HC Deb 02 June 1927 vol 207 cc644-54

We have listened to a very interesting Debate on the question whether a policy of Free Trade or a policy of Protection and safeguarding of industries would be the most beneficial to this country. I and my friends wish to draw attention a particular industry in which we are concerned, namely, the mining industry. I was interested to hear from the hon. and gallant Member for Bournemouth (Sir H. Croft) the statement that the Government have discovered a remedy for unemployment. If the Government have discovered a remedy for unemployment, we who have been connected with the mining industry all our lives will be exceedingly delighted if they will give to the mining industry some of the magic potion of the remedy which they have found, so that e may be pot upon a better basis than we are at the present time. Just about a year ago we were discussing in this House the Mining Industry Bill, which in Part IV. deals with the recruitment of men into the mines. Although the Third Reading Debate was a very short one, the Secretary for Mines told us that Part IV. limits the recruitment for the next three years, and allows those who are dispossessed, under the operations which may take place as a result of this Measure, to be secured in their employment in the mining industry. It is a thing for which hon. Gentlemen opposite have frequently asked, and it is not for them to jeer at it. It is correct to say that Section 18 of the Mining Industries Act. 1926, lays down some kind of basis which gives the Minister of Labour the opportunity of doing something that will be really beneficial to the mining industry, but up to the present we have seen no evidence that this particular Section of the Act is being put into operation. Section 18 says: The Minister of Labour may, after consultation with associations representing respectively employers and persons employed in the coal mining industry, make regulation for the purpose of securing that in the recruitment of persons over the age of eighteen years for employment to which this Section applies preference is given, while this Section is in force, to persons who were employed in such employment during the period of seven days ending the thirtieth day of April, 1926. To us this extremely important, and we are anxious to know from the Secretary for Mines. whether there has been any of these consultations to which the Section refers. We want to know whether there has been consultation with the coal-owners and the Miners' Federation; whether the Minister of Labour has secured any of the information which this Section says he has power to secure with regard to the position of the coalmining industry and the employment in the mines. Everybody knows that after the last stoppage there are more un- employed miners to-day than ever there has been. Many collieries have closed down, and others have not been able to get into full working order yet. It is true that in certain parts of the country there are collieries which are beginning to develop, and we hope that in the future there will be room in these collieries for many of the unemployed miners of the moment.

What we desire to know is whether the Minister of Labour, since the passing of the Act last year, has simply allowed things to drift, or whether he has inquired of the mineowners how many men they employed prior to the stoppage of 1926, and how many men they are employing now after the stoppage has ended. Has he inquired from them how many men they would be able to employ in the future? We want to know whether he has made arty inquiries of this kind, whether he has ascertained what collieries are devolping and what are the pro spects for the future, especially with regard to the number of men who may reasonably expect to find work in four weeks' time, in two months' time, or six months' time. We should also like to know whether he has any idea of using some of the £3,000.000 that was set aside for the transference of miners from one part of the country to another, and whether he has prepared any scheme to facilitate this transference. This is a problem winch does not affect only one part of the country; it affects every part of the country more or less. Will he say whether he has in his mind any idea of using some of this money for transferring large groups of miners from one area to another from aears where collieries have been closed down to areas where there is a prospect of employment owing to mining development? I mean the transfer of 100 or 200 families in such a way.

While, of course, the Minister of Labour and the Secretary for Mines would not accept any responsibility for the condition and the misery of our people owing to their having been evicted from their homes and put on the streets as a result of the great depression in the industry, we believe that the Government, under this particular Act, could put into operation Regulations that would relieve the difficulty to a, very large extent. We have in our minds the cases of scores of men who have done valuable service for colliery companies for over 40 years, men who started as lads at 12 years of age and have worked from 30 to 40 years for one colliery company, and now, because there does not happen to be any vacancy at that mine for such men, they are being evicted from their homes and turned adrift. We think that under the Act the Minister of Labour and the Secretary for Mines ought to be able to make some arrangement with the coal-owners whereby such harsh treatment would not be allowed, and that these men could be protected in some way until vacancies can be secured for them in some other part of the country. The Section of the Act I have in mind refers to men "who were employed in mining before 30th April, 1926." These Acts are passed from time to time, and there may be very little protection to be secured from them, but we are entitled to say that that protection, however small, ought to be provided.

