HC Deb 23 July 1926 vol 198 cc1609-22

(1) In order to facilitate the settlement of disputes in the mining industry there shall be established immediately after the passing of this Act—

  1. (a) a national arbitration tribunal consisting of three persons (hereinafter referred to as "industrial arbitrators");
  2. (b) a district conciliation committee for each district consisting of seven persons appointed by the President of the Board of Trade (in this section referred to as "the President") of whom three shall be nominated by the district branch of the Miners' Federation, three by the District Coal Owners Association, and one, who shall be chairman, by the other members of the committee.

(2) The national arbitration tribunal shall consist of three industrial arbitrators appointed by the Crown, and being persons who have no direct financial or other material interest in the mining industry. They shall hold office during good behaviour, and upon the address of both Houses of Parliament it shall be lawful for the Crown to remove them.

(3) The national arbitration tribunal shall have power—

  1. (a) to arbitrate upon any matters connected with or arising from any national agreement relating to conditions of employment in the industry which are not already provided for by statute;
  2. (b) to hear and arbitrate upon appeals against decisions reached by the district conciliation committees.

(4) The Secretary of Mines shall nominate a secretary to the national arbitration tribunal, who shall hold office during good behaviour.

(5) If after the fifteen days' notice to the said district branch of the Miners Federation and the said district coal owners association no nominations are sent to the president by either of the bodies, the president shall in either case forthwith appoint three persons as members of the committee who are, in his opinion, representative of the miners and the coal owners in the district, as the case may require.

(6) The six members so appointed shall, within one month of their appointment, meet for the purpose of nominating a chairman, and if they fail to do so or to make a suitable nomination the president shall forthwith appoint a chairman.

(7) The chairman shall hold office for a period of three years but shall be eligible for reappointment in like manner as herein-before provided.

(8) The other members of the committee shall hold office in the first instance for a period of three years and thereafter shall retire by rotation. Two members, one representative of the miners and one re- presentative of the owners, shall retire every year, and the members who are to retire at the end of the third, fourth, and fifth Years respectively, shall be chosen by lot. Retiring members shall be eligible for reappointment in like manner as hereinbefore provided.

(9) If the chairman or any member dies or retires during his term of office the vacancy shall be filled in the like manner.

(10) The Secretary for Mines shall nominate a secretary to each committee, who shall hold office during good behaviour.

(11) The duties of a committee shall be—

  1. (a) the settlement of any mining disputes arising in the district;
  2. (b) the settlement of wages questions within the district, including the fixing of basic rates and percentages; and
  3. (c) the regulations of conditions of employment which are not already provided for by statute or any national agreement.

(12) The decisions of the majority of the committee shall be binding on all persons whom they concern throughout the district.

Provided that if within thirty days of any decision notice of appeal against the decision is lodged with the Secretary for Mines, the Secretary shall refer the appeal to the national arbitration tribunal, whose decision shall be final. —[Mr. D. Denies.]

Brought up, and read the First time.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

This Clause deals with the question of industrial disputes and on this matter I speak only for myself and for no one else. I do not think there is any apology needed for bringing this matter before the House. It appears to me that this is a very serious omission from any Bill which sets out to deal with what is called the reorganisation of the mining industry. One of the most vital parts of any reorganisation is the setting up of some kind of machinery, not necessarily the machinery described in this Clause, to deal with the disputes which are constantly cropping up and which injure the prosperity, not only of the industry itself, but of the country as a whole. As I understand it, this reoganisation Bill is intended to produce certain economies in the production of coal, which will assist the wages of the industry and generally promote its prosperity. Less than a week's stoppage, even a day's stoppage, would, however, entirely wipe out any economy which this Bill is intended to bring about and would land the industry in a considerable loss so that none of the economies that are going to be produced by the proposals in this Bill are going to be available to the industry unless we have some definite means of endeavouring to prevent the disastrous stoppages which come about from time to time.

