Mr. TREVELYAN THOMSON
I wish to raise another question. At Question Time I put a question to the Prime Minister with regard to the interpretation of the agreement between the National Fderation of Builders and the employés. At Question time the Chancellor of the Exchequer told me that he did not consider the interpretation of that agreement was a matter which concerned the Government.
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr. James Hope)
I would ask the hon. Member how he connects this matter with any Department of the Civil Service?
With the Ministry of Labour. In connection with the dispute, the Minister of Labour said negotiations had broken down. It is not the interest of one side or the other, but the interest of the public as a whole which will be affected in the most disastrous way if the negotiations are not resumed. It is somewhat ironical that to-day the Government have produced their Housing Bill for the provision of hundreds of thousands of houses, and that we should be on the verge of one of the most disastrous disputes which has taken place in the building trade.
§ Sir HENRY CRAIK
May I ask whether this is in order on a question dealing with the pay of civil servants, and that a Committee should be appointed to enter into their cases?
I understood the Minister of Labour to say that these negotiations had broken down. The question I put was whether the Government would not consult the Law Officers as to the interpretation of this agreement, particularly of Clause 18, which provides that, before there shall be any cessation of work, six months' notice shall be given by either side to terminate the agreement. I submit it is important in the interests of the community, particularly of the hundreds of thousands who are homeless and whose opportunity of getting houses will be removed should this disastrous strike take place. This is the last opportunity the House will have of raising the question before this unfortunate calamity occurs. I ask the Minister of Labour to waive any scruples he has with regard to seeking the opinion of the Law Officers and that he should ask them to tell the House what their interpretation of this agreement is, because I cannot help feeling that the influence of public opinion would be so great; that it would be a determining influence in a settlement. A leading jurist—Lord Buckmaster—has said there was a distinct breach of the agreement. If we could have guidance from the Government, as advised by the Law Officers, I cannot but feel that the employers would have to hold their hands until this particular point had beer settled. Time is everything on an occasion of this sort, and I appeal to the Minister to consult the Law Officers of the Crown.
§ Sir PHILIP PILDITCH
Before the Minister of Labour replies to that question, I have been wondering whether the hon. Member who has just spoken is aware of the fact that the question he refers to, the interpretation of the alleged agreement—
§ Sir P. PILDITCH
Very well, the agreement—and what arises out of it, is 1362 now under negotiation between the parties as to its being referred to arbitration. It seems most undesirable that the Government should make itself a party at this moment to this dispute, which looks as if it were to be a subject for amicable settlement, by calling in the Law Officers. They could—and I speak with all respect for their admitted eminence—only give an opinion, which would not have the effect of an adjudication and settle the question, which is what is wanted. The Government would be wise in the interests of the community and the parties to keep out of the matter, except by way of facilitating the bringing of the parties together.
§ Mr. AMMON
I want to put one point to the Ministry of Labour in regard to the building schemes of the London County Council. There are certain contracts which have been entered into between the builders and the London County Council. If the notices are handed in by the builders and the employés are locked out, there will be a breach of contract. I want to ask the Minister of Labour whether or not the builders will be held liable and will have to suffer the usual penalty for breach I want to put it to the Minister of Labour that if the position were reversed and if there were a strike, there would be some serious charges made to his Department about the action of the trade unions if they acted in this way.
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER
I do not see how this can be a matter for the Ministry of Labour. It is a matter for the County Council.
§ Mr. J. JONES
As one interested in this question, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman what is the position of the Government in connection with Government contracts? It must be understood that the Government are probably the largest employers of the building trade indirectly and directly. A large number of the greatest building contractors in the country are carrying out work permanently on behalf of the Government. We have entered into an agreement saying that, if a dispute arises between the parties, it shall be referred to the Wages and Conditions Council and, 1363 if they fail to agree, the matter is to go to arbitration. So far as the question in dispute is concerned, there is practically no question of arbitration except on the lines that the employers say must be agreed to before there is arbitration. The workmen have agreed to arbitration on certain definite questions. The question that now arises is the legality of the agreement, and whether it means what it says. When the War was on and we could have done as we liked because the employés in the building trade could have demanded any wages they liked, we simply entered into an agreement. Now they tell us that that agreement was based on cost of living, and that wages automatically go down.