Those are some of the questions that I put to the Minister. Particularly do I want him to keep in mind the fact that under the Act there are powers which can he secured as a result of interviews between the owners and the miners, and that regulations can be put into operation to prevent the tremendous amount of unnecessary friction that exists in the industry to-day. The Minister of Labour and the Secretary for Mines ought to see that men who have rendered valuable service to particular coalowners are not treated with the contempt that is meted out to them to-day, but rather that they have the protection of the Government. If these men were in any other walk of life they would be given some kind of pension, some kind of recognition of their long service. Although there may be excuses made because certain things have not happened, yet I still believe that the Minister of Labour and the Secretary for Mines could make such arrangements under the Act as would minimise to a large extent much of the difficulty and distress and unnecessary suffering that exist amongst the mining population to-day.


I am sorry that it has not been found possible to take this Debate in a full House, because the mining industry is in a terrible position. As the afternoon is now far advanced and as my colleague who has just spoken has made a very complete statement in regard to the matter, I do not propose to add anything to that statement


It is not surprising that two hon. Members who represent a great exporting county should have desired to raise this matter and I agree with the last speaker that it would have been better, had it been possible, to take this discussion earlier in the day, when we might have gone into the question in greater detail than is now possible. The hon. Member who initiated the discussion asked several questions, to which I can give a reply which I think he will regard as not altogether unsatisfactory. He referred to the mining industry in Durham as a whole and the picture which he drew was a very sombre one. I do not say that he exaggerated the position. I think it is unfortunately true that he and his friends who represent Durham, together with those who represent. other great exporting districts like South Wales, feel to the greatest extent the repercussions of the events of last year. The facts are sufficiently obvious. During the disturbance of last year our competitors in other countries used every possible mean; of increasing their output and capturing the markets formerly held by us, and they also took the precaution of entering into long-term contracts in carder to ensure that those advantages should remain with them as long as possible. A very interesting report was made by several miners' agents and one working miner, who examined the position abroad. I think one of the miners' agents was the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Varley) and in this report they make this significant statement: During the last, half of last year the production in the Ruhr and in German and Polish Upper Silesia was easily raised during the British stoppage, to the rate of 172,000,000 tons a year as compared with 157,000,000 tons in 1913. In France production was raised in the same period to the rate of 50,000,000 tons a year as compared with 40,000,000 tons a year in 1913. I only refer to that to show that one of the consequences of the disturbance of last year is to be found in the fact that much of our export trade was for the time being lost, although we hope we are now in the slow process of recovering some of it. The question which is addressed to me here to-day is what are the Government doing under Section 18 of the Act of last year. The hon. Member who raised the matter represented the purport of the Section fairly and accurately. The object of the Section is to secure that mining employment shall be confined to miners. I can tell the hon. Member how the position stands. A scheme has been drafted by the Ministry of Labour, and I will tell him the main purport of it without going into detail. This is the relevant Clause. No colliery giving the undertaking comprised in this scheme will engage any person over the age of 18 years for employment in or about a coal mine in the getting, handling, hauling, preparation and despatch of coal (being employment such as to make the person an employed person within the meaning of the Unemployment Insurance Acts) unless that person was during the period of seven clays ending on 30th April, 1926, or when last before that date in regular employment, employed in such employment. The restriction on engagement set out in paragraph I shall not apply in any case where the constituent member has notified particulars of the vacancy to the nearest Employment Exchange and 14 days have elapsed after such notification has been received without submission by the Exchange of a person suitable for filling the vacancy and qualified in accordance with paragraph I or the Exchange has given notice to the constituent member before the expiration of the 14 days that no such person can be submitted. The effect of this undertaking will be, first, that vacancies in the coalmining industry other than those for boys are reserved for persons already in that industry; secondly, provided that condition is fulfilled, the colliery may obtain colliery workers from any area; thirdly, if it cannot obtain them in the ordinary way it must give the Employment Exchanges 14 days in which to find and submit suitable labour and fourthly, the Exchanges will co-operate with the trade unions in the ordinary way. About three weeks ago a deputation from the Miners' Federation came to me and we went into this matter. Questions were asked as to the precise scope of the agreement. The Miners' Federation wanted to know exactly who came under it; they wanted to be quite certain of the meaning of paragraph 1, which I have just read. We are drawing up a schedule showing the particular occupations to which tile agree-men shall apply.


In the arrangement you are going to bring into operation, there is nothing to provide that men who were employed in the mining industry on 30th April, 1926, shall Have that protection. What I want to get at is this. If 50 or 60 men who were miners on the 30th April and have been miners all their lives were victimised at a colliery, are they going to get protection under this scheme?


