§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Ramsay MacDonald)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
Perhaps a sentence will enable me to explain why the Bill is necessary—a sentence referring to the course of coal mine legislation since 1908. In 1908 was passed the principal Act, decreeing that the working day should be one of eight hours. In 1919 that Act was amended by the 7-hour Act. Then, in 1926, an Amendment was made that for a period of five years—that was the decision of the House of Commons—the 7-hour legal working day should become—I remember the emphasis that was put on the optional character of the Bill—at the option of the owners and the men an 8-hour working day. That Act was given a life of five years. On Wednesday that life terminates. In 1929, the present Government changed the law to one of 7½ hours a week with a spread-over. Now the Government have to consider what they have to do in view of the lapsing of the 1926 Act. There is no man on this side of the House, and I think not so very many on the other side of the House, who would say that seven hours a day are not sufficiently long for any man to work underground, and that it should not be the legal maximum as soon as the conditions that exist to-day permit.
Let the House clearly understand that the Bill, the Second Reading of which I am moving now, is a temporary suspension of the 7-hour day. When the half-hour was taken off last year, everybody engaged in the industry was aware that there were very serious difficulties in adjustment, arising particularly out of the present state of the industry. First of all, there was organisation. That was bad. There was the question of markets and the consumption of coal, affected more particularly in the last 12 months by the very serious slump in world trade. The demand has not kept up. In addition to that, we are facing novel methods of the supply of energy and of power. Then, not to make an exhaustive survey, but only to mention three important con- 1748 siderations that have to be taken into account on the readjustment of hours, there is the question of the new severity of foreign competition, which indicates quite clearly both to the Miners' Federation and to the Mining Association the necessity of having, not only a national arrangement, but some sort of international agreement as to standards.
Therefore, as soon as not only the Government but the two parties concerned began to consider what was to happen on the 8th of this month, the question immediately arose of what was to be the relation between hours and wages. The two could not be dissociated one from the other. It was quite possible to declare standards of wages which would be regarded by everybody as being adequate, but one of two things—and I emphasise "under present conditions"—quite evidently followed from that. First of all, a very considerable number of pits would have to be closed, or, from some source or other outside the resources of the coal trade, subsidies would be required to be found for the maintenance of high level wages. No one on any side of the House will doubt that these are conditions which would have to be faced with a reduction of the hours under the conditions which at this moment exist in the British coal trade.
In those circumstances, it was quite apparent that if an agreement could be come to between the men and the owners, that would open the best way for legislation. The Government started at the beginning of March to discover whether such an agreement was possible. We had negotiations with the men. We had negotiations with the owners. Subcommittees of the owners and of the men met together and talked things over and explained the position. I regret to say that in the end no agreement was come to, although now and again it would seem to an outsider that the partition between them was very thin indeed. Briefly, this is what the owners wanted. They wanted an undated Bill decreeing a 7½-hour day, and for that they were prepared to give the men a guarantee for one year and one year only that existing minimum wages, that is percentages and subsistence wages settled by district agreements, would not be lowered. The men pressed them to give some 1749 sort of guarantee, by agreeing with them to set up an effective negotiating machinery, so that when the guaranteed 12 months finished, negotiations would be conducted—the negotiations would be conducted as a matter of fact before the end of that period was reached—but so that when the 12 months' guarantee finished there would still be a continued assurance of wages acceptable to the men. As far as I could make out, the men might have considered a 7½-hour day continued until such time as amending legislation had to be introduced to implement the recently made Geneva Convention, if any security were given for minimum wages, over the whole period, or, if that were impossible, on condition that the owners agreed themselves to set up an effective negotiating machinery.
That was the position when the negotiations failed, in the sense that we could carry neither side any further than it had gone. The Government regret this very much because we made it perfectly clear from the beginning that we were most averse—in fact, we even put it stronger—to there being any sort of feeling on the part of either side that we were willing to consider something else. We put before both sides this alternative, during the negotiations and while it was still possible to get agreement—that we would make ourselves responsible for agreed legislation, and if that could not be got, we could commit ourselves to nothing, except that we would have most seriously to consider whether we should do anything at all. [Laughter.] If we did nothing at all, that would have enabled the House of Commons decision five years ago to be carried out, and it is no use laughing at it. Do let us remember that this is a very serious question which requires and has required, to bring it even thus far, very delicate handling, and if the Bill which I now ask the House to accept as a temporary Measure is accepted, then negotiations will have to be carried on so that the time of peace thus declared will be used for still further promoting peace. We could do nothing else and this is what will have to be contemplated if this Bill cannot be accepted and if it does not become an Act of Parliament within the appointed time.
