HC Deb 09 December 1926 vol 200 cc2417-28
The ATTORNEY-GENERAL (Sir Douglas Hogg)

I beg to move, That the Regulations made by His Majesty in Council under the Emergency Powers Act, 1920, by Order dated the 2nd day of December, 1926, shall continue in force, subject, however, to the provisions of Section 2 (4) of the Act. In rising to move this Resolution, which stands in the name of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary (Sir W. Joynson-Hicks), I feel sure that all the House will agree with me in expressing regret at the cause which prevents him from being present. He has now, on eight successive occasions, had to move in this House the adoption of a series of Regulations made by virtue of the Emergency Powers Act, 1920, setting up a Code of Rules which had been enacted by his Majesty by Order in Council, and I am quite sure that it would have been very grateful to my right hon. Friend had he been permitted to move on this occasion the adoption, not of some 39 Regulations designed to ensure the safey of the general population and preserve the essentials of light, fuel, and food for the community at large, but only of four Regulations designed to relax to a very large extent, and, indeed, to repeal in the main, the Regulations which he had previously thought it his duty to submit to this House for approval. The House will remember that the Code of Emergency Regulations, some 39 in number, contained a variety of provisions which were thought necessary in the time of emergency through which we have been lately passing, and it will be in the recollection of many hon. Members that on the last occasion when my right hon. Friend moved the adoption of the Regulations, on the 26th November, he told the House: If in a few days' time I can satisfy myself that the condition of affairs is such that I can safely waive all or any of the Regulations, it will be a very great pleasure indeed to me to ask the Privy Council to make the necessary Order, and to bring it before the House for immediate sanction."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th November, 1926; col. 716, Vol. 200.] That Resolution was moved on 26th November and adopted by the House on the 29th, the following Monday. On Thursday, the 2nd December, only three days after the House had adopted these Regulations, my right hon. Friend was able to advise His Majesty that the state of affairs was such that it was safe and proper to repeal the great bulk of the Regulations which the House had then been asked to approve. Indeed, practically all the Regulations which deal with the preservation of safety and good order, or what are called, in other connections, peace, order, and good government, it has been found possible to repeal altogether, and the Regulations of which I am asking the House to approve now are only four in number, of which the fourth is merely a definition Regulation. Regulation number 1 revokes the great bulk of the Regulations then in force; Regulation number 2 is really the re-enactment in a modified and less stringent form of an existing Regulation; and Regulation number 3 is again a re-enactment in a modified form of an existing Regulation. Probably the shortest way, if you, Mr. Speaker, do not regard it as transgressing the limits of order, of explaining what these Regulations effect is to tell the House what is left of them rather than what has been removed.

Under Regulation No. 1, the first nine Regulations are completely wiped out. Regulation 10 reappears in a modified form in the second of these revised Regulations. Regulations 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15 remain operative, as do Regulations 28 to 32 and Regulations 34 to 39. The effect of this repeal is to leave standing only Regulations 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15, which are required in order to control the export of coal and the supply of gas, water and electricity, pending the return to normal working in the coalfields. Regulation 10, in its modified form, which will be found printed on the White Paper, provides that The Board of Trade, or other Government Department approved by His Majesty for the purpose, may by order issue any directions which may be necessary for regulating the traffic in any port or harbour. Under the Regulation as it stood originally, there was power for the Board of Trade to close a. port or harbour altogether or restrict its use. This is a. milder form of restriction. No. 10 and No. 11 deal with port facilities and shipping; No. 12 deals with the clearance and unloading of ships; No. 13 enables the Board of Trade to prohibit export without a permit; No. 14 enables the Mines Department to direct the supply and distribution of coal, and No. 15 empowers the appropriate Government Department to give directions to gas, electricity and water undertakings. These, the House will observe, are none of them regulations which deal with public safety. They are regulations which, in the opinion of the Government, it is necessary to maintain for some short period still in order to make sure that as the unhappy crisis through which we have been passing and its effects are gradually merging into normal working that there shall not be, owing to the export of coal, any lack to domestic or industrial consumers of a supply of coal, and to ensure that the public utility services shall operate in such a way as is most expedient in the national interest.

It is not expected that any very large use will be claimed of the powers which are retained. Already, I believe, permits are being given freely for the export of all coal except anthracite, and the embargo upon coke is kept for the present until the position has regularised itself. I should say a word about No. 3. Nos. 28 to 32 and No. 34 to the end are merely Regulations giving powers to enforce the earlier ones. Regulation No. 3 is a very much modified form of the old No. 19, and it is necessary because during the stoppage directions had been given for ensuring that explosives used in mines should all be kept in places where they could not be used for improper or dangerous purposes. It is necessary to keep No. 19 in force to some extent so far as mines explosives are concerned until those explosives have gone back to their ordinary use. Those are the whole of the operative Regulations which are kept. I do not want to take up the time of the House discussing the policy revealed in this repeal, because I am sure it would be the wish in all quarters of the House that as far as possible these Regulations should be relaxed at the earliest possible moment. I hope I shall command the assent of the great body of Members when I move, as I do, that these Regulations, which were made by Order in Council on the 2nd of December and laid on the Table of this House on the following day, should continue in force, which enables them to maintain their validity over a period of 28 days.


