HC Deb 08 February 1926 vol 191 cc781-804

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


On Friday morning Questions were put from these Benches to the Minister of Labour, the Minister of Health and the Minister of Mines, and the answers to all the three questions were most unsatisfactory. As a matter of fact, the impression we got from the answers was this, that Ministers did not realise the seriousness of the position in the County of Durham. At the outset I want to say this, that the miners are not a class of people who are content to take starving quietly. They are as fine a set of men as any in the country. They are fair and reasonable, and they are sportsmen and play the game, but, they will fight rather than starve, and when they fight it will not be without their womenfolk in Durham. You will find that if the miners have to fight that the womenfolk will stand by their side, and will cheer and encourage them to the very last. During the War we believed, that we had got into such a position that we should never come back to the conditions: which prevailed prior to the War, but during the last five years the coalowners in Durham have been pushing our men down and down and down, until at the present time our people are right down: in the gutter of poverty.

Only a fortnight ago the Prime Minister was in the County of Durham. I only wish, when he was there, that instead of staying with a coalowner he had visited one of our mining villages and had stayed in one of our miner's homes. He would have been treated kindly and have gone away from Durham with altogether a different impression. I am certain of this, that if he had stayed overnight in one of our mining villages and seen the conditions of our people he would have come back and said to the three Ministers we are impeaching to-night, "I give you twenty-four hours to alter the conditions in Durham, and if you do not, I will seek: fresh Ministers." We are impeaching-three Departments to-night on three different matters. We are impeaching the Ministry of Health on the non-payment of the unemployment benefit. For nine months thousands of our men have-been out of employment, and they have-not been paid unemployment benefit. We impeach the Minister of Health because-the Minister of Health is refusing to give these men poor law relief, and we impeach the Secretary for Mines because he is making no effort, to have work restarted at the collieries and to settle: the difficulties in Durham.

I desire first to refer to the question of unemployment benefit. The Minister of Labour argued that these men were engaged in a trade dispute and had caused a stoppage of work. These men are in no way responsible for the stoppage of the collieries and were never consulted about it. The coalowners made up their minds to stop the collieries, and they locked out the men. We believe the Unemployment Insurance Act, 1924, is clear and unmistakeable in laying down that men are only to be penalised when they participate in a trade dispute, and cause a stoppage of work. That condition cannot be applied to our men in this case For nine months they have been entitled to unemployment benefit, and that benefit should be paid to them. It is no use for the Minister of Labour to say, as he did on Friday, that the umpire has decided against these men and that no one can, interfere with the decision.

The blame rests with the Minister of Labour in deciding that this was a trade dispute, and it was unfair on his part, however the matter went before the umpire, to say that this was a trade dispute, just as if it had been a strike, and to penalise the men. I have no hesitation in saying that the decisions of the umpire in cases like this are such as to teach us that we need some court of appeal for the reconsideration of the umpire's decision. The umpire has made so many blunders and given so many wrong decisions that I believe the time has come when the umpire ought to be removed, and a new umpire appointed. There is no question in my mind on that point, but I am not basing my case tonight on the blunders of the umpire. I hold that the real responsibility rests with the Ministry of Labour in first deciding that this was a trade dispute. Under no conditions should that attitude have been taken up in the circumstances of the case, and in order to put matters right and to get away from that position the Minister should see that these men are given benefit.

As if the withholding of benefit were not sufficient, we have the Minister of Health saying, "This has been termed a trade dispute by the umpire, and therefore the men are not entitled to Poor Law relief." The umpire is thus not only robbing the men of unemployment benefit, but also of Poor Law relief. We say the Minister of Health has no right to hide himself behind the decision of the umpire in his refusal to grant Poor Law relief. We claim that these men, if they cannot get unemployment benefit, are, at the very least, entitled to such relief. Miners do not like asking for Poor Law relief. It is only at the very last push and when there is nothing else for them, that they are prepared to accept it. But when they are prepared to accept Poor Law relief, we say that the Minister of Health has no right to deprive them of it and leave them in the serious position, in which these men find themselves at the present time, of being refused Poor Law relief. They have applied for admittance to the workhouses, which are only small in that district. They have filled the workhouses with men, but there are still thousands of men who cannot get in, and, if they could, we say they have no right there. We believe that these men ought not, even if there were room in the workhouses, to have to go there, but that they are entitled to Poor Law relief.

