HC Deb 05 June 1918 vol 106 cc1673-88

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."


I beg to move to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day three months."

My reason for moving the rejection of this Bill is not with regard to any of its contents, upon which I desire to say nothing. I take it that the Bill is simply to enable the Lurgan Urban District Council, who are bound by a Provisional Order they had before to sell gas at 4s. 6d. per 1,000 cubic feet dry meter, and that all they are asking is that under this Provisional Order they shall be able to raise the price from 4s. 6d. to 5s. 6d. per 1,000 cubic feet. My objection, and the reason I have blocked the Bill, is that the urban district council in coming to this House and presenting this Bill asks the consideration of this House in the period of their difficulty, and the point I wish to establish is that this urban district council refuses itself to give consideration to its employés when they are in any difficulty. I think that when a public authority, or even a public company, comes to this House and asks for privileges to be given to it we have a right to inquire as to whether these people who come to this House to ask for the privileges that this House can alone confer have in the past exercised the powers they have had in their possession in a reasonable spirit before we are entitled to grant any further power to them. There is another consideration in this matter which I should like to put seriously before the House. This country at the present time is going through the greatest war the world has ever known. When this War broke out a special and urgent appeal was made to the whole of the trade unions in this country to cease all the disputes they had then in operation, and to endeavour to do their best to see that while we were fighting this terrible enemy of ours we should endeavour to the best of our ability to compose our difficulties and to carry on the industry of the country in a friendly, reasonable, and amicable spirit.

I venture to say that as far as the particular workmen employed by this firm, and the organisation with which they were connected, were concerned, desiring an improvement in their wages, they conducted themselves in such a manner as to carry out all that any reasonable Members of this House could desire with a view to avoiding any dispute. So anxious were these men to avoid any dispute or stoppage, and that the matter should be considered by a person appointed with some experience to go into the pros and cons of the case in order that both sides might be enabled to put their case with all their strength and power and that ultimately a person unconnected with either side might decide the question between the two parties, that they asked that the matter should be referred to the Ministry of Labour, and that an arbitrator should be appointed to hear both sides in this difference—because, after all, in the beginning it was only what is termed, in the Munitions of War Act, a "difference," and had not then developed into a "dispute." The Ministry of Labour, at the request of the men concerned, appointed Sir Richard Lodge to hear the difference in Belfast on 21st September, 1917. The representatives of the workmen attended on that date before Sir Richard Lodge, but the Lurgan Council declined to attend the hearing, and it was therefore cancelled. I venture to say that every effort had been made by these particular workmen concerned to avoid anything in the nature of a stoppage of work, and that the urban district council has not acted as most reasonable employers in this country do. We have had scores—one might almost say hundreds—of cases where private employers, who are running their concerns for profit, and have a direct pocket interest in the business but have not even come under the War Munitions Act, have agreed that in order to avoid a dispute in their works the Ministry should appoint an arbitrator, so that the whole case might be heard in a friendly way and settled in a businesslike fashion.


Will the hon. Gentleman say what the date was?


The date of the hearing was 21st September, 1917. The men, having no other course open to them, gave notice to cease employment on 19th November, 1917, and in tendering their notice they stated that it was conditional upon any settlement being effected between the representative of their union and the urban district council before those notices could come into operation. On the 14th November the town clerk intimated the willingness of the urban district council to meet the representatives of the men to hear his views upon the subject. Obviously up to that time no effort had been made by the urban district council to make any inquiry to find out the position of their workmen. On the following day, the 15th November, they revised their decision, and declined to have the interview they had already promised. What influence had been brought to bear I cannot for the life of me understand, but it is obvious that at one time the council were willing that the case might be put before them and discussed, and that afterwards some influence had been at work and had persuaded the council to reverse its decision. The workmen's notices ran out, and they ceased work. Other men were started, and paid higher wages than the men who had ceased work, which proves, if it proves anything, that the request the men had been making to the urban district council must have had some common-sense and reason behind it. It does seem to me amazing in these times, when men are asking, largely because of the increased cost of living, for some commensurate advance in wages that a public authority like this should act in this stubborn fashion, and refuse to meet the representatives of the men for an opportunity to state their case, and should also refuse to take part in proceedings under the Ministry of Labour whereby the whole matter of the difficulty could be thrashed out in a reasonable, fair, and sensible fashion round the table. If these men had been obtaining very high rates of wages the Council might have been justified in their attitude. But what are the wages they have been paying? I have here the wages of eight men out of the seventeen they employed. They had five labourers receiving l6s. per week and 2s. war bonus, one lamplighter receiving 18s. a week and 2s. war bonus, one meter inspector receiving 24 s. and 2s. a week war bonus, and one assistant clerk, also in receipt of 24s. a week and 2s. war bonus. One has only to point out, if it is necessary in the House of Commons at this time of day, that the cost of living has increased in this country 107 per cent., according to the Committee on Production. The result of their examination into hundreds of cases where workmen have applied for an increase in their rates of wages is that the advance which has been conceded to millions of workmen in this country amounts to at least £1 per week, and hundreds of thousands, if not a very much larger number. have received 12½ per cent. above that.