1750 I feel perfectly certain that nobody wants that. The owners do not want it; the men do not want it, and I do not believe that either the House of Commons or the other place want it. If we had come down here on Thursday when the negotiations finally broke down, and said, "We propose just to allow matters to take their course," I think it would have been a most deplorable step. To use what seems to be a contradiction in terms it would have been a step of negation. The Government, after a careful consideration of the situation which was left when the negotiations had broken down, decided that it was their duty to try to give both sides further time for consideration and negotiation and at the same time to keep the industry going. The way to do that——[HON. MEMBERS: "Sixty days!"] A period of 60 days is not enough.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
Yea, but believe me it is not enough. I do not wish to be dragged away from my main line of consideration but if any hon. Member thinks that 60 days are enough I ask him to remember what the position will be if the House is going to leave the industry to work over time for 60 days. It is not 60 days overtime, but overtime up to one hour on 60 separate days. If the House thinks that is going to be of real use to the industry then I cannot agree with the House at all. Another fatal objection is that you would be landed at the end of the 60 days in a period when the House of Commons probably was not meeting. However, we made up our minds that something temporary ought to be done to prevent disputes immediately, and to prevent a crisis in the industry, but of sufficient duration not to handicap the industry in taking contracts, and sufficient, not only to enable the present situation to be considered but also to enable the owners, the men, and the Government to consider together the situation which arises out of the Convention which has just received approval at the International Labour Conference at Geneva.
Putting these two or three important objects before us to be pursued, we had to consider what would be a reasonable time for the extension of the existing 1751 law—with the exception that we did not propose to use the expedient of the spread-over. The owners offered to guarantee minimum percentage and subsistence wages, as at present worked in districts. It is perfectly true that they offered that guarantee on the condition that the Bill was an undated Bill. If we have taken that guarantee and put it into the Bill without conditions I believe the owners would find no difficulty in accepting our policy, because after all, when one considers the actual situation and how things are going to work for the next 12 months, a guarantee that was possible on the assumption of a two years Bill—because the owners themselves have accepted the intervention of Geneva—a guarantee for a year on a Bill that might run for two years or 2½ years, is not very unworkable or unthinkable on a Bill that is going to run for 12 months, the Government, in the meantime, giving its pledge that it is going to do its best to get agreement between the two sides before the 12 months are over.
Therefore, the Bill the Second Reading of which I now move, in its first Clause continues the operation of the 7½-hour day for 12 months. In its second Clause, it embodies the present minimum percentage additions to basic rates of wages, and the subsistence wage rates in every district, as part of the conditions under which the 7-hour day will be extended by half-an-hour. The object of that is not to stabilise wages but to fix a bottom. The ordinary district machinery can operate for the minimum percentages upon ascertainment but the provision is that this minimum will not fall below what is at the present the district arrangement and the district agreement. In Sub-section (2) of Clause 2 are three definitions. On the Motion for the Second Reading of the Bill I need only refer to the first which is the definition of "appointed day." It is required because there are three districts at present where no district agreements have been reached—where agreements are in process of being settled but have not yet been reached. These are Scotland, North Wales, and Cumberland. Scotland and Forth Wales have to transfer from the spread-over to the basic. Cumberland is in dispute regarding an award which has 1752 not been accepted by the men, but it is hoped that this matter will soon be resolved.
The definition of "appointed day" is put in the words which will be found in the Bill for the purpose of securing this effect. Where there are district agreements working on Wednesday then those are the agreements which will be carried on for 12 months. Where, as in Scotland and North Wales and Cumberland, there are no district agreements yet fixed, but where district agreements will certainly be fixed, very shortly, then those district agreements will be the agreements carried on for 12 months. That is the purpose of the definition of "appointed day." The only other point to which I have to draw the attention of the House is in Sub-section (4) of Clause 3. This is an attempt to indicate with effect that as soon as the Government are ready to legislate on the Geneva agreement, that will be done.
But it enables me to repeat to the House what I repeated again and again in the conferences, both with the owners and with the men, that as soon as this legislation is passed and the industry is secured a normal working, a continuation of the present working, the Government will at once take up with the foreign Governments concerned this Geneva agreement, for the purpose of coming to arrangements which will tnable us, simultaneously with other Governments in Europe interested in the coal industry, to pass legislation which will secure a lower working day than exists at present either there or here. We shall press on with the ratification of the Geneva agreement and give it effect as soon as we can get the necessary arrangements with the foreign Governments.