There is no question at all as to the need for this provision. In the last five years, since 1920, there has been three national stoppages, which have cost the miners in wages alone £31,500,000. In addition 86,000,000 working days were lost. Since 1918 £41,500,000 in wages alone have been lost. If we are to believe the figures which the right hon. Member for West Swansea (Mr. Runciman) produced this week, the present stoppage has already cost us £25,000,000 in wages and in addition at least £119,000,000 to the industries and to the country as a whole. These are eollossal figures, and I do not intend to dwell upon them, but it appears to me that the results obtained from these stoppages have been absolutely barren and have condemened absolutely the appeal to force. We have got to go back to the appeal to reason, and we cannot do that until the Government have set up some procedure for dealing with these disputes which constantly arise in the mining industry, and until we learn some lessons from our past experience. These settlements have been reached either through sheer necessity on the part of one side or the other or from political pressure, which was especially brought to bear at the end of 1924 to force one side or the other to accept conditions which they regarded as unjust and which were not within the bounds of the economic conditions at the time. These settlements which are reached in this way are bound to be futile, because they have no moral sanction behind them, and they have no element of permanency. They give no security whatever for the future and, without the proper machinery and without the system of arbitration for the settlement of these disputes, we shall always be going on in the same old way from one disaster to another, from one stoppage to another, and we shall never get any settlement, based upon the moral sanction of the community as a whole, based also upon some element of permanency, which will also redound to the prosperity of the country and of the industry itself.

Under the present system, a dispute is always bound to drift into the political arena. Under the Royal Commission the question of wages, the most important of all, was left entirely in the air, and there was no tribunal which could meet before May 1st and decide what the industry could pay in the way of wages and so settle the question of wages and hours. There was no machinery that could be brought into existence at that time in order to prevent the stoppage. The consequence was, as it always is, that the dispute drifted automatically into a political atmosphere. The Prime Minister was called upon to try and settle the dispute. Immediately a dispute comes into this House it at once assumes a political character and becomes the subject of dispute between all the political parties. With the best will in the world, whatever any political party does, it cannot escape from the charge that it is endeavouring to make political capital or gain political advantage out of the dispute itself. The only way we can get the venue changed is to set up some machinery. Surely the Government can set up some kind of arbitration machinery so that the mining industry can be put upon the same footing as so many other industries in the country, which do not bring their disputes to this House and so make the issue a political one, but are able, through the machinery they have already set up, to arrive at a peaceful solution.

We are told that public opinion is to be the final arbiter. I submit that under present conditions public opinion has very little chance of asserting itself properly. Public opinion wants to know who is to blame and who is the aggressor. It is precisely the same problem that they are trying to solve at Geneva. Who is the aggressor? Who is to blame? Who is bringing this suffering on the country? Is it the coal owners or is it the Miners' Federation? Which is the party that is to blame? I submit that there ought to be some arbitration tribunal—whether this is the right one or not is open, no doubt, to various opinions—to test in the first place the willingness of both sides to come to the tribunal at all. If one side says that it is prepared to come to the tribunal, and the other says that it is not, obviously the side that is not prepared to come to the tribunal is the one that is in the wrong. The second test is, the award having been given, which side is not prepared to accept the award; and whichever side is not prepared to accept the award is obviously in the wrong. That would give a sure guide to public opinion as to which side is really in the right and ought to be supported.

It may be said, and I think it has been said, that both sides have refused to accept any solution of this kind, and that, therefore, we are not in a position to set up any such tribunal as this. It is quite true that you can take a horse to water but you cannot make him drink. I venture to submit, however, that at the present moment there is no water at all to which to take him. There is no tribunal, there is no machinery to which these hostile parties can be taken. In the second place, you want not only to get the horse to drink, but you have to get him to go even as far as the water, and neither side has yet reached that stage. It is true that one side has, in response to the appeal from the Bishops, expressed its willingness to arbitrate at the end of a defined period. They have said: If disagreements should then exist, a joint board consisting of representatives of both sides shall appoint an independent chairman whose award in settlement of these disagreements shall be accepted by both sides. Obviously, that horse has his face turned towards the water. It is not necessary that both sides should proceed simultaneously to the river. I think the first duty of the Government is to provide the machinery. Once the machinery is there, it may be possible for both sides, if not to advance simultaneously, at any rate to go step by step, with one or other in front, until they reach that point, and, once they have got there, it may be possible to persuade them to accept the decision which is given by an impartial court of this kind.

The next point that I should like to put is as to what is the proper machinery. We all have our views as to what particular kind of arbitration court should be set up. For my part, I think there ought to be some provision for what is called the principle of conciliation, and also some provision for the principle of arbitration. This Clause proposes to set up conciliation committees in each of the mining districts, with an appeal to a central body, or national arbitration tribunal, consisting of three persons nominated by the Government. I think, that, whatever the machinery is, it ought to be statutory. We had a voluntary sort of agreement at the end of the 1921 dispute, but I believe there were 23 representatives of either side, with an independent chairman—a most unwieldy body for coming to any real settlement.

The other point is as to whether it should be compulsory. Some of my hon. Friends on the Labour benches raised the objection in Committee that there were no sanctions or penalties attached in case one party or the other did not accept the findings of this tribunal, but I understood that it was considered that at this stage of the proceedings it would be unwise to put any penalties or sanctions into a scheme of this kind. Personally, I should welcome them, but the real test whether this scheme is compulsory or not is whether sanctions or penalties are to be imposed in case either party does not submit its case to the tribunal, or, having submitted its case, will not accept the award.

