HC Deb 05 July 1923 vol 166 cc782-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[[Mr. Bridgeman.]


Mr. Duffy.


On a point of Order. I gave notice yesterday that I would raise a question on the Adjournment to-night.


The hon. Member did not approach me, or I would have told him that the time to-day had been taken by the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Lawson), and that he, by arrangement, had given way to the hon. Member for Whitehaven (Mr. Duffy).


In raising the question of the disturbances that have taken place in Whitehaven the last thought in my mind is to use any word that would add to the trouble in that important town. There is one thing that is most important. It requires either a tragic mining disaster or a catastrophe of this kind to make the name of Whitehaven known throughout the country. Yet, during the past eight weeks, whatever may be said in the flaming headlines of the London Press to-day, 2,400 miners and their families in the town of Whitehaven have borne their troubles with patience and dignity, and have pleaded time after time for consideration of their modest claim for at least a subsistence wage for the work they are called upon to do. It is not generally known that White- haven is not only unfortunately distinguished for its mining disasters, but that it has been, in the past, one of the worst paid coalfields in Great Britain. These men have to work six miles under the sea in some places and in others three or four miles under the sea, and men who have to take their lives in their hands and work under such conditions, should at least receive human sympathy and consideration from those who use the commodity which they produce. They have exercised patience during the past two months, with their wives and children practically in a condition of starvation, because, unfortunately, their union, like other unions, had not funds sufficient to last long in case of an industrial dispute. The result was that the children who went to school got one or two meals a day, and the children over or under school age got nothing. From the Poor Law guardians there was a distribution of seven shillings weekly, in kind. The House can well imagine the conditions under which the families have had to live. Why?

This dispute never should have occurred at all. There has been in existence in Whitehaven and in Cumberland for many years, thanks to the pacifying and statesmanlike efforts of the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Cape) and his predecessors in the office of general secretary of the Cumberland Coalminers' Association, a strong conciliation board brought together by the employers and the employed, its constitution agreed to by the employers and the employed, and its rules sanctioned by the employers and the employed. It has a neutral chairman, Sir William Collins, who was at one time a distinguished Member of this House. In any case of dispute, if the two sides cannot agree, then the neutral chairman should be called in to decide, and his decision should be final and binding on both parties. The second rule of the Conciliation Board is as follows: The object of the Board shall be to consider and decide all questions in dispute affecting the interests of the employers and the employed constituting the Board, with regard to wages and conditions. There is no ambiguity about that Rule. It has already operated with perfect satisfaction in the past, and if the Rule is put to the test now, there is no reason why it should not operate with perfect satisfaction to-day. It is not the fault of the trade union leader, in this case, that it has not been brought to the test. On the 1st May, a letter was flung at the men, intimating that certain new conditions would be imposed. On the 3rd May that letter was replied to. On the 11th May a conference was allowed to them for the first time, and on the 14th May another. But nothing could be done, and eventually, about the 18th May, the Mayor of Whitehaven, recognising the disastrous effect which a stoppage of the mines would have on the coalminers and on the whole trading community of Whitehaven, offered himself as a mediator on the neutral ground of the Mayor's parlour. The hon. Member for Workington, representing the miners, said "Yes, certainly," but the other side absolutely refused. No mediation, no meeting together, no nothing! There, I suggest, is where the Minister of Labour should come in. This country sacrificed a million of the best of its manhood and piled up a National Debt to the extent of £8,000,000,000 in order to sanctify a scrap of paper supposed to be of some value to our country. Surely this great Parliament of Great Britain ought not to lack some power to compel the carrying out of an agreement which has been entered into between both parties in order to see that this industrial paralysis, misery and cruelty shall be brought to an end. If we cannot do that, what encouragement is it to belong to the trade union movement, and to carry out the idea of conciliation? What is the use of going to our men and saying to them, "No matter whatever your wrongs so long as we have a conciliation board in existence, we can right them," if the Ministry of Labour have no power and no moral suasion, no moral influence to bring a thing like this to an end? In that case I say you are undermining and destroying the foundation-stones upon which conciliation boards have been built up in the past, and exist to-day.