I am not quite sure that I properly appreciate the precise point the hon. Member has in his mind. What this agreement seeks to do, and I think does do, is to carry out the provisions of Section 18, which ensures that new men shall not enter into the mining industry until an opportunity has been given for men who are already miners to be employed; that is, to ensure that the industry shall be kept to miners. That carries out to the full the purpose of Section 18. The hon. Member may say, "Who is giving this undertaking? The Mining Association does not necessarily represent all the collieries in the country. How are you going to make sure that all are bound by the undertaking?" We are quite determined, and we consider It essential, that the undertaking shall be given by all collieries without exception, whether they belong to the Association or whether they do not, and we have every reason to believe there will be no difficulty on that score and that the undertaking will be given by them all. After this deputation, which I received on 12th May, the Federation wrote to me on 17th May raising certain points of detail. The Ministry replied on 23rd May, and at the moment we are awaiting a reply to that letter. We have every reason to hope that we shall be able to complete those arrangements, and we think they will carry out both in the letter and spirit the terms of the Act passed last year. The hon. Member has channels of his own through which to find out how the matter is proceeding, but I shall be very happy to communicate with him as soon as he likes after we meet again in order that he may be kept informed and know what is the position.


The questions brought forward by the two hon. Friends the Member for Spennymoor (Mr. Batey) and the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Whiteley) apply equally to other parts of the British coalfield. The difficulties of the mining industry are by no means confined to the county of Durham. The Parliamentary Secretary said the stoppage of last year was to a considerable extent responsible for the condition in which the industry finds itself to-day. I am not going to deny that the stoppage last year had some effect upon the industry, but I think he is in error in attributing to the stoppage of last year all the difficulties with which the mining industry finds itself face to face to-day. I believe that we would have been faced with some of the same difficulties, in the course of time, even if there had been no stoppage. The industry to-day is undoubtedly facing competitors that it has never had to face in the past. The Parliamentary Secretary mentioned the development of Holland, Germany, and France, but they form only part of the additional competitors that the industry is facing. We are having in all the coal producing countries of the world a development going on that gives us more competition for our export trade than was formerly the case, and in addition there are other competitors, such as oil, electricity manufactured by water power, and other sources of motive power, with the result that the mining industry to-day is in a worse position than any of us who have followed the industry for the whole of our lives has ever found before. The mining population to-day is facing destitution such as we have seldom seen in the course of our lifetime in these mining areas, and I would like to put it to the Secretary for Mines and the representative of the Ministry of Labour that, in addition to putting into operation that Section in the Mining Industry Act of last year which provided for keeping employment in mines for miners, the Government should go very much further if the industry is to be put upon a footing that will enable it to provide work for a larger number of people.

When the Coal Mining Commission was taking evidence, the Miners' Federation of Great Britain put forward a scheme which they thought was the one that should be applied to the mining industry and that was likely to redeem the industry. The Government, on the other hand, said: "No, that would have no effect; that is the wrong way of going about the matter." In particular, the Government suggested that there should be a lengthening of hours and even a reduction in wages. Well, we have had our reduction in wages. There is not a district in the British coalfield to-day that is not now down on what is known as the minimum wage. We have also had our increase in hours. There is a full hour put on the working day of every mine worker in the country, or of nearly every mine worker. There may be some districts where there is less than an hour, but, speaking generally, there has been a full hour put on the working day for every mine worker in the country, and at the end of the policy advocated by the Government in conjunction with the coal-owners of the country, the industry finds itself in a more parlous condition than before that policy was put into operation. In these circumstances, I think we, on these benches, and particularly those of us representing mining districts, are entitled to ask what the Government are prepared to do in addition to putting into operation Section 18 of the Mining Industry Act.

Might I say in a word to the Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Labour that one of the big difficulties we in the mining districts are facing today is one for which his Department are responsible. We find large numbers of our men, who have not been able to find employment for months past, are being cut off from unemployment insurance benefit on the ground that they are not making every reasonable effort to obtain employment, and that in an industry where less, instead of more, men are being employed every day. Under that particular Clause hundreds of our men are being cut off. We would like to know, before the House rises, what the Government are prepared to do in order to help the mining population of this country, because the position in the mining popula- tion is desperate and requires the close and sympathetic attention of the Government. Are the Government prepared to go further than Clause 18 of the Mining industry Act, and how much further are they prepared to do in order to help the mining industry out of its difficulties?

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

Adjourned accordingly at Nine Minutes before Five o'Clock until Monday, 13th June, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of this day.