I had overlooked, by a slight mistake in the drafting, that at the top of page 2, in Clause 2, the agreement regarding wages is stated to apply to underground workers only. As a matter of fact, it has been brought to our notice that those district agreements affect not only the underground workers, but also surface workers. Hitherto in making these agreements the two sections have never been separate, and men of practical experience in the working of mines have said that it would be a most deplorable thing if any separation were made. I feel perfectly certain 1753 that no separation was intended, but the draft at present before the House refers to the employment of workmen underground, and that may have to be altered to bring the wording of the Bill into complete accord with the wording of the district agreements, so that the district agreements may not be violated in any way whatever.
This is not the sort of Bill that one would have liked. It is purely temporary. It does not give the owners what they wanted, it does not give the men what they wanted, but it gives them both enough to go on with; and that is the main concern for the moment from the point of view of this country's position in relation to the state of world trade and industry. It will keep the work going, it will give time to continue negotiations and, I believe, to come to agreement, and I believe that with co-operation and a mutual appreciation of the requirements and the difficulties of the trade, it will enable a more permanent settlement to be readied without involving any other crisis in the industry. It is meant to enable our good offices to be continued through a period, it is meant to allow the industry to develop itself, and it is meant to try to bring some new machinery into operation, something that does not quite exist in this industry yet, to bring it into being and to bring it into harmonious working order.
Before the right hon. Gentleman resumes his seat, may I ask him if he can give us any indication of the amount of reduction in wages that is likely to follow from the change-over to 7½ hours?
§ The PRIME MINISTER
No. As I said, that is at present under negotiation, but the negotiations are conducted by the owners and the men, and when the agreement is come to it will be come to by both.
§ Mr. STANLEY BALDWIN
The point which the hon. Lady put is one which will be discussed and possibly elucidated to some extent during the Debate and, therefore, I shall not touch on it. I rise to make some observations on the occasion of the Second Reading of this Bill. I have seen much coal legislation introduced into this House, but have never seen any introduced in an air of 1754 more general gloom and depression. I sympathise with the Prime Minister, but I am quite sure that to any Government, of whatever colour that Government may be, there is no subject more full of difficulties or which the statesman of the day is more reluctant to meddle with when he has to do so than the intricacies of the coal trade. The disaster that coal should once move be in the forefront of the political battle is one that in its turn is being felt by this Government, just as much as it has been felt by any Government or party over the last 20 years, but there are special features to-day on which I would like to dwell for a few minutes.
The right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister said, very frankly, that this is a Bill which means no victory for either party. It is no victory, by their own confession, to the owners; it is no victory, as he said, to the Miners' Federation; and it is no victory, of course, in the light of the promises that were made two years ago, for the Members sitting on that side, who pledged themselves to repeal the Eight Hours Act and who will go into the Lobby to-day treading "on stepping-stones of their dead selves," but whether those stepping-stones have been going downhill or up, it must be for them to decide. I agree also with what the Prime Minister said about the question of hours, at the beginning of his speech. I do not think there is a great deal of difference really in the minds of Members, in whatever part of the House they sit. I do not believe there is anyone who, given proper conditions, would not be only too glad to sec the hours reduced. Perhaps on our side our difficulty is this, that many of us have a rather closer association with the difficulties of conducting business in these days, and we may not feel as easily as hon. Members opposite that the economic conditions will allow reductions, which for themselves we should be only too glad to see. I would say this, that we are as anxious, and I think we must be, if it should ever be our lot to sit on those benches, to get an international agreement as hon. Members opposite, and I shall say a word or two on that subject before I sit down.
The first thing that I want to make quite clear to-day is that the responsibility for this legislation is the Government's and the Government's alone. It is evident from this legislation 1755 that they are convinced that in the present economic condition of the country and of the trade the 7½-hour day is the greatest concession that they can make. They have obviously come to that conclusion, and my chief complaint against the Government is this, that in a matter in which the House of Commons must to-day take its share of the responsibility, the House of Commons has had no opportunity of considering or discussing the difficult problems which this Bill involves. Were the House of Commons to take full responsibility and to help to shape the legislation suitable for the moment, that House ought to have begun its work weeks ago, but in the circumstances it has been unable to do so. We have had no special knowledge of what has been going on. We did not know whether the Government would legislate at the last moment or not, and indeed it was only last Thursday night, I think, that we knew that they had decided, when agreement had not been reached between the parties, to legislate at all.