I was amused on Friday at the answer given by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health because he hid himself in his reply behind the Merthyr Tydvil decision. That decision did not apply to men locked out, but dealt with a strike, and there is as much difference between a strike and a lock-out as there is between chalk and cheese. The Ministry of Health have refused these men Poor Law relief, and the Ministry of Labour have robbed them of unemployment benefit, with tin result that we have had in Durham an epidemic of small-pox. It had not broken out before these men were impoverished, but owing to their impoverishment we have had this epidemic in these districts in the County of Durham, and now we have over 700 cases of small-pox. The Ministers may confine starvation to the men and their families, but they cannot confine the epidemic of small-pox, and the community will have to pay the price for the neglect of the Ministers in regard to these men.

One word in regard to the Minister of Mines, whom I am glad to see here. We are impeaching the Minister of Mines because he seems simply to sit idly by and allow coal owners to close down these pits without a word of inquiry. The House has been busy to-day discussing the education question. If a new school had to be built, the Education Minister would send an inspector down, no matter how far, right into the North of England, to inspect the site, before be would allow the local authority to build the school. If it be important to send an inspector down to decide upon a site for the building of a school, surely it is far more important to send an inspector down to hold an inquiry as to why a pit employing hundreds and thousands of men should be stopped, and we claim that the Minister of Mines might have been far more active. As a matter of fact, if an accident happens in a colliery, and men are killed, the Minister of Mines will send down an inspector to hold an inquiry into that accident, to ascertain why the men were killed.

That is necessary and important, but if it be essential that an inquiry should be held where men are killed, it is also essential that an inquiry should be held where men are starved to death. There is not very much difference—if anything, one is worse than the other—between a man being killed and a man being starved to death. I think, if I had to choose one, I would choose the accident rather than the starvation. We believe that if the Minister of Mines, even now, at this very late hour, would send an inspector down into the county of Durham and get both sides round a table to inquire why the collieries were stopped, we would have within a very short time 9,000 or 10,000 men back at work. If that were done, it would save the Unemployment Fund because there are collieries that might resume work where men are now unemployed. That would save the Unemployment Fund in those cases, it would help the miners, and it would help the community.


I regret I have to say anything in this matter at all, but it would appear to me that a great conspiracy is taking place in the county of Durham, and that the three Ministers whom my colleague has impeached are really there backing and abetting that insincerity. I regret these hard words, but the fact is that very little other inference can be drawn. Let me tell the House what has happened. On the 31st July, the mineowners broke away from the national agreement that had been arrived at between the two parties concerned. That ended by the Prime Minister making an arrangement to enable the pits to carry on, but it did not end the miners' trouble. I said a "conspiracy," and my reason for saying that is that the two richest companies in Durham who have made more money in 10 years than any other company in Durham are the people who are keeping the miners out. Take the Consett Coal and Iron Company, which, up to 1920, never paid less than 35 per cent. a year. They capitalised their reserves, and gave to every shareholder two shares for every share held. Surely those people cannot come to this honourable House and plead poverty. And so with the Boldon Coal Company. These two companies can well afford to adopt a different attitude. Ministers opposite have given them every encouragement to go on with the action they have taken in dealing with the men. We have said time after time to the Minister of Mines, "Get these people round a table, find out if these men have done anything contrary to any Act of Parliament, or contrary to the customs existing." It would be found that they have not. I accuse the owners of being dishonourable. They gave a notice for a specific object. We want the Government to see to it that at least common justice is done.

As my hon. Friend said, the miners are an honourable people. The miners were put in a position not of the best, as many people know, but they are always prepared when an agreement is made to carry out that agreement and to remedy what grievances they have in a legitimate and lawful fashion. The Secretary for Mines has taken no action to bring these people together. I am glad to say that the people in the Division which I have the honour to represent (Houghton - le - Spring) have been fed, but the people in the Consett area are "down and out," the children are going to school unfed, and would have continued so if the Durham County Council had not come to their aid. We ask hon. Members opposite to tell the people concerned to play the game, to play cricket, and the miners will play cricket. This sort of thing reacts. If the miners rebel and do things contrary to law and precedent, then blame the people who are provoking these things and not the miners. The responsible Minister has refused, in effect, to aid the miners because someone told him what, presumably, had happened he could not have had the opportunity himself to inquire into the facts.

The whole situation calls out for the intervention of the Prime Minister; calls out for that right hon. Gentleman to put his hand to this thing, and tell the people concerned that when the subsidy was given it was intended that business should be carried on as usual until some other arrangement was arrived at in the time approaching. Meanwhile, the owners are doing their best to take from the miners of Durham every little privilege they have in whatever shape or form it may be. The miners may have given up some other thing to get that privilege, but the owners are going to take away the privilege and keep what the miner has conceded at the same time. I want to request that there should be an inquiry into the whole thing. I ask this in the name of humanity, but it should also be given in the name of justice.

