§ Mr. BONAR LAW (Leader of the House)
I am sorry to have tointerrupt the speech of my right hon. Friend, but as I indicated at Question Time, I hoped to be in a position to make some statement on the Labour situation, and the House will recognise the seriousness of that situation, and the necessity of making a statement as soon as possible. I should like here to claim the indulgence of the House for this reason: it is obvious, as I have only had the Reports for a very short time, that my statement must be 2342 less complete than I should desire. There are, as theHouse well knows, three directions in which at the present moment Labour trouble is threatening. First, there are the transport workers. With regard to them I can only say this, that under the direction and the initiative of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour (Sir R. Horne), negotiations have been going on for some time between the employers and the men. The offers of the employers to the men seemed to the Minister of Labour and to myself to be reasonable, and I have good reason to hope that theyare not unacceptable to the men. As regards the railways, negotiations are also going on at this moment. I had hoped to be able to give to the House now a clear statement of what the demands of the men are, what they mean in money, and in the same way whatthe offer of the Government is. It is not possible for me to do that now, though I hope that a statement may be issued in time to appear in the papers to-morrow morning which will convey the position quite fully to the public. Meantime, however, I think it right to say that the Government have made this definite proposal: that the wages of the railway workers—and by wages I mean not only the fixed pre-war wage but the war bonus—will be retained at their present level until the end of the current year. In addition to that, the men have pressed particular demands, which I cannot discuss now, which will involve an additional expenditure which it is impossible to estimate, but it will be considerable. I cannot give any estimate that is more than aguess, but I think that it is perhaps right that I should give to the House some indication of the guess, and it is nothing more, which has been put before us by those who are responsible for these negotiations. It may be a sum of something over £10,000,000. I would point out to the House that, in the present position of the railways, that is a very serious thing. As indicated when the Ways and Communications Bill was under discussion, some addition to the railway rates is in any case inevitable, and it must be obvious to the House, and to the public, that these additional concessions will probably have the result of making that increase even larger than it otherwise would be. I think it right that not only Members of this House, but the public generally, and railwaymen in particular, should realise to what extent we have gone in endeavouring to meet the claims that have been put forward.
2343 Now I come to the Coal Commission Report. Three Reports have been presented, and will be available to Members in the Vote Office when I sit down. The first of these to which I will refer is the Report of the miners'representatives, which has also been signed by the three gentlemen who were put on specially to represent Labour. I need not now go in detail into that Report. I think it is sufficient to say that it recommends the granting of the full demands of the miners, including nationalisation. A second Report has been issued by the representatives of the coal owners. They report that wages should be increasedat once to the extent of 1s. 6d. per day, and that the hours of labour should be reduced from eight, at which they now stand, to seven. There is, in addition to these two Reports, the Report of Mr. Justice Sankey, which has also been signed by the three representatives of the employers who are not concerned with the coal industry and it is to that Report that I shall refer in some detail. In the first case this Report recommends that there should be an immediate advance in wages of 2s. per day, which is, itis perhaps as well to say, two-thirds of the full demand made by the men. As regards hours, this Report recommends that there should be an immediate reduction, that is assuming the necessary arrangements can be made—the date is fixed at the 16th ofJuly—to seven hours. But in addition it recommends that two years after that date there should be a further reduction to six hours, but that is qualified by the recognition of the necessity for some examination at the end of 1920 as to what the position of the coal industry is. I think perhaps that it is right that I should read the exact words of this recommendation:We recommend that the Coal Mines Regulation Act, 1908, commonly called the Eight Hours Act, be amended by the substitution in the Clauses, limiting the hours of work underground, of the word 'seven' for the word 'eight'as from July 16th, 1919, and, subject to the economic position of the industry at the end of 1920, by the substitution of the word 'six' for the word 'eight' as and from July 13th, 1921. Certain adjustments must be made as to hours and classes of under ground workers specifically mentioned.And in regard to the proposal that the hours should be reduced to six in 1920 the Report gives the reason for coming to this eonclusion in these words:The reason for recommending the further reduction in July, 1921, is that we think we are 2344 justified in assuming that in two years the output would have reached, by the united efforts of all concerned, the amount of coal raised in 1913, namely, 287,000,000 tons.As regards the cost of the Committee's recommendations, I think it right to give the estimate given in the Report. The additional cost for the current year is put at £43,000,000, but it is part of the proposal in this Report that the profits of the coal masters should be limited to 1s. 2d. per ton, and it is estimated that the difference between the limit of profit and the profits which under present circumstances might be obtained is £39,000,000, but againstthat the Report recognises that there must be a fall in the value of the coal for export which will take away £9,000,000, and on that basis £30,000,000 will be got and there will remain £13,000,000 as an additional burden. But it is right to point out to the House, what is evident to those who are giving thought to this subject, that the £30,000,000 which is to be deducted from the whole £43,000,000 is not, as might be assumed, simply taken from the profits of the coal masters and given to the miners. On the contrary, under the Excess Profits Acts a very large part of it, very much more than half of it, comes to the State. Therefore, in estimating the amount offered to the miners under this Report, we must take into account not merely the £13,000,000, but a very large part of the £30,000,000 as being directly paid by the taxpayers of this country.
