HC Deb 21 July 1930 vol 241 cc1893-903

Lords Amendment: In page 20, line 32, at the end, insert: Provided that if an application, by agreement between representative organisations of the owners of and the workers employed in or about the coal mines in any district, is made to the Board of Trade in that behalf, the Board of Trade shall make an order, which shall become effective forthwith, that the substitution of the words 'half an hour' for the words 'one hour' in Section three of the Coal Mines Regulation Act, 1908, shall not apply as respects any mine in such district at which the daily hours below ground on an average taken over the twelve weekdays in any fortnight do not exceed the daily hours permissible under Section one of the Coal Mines Regulation Act, 1908, as amended by the Coal Mines Act, 1919, by more than the extension of half an hour made under Section three of the Coal Mines Regulation Act, 1908, as amended by the Coal Mines Act, 1926, and this section; At any mine where an extension of time is in any week made under the said Section three, the workmen, by agreement between representatives of employers and workmen, may, notwithstanding anything in the Coal Mines Act, 1908, as amended by any subsequent enactment, begin their period of work on the Saturday of that week before twenty-four hours have elapsed since the beginning of their last period of work, so long as at least eight hours have elapsed since the termination thereof.

Motion made, and Question, "That this House doth not insist on its disagreement to the said Amendment," put, and agreed to.—[Mr. W. Graham.]

The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of TRADE (Mr. William Graham)

I beg to move, as an Amendment to the Lords Amendment, in line 3, after the word "behalf," to insert the words: with the approval of the Mining Association of Great Britain and the Miners' Federation of Great Britain. Perhaps a few words of explanation are necessary on what is undoubtedly a critical position in connection with this Bill. In order that there may be no misapprehension perhaps I had better begin by recalling that Part III of the Bill provides for a reduction of one half hour in the working time permitted under the Act of 1926 which was, of course, a permissive eight-hours day plus one winding time in the coalfields. In the great majority of the coalfields that permissive eight-hours day has been worked, the exceptions being Yorkshire, certain parts of the Midlands, and for certain workers Northumberland and Durham. The half hour reduction in the working time comes into operation four months after the passage of this legislation, and all along it has never been disguised that the reduction is linked up to a certain extent with the amalgamation schemes which are established under Part I of the Bill, so that, assuming for a moment that this Bill becomes law at the end of this month, the half-hour reduction of working time would only come into effect in December of the present year.

11.0 p.m.

The House will clearly understand that, in the absence of any other legislation, that reduction would operate until July, 1931, when the industry would automatically revert, on the expiry of the 1926 Act, to the pre-1926 position. These simple facts are necessary in order that we may all have clearly in mind what is before us in this Amendment. On several occasions during the Committee and Report stages and, again, I think, on one occasion on this Amendment from another place, the House of Commons decided against a spread-over in the working time. That proposition is that within the limits of a fortnight a spread-over should be allowed so that of course the aggregate number of hours worked in the fortnight would not be greater than those permitted by previous Acts of Parliament as amended by this Bill. On every occasion there has been a majority, usually a substantial majority, in this House against that proposition. I think that every hon. Member, whatever view he takes of the reduction in working time, will agree that it is a subject on which the mining community is peculiarly sensitive, and justly sensitive, because Part III of the Bill, providing for the reduction of one half-hour, was admittedly only part of the pledge given to them, and left the industry within seven and a-half hours working day plus one winding time, which, averaged over the country is rather more than half an hour.

The industry generally on the workers' side has been in favour of it, and the House of Commons has expressed that view on two occasions, but another view has been taken in another place. Consequently, the technical position to-night is that if we simply reject this proposal of the House of Lords for the second time, this Bill, with all its reorganisation and all the necessary changes in the industry which is introduced, would disappear. In short, it would be destroyed. That is a position which no Government could contemplate lightly if there is any way in which we can meet it at all, any way which is consistent with justice or fair play to some 900,000 members of the mining community. There are certain facts in the recent controversy which encourage us in the hope that even yet a solution can be found. The House will recall that when this Amendment was originally proposed, it was on the basis of individual pits, and I think that the House, by common consent agreed that that was a perfectly impossible position. That view was taken in another place. It was indeed recognised by my right hon. Friend opposite, speaking officially for the Opposition. There is a movement from the individual pit to the district, and consequently it is on a district footing that the proposal appears before us tonight.

What is the exact form of the proposal as it now stands? It means that where you have agreement between representatives of the owners and representatives of the miners in any district, and an application is made to the Board of Trade, the Board of Trade will be under an obligation to make an order which would be operative forthwith, and under which—at all events until July 1931, because I am always assuming the absence of additional legislation—the spreadover in working hours would come into effect. So that we have moved from the basis of the pit to the basis of the district, and from the district would come the joint request to the Board of Trade, which is laid under this obligation to make an order. Normally, as the Clause is framed, that would mean in practice that the request would come from the machinery in existence representing the owners, so far rather loosely connected in the Mining Association, and the miners, who are represented in the Miners' Federation of Great Britain. In the great majority of coalfields, that is the bargaining machinery or the negotiating machinery for wages and hours of work which is now in operation, and which, since the events of 1926, does not refer to the national machinery of either the owners on the one side or the miners on the other.