Therefore I claim that you, Sir, the Prime Minister of this country, should tell this House to-night that you intend to see that these abnormal things are ended, and that the men should be treated in a fashion that is just—and we ask nothing more than justice, but we do claim that—that they should be dealt with, and that these things should be given to us until some other agreement has been arrived at. Because the men are down the time is supposed to be opportune to put them down still further. Those who do that sort of thing do not know the Durham miners, or they would not do it. The Durham miner will fight to the very last. He is the last to enter a fight. But he is the last to be beaten. Therefore I urge that the Ministers should take upon themselves a full and impartial inquiry before turning down the objects which the men seek, and that sympathy to which they think they are entitled from any Government.


The long exposition on the technical side given by my hon. Friends who have preceded me make it unnecessary to deal further with that side of the case. I am certain that if we took the Minister's own pledge, or if Ministers went to see the devastated area in Durham as it is, if hon. Members saw it too, they would, irrespective of party, see such a state of things as would make the demand for a settlement of the problem insistent. There are a million people in Durham County, and there is no doubt not less than half-a-million directly or indirectly concerned in the unemployed. The men themselves who have been in work have done what they could out of their own scanty earnings to help the unemployed men. The miners of Durham have paid no less than £2,000,000 during the last four years —[An HON. MEMBER: "Two and a half"]—directly to help their brethren who are unemployed. The local authorities have done what they could.

During the last four years we have had men giving of their best, yea, men and women giving of their best, and now not only the workmen and the local authorities, but the great mass of the people are at the end of their resources. Their food has been stinted, their clothing limited, and the ultimate and direct vestal of that is one of the most dreadful epidemics of small-pox in that county that there has been in this country for many years. In the immediate neighbourhood of the Consett area, where there has been this great unemployment, it is safe to say that the smallpox resulting from those circumstances has got absolutely out of the hands of the local authorities, and threatens not only Durham but this country. I heard from people last week, just before I left home, that the ordinary disease as we have known it for a few months has gone, and that now the most dreadful typo is breaking out, and if once that gets out of hand in a county like ours who can tell where it will stop, and whether it will not become almost a second "black death" in this country?

I speak with feeling upon this matter, because in one of the areas live my own brothers and sisters, my own people whose houses I have visited, and I know exactly the conditions, and the position is this. As my friend the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Richardson) said, it is not the worst collieries that are concerned. I began in a mine there at 12 years of age and I worked there till I was over 30. The company has four collieries, employing 10,000 men, but at two of then 5,000 men are being kept unemployed at the present time. The company has the best seams in this country, it has the best quality of coal in this country, and they are right at the docks. I would ask the business men here to take note of what has happened in reference to those particular collieries. I do not know what the profits are the public profits, but. I am going to make bold to say that the Harton Company—and I challenge contradiction from the company when they read it—has in the last 20 years got its capital back no less than four times; and I know that I am well within bounds when I make a statement of that kind.

In that colliery I began as a boy of 12 years of age. We had a manager who gradually formed his pillars, like a good pitman should do. He took a little here and a little there, paying normal dividends. By and by there came in a man who was engaged by the company, and who took everything away round about the shaft. There were 10 years of that, with extraordinary dividends—yes; but now they still have to meet their overhead charges and three times the amount for timber. I know myself what has happened in that particular mine at Boldon, and what my own people have told me. They said, "The time will come when they will not get into the mine.' So there we have one of the best mines, with one of the best quality seams, reduced to idleness because they wanted to reduce the men's wages to deal with the results of their colossal stupidity. The company said, "We want a reduction." Then what did they do? Mark this, those who ask for good will. As I said the other night, anyone who knows anything of the facts over a century knows that in the Durham coalfield we want good will if anybody wants it—in an industry like ours.

What happened? They ask for this reduction. "No," was the reply. Then they closed the mine, not even giving the legal 14 days' notice, and the men out who are receiving their unemployment benefit are getting it simply because the company would not carry out their legal obligation to give the ordinary notice. What happens then I Was it good will? They come to London to see the umpire, and the manager of that great and powerful company follows them here, and, like a wolf in his ferocity, he tries to take away the unemployment benefit of these men. If the three Ministers concerned will have a conference and decide to send their representatives to Durham, I am certain that in the affected area in that county there is not the slightest doubt that a settlement can be come to, if only some of the stupidity shown by the management can be set aside. I am certain that this House, if it could see the actual conditions and understand the problem, would demand an immediate settlement from the representatives of the Ministers of the day particularly concerned in this problem.