The next point to which I shall refer in this Report is the question of nationalisation. The Report does not recommend nationalisation, but I think it right to read the exact words dealing with this subject which are in the Report.Even from the evidence already given the present system of ownership and working in the coal industry stands condemned, and some other system must be substituted for it, either nationalisation or a method of unification by national purchase, and, or, joint control. To some of our colleagues, whose opinion we greatly value, nationalisation has been the study or ambition of a lifetime, and they are prepared at once to report in its favour. We understand that to others, whose opinion we equally value, some scheme of joint control appears to be the solution of the problem. No detailed scheme for nationalisation has as yet been submitted to the Commission, nor has any scheme for joint control been placed before it. No sufficient evidence has as yet been taken and no sufficient criticism has as yet been made to show where nationalisation or a method of unification by national purchase and, or, by joint control is best in the interests of the country, of the export trade, of the workers and the owners. We are not prepared to report one way or the other now on evidence which is at present insufficient, and 2345 after a time which is wholly inadequate, nor are we prepared to give now a momentous decision upon a point which interests every citizen of this country, nor, as appears from the report above referred to did our Chairman ever pledge himself to do so.As the House knows, Mr. Justice Sankey gave a promise to the Prime Minister that he would report on hours and wages on the 20th of this month. He has kept his promise. At the same time he made it perfectly plain that in his view it was quite impossible to report in such a time on the subject of nationalisation. That view was, I thought at the time and I still think, recognised as inevitable by the country, by the House of Commons, and, indeed, by the Labour representatives when the discussion took place. It seemed indeed to me, and I am sure the House will agree, that no Government, no party, and no House of Commons should take a decision so momentous, and which affects vitally the life of the whole community without proper examination. On the other hand, I have had a long conversation with Mr. Justice Sankey this afternoon. He is prepared and has given me a similar pledge to that which he gave to the Prime Minister, to this effect, that if the Commission is allowed to continue its work he will undertake to report on the principle of nationalisation bythe 20th May. Now the problem—it is one which leaders of the miners have to decide—is whether or not, so far as this aspect of the question is concerned, they will wait a time which in the view of everyone must appear not only reasonable but remarkably short, or whether they will insist on the decision now, when it is obvious to everyone no decision can be taken except by those who have entirely prejudged the question.
But this is not the full Report of Mr. Justice Sankey and those of his colleagues who have signed it. It is a very ambitious Report. I think it is a very statesmanlike Report. It proposes, if the Commission is allowed to continue, to deal one by one with all the problems of economy and improvement in connection with the coal industry. I will mention some of the problems as they are specified in the Report. Housing. With regard to that I may say that this Report, without making any definite recommendation, urges that full and careful consideration should be given to the suggestion that one penny per ton on all coal extracted should 2346 be used for the purpose of improving housing in the mining districts, and that is one of the problems which this Commission seeks permission to deal with. Among the others are baths at the pit head, clearance, continuity of transport from the colliery, reduction of voluntary absenteeism, the use of machinery in mines, pooling of wagons, elimination of unnecessary distribution costs and uniformity of contracts. If this Commission is allowed to continue, what is proposed is that it should from time to time issue interim Reports dealing with all these questions, and that these should be not merely reports, but that the proposals should at once be put into action. That is the suggestion. It involves thecontinuance of the Coal Control for a certain length of time—probably two years, for in no other way could these interim Reports be tried, and in addition the continuance of the Coal Control is necessary for this reason, that if the proper output from all mines is to be obtained it may be necessary to put in improvements, such as coal cutting machinery, which would be possible under this arrangement since the whole coal trade is treated as a unit, but for which it might be impossible to obtain the capital if left in ordinary circumstances.
This proposal, as I have said, is a very ambitious one. In regard to this whole Report we have had it discussed at the Cabinet this afternoon, and I say now on behalf of the Government that we are prepared to adopt the Report in the spirit as well as in the letter, and to take out all the necessary steps to carry out its recommendations without delay. I submit to the House that there never has been so good an opportunity of all these problems being considered and dealt with, with a view of having the trials judged by experience and the total results focussed in a Bill before control comes to an end—there never has been such an opportunity for real progress being made in connection with the coal industry. But the House must see that that does not now depend on the Government. We have said that we will adopt this Report so far as we are concerned. But if strikes take place, of course the Commission inevitably comes to an end; it is quite obvious it cannot go on sitting under such circumstances. I am sure of this, that the miners' leaders never had and will never again have such a good opportunity of 2347 having all their problems, including nationalisation, considered by a Commission which has shown itself very sympathetic to the miners'demands. They will never have such an opportunity again, and if they reject it, it will be, I believe, the greatest mistake which has ever been made by the leaders of a great industry and by men who, in my belief, have the interests of the men at heart. That is all that I intend to say on the subject. But before I sit down there is something else which I must say as regards nationalisation. I am sure there is no one in the House, and I feel certain the miners'leaders themselves will recognise it, who could maintain that such a subject as this, which does not affect a particular trade alone but which affects the whole life of the nation, is a subject which can never be decided by any section, however important it may be, of the nation, but must be decided by the Parliament which represents the community. I wish to say, further, that the Government has shown a desire to go to the utmost limits, to take the greatest risks, risks of experiments which I have indicated, as well as on the question of wages—they have shown their determination to go to the utmost limits which they believe are possible in order to meet the demands of the men at this time. But this, if the strike comes, will not be like an ordinary strike; it will not bea strike of wage-earners against their employers. In the case, both of the railways and the coal mines, the employers under present conditions are the State. It would, if it comes, be a strike against the community. The Government have gone all lengths toavoid such a calamity. If such a strike comes the Government—and no Government could do otherwise—will use all the resources of the State without the smallest hesitation—
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I am sure hon. Gentlemen opposite feel the seriousness of the situation, and they will recognise that I am dealing with it in a serious spirit.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
We shall, and no Government could do otherwise, use all the resources of the State to win, and to win quickly. This is not a threat. I am sure my right hon. Friend recognises that.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
No Government could possibly do otherwise. If in a strike between any section, however important and however much sympathy we may have with it—between any section and the community as a whole, of which the Government is representative—if such a struggle comes it can have only one end or there is an end of government in this country.