We on this side of the House associate ourselves entirely with the very fitting reference of the Attorney-General to the absence of the Home Secretary. Whatever our political opinions may be, we all deplore the circumstances of his breakdown and wish him a speedy recovery. Incidentally, I would say that the Government have shown themselves very wise, for whatever they may suffer for his absence they can at least rely on the right hon. and learned Gentleman who has taken his place seeing that the Government's case does not suffer. Having said that, I want to submit that the Motion moved so clearly by my right hon. and learned Friend is the most innocent and the most welcome Motion ever proposed from that side of the House. It is the most innocent because a Motion to which even we on this side find no objection must indeed be an innocent one. It is welcomed because of the circumstances that enable it to be moved. Whatever views there may be on the merits of the late dispute, every Member, on whatever side of the House he sits, will admit, having regard to all the circumstances, to the length and nature of the dispute, to the number of people involved, that it stands to the everlasting credit of this country that there were so few disorders in the country. Indeed, when one speaks to foreigners, representative men of other countries, it is not only a source of admiration but of envy when they realise what the industrial situation in this country has been for the past seven months and find how little disorder actually took place. That clearly demon- strates that our people are not only sensible but are essentially law-abiding.

In paying that tribute, I appeal to the Government to add something to their Motion. I do not want it put down on the Paper; I do not want it to be in the form of an Amendment, but I want it given expression to in the spirit in which I am going to make an appeal. The right hon. Gentleman has explained to the House the number of Regulations that are now being abandoned. I stand here and say deliberately I want peace in industry. I am not ashamed to say that. I believe it is the right thing, and I believe it is necessary, but I believe it can be obtained only in two ways. It can be obtained by employers doing the right thing, and it can be obtained and helped on by the Government doing not only the right thing but the big thing. That brings me to the number of people who are at this moment suffering in consequence of the Regulations that are now being abolished. I quite realise that it would be out of order to deal with individual cases. That I do not propose to do. I am going to ask the Government if they themselves can feel satisfied with their own actions in this matter? Yesterday my right hon. Friend in a question directed to the Prime Minister asked for an amnesty. He said: Is this not the time, is this not the opportunity, is this not the occasion when the Government could do the big thing? The answer was a bitter disappointment. The answer was a surprise to many. It was one which we did not expect. Frankly, I did not expect it, because I knew the circumstances and the nature, and some of the individuals who were suffering, and I did not expect it, because there never was a Government that had such a precedent for adopting the course suggested by my right hon. Friend.

I remember one of the earliest tasks with which the late Government were faced—one that we knew nothing about when we came into office entirely ignorant of the circumstances; but we found ourselves right up against a real difficulty. What was it? When the Irish Free State Act was passing through the House of Commons, supplementing, as it was, an agreement hurriedly made in the morning by a number of right hon. Gentlemen on the opposite side of the House as well as this side, it was found that, by a curious blunder, the light- houses had been left out of the Agreement. No one had thought of the lighthouses. I am not blaming anyone; I am merely stating the bald, cold facts to the House, but the fact remained that, under the Irish Free State Treaty, the Government of that day had forgotten to take the necessary precautions vital to the defence of this country. Then we, as a Labour Government, were faced with this difficulty. Our military and naval advisers immediately came along and said, "This is a very serious situation, so serious that it must be decided at once." We were not responsible for it, and we had to face the situation. We said, "Certainly. It is a matter of paramount importance to the nation. It is vital to the future of the Empire. Whatever political views one may have, this is something we will deal with."

We took the responsibility of approaching the Irish Free State, and I myself asked President Cosgrave to meet me, and he realised the situation, but he put this proposition to me. "Yes," he said, "I realise your difficulty. I realise all that you are asking, but there are certain Irish prisoners in the English gaols for various offences. There is one in particular"—and I want my right hon. Friend on the opposite side of the House to draw an analogy between the two cases—"there is one in particular who came over here with Roger Casement, who landed on the shores of Ireland, and was caught with Roger Casement and was sentenced to death with him. The day was fixed for them to be hanged. A few days before, the Government, in their wisdom, thought that they would like to find out some information from this prisoner. They, accordingly, went to him, and obtained information from him, and promised him a free pardon." It is quite true that he deceived them—he lied to them. I quite admit that. I am not saying a word in defence of it, but the fact remained that he had received the promise of a pardon. What followed? The Irish Free State said, "We will negotiate with you, but we want an amnesty for our prisoners," and one of those prisoners included the accomplice, the partner, of Roger Casement, who was guilty of every crime that could possibly be urged against him. He had to be released under a general amnesty, because it was in the interest of the country.