I wish to say a word or two on this subject because, in the first place, I happen to be the Member for South Shields; and secondly, because I was intimately connected with the very recent disputes which occurred in this particular district. I thoroughly agree with what has been said by the last speaker, who stated that if anyone went up into the affected district he would very soon be satisfied of two things; one is that the men really are anxious to work, and the other is that they are suffering almost the pangs of hunger. It is only right that we should have a clear decision on this matter, and that we should have removed from our minds any confusing elements. I do not, however, think it is fair to say that the umpire acted in any way upon adverse opinions, nor is it fair to say that the Minister of Labour is legally in a position to do anything which he has not done. It is entirely a question for the Prime Minister.

As far as the Umpire is concerned, when I inquired I was told that the St. Hilda pit had been closed for two months upon the decision of the Umpire. I took the matter up as Member for the district, and a little investigation satisfied me that the case had not been properly put before the Umpire. I asked the Minister concerned, and he put me in touch with the Umpire, and he was fair enough to say, "I will give you an opportunity of rehearing the case if you can produce any new evidence." He gave me the opportunity. I did not appear professionally, but as Member for the district, and I satisfied him that, although the mine had been closed nominally by reason of a trade dispute, it had really been closed because the management was of the opinion that they could not carry it on. After the Umpire had given his decision, and before the arrears of money were paid, the management of that colliery brought pressure to bear upon the Minister, who was bound to act, with the result that the Umpire had to consider his reconsidered position, and I again went before him. The House will see that this put the Umpire in a very unfortunate position, but he acted very straightforwardly and manfully, and showed a great deal of moral courage, and, after having heard me, he came to the conclusion that he would adhere to what he had already decided.

A month after that, when the men had got their arrears of pay and were getting their dole, I heard to my astonishment that the men were again deprived of their dole, and that the reason was this: The management, I suppose with legal assistance, struck upon the very lowest terms that they could offer the men that would be within the National Agreement, and they offered them that. The men refused, because it was very much lower than what they had received when the pits were closed. Information was given to the insurance agent; the insurance agent said, "Trade dispute; dole stopped." They went to the Referee. The Referee backed up the insurance agent. They went to the Umpire. I again, in my capacity as Member for the district, appeared for the men, and I then satisfied the Umpire for the third time that, though the dole had been stopped because the men refused to take what was regarded as suitable remuneration, what they were offered was a position in a place that had been closed by reason of a trade dispute. We said that if technicality were used on their side we would use technicality on ours, and in the result I got the dole restored.

So far, therefore, as the umpire is concerned, it is quite unfair to cast any stones at him. As far as the Minister is concerned, his position is very circumscribed indeed. The law, as I understand it, is very simple on the subject. This is an insurance system, and men who make their contributions are entitled to benefits on certain strict conditions. The condition applicable in this case would be that they were nut of employment, having contributed a certain amount. But there is a Section in the first Act that says that if you happen to be out of employment by reason of a trade dispute—and a trade dispute, of course, is any dispute, whether you are concerned in it or not—you are deprived of benefit. In the Act of 1924, my right hon. Friend the Member for Spen Valley (Sir J. Simon) succeeded in getting what really has saved the men all along the line here—he succeeded in getting a Clause put into the Bill which said that if the trade dispute had been brought about by reason of failure on the part of the management to carry out a national agreement, or some other agreement, the disqualification attaching to a trade dispute would be gone, and you would therefore be in the position of an unemployed man who is entitled to benefit.

Now I come to the person—and of course I do not, as he knows, say it personally, but officially—who can do something, and that is the Prime Minister. Undoubtedly, when what is now known as the Baldwin settlement was made, it was thought throughout the length and breadth of the country that it meant simply this: "The National Agreement, which comes to an end in July, will be treated as if it continues to run until next May, and if, while it is running, employers find that, having paid the men the minimum wage which was then thought to be the wage that was in existence at that moment, they themselves have not sufficient profits, then they turn to the Government, and the Government, out of our pocket, will foot the balance of the bill that they are short." That is really what the settlement meant. I know perfectly well that, on the strict use of the words of the Prime Minister, all that he said was, "You will have the full benefit of the National Agreement up to May." The National Agreement allowed a certain reduction in basic rates, so that a person might be under the National Agreement and still have the rate he was receiving; on that date reduced.