That is the form it would take as this Clause now stands; but if the other House has moved from the individual pit to the district, it has moved in terms of certain plain and specific declarations which, I think, are of very great importance for our purpose to-night. What are those declarations? In repeated speeches they have emphasised—and in this I include the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords—that this must be a purely voluntary request from any district, that is, that there must be no question of coercion, and although I find it difficult to explain to this House what kinds of coercion are in view, I think it is fair to point out that they have taken very strongly indeed that point about voluntary applications. Very well. I think we can build on that ground a perfectly clear request. If it is to be a voluntary matter, then it is reasonable to suggest that it should be voluntary at all stages of the proceedings in these representative bodies, that is that, certainly on the miners' side, and we say also on the owners' side, there should be a reference to national machinery.

The House will recall that under this Measure the conditions in the coalfields will be fundamentally altered. It is not open to us to argue to-night, about the merits of Part I of the Bill; that may be regarded, for all practical purposes, as having very nearly become the law of the land; but in substance it means that this industry is regulated through central machinery representative of the owners, giving district allocation to all these districts of the country, and, undoubtedly, for the purposes of this legislation, and the future of the industry, animated by the desire to secure as broad a measure of uniformity in general conditions as can be attained. That is one of the broad objects of the legislation, and, if that is true, it will raise important questions of uniformity as applied to working hours and as applied to the presence of a spread-over, if one can ever be introduced, as tending to modify a flat reduction of one half-hour in the working time. Accordingly, it seems to us perfectly clear and reasonable that the Amendment which I am moving to secure the approval of the Mining Association and the Miners' Federation of Great Britain should be inserted. The result would be this. An application would come up from the district machinery which I have already described, voluntarily promoted by the district association, to the Mining Association and to the Miners' Federation, and, if they gave their approval, it would come to the Board of Trade. Then the Board of Trade would be under the obligation under which it is to-day in the Clause as it stands in the Bill. This is one additional stage in the process. Before it reaches the Board of Trade the request will depend on the approval of the Mining Association and the Miners' Federation.

There are very few words that are necessary in addition, but I would like to say this: That I think the House may assume—and this meets part of the criticism in another place—that that approval would not be lightly withheld, that is, that the position would be, and indeed must be, examined by both the Mining Association and the Miners' Federation. They would have regard to all the circumstances, they must look to the national position as well as to the state of affairs in the particular district making the application, and with all the facts before them they would then have to decide whether they would give their approval to the application upon which the board, under this Clause, would be required to act.

The other word I want to add is this: I earnestly trust that the House to-night, without debate—and I appeal for that very strongly, indeed—will agree to this course, and I believe that in this course we have the solution, as I said at the beginning, of a very difficult question. I want to make this perfectly clear—and I hope hon. Members will bear with me if I emphasise this, because it is of vital importance—that this can only operate under these conditions between December of the present year and July, 1931, always on the assumption that there is no further legislation. If matters re- main as they now are, it comes to an end then, and will not become operative at all unless an application is made between the two dates which I have mentioned. I plead for this with all the earnestness at my disposal, mainly for this reason: It is of vital importance to avoid dislocation or strife on the working conditions in this industry. It is my considered opinion to-night that the Miners' Federation of Great Britain and the mining community have gone a very long way indeed in the interests of peace, and I cannot withhold my warmest tribute to the sacrifice which I feel they have made in accepting the Amendment which I am now able to move; because, of course, it is openly admitted that in a matter of this kind any Government must have regard to the opinion of the two sides of the industry and the opinion of the industry itself. I do not think there is any hon. Member in any part of the House who wishes to see what must be, in any case, the difficult recovery of this industry, placed under any further difficulty. I am personally satisfied, and I believe the House will be satisfied, that we have found a solution in these words, and I beg the House unanimously to approve of the Amendment which I now move.


I think everyone in the House will agree with one sentiment expressed by the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade in the very lucid and sincere speech which he has just made, and that is, that it is of vital importance to secure the largest possible measure of common consent to any proposal which, if it operates at all, can operate only by agreement and by goodwill. The spread-over proposal, if it is to be of any use—indeed, if it is ever to exist and to be an operative proposal—must be founded upon agreement, and agreement must depend upon frankness. I think, too, that the House would assent to another proposition which the right hon. Gentleman advanced, namely, that he, and those for whom he speaks, have gone a very long way beyond the attitude which he adopted when this proposal was last before us. The Amendment which he is now putting before the House has to be considered, as indeed it is, as an Amendment to the general provision which goes before it, and to which the House has just unanimously given its assent.