Is that on present rates?


That is since 1914—the pre-war rate. I want to make this comparison, that the workpeople of this country are to-day enjoying a war bonus of 20s., and there are, I believe, roughly 2,000,000 of them receiving 12½ per cent. on top of that, and when we compare this with a war bonus of 2s. a week given to men receiving 16s. and 24s. it does not require any argument to show that it was really impossible for them to live upon the wages they were receiving. I believe people in this position could not live, but could only starve on the wages which were being paid and the price of provisions as it is to-day. That is a condition of things which reflects tragically upon any public authority in this country that they should continue a condition of things like that and should brutally refuse to consider the matter through the mouth of the men's spokesmen, and refuse deliberately and persistently to allow the case to go to abitration, and it is not within the power of any Member of this House, though he searched all industrial England through, to bring a more tragic case than that of these men. It is true the urban district council gave other men greater advances of wages. I should be the last man to desire to take any credit away from the urban district council, and there is nothing I would not do to avoid bringing this case before the House. They have advanced two of their retort men 10s. 6d. a week, two plumbers have received 4s., and two retort helpers 4s.

There is another point of some importance. In all the thousands of cases which have been submitted to the Committee on Production they have unfailingly adopted one principle. They have agreed, on the representation of the men concerned, that the increased cost of living affects the poor man just as much as the highly skilled, highly paid man, and in all their decisions they have awarded the lowest paid man the same war bonus as the highly skilled, highly paid man. In this instance the poorest paid man, that is, the man in receipt of 16s., has received 2s. a week, whereas men who have been in receipt of 35s. a week received 10s. 6d. The practice that has been laid down by the Committee of Production, covering between two and three million workpeople in this country, would not be entered into lightly, and could only have been entered into and decided after representations from all these people and after agreeing that the case which had been made out was a fair and reasonable case. The highly skilled and highly paid men did not object for a single moment to the lower paid, unskilled and semi-skilled men receiving exactly the same rate of war bonus as they themselves received. This company, of course without any experience, has reversed the operation. It has given the very highly paid men five times as much as the lower paid men, and they have done a double injustice in not allowing them to state their case before the arbitrator appointed by the Ministry. Further, the hours of labour which these men have to work for those wages, if one may call them so, are fifty-six hours a week, and the war bonus, insignificant and miserable as it is, is not paid if the men lose any time. There, again, I know of no award in this country where any such cruel condition is imposed upon the payment of a war bonus.

