HC Deb 29 July 1927 vol 209 cc1689-703

I am afraid that I am in the same position as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North St. Pancras (Captain Fraser), who opened the Debate on the Adjournment Motion, because the Secretary for Mines expected to be here, and he said that he might be a little late. Nevertheless, I expect that some Member of the Government will be able to listen to what I have to say, and I hope we shall get some further assurance on the matter which I am going to raise. In the last Debate on this subject, we discussed the operation of Section 18 of the Mining Industry Act, and on that occasion we pointed out that this Section gave an opportunity to the Government for giving the protection that we feel this Section was intended to give to the miners of this country. It is there laid down that any man who is a miner prior to the 30th April, 1926, shall have a special preference.

The attention of the Government was called to the non-operation of this Section. On 12th July the attention of the Government was again called to this matter, but now we see from the OFFICIAL REPORT issued on Thursday morning last that an agreement has been come to on this important matter, and the regulations have been laid down as to how it should operate. There is, however, no reference to the important point that we raised on both occasions about giving protection to the men who were bond fide miners up to 30th April, 1926, and who have since been evicted from their homes. The point is that men evicted from their homes since the end of the last stoppage will have no protection of any kind under the agreement arranged under Section 18 of the Mining Industry Act, I particularly want to call the attention of the Government and the Minister of Labour and the Secretary for Mines to this important matter, because we believe that it was the intention of the Government, when they introduced this Act, to give proper treatment to all those men who were bonâ fide miners prior to 30th April, 1926.

There is another point which I am anxious to raise and which was raised in the course of the last Debate. The Secretary for Mines pointed out to the and to House, the Opposition particularly, that there was too much talk to-day of a coming crisis in the mines. We are not anxious for any crisis, and, as a matter of fact, we are all anxious to avoid crises. I want to call attention to the fact that the agreements made last November will inevitably create a crisis whether we like it or not. The miners are beginning to wonder what is going to happen in November this year because of that fact. We are desirous of drawing the attention of the Government to it, and we ask them to use their influence with a view to easing the situation as much as possible. The Government cannot shelve responsibility in this matter, because they granted during the stoppage the Eight Hours Act, and they did that particularly with a view of arriving at a certain position in the mining industry which would ease the very heavy costs. The Government hold that this was necessary to place the industry on something like a sound basis.

Many points have been raised to which I will only just refer and not develop, because the Secretary for Mines often tells us that in debate we come up to a certain point, but we never give any specific idea in our line of policy as to what is going to help this particular industry. I think the right hon. Gentleman is bound to agree with us that there have been so many suggestions made that, if the suggested recommendations and lines of policy are canvassed, he himself will feel that he has a sufficiently large job in giving them all consideration with a view to trying to redeem the position as early as possible. There are the questions of amalgamation, selling agencies, unification of wagons, unification of the industry, and all these matters have from time to time been dealt with. On the question of amalgamation, the Government brought in their Act, believing that the principle was right, and that it was stated that they would give it three years to operate on a voluntary basis. The other day the Secretary for Mines said: We have now come to the conclusion that it is essential to wait for a report in a year's time on this matter.

The SECRETARY for MINES (Colonel Lane Fox)

What I pointed out was that under the Act passed last year a report would have to be made at the end of the second year.


We believe it is essential that we should have some re port earlier, in view of the fact that things are likely to result in a crisis much earlier than the end of the second year of this particular Act of Parliament. I want to point out, also, that in the last Debate the Secretary for Mines said that the country is watching very carefully, and that a report will have to be made before very long on this question. I agree that it is essential that we should have a report, in order that we may know as early as possible what the exact situation is. The right hon. Gentleman told us that the position was far too serious to make political capital out of it. So far as I and my friends are concerned, we are not anxious to make political capital out of it, but to try to get some security for our people, because, after all, this is a bread-and-butter matter for us, and we are, therefore, very anxious to avoid what is so often spoken of as the coming crisis in the coal industry.

It has been claimed for the Eight Hours Act that it has kept many pits at work which otherwise would have gone out, and that it has so reduced the costs of production that we are now in a fairly favourable position as regards our export trade. We have been told many times that the Samuel Commission reported that 73 per cent. of our coal was being sold at a loss, and that that was the reason why it was so essential to reduce the costs by means of this Eight Hours Act. It was suggested that, if the costs could be reduced, the evil would be remedied, but, even after we have brought down the costs to a figure that no one expected would have been possible in so short a time, the evil is still with us, and probably to a greater extent than before this Act was passed. In reply to a question that I put the other day, I was told that during the first six months of this year, as compared with the first six months of 1925, our exports had increased by 470,478 tons, but that in value they were down by £2,113,953. The argument was always put forward that, if the costs were reduced and the hours extended, it would enable us to compete with Germany and other foreign countries with which we had to compete in the export market, and would help us very considerably.