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER
The only matter to which the hon. Gentleman can refer is what the Government might or ought to have done in this matter. It is not in order to go into the merits of the dispute.
§ Mr. JONES
I am sorry if I made a mistake. I only wanted to find out the basis of the dispute. What I think the Government should do, as the largest employers of the building industry, is to get a decision as to what this agreement really means. The men stop work at 12 o'clock on Saturday, and the Government work on which these men are engaged will stop. We have a right to ask that the representatives of the Government should be able to give an interpretation of the agreement. We are entitled to six months' notice, but we are getting no notice at all, practically speaking. We are entitled to ask that the Government, in their own interest, shall see that their own work will not stop. We are out to fight this to the hitter end. If we are to be locked out, we are to find out where we stand. Those of us who are workers in the building trade claim that there is no clause in the contract which allows an employer to break away from a contract legally entered into merely at his own dictation. We have surrendered all that we have been able to surrender in the matter of wages. We have tried to make a compromise which they have refused to accept. Therefore, I hope it will be possible to submit this matter of interpretation of the agreement to the proper authorities and give us the decision.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
I am very glad that my hon. Friend the Member for West Middlesbrough (Mr. T. Thomson) should have raised this matter. There can be no question in any part of the House as to its urgency. As the hon. Member for Silvertown (Mr. J. Jones) has just pointed out, the sands are running out. Two days from now, on Saturday next, these notices will expire, and this is the last opportunity upon which this matter can be raised in the House of Commons. If it had not been raised on the present Motion, there would have been no opportunity for hon. Members in this House to express an opinion on the subject, or to have elicited a statement from His Majesty's Ministers. I think that in this matter the Ministry of Labour can be charged with culpable delay. It is a great misfortune that, an issue of this kind having been raised, the Ministry itself should not have done something to reach a. settlement. There are in this matter, as it seems to me, two questions. I am not going to deal with the merits of those questions, or express any opinion upon them. There is, however, in the first place, the question as to the agreement, and as to whether the notices now given are a breach of an agreement which exists at the present time between the employers and the employed in the building trade, and which, therefore, still continues for a further six months. That is a perfectly simple question. It is a question which should he determined by judicial arbitration. It is really a matter of interpretation, and in these circumstances I cannot understand why, before this time, that clear and definite matter of interpretation has not been submitted to judicial arbitration.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
Of course, I have some hesitation in disputing any statement made by the hon. Member opposite, who is conversant with the employers' side of the case.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
I admit the hon. Member's special authority and title to speak on this question, but I would point out to the House and to the Government that, for some time past, there has been a willingness on the part of the men to have this question settled by judicial arbitration, and, if both sides are agreed that it should be settled by judicial arbitration, why should it have waited till last night or even till to-day? If, as it is contended, the agreement still continues for another six months, then any attempt to vary the terms of the agreement in relation to wages during that six months is a breach of the agreement, and in those circumstances I seriously suggest that, once you have settled the interpretation, the whole matter will be concluded. I do not want to express an opinion upon the interpretation of the agreement, hut, although the hon. Gentleman opposite is, of course, better acquainted than I am with the actual progress of the dispute, and with many of the other issues in that dispute, I think I might be better qualified than he to express an opinion on the legal interpretation of the agreement, and, so far as I have been able to read it, it seems to me that there is a clear case that this agreement continues for a further six months. An ex-Lord Chancellor, whose authority cannot be impeached, has also come to the same conclusion.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
Six months from March if that be the situation, it seems to me very strange that this dispute, which threatens a stoppage in the building trade, should have been allowed to reach its present stage. A Bill has been circulated to Members to-day. I am not going to deal with its terms, or discuss the policy in it but we all know what its object is, namely, to accelerate housing; and, while this House on Monday week is to devote its attention to that question, we are face to face with a dispute which, if it is allowed to go on unchecked, is going to stop all the operations which would be carried out under that Bill. That seems to me to be a most paradoxical situation. I regret very much that this dispute should have been allowed so to drag itself out that, even now, less than 48 hours before the notices expire, the parties are not yet in a position to come to a settlement. It should have been the duty of the Ministry of 1366 Labour to concentrate attention on this matter, which is susceptible of judicial decision, and had that been done I believe a settlement would ere this have been reached.