The promoters of the Bill find themselves in a difficulty and they are asking this House to come to their assistance. The urban district council is appealing to the House as a tribunal to judge as to the relative merits of their case, but it refuses its workpeople any right to take their case before any tribunal at all. The least public bodies can do is to accept the example of all good employers in this country. This case of the Lurgan Urban District Council stands out boldly and prominently among all the cases I have had anything to do with. Cases of this kind are so rare that they might be termed a negligible quantity. All we ask, and all we have ever asked, is that the case should still be allowed to go to arbitration. We believe we have a fair and honest case to put before that arbitrator. We believe still that the decision of the Lurgan Urban District Council, the wages they are paying, and their method of conceding the advance are an injustice to these people. It is true that when these men tendered their notices their places were filled. The urban district council succeeded in obtaining men to take the places of the men who left their work. We think that the urban council did us an injustice. Despite the fact that they have managed to succeed in forcing us into the dispute and to do without these men, we think that the injustice still continues. We believe that we had a right to expect much more reasonable terms from the council. If this case were put to an arbitrator it might be that none of these men would be returned to their position, but we would accept that decision if the arbitrator came to it. He might possibly decide that some compensation should be paid to these men for what they have lost as a result of this difficulty. In any case we are prepared to leave it entirely to his discretion and to accept whatever decision he might come to. There is a great contrast between the wages paid by this council and the rates paid in Belfast to-day. In the workshops the rate of pay for labourers is not 16s. per week but 36s. per week, and a 12é per cent. bonus.


Is the House to understand that the men employed at the present time are getting only 16s.?


I know that the council give them a. few shillings war bonus, and, as I have already stated, the men who were taken on to fill these men's places were given an increase of wage. My hon. Friend will see that that strengthens my case, and shows that the men who are asking for this consideration are entitled to it and that they were treated very scurvily by the council in not granting them a hearing with a view to further concessions. I think that proves my case to demonstration. There is a tragic disparity between the rates of wages paid to labourers in Belfast—which is not very far from Lurgan—where the labourers, not skilled men, who are performing similar work to the men in question are receiving 43s. per week and a 12é per cent. bonus. I think I have said sufficient to show that this council has not acted in any way reasonably. They have not allowed their workpeople to go to any tribunals in this difficulty. This House views with some concern the action of those authorities who come here for an extension of their powers. In placing power in the hands of either public bodies or public companies the House is perfectly entitled to ascertain whether the authority so given is being used, as this House thinks it ought to be used, in a fair and reasonable spirit. There has been no employer in this country since the War began who has behaved in a more brutal or a more unreasonable way than this council. Nothing would have pleased me better than that they should have seen the light of reason and should have agreed to allow this case —whether it was good or bad or indifferent did not matter to them or to us —to go to an arbitrator. So far as we were concerned we should have been prepared, as we have been in hundreds of other cases, to accept whatever decision had been given. Therefore I suggest that this public authority has shown that it is unfitted to exercise the powers now asked, and I move the Motion standing in my name.


I beg to second the Amendment.

I am surprised that a public representative body should have taken the action that they have in this case with their own employés. I am quite aware that the gulf between capital and labour in Ireland has been very wide. I know the country very well. I have had a very wide experience there, and there is this to be said for it, that at least during the last three years great strides have been made in the direction of employers and employed coming together. In matters associated with munition workers and large bodies of men in Ireland conferences have been held from time to time and arrangements have been amicably come to. I was in Ireland four times last year arranging matters in regard to war bonuses and war wages, and that was done on more amicable lines than I had ever known in Ireland. I am pleased to know that that gulf has been narrowed so far as many of the most important employers were concerned, and I am astonished to find that the Lurgan District Council should have taken this attitude. I think it would be graceful on their part if they were to accept the position laid down by my hon. Friend and agree to this case going before an arbitrator, so that it might be settled.