I find, however, that the only effect of the policy of the Government last year has been to make the position of our people more insecure, and also to make the position of the workers in foreign countries more insecure as a consequence. I was in Germany recently, and I found that the German miners have come to the point of desiring a higher standard of life, and that they sent their representatives to meet the heads of the syndicates in Germany with a view to securing increased wages and a higher standard of life. But the heads of the syndicates said to the German miners, "It is impossible, however desirable it may be, for us to give you any increase of wages, because the export price of British coal is so low that we cannot compete with it." The policy, therefore, of the Government and of the coalowners last year has brought us to a position absolutely contrary to what they themselves anticipated at the time. I also want to point out that, from the point of view of unemployment and destitution, the situation is very much worse now than it was during the first six months of 1925. In 1925 there were, in one large mining area in this country, 305,662 persons in receipt of out-relief, and for the first five months of this year—we have not the figures for the first six months—that number had risen to 485,908, showing an increase, as compared with the first six months of 1925, of 180,246. In value, that represented £365,032 in the first six months of 1925, and £553,809 in the first five months of 1927, or an increase, for the first five months of this year over the first six months of 1925, of £188,777.

It may be argued, as it was argued on Wednesday, that the general standard of life of the worker is to-day equal to what it was in 1914 or at some earlier period. I want to say that the 1914 standard is not a correct standard to take, because to-day we are living under quite different conditions. The very fact that education has made such rapid strides in recent years means that working-class folk are putting forth greater efforts to educate their children in order to make them better citizens, and their standard of life generally is, therefore, much higher than it was in 1914, so that the conditions of 1914 do not meet the standard which the development of time has brought about in the lives of our people. It is a singular thing, when one hears statements that the standard is practically the same now as in 1914, to find in one's own area men who have been engaged in coal-mining all their lives and who are now unemployed, who do not desire to take unemployment benefit, and who are not anxious to receive out-door relief from the guardians, but make every attempt possible to secure occupation; and, when one sees pay-bills which show that able-bodied men are receiving £1 4s. 8d. for six days work, it makes one wonder where the comparison with the standard of 1914 really comes in.

We have been told that the Mines Department is to be abolished. Personally, I am sorry for that, because I think it can be made of great service to the country, and particularly to the mining community. I am hoping that the Government will reconsider their decision. Before, however, the curtain is rung down, if it has to be rung down, I would ask that the Secretary for Mines should canvass all the points that have been raised during the present Session, and endeavour to point out to the coalowners of this country that, in order to prevent these low prices for exported coal, which are not bringing into the industry the necessary revenue to enable reasonable wages to be paid, the time has come when it is essential to call an international conference of those who own the mines in all the coal-producing countries, with a view to setting up some international board that will so control the export prices of the world as to obviate the miners in any country having to work for the meagre wages for which they are called upon to work at the present time. I think that that is quite within the range of possibility, and will be one of the things that will help us in a very large measure to obviate what all of us are so anxious to obviate in regard to prices at the end of this year, when all these agreements come to an end. If the right hon. Gentleman can impress upon the Government and bring to the attention of the owners this important fact, and can also have many small things in the mining industry adjusted that can be adjusted fairly readily, I am confident that he will render to the mining industry of this country and to the community which largely depends upon it a service which will be received with the greatest gratitude.

Colonel LANE FOX

I am sorry I was not here at the beginning of the hon. Gentleman's speech. The subject came up rather earlier than was expected. Perhaps he will remind me of any points I missed at the beginning of his speech. He has alluded to the proposed reorganisation in which the Ministry is involved. He will hardly expect me to discuss that, but I am glad to repeat the assurance I have already given, that there is no intention on the part of the Government that the mining industry shall suffer. It is obvious that Statutes have to be carried out, and any reorganisation of departmental work will enable it to be carried on under other conditions. As regards the suggestion of calling an international conference, ideas of that sort are extraordinarily attractive and, naturally, we are all in sympathy with them, but I am afraid we cannot base very much hope for the immediate situation on anything so remote as that must be. There is only one country that has anything like a real concrete organisation which could deal with schemes for the whole of the industry of the country, and that is Germany. It would be perfectly impossible under present world conditions to arrive at any agreement which would be binding, and which would not be liable to be undercut and defeated by outside competition from those who had not come into the arrangement, and though I quite agree with it as an ideal for future international co-operation and agreement, I am afraid it is not a practical suggestion for dealing with the difficulties we see now.

