been put upon this subject, as the policy is no doubt maturing and may not yet have reached its final shape. At the same time, I think it is of great importance that the country should know now what is the general line on which the new Coal Controller is going to proceed, and I am particularly anxious to ascertain whether he has been in consultation with the Home Office Committees which were recently appointed to deal with the question of the organisation of the coal industry.

I refer particularly to the Committee which was appointed in 1915 to inquire into the conditions prevailing in the coal mining industry due to the War. That Committee has reported on three different occasions, and its Reports make it perfectly clear that measures of an urgent nature are required to be taken to safeguard the production of coal in this country, having regard to the large number of miners who were withdrawn and who have joined the Army, and also owing to the very large reduction in the coal which was actually won during that period. The net reduction of labour was given on 1st September, 1916, as 165,000 men, or 14.8 per cent. of the labour which was utilised at the outbreak of war, and the figures for the actual output of coal, which were also given for 1915, were 253,000,000 tons, of a value of £170,000,000, being a decrease of 12,500,000 tons on the output of 1914. It was deemed necessary to take immediate steps to secure a larger output when it was seen how greatly the number of miners had been reduced, and the Committee which I have already referred to made certain important recommendations. I should like to know from the Board of Trade whether the Coal Controller is engaged in working out those recommendations at the present time. One of the first recommendations was that as miners were considered indispensable they should be barred from military service, that all recruiting should be prohibited amongst miners, and that Home service men should be brought back from the Colours; and they were, in point of fact, brought back to the number of 15,000 or 16,000 in order that they might assist in increasing the output of coal, and an increment of 4,000,000 tons was thereby gained. While on this point I want to ask the hon. Member if he will inform us whether the Coal Controller has ever been consulted in regard to the question of National Service, and how far he has been asked to associate himself with the appeal which is being made to miners at the present time to volunteer for work of national importance? The choice put before miners is somewhat conflicting. On the one hand, they have been told that they are to remain at their own work, and notices were put up at the works that they were to be barred from service in the Army. The notices referred to were as follows: Coal miners have already joined the Army in such large numbers that the supply of coal, which is a vital national necessity, is seriously affected. Miners one and all must remember that upon their efforts the success of the country depends, no less than upon the men who are serving with the forces. Those who offer themselves as recruits will only be accepted on the condition that they go back to work in the mines until they are called upon. While these notices were posted, the coal mine tribunals were set up under the Military Service Act exempting miners in respect of the essential work they were performing for the nation. Then we have an appeal made under the National Service Act for these men to undertake work of national importance, which comes on the head of another appeal which is made to-day, and which is being made all over the coal fields, for men of military age to volunteer for service in the Army. The miner is asked in the first place to remain at his work as being essential to the nation; he is asked by the military authorities to volunteer for the Army; he is told by the National Service Director that more men are required for mines, as appeared in the advertisements issued the other day; and yet at the same time he is asked to enrol himself amongst the volunteers for National Service without any definite suggestion being made as to what service he could render better than that he is rendering at the present moment. May I ask whether the Coal Controller himself has been consulted in this matter, and whether he has given any indication as to his views? Would it not be better not to unsettle the miners by making them subject to all these cross appeals, and to tell them that they are doing their work there satisfactorily for the country, and that if any of them are asked to volunteer for any other form of service than that of the Army they will be told specifically the particular work they will be asked for, and that they will be transferred to that work if a sufficient number can be found? We must remember that every miner who is taken away from the coal pits is decreasing the national production, and that there is great need for an increase instead of a decrease.