There are two points with which I want to deal. I want to repudiate, with all the energy I possess, the reports, scattered in the London papers and in other papers, about the coalminers of Whitehaven having been charged with arson, looting, and pillaging the shops in Whitehaven. I am extremely pleased that the Chief Constable of Cumberland and Westmorland (Colonel Turnbull), speaking with more knowledge of the people of the county than the penny-a-liners who supply the scrap paragraphs to the Press, stated last night that it should be known that the miners were not very much to blame for the rioting. Some of them, no doubt, took part in it, but the ringleaders were mostly corner boys and young fellows from the Whitehaven district who had joined in the thing out of sheer devilment. I am not concerned about their intention. I have known these miners of Whitehaven for the last 20 years, having lived amongst them. It may be that they have been hungry, and that they have been subjected to other troubles, but they are neither thieves nor shopbreakers. They may like a fair fight, and they went through a fair fight for this country. In 1914, when the War broke out, more than half the coalminers of Whitehaven joined up and fought for this country, and allowed some of the patriotic Belgians to come over from Belgium and work in the Cumberland coal mines, while they themselves were fighting for their country.

The other point is in regard to their conflict with the police. The shopkeepers and coal miners of Whitehaven have always been good friends. As an evidence of their friendship, may I point out that about a year ago when there was a lockout in Whitehaven and during that lockout the Cumberland Coal Miners' Association issued vouchers and incurred a debt of £60,000 with the shopkeepers of Whitehaven, and every penny of that has been paid off. There was perfect friendship between the shopkeepers and tradesmen and the miners, and there was no reason at all for looting. The same applies with regard to the relationship between the police and the coal miners of Whitehaven. The coal miners there are not angels. I am sorry there has been any conflict between the police and the coal miners, but I rest my case as to what happened upon the statement which I have read from the Chief Constable of Cumberland, who states that the coal miners were not responsible for these outrages, but that it was done by the riff-raff who were left at the street corners and who have been out of employment.

The SECRETARY for MINES (Lieut.-Colonel Lane-Fox)

The reason why I intervene is that this particular matter comes within the purview of my Department. I think every section of the House will regret what has happened at Whitehaven, and the various things which the hon. Member has just described. In the past, difficulties have occurred in the Cumberland district. In this case, at the instance of the Mayor of Whitehaven, an officer from my Department has been sent down to inquire into what has happened, and he will do his best to bring the parties together, and try to find a solution of this unfortunate dispute. I hold that it is very undesirable to have any sort of Government interference before it is absolutely necessary, but on receiving a request from the Mayor of Whitehaven, I sent an officer down there, and he will report what is the position. Until I have received his report, I cannot express any opinion as to the actual merits of the dispute.

The hon. Member has referred to what appeared in the newspapers. Certainly, the things which have been reported in the Press are very unlike what I should expect from the Cumberland miners, and I hope the statement that the hon. Member opposite has made, that they are due to the "corner boys" and riff-raff, is true. I am glad to have that statement from the hon. Member. I am sure it is a good thing that the facts which have been stated should be made known. I hope that before very long I shall be receiving satisfactory reports from our representative, and anything we can do to bring the two parties together will be done. Although I cannot say anything about the merits of the dispute, I hope the strong Conciliation Board which is now in existence, and which I think has the confidence of both sides, will be able to bring this matter to a satisfactory conclusion.


As one who is very interested in this dispute, and who has taken part in the negotiations which have been going on, I should like to ask the Minister of Mines if the official who has gone down from his Department to make inquiries can use any means to bring both sides together, with a view to trying to effect a settlement supposing the employers refuse to go into a Conference with the official of the Ministry of Mines present, although the miners agree to be present, what pressure will be put on the Colliery Company to make them go into the Conference? I have told the Department's representative already that so far as the miners are concerned they are prepared to go into any Conference he may decide to call.

Lieut.-Colonel LANE-FOX

Anything that can be done to bring all parties into a Conference will be done, but much will depend on the questions that are to be raised.


Cannot the hon. Gentleman put any pressure on the Colliery Company?

It being Half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half after Eleven o'Clock.