I would point out to the House that on this side we have been scrupulously careful to make things no more difficult for the Government than the circumstances of the case have made them. We have asked no questions, we have not discussed the matter on the platform, and the only allusion that I permitted myself to make during these weeks was at Wel-beck, where I said that I hoped there would be an agreement, but that if there were not, it would be necessary for the Government to impose their own form of agreement. That is what has taken place now. All possibility of agreement had disappeared by the end of last week. It is not a new situation in that trade, and the Government have been compelled to act at the eleventh hour, and in the circumstances to-day I am certainly not prepared to oppose the Second Heading of this Bill. There is no alternative to it but trouble, which none of us want to see. For that reason, I say that, while the responsibility must rest upon the Government of the day, we are not here to allow the country to run the slightest risk of the undoubted economic danger that would come to it if this legislation failed to go through in time for the critical 8th July.
There are one or two features in this legislation which I think bad, thoroughly 1756 bad, although it is quite possible that they were unavoidable in the circumstance of having left the ultimate settlement to the last moment. I think that the limitation of the term is dangerous. I think it would have been much wiser to have made the Bill run until new-legislation was required to bring our hours into line with the Geneva Convention as soon as the necessary ratification took place, because, after all, I cannot believe that there is any prospect of this Convention being ratified within the course of the next 12 months, during the lifetime of this Measure, and I should be very glad if the President of the Board of Trade or the Secretary for Mines, whoever may be speaking later, would tell this House, perfectly frankly, what he believes will be the date by which we may get this ratification, which, I am sure, everyone desires. It is an important question, and by shortening the term to a year, it seems to me that you cause two difficuties, one perhaps arising out of the other.
Everybody who knows anything about the coal trade knows that, in spite of the difficult times and the bad times, no one factor has militated more against our doing business with continental countries and countries at great distances oversea than the uncertainty which has attached to deliveries from this country, by these dates that they see ahead, when fresh agreements are due and when foreign countries have learned that there is always a risk, and sometimes a probability, of stoppages; and in making contracts from a great distance, and especially with countries which have no coal of their own, the first essential for them is to get their coal and, so far as is humanly possible, to be sure that contracts will be fulfilled when they are due. Many of these contracts are longdated, and I fear very much that putting a term to this Bill, with the possibility that negotiations may not run smoothly next year—and we always have to meet that doubt and difficulty—may influence contracts, and that trade may be diverted from this country that would otherwise come.
If that be so, the difficulty naturally arises that any diversion or slackening of trade will make it more difficult for the owners to do what they certainly intend to do, that is, to continue the present rates. It will make the industry 1757 less able to bear that weight if they lose a share of the contracts that they might get from foreign countries. That is the inherent weakness of this term of 12 months, and I do not know whether even now the Government would consider whether, if they have any date in their minds when the Convention might become ratified, it would be possible to make the Bill run until we can amalgamate with the agreed international hours. That is a point well worth considering. I have seen a great many coal settlements—though we use the term "settlement" on rather the lucus a non lucendo principle. This is not a settlement, but a temporary expedient which we all hope may be successful, and no one hopes it more than I do. "Settlement" is hardly the word to apply to an arrangement that holds for only 12 months, and holds implicit in it fresh negotiations, possibly for hours and possibly for wages.
There is another element in this Bill which I regret to see, and that is in regard to Scotland, which the hon. Lady the Member for North Lanark (Miss Lee) mentioned. Scotland is in an extraordinarily difficult position under this Bill. You say in the Bill, in effect, that Scotland has to make an agreement of her own, an agreement which the Government know perfectly well must involve a reduction of wages if the hours be maintained without the spread-over, I am quite aware that the miners in Scotland—at least I understand so—have voted against the spread-over. But suppose the negotiations went on, and suppose that again it became evident that all the parties were convinced that existing rates could only be maintained by the spread-over, and suppose that in Scotland they felt they would rather have that than the alternative, then they could not have it under this Bill. They are barred from that, and it is implicit in the Bill that they have to make arrangements which, although they will carry with them the hours that they desire without the spread-over, may not carry with them the wages also. I see difficulties for that district and there is no one who will not hope that Scotland will be able to rise equal to this difficulty in which they are put by the form of the Bill.
