§ Order for Second. Reading read.
§ Mr. S. WALSH
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
In asking the House to agree to au amendment of the Coal Mines (Minimum Wage) Act, 1912, it is desirable to review, however briefly, the history of what led up to that Act, in order that the House may the better understand what it is that the Labour Party desires it to agree to to-day. For a long time prior to 1912 the miners were stated to be receiving very high wages. There was considerable controversy as to what those wages were, but almost the whole of the Press, and practically all the colliery owners, informed the country that the miners were in receipt of very high wages, and it passed into currency that among the best paid working people the most highly paid of all were the underground workers. No fiction was ever so ill-founded, and no statement was ever so far from the truth. In 1888 the wages of the workpeople at the mines underground and on the surface were so low that, looking back, one simply marvels how the people lived at all. What was known as the Miners' Federation of Great Britain was formed in that year for the purpose of gathering together the straggling remnants of the miners into one federation in order to raise their wages, and at that time what was known as the principle of a minimum wage was first developed. We met the owners at that time, but they would not agree to any such minimum. They repudiated the principle; they refused to pay wages in accordance with any such principle, but after pressure certain advances of wages were given, ranging over four years. Then came the heavy demand from the colliery owners of the Kingdom, at least those of the federated area, for a 25 per cent. reduction in the wages of their workpeople. This led to a prolonged struggle, lasting le weeks, which was ended by a conference over which Lord Rosebery presided, and as the result of that conference a Conciliation Board was established. That Conciliation Board in 1893 recognised for the first time the prin- 826 ciple of a minimum wage, and from that date until now the principle has been admitted in the coal mining industry.
It is one thing, however, to admit a principle and it is another thing to convert that principle into a real fact. While the principle was admitted, no bottom was put to the figures, and as a matter of fact thousands of workpeople in the mines—when I say thousands I am speaking, of course, in relation to the hundreds of thousands that were working underground—would work a week, and sometimes even longer, for nothing at all. Young boys were taken on in the mines for a month, and even longer, on trial without any wages, and a case came to my notice, with which I had to deal, of a young lad killed in the mines in which no compensation could be paid because he was working on trial. This was at a time when the whole country was informed that the miners were in receipt of high wages, and that no body of men were so well paid. Things went on, and for years the Miners' Federation, in negotiation with the employers, endeavoured to secure definite minimum figures, but failed. The negotiations went on for two or three years. We came before this House and tried to point out to the House what a grave thing it was that large masses of people should work under economic conditions which meant for them constant impoverishment. The House of Commons turned an unheeding ear. The whole of the miners in the kingdom came out on strike and remained on strike for six weeks. During that struggle this House, at least the Cabinet of that time, appointed a Committee to go into the Whole question, and that Committee reported to this House that conditions existed in the mines which were completely beyond the control of the workman himself, making it impossible for him to earn a living wage. They therefore recommended this House to agree to the principle of a minimum wage, and it was embodied in the Act of 1912, and from that time to now that principle of a minimum wage has been accepted, with definite figures for the minimum below which no contract of service underground can be held to be legal.
In order to show how low were the wages of that time—not a very long time ago, only 13 years—I may remind the House that we appealed to the Govern- 827 ment to put two definite figures in the Bill—to give to the adult workman, the able-bodied man of 21 years or over, a guaranteed minimum wage of 5s. per day, and to give to the boy of 14 years a minimum of 2s. The House refused, not on the ground that the figures were too high, because I think even the most pessimistic of men would hardly conceive those figures to be too high, but on the ground that it was not the duty of this House to fix a definite wage, which ought to be left to negotiation between the employers and the workmen represented upon the district boards set up by that Bill.
As a matter of fact I think almost for the whole of the mining kingdom the 2s. was agreed to, and something like 5s. for the men. The figures approximate to 2s. and 5s. for the men and they were agreed upon by the various boards set up under the Act. I only emphasise those two figures in order to call attention to the fact that the wages were really low, and to show how moderate were the demands of the men, and how difficult for long years had been the process of mutual negotiation. From the passing of the Act of 1912 it became the implied condition of the employment of a coal miner under ground that he should be paid a wage subject to certain exceptions not less than a figure fixed by the District Board for his labour.
There can be no doubt that the effect of that Act was to give a stability to the coal mining industry and a measure of satisfaction to the underground worker never known before. Unfortunately, our experience of the measure under normal conditions was very limited. No sooner had the Act come into practical operation than the most terrible conflict the world has known burst upon us, and of course, almost from the outbreak of the terrible war the coal mining industry came under Government control, first of all by a limitation of the prices at which coal was to be sold both for inland consumption and for export, and later by taking over first in South Wales and then for the whole mining kingdom the regulation of wages and profits, and also the prices at which coal had to be sold. In a sense the Government took over the control of the coal mining industry and thus we were 828 prevented from ascertaining what would have been the effect of the Minimum Wage Act of 1912 under normal conditions.