I pass from that point to one or two of the other recommendations of the Committee. One dealt with the question of avoidable absenteeism from the mines, which was calculated to diminish the actual output by some 14,000,000 tons. I am glad to say that, so far as the Scottish mine fields are concerned, there has been very little cause for complaint on that subject, although there has been elsewhere, and I should like to know whether the Coal Controller has been working along with the Committee for securing the appointment of local committees to consult with the men and with the employers in order to reduce the absenteeism to the lowest Possible figure. The next point relates to the question of transport, and the Committee reported that transport was one of the most serious difficulties that they had to face at the present time, and that the actual production and distribution of coal was very enormously hampered owing to the want of transport facilities. There, I think, we may look to the Coal Controller, who is a distinguished railway expert, to put this matter right, with his experience as one of the leading railway men in the country. I sincerely hope that he will give us an undertaking that all the wagons, private as well as those belonging to the various railway companies throughout the country, are now being pooled so that there may be a satisfactory system of distribution throught the country, The demand for coal in many districts has not been met, largely owing to the difficulties of distribution, and it might be possible, I would suggest, that some scheme of distribution should be framed which would enable the wagons belonging to the companies in each particular district to be made available for local distribution and thus prevent the serious difficulties which have arisen through want of coal in many districts.

One other point has been raised by the Committee, and that is the question of internal reorganisation of the mines themselves. A great deal of work could be saved by a proper system of haulage and by a proper system of organisation in the mines, and this is a matter which, I believe, could best be dealt with by the mine owners consulting with the Coal Controller and the Advisory Committee, who, after all, represent the employers and the men themselves. In this way it might be possible to provide either additional machinery in certain pits where the output is greater, and to avoid work in other pits where the output is very small, and the opening up of new coal seams which at the present time are hardly worth working with such shortage of labour. I hope that the Advisory Committee which has been set up will be able to cope with most of these difficulties, along with the Coal Controller, who, I understand, is going to consider very carefully the views that the Committee may put before him on all these questions, and to act upon them wherever possible. The hon. Member was good enough to give me a statement in answer to a question I put to Mm on 22nd March as to the question of distribution of supplies and economy of transport and consumption of coal. I hope he may be able to amplify that statement a little further. We are anxious to secure some guarantee that the transport facilities shall be properly distributed all over the country, and that there shall be some inducement given to economise in the consumption of coal. We ought to teach the country a good deal by bringing home to the people the need at the present moment for economising fuel. The amount of coal which is being wasted continually by people who use it unnecessarily would amount to a very large quantity if everyone tried to save it.

The question of the financial arrangements is a matter of very great import- ance. Of this we have so far heard nothing from the Front Bench. Surely the financial arrangements which have been made to take over the coal mines must be, if not already completed, at all events in a fair way of completion, and I should like the hon. Member, if he can, to give us an indication as to whether the State is going to have a substantial interest in the profits of the mines, what their interest is to be, to what extent the interests of the coal miners are to be guaranteed, and the figure at which the coal will be taken over? These are matters upon which the country is well entitled to have some information. I am glad to learn that nothing is proposed to be done at the present time in regard to the reduction of miners' wages. It has been agreed with the representatives of the miners that in the event of prices falling in any district no steps shall be taken for a reduction of wages without the representatives of the men being taken into full consultation. I suppose that this will mean that the machinery of the existing Conciliation Boards will be made use of up to a certain point, though it may be necessary for the Coal Controller himself to come in as the final arbitrator and decide questions in which differences may arise. I hope the hon. Gentleman will be able to give us some assurance on that point.

Before I sit down I should like to refer in a few sentences to another question which is of a somewhat similar character, and of equal importance. That is the question of fuel apart from the question of coal. There is also the question of the alcohol which is required for the production of the munitions of war. I have asked the Minister of Munitions on several occasions to inform the House whether he proposed to use the alcohol which at present is in the bonded warehouses for the purpose of manufacturing explosives, instead of going on with the manufacture of more alcohol for the purpose. The nation has a right to know whether we are still to use grain and food materials for the manufacture of alcohol for munition purposes. I am informed that experts have already indicated their opinion that it is quite possible to make use of the large accumulated stores of 149,000,000 gallons, or at least a portion of it, for the manufacture of explosives. It is a serious thing indeed for the country at the present time if none of this alcohol in bond is to be used, but that we are to go on manufacturing alcohol from grain—this at a time when the country is being rationed! I sincerely hope that the Minister of Munitions, who, I understand, has control of this matter—because the Food Controller has repudiated any responsibility—will see to it that the matter is immediately attended to, and that steps are actually taken to avoid further wastage of food for the manufacture of alcohol.