I said earlier in these few observations which I felt obliged to make, that I hoped very much that the Government 1758 will do all that they can to speed up the ratification of the Convention. I said one day not very long ago, that I thought one of the great problems of the next 10 or 20 years would be the reconciling of national and international interests in industry. It affects this country perhaps more than any other country in the world, and I believe—of course hon. Members opposite do not—that this reconciliation will be made more easy when all the countries of the world have the same fiscal system. [Interruption.] It is worth thinking about. I believe that one of the greatest difficulties—though I agree not so much with coal—will remain as long as an open market remains here. In many industries the solution of their difficulties will lie in international settlement. It is through international agreement that the great problem of the surpluses that-will arise from the increasing mechanisation and rationalisation of industry will be settled, and settled by that means alone. It is by an international agreement alone that we shall be able to screw up the continental level of wages to something nearer our own. It is only in that way that this problem can be dealt with. It is very true of coal.
Therefore I say, more power to the elbow of the Secretary for Mines and those who work with him in this respect. The whole House is agreed on that point. But I am frankly anxious about the working of this Bill on the grounds that I have stated. I am anxious about Scotland. I am anxious about the term, and I say for the second time that I would far rather see this Bill go on until we get the ratification of the Convention and, I hope, have some legislation that will leave the coal industry with a run of some years before it, rather than the short-dated terms which have caused Government after Government so much trouble and so much difficulty, and brought very little help or happiness to the industry. I hope in the circumstances that this Bill will go through. There are two nasty horns of a nasty dilemma. I have taken my choice, and I am sitting on the horn which has the Bill on it.
§ Sir HERBERT SAMUEL
Greatly as I am tempted to tread on the tail of the Protectionist coat which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bewdley (Mr. 1759 S. Baldwin) has trailed on the Floor of the House, I will refrain from doing so. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and I believe that the hon. Members on these benches agree, that this Bill is unavoidable in the circumstances. At the same time, we are all aware in all quarters of the House that it is a mere postponement of difficulties. We are drawing a bill on the future, and the difficulty will arise not so much at this moment as when the bill is presented for payment 12 months hence. When the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bewdley emphasised the temporary character of this Bill and expressed a preference fur one which would have a lasting effect, he forgot that the present Government in this Measure are following precisely the precedent which he set in the Act of 1926. That was a postponement of difficulties. That Bill did not propose to revert permanently to the 8-hour day. If we are at the present date called upon to legislate, if the 8th July, 1931, is a crucial date, it is because of the terms of the Act of the right hon. Gentleman in 1926. It was his Act which makes this the appointed day, and when the right hon. Gentleman says that the responsibility for legislating now rests solely with the present Government, it is not really in accordance with the facts of the case. The present Government are obliged to legislate because the Act of the right hon. Gentleman of 1926 has now run out.
Before making further observations, let me enter, as I have often done in the House before when speaking on matters relating to coal, a protest against the misnomers which are constantly used in connection with miners' hours of labour. I had occasion to study these matters very intensively when I was serving on the Royal Commission on the Coal Industry, and ever since then I have endeavoured to persuade those who speak in the House or out of it not to speak of a 7-hour day or a 7½-hour day or an 8-hour day in such terms as to lead the general public to believe that these are the hours that miners are required to work. That is not so, and if I may respectfully express a regret, it is that the Prime Minister to-day has used the figures which are in common use without at the same time emphasising the fact that fully half an hour has to be added in every case in 1760 order accurately to describe the length of time that the miner is required to be below ground at work. Continental hours are, of course, different and are on a different basis. When we speak of the miners working an 8-hour day, everyone on the Continent would call that same day under the same conditions an 8½-hour day.
The original Act passed in 1908, in the passage of which I had some small part, although termed an 8-hour day Act, was, in fact, an Act that established an 8½-hour day for the miners below ground. At the end of the War the so-called 7-hour day, which was really a 7½-hour day, was established, and when the right hon. Gentleman passed has Act of 1926 he re-established what was, in fact, an 8½-hour day. British miners have been working longer hours, with a few exceptions, than miners on the Continent, and if there was unfair competition on account of one coalfield working longer hours than another, it was unfair competition of the British coalfield against the Continental coalfields, as our miners, as a rule, were working about half-an-hour a day longer than the miners on the Continent. The Act which we passed last year took off half-an-hour, except in Scotland, where the hours were counted on a fortnightly basis, and the question is whether the country can now afford to take off another half-hour.