The hon. Gentleman alluded to a fact to which I have often alluded myself, that the tendency of hon. Members' speeches opposite on this subject is to mention all the evils front which the industry is suffering, and say nothing more except what are the Government going to do. As I have often said, you may as well assume that you are dealing with an incompetent Government and bring the experience and knowledge of hon. Members opposite to our assistance, but the fact that so few suggestions are ever made of any particular default on the part of the Government makes me really think that there cannot be a strong case against us after all. The hon. Gentleman mentioned amalgamation, and, though anyone may have his opinion as to the work the coal-owners are doing, and whether they are devoting sufficient attention to the subject, there is no blame to be attached to the Government. The Coal Commission reported in favour of the general principle of amalgamation, and said the effect of working in larger units would be to bring greater prosperity to the industry. It also said that it would be mischevious to try to bring about compulsory amalgamation. Anyone who thinks of it, must realise that that is so. They suggested also that the only compulsion which would be desirable would be that at some future time a report should be made as to the progress that has been made in this direction. We have carried out absolutely the whole of the recommendations. We have made amalgamation easier. We have cheapened the procedure and made it more easy, and we have arranged for a report to be made. As far as we have gone, we have made the position very much easier and have carried out this recommendation in the only way it could be carried out as laid down by the Commission. Then there is the question of selling agencies. I have reason to know that a good deal is being done and a good deal of discussion is going on on these matters. It is very mischievous to interfere with discussions of that sort at a period like this. I am glad to see at least one Member of the Liberal party in the House.


I was here all the time.

Colonel LANE FOX

There are Members who are very anxious to see amalgamation carried through at lightning speed. Anyone who has had anything to do with business knows the great difficulty of getting Parliamentary arrangements for amalgamation through. Take an illustration from the Liberal party. They contain some of the most brilliant brains in the country. They have been trying to amalgamate for many years, but they have not yet succeeded. We must give time for these things to be successful and to be carried through in a form that will guarantee permanence and success.

The hon. Gentleman has made the usual suggestion that a good deal of the trouble in the industry is due to the hours having been lengthened. I hope hon. Members will remember that there is nothing to be gained by overstating the case. The President of the Miners' Federation, the other day, said that at present we were working longer hours than any European country. He said that in 1922 the miners were getting 19s. 2d. a shift, and that they were now receiving 10s. 9d. To make a statement in that form, especially when coupled with an attack on the Government, is to suggest that in that year wages were double what they are now while the hours were shorter. As a matter of fact, in 1921 wages were still very high. The actual figure was 19s. 2d., but in the following year it dropped to a lower level than it is now. It dropped to just over 9s. To use the period 1921 as if all the intervening years were covered by a higher rate of wages and to suggest that they have dropped now is not a fair way to put it. It is true that at this moment we are working rather longer underground, but we have to remember that wages are very much higher than in other countries. The latest figures I can get are: the Ruhr, 7s. 7d.; Upper Silesia, 55. 8d.; Poland, 3s. 5d.; France, 3s. 10d.; Belgium 5s. 2d.; and the British, in April, 1927—they are a little lower now—10s. 6d. That is nearly double the Ruhr, and a good deal more than double Poland and France.


Are these comparative figures in British money based upon exchange values or upon the cost of living?

Colonel LANE FOX

No, they are figures expressed in English money based on the exchange value. I am certain most hon. Members opposite wish to try to make the situation easier. The men are having a very bad time, and I am afraid for some months yet the conditions are likely to continue. But already there are some signs of improvement. I hope no one here will attempt to gain a political advantage by making the case appear worse than it is. I noticed the other day an interesting comment on the position in the "Times," in a speech made at a meeting of the Rhenish-West-phalian Coal Syndicate. The chairman pointed out that British competition was at last making its presence felt in Germany, and he said there had been a notable decrease in exports owing to British competition. A price war was being waged by the British coal industry, and the German industry found itself at a disadvantage, as extreme rationalisation had robbed it of reserves. He went on later to say that the inability of Ruhr coals to compete successfully with British coals in Hamburg is due to the old problem of transport costs.