§ Major MORRISON-BELL
The hon. Gentleman who has just sat down has asked why this dispute should have been allowed to drag on so long, and should not have been settled before. I cannot help thinking that one of the reasons may possibly be that both sides are hoping that the Government will step in. During the last few years, and especially during the War, in nearly every industrial dispute the Government did step in, and generally patched up some compromise, some short cut, which very often did not really settle anything. The hon. Member has said that both sides are now ready to submit the matter to some legal arbitration. Surely it would be much better if that were allowed to continue, and that both sides should submit it to arbitration than that the Government should step in and, possibly, settle nothing, the controversy being simply closed for the moment, to break out another time. I think that that is a very likely reason, and I think it would be much better that the matter should go to legal arbitration.
§ Major MORRISON-BELL
Because they are waiting for the Government; because they hope to get something.
§ Mr. McENTEE
I am personally very glad to have an opportunity of speaking on this most important subject, and even now, at the last moment, I would make a special appeal to the Minister of Labour to do that which he has not done yet, namely, to use his personal influence and the influence of his Department to stop this calamity—because the dispute on the verge of which we now are cannot be considered as anything but a calamity to the nation. It is because I feel that very intensely, having been engaged in the building industry all my life, that I plead with the right hon. Gentleman to use the influence that his Department must possess. I do not want to enter into the merits of the dispute. The two sides have reached a stage when it appears to me that the differences between them are so small that it would be practically criminal to drive half a million men out on to the streets, and cause suffering to 1367 two millions or more of people as a consequence of such action. We claim to be a civilised nation, and when we have discussed, as these two differing parties have discussed, the differences between them, and when those differences have been reduced to a mere matter of petty detail, as is the case at the present time, it is in the interest of the nation that someone with some power or influence should try to prevent such criminal action as throwing these people out and ruining the building industry for, perhaps, a number of months to come. I put it to the Government that, even from the point of view of their own contracts, it is in the interests of this House and of the Government to see that no stoppage on those contracts takes place.
What, after all, are the matters in dispute 1 Reference has been made to one, the agreement itself. If I were asked for my view on that agreement I should give it, but I do not want to give it, because it might be considered to be a prejudiced view. Personally, I think there can be no question about the interpretation of the agreement that has been signed by both sides, but there is a different view. The employers put forward the opposite view to that, and, although I do not agree with it and cannot accept their view, I think, seeing that there is another view besides the view that I and others hold, surely it is a question for arbitration. for decision by some body independent of the two disputing parties. It has been suggested that three eminent lawyers, whose names have been mentioned, should act as interpreters of the meaning of this agreement, but that, apparently, has not been accepted up to the present. I suggest that the Minister himself might go to the contending parties and offer them an-ether alternative—the arbitration of the responsible legal authorities of the Crown. Surely, if there is any desire at all to settle the matter, that offer' would be accepted. I understand from the Press this morning that the men have been prepared to go even further, and say that the question of wages, under certain conditions, may also be submitted to arbitration. That might be a matter for different arbitration, or, at least, for different arbitrators. It may not be considered wise to submit the question of wages, or anything but the working conditions of the building industry, to the 1368 Ministers of the Crown; but this is the one question upon which they above all others could probably give an opinion that would be acceptable to the nation and to the public generally, and the two contending parties might be compelled by the weight of public opinion to accept such arbitration if it were offered. Surely, it would be in the interests of this house and of the nation generally to make such an offer.
