HC Deb 22 June 1926 vol 197 cc334-42

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Commander Eyres Monsell.]


I desire to draw the attention of the House to a reply which was given me by the Postmaster-General a few days ago. I asked if it was a fact that the hoot and shoe trade, employers and employed, and the Chairman of the National Board of that body, had agreed to broadcast a statement as to the organisation which existed in the trade, and which had for 31 years prevented any dispute of a general character taking place, and if it was true, what reason the Postmaster-General had for refusing the broadcast? The facts are admitted, and the action of the Postmaster-General seems to me to be quite inexplicable. There can be no question at all that this was a matter of great public interest. When a big trade has secured some arrangement whereby it can absolutely avoid general disputes, whatever our individual opinions may be as to the arrangement made, there can be no doubt of the public interest in the matter, and the public has a right to know, through broadcasting or by any other means, exactly what the arrangements are. The British Broadcasting Company, if my information is correct, agreed to accept this message for broadcasting, and it was only through the exercise by the Postmaster-General of his censorship that the message was not delivered. Let me briefly describe some of the features of the arrangement which exists in the boot and shoe trade.

For 31 years there has been no general dispute in the trade. The local disputes that have arisen have been short in their duration and very rare in occurrence. The scheme itself is based upon conciliation and arbitration. The organisation of this scheme took place after the big dispute 31 years ago, and the machinery employed is a national conference, on which there are equal numbers of employers and employed, with a chairman appointed by the Minister of Labour, local conciliation or arbitration bodies, which sit locally and determine and settle cases of grievance and difficulty which arise in the trade. These organisations have to settle delicate questions that arise in the boot and shoe trade, which is an extremely complicated and technical trade, where piecework rates vary according to the type of work done. The organisation settles questions of prices and conditions, and even deals with the holidays of the operatives, and it is arranged generally that the operatives shall have one week's holiday every year, with pay. Breaches of agreements are dealt with by this organisation in a very interesting way. I am expressing no opinion at all as to whether the organisation is good or bad. My case is that the people of this country, when important industrial experiments are made, have a right to know the facts, and how any trade, whatever it may be, has succeeded in keeping peace in its industry. I want that to be definitely stated.

Whenever there is a breach of an arrangement this trade has a system of action which I think is absolutely unique. The employers' organisation and the workers' organisation jointly deposit a sum of money into a pool. When a breach of an arrangement is alleged the matter is submitted, if the local arbitration committee and the national conference cannot agree, to an umpire who decides, and if the lock-out or strike which has resulted owing to an alleged breach of an agreement lasts more than three days, the party which is aggrieved, according to the decision of the umpire, has a right to demand a payment from this fund, jointly subscribed, as damages for the losses sustained. I think that is absolutely unique in negotiations between employers' and workers' organisations. This trade is not a trade in which the possibilities of dispute between employers and employed are smaller than in any other trade. It has to face a fairly intense international competition as an exporting industry, and also it has to face competition, because boots and shoes are imported into this country, so that in neither the external market nor in the home market has the trade any peculiar advantage which would give it, so to speak, a favoured position among other trades, and a guarantee of peace and good understanding more than any other trade could hope to have. It was to the broadcasting of this scheme that, for a reason which was given but which I fail to understand, the Postmaster - General objected. It is rather important in these days, when liberties seem to be a diminishing quantity, that we should avoid all methods of censorship which, in the hands of a less courteous and accomplished Postmaster-General, might lead to some little tin Napoleon censoring news that was really of public importance, simply because he wanted to assert his little, individual, momentary authority. That would be a thoroughly bad thing in this country. Broadcasting on matters elpublic interest has been a fairly common procedure. For instance, the Prime Minister has broadcast, and many other political leaders have broadcast, and surely there ought to be an overwhelming case to refuse to allow a message of this kind, absolutely non-political and non-controversial, to be broadcast.