In the answer he gave me the other day the hon. Gentleman said, "Under existing circumstances I do not propose to make use of the bonded spirits for munition purposes." I appeal to the hon. Gentleman—though he is not in his place, but probably someone will convey the-appeal to him—that existing circumstances are after all the strongest argument that can possibly be put forward for stopping altogether the use of food materials for the manufacture of alcohol, if such alcohol can be provided from other sources. As to the needs of the nation and the serious shortage of food materials, serious statements have been made by tre Prime Minister, the First Lord of the Admiralty, and other Ministers of the Crown. Unless the Government carry into effect the principles which they are laying down as to the need for economy and themselves be the first to give an example to the nation of that economy by acting as I have suggested—which matter they have in their own hands—it will be a pity. It would be a curious conclusion at which to arrive if, at the end of the War, we were to be told that we still had 140,000,000 gallons of alcohol in bond which might have been used, along with the national resources, to help us to win the War. I trust the Government will show their wisdom and avoid such a lamentable conclusion, and the comment on such a situation, and will at once see to the avoidance of using food and other materials for the purposes I have stated.


I desire to associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend who has just spoken. I would like specially to emphasise the latter portion of his appeal to the Government in relation, not only to alcohol, but to any other luxury that may be used in order to satisfy appetites merely, and which in no wise are necessary or helpful to the health and well-being of the people. I would wish to ask the hon. Gentleman who represents the Board of Trade as to how really the miner stands under the new conditions brought about by the control of the mines, and in cases where unemployment amongst pitmen exists, as to what offers there are open to the miner? For instance, you find in certain districts of the country—take the county of Durham—some pits that have never lost a shift, and every one of which have worked regularly, whilst you have other cases of collieries working one to three days a week, and that within a radius of two or three miles, it may be, and you have large centres of coal consumption within a radius of anything up to twenty miles. The North is not only a large centre for the extraction of coal from the mines, but it is also a large centre for the consumption of coal. I should like the hon. Gentleman really to assure us that steps will be taken—and that shortly, I hope—to provide a good and sufficient supply to those who are consuming the coal. I have received many complaints, which I shall be very pleased to send to my hon. Friend opposite should he desire to see them, where coal is required, whilst those concerned have offered to see that the wagons were sent back within the day. Certain pits, it would appear, are still unprovided with transit facilities, and the men there are desirous of fulfilling their duties to the State. I would ask the hon. Gentleman who represents the Board of Trade to try to make some arrangement, either for the Minister of Munitions or the Minister for National Service to go down to such districts and offer these men an alternative, say, of other forms of mining, iron-ore mining, or something of that kind. Let it, however, be a firm offer.

One of the difficulties amongst these men is that they wonder what is going to happen. There is no firm offer. They are asked to put their name down. There is uncertainty. I should like something like this: Suppose you want a hundred men at a certain place, say to the men: "You are wanted there, there is the money, the hutting arrangements are all right, and so are the conditions generally, such men as are wishful to go can have their railway warrants and can go at once." There might be some difficulty in carrying out a scheme of this sort. It may be a great deal easier to propose than to carry out. But there is the position of the miner at present, who really wants to fall into his groove. If he moves he wants to know where he is going. I should like also to ask the hon. Gentleman if in questions of dispute the same conditions exist now under Government control as existed before under ordinary private control? Where exactly does the miner now stand in relation to his job, his money, and the conditions of his employment? Will the hon. Gentleman convey to the War Office my representations as to the great feeling of dissatisfaction in my Constituency as to the young men who, having joined the Colours, within a very few weeks are sent to the front. I have had put to me several cases where young fellows have been called up have been sent to the front, and the announcement of the death has come—all within a matter of three months On the other hand, in various parts of the country, there are men who have been kept at home since they first commenced their Army service. Indeed, some have never been moved from the place to which they were first drafted, or where they are now hutted. As a matter of fact, some time ago I sent the War Office some letters in which some soldiers asked me to ask the War Office to be good enough to remove them away from the place where they were. They bad been so long in that particular camp that when they went into the town they were saluted with cries of, "Good old ragtimers; here again." The parents of some of these young men are willing that they should serve the country, but asked that conditions should not be imposed of this sort.