This question appears to me to be outside the actual interpretation of the agreement, and outside the question of whatever may result from arbitration if it be resorted to. It is a question of very much greater importance than that; it is a question of the future of the industry—whether the industry is going to continue as it has been for a long time past, as an industry in which there has been a very considerable amount of good will on either side. In proof of that, may I point out to the Minister of Labour that the men have actually forfeited that to which it was admitted they were entitled in wages? They have forfeited, on an average, 1½d. an hour, some time ago, rather than enter into any dispute. That, at any rate, showed their desire for peace and for continuing the good will that has existed in the industry in the past. If this good will breaks down now, if they are going to enter into a struggle now that will throw them on to the streets, that will probably mean starvation for many hundreds of thousands, it may be for two millions of people or even more: it will mean that bitterness will come into the industry again. At any rate, I feel it will mean that, whereas I have always been an advocate of peace and conciliation on matters in dispute, I cannot any longer advocate conciliation or peace because of the rejection of methods such as we are discussing at the present time. It cannot mean greater production to the employers in the future. If the industry is going to get a good production, it can only be obtained by that spirit of good will which has obtained in the building industry up to now, and if they break that spirit of good will, if they bring into the industry a spirit of strife and a desire for strife, it will be fatal to the industry itself.
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER
I fear the hon. Member is now going into the merits of the dispute and is not dealing with 1369 possible Government action, which is the only point before us.
§ Mr. McENTEE
I am sorry I offended. It was only because I feel so deeply on the matter. I appeal now to the Minister. I know he has been keeping in touch with both parties, but that is not quite enough. To keep in touch with them and to know what each side is doing will not carry us anywhere. If a definite suggestion was made by the Ministry themselves that the time has now arrived when the differences between the two contending parties are so small that they ought to accept the intervention of the Minister and agree to arbitration by the Law Officers of the Crown on this question of the agreement, I believe it would be accepted. I hope the Minister will do something more than merely watch the coining of a terrible calamity, especially in view of the fact that we are hoping almost immediately to get on with the building of houses for millions who are needing houses, and it is because I feel that if this thing comes it is going to lead to strife in the future, which will be a decided disadvantage to the industry itself as well as to the nation, that I am pleading that the Minister should do something more than simply look on and see the struggle come and perhaps be too late to do anything once it has come.
§ Sir J. SIMON
I should like to ask the Minister of Labour to give the House some assurance on this subject. I can quite understand that, with his heavy responsibilities and, no doubt, constant work on this subject, involving, it may be, interviews with representatives of both sides, he cannot make on the Floor of the House a complete declaration of rights and wrongs which might interfore with the negotiations. Everyone who has ever had anything to do with trying to settle a dispute understands that. At the carne time, I think the Minister must agree that, so far as the public know at present, the situation is a very remarkable one and the speech we have just heard, which was so moderate in tone and obviously came from a real knowledge of the subject, is one with which a great many people will sympathise. How does the matter stand? It is not disputed that this is one of the cases where there is a written agreement between the two sides. It is a printed document. I have had it in my hands. 1370 though I have never set to work to try to form a conclusion about it. That is not for me to do. It is not disputed that the agreement deals with the conditions under which rates of wages may be altered. It is an agreement between the employers on the one hand and the work-people on the other, which defines on what conditions rates of wages and things of that sort may be altered. There is a third point which is not disputed. It is not only an agreement between the two sides, it not only deals with the subject of the conditions upon which rates of wages may be altered, but it contains a Clause requiring a certain length of notice to be given. In view of the fact that the men on the one side are contending that their rights are not being safeguarded if they are treated as liable to receive notices without that period having elapsed, it undoubtedly becomes a very serious problem for the Ministry what help they can give in throwing light upon that contention and securing that justice is done. I do not doubt for a moment that the right hon. Gentleman has been doing his best about this, but his answer to-day, when he said he did not regard the question involved as one calling upon them to make use of the Law Officers, seemed almost to suggest that the Ministry on their side did not think it was an important element in the dispute that there is a written agreement containing terms which define when and how rates of wages may be altered, and that the matter really was to he disposed of on other lines and without regard to the bargains existing between the parties.
§ The MINISTER of LABOUR (Sir Montague Barlow)
I do not think the right hon. Gentleman is quite correct regarding the terms of my answer. I made no suggestion in the form of words that he used. I said the Government did not propose to submit it to the Law Officers.