When the peace came the miners put in a claim for an advance of wages. They had had their wages regulated by the Government, the selling price had been regulated and those conditions which were fundamental to the operation of the Conciliation Boards had passed into abeyance. Then the miners put in a claim for an advance in wages, and, as very serious trouble threatened the nation, the Government of that time set up a Commission which has passed into fame as the Sankey Commission. That Commission arrived at many conclusions, but one definite conclusion they reached unanimously, and that was that in the course of time the economic conditions of the mining industry had caused the coal miner to fall seriously behind the standard of living enjoyed by the rest of the community, and the Commission reported unanimously in favour of an increase of 2s. a day to the adult workers and a corresponding increase to other workers to represent the leeway necessary to make up in the coal mining industry as compared with the rest of the industrial community. Thus it will be seen why at that time, notwithstanding half a century of constant agitation, it was found by one of the most authoritative Commissions that has ever been established after prolonged inquiry and taking the evidence of scores of witnesses representing all sides of the industry, land owners and miners, that the mining community had fallen behind in their standard of living compared with the rest of the community.
The Government took control of the industry from 1919 to 1921 and they regulated the wages, profits and selling prices. In March, 1921, as we contend very wrongly, they suddenly ceased control of the industry. Repeated appeals were made from this side of the House that no such action should be taken because of the terrible confusion and complexity that was certain to result, but our appeals passed unheeded. The employers were informed of the intention of the Government to abandon control, the result being that they placed their workpeople on daily contracts, so that at the end of one day they could determine the employment of every man employed by them. That 829 actually took place. The employers stated to the workmen, "Now the Government assistance is withdrawn, and the guarantees upon which we depended no longer exist, we are unable to pay you the wages which you have hitherto been receiving. We therefore give you notice of a reduction in wages." They did give notice of the most inconceivable reductions ever known in the history of the industry. Those reductions in some cases were as low as 15 per cent, and as high as 70 per cent. in some cases of the wages then being paid.
Hon. Members opposite and some on this side, when the men refused to accept such conditions, declared that it was a strike on the part of the workers and not a lock-out. Of course, political life is capable of many genuflections. The lockout which followed I need not describe in detail. Suffice it to say that at the end of three months an arrangement was entered into between the representatives of the owners and the workmen and the Government of that time. That arrangement stipulated, among many other things to which I need not refer now, that there should be a minimum wage guaranteed to the men and a standard rate of profit guaranteed to the employers. The standard of profits guaranteed to the employers was to be a certain percentage of the standard wages of the workers. I am not saying one single word in praise or condemnation of such an arrangement. What I want to say is that never before in the history of the world was such an arrangement known, and never in any industry could it be applied except in the mining industry.
The minimum wage thus fixed was so low that even the authors of the arrangement placed in one of the paragraphs a condition providing for the payment of a subsistence allowance—not a living allowance, not a living wage; nothing of the kind. When the question was submitted to the authors of the arrangement, "Does this subsistence allowance mean a living wage?" the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillhead (Sir R. Horne) said, "Oh, no, it means nothing of the kind. It means what it says, a subsistence allowance." And on that subsistence allowance hundreds of thousands of adult workers are living to-day in the mining industry. I have never 830 known, in the whole history of England, such a condition denying the right of the worker to live a decent life as the result of labour honestly applied by a capable, willing workman prepared to work hard and to give of his best. I have never known such a condition as this before in the history of industry. Even the relationships of capitalism and labour, sordid and tragic as they have often been, have never shown anything such as that existing now in the mining industry. Certainly four-fifths of the adult workers who are paid by the day rate are to-day in receipt of wages either equal to or lower than that subsistence allowance. There are thousands and tens of thousands receiving less than a subsistence allowance.
It will be interesting to the House to see what are the real figures. Hon. Members, every one of whom here in this House has either knowledge of business with which they themselves are directly concerned, or knowledge of municipal administration, or knowledge of wages paid by themselves as employers, and they therefore do know, without any abstract definition of mind, what is meant by the term "a living wage." Let me read out to the House the figures actually paid to men working by the day, everyone of whom has to be a capable and efficient workman of 21 years of age or over. The best area in the kingdom at the moment, and probably it will be for many years to come, is South Yorkshire. There is not a man on that side of the House and there are very few on this but who knows what a promising coalfield that is, and how good relatively to those existing elsewhere are the conditions both for the employers and the workmen. This is the figure paid to adult workmen in South Yorkshire—8s. 8½d. per day.