I hope my hon. Friend will not persist in his Motion because although he has made out a very good case this is not one of those cases where you can by dropping the Bill impose upon the directors of a company or anybody of that kind a better course of conduct. I quite believe that my hon. Friend has made out a good case for arbitration. I am sure he will be the last to ask me to express an opinion before I had heard the other side, but on the case as he presents it, and assuming his case to be absolutely accurate, he has made out a very good case for arbitration. Of course, there may be an answer to it. Is that sufficient ground for blocking this Bill? May I remind the House what this Bill does. The Lurgan Urban District Council provide their ratepayers with gas. Not all the ratepayers use the gas. At 4s. 6d. per thousand cubic feet there is a deficiency, and that deficiency has to be made good by the general body of ratepayers. Therefore, unless this Bill is passed it means that the poorer ratepayers who do not use the gas and cannot use the gas will have to pay the difference for the benefit of those richer and better-off ratepayers who do use it. The object of the Bill is to enable such a charge to be made for the gas that the people who use the gas shall pay for it and that those who do not use the gas shall not be charged to make up the deficiency for the benefit of those who use the gas. It is not a case of a company whose directors behave in an arbitrary and improper fashion, where, by checking the power of obtaining dividends, you can bring pressure to bear on them. It will not matter two pence to members of the urban council whether this Bill passes. Probably every one of them is a user of gas himself, and he will get his gas all the cheaper if this Bill does not pass. But it will matter to a number of ratepayers of Lurgan if this Bill does not pass, who would have to pay rates to make up the difference between the cost of the gas and its price. Assuming that what my hon. Friend has said is correct, I think that he has made out a rather strong case for arbitration. I cannot possibly offer an opinion on the case, because I have not heard the other side, but I am prepared to do anything I can, if it is of any assistance, to bring the parties together. I do not know that I have any power in the matter, but, if I can, I am prepared to do all that is possible to persuade the parties to come to arbitration, and I would ask my hon. Friend, and especially my colleague who seconded the Motion— I do think that it is not kind of him to block the Very first Bill that I bring forward—to withdraw the Motion, and I will do the best I can to ensure that the whole question shall be arbitrated upon. It may be—of course, I cannot pledge myself—-that the other side have a perfect answer to what my hon. Friend has said, but if they have not I shall do my best to persuade them to come to arbitration, and meantime, for the sake of the ratepayers, who alone are going to benefit by this Bill, I would ask that the Motion should be withdrawn.


I do not desire to make this a controversial matter, and do not wish to follow the hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness in all the arguments which he has used. But there are some points which he omitted to mention, and which I think make the case a little less serious than he made it as against the urban council. My hon. and gallant Friend (Major Allen) the Member for the constituency in which Lurgan is, was away on service and is now on short leave of absence, and in order that he should not have to give up two or three days of his leave I undertook to take up this matter for him. I do not think that the House realises, from what my hon. Friend has said, that this whole matter is now six or seven months old, that the whole thing was settled in December last, and that since December last the question has not arisen at all. Therefore, the whole thing is ancient history. In fact, if he had in his speech made it a little clearer that he was referring to the year 1917 I had intended to ask you, Sir, whether it was in order to object to the passing of a Bill on grounds of that kind. There was another point on which I think he was not quite accurate. He said that Six Richard Lodge visited Belfast in September for the purpose of holding his arbitration, that the men were represented on this occasion, and that the urban council declined to be represented. I am informed that Sir Richard Lodge wrote on the 20th September that as munitions work was not involved the case could not be heard under the Munitions Act, but that by the consent of the urban council to arbitration the matter might proceed under the Conciliation Act. The whole question of munitions did not apply at all. Therefore it is not quite fair to say that the urban council refused to go to arbitration without giving any satisfactory reason for it.

Then, leaving the past entirely out of the question, I think that this is a matter for the present. The right hon. Gentleman has made it quite clear that this is a Bill to enable the present inhabitants of Lurgan to obtain gas without the ratepayers being overcharged for it, and I think that my hon. Friend might have mentioned that the urban council have expressed themselves perfectly as willing that their present employés should join any union they wish, either that which the hon. Member represents or any other union, and that they are perfectly prepared to recognise that union. I think that that possibly removes a great deal of the sting out of what he said about this urban council being so anxious to abuse their position, and so determined to refuse proper consideration to the men whom they employ. On the general question of the Bill I am sure, without being controversial, or disagreeing with the Labour party on the subject, that it must be the general opinion of the House that the Bill is a necessary one in order to enable the inhabitants of this town to get light at a proper charge. It is brought in to remove an injustice. Incidentally, I think that my right hon. Friend might have referred to the fact that this Bill does not concern Lurgan only, but that it refers to two other towns as well. Therefore, I support his appeal to the hon. Member not to proceed with the Motion.