There is the matter of leave. Men have been in Egypt, the Dardanelles, and are now in France who have never had leave. I presume other Members will have received similar complaints. There is a general feeling that there should be some means whereby men who have been abroad so long should have the opportunity of leave, because there are other cases in which leave is very much more easily obtained. Then, as to the question of allowances. If a son and father of the same family enlist there is no allowance on behalf of the son. The allotment may be paid by the son, but no allowance comes as the allowance is already paid on behalf of the father. If, however, the father remains at home and sends two sons to the war then there can be allowances on behalf of the two sons. There is injustice in this matter, because in the case of the two sons going and death happening there is a payment continuous up to six months, and a pension to follow. If it is the son whoso father has been fighting immediately there is an intimation of his death, the allotment is immediately stopped, and no pension follows. I am raising this question because I am receiving a great many complaints from people who are quite willing to do their duty to their country, but who feel that these inequalities should not happen. I ask the Government to do what they can in this matter. I believe they are willing to do it, and to reduce these great disabilities and disproportionate differences to a minimum. I give these instances so that, if possible, rectification may take place.


I think I would like to ask my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Wing) to address the questions he has just put respecting allowances and matters of that kind to the War Office. I confess I have to admit some little difficulty in making an adequate response on behalf of the Coal Controller, and certainly I am not likely to add to my own personal difficulties by undertaking a task which goes beyond my Department. The hon. Member for North-East Lanarkshire (Mr. Millar) stated that a great deal has been expected from the appointment of Coal Controller, but that so far it has been impossible to get much information. I have to remind my hon. Friend, in the same way as I did hon. Friends on Friday last, that it was only as from December last that the Government undertook the control of the South Wales coal fields, and it was only from the beginning of this month that that control has been extended to cover the whole of the coal fields of Great Britain and Ireland.


It was started, I think, about a month before that.


The appointment was announced before that, but it is perfectly accurate to state that the control was never assumed until the date I have mentioned, and it may be because of that that hon. Members feel, as I feel, the extreme difficulty of grasping the great complexity of the problem dealt with. My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton-le-Spring was good enough to say that of course it is easy to criticise, and I confess I have been sometimes rather anxious, and even eager, to impart more information in response to questions than I have been able to give, because, after all, Ministers save themselves a good deal of trouble if they can make ample response to questions. Nevertheless, I have made the best inquiries I can, and I am able to assure the House that the Coal Controller is in very close grip with an extraordinarily complex problem. Perhaps I may just instance this fact. Mr. Calthrop has traced the whole of the consignments of coal of the country from the pits to the respective consumers. He desires to ascertain how far the coal has to be transported. He desires to ascertain how coal is taken from the collieries to the various consumers in the country. The bare collection of statistics of that sort is an extremely heavy task, and then when you come to the tabulation and analysis of them I think you will realise that it is a problem of considerable difficulty. Yet the Coal Controller regards the possession of those; statistics as absolutely essential to carry out the scheme of mobilisation that he has in contemplation. The hon. Gentleman who introduced this subject asked me if the Coal Controller was taking over certain functions previously exercised by the Home Office, and how far he was having regard to the recommendations of the Home Office Committee. When you have the assurance that Sir Richard Redmayne, His Majesty's Chief Inspector of Mines, has been taken over by the Coal Controller, I think you will have an indication that it is the intention to co-ordinate the functions exercised by the Home Office and those with which the Coal Controller has been invested. The Coal Controller is giving very serious consideration to the recommendations of that Committee.