§ Sir ROBERT HORNE
I do not suppose that the right hon. Gentleman suggests that every individual gets the same. Will he tell us the class of worker to whom he refers?
§ Sir R. HORNE
Yes. I perfectly understand that, but I did not understand that the right hon. Gentleman was referring to the subsistence wage alone, when he was giving his figures.
§ Sir R. HORNE
It was only for a clearer understanding that I interrupted the right hon. Gentleman, because it would be a mistake to give the House the impression that there are large numbers of colliers in South Yorkshire getting that pay.
§ Mr. WALSH
It is not a mistake at all. It is an actual fact. Thousands and tens of thousands are getting this figure in South Yorkshire, and getting less than this figure. As a matter of fact, the surface workers are getting less. The underground workers, who are paid upon days of work, are getting this figure. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman, from his inner information and knowledge of the arrangement, would understand what I was referring to. In South Wales, which not very long ago was the finest coal mining and exporting area in the world, a similar workman is getting 8s. 0¾d.; in Scotland he is getting 7s. 10½d.; in Durham and Lancashire 7s. 6½d., and in Northumberland 7s. 7½d. Multiplying those amounts by the working time, which, putting it at the very highest, could not be more than 5½ days per week—I am giving you the very outside—[HON. MEMBERS: "Too high."]—I say that I am giving an outside figure. Everybody with any knowledge of the mines knows perfectly well that it is impossible for the workman to work 11 days per fortnight, having regard to the broken time inseparable to coal-mining undertakings, having regard to holidays, having regard to occasional illness, having regard to a breakdown of weather, having regard to a breakdown of transport, and having regard to a thousand and one difficulties inseparable even from 832 human life, never mind the coal-mining industry itself. I am putting it at the very highest figure when I say, multiply this by 5½ per week, and I would ask anyone here, can they conceive the possibility of a decent human life being lived by a man and his family on wages such as these?
Now we will take the average wage of all, and here, perhaps, the House may see a little more clearly what the conditions are. These figures are the average wage of all, including the most highly paid men, including people who get in many cases twice the figures that I have read out. In South Wales the average of all employed is 10s. 8d. a day; in Scotland, 10s. 6d.; in Durham, 9s. 10d.; in Lancashire, 9s. 8d.; in North Wales, 9s. 4d.; in Northumberland, 9s. 2d. I ask hon. Members to compare the most unskilled occupations within their knowledge, and I ask them, from their knowledge of business administration, from their knowledge as employers of Labour, from their knowledge of the wages paid by them as administrators on public bodies, to think of the most unskilled occupations that they know—occupations requiring the least exercise of energy or thought—and I ask them to compare the wages paid under those conditions with the wages I have just read out to the House. And even these figures, low as they are, are subject to considerable deduction. There has grown up during the last 13 or 14 years a system entirely opposed to all the experience of the previous half-century. Now the workman is called upon to allow his wages to be mulct on every considerable pretext. It was first of all for health insurance, away back 14 years ago; then came unemployment insurance; and, of course, the figures, which started small, became large by degrees, until at the moment the underground workman has to pay for his lamp, for his tools, which he must buy to carry on his calling, his health insurance, his unemployment insurance; and I think it may be fairly said that, before the tale of these deductions is complete, the man has sustained anything from 10 to 15 per cent. reduction on the gross totals that I have submitted to the House.
As I was saying, this process that has grown up during these last 14 years is totally opposed to all that had gone before. From 1831, possibly because of 833 the growth of the Young England party at that time, Parliament began to legislate against deductions from the workman's wage, and insisted gradually, by legislation, that, before any deductions could be made, the workman must be a consenting party—he must sign his hand to it. For picks, for coal, for powder, for whatever it was, he must be a consenting party, and no deductions were to be made from the workman against his will. The consent of the workman now is never even sought Legislation is thrust upon this House without the consent of the workman ever being asked, and to-day we are finding these huge percentages of deduction made from the workman's wages, so that the figures I have given to the House have to be very substantially lowered in order to find out what are the amounts that the men take home.
§ Mr. CLARRY
May I interrupt with a question, before the right hon. Gentleman leaves this subject? I gather that the 8s. 8d., which he quoted as the figure for the underground workers, is for some of the higher-paid men in the pit? [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"]
§ Mr. WALSH
It is very difficult indeed if hon. Members will not pay attention. I stated in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hillhead (Sir R. Horne) that these were subsistence allowances, paid in addition to the basic wage to those who were working by the day wage, and that they did not refer to the actual coal-getter at the face. They refer to the day wage man, who is paid by the day, and who, in the ordinary way, is engaged in the repair work of the mine. His wage, apart from subsistence allowance, would be at least is. 1½d. per day less than the figures. I have given; but, with the subsistence allowance, which is paid only to those paid by the day, it makes the figure I have given. That applies to day wage men only. The average for all the workmen I have also read out.