There is a general consensus of opinion in all quarters and among all classes that in the present economic condition of the country as a whole, and of the coal industry in particular, we cannot afford now to curtail by another half-hour the productive time of the working miners; we cannot, in fact, meet the bill which has been presented for payment after five years, a bill which was drawn in 1926, and which would have required at this moment the hours to revert to what they were in 1926. It may be hoped that the International Convention will come into force, and that with that there will be some further reduction of hours effected, if only by a quarter of an hour. In this connection, appreciation should be expressed in the House at the success achieved by our negotiators at the International Conference. It was no easy task which faced them, and it is a very great achievement to have secured an inter- 1761 national agreement with a view, at an early future dale, to uniform hours being established, and we should express our congratulations to the Secretary for Mines on the successful result of his labours.
It is generally agreed on all sides of the House that this Bill must be passed into law. At the same time, I hope that we shall fully realise that the step we are taking is one of great gravity. We are legislating on these lines for the first time really, so far as any of the great industries are concerned. We are enacting that the actual ordinary rates of pay received by the workers in one of the great industries shall be stabilised by Act of Parliament. The Minimum Wage Act, 1911, dealt with a wage that was really a minimum. It was a statutory minimum above which it was expected that wages would rise, and they did in fact rise, and I think I am right in saying that the statutory minimum wage does not operate at all at the present time, and has not operated for very many years. In fact, I am not sure that it ever was actually in force. This Bill uses the term "minimum wage," and it is true that wages may rise above that minimum, but what is termed in the Bill the minimum wage is, in fact, the wage which is actually being received by great numbers of the miners. Most of the districts are, and have been, on the minimum, not the statutory minimum fixed by the Act of 1911, but on the minimum fixed under district agreements, and it is this wage, actually received now week by week by the miners, or the vast majority of them—I am not sure that it is not all; it is very nearly all—which is now to be stabilised by Act of Parliament. No one is to be allowed legally to pay less than that wage. Of course, the wage may rise above it; there is nothing whatever to prevent that under the operation of the general agreements which base wages upon the proceeds of the industry, and give a higher remuneration to the miners, but those agreements have not operated now for some years and while we hope that they may come into operation, and that the prosperity of the industry may be in some measure restored, if they do not do so the present wages now being paid will be enforceable by Act of Parliament.
§ Mr. ANEURIN BEVAN
This Bill, after it is passed, will not make it illegal for a coalowner to pay a lower wage. All it will do will be to make it illegal for him to pay less than the minimum percentages fixed in districts. The standard rates of wages upon which that percentage is based can be attacked by every coalowner.
§ Sir H. SAMUEL
But is it not the case that these minimum district rates are now in force? I know there may be a margin which will be open to amendment and attack, but, in effect, is it not the case that the wages now being paid cannot be reduced?
§ Mr. BEVAN
That is not the case. The district agreements make provision for a minimum percentage to be based upon the piece-rates agreed in pits between the miners and the owners. This Bill will not protect the piece-rates, and therefore it will be quite possible for the owners, by attacking standard rates and piece-rates from pit to pit, to bring down the figure upon which the percentages are based.
§ Sir H. SAMUEL
I am much obliged to the hon. Member for explaining some of these highly technical and very complex propositions, but the fact remains that unless the mineowners endeavour, by forcing a conflict, to upset agreements which have endured for a very long time, some for very many years, they will be obliged by Act of Parliament if they employ the miners at all, to pay the rates which are now being paid. Although I agree that this step is inevitable at the moment, I would venture to point out to the House that we are taking a step which may be fraught with very grave results in the future. At the moment we understand that we are legislating exceptionally, and in view of very difficult and urgent considerations, but the working class generally may in days to come look to our action now as a precedent in other difficult industrial circumstances and in other trades. They may be very much inclined to say in 1933 or 1935, whenever a grave dispute may come, "In July, 1931, you were able to safeguard the rates of pay of the miners by Act of Parliament. Why should you not safeguard the wages of the steel workers or the railway men by another Act of Parliament?"
