HC Deb 11 April 1921 vol 140 cc763-8

Order for Consideration of His Majesty's Most Gracious Message [8th April] read.


read His Majesty's Message, which was as followeth: George R. I. The present state, of public affairs and the threatened dislocation of the life of the community occasioned by the existing strike in the coalmines, and its threatened extension to the railway and transport services of the country, constituting in the opinion of His Majesty a state of great emergency within the meaning of the Acts of Parliament in that behalf, His Majesty deems it proper to provide additional means for the Naval, Military, and Air Force Services, and, therefore, in pursuance of those Acts, His Majesty has thought it right to communicate to the House of Commons that His Majesty is, by Proclamation, about to order that the Volunteers under the Naval Reserve Act, 1900, who belong to Class B of the Royal Fleet Reserve, the Army Reserve, and the Air Force Reserve, shall be called into actual service or called out on permanent service, as the case may be, and that soldiers and airmen who would otherwise be entitled in pursuance of the terms of their enlistment to be transferred to the Reserve shall continue in Army or Air Force Service, as the case may be, for such period, not exceeding the period for which they might be required to serve if they were transferred to the Reserve and called out for permanent service, as to His Majesty may seem expedient.

Mr. CHAMBERLAIN (Leader of the House)

I beg to move: That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, thanking His Majesty for his Most Gracious Message communicating to this House His Majesty's intentions with respect to the Reserve Forces. 4.0 P.M.

There are two preliminary observations that I wish to make. In the first place, I have to express the Prime Minister's regret that he cannot himself be present at this moment in the House. It is the desire of the parties to the Conference in the coal dispute that he should take the Chair at the Conference, at any rate, in its preliminary stage, and it is in order that he may conform to that wish of those principally concerned that he has felt it necessary to absent himself at this moment from the Sitting of the House. The other observation that I wish to make is that this Motion has no operative force and is indeed not required. Sometimes a similar Motion has been made, sometimes it has not been made, and there was no necessity for the Government to give notice of such a Motion to-day except their desire to meet the convenience and wish of the House, and to afford the House an opportunity of discussion at their meeting to-day, should the circumstances be such as in the opinion of the House rendered a discussion necessary or desirable in the public interest. I think that the House will desire that I should briefly acquaint it with the present situation of affairs, but unless the House wishes to continue the discussion now, and I hope it may not think it necessary, I shall gladly accept a Motion from any quarter of the House for an immediate adjournment of the discussion, which we can resume if at any time it appears desirable that the House should do so.

With these preliminary observations, I would report to the House, as indeed hon. Members already know, that in consequence of prolonged and sometimes anxious negotiations carried on on Saturday it was agreed late on Saturday night that the Government should summon a Conference to meet at the Board of Trade this morning to discuss all questions in dispute between the parties in the coal industry, and that same night the Miners' Federation should issue notices to branches of the Federation urging their members to abstain from all action which would interfere with the measures necessary for securing the safety of the mines, or would necessitate the use of force by the Government. Those instructions were issued by the Miners' Federation, and the Conference was summoned by the Government. The Conference sat this morning. On the whole, and speaking broadly, the instructions issued by the Miners' Federation have, I think, been accepted and followed in the different districts. Difficulties had arisen in some districts, not wholly, I believe, on one side, but those difficulties were at once dealt with in the most amicable spirit by the Conference, each side issuing, wherever it was required, the instructions necessary to remove all doubt and prevent the continuance of the difficulties. The Conference adjourned till four o'clock this afternoon, and is resuming its sitting, I suppose, at this hour. I venture to think that even those who doubt whether the Government were right in insisting that some means should be found for securing the safety of the mines before summoning a Conference for the free discussion of every question in dispute will feel relieved that the safety of the mines was so secured, and that accordingly when the Conference met it met in an atmosphere unprejudiced by that particular difficulty, and that the matters to which I have alluded could be settled at once with the friendly concurrence of both sides of the Conference without any impediment from any other cause.