What becomes of all our talk of the necessity for industrial peace when an organisation which has secured industrial peace is not allowed to tell the rest of the country how it has done it 7 It is a thing that, to my mind, is simply beyond comprehension, and I am raising this question on the Motion for the Adjournment in order that the Postmaster-General may have an opportunity of telling us exactly why the censorship has been exercised in this case. Liberty of expression in this country is, has been, and ought to be a very precious possession, and if once we have this kind of governmental censorship in broadcasting there is always a danger that broadcasting will finally become, not an instrument for distributing knowledge of a useful character to the people, but a means of conveying ordinary party propaganda according to the nature of the Government that is in office, and I think that any Postmaster-General ought to be very chary indeed about exercising a censorship on matters of public interest that have no concern at all with party politics and that raise no question, I think, of controversy. It seems to me that the Postmaster-General has strained his inventive resources to the fullest extent when he claims that this message was not allowed to be broadcast because of the danger that somebody might take it as a suggestion for the ending of the mining dispute. It may be that that is the way in which the Postmaster-General looks at it, but I feel quite certain that there are very few people in the country who will look at it in the same way. I think it is against the public interest to censor messages of this kind, and I think the Minister made a great mistake in doing it. I hope the House may have an assurance that in future it is not the intention of the Minister to attempt to censor declarations which are of public interest, unless he has a very clear case indeed that the message will lead either to disturbance or to some serious public inconvenience. It will be simply insufferable if broadcasting is to be subjected to the censorship, possibly, of officious rather than official persons—I draw a distinction—and if broadcasting has to lose all its liberty and has to be censored on things that have no more to do with party politics than I have to do with the throne of China.

This is a case in which, at the present moment, a declaration could have been made to the country of very great interest. This scheme is a matter that the country ought to understand and know about, and I have taken this opportunity of trying to give to some part of the public the information that the Postmaster-General refused the public through the broadcasting service. I hope he will reconsider his decision, and in view of the fact that, if my assurances are correct—and I have them from the highest authorities—there is not a word in this proposed message that has to deal either with politics or with parties or with suggestions to others, and in view of the fact, if my information again be correct, that the declaration is simply a description of very interesting machinery that has been devised and that has been successful, I hope the Postmaster-General will drop this, if I may say so with due respect, rather petty interference with an organisation that ought to be beyond politics, and give to the people of this country information which is of value, as I suggest this information would have been.

The POSTMASTER-GENERAL (Sir William Mitchell-Thomson)

I make no complaint whatever, either of the fact that my right hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. T. Shaw) has raised this question or of the tone in which he has raised it. On the contrary, I am glad to have this opportunity of speaking on the question, and the House will understand that it is no part of my duty as s Minister to express either approval or disapproval, on behalf of the Government, of any particular method of settling trade disputes or dealing with trade matters. That lies in the province of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour, and he, of course, is the proper channel of communication for the Government in these matters. But I may observe that, personally, I have never concealed, in this House or elsewhere, my own very strong advocacy of conciliation and arbitration as a means of settlement, and I have not concealed my view that the party opposite were not paying enough attention to the experiments that were being made in the Dominions in regard to this particular method of dealing with trade disputes.

I am very glad to hear what the right hon. Gentleman said about the methods of this particular trade, the boot and shoe trade, and I do not differ in the slightest degree from him. I do not join issue with him at all upon that point. The fact that these methods have secured peace in this trade for over a generation is the best testimony to their efficacy, and I will only add to what he has said that if hon. Members in all parts of the House are interested, as I hope they will be, in seeing a fuller description of how the methods are worked, they will find one in the publication which has just been issued in the last Report of the Balfour Committee on Trade and Industry, in the volume entitled "Survey of Industrial Relations," the new volume. They will find on page 276 of that volume a full description of the methods of conciliation in force, and they will see there how the principle of district settlements enforceable under a guarantee has worked out in practice. [An HON. MEMBER: "Is a copy available?"] If the hon. Member asks the Minister of Labour or the appropriate authority, I have no doubt whatever that, if it is not already available for the use of Members, a copy will be made available for their use in the Library. Personally, therefore, I am glad to hear what the right hon. Gentleman has said, and I would only add that I hope that at some time or another the resolution which was passed by the Trade Union Congress in 1923, I think it was, at Plymouth, is going to be regarded as open for reconsideration.

My right hon. Friend asked me whether at this moment the broadcast by the British Broadcasting Company of a description of this machinery, which, as I said, could not fail to be a eulogy, is or is not a transgression of the rules which ordinarily govern the operations of the British Broadcasting Company. I would like to say plainly—although the suggestion was not made by my right hon. Friend, it was partly made by implication by the Leader of the Opposition the other day—in regard to the suggestion that in taking the view that this would be a transgression of our practice I was acting rather as Chief Civil Commissioner than as Postmaster-General, that that is not the case. Since the general strike was over—the right hon. Gentleman should take this from me, and I know he will—the Government have exercised no control whatever, under the Emergency Regulations, over the operations of the British Broadcasting Company. This action which I took was taken in the ordinary way, in my ordinary capacity as Postmaster-General, and I was enforcing the understanding under which there is a rule that topics which relate to matters of political controversy shall not be broadcast by the British Broadcasting Company.

