HC Deb 09 May 1923 vol 163 cc2364-6

I beg to move, That leave be given to introduce a Bill to amend the Coal Mines (Minimum Wage) Act, 1912. The object of the Bill is to amend the Coal Mines (Minimum Wage) Act, 1912, so as to secure for workmen in and about mines a minimum wage equal to the increase in the cost of living to-day as compared with August, 1914. In seeking such an arrangement I am not asking for something which is entirely new or is revolutionary in character. I am simply asking that workmen engaged in the coal mining industry shall be placed, in regard to wages, on the same footing as workmen engaged in a considerable part of British industry to-day. Not only that, but I am seeking to place the workmen in the coal mining industry in a position in which I think the workpeople of all industries should be placed, namely, that they should have in return for their labour a minimum standard of living. The first charge on any industry should be the payment to the men and women engaged in it of a reasonable minimum standard of living. Particularly should that principle apply to an industry of such vital importance to our industrial supremacy as coal mines.

Coal is vital to the whole of our British industrial system and the men engaged in the coal industry pay a heavier price in life and limb for their participation in it than the workmen of almost any other branch of our industrial system are called upon to pay. It will be generally admitted that, within the past year, the mining industry has contributed more towards the economic recovery of the nation than any other branch of industry and workmen in the mining industry are to-day producing as much output as they did before the War. During some recent weeks the output in mining has reached no less a figure than that of five and three quarters million. A considerable proportion of that large output is being exported abroad, and in this way the balance of imports with exports, which is a vital matter so far as the economic recovery of the nation is concerned, is being preserved. What has been the reward of these workmen for this valuable contribution? They are, under existing conditions, living below the poverty line and in a worse condition than they were in before the War.

Before the War the average wage of a miner was something like 6s. 5d. per day, and at that figure they were not living to any considerable extent above the poverty line. Their wage to-day is 9s. 6d. or thereabouts, which is roughly 45 per cent. over the pre-War rate, while, on the other hand, the increased cost of living per month has been varying between 74 per cent. and 80 per cent., thus placing the workmen in a much worse position than they were in prior to the War. This condition of affairs has brought about poverty and destitution of the direst character among the miners' homes in this land. Not only is the miner worse off as compared with pre-War conditions, but he is worse off when compared with the majority of the workmen in other industries. Surely it cannot be the wish of this House that such a condition of affairs should continue. In order to end it, the miners' representatives approached both the coalowners and the Government and asked if steps could be taken to end the tragic conditions under which the mining population is being compelled to exist. We are told that we must wait for better times. That is a poor reward and gives very little consolation to those men far what they have done in contributing towards the nation's economic recovery. There is beginning to grow up a feeling that they will require to take the matter into their own hands, and find a remedy, if a remedy cannot be found either by the coalowners or by the Government. Some Members of the House may ask, "Will not this agreement under which you are working give better results in the near future?" The workmen do not believe that their present agreement will ever give them a minimum wage comparable with the increased cost of living They believe that the cost of living is pretty well stabilised at its present figure, and that there is little chance of the agreement giving them a minimum wage that will be comparable with that increased cost of living. Is it not the fundamental duty of this House, therefore, to do its best to remedy a state of things of this kind?

The alternative to this House or others doing something to find a remedy for the tragic state of affairs that exists to-day in the mining industry is industrial strife and national loss. Do the Members of this House think that is the better way of dealing with industrial matters? From all quarters of this House we pay lip service to International peace. Why should we not take some such steps as are provided for in this Bill with a view to finding industrial peace? I have no great faith as an individual in strikes. I have always tried, in the course of my long trade union career, to avoid them, but that is the only alternative left to the workmen, unless the parties I have mentioned, or this House, are prepared to take the steps that are necessary to give the workers a fairer and more reasonable standard of living than present conditions permit. To my mind, it is the duty of this House to take this matter up and deal with it, if the two principal parties concerned cannot find a way out. Surely, it is not beyond the capacity of British statesmanship to find a way out of a condition of affairs such as I have outlined, and it is with that object in view that I seek the unanimous consent of this House to introduce this Bill.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. William Adamson, Mr. Walsh, Mr. Lunn, Mr. James Brown, Mr. Hartshorn, Mr. Duncan Graham, Mr. Cairns, Mr. Cape, and Mr. Frederick Hall.