I desire to support the Motion put down by my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow. I regret very much the attitude taken up by the Chief Secretary. He has stated that it is not the Members of the Lurgan Council who, in all probability, would suffer if this Amendment were carried, but the poor ratepayers of the town. If that is the position, then the ratepayers of the Lurgan district require to deal with the members of the urban council. The members of the council have dealt with their employés in a very arbitrary fashion. The hon. Member who has just sat down gave, as among the reasons why my hon. Friend should not persist in his Motion, that this matter was six or seven months old. Suppose that it is, or that it is older than that, that means simply that the men who originally had the dispute with the members of the Lurgan Council have been kept out of their employment for all that time, and that others who have been employed to take the places of the men who came out on strike have been paid higher wages over that time. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend, this dispute commenced without any negotiation whatever taking place between the parties. The workmen applied for an advance of 6s. per week in their wages. To that request the council made no reply. Later on they again approached the council through the union, and the officials of the union were informed that the council had no dispute with the workmen. When the men's union applied for arbitration, and the arbiter was appointed, the members of the council refused to take part in the arbitration on the ground that they were not under the Ministry of Munitions.

9.0 p.m.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow pointed out, it is very difficult to get a parallel case to this throughout the length and breadth of Great Britain. During three and a half years of stress and strain employers and employed have been doing the best they can to avoid trouble. I would point out, further, in reply to the hon. and gallant Gentleman, who said that this dispute is six or seven months old, that it is not so old as he would endeavour to get the House to believe. The Lurgan Urban Council became aware that this Provisional Order Bill was likely to be blocked in the fashion in which that has been done, and they got into communication with the men's union. They for the first time got into real negotiation. Up till then, evidently, they had believed that they had the whip hand, and little or no legal negotiation took place. But when this Provisional Order was going to be passed they got into real communication with the men's union, and an attempt was made to settle the dispute. If a reasonable settlement had been come to, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow would have been delighted to withdraw his opposition to this Bill. What were the terms when the parties got to real negotiation? I want the Chief Secretary to note this particularly. First, it was claimed that there must be a recognition of the men's union. That was a demand which all employers in the country were quite prepared to accept, and I think any public body should be a standing example to private employers. Employers in this country are prepared to recognise the men's unions. The second thing the representatives of the men claimed was the reinstatement of the workers who came out on strike. I think that was only asking for bare justice from the members of the Lurgan District Council. If there was a dispute, and undoubtedly there was a dispute between the members of the council and the men who left work six or seven months ago, in the favourable atmosphere created for the settlement of this dispute. Settlement could only have been accomplished by the reinstatement of the men who had the original dispute with the council. In making such a claim the workmen involved were not making a claim which is not generally made by workmen in similar circumstances all over the country. Wherever there has been a dispute in any part of our industrial system one of the first terms of settlement is almost sure to be the reinstatement of the workmen with whom the original dispute began. The first point that was suggested in the terms of settlement by the men was the claim for increased wages or a joint reference. I want the Chief Secretary to note this point. The representatives of the council were prepared to accept a request to recognise the Workers' Union, but claimed that paragraphs B and C of the claim were not valid owing to the lapse of time and the change of circumstances, or, in other words, they were not prepared to reinstate the men originally involved in the dispute, neither were they prepared to settle the claim by giving their men the increase requested, or to refer the matter to arbitration. What hope is there, if that is the answer of the district council, and should we remove the block from this Bill and let it pass, that the members of the council will be prepared to act on the suggestion and accept the good offices of the Chief Secretary, by putting the whole question to arbitration? They have already refused arbitration, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow will persist in his Motion until they are prepared to refer the whole dispute to arbitration. If the members of the council say they are prepared to do so, nobody will be readier than I to advise my hon. Friend to withdraw his opposition to the Bill. I do not think that opposition should be withdrawn until the members of the council are prepared to agree to the dispute being referred to arbitration. I do not think that Members of this House are entitled to agree to the passing of this Bill until they get such a promise. If any public company or any employer comes to this House to get certain powers delegated to them, then I think it is the duty of this House to see that those powers are delegated to them under proper conditions, and proper conditions cannot be obtained unless the employés of either public companies or private firms are given fair and reasonable conditions and fair and reasonable wages. I hope that the House will refuse the powers asked for, and will refuse the Second Reading of this Bill until we have a satisfactory settlement of the point in dispute.