§ Mr. WALSH
Perhaps I had better read the figures again, in order to let my hon. Friend see where the substantial difference comes in. In Northumberland it is 9s. 2d., which is 6d. higher than 834 the 8s. 8d.; in North Wales it is 9s. 4d., which is 8d. higher than the 8s. 8d. In Lancashire it is 9s. 8d., and in Durham 9s. 10d. The two areas that can be said to be appreciably higher than the 8s. 8d. quoted for South Yorkshire day wage men are South Wales and Scotland; and, again, I would ask my hon. Friend to remember that this includes the salaries of many of the most highly paid people about the place, and does not refer at all to the underground workmen. The whole of the highly placed and the highly paid men, apart from the manageriel and directorial staff, are included in these figures, and when my hon. Friend thinks of that, he will see that there is not a very serious difference, after all, as against the 8s. 8d. that I mentioned at first.
I think the House will agree that the figures I have given, compared with prewar wages, will show that the miners have fallen far behind the standard of the cost of living, certainly by more than 20 per cent. I do not think it is necessary at the moment to trouble the House with a calculation. The figures I have given here are very much larger than they are in some areas. It really would be appalling if I were to read out what the figures are in certain areas. In Shropshire the minimum wage is 6s. 5d, a day; in Cumberland 7s. 7d.; in Bristol, above ground, it is 5s.9¾d., and in Bristol below, ground it is 6s. 1d. I am sure the House will forgive me if I do not read any further. Any person who has any knowledge at all must know that the highest figures I have read out fall far below the standard of living that every decent workman is entitled to secure. It is, of all things, desirable that the House shall know what it is we ask. Only a fortnight ago, the Prime Minister appealed to the House with one of the most fervent invocations that could pass the lips of manGive peace in our time, O Lord!That is an invocation that everyone of us would most solemnly endorse, but peace can only be maintained on conditions of enabling people to live in something like decency. How hollow must that invocation become, when we know that at the very time the ejaculation was uttered, hundreds of thousands of people are living under a state of things which makes for their constant impoverishment and misery! I do not want to become in 835 any sense emotional, and I do not desire to become oratorical, but I do ask the House to conceive, as well as they can, what is the condition of vast masses of cur people in the mining population. The actual workers of the mining population number about 1,250,000, and there are some 5,000,000 of people directly concerned in the miner and his family. That is one eighth if not more of the whole population of the Kingdom. It must, surely, be a matter of the highest social importance that this vast mass of people, whose interest is so essential to the very life of the nation, shall live under conditions that give them some hope of a decent life.
I listened to a most remarkable speech yesterday by the right hon. Member for Carmarthen (Sir A. Mond). Two or three sentences struck me as containing the essence of wisdom. These were the words he used:Who can put down in L.S.D. the degeneration of a working population or the human misery which is taking place?…You cannot put such things into figures. All we know is that these things are taking place."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th March, 1925; col. 780, Vol. 182.]I would ask any hon. Member to come with me into the mining areas, and see the exact conditions that exist. It is impossible for me, as it is impossible for any hon. Member, to put these things into figures. We do know that a vast extent of human misery exists, and that it is impossible under existing conditions for the working people to get out of these conditions. It may be asked, "Why do you trouble the House of Commons? Why do not you do it yourselves?" There is not a single Member, if he thinks of it, who does not know perfectly well that the day of the individual relationship between employer and workman has long passed. If there was one thing at which I was surprised in the speech of the Prime Minister, it was that he did not recognise the fact 30 years earlier. He himself has been honourably associated with one of the largest combinations of capital that exists in this Kingdom, not merely of coal mines, but such interests as iron, ships, wagon building, and other kinds of things. To-day, it is impossible for the workman, as a workman, just as it is impossible for the 836 omployer, as an employer, to proceed on the principle of individual relations. The individual relations have passed into the limbo of forgotten things, and to-day the workman, being faced with vast combinations, trusts and huge aggregations, of which Sidney Smith said that they haveneither a soul to save nor a body to kick",and we are compelled under existing conditions to come to Parliament and ask Parliament to help this vast mass of virile, hard-working population: a population so essential and integral a part of the very existence of the country, and to help to do for the men what they are utterly incapable of performing for themselves, namely, to put them upon a basis that will give them a chance of a decent human life.
The Bill in its essentials is identical with the Act of 1912. The machinery of the District Boards will not be interfered with. The only essential change distinct from the Act of 1912, is that instead of giving a direction to the independent Chairman of the District Boards to base the minimum upon the average wage then existing for a particular class of labour, certain concrete figures are put into the Schedule of the Bill below which it would not be competent for any independent chairman to decide. That is the only change of material importance in the Bill as distinct from the Measure of 1912. The increases barely represent the increase in the cast of living that has taken place since 1912. The principle is exactly the same as that to which the House agreed 13 years ago.