That shows that our position is improving. It is all very well to say that we are bringing prices down, but the German price was brought down at the end of the Rhur occupation, and has remained rather lower than our price ever since. We have been following them; they have been leading the way. It is not true to say that the British have been cutting prices through all this mad competition, as was said by the Miners' Federation the other day. I only mention that in reply to what the hon. Gentleman said about our efforts to regain markets. I quite agree that we do not want to see the wages of the German worker cut down, but at the same time it is far more important that we should be able to maintain wages for our own people. I am quite certain that the German worker can look after himself. Our primary interest, and the primary interest of those in the coal industry, should be to look after our own people, and let the other people assist themselves. I think I have dealt with the points which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. If I have not, perhaps he will tell me.


There is only one point, I think, to which the right hon. and gallant Gentleman has not referred, and that relates to the question I raised before he entered the House, namely eviction. I pointed out that there was an arrangement under Section 18 of the Mining Industry Act, 1926, but that particular arrangement does not fulfil the idea contained in Section 18. Section 18 was understood by us, and I think the Government so intended it, to protect all men who were miners on the 30th April, 1926, and who had been miners for some previous period. The point is that all the men who have been evicted from their homes and sent to other parts to seek employment have received no protection at all. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman should draw the attention of the Minister of Labour and the owners to this matter, in order to obtain some kind of security for people against being evicted from their homes.

Colonel LANE FOX

By the leave of the House, I will answer that point. I am sorry I did not hear the hon. Gentleman's remarks upon it. The regulation is, as we know, a matter with which the Ministry of Labour has been dealing, and I cannot answer the point without seeing the reports that may have been made as to the working of the regulation. I will certainly draw the attention of my right hon. Friend, the Minister of Labour, to the point which the hon. Gentleman has raised. I do not think I can say more than that at the moment, but I should like to point out that I believe these regulations are operating fairly in the circumstances.

12 n.


I am not a miner, nor am I authorised to speak for miners, but I represent in this House 4,000 miners, who, I should say, at the present moment, are more poverty-stricken than any other body of workers to be found in this country. I am credibly informed that, before the dispute, their wages would not average more than £2 per week. They are miserably housed, and so bad are their conditions to-day that a great many of them have to have their scanty earnings supplemented by Poor Law relief. It is a terrible condition of affairs, particularly when one remembers the terrible risks that these men take every day that they go to their work. The pits are old, some of them having been handed down for generations. The owners have taken as much out of them as it was possible to take in the way of profits, and have put in very little in the way of development or in reconditioning the gear and the safety appliances. The result is that only last year some 38 of my constituents went to their work and were drowned. We find that these accidents are still occurring, and, as far as one can see, the necessary capital is not forthcoming to-day to put these pits into such a condition as to make them reasonably safe for those who have to work in them.

When I remember the promises that were made by the Prime Minister prior to the dispute of last year, that the Gov ernment accepted the Samuel Report and that they were prepared to implement it, and when I consider what has happened since then, and how little has been done to put the provisions of the Samuel Report into effect, beyond effecting an increase in hours and a reduction in wages, I have very great difficulty in meeting the right hon. Gentleman's wish this morning that when I go to my constituency I shall not exaggerate the situation. It is impossible to exaggerate the situation. I remember meeting the Noble Lord the Member for South Nottingham (Lord H. Cavendish-Bentinck) on the platform a few months ago, and, when passing the time of day with him, he told me that he was going to his constituency, and he said, "I do not know how to face these men. I do not know what to tell them. I have to address a meeting of miners." I feel that when I go to my own constituency during the coming Recess, I shall not know how to meet those men who are starving and whose clothing is worn out. They will produce their rent-books and show how much they are in arrears with their rent. The only solution the Secretary for Mines can bring us this morning is that we are winning in the old game of "beggar my neighbour," and that we are at last being able to undersell the people on the Continent, who, I presume, have depressed their workers' standard of life to an even greater extent than the standard of life of our workers has been depressed. I feel after the speech we have heard this morning, very depressed with regard to the future of the mining industry. We have some very valuable coalfields in Northumberland, which have proved of very great value to the prosperity of this country in the past. To-day these valuable deposits, which are far from being worked out, are practically becoming derelict and abandoned. They are being cut out by the better equipped and more modern collieries which are being opened in South Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. I suppose, in a few years' time, the Government will be providing a subsidy to reopen these valuable deposits of coal which are now becoming derelict, while the miners are having to starve or disperse over the world.