§ Sir H. SAMUEL
One hon. Member opposite says "Certainly." I am by no means attached to the doctrine of laissez faire, which held that the State should abstain from any legislation save to secure national defence or domestic order, and I believe that there are very many spheres in which State action can be usefully attempted, but I would not go to the opposite extreme and say that State action is possible and legitimate in any and every industrial and economic sphere. You cannot by Act of Parliament give any assurance that you will be able to maintain employment at any given wage. You may say that employers shall not employ people below a fixed rate, but you cannot compel them to employ anyone at that rate, and no Act of Parliament can prevent the stoppage of pits or of factories if the employers refuse to pay the rates that are fixed, just as no Act of Parliament can compel workpeople to go to work if they refuse to accept wages that were fixed by Act of Parliament. In the Middle Ages Parliament again and again tried to fix wages with the object of keeping them down. Those attempts always proved futile, and if, in these modern times Parliament endeavours to fix wages with a view to keeping them up, it will find in the long run that it will not succeed in achieving that purpose.
Moreover, there is another great danger arising from legislation of this class, and that is that rates of wages will become an issue at Parliamentary elections. It is bad enough when Parliamentary elections turn on direct financial benefit to particular classes of electors, whether in matters of pensions, rates of unemployment pay, beet sugar subsidies or any other particular advantages to particular individuals or classes, but if the rates of wages themselves come to be an issue at our Parliamentary elections in the future then the successful working of democracy will, I fear, become impossible. However, Parliament is being compelled to legislate on these lines, fraught with danger though I believe them to be, by the refusal of the mine-owners, at the last moment, to agree to an extension of the so-called 7½-hour day for a year in return for a guarantee of wages for a year. I cannot understand why the mine-owners should have refused to accept that undertaking.
1764 Putting aside complications arising out of the spread-over and the international convention, the negotiations, in their simplest form, appear to have amounted to this: The owners were anxious that the miners should continue to work what is called the 7½-hour day. The miners were anxious that their wages should not be reduced. The miners said to the owners "Guarantee our wages for a year and we will work your hours for a year." The owners said in reply, "Work our hours indefinitely and we will guarantee your wages for a year." The position taken up by the mine-owners seems to have been an unreasonable one. The agreement should have been a guarantee of wages for a year in return for the longer hours for a year, or else an indefinite guarantee of wages in return for an indefinite continuation of the longer hours. It is quite true, as the mine-owners have said in a statement recently published, that the time-limit of 12 months involves a new crisis in 12 months, but the time-limit consideration applies to wages as much as to hours, and with a wages guarantee for 12 months only the crisis would have occurred on that basis as well.
My last point relates to the question of national negotiations. The Miners' Federation have pressed that whenever the present agreement comes to an end a new agreement should be negotiated nationally, but for some years the Mining Association, that is, the mineowners, have refused to enter into negotiations on a national basis in the manner they used to in days gone by. I can well understand that in 1926 and in the few years preceding that date the patience of the mineowners was tried almost beyond endurance. [Interruption.] I know the patience of the miners was tried also, but I am compelled to say that in the leadership of the Miners' Federation statesmanship was very much lacking in those years. I am not apportioning blame, but that is undoubtedly a fact. The whole matter was investigated by the Royal Commisison, which went into it with the greatest care and came to a unanimous conclusion on this matter as on other matters. We recognised that as there has been in the past so there will have to be in the future district variations in wages and in conditions arising out of the particular conditions in the various districts, but we also held most strongly that there 1765 ought to be national co-ordination and supervision of all district agreements in order that one district should not be under-cut by another district, and the standards of the whole country lowered to that of the most backward district. We urged that there should be an industrial board, consisting of representatives of employers and employed, with an impartial, neutral element, to decide these matters. That was ultimately embodied in the Act of last year, but the owners never accepted that view, either in 1926 or when the Act of last year was passing through Parliament. However, they have now come very close to it, for it was announced in the Press a day or two ago that the mine-owners had written to the Miners' Federation saying this:The Mining Association has no power to interfere with any district arrangement as to wages or conditions of employment. The Mining Association is prepared to meet the Miners' Federation periodically, say every three months, to consider and discuss the economic conditions of the industry and all matters relative thereto. For this purpose there should be set up a small joint committee of the two bodies.And they added this note:In sending you the enclosed formula I am requested to inform you that it is under-stood there will not be excluded from the discussions such matters as we have dealt with at our recent meeting.There they have come very close to a recognition of the necessity for national negotiations in dealing with national matters. I think the impartial outside observer would be inclined to ask why all this need for formulas and precise definitions, as though they were negotiators representing hostile countries and endeavouring to patch up some temporary agreement to avoid war. Why should local affairs not be settled in the district and national affairs be settled nationally? Why should not the mineowners and the representatives of the Miners' Federation sit down and decide the conditions of the joint industry from which all of them have to derive their livelihood, and agree frankly and cordially in an open friendly spirit? Why should they not all sit round a table as they used to do generation after generation in days gone by, and settle these matters in an amicable spirit? However unwilling some of us may be to pass legislation of this kind, 1766 and however anxious we may be as to its future results, in existing circumstances I think that all parties, and probably both Houses of Parliament, will agree if not with complete unanimity, at all events with substantial unanimity, that legislation on these lines is inevitable in the circumstances of the day.