I would appeal once more to the Government to reconsider this matter. It is very easy to say that neither side has accepted the proposal, and that for that reason it cannot be put into the Bill; but I seriously submit that no Reorganisation Bill will be successful or will carry out what the country, and, I have no doubt, the Government, want to see carried out, namely the peaceful solution of all these difficulties in the coal trade. After all, the Government have to regard themselves as the custodian of the interests of the country as a whole, and to-day it is not the belligerents who are suffering so much as the neutrals. It is the poor people who are suffering who cannot get any coal. In my constituency, which is a purely agricultural constituency there are hundreds—I venture to say even thousands—of families without an ounce of coal in their cellars. The Government have not to consider the interests of any one section or class in the community, but to try to provide means whereby these matters are not automatically pushed into the political atmosphere, but are settled by means of some judicial tribunal whose decisions will be absolutely impartial, and will carry the confidence, not only of the parties themselves, but of the country as a whole.


I beg to second the Motion.

I need not dwell upon the advisability of having disputes settled by arbitration. We have already arbitration machinery in connection with the railways, and there have been for a long time arbitration tribunals in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. I can say myself that in Australia, although this machinery does not work perfectly, it nevertheless is the means of minimising a great number of strikes. One or two observations have been made which I should like to stress. This Clause proposes to set up two bodies, one a conciliation Committee in the district, and the other a national arbitration tribunal. Nobody is bound to go either to the conciliation Committee or to the arbitration tribunal, but, if these bodies are set up, their presence is an invitation to disputants to go before them. Therefore, when a difficulty arises such as we now have, if one of the parties say that they will not go before these bodies, public opinion will bear very strongly upon the party which stands out. That is really the only effective sanction that can be applied in matters of this kind. It has been found perfectly impossible in Australia to say that a large sum of money should be deposited. What is a large sum of money to thousands of men?

If, these two bodies being set up, the parties go to them, and supposing that they go to the conciliation committee first, then there is an appeal from that body to the national arbitration tribunal, which really is the final body. They can go direct, as I read the Clause, to the arbitration tribunal, but, once they have gone there, they are bound by the decision. It may be asked, "How are you to bind persons without any penalties?" You do not always need a penalty. I will tell you a very simple way. If a tribunal has a legal right to give a decision, anyone who acts contrary to that decision acts illegally and cannot enforce any rights. Suppose a National Arbitration Board said, "Under all the circumstances, we believe the rate of wages ought to be so and so," and the owners said, "We will not give that rate of wages," the men would strike, and then they would be entitled to their Unemployment Benefit. Some hon. Members above the Gangway took the objection before the Committee that without sanctions it was practically useless, That is not so. The sanction of public opinion is all you can ever get. Having gone to this body the decision makes it legal, and the person who acts against it cannot enforce any rights. That is all you can hope to get out of it. In this coal industry it is a pity when a dispute arises that either you have to set up an ad hoc tribunal at the last moment, or, as usually happens, it drifts into the political arena and passions are heated.


No one can complain of the importance of the subject which is brought before us in this new Clause. The present condition in which the country finds itself quite naturally raises the problem as to whether it would, be possible to protect ourselves against disputes. It is to be recognised, however, that the workers up to now have held compulsory arbitration in supreme suspicion. We must have some security that when a labour case, whether it be brought forward by the employers or by the employed, comes before a Tribunal, that Tribunal is such as in its nature and composition will secure the confidence of both sides. Up to now that has been an insoluble problem, and, until that problem is solved, I feel certain trade unionists will not accept compulsory arbitration. The arguments which have been brought forward by the Mover and Seconder ought to be very carefully considered, but on the Report stage of this Bill the opportunity does not arise. If we are going to have arbitration in industrial disputes, we must not have it as an adjunct to this Bill. Compulsory arbitration, or a scheme of arbitration which will be operative whether compulsory or not, must be the subject of special legislation, when the whole matter can be adequately discussed. The question of machinery must be gone into. If you survey the world from China to Peru you will get half-a-dozen very interesting ways of applying the views we have heard. Which is the best? I am not prepared to say, certainly not this afternoon. Moreover, why should the miners alone have this course imposed upon them? [HON. MEMBERS: "The railways!"] It is not imposed upon the railways. If the railwaymen take a case before their Wages Board and refuse to accept the decision of the Board, they simply hand in their notices, work out their notices, and a dispute takes place. If I were going to put an arbitration Clause into an Act of Parliament, I should only do it if I were more certain of the results than that. It is not worth the trouble if that is all you get. I should like to see the whole question more carefully considered than is possible to-day. If this dispute is going to end in any sort of arbitration tribunal, it must be done as the result of the voluntary agreement of the miners themselves. The Miners' Executive have passed a resolution which indicates that they are willing to consider this question. That is the best way to do it now, and, if the House wishes to pass legislation on the subject, it had better be the subject of a separate Bill and not a Clause included in this Bill, which is very miscellaneous as it is and as inadeqate as it is miscellaneous. Without in any way pronouncing on the merits of the principle, so far as this Clause in relation to this Bill is concerned, we cannot possibly support it.