§ Sir J. SIMON
I am glad to have the correction, because this is not a matter in which only one corner of the House is interested. We are on the eve of discussing the Housing Bill, and the hon. Member behind me was right when he said it is well within the topics that the House ought to discuss whether they can do anything at all to help in getting this matter settled. I am glad to hear from the Minister that we are not to understand that they regard the question of the 1371 meaning and the application of this agreement as unimportant. If it is admittedly an important and relevant question, we come to this. I have not formed any opinion about it myself, and I dare say the opinion would not be important if I had, but we all know that a very distinguished legal authority, an ex-Lord Chancellor, who usual y measures his language and his judgment in things of this sort very carefully, has thought it his duty to write to the public Press and say that as far as he can see, though, of course, there may be other facts which are not before him, there is here a very serious case on the side of those who contend that the agreement is in danger of being broken. I am quite willing to believe that the Government have better ways of dealing with this than by appealing to the Law Officers. I have no prejudice on that. I know the purpose to which they used to be put. They were always to be brought in to make speeches when no one else could be found to make them, and it may be this is a case where there are all sorts of colleagues of the right hon. Gentleman who are able and willing to offer the most competent assistance. I ask him to give the House such assurance as he can to show that this aspect of the matter, a very important aspect from the point of view of industry especially, that. whatever else is done, promises must be kept and promises are just as sacred on one side as on the other, is an aspect which the Ministry is pressing on all who are concerned, because if any other impression got abroad it would be a most injurious example for disputes which may arise in the future. I hope the Minister will be disposed to give us an assurance on this point. The Ministry, which may for all I know be conducting negotiations, cannot of course be expected by reasonable people to make a full and elaborate disclosure awarding blame and praise in terms which might possibly cause the breakdown of the very effort in which they are engaged, but I think we ought to have some assurance to show that the legality of this matter, the question whether a bargain is being broken or kept, is regarded as one of the governing considerations.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
The right hon. Gentleman said he thought it would not 1372 be advisable to discuss the merits of the situation because that might interfere with any negotiations which might go on. I thoroughly agree with him in that, and I do not propose to say a word as to whether one side is right and the other wrong or what the merits of the case are. But I should like to say a few words on the question of the intervention of the Government. Government intervention was started during the Coalition Government, in my opinion with disastrous results. I do not believe Government intervention in any case has really settled any dispute. [HON. MEMBERS: "The railway strike! "] You can always settle a dispute by giving way to one side, which is what the Government did in the railway strike. If the Government had not interfered in the railway strike, we should not have had all this outcry about dear railway rates. A great number of people on this side of the House and in the country have viewed with dismay the intervention of the Government in these disputes. It has nothing to do with the Government at all. The only real way to settle them is to allow the trade unions and the employers to settle the matter between them. It concerns them, it does not concern the Government, and the only result of there being an idea of their intervention is to encourage one party or the other to prolong the dispute in the hope that the intervention of the Government may result in their favour.
§ Mr. BUCHANAN
I hope the Government will take some action in what is agreed by all sides to be a very unfortunate dispute if it takes place. The issues involved are totally different from those in any previous dispute. At the close of the War, workmen and employers were told there was need first of all for peace in industry and for having agreements between the two sides and good-will on both sides. You can have no goodwill and no peace in industry if you are going to have the violation of an agreement either on one side or the other. If there is a dispute about the terms of an agreement, the best people to settle the exact meaning of the agreement are not the employers or the workmen but some legal authority who can read the document, apart from an ordinary person who may or may not be engaged in the dispute. The Government have a responsibility in the matter. Assuming that a dispute takes place, it cannot be con 1373 fined to the half million men engaged in the industry. Hardly will it have started before the Department will have tens of thousands of claims for unemployment benefit. Unemployment will be intensified and claims on the Department out of all knowledge of any of us here are likely to arise. If some legal authority or learned Judge could look into the terms of the agreement and give his decision one, way or the other, the force of public opinion would compel the employers or the workmen to accept that point of view. The last speaker said that the Government have only intervened where the effects have not been good for the country. Those who can go back to the engineering lock-out, where the Government did not intervene and they allowed the lock-out to take place, must be aware of the deplorable effects of that lock-out, which are still felt in the industry. If we look over all these strikes and disputes, and especially at the present time, we must agree that victory for either side means nothing. Supposing the employers win. All that they have is disgruntled workmen if the workmen win, the same thing will apply to the other side. I hope the whole question will be submitted, not to the workmen or the employers, but to any learned judge or any group of lawyers who may be chosen by the Minister, and. that he will ask them to go into the whole question of the agreement and give a decision which will be binding on both sides.