We are aware of the fact that the splendid enlistment voluntarily of miners did have the effect of dislocating the mining industry. When we know there were some 288,000 of those enlistments, or over 25 per cent, of the working miners, then we must recognise, at any rate, that the withdrawal of those numbers of men must dislocate the industry, and result in a great diminution of output. It is true that other labour has been drawn into the mines, but yon cannot substitute labour as efficient as that which was taken into the Army. All the stronger and most energetic young men were taken, and any substitutes which are forthcoming must, of necessity, without any reflection whatever on the substitutes, be less efficient than the young men who were taken. The Coal Controller is in negotiation with the Director-General of National Service on this point, with a view to maintaining a proper amount of labour in the mines, and therefore preserving, as far as practicable, the output of coal. Of course, we have to recognise in all these matters that the needs of the Army are paramount, and the War Office are requesting still that more of the young, able-bodied men shall be released from the coal mines. Nevertheless, the Coal Controller is keenly alive to the necessity of maintaining output for home consumption, for trade, for our Allies, and also for the very important factor of exchange in trade itself, which, of course, is a matter of great consideration, and the Coal Controller is doing his best in that respect. Regarding the question of absenteeism, I am glad to have the acknowledgment of my hon. Friend as to the position in Scotland. It is a tribute we would expect him to pay to his own countrymen, and probably to his own constituency.


The hon. Member will admit it is quite true.


Certainly. I am accepting the hon. Member's statement, and, of course, associating my tribute to Scottish miners. It has been observed that it is estimated that 5 per cent, of lost time represents unpreventable absenteeism, but over and beyond that, of course, there is a considerable amount of absenteeism, to compass which it has been the endeavour of colliery owners, with, I believe, the whole-hearted support of the leaders of the miners themselves. I questioned the Coal Controller only to-day on this point, and he assures me that it is receiving his very earnest consideration. He is glad to convey to the House, through me, this fact, that there are signs of a distinct improvement on this head, though of course indirectly we have to acknowledge that this is in large measure due to the influence exercised by the leaders of the miners' organisations. Then we proceed to the question of transport. Of course, the House feels great confidence in the appointment of Mr. Calthrop, because he is a man of first-class railway experience, and I know he regards this question of transport as being one of the most important points in the distribution of coal. I stated on Friday last that it is the aim of the Coal Controller to economise transport by securing that consumers shall, as far as possible, receive the supplies from the collieries nearest to them Undoubtedly, as I observed on Friday, there is considerable waste—criminal, in my opinion, at any time, but particularly so during a time of war and the labour stress that we are experiencing, and it is proved already that consignments, of coal are carried from one extreme to the other of the country, when there is suitable coal nearer at hand. The Coal Controller is having regard to that fact and also to the further point of the pooling of wagons. The question was addressed to me on Friday, and we know, not only in relation to the distribution of coal, but in the distribution of commodities generally in the country, that there has been considerable wastage on this head. The Railway Executive, I know, have been giving this matter very earnest consideration, and the Coal Controller does recognise the importance of the question, and is endeavouring, as I understand, on the lines suggested by my hon. Friend, to-secure at least district arrangements as to the pooling. I can give at least the-assurance that the Coal Controller is considering that matter, but I will make it my duty further to direct his attention tort, in view of the desire expressed here.