The SECRETARY for MINES (Colonel Lane Fox)

I think the Mover of this new Clause will realise, especially after the speech we have just heard, that there are serious difficulties which make it quite impossible for the Government to accept it. The hon. Member for Montgomery (Mr. D. Davies) really only brought it forward in order to initiate a discussion on the general principle of arbitration in the settlement of industrial disputes, and of course, everyone will sympathise with his desire to see disputes more easily settled. I am certain that as the right hon. Gentleman opposite has said, arbitration cannot be successful in mining disputes unless it is accepted and asked for by both sides. There is no answer to that point. The mere fact of putting machinery into an Act of Parliament will not bring about a settlement. You can arrive at a settlement only by this means when the two parties get together and say, "This is the form of arbitration we are prepared to accept, and, if it be set up, we will accept the verdict." That, of course, would not be the result of this Clause. It is particularly unfortunate that the principle of compulsory arbitration should be applied to the mining industry, because the system of voluntary conciliation has gone very far. The Conciliation Boards have been working admirably for a considerable time. It was set up by agreement and the parties were willing to abide by the decisions to which it came. But that would not be the result of putting in this Clause. The Railway Board was also a matter of agreement between the parties. I am sure the House in every quarter is in agreement as to the desirability, at some future stage, that some machinery shall be set up which will be accepted by both parties in the mining industry, but you will not do it by putting this Clause in the Bill, and we cannot accept the suggestion.


I think my hon. Friends have rendered a real service in raising this issue in a definite and concrete form. Surely, it is desirable after all our experience, notably during the last 20 or 30 years, that we should devise some judicial method of settling disputes without causing such devastation to our trade and industry. About a week ago, I obtained information from the Ministry of Labour in regard to the days that have been lost to industry through industrial strikes and lock-outs during three comparative periods of eight years—eight years since the War, eight years before the War, and eight years preceding that period. The figures are very startling. My recollection is, that in the first period of eight years the average number of days lost through strikes and lockouts, through industrial disputes, was 3,000,000. In the second period, the eight years immediately preceding the War, the total had gone up to an average of 11,000,000 days per annum, and in eight years since the war it has gone up to an average of 33,000,000 days per annum, lost through industrial disputes. Obviously, it is essential to a great industrial community like ours that we should think out the problem of how that is to be arrested.

Experience shows that strikes and lockouts do not really settle the question in dispute. We have had three in the mining industry. What we have done is that we have postponed the struggle until a more convenient opportunity for one side or the other. I remember taking part in many settlements of dock disputes. I remember that on one occasion the dock labourers won a great victory. The owners lay in wait until they got their chance, and they then inflicted a very severe defeat upon the dock labourers. Then there came a third struggle, where the dock labourers got one back on the owners. The same thing is happening in connection with the coal mines. I have no doubt that if the miners are beaten this time, due to the stress of starvation and pressure upon them, we shall have exactly the same struggle again when they have recovered. That is always what happens in these cases. Surely, it is not beyond the wit of a nation like this, a great business community, to find some means by which we can have an arbitral decision upon these cases.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Aberavon (Mr. MacDonald) that perhaps this is not the occasion when we can interject into a Bill of this kind, dealing with one particular dispute in one particular industry, a principle which ought to be of general application, but we certainly ought to consider whether it can be done. The real objection that I can see to imposing it at this moment is that, before we can decide that the dispute in the mining industry is a pure matter of wages, there are two or three big issues which Parliament has to decide to put that industry on a proper basis. We cannot, for instance, have an arbitration tribunal set up to settle the question of reconstruction, the question of amalgamation, unification, royalties, purchase. These are not questions of hours, but they are essential questions to the amount of wage which is to be paid to the men, and the wage that the industry can pay.