That is technically correct, but certainly that is not what was understood, and, as my right hon. Friend reminds me, it was on the White Paper "to maintain wages," and I cannot blame anybody in the country for thinking that the intent and purpose of that was, that here were two of you fighting. The employers say: "We cannot carry on because we do not get profits." True. The men say: "We cannot take less than we are now receiving, or we shall starve." True. The Government say: "We will satisfy both parties. Men, continue to get what you now have. Employers, keep the pits open, and tell us what you are short of the 13 per cent., to which you are entitled."

That is what everybody knows. I think it would be a great pity for all of us who are connected with mining districts that there should be a crisis in May. It does none of us any good, and it is a great pity that the benevolent spirit—according to our view, mistaken, but at all events benevolent spirit—that underlay the settlement should be warped, shrivelled up, and made, instead of a delightful, a hateful thing, because opportunity is given by reason of this technical construction for managers to say, as really has been done in the Durham case, "We are not content with merely the subsidy, but we want to make you men take less than you are now getting, and we know perfectly well that we are in a stronger position to bargain and make you accept adverse conditions when your stomachs are empty than when they are full." And that is the only reason I can find, in these disputes, as the Member for the district taking part, disputes legally between the insurance bodies and the contributors, that in these disputes you should have, come up from Durham, the manager of the Hartley Colliery Company, with his papers ready, urging, as I heard, with a great deal of ability, and undoubtedly with a great deal of legal priming, as strong a case as he could possibly put up to deprive the men of the dole. What business was it of his?—unless that he, having put before the men conditions and terms that were lower than he was bound to give under the national agreement, the best way to get the men to accept these things, that otherwise they are not bound to accept, is to make them hungry.

I have, I hope, acquitted, so far as I am concerned, and I am quite sure the hon. Member who spoke first, if he knew the facts he would have also said, that the umpire is an absolutely straightforward man, and that the Minister of Labour under the Act can do no more than he has done. But the Prime Minister can do a great deal. He can supplement the good work, from a benevolent point of view, that he started with the subsidy, by saying: "I intend that until May comes, the men who were at work in July of last year shall continue to be at work, if they are willing to take the wages they were then receiving." He can say that, and if he does it will remove a great deal of the irritation and bad feeling that will make it hard for him and for the whole of the community when the time comes for the subsidy to be reviewed.

The MINISTER of HEALTH (Mr. Neville Chamberlain)

The question that has been raised in this Debate has been raised on one or two occasions before, and I regret that on neither of these occasions was I present. One hon. Member has said there were three Ministers he desired to impeach. I had no idea that there were more villains in this piece to-night than myself, and my purpose in rising is to explain what precisely my position in this matter is. The House will realise that the Minister of Health has nothing whatever to do with the trade dispute as such. He is not concerned as to the merits of this or any other dispute of the kind. All he has to do is to see that, so far as he can, the administration of poor relief by boards of guardians is carried on in accordance with the law. I am sure the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Richardson) in his cooler moments will regret his suggestion that three responsible Ministers of His Majesty's Government have entered a conspiracy with the employers in that district in order to keep down the men's wages. I am certain no one in the House will really attach any importance to a statement which, I think, must have been made in the heat of the moment.


I think I said it would appear as if three Members had entered into a conspiracy.


I will try to make it appear, as far as I am concerned at any rate, that there was no conspiracy at all. I think the hon. Member and the hon. Member who opened the Debate are really under a misapprehension as to what the law in this matter is. I have to see that the law is observed, and the law in this case is laid down by what is known as the Merthyr Tydvil judgment. Under the Merthyr Tydvil judgment it is not legal for boards of guardians to give relief to able-bodied men who are physically capable of work and who have work offered them on terms which would enable them to maintain themselves and their families. It is true that if, owing perhaps to their refusal to accept terms which they think unreasonable, they are so physically reduced that they become physically unable to work, then the guardians can give them relief. [Interruption.] It is no use for hon Members to give expression to signs of emotion. I am merely stating what has been laid down as the law by the judges of the land.


It has not been carried out since. It has been defied by boards of guardians in numerous cases.


I shall endeavour to see that the guardians carry out the law as long as it is the law.


It is not your duty but the auditors. You have no authority to do it.