As a rule a Member representing a Scottish constituency seldom takes any part in a discussion of this kind affecting an Irish matter, but I confess that the hon. Members who have raised this subject are entitled to the gratitude of the House as a whole for having done so. We know that we are shortly to have a large number of Bills promoted by other gas companies, and I may state that I am interested in matters which have led me to make a special study of the labour conditions which obtain in gasworks, and notably the present system which was initiated by the late Sir George Livesey some years ago in connection with the Metropolitan Gas Company. My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow, who is known among Members in the House as a fair-minded man, has given us a statement of the facts, and I must say, after listening to him, that I have arrived at the conclusion that a council in Ireland which behaves in this way behaves in a most abominable and unreasonable way. If I were satisfied that pains and penalties would fall on the council if this House turned this Bill down, I would take care that the Bill was turned out of doors without further delay. No real defence has been suggested. While my hon. and gallant Friend did his best for the council and spoke very reasonably, I do not think he made out very much of a case for them. I should like to ask the Chief Secretary if he will tell us what evil effects will really happen if this Bill is turned out. Will it be possible for this council in Ireland to come forward after a short interval, in the meantime having put its house in order, and ask for these powers again? If that could be done without evil effects, I see no reason why it should not be done. If the House had the power to take steps which would ensure without further delay that a more reasonable temper should prevail amongst the members of this board, I think it would be well advised to take them. I do not know that it would be justifiable to block the Bill if the Chief Secretary says that in his judgment the Bill ought to be passed, and that he believes that he will succeed in his efforts to bring about a better state of things, but unless he will take the responsibility of saying something of that kind, all I can say is that I think it would serve the members of this board right if their Bill were turned oat of doors.


May I make a suggestion to the right hon. Gentleman? If the Bill is passed on Second Beading to-night it will go to a Committee. Will he give a pledge that between now and the Report of that Committee he will do his utmost to induce the Lurgan Council to agree to arbitrate? I recognise that there is some force in what the hon. Gentleman opposite said that this is an old story, but it is not an old story so far as the men who are discharged are concerned. They feel that an injustice has been done them, and if the right hon. Gentleman will give a promise that he will bring all the pressure to bear that he possibly can on the Lurgan Council with the object of effecting a settlement of the dispute, I think my hon. Friend might not carry his Motion to a Division. The attitude of this Council during the last two months, and previous to that even, has been such that personally I feel inclined to take advantage of every possible opportunity of blocking the Bill, in spite of the fact that many persons may have to pay more for their gas, and it might not be a bad thing to teach the council a lesson through the ratepayers, who might take it into their heads that the men they have elected to represent them on the council were really not competent to represent them intelligently. That being so, if the right hon. Gentleman will agree to bring all the pressure he can to bear on this council to come to a settlement on fair terms, I would suggest to my hon. Friend that he should not press the Amendment to a Division.


It is not possible for me to promise to-night to bring all the pressure I can to bear on the council to go to arbitration. What I can promise to do is to hear what they have got to say, and if they have got no fair explanation, then I will bring all the pressure I can upon them to go to arbitration.


The right hon. Gentleman's predecessor made all inquiries into the matter, and if he looks in the pigeonholes he will find all the information he requires.


I cannot pledge myself to form an opinion in any case unless I hear both sides of the case, but I am prepared to ask the council what they have got to say, and if I think my hon. Friend's case is substantially accurate I am prepared to press them to the extent that I can to go to arbitration.


At any rate the Chief Secretary can put the House in possession of his report when we come to the Third Reading, and whatever be the result of his investigations the House will be a little clearer. I understand there are two other places mentioned besides Lurgan, and I think it would not be right to hit two inoffensive places. It is quite clear that this Lurgan authority have got no defender. The hon. and gallant Member who spoke is quite capable of speaking at the right time and of keeping his own counsel when necessary, and I think his silence on most of the indictment is very eloquent indeed. It is quite clear that this is really an atrocious case, which could not occur, I believe, in this country and not in very many places in Ireland. But at any rate the Chief Secretary, I think, might undertake that the result of his inquiries shall be made known to this House before we finally pass the Bill into law.

Amendment negatived.

Bill accordingly read a second time, and committed.