The misery of our mining population is undoubted. The necessity that this vast mass of people shall be placed upon economic conditions which give to them and their wives and families some chance of a decent life will, I think, be admitted by every hon member who takes into consideration how necessary it is for the well-being of the State itself that such a vast mass of population shall not for ever remain in a state of semi-starvation and impoverishment. That is the reason why we are asking the House to give a Second Reading to the Bill to-day. We do not say that these figures are sacred. We do not say that Amendments may not be made in Committee, but we do ask the Prime Minister himself, with his genuine- 837 ness and his sincere desire that there shall be that peace which he so fervently invoked, should show his good-will in this matter. If there is to be peace, it must be peace obtained upon honourable conditions to the workpeople, upon whose well-being the very social and economic existence of this country so largely depends.
I appeal to my right hon. Friend, as the head of one of the most powerful governments of modern times, to do to-day what he refused to do for us two years ago. This is by no means the first appeal. We appealed to his honoured and departed predecessor in 1922. We appealed to the right hon. Gentleman who now is enshrined in Westminster Abbey to give the miners a minimum wage, and he replied, "I cannot at present. You must wait. Things are improving, and in all probability things will so improve that the present necessities will pass away." I told him that he was too hopeful. I asked him if the existing conditions did not disappear would he hold out a little hope that we were to see him again. He is now only a memory. We saw the right hon. Gentleman himself in 1923 in his own room. He had then taken the leadership of the House in the absence of his revered friend. He said that he could not do then what we asked, that it was not possible. My right hon. Friend knows—no man better—that in the existing condition of things in the mining industry it is impossible for the coal miners to lift themselves out of the horrible slough in which they find themselves at present, and that only by Parliamentary action can real value be given to the Measure passed 14 years ago. I appeal, for the sake of that peace which he so fervently values and for the sake of the well-being of the nation—because no mass of people can remain in an impoverished and degraded state without injuring the whole—I appeal on those grounds that a second reading be given to this Bill, and such Amendments as may be necessary can take place in Committee.
§ Lieut.-Colonel HEADLAM
I beg to move to leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof the wordsthis House, having regard to the advisability of settling the conditions and wages of an industry by agreement between those 838 concerned in the industry, declines to consider a Bill which, whilst establishing a rigid minimum, withdraws from those directly concerned the power to settle their own affairs in consultation and conference on conditions prevailing at any given time.It is with a feeling of grave responsibility that I move this Amendment, because I represent a constituency in which there is a large mining population, and I should not move the Amendment unless I. felt very profoundly that this Measure is not in the best interests of the mining community. I know that hon. Gentlemen opposite will credit me with as great a sincerity in this respect as they have themselves. Therefore I appeal to them to allow me to state my case against the Bill as shortly and as succinctly as I can. The right hon. Gentleman who moved the Bill, if he will forgive me for using a military simile, brought forward an immense array of troops, artillery, infantry and cavalry, and laid the ground for what appeared to be a very big action; but it ended in a demonstration in strength, because it seems to me that he failed entirely to appreciate the one grave reason which makes it impossible at present to expect the House to accept this Bill.
He never alluded, or if so only in the most vague way, to the present condition of the coal trade. That, it seems to me, is the difficulty which we have to face to-day. I personally should like to see the miners get a very much larger wage than they are now paid. I have the greatest respect for them. I have many friends among them, and they are not limited to those who believe in my particular political doctrines. I feel that it is a thousand pities that miners who have such dangerous and arduous work to do at present receive such comparatively low wages. But the right hon. Gentleman knows, as we all know, that the wages in an industry must depend upon the earning capacity of the industry. At the present time the coal industry of this country is faced with a competition which it has never encountered before. Everyone knows that the competition from German coal is now greater than it has ever been in the memory of man. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] If that be disputed, it can be easily established later on. The competition of German coal from the Ruhr, and the use of lignite in 839 Germany for power purposes, is enabling Germany to send coal abroad far more cheaply than we can from this country.
The German miners work longer hours. [HON. MEMBERS: "You make them!"] They take lower wages, and live in worse conditions than we can expect our people to accept. As long as we are faced with this kind of competition, we cannot hope to increase the wages of miners in this country. During the last election, I was continually told that the object of the Miners' Federation in this country was to make German miners refuse to work the long hours which they do work, and refuse to accept the low wages which they do accept. I earnestly hope that the Federation in this country will be successful in its object. But it seems to me that it will not be successful until we have lost the whole of our export trade.