11.0 P.M.


What happened in this case was that this board of guardians at Lanchester gave out-relief on a scale that was one of the highest in the country. When this trade dispute occurred, as to the merits of which I am offering no opinion whatever, they decided that they would pay relief to the men concerned. Sometime later they had exhausted their financial resources and they wanted the sanction of the Ministry of Health to a further loan. I thought it my duty to point out to them that I could not sanction loans if they were being expended illegally. That is my position, and that is the right I have to take action. That is precisely my case. As far as the dispute is concerned, I am outside it. I know nothing about the dispute or the terms which were offered and refused. All I know is that this case comes under the terms of the Merthyr Tydvil judgment and therefore it is illegal for the guardians to give relief to these men expect in the circumstances I have detailed. That is the case for the Ministry of Health, and it has nothing to do with the case of the Ministry of Labour.

I do not think there is anything else I need say, except to take notice of the suggestion that has been made more than once that the spread of small-pox in this district is connected with the refusal of the guardians to give this relief. There is not a shadow of evidence to that effect. [Interruption.] Not the slightest shadow of evidence to carry out that deduction. On the other hand, it is well known that a large proportion of the people in this district are unprotected by vaccination and, further, that there is insufficient isolation hospital accommodation in the district. There is one further circumstance, which I need not mention now, to which I think we may probably attribute the spread of small pox in that district. There is no reason whatever to suppose that the small-pox has any relation to the question of relief. When it is borne in mind that the relief has been refused to the men but no to the women and children concerned, the House will see how difficult it is to establish that there can be any connection whatever between the small pox and the question of poor relief. That is all I have to say as far as my Department is concerned.


I am astonished at the statement made by the Minister of Health that the small-pox may have been accounted for by the fact that the people in the district were in a large proportion unvaccinated. I would draw the attention of the House to a report of the sanitary inspector of the Blaydon Urban District Council. Right from the commencement of collieries being laid down in that district, we have a schedule showing how this epidemic has increased month after month. The Minister of Health must remember that while there may be school feeding in this area, there are the children outside school age whose feeding has been done by voluntary effort.

This particular trouble began in April last year. There was one notification of smallpox during that month. During the month of May there were three notifications, in June these was one notification, in July, 27, in August, 12, in September, 19, in October, 76, in November, 136, and in December, 179. During the nine month; there have been 454 notifications of smallpox in this particular area of the Blaydon Urban District Council since these stoppages began. Therefore, the right hon. Gentleman cannot make the assertion that this outbreak is not as serious as we have tried to make it appear.

I was interested in the statement made by the hon. and learned Member for South Shields (Mr. Barney). His statement means that we are more emphatic in our demand for the removal of the umpires, because we have 10 collieries in Durham where the men have been refused benefit, where the particulars are exactly the same as in the case of St. Hilda and Boldon. There may have been some difference in the details. I have been through all the cases, and I know that the same principles applied in the other 10 cases which had been refused as in the case of St. Hilda and Boldon which has been allowed. You have a great body of workmen like the mining community walled in on all sides, first by the Minister, or rather by the Ministry of Labour—I will put it in that way—prejudging their case. As soon as the employer sends up to the Ministry a statement that he has offered conditions to the men—it does not matter if the conditions are the worst possible that could be offered—the Minister of Labour at once terms it a "trade dispute." We say that that is very unfair. Our people are hemmed in on that side. On the other side, because they are able-bodied workmen who have refused to accept the conditions offered they are not entitled to any out-door relief.

Whether or not the Government disagree with us in our idea that there is some conspiracy amongst them, that idea is very prevalent in the minds of these working men, because they cannot understand why any Government should allow the existence of a condition of things that means forcing men to accept terms which members of the Government would absolutely refuse to accept if they were in the same position as these men. We say that the time has come when the problem must be faced and remedied. Take the Gateshead Union. There the problem has become more acute in the last 18 months, because of the heavy depression in the mining districts. The hon. Member for Gateshead (Mr. Beckett), the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. R. J. Wilson) and myself have been to the Ministry of Health and have asked for a loan to enable the Gateshead Guardians to meet their difficulty. The Minister allowed us £20,000, to be repaid in two years. He did not give us the ordinary terms previously given to the Board. His reason was that he felt there had been some illegal payments made, and therefore he put in operation a special audit. That audit has been held, and I have not yet heard what is the result.

The guardians are in this position: They were elected on the understanding that they would see that there was no destitution in that area and that adequate relief would be paid by them if possible. Their scale is as follows: 27s. for a man and his wife, 3s. each for the first three children, and 2s. each for the remaining children, and they allow rent up to 7s. a week. That is not an unjust or an unreasonable scale. As a matter of fact men and women and children cannot possibly live on it to-day in anything like decency. This board of guardians has an overdraft of £70,000. Its poor rate is now 7s., and it has to levy a subsidiary rate of 2s. in order to meet obligations up to 31st March, and then to put on another rate of 2s. in order to meet obligations for the next 12 months.