As a matter of fact, while we are allowing these skilled miners to starve or to seek—those who can—their fortunes in other parts of the world, a day will come, and not very long hence, when these people will be required. Already, in the shipbuilding industry, with the slight revival that is taking place, we are finding a shortage of skilled key-men. Managers are going round, or sending their emissaries, to the trade union branches. Many of the men have gone to America, and are being used by our competitors. It seems a very sad state of things, and I trust when we meet again the Secretary for Mines will have a more hopeful story to place before us than he has had this morning. Speaking as I do for 4,000 of these poverty-stricken miners, I must utter my protest that a Government consisting of all the talents cannot give us more consolation to take to our constituents than the right hon. Gentleman has put before us this morning.


I only intervene for one moment and for one purpose, to which I would draw the particular attention of the Secretary for Mines. What I am going to say will be extremely practical and extremely brief. It is unnecessary to stress the importance and the seriousness of the fact that 100,000 miners may permanently lose their employment in this country. What I rise to say is this: Will the Secretary for Mines investigate most carefully, by means of all the expert assistance he can get, and with an open mind, what hope there is, if any, that any considerable number of miners who may be permanently out of their own work may find a new and a permanent life by settlement on the land? I ventured to address the House the other day on that subject, and I am not going to repeat what I then said. But—if I may say something rather presumptuous—if the Secretary for Mines would ask somebody just to run his eye over the remarks I then made, which appeared in the OFFICIAL REPORT, he will see, as far as I can judge, very solid arguments behind what I am pressing on him now. I should never be so foolish as to urge action before careful investigation, but I am certain, in my own mind, that there is a clue here which should be followed up and examined. I believe nobody would say it would be possible to settle 100,000, far less 200,000, but it is the fact that within the last three years the League of Nations has been able to settle 150,000 refugee families in the very exiguous territory of Greece. From the angle of mining unemployment, I do urge the right hon. Gentleman to use his influence to combine with the other Ministries concerned in having an inquiry to see whether it is not possible to elaborate a scheme, even in these times of great financial stress, and with all the qualifications that must always be kept in mind, by which even a small fraction of the men who may be permanently out of their customary work may find some real occupation and life as settlers on the land.

I have one word more to say. I think all Members know, even if their constituencies are not mining constituencies, that the miners as a class—many of them—are not entirely devoid of some rural experience. Many of them work their own little patches of ground or devote their leisure to keeping some sort of fancy live-stock in the widest term, and so on. They are not men who come to that state of life with a blank ignorance, and, further, of all the men who are engaged in what we may call the urban occupations, they are muscularly the strongest. These are real points. The whole question could be elaborated immensely, but may I urge the Secretary for Mines, in what must, be an anxious time for him and the Department, in considering the immediate future of these 100,000 men, to have inquiries instituted? May I urge him to consult the Ministries that know? May I urge him to look at the ease of men with urban training who have succeeded? I do not urge him to take action, but I urge him to take thought.


I entirely agree with what the hon. Member who has just sat down said as to the need of some investigation and inquiry in this direction. I think it will be agreed that, very frequently, when such questions as this have been urged, the Secretary for Mines has said—and it applies also to other Ministries—that this is a matter for another Ministry, and, again and again, what, I think, has been thoroughly well-intended suggestions for some measure of improvement have been turned down upon that ground, and that ground alone. That is a state of affairs which could not possibly exist in any well-regulated business, and ought not to exist in the country in regard to this great question of unemployment. It is not only a question of unemployment; it is a question which comes up in all kinds of directions. The other day I had a deputation of men engaged in a particular industry in Sheffield, entirely unconnected with mining, and we were up against a matter in which three different Ministries were involved, each more or less dependent on the other, and yet, apparently, there was no co-ordination or inquiry on the part of any one of them as to what the other was doing, and the attitude of which I have spoken was again and again taken up.

I want to refer more particularly just now to the difficulty which many of us on this side have often experienced in regard to questions which have been put to the right hon. Gentleman on mining matters, and have been told that the Department had not got the information which was asked for. It does not apply only to the Mines Department. It applies to some of the other Ministries also, and I am making a somewhat interesting collection, with which I will deal on some future occasion, of the replies we have received which seem certainly to indicate that we have not got that information which it is necessary we should have, and which we should expect to have in a thoroughly well-regulated Department. When we consider the importance of the whole mining industry, it is most important that there should be the fullest possible information, not simply in regard to what is happening in this country but in regard to what is happening abroad.

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