The main operative part of that proposal, to which we have now all assented, is that the option of a spread-over, in the terms which, I agree, are the right terms, that is to say, terms applicable to a district and not to an individual pit, should be inserted in this Bill. The spread-over is to be the subject of district negotiations and the subject of district agreements. All that is done, and those are, indeed, the essential conditions under which a spread-over must work. The President of the Board of Trade invites us to add an Amendment which he has just proposed that the spread-over proposal should proceed from a district to the Board of Trade, and shall come there with the approval of the Mining Association and the Miners' Federation. I am bound to admit that those bodies do not figure in this Amendment for the first time in connection with this Bill. The House will recollect—I want to be perfectly fair in this—that we have already passed Clause 15 of the Bill, and it has passed in another place. Under that Clause a National Board has to be established to which all disputes will go unless they can be settled by district agreements, as I hope the bulk of them will be settled. I feel about this Amendment—I tell the House quite frankly—as I feel about the National Board Clause, that I am tremendously against anything that takes away from the people who have to negotiate in the districts any incentive to be absolutely frank with one another.

I said in the earlier debates that if this industry is to recover and get right that there must be absolute frankness at every stage. I know that that also is the wish of the advocates of the National Boards, but under the Clause establishing the National Board the members of that Board, apart from the additional members are drawn in equal numbers from the Miners' Federation and the Mining Association. I have heard it suggested that to accept this Amendment would render wholly nugatory the main Clause which the House has just accepted. Frankly I do not take that view. I do not believe that the President of the Board of Trade who has fought this proposal and who has always been frank with the House in every proposition he has put forward, would come to this House and say, with one breath, I accept your main proposition, and then ask us to pass an Amendment which would completely stultify the proposition which he has just put forward. I take it from the right hon. Gentleman's speech that what is sought here, whether it is couched in the most apt words or not I do not know, is to ensure that where there is a district agreement that that agreement shall have been arrived at by an absolutely free and impartial discussion between the parties I was a good deal interested by what was said by many speakers in the earlier stages of the debate as regards the fear that if the spread-over Clause stands in the form in which it comes from the Lords with nothing more added there might be some risk of coercion. It is quite optional in its form and I am sure hon. Members will believe me when I say that it is intended that this proposal should be absolutely optional in its operation. I am sure that anybody who has read the speech of Lord Salisbury in another place will agree that he emphasised as intensely as he could his desire that this should be an absolutely free agreement. There is, however, the opinion that although it is optional in its form, unless some safeguard is added, there may be, in one district or another, a feeling that the scales are weighted down on one side, and that some further security is wanted. In the words of the President of the Board of Trade, we want to do nothing that is not consistent with justice and fair play, and as the Lord Privy Seal said, we want an absolute assurance that, whatever may be the terms, there can be no possibility of the agreement being prejudiced. I take it that the Amendment which is proposed is proposed mainly for that purpose, and certainly that is a purpose which is common to us all. I am not sure that, if I had been drafting the Amendment, I should not have said that the President of the Board of Trade should have power to do it after consultation with the two organisations. But I am much less concerned here with the actual words which are taken, and which will, after all, I agree, only cover a few months, than with the spirit which underlies those words, and the spirit in which any negotiations have to be conducted.

If this Clause is to operate at all, it must operate in a spirit of agreement. It can only be for a short time. But, although this Clause, and any agreement under it, can only operate for a short time, there must be negotiations, which will take this industry, for better or for worse, through a much longer period than that; and I am sure that everyone in this House will agree, that there will be an intense desire on the part of every Member of the House that, whether they be the negotiations under this Clause or whether they be the much larger and wider negotiations which must be conducted in this industry in the future, those negotiations should be conducted in an atmosphere of good will and of agreement. That atmosphere cannot be the product of any legislation; it can only be produced by the people in the industry itself; and, if I accept these words to-night in the form in which they are moved by the President of the Board of Trade, I accept them because I believe them to be an earnest of that desire for agreement which I hope may permeate the whole of the industry.


The speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hendon (Sir P. Cunliffe-Lister) will, I feel sure, have been welcomed in all quarters of the House. It is indeed a good augury for a future settlement of these prolonged controversies. This Bill has now passed to and fro between the two Houses for some time. At the beginning there were wide differences covering a great number of points. Those differences have been reduced now to this one small Amendment which is before the House. I think we should recognise here that in another place there has been shown a very considerable spirit of conciliation, and the Government have responded to that spirit. They have gone a very long way, in view of the strong feeling among the miners, in order to endeavour to arrive at a final settlement. I hope that the Amendment which we are now discussing will prove to be the bridge which will enable the Bill to pass over on to the Statute Book.

Let it be remembered that, as the right hon. Gentleman has again reminded us, only seven months after this provision comes into operation the Act which was passed by the late Government will come into operation, and the hours will be reduced back to the figure at which they were before 1926. The consequence of that will be that the miners will only have to wait for a period of seven months, when, without any further legislation, they will get the whole of their demands, and not half of them. On the other hand, if this Bill were to fail, the coalowners would lose very many legislative provisions to which they attach great importance. In these circumstances we may all hope this will prove to be the last stage in the long progress of this Bill, that the spirit of conciliation that has prevailed in this House to-night may be reciprocated in another place and that the Bill may at last find its way on to the Statute Book.

Amendment to Lords Amendment agreed to.