We say that these people are facing their difficulties with real courage. The tradesmen in that area are having a bad time, and many of them are going out of business because of the shortage of purchasing power in that area. The ratepayers themselves are prepared to meet their responsibilities, but they desire their fellow-citizens who are having to meet these abnormal difficulties should get some assistance from somewhere. We have said that this problem is a national problem, but as long as they make it a problem for the areas to face the Government should have some regard for those particular areas. The time has come, before this epidemic grows much more, for the Ministers of the Crown, and the Prime Minister in particular, to consider these things in order that our people should have proper opportunities of maintaining a decent citizenship.


The Prime Minister.

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Baldwin)

I am quite, willing to address the House on this question. In fact, there are one or two things I should like to say in reference to one ort two points raised in the discussion. The hon. and learned Member for South Shields (Mr. Harney) raised a point which underlies the whole of the discussion, and I should like to say a word about it. The point he raised is the question as to what was meant when the subsidy was given. That matter, as the hon. and learned Member is possibly aware, was discussed at some detail at a subsequent meeting of the miners and myself—I forget when—some few weeks after the subsidy was granted by this House. I explained to them what I had never had any doubt about—that what I meant, and what. I thought we all meant at that time, was the maintenance of the status quo. These matters are extremely technical. I do not pretend that I have ever been able to master them, but it is no new thing to all people who are familiar with these matters that under the agreement which existed prior to August there was always a right on either side to discuss basis rates, either in an upward or downward direction, and that any rate that would be agreed upon could be substituted for the rate which existed. I am informed—I have not this at firsthand knowledge—that prior to August there have been struggles that had ended in disputes, and the same thing has unfortunately happened since.

What complicated matters and what I imagine led the miners to see me was the fear that a decision might be given by the Umpire against giving unemployment benefit, and the fear was expressed that there would be a conspiracy, that was the word used, to get a number of cases like this with a view of beating down some of the men in certain sections of the coalfield. I said myself at the conference that I had no evidence that anything of the kind existed, nor was I willing to believe that anything of the kind would exist. It is a thousand pities in all the circumstances that any cases of the kind have arisen. That is another matter.

People are acting within their rights in privately negotiating for higher or lower wages. With regard to this particular dispute, my right hon. Friend the Secretary for Mines and I and the Minister of Labour are in very close touch at this time with all questions affecting the coalfield, because we have it in our hearts and minds, as all other Members in this House have, that we want to carry the coal trade through May successfully. Whether we shall or not is another thing.


Good will!


I want that for a basis and a good many other things besides which I hope we shall have. This question has caused us some anxiety, but my right hon. Friend tells me as his latest report that with regard to Hartley he is expecting a reply to a communication on the matter and he is holding himself ready at any moment to assist in trying to bring about a, settlement. With regard to the Consett trouble his latest information is that he hopes an agreement may be reached very shortly.

I want to add one other thing, and I do this entirely on my own account as one with some experience of human nature. I am as anxious as anyone to see a satisfactory settlement, but knowing human nature as I do, and recognising the honesty and the purity of the motives of my hon. Friends opposite, I yet feel that such a discussion as we have had to-night cannot help to get a settlement, but must rather militate against it, and for this reason. In my position I try to envisage the interests of both sides and deal as fairly as I can with them. Speaking here to-night hon. Members opposite—I do not blame them for it, because their hearts are burning within them and they come from where their own friends are undergoing a period of stress and trouble—have said all kinds of hard things about the very men whom we are most anxious to get, to make an agreement. It does not make our task any easier, any more than it would make our task easier to get the friends of hon. Members opposite to agree, if some of my friends and some hon. Members below the Gangway had been saying hard things about them. When you are trying to get together two bodies of men, how infinitely easier the task would be if only people would keep quiet until a settlement was made. I must put this before the House, because I feel no one in this House could be more anxious than. I am to see this matter settled, and I say that, in so far as we can, no effort shall be spared, and I hope yet, from my information, that very shortly an agreement may be come to, but I am a little afraid that we have not helped forward that agreement by our discussion to-night. I am not saying for a moment that this discussion ought not to have taken place. I did my best to-day with Mr. Speaker to obtain the time necessary for these speeches to be made. I think the question which has been raised is one of extreme difficulty—this question of un- employment benefit—and I think that the action of unemployment benefit and the condition of the old agreement that has allowed the negotiating of these rates, do form a problem that must have very serious consideration in any agreement we may be able to make among ourselves when May comes.