§ Mr. HOHLER
Like every other hon. Member, I should deplore a strike in the building trade or any difficulty in regard to it, but I do ask the Minister of Labour and the Government not to act as is proposed. On the one hand you have a. union of a number of builders, acting on behalf of the majority of builders, who have entered into an agreement, and on the other hand you have the trades unions who through their representatives, I doubt not properly advised, have entered into an agreement with the builders. There is one thing, at least, which everybody will realise, and that is that the parties so entering into an agreement must have had present to their minds the possibility of a dispute arising in respect of the agreement, however carefully drawn. In any commercial document the first thing you think of is, "How can we get this dispute settled?" and I doubt not 1374 that it was present to the minds of both parties in this case and that an arbitration clause was proposed. Probably it was not accepted. We all know full well from the history of trade movements that trade unionists as a rule are wholly opposed to arbitration clauses. The hon. Member for West Walthamstow (Mr. McEntee), in a moderate speech, said he did not wish to express any opinion upon it, though he had a very clear one, but unfortunately a few moments later he expressed the opinion that the men were quite right.
§ Mr. McENTEE
I said that the men are arguing that they are right, and that the employers argue that they are right.
§ Mr. HOHLER
I did not so understand the hon. Member. However that may be, unfortunately an ex-Lord Chancellor has entered into this matter what on earth has he to do with it? I have seen a letter from Lord Buckmaster. Why cannot these gentlemen confine themselves to their own n province? Nothing is more calculated to do harm in this matter than such intervention. I know nothing' of the agreement. It may be that the ex-Lord Chancellor is wrong, but it may be that the trade unionists, encouraged by his uninvited opinion, will think that they are right. Therefore they come and say, "We have no arbitration clause." Very likely such a clause was put before them and rejected. Possibly it was rejected by both sides, and knowingly not placed in the agreement. Then it is said that the Government should intervene. We are told that very small points are involved. I hope they are small points and, if so, surely good sense will settle them. If they are small points, then if there is give and take on both sides they should be able to get out of the difficulty, and be able to come to a sound settlement.
The Law Officers forsooth, are asked to give an opinion. If the Government want to come to irretrievable ruin, let them agree to that. Did anybody ever hear of such a notion? Hon. Members on the other side seem to he so confident that they would naturally conclude that the opinion of the Law Officers ought to he on the side of the men. Lord help the Law Officers if they gave an opinion in favour of the employers and against the men! We should have some further scenes in this Rouse. I implore the 1375 Government to do nothing of the kind. We are not babies, although perhaps we are a little foolish at times. We all know that there is a Minister of Labour. Is there no admirable counsel at the Bar who can be approached, and to whom the parties can go to get his opinion as to the construction of the agreement? That is usually done. There are perfectly impartial men of great ability at the Bar. If the parties want to have arbitration, there is no difficulty in this respect. They have the machinery to their hand. They could come to the Minister of Labour and ask him to nominate some person to decide the point, but not the Law Officers of the Crown, somebody outside the political sphere, who does not care twopence about politics. If the Minister of Labour were approached by one side, he could say to the other side, "Will you accept that course?" and, if they agreed, he could nominate someone.
Do not let the Minister of Labour take the initiative. If he did so, he would be as silly as Lord Buckmaster. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh! "] I say so advisedly What right has an ex-Lord Chancellor, who is called to sit judicially in the House of Lords, to express an opinion upon this dispute? It may be that he may be the very gentleman called upon to decide matters arising out of it. I protest against his interference. I urge the Minister of Labour to thank everybody for the confidence they desire to repose in him, but to say to them: "Not to-day, thank you. There is no Act of Parliament which gives me authority in the matter. I might be considered just as impertinent in approaching this matter as, say, X or Y. I have nothing to do with it. I deplore the possibility of a strike, and I would willingly and gladly do anything if the parties will approach me." If I were the Minister of Labour I would not act as arbitrator, but I would nominate somebody. I would tell the parties: "If you will give me a panel of names, I will nominate from that panel a fit and proper person to arbitrate." It is childish and foolish to say that the parties cannot do this for themselves. Of course they can. Why then is this put before the Government? We have enough burdens on our shoulders without undertaking this additional one, which might be made the subject of attack and of sinister charges. Sinister charges have 1376 been made against Ministers in this House, and in this Parliament.