If we set up an arbitration tribunal now, and put it upon the basis of this Bill, it will alter nothing. On the whole, it will simply create disappointment. It does not go far enough, thoroughly to reconstruct the industry. [An HON. MEMBER: "It does not do anything!"] I agree. It is disappointing. Therefore, Parliament has to deal with this question and decide these fundamental principles before the arbitral tribunal comes in. If the arbitration Court came in now, they would simply decide upon the wages which could be paid under present conditions. The, miners are not saying: "Under present conditions you could pay more," but they do say: "You have to alter these conditions, and when you have altered them the industry can pay." These are questions which Parliament must decide first. The reason I like the suggestion of the Churches is that it does not begin with arbitration, but it ends with arbitration. The Churches begin by saying, "You must, first of all, carry out the Report, and reconstruct the industry. Having done that, any dispute that remains can be referred to arbitration."

I do not believe that we can build arbitration upon this shifting foundation of mere sand. That is why, although I am strongly in favour of the proposal put forward by my hon. Friend—I am not committing myself to details; it may not be the best tribunal, and I am strongly in favour of the general principle of arbitration—I do not think we can have arbitration in this particular case until, first of all, we have reconstructed the industry and put it upon a proper basis. I think that not merely the House of Commons, but the community are under a debt of gratitude to my hon. Friends for having called attention to this question and for giving us an opportunity of reviewing this matter.


It is most unfortunate that this principle should have been associated at the present time with the mining industry. In the abstract, there is a great deal to be said for it, but there are one or two things than can be said against it. With regard to the general principle of arbitration, I should like to state my view. My first objection to the question of compulsory arbitration is that up to now no provision has been made for making it compulsory on the owners to table the whole of their case. There can be no compulsory arbitration which is satisfactory unless by Statute the employer is to be compelled to place before the arbitrator the whole of the case from the financial point of view. The employer is in a fortunate position. He possesses both packs of cards. He possesses the pack of cards in regard to the workman's wages and general conditions, more so than the workman himself, because he has complete oversight over the whole of the wages. He knows, before he starts, what is the workman's case. The workman does not know the employer's case; that is secret.

Unless there is some compulsory arbitration to make the employer provide the arbitrator with the whole of the facts, no arbitrator can give a fair judgment. If we are to have arbitration we must make that compulsory. I am not against arbitration. I had the possibility of a dispute just before the present stoppage took place, and I wanted to submit the matter to arbitration, but the employer would not have it. I consider that that was a most unfortunate thing. In the whole of my career I never have refused to submit any case to arbitration. Under the present circumstances, if conditions were ideal as far as arbitration is concerned, and if I could be certain that the whole of the case would be submitted to a judicial tribunal, I should be well satisfied.

I should like to say to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) that it has always been a matter of regret to me that in the agreement arrived at in the 1920 dispute there was an absence of the personal element. The decisions were arrived at automatically, based on figures. Whether they were in favour of the workman or against him, a decision was given. There is a wide difference between this and the old Conciliation Board in the federated area with which the right hon. Member for Ince (Mr. Walsh) and I have been closely associated. That Conciliation Board dealt with a very wide coalfield, it lasted for many years, and we never had a single dispute. There were four principles on which all decisions rested. First, there was the selling price of coal, which was perhaps the most important; secondly, the volume of trade; thirdly, past prosperity, and, fourthly, future prosperity. Every one of these principles at some time or other was the deciding factor. Suppose a long period of prosperity, was followed by a fall in price, the owners submitted their figures to us for examination contending that a fall of 6d. per ton justified a 5 per cent. reduction. We might say, "Yes, you are justified in asking for a reduction, but you have had such a long period of prosperity that you ought not to ask for it at this moment," and if we could not agree, the question went before the independent chairman.

It was not automatic. The human element was brought to bear upon it, and the arbitrator repeatedly said, "you are justified asking for a 5 per cent. reduction based on the selling price of coal, but you have had such a period of prosperity, surely you can defer it." On the other hand, he could say "the future prospects justify you in asking for this 5 per cent. reduction," and the reduction was given. I am all for arbitration of that character, but not for arbitration on the lines suggested by this new Clause. If the Miners' Federation failed to choose their men, or the owners failed to choose their men, somebody else have to choose them. That is absolutely useless. If you are going to have effective arbitration, the element of consent must come in; the two parties must be agreed that they will set up this method of settling their disputes. As far as the general principle is concerned, I would give my voice and vote in favour at any time of arbitration on the lines I suggest, and I hope the day is not far distant when this brutal method of fighting out our industrial differences will come to an end and we shall set up a new, more sensible and judicial, tribunal for settling disputes which arise from time to time.


I ask leave to withdraw the Clause.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.