Again, hon. Gentlemen will remember that coal is faced with competition from other things beside foreign coal. There is the question of oil. We have to face the fact that ships are now being propelled by oil, and that oil will be used in substitution for coal more and more for locomotion purposes on land. If the state of the coal trade be such as I have described, how can it produce enough money to give higher wages to the miners? I did not quite gather what the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Walsh) had in mind when he appealed to the Prime Minister to come to the assistance of the miners, and let this Bill pass. I could not understand exactly what the Government was expected to do. Was it to give a subsidy to the mining industry, or something different?
§ Lieut.-Colonel HEADLAM
Yes, because I did not understand, if the state of the trade is such as I have described—
§ Lieut.-Colonel HEADLAM
No. The coal trade has never been in the same state as it is to-day. Never in the history of this country has the foreign competition all over the world been anything like what it is to-day, and personally, I fail to see how we can by legislation improve the economic condition of the industry. But I feel that what the right hon. Gentleman said at the close of his speech was rather too pessimistic. I believe that it is possible even now, when the old bonds which united employers and employed have passed away, for those who are connected with an industry to get together, and work out their own salvation for themselves. Perhaps I am more optimistic than hon. Gentlemen opposite, but it seems to me that if those who are working in an industry cannot help themselves, nothing really can be done for the industry. Those concerned must get together. In the coal industry they have so to reorganise the industry that it can be worked on better and more economic lines. [HON. MEMBERS: "Sankey lines!"] On what lines they find best, after working out all the problems that have to be considered. They can do this. It is perfectly clear that in the past there have been grave sins on the side of the employers. I have never for a moment denied it. I think that in the past employers in many industries, not excepting the coal industry, have taken far more than their share of the proceeds of the industry. I am perfectly prepared to admit it, and I think we all are. But I always regret the way in which hon. Gentlemen opposite live in the past. We have to live in the present and to work for the future. Unless we do that we shall never get this country going again, and shall never obtain for our children the position and the conditions of life which we think they ought to have. That is why it seems to me that hon. Members would be well advised not to pursue this Bill. I am pretty certain that had hon. Gentlemen opposite been in office to-day, and this Bill had been brought forward by a private Member, it would not have been taken up by the Government.
It is impossible for the Government to step in, and to do for a trade what the 841 trade cannot do for itself. I am speaking in perfectly general terms, and no doubt hon. Members on both sides who follow will produce countless suggestions and statistics to prove their points. But I am appealing to something quite different My appeal is couched on the same note as that of the Prime Minister in his great speech the other day. From what I have seen in the county of Durham, I believe that the state of the coal trade is so bad now that, unless it can be got going, unless it can be re-organised on better lines, the outlook is very serious. The miners must be given an interest in their work; they must be made to feel a sense of responsibility, and must work together with the owners.
I am hopeful that a better feeling will yet prevail, that the honest men of Durham will be able to get more out of the industry than they are getting now, and that there is some future before them. But I would demur rather from what the right hon. Gentleman said about the principle of the Bill of 1912 being generally accepted. That Bill was passed to meet a great emergency, and at the time every party in this House regretted the necessity for it. The present Lord Oxford and Asquith, who was then Prime Minister, and brought in the Bill, assured the House that, in agreeing to the Bill and passing it, they were not affirming the principle of the minimum wage. He said:We resorted to legislation only when all hope of a settlement by agreement disappeared."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th March, 1912; col. 1723, Vol. 35.]The right hon. Member for Aberavon (Mr. R. MacDonald), who spoke for the Labour party on that occasion said:I regret the Bill. I suppose we all regret the Bill. Personally, in present circumstances I should have preferred that owners and men had come to an agreement, an agreement satisfactory to both sides, an agreement which both would have carried out for some reasonable period of time."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th March, 1912; col. 1743, Vol. 35.]The right hon. Gentleman who has now left us (Mr. Bonar Law), in speaking for the Conservative party, frankly said that he did not approve of the principle of the minimum wage. The Act was limited to a period of three years. It is true that it has been continued since then by successive Expiring Laws Continuance Acts, and consequently that in a sense for a par- 842 titular section of a particular industry the doctrine of the minimum wage may possibly be deemed an accepted principle. But to argue from this that the whole principle is accepted seems to be rather far-reaching, I have discovered, since I have been in the county of Durham, that opinion with regard to the adoption of the minimum wage and the effect that it has had is very much divided.
§ Lieut.-Colonel HEADLAM
Yes, amongst miners. I have spoken to many miners. I have got to know a great many miners, not only Conservative miners, but miners who do not agree with me politically—miners who are followers of hon. Gentlemen opposite. In the intimacy of private conversation, when no one is listening but the person addressed, one gets a good many intimate revelations of character and opinions and statements of fact which are not generally heard outside. I have found many miners who do not think that the minimum wage is altogether desirable in the interests of the mining community.