Could this proposed broadcast be held to be related to a matter of political controversy? I judge that the implication would be, at a moment when all our minds are full of the dispute in the mining industry, that the suggestion was underlying that it would be a good thing if this or similar methods were applied to the mining industry. The right hon. Gentleman says I am wrong, and that that is not a fair implication that could be drawn. He says that in fact the broadcast has no relation to the existing dispute in the mining industry. I say to him, as I said the other day, that if that be so, then what is the particular hurry about a broadcast at this moment? This is not a new thing. It has been in existence 31 years, and it will not hurt if the broadcast has to wait a little while longer—we hope, only a very little while. But is it so that that implication would not be drawn? Am I wrong in thinking that it would? I am perfectly certain that it would be drawn. Of course, it would be drawn. It was drawn. The question was hardly put before, as I was answering supplementary questions, I heard some of the colleagues of the right hon. Gentleman—I could not help hearing them—making interjections from that bench, and saying "Government control of broadcasting. The Archbishop over again." Unless those hon. Members who made that interjection thought that this broadcast was capable of being related, and intended to be related, to the mining dispute—


It was.


—it was absolutely devoid of all meaning whatever, and if that inference was drawn, and is being drawn now by hon. Members in this House, how much more certain is it that it would also be drawn by listeners outside? How can I say that this could not be held to relate to topics of political controversy? When I reflect that the whole of this question of the legalisation of the joint industrial council decisions divided the Trades Union Congress itself from top to bottom, in spite of the fact that it was pressed on the Congress by the whole of this trade, masters and men alike how can I say the subject is not related to political controversy? I have no animus whatever in the matter. I have only to exercise what is rather an unpleasant discretion to have to exercise. I have to try to administer the understanding and practice as fairly as I can, having regard to all the interests concerned, and taking that into account I could not do anything else than give the decision which I did give.

8.0. p.m.


I just want to say one word. I, like the Minister, was rather attracted by this interesting public experiment. The more publicity the experiments have the better it will be, but I do think it is important that wireless should be kept free from any taint of political propaganda. From its very nature, wireless is propaganda. Anyone really keen on its use in the proper way should support the Minister in keeping as far as possible broadcasting to two things— (1) amusement and (2) news—news pure and simple. As soon as you allow wireless to be used for any kind of propaganda, so soon arises the danger of its abuse. The Minister is on very safe ground in keeping out anything of a con troversial character. If there is a difference of opinion, the right way to thrash it out is not through the wireless but through the Press and on the platform. I hope the right hon. Member for Preston (Mr. T. Shaw), who brought this matter forward, will not think I am unsympathetic to the particular machinery to which he referred for settling industrial disputes, but I do say that the Minister is right, and will be right, to keep that machinery from being used for anything of a propaganda nature.


I think the Minister is wrong in suggesting that this message had a political implication that might last for ever. He might be wise in avoiding the present situation, with all the disturbed atmosphere in the minds of the workers of the country. As he was speaking he led me to believe for a moment that after this dispute was over we might get the message broadcast, but he ended by saying that it was of a political nature. To my mind it is not of a political nature and is not to be classed with the resolution that was before the Trades Union Congress. It is a voluntary arrangement entered into between the workers and employers—a contract between two parties, that can be set aside at any moment. Arbitration is nut compulsory, and if they did not like the settlement, neither side was compelled to accept it. Fortunately, there has been a large measure of agreement and it has been accepted. These people have actually had reductions of wages since the commencement of the dispute in the coal trade amounting to 4s. a week. I have never brought myself to the point of agreeing that we should make a deposit and pay a fine for any breach of agreement, although that is done in certain trades. This agreement under discussion has been broken half a dozen times in the 31 years and the fines, if my memory serves me, total some £3,000 but they have been paid in the spirit of the agreement. The fine comes out of the common fund but has got to be made good by the delinquent. Personally, I think the more information of that description that we get the better. The cotton trade itself has similar machinery, minus the fine. The iron and steel trade has similar machinery. One of the regrets of the recent trouble was that we smashed up all the machinery we had built up in 50 years, but like common-sense people we have got together again and have agreed to restore that machinery from a given date. I hope this message will be distributed when we get calmed down.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, arid agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Six Minutes after Eight o'Clock.