Mr. W. M. ADAMSON
It is somewhat difficult to follow the hon. and learned Member who has just spoken. He impeaches the motives of the trade unionists generally in regard to arbitration. He says that they are opposed to arbitration. That is true to some extent, but he objects to legal authorities expressing an opinion upon one particular form out of which this dispute will probably arise. The right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) deplored any possible intervention on the part of the Government in this dispute. As the hon. Member for Silvertown (Mr. J. Jones) very aptly remarked, the hon. Baronet asked for Government intervention during the railway dispute in 1911. The intervention he then asked was for Government soldiers to support the railway companies against the workers who dared to come out on strike.
The case that I desire to put to the Minister of Labour is somewhat different from the ordinary industrial dispute. I can divide the question into two categories; first, as to the legal interpretation of the existing agreement, and secondly, the dispute that probably will arise owing to difficulty in the interpretation of that agreement and whether the Minister of Labour should intervene. We are not asking for compulsory arbitration. In principle we are opposed to that. I believe that the Minister of Labour, with the power he has at his disposal and with the machinery he has in his Department, especially in the Department for dealing with disputes could exercise conciliatory powers so that it might be possible to avoid this difficulty. It has been said that this is not merely a question that will confine itself to the building trade.
I have a letter from the largest brick-making centre in the country, in which the question of the determination or the continuance of an agreement between the brickmaking employers and their workpeople is under consideration. The letter from the Association of Employers is to the effect that they cannot consider anything in the direction of continuing the present agreement unless they know definitely what will arise out of the present dispute. Whether that is an 1377 indication that, in the event of the hours being increased in the building trade, it will apply ultimately to the brickmaking industry, I cannot say, but it certainly is ominous that we should have the probability of this extending to such subsidiary industries as brickmaking, the furnishing trades and others, which will suffer unless some stops are taken in the direction of peace. I appeal to the' Minister of Labour to give us an assurance that some further steps will be taken, more than keeping in touch with the two parties, that he will give us some guarantee that legal opinion will be taken upon the vital point, and that he will use the influence of the machinery of his Department in the direction of attempting within the next few hours to do something to obviate this calamity.
§ Sir MONTAGUE BARLOW
After the discussion which we have had, it is clear that the House will desire some statement to he made. We all realise that the position is a serious one, and though I deprecate at this stage a discussion on the Floor of the House on the merits of an industrial issue of this kind, I do not complain that discussion has taken place, because it is evidence of the realisation in all parts of the House of the serious state of affairs which has arisen. But while Members in various parts of the House can make statements, and use arguments, I do beg the House to realise that, standing at this Box in the position which I occupy, almost any statement of fact which I make at present is subject to possible misinterpretation. It has been suggested that the Law Officers should be called in. I think that there is considerable confusion between the functions of interpretation and the distinct functions of arbitration.
It was suggested by one hon. Member that the Law Officers might be called in to interpret the document. That is not a course which I propose to adopt, but it is a conceivable line of policy. The Law Officers are frequently asked to interpret documents, but other hon. Members went on to suggest that if the Law Officers were called in they should be, called in, not to interpret a document but to arbitrate on the dispute. Believe me, those two functions are entirely different, and one of the reasons that we leave this course, in reference to the Law Officers, out of the 1378 question is that while it is true that there is a written agreement, a great deal turns on how far that written agreement is applicable or not. I do not wish to go into that, because, although I could, if circumstances and the time were proper, substantiate that statement, I do not wish to do so for obvious reasons. But having said that, I wish the House to realise that. I made arrangements, as I told the House earlier this afternoon, for the experts who are skilled in these matters attached to the Ministry of Labour to get into touch in the course of the day with both sides, because one of the first necessities in an industrial dispute is that it should be quite clear to those who are responsible I what are the exact issues on which the difference, if there is a difference, has taken place.