§ Lieut.-Colonel HEADLAM
If the hon. Gentleman and I meet on an occasion of that kind, I am certain that my friends and his friends would not agree, and I am equally certain that no opinions would be heard except those of his friends. That being the case, hon. Gentlemen opposite will forgive me if I still stick to my opinion, and say that even among the miners the idea that the minimum wage is wholly desirable is not universally accepted. We shall be well advised in this House if we decide that, for the time being, at any rate, it should be left to the employers and the employed to thrash out this question between them. There is really no alternative, because it is perfectly clear that if the trade cannot support itself, no good will come of our passing legislation imposing a higher and more widely extended minimum wage, which that trade cannot possibly pay. It would be establishing an increased charge on the undertaking when trade is rapidly decreasing. I urge that the House should consider the matter from a 843 purely common-sense point of view. I agree profoundly with much that the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Walsh) said, but I honestly believe that the passage of this Bill into law would not have the effect which the right hon. Gentleman anticipates, and that the one and only cure for our coal-mining industry is for all those who are concerned in the trade—all those who get their living out of mining—to sit down together, and see if they cannot do something to revive the industry in their own and the national interest.
§ Sir BEDDOE REES
I beg to second the Amendment.
I would much have preferred to have moved the direct rejection of the Bill, for I think that would have been the straighter course. But in deference to Mr. Speaker's ruling it is left to me to seicond the reasoned Amendment moved from the other side. I listened to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman who moved the Second Beading of the Bill. We were treated to a very deightful statement of the present position of the coal trade. I agreed practically with every word of it. What it had to do with this Bill I hope somebody will explain later on. There was scarcely a reference to the Bill in the speech. It was a very interesting historical survey of the situation, but it contained nothing to recommend this Bill to the House. I agree that the present condition of the miners is deplorable. I sympathise with the position of the industry, for my own sake and for the sake of those who are interested on the other side for the miners, and I had hoped the right hon. Gentleman would have told us why its condition is deplorable and would have given us some facts from which the House might judge. My first point is that the time is very inopportune for the introduction of this Bill. We have been suffering in this country from agitations, from strikes, from lock-outs—it does not matter what the cause has been—for the last 20 years. Now, for the first time in the history of the trade, the two sides have agreed to sit round a table.[HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] I think I am merely stating a fact when I say that for the first time they have voluntarily agreed to do so. [HON. MRMBERS: "No!"] The fact remains 844 that there is a Committee. I do not wish to quibble about words. [Interruption.]
§ Mr. SPEAKER
I know that hon. Members wish to speak, and I know that they desire to get a decision on the Bill at 4 o'clock; but by this constant interruption they are by way of preventing both.
§ Sir B. REES
I think the time is inopportune for this Bill because discussion is going on, I think, with good will on both sides, and an attempt is being made to find the cause of the present position and the best way of solving the difficulty. Anything that may be said to-day which would have a tendency to make that task more difficult is surely to be deplored and therefore I regret that this discussion is taking place. I wish to refer to what I think is the root cause of the trouble in the mining industry. We have the finest coal in the world. In calorific value and in by-products, British coal is better than any in the world and, therefore, we are not dealing with an inferior article. I think it will be agreed that the British miners as a body of workmen are finer than any other body of workmen in the world as far as this industry is concerned. I think the men at the head of the mechanical department of the industry in this country are the equals of those in similar positions in the industry in any part of the world. Therefore I do not think the cause is to be sought there. I think the cause of the trouble is low output. We are not producing sufficient coal in this country per man shift to enable us to compete with other countries. In 1913 the output per man shift in this country was 20.3 cwts. In 1924 that had fallen to 17.6 cwts. per man shift, a decrease of over 13 per cent. How does that compare with the United States, our chief competitor. The latest figures I have been able to get in reference to the United States are those for 1920 which show that the output per man shift of bituminous coal was 4 tons per day per man, and in the anthracite districts 2¼ tons per day per man. The startling fact is that the American miner produces five times as much coal as the British miner.
§ Sir B. REES
We are not discussing conditions; we are discussing output. We are dealing now with the fact against which we have to compete.
§ Sir B. REES
I am not discussing whose fault it is; I am trying to find out the cause of the trouble. I say the cause of the trouble is that the American coal producer can put his coal on the market cheaper than we can, and that is due to the act that the output per man employed is five times greater in America than it is in this country. Mr. Lee before the Buckmaster inquiry in 1924 said that the best Pocahontas steam coal was produced at an all-inclusive price of 9s. 6d. per ton at the pit head, whereas in this country wages only in 1924 represented 13s. 2¼d. per ton. To that we have to add overhead charges and other costs, and it works out at something like 20s. or 21s. There is the startling fact, which is of real interest to the miners, that the Americans are able to produce coal at 55 per cent. less than we can produce it in this country. There you have the root cause of the trouble. [HON. MEMBERS: "It is nothing new."] I am not suggesting it is new. I wish it were new, for then it would signify a condition which we might be able to get over quickly.