The right atmosphere was achieved for the meeting of the Conference, and I earnestly trust that, having that, it will not fail to reach a settlement which safeguards the vital interests of the country and which is honourable and satisfactory to both sides in the dispute; but I am bound to tell the House that we are not at the end of our difficulties. Nobody is to blame for the difficulties, not the Government and not either of the parties to the dispute, but those difficulties are immense. Lot me try and present to the House in almost a single sentence a measure of the difficulties with which the two sides to this dispute, given all the good will in the world, are yet confronted before they can arrive at a settlement. Before the slump the export price of coal, free on board, was 89s. 9d.; the corresponding price to-day is 43s. 3d., a drop of 46s. The position therefore is that suddenly, or comparatively suddenly, an impoverished trade is required to find a new basis for wages, to adjust under circumstances of, I think, quite unparalleled difficulty, the wages throughout the whole of their industry. The negotiations under those circumstances must, I fear, take considerable time. They will be fraught with great difficulty, and we must not flatter ourselves for a moment that we are out of danger. Here I must just say that another element enters into the situation. I am not now speaking of the leaders, the trusted leaders, of industry in this country, I am not speaking of the great unions of the workmen, but everybody knows that outside of them or alongside of them there are other elements in the population who have not the same interests, who do not act with the same sense of responsibility, and who are not unready to seize any opportunity which they think suitable for the propagation of their aims, their ulterior aims, as far removed from those of the recognised leaders of trade unionism as they are from the aims of the Government itself. It must be remembered that the threat of an extension of the dispute to the whole transport industry of the country is suspended, but it is not withdrawn. We were plainly warned of that, and the country should have the warning as well as the Government. It is necessary, therefore, that we should pursue the precautionary measures on which we have already acted, and it is vital that the community should show that in the last resort, if its life and existence are attacked, it has the capacity and the will to protect itself.


That is right, get on to provocative language as soon as you can.


Get on with the challenge.


"Another Government blunder," and "This is your lead off in your new office."


I have been most anxious to avoid any language of a provocative character. I hope that when I read my words reported in the Press, I shall not find that I have used an epithet or a phrase that needlessly provokes passion or opposition, but I speak or behalf of His Majesty's Government under a great sense of responsibility, and when I said that the threat of an extension of the strike was suspended—


It is a lock-out.


I withdraw the word "strike" at once. When I said that a threat of the extension of the dispute was suspended but not withdrawn hon. Gentlemen opposite confirmed my words. It was a warning from them to the Government. I did not take it as a threat. I did not resent it. I did not accuse them of provocation. They thought it right to address a warning to us. We feel it our duty to address a warning to the country. I will not add another word. I am most anxious that the Conference which is sitting should sit in the most favourable atmosphere. I am most anxious that nothing should be said in this House of all places to make it difficult for the parties to meet with goodwill and for them to arrive at a friendly and an honourable settlement. Less than what I have said I do not think it was compatible with my duty to, say; more than is absolutely necessary, I am sure it would be unwise to say, and therefore I make the Motion which I read at the commencement of my speech, and, as I say, I will gladly accept, if that be the wish of the House, an adjournment of any further discussion to a more favourable opportunity.


I beg to move "That the Debate be now adjourned."

On Friday I thought fit to express an opinion upon the action of the Government as announced on that day. I am not going to repeat that opinion. The right hon. Gentleman came perilously near the controversial line which I am hopeful that all of us will avoid and therefore I am not going to say a single word further upon the terms which the right hon. Gentleman used in the statement to which we have just listened. I am sure what he wants for the moment is what all of us in the House desire, namely, that so far as this House can make a contribution towards assisting the negotiations to attain success and to secure peace, this House shall do it. I think it can best do it by not proceeding to discuss the Message which you, Sir, have read from the Chair.


I will not say one controversial thing. I want to ask the Leader of the House what provision, if any, has been made or will be made for the wives and dependants of those reservists who have been called up, as in many cases great distress already exists and will exist before the week is out if no immediate relief is granted in many of these cases. Some of us intimately know cases of distress occurring at the moment, and I want to ask earnestly, without interfering one iota in the discussion of this question, what provision, if any, is to be made for these people in these unhappy circumstances.


I cannot give a detailed reply, but the hon. Member shall certainly have such a reply if he will ask a question to-morrow. Provision has been made for the payment of separation allowances and I am assured there is no reason to anticipate suffering from the calling up of the reserves.


I will put a question down to-morrow.

Question "That the Debate be now adjourned" put, and agreed to.

Debate to be resumed To-morrow.

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