The Leader of the Opposition has stated that the point at issue is a small one. That is not my conception. I may receive at any moment the reports from my officials as to the discussions that have taken place, but all quarters of the House will agree that the first necessity is to get quite clearly, and as closely defined as possible, the exact points of difference, and it was with that object that I directed the officials of the Department to get in touch with both sides. But then I am pressed to go further, and to intervene. I am pressed, it is true, not by those who sit behind me, but by those who sit opposite. Those who sit behind me take an entirely different view. Those very differences, in view both as to the course of policy to be adopted and on the questions at issue between the two sides, show how desirable it is that the Government, who are trustees for all parties in this matter, should be most careful, in whatever steps they take to intervene, that by so doing there is no risk that, so far from assisting to achieve the result which we all desire, such intervention may have entirely the opposite result.
Hon. Members opposite do not seem to realise how very closely this matter presses the Ministry here, and I was very much obliged when I heard the last speaker, while he was asking me to do something, say that he and his friends had been against compulsory arbitration. We threshed this thing out very fully in 1919. The Industrial Courts Act is a result of the discussion. That Act says, in Part that the Minister of Labour may refer matters in dispute to the Industrial 1379 Court or to the arbitration of one or more persons appointed by him or to the Board of Arbitration, but on one condition—and that is the vital point—that both parties consent.
§ Sir M. BARLOW
Both parties profess to be anxious—here, again, I have not the latest information, and I do not wish to pledge myself, but I saw it stated in the Press and I merely repeat the statement with no special authority—to go to arbitration, but on a different basis. In other words, there is no consent between them to go to arbitration, and therefore there is no consent of the parties. It is idle to suggest that the Minister of Labour has any powers to compel or coerce, or to intervene for the purpose of forcing a settlement, because he has not. I am sure that my hon. Friends opposite would be the first to protest in circumstances which the House could easily conceive, if he attempted to arrogate to himself any such powers. It is true that under Part II of the Act, in certain circumstances, the Minister has power to direct an inquiry, but so far as arbitration is concerned, the powers of the Minister of Labour are strictly limited to cases where the parties consent. Having said so much, having outlined the steps which have been taken to-day, and the legal powers as laid down for me by the Industrial Courts Act, I would beg the House not to think me in any way discourteous if I ask that the matter should not be pressed any further this afternoon. I can only give the House these two assurances. First, that the burden which falls upon the Minister of Labour, in the case of a big industrial dispute of this kind, is a very heavy one, and second, that I shall endeavour, in so far as in me lies, to discharge that difficult task to the best of my ability.
We know the great difficulty that a Government Department has on such an occasion as this, but I think the facts are dear so far as we have gone. The dispute has arisen on three points. First the interpretation of the agreement—were the lock-out notices in order under that agreement? The employers say "yes" and the workmen say "no." The second point was the wages, and the third point was the hours. Then the question was, how far could this 1380 question be arbitrated? The employers' position -was that they would arbitrate only on the whole of the three points together. The workmen's point was, "Let us arbitrate first upon the agreement and, when that has been settled, then we can consider the question of hours and labour." The position, so far as I can understand it to-day, is that the workers agree to arbitration on the agreement and on wages, and that they are not opposed to arbitration as to hours, on one condition, and that is that they have time to consult the local committees. That is the whole situation as I understand it.
This is Thursday The lock-out notices take effect to-morrow night, and there is not time between now and to-morrow night to consult the local committees. I am not going to ask the Government to intervene or do anything like that. I express no opinion on that. I do suggest that it would be a great service if the Government could manage to secure one of two things—either that the lock-out notices should be suspended for a week, or, in the alternative, that they should secure the adoption of a method which is a very familiar expedient in the case of lock-out notices, when negotiations are still going on. That is, that the lock-out notices should be suspended from day to day. I have got some reason for suggesting this. The suspension from week to week is certainly the better course. But suppose that that is impossible, then it would be well if the Government could induce the employers to agree that the lock-out notices should not: be put into operation, but should be suspended from day to day, until there is some opportunity of discovering whether this small point, to which I have referred, is so important to both sides that it should be allowed to cause a continuance of the dispute. That will not amount to intervention. It is simply a proposal that the Government should use its friendly and persuasive offices to get conciliation between the two sides directly. They are still in contact, or could be brought into contact this evening, if necessary, so that the operations of conciliation could have an opportunity and not be broken off abruptly.