I felt that I must say these few words in answer to the hon. and learned Member for South Shields (Mr. Harney), to explain to him that I cannot, when there are only about another three months to run, turn round on the attitude I have always maintained in this matter. I cannot alter the view of what I said last. August, and what I meant, and what I believe everybody at that time understood. I regret profoundly the consequences—


I want to draw the Prime Minister's attention to this: While undoubtedly he made it quite clear in the House as to the meaning of the settlement, did he not shortly afterwards make a reference to the possibility of the managers taking advantage of the power to reduce wages?


It is possible I said something like that, but I cannot remember the exact words. We may all have our opinions on these matters, but I have every hope that even now these present disputes, which are local, although they affect a great number of men, may be settled, and that we may see the few thousands of men in these disputes, who have suffered so much, going back into regular employment.


I have refrained from taking part in this Debate for the very reason named by the Prime Minister. I simply rise now for the purpose of making, if I may, a personal appeal to the Prime Minister. He has been good enough to suggest that there is some reasonable prospect of a settlement. I went to the constituency last week-end, and met the manager of the Consett Iron Company. The Prime Minister and the Secretary for Mines are probably aware that a deadlock has arisen over a circumstance like this: the Consett Iron Company have refused to meet the collieries as a group, and the miners have refused to meet the Consett Iron Company as individual collieries. That is the real deadlock preventing the two sides from coming together. I interviewed the Consett Iron Company on Saturday last, and suggested a way out of the difficulty. The way out was this, that, whereas the Consett Iron Company could not meet the collieries as a group, as an organisation, they might be prepared to meet a deputation composed of individuals from the various collieries affected, and I came away with the Impression that the company was quite prepared at least to consider that position very favourably.

I went from the Consett Iron Company to the collieries affected. There are five collieries affected, and there are three collieries working. I met the representatives of the whole of the eight collieries, placed the situation before them, and the delegates there unanimously decided to go back to their lodges, and to urge their lodges to accept that procedure, not to go before the Consett Iron Company as a definite organisation, but as a group of miners representing the various collieries concerned. They had called a special mass meeting on Sunday morning to really declare a general strike, and to call out the men, now working. That meeting was cancelled, and I believe that at this moment, if the Secretary for Mines would use his influence, the position is ripe, at any rate, to get the men and masters together. I rise, not to make any hard statements, not to make a solution more difficult, but to ask the Secretary for Mines now to use his influence to bring about a meeting. I do not accept the position that the Secretary for Mines should not intervene unless invited by both sides. For instance, I happen to be the chief citizen of a local authority. A few weeks ago we were threatened with a strike, and the Minister of Labour in less than three hours requested my presence here to see if the dispute could not be settled. Why cannot that course be taken in the mining trouble? Why cannot the Secretary for Mines act precisely as the Minister of Labour acted, and try to get the two sides together? I believe the situation now is ripe for settlement, and if not brought about now, it may become worse. I therefore, make my appeal for that to be done.

The SECRETARY for MINES (Colonel Lane Fox)

I am sure the House will be indebted to the hon. Member for the very good work he has done. I should not like the House to think that the Mines Department has not been keeping in very close touch with this problem. We have had representatives there and constant reports. In all these things it must be a matter of discretion, and only the Ministry can tell when it is a suitable time for action. I hope, in view of what the hon. Member has just told us, action may be possible, and I certainly will do everything I can to bring this dispute to an end and make every effort I can to secure a peaceful settlement at the earliest possible moment. I will only add that, of course, I must be guided by the circumstances. We are very closely in touch with the situation, and I have every reason to believe that the margin between the disputing parties is an extremely narrow one. The terms offered have been accepted in part of the coalfield, and I hope that in a very short time a complete settlement will be arrived at.


The Minister of Health continually assumes that he is right because when boards of guardians want loans he imposes upon them certain obligations in regard to Poor Relief. In the minute left I want to call his attention to the fact that he is now assuming the right to say when a person is destitute and is not. I am certain that one of these days there will be an accident in a back street where some person has been denied relief. The person held legally responsible will be the unhappy relieving officer and the board of guardians, while the person really responsible will be the Minister of Health.

The Minister hag no right, and he knows it, to order or say what shall be the relief in any district. If a board of guardians breaks the law there is the public auditor to call them to book, while the right hon. Gentleman has again and again in this House hid himself behind part of the judgment. We are all going home to-night after nice kind words. All of us are good people. We all want to do what is the right thing for the people we are serving. Everybody knows that small-pox captures poverty-stricken people first, and for every child that dies the Minister will be responsible.

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