I ask any right hon. Gentleman on the opposite side of the House to try to picture the case of Arthur Jenkins, as it is possible for me to do who know him, who worked with him, who know all his life and record. I am making my appeal in the national interest. I am making an appeal, not for someone who can be put in the same category as a criminal who was released; but all Governments are faced with difficulties of this kind. I use that to illustrate the appeal I make. Here is a clear illustration drawn from my own experience. I would develop that point a little further. Right hon. Gentlemen on the opposite side of the House know perfectly well that when the Irish Free State was constituted, those who were engaged in the negotiations were bitter enemies for the moment, but immediately peace was declared, an amnesty was given to all prisoners, regardless of their offences.

On those grounds, I appeal to the Government to-night. I am not unmindful of this fact, that it may he said—and probably will be said—by the spokesman of the Government, that there are varying circumstances in these cases. I frankly admit it. I say frankly that there are people in gaol who ought not to be in gaol—per-fectly innocent people. There may be some for whom as strong a case cannot be made, but we do ask the Government at this time to realise that they have got a golden opportunity. In a few weeks we shall be approaching the festive season. In a few days this House will adjourn for Christmas. These people of whom I am thinking, whom I know Personally, ought not to be branded as criminals. I know their children, I know their wives. I know the Christmas they will spend. I want to make it a different Christmas, and the Government can make it a different Christmas. I do not speak in a provocative sense. If I were merely arguing against the Government's sins of omission or commission, it would be an entirely different speech that I would make. What I am concerned with is doing something for people whom I believe to be victims. I am speaking in this way because I believe that the Gov- ernment have got this opportunity, and that, if they miss it, they will make a mistake. It is in that broad spirit that I make this appeal. I hope it will be understood that it is not in any party or provocative spirit that I am speaking. I am pleading for what I believe is the right course; I am pleading because I think it is in the interest of the country; I am pleading because I want peace in industry; and I am pleading because the Government have an opportunity, not only of doing the right thing, but of doing the big thing, and in the end the big thing always pays.


I know that personal cases have been ruled out of order, but I want to refer to a matter which I raised when this question was before the House on another occasion when I was refused an answer. I put two questions that day, one was ruled out of order, the other one I still believe to be in order. I put my questions in the ordinary way, and on drawing attention to the fact that they were not answered I got a snarl from the other side of the House. I am not quarrelling with that, but I want to know whether the Government can give any reason why Sir Hugh Bell, the coalowner, who suggested that the Prime Minister might do some shooting, was not thought to be a dangerous individual. May I now have an answer to that? There is also the case of the Noble Lord who suggested that we did not feed the Germans when we were at war with them, and in that way tried to incite the people of this country against the miners. I do not want to take up the time of the House, but I would like to know if there are any reasons why no charge was made against Sir Hugh Bell when he made that statement on the 26th October, and why no charge was made against the Noble Lord.


That question does not seem to be relevant to the Motion.


There is one question I would like to put to the Attorney-General. In answer to a question one day this week the Secretary for Mines stated that the ban on the export of coal from Hull and from other East Coast ports was being lifted—or was lifted to a certain degree. I understand from the speech of the Attorney-General to-night that one of the Regulations which is being kept on deals with this question, and I want to know how far the ban on the export of coal exists at the moment. I am asking because when I was in the Doncaster coalfield at the week-end, some of the big pits in that coalfield, which exports a lot of coal through East coast ports, were standing idle. One of the causes was lack of trucks, but I see by the papers this week that some of the big pits in that neighbourhood have been standing idle, not only through lack of trucks, but also, it is stated, through lack of orders. I do not know whether that is so; I am merely stating what I read in the papers; but it has struck me, as there is a partial ban on the export of coal, that that might have something to do with it. There must be plenty of coal in this country if there are no orders for the pits, and if the lifting of the export ban will allow these pits to get orders and to work full time, I think it is only reasonable to ask that the ban should be removed.


As one who raised the question of an amnesty a few days ago, I want to say, with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby (Mr. Thomas), that I was very much surprised to hear the answer to the appeal that was made yesterday, because I am sure hon. Members on this side are representing not only the views of the working classes of the country, but of all who wish well to the country in the days to come. We ourselves know cases affecting men of the highest character, men who have been occupying responsible public positions, men, sometimes, of rare understanding. Out of a sense of duty those men have often gone into a crowd in order to help to keep the peace, to help the police in their duty, to help to restrain the people. There are men in prison who are of the most peaceful disposition; they took risks to help to keep the peace and because of that, and because, being representative men in their district, they were well known, they are to-day in prison, and apparently, as far as the Government are concerned, they have to remain there. I also raised another matter on that occasion. I see that Regulation 14 is to be left in.