§ Mr. WALLHEAD
I think the interjection of the Noble Lord the Member for, South Nottingham (Lord H. Cavendish-Bentinck) was quite germane to the subject, and the hon. Member should make it perfectly clear, in order that no misunderstanding may arise, that this may be due to conditions, and not to the working of the miner themselves
§ Sir B. REES
I say again I am not trying to suggest that it is the miners' fault or the owners' fault or anybody's fault. These are the facts and I say at once that this position is not due entirely to the miners of this country, though I think it is partly due to them I think there are possibilities of increased output per man-shift in this country, but that is by the way. What I want to ask is Does this Bill provide a remedy? It is sugggested that the Bill is an Amendment of the 1912 Act. I suggest it is nothing of the sort. That Act was passed for a totally different purpose. Those connected with the industry know what an "abnormal place" is. The 1912 Act was not a minimum wage Act in the sense that this Bill is intended to be but 846 was passed to overcome the special difficulty that you find in every mine. There are places in every mine where, however hard a man may work, he cannot produce sufficient coal to provide a wage equal to that of the man who is working in a better place and producing more coal. The object of the 1912 Act was to deal with that difficulty. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] That Act passed to meet an abnormal condition. Now it is sought to extend that principle so that every man in the mine will come on to the minimum. This is not an amendment of the previous Act, but a new Bill entirely. Our chief complaint of the Bill as it is drawn is that it takes no notice whatever of what service the man has rendered before he is to be paid the minimum wage. It ignores the law of supply and demand, and would set up an artificial condition, and I say that unless there is, on the other hand, a guaranteed service, you are going to make the coal mining industry the happy hunting ground of all the "Weary Willies" and "Tired Tims" in the country. This is not a Minimum Wage Bill, it is a Minimum Work Bill; it is a Money for Nothing Bill. There never was a Bill which was a greater incentive to "ca'canny" or to indolence. I say that this House should never agree to any Measure which, on the one hand, gives to a man a guaranteed wage, and does not insist, on the other hand, that the man should give a guaranteed service.
§ Sir B. REES
There is nothing in the original Act—[Interruption.]—If I may get on, my next objection to the Bill is that it supersedes an already existing agreement come to by the two sides, an agreement which does provide for a minimum wage. It may be low—I am not discussing that point for a moment—but there you have the machinery for a minimum wage, and, when the trade can stand it, that minimum will automatically increase. You have got the machinery for it, so that to-day we are not arguing against the principle of a minimum wage in the industry. What we say is that it is not for Parliament, but for the industry itself, to fix that minimum. The Bill, if passed, would 847 cancel a lot of the jobs of my hon. Friends on the benches above the Gangway. It would supersede collective bargaining, and the trade unions would have very little work to do. In any case, this is such a new principle, and, to my mind, it is such a startling innovation in legislation, that I think the House is entitled to ask one or two questions, which I am sure hon. Members will be glad to answer.
How much will it cost? Can the trade stand it? I think they are two very pertinent questions. The present minimum, leaving out piece workers, is approximately 7s. 6d., and it has been increased, by various awards, to bring it up to the subsistence level, as it is called, hut, generally speaking, it is somewhere about 7s. 6d. Under the Bill, that minimum is to be brought up to an average of 11s., leaving out piece workers. It is very difficult to estimate what will be the exact cost of it. I estimate, myself, from the best sources I can get it, that it will mean an increase to the wages bill of about £25,000,000 a year, and that represents 2s. a ton on all the coal produced in this country. Can the industry stand it? If it cannot, I think our discussion is useless. Take 1924. Under the agreement of 1921, there was set up the machinery for a minimum wage, coupled with a new principle that there was to be a certain percentage of the proceeds for wages and a certain proportion of the profits for dividends. You had the total receipts divided up into known proportions, and the wages were to be a first charge on the proceeds of the industry. In the 1924 agreement there was a revision of the proportions, and the proportion to be paid in wages was increased.
Now let me see how that worked out in 1924. In that year the total proceeds of the industry amounted to £165,500,000, and the total amount paid in wages out of that was £152,200,000, the balance left for profit being £13,300,000. These are the figures issued by the Board of Trade, so that the owners received, for 1924, a. sum equal to less than 1 per cent. of what was paid in wages. For 1924 they received £13,300,000.