With respect to the internal organisation of mines, the Coal Controller does-recognise that there may be possibilities of great economy and other improvements in the organisation of the mines themselves, and he is certainly intending to avail himself of the Advisory Committee which has been established, and he will act upon that as far as it may be practicable to do so. Of course, we want to recognise that, so far, the control of coal mines is a war expedient. What may happen after the War it is not for me to-predict. I am far too modest a man to adopt the mantle of a prophet. The Coal Controller has always to recognise that if conditions are to revert, then, of course, his policy must be modified accordingly. But still those are considerations which-are engaging his attention. He is also going to consider how far the public may be persuaded further to economise in coal. It may be, of course, absolutely necessary to compel them to economise, and I know that the Coal Controller is having special regard to the conditions which may prevail in the ensuing winter. After all, it is not practicable for him to accomplish much in relation to this winter, but he is shaping his plans with a view to what may occur in the winter of 1917–18. The hon. Gentleman, I know, is keenly interested to learn what are the financial arrangements which will exist as between the Government and the colliery owners. I have to confess great difficulty in furnishing him with that information, but I can tell him that my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, the Coal Controller, myself, and others have discussed this question. We have agreed upon general principles, and those points in the form of a Memorandum are now, I believe, to be submitted to the Cabinet in the course of a few days. If then the Cabinet decide that full information can be given to the House, I shall be very glad to give it.


Can the hon. Member say whether an Irish representative has been appointed?


I cannot yet say whether that question has been decided. I have already given a personal undertaking to one of the Irish representatives that I will direct the attention of the President of the Board of Trade to that request, and it will have due consideration. With respect to miners' wages it is not proposed in any way to change them or the system under which they are paid. The existing machinery will remain intact; in fact, the Coal Controller will interfere as little as possible with the active management of the mines or the labour conditions of the mines. Everybody knows that the Miners' Federation are generally well able to look after the wages of their members. It is also true that the Conciliation Boards will remain in existence, and it is not in any way contemplated to interfere with existing rates. What my hon. Friend had in mind was that miners' rates of wages are guided by the selling price. The President of the Board of Trade had an interview with the miners' executive a 'week or two ago, and he assured them that it was not in any way contemplated that wage changes would eventually be made, but if, owing to a fall in price in any district, the rates might be open to change, no such change would take place without full consultation with the miners' representatives.

The hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Wing) drew attention to the fact that there are certain pits idle and that miners are unemployed or underemployed in certain districts, although there may be a very strong demand for their labour elsewhere. As a result of a conference with the Coal Controller I am able to say that this is a matter which is receiving consideration. He has received requests for the supply of miners in the iron ore mines, and there is an urgent demand for that class of labour. Consequently, the Coal Controller, in conjunction with the Director-General of National Service, has made arrangements for the transfer of that labour and the men who are willing to go who are underemployed in one particular district are being transferred to other mines. The Coal Controller, however, desires to be perfectly certain that there is proper housing and feeding accommodation before he transfers men to other districts, and some delay has occurred in consequence, but this is solely owing to the anxiety of the Coal Controller that in the case of these men who are transferred to other work of national importance proper and adequate arrangements shall have been made for them before they are transferred. I think everybody will agree that the Coal Controller in doing that is exercising a wise discretion, and one that we are pleased to observe. I think I have now covered most of the points which have been made.


I wish to ask a question with regard to the arrangement which has been come to between the Coal Controller and the Director-General of National Service. Is it the desire of the Coal Controller that all the miners should be asked to enrol as volunteers under the National Service system, or does he intend to ask those to volunteer who are willing to go to the iron-ore mines?


I mentioned this point to the Coal Controller this afternoon, and I understand that he has agreed to the general principle of the scheme of the Director-General of National Service which contemplates that everybody should enrol for National Service. I believe that the Coal Controller concurs with the general scheme of the Director-General of National Service, and miners will be invited to enrol similarly with other classes of the community. Precautions will be taken that men shall not be removed from the essential occupation of mining without the knowledge of the Coal Controller, and without due consideration being given to the needs of respective collieries. I have now replied to the points which have been addressed to me, and I ask hon. Members to believe that when questions are addressed to me, and I do not give the full information which they desire, it is not due to any desire to be discourteous, but because of the fact that this Department has only recently been set up. It deals with a problem of extreme complexity, and, therefore, I think I am entitled to ask on behalf of the Coal Controller that hon. Members should exercise a little patience. I can give the assurance on behalf of the President that it is our desire to give the fullest possible information.