I do not think we can discuss Regulation 14, because that would be discussing over again what the House decided on the 29th October.


I understand that number 14 is one of the Regulations left in.


Yes, it is, but we are not continuing that Regulation on the present occasion.


I hope the response made to the appeal of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby (Mr. Thomas) will be entirely satisfactory, and I say this without any regard to the view of the aggressive section, the extremists, that unless there is compliance with this appeal the effect will be to intensify the operations of that section, which will seek to impress the men with the idea that they ought to prepare for much more aggressive activities than in the past. As the right hon. Gentleman said, this is the season when one would naturally expect good will, and in view of the effective illustration given by the right hon. Gentleman, I hope the Government will rise to the occasion and send a message of pardon to those men who are, for the most part, men of good standing and representative of the mining section and among the best types of the working class that we have.

The SECRETARY for MINES (Colonel Lane Fox)

With regard to what has been said about the ban on export coal, there has been no such ban on export coal for some days. As a, matter of fact, there is absolute freedom to export coal. It was necessary to protect the home supplies of coal, but all the restrictions have now been entirely removed except in the case of anthracite coal and coke, and I hope to remove those restrictions as from midnight on Sunday next.


May I say at once that I do not think anybody on this side of the House, or any member of the Government, can complain of the tone of the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby (Mr. Thomas), who made a very powerful appeal. I am sure that the House and the right hon. Gentleman wilt acquit me of any desire to shirk answering the question which has been put to me, if I say that until I heard the right hon. Gentleman's speech I neither knew that the matter was to be raised, nor that on the Motion before the House it could be raised. In moving this Motion, although I am in charge of the Debate this evening, I do not represent the Home Secretary in the discharge of his function of advising His Majesty with regard to the exercise of the prerogative of mercy. Therefore, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby will understand that if I were to attempt to make any real answer to his appeal, I should run the risk, on the one band, of perhaps raising false hopes which might hereafter be disappointing, or, on the other hand, of being what I do not desire to be, unduly provocative or disappointing to those who have made the appeal.

I can and, of course, I will convey in the best way I can to the Secretary of State for India who has to discharge this function the appeal which has been put forward by the right hon. Gentleman and which has been reinforced by other hon. Members who have spoken. In promising to convey that appeal I want to make it quite clear that I can give no sort of promise that any such general pardon as has been indicated will in fact be granted. I know of no change in the policy of the Government from the attitude which was taken up by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in answer to a question put yesterday, and indeed the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby is in a better position than I am in regard to this matter, because he and some of his colleagues had an opportunity of n. discussing the matter with the Secretary of State himself. I was not present, and I do not know what took place at that interview; neither have I any reason to believe that any modification of the attitude taken up yesterday has been decided upon. I do not want, in view of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has made an appeal in most conciliatory terms, to introduce any element of possible harshness into the discussion of this matter, which I am not competent to determine myself. On the other hand, I am anxious that nothing I should say can be interpreted to lead hon. Members opposite to a conclusion which might turn out to be disappointing. I hope they will acquit me of any discourtesy for not making any further response to their appeal. I must confine myself to safe ground on an occasion of this kind, and I say that the speeches made will undoubtedly be conveyed to the Secretary of State for India (acting in the absence of the Home Secretary) for the consideration of the Cabinet.

10.0 P.M.


It is only fair for me to say right away that we did give notice of our intention to bring forward this question. We believed that on the Motion which has been moved by the Attorney-General to-night it would be in order to review, not individual cases but to treat in a general way the question which I introduced. We certainly had no intention of taking the Government by surprise. On the contrary, we acquainted the Government of our intention, and it was made perfectly clear. It was perfectly well known that we were going to raise this question, and I naturally assumed that the spokesman of the Government would be acquainted with that fact. It was understood, and I came specially down to make this appeal, clearly understanding that the Government knew about it. We are not concerned with debating points or procedure, but we are concerned in doing something in the case for which I have been pleading. I quite understand the difficulty in which the Attorney-General is placed. It is perfectly true that an interview has taken place, but it is equally true that there is grave public alarm on this question. Of course I do not expect anything further from the Attorney-General, but I want him to convey what has been expressed here to-night to the Government, and I hope my appeal will not have been made in vain. The Government must clearly understand the anxiety of the nation on this question and we shall continue to use our Parliamentary efforts to raise this question. I hope to-night's discussion will not harden the situation, or close the door, and we shall have to be content now with the answer of the Attorney-General.

Resolved, That the Regulations made by His Majesty in Council under the Emergency Powers Act, 1920, by Order dated the 2nd day of December 1926, shall continue in force subject however to the provisions of Section 2 (4) of the Act.