§ Mr. EBENEZER EDWARDS
It is not my intention to enter into details upon the questions which I have been discussing for the last few weeks. All I wish to say, in short, is that if these proposals are rejected, it means a stoppage in this industry. I have played my part in these negotiations. It is not my intention to say a single word derogatory to the employers. After all, this is a political discussion in this House, and we are all agreed that, if this industry has to be built up on a sound basis, we must negotiate in the best possible spirit with those with whom we shall have to work in the future. I do not think that there is any necessity for a crisis arising at the end of 12 months. I desire during the short time at my disposal to deal with the great issues with which we have been faced. Let me make it quite clear at once that this Measure does not satisfy the miners. There is nothing about the concessions in this Bill calculated to make the miners jubilant. Our claim is for a 7-hour day and a minimum wage, and hon. Members can well understand the dissatisfaction of the miners in regard to a Measure of this kind.
It is quite true that this Bill is a temporary measure, because the employers and the miners have failed to come to an agreement. I want to make it quite clear to the House that the responsibility for that failure does not lie with the Miners' Federation. Since the Baldwin Act of 1926 we have had no national machinery to deal with the difficulties which are constantly arising in this great industry. The present situation is the result of the legislation which was passed in 1926, but I will pass by the responsibility for the break-up of that national machinery. There has been no real contact since 1926. I want to put before the House the state of things as far back as 25th March this year, when the Miners' Federation asked the owners to set up a sub-committee to survey all the implications of the national position 1767 and the circumstances that would arise in July. I am not going to make any criticism of individual employers, but the answer of the employers to our request was that they had no power to negotiate if wages were involved as one of the implications of the situation that would arise. The only thing they were prepared to do was to wait to see the position which arose at the Geneva Convention. I have read the employers' manifesto, and I am astonished at many of the declarations contained therein, because it was the refusal of the employers to meet us in a sub-committee to consider all the implications that brought about the present situation, and this took place prior to the miners meeting the Government to consider the implications of the minimum wage. We had no contact because of the owners' refusal to consider the national situation.
What was the next step? We have been told that the Government are supporting the miners. Let me make it clear at this point that we were told, in reply to our request for a minimum wage, that wages must be related to hours. I will pass rapidly over the weeks that intervened, not because they are not important, but because of the limited time for this Debate. On the 5th, the 11th and the 19th of June, we had meetings with the owners and that meant three meetings in three weeks. Who was responsible for that? Certainly not the Miners' Federation. An adjournment of the meetings took place to give an opportunity of consulting the districts as to how far the owners' delegates could go, and every effort was made by the Miners' Federation, along with the employers in our national negotiations, to hammer out the situation as far as it related to the question of hours and wages.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel) has read out the exact wording of the offer of the employers. The offer made by the owners was that for an indefinite continuation of existing hours they would give a guarantee of the existing minimum percentages to wages plus a subsistence wage for 12 months, in a situation which had no relation to the suspension of the 7-hour day. I ask hon. Members of this House, irrespective of party, to put themselves in our position when we are negotiating for the men. 1768 We are not asking for any unfair concessions. It cannot be said in common fairness that we are asking for too much. The owners are taking everything and giving nothing in return. They are asking for an unlimited concession in hour's and a limited concession in regard to wages. We are not asking for an extravagant wage; in fact, we are merely asking for existing wages, which I defy any Member of this House to show are too high. There is every justification for the demands which we are making.
Let me give a concrete case. Here you have a subsistence wage applying to over 40 per cent. of the adult men in one of our northern coalfields, of 6s. 6½d. a day, and the average number of days last year was slightly over five—5.04. If they work the maximum number of days, with no ill-health and so on, that would represent 32s. 8¾d. In no industry are there such heavy deductions from wages as in the mining industry. On a wage of 32s. 8d., they average about 3s. 6d., but, taking them at only 2s. 8d., that means that there is 30s. left for the week. But the men in that coalfield, like the men in this House, have to live seven days, and not five days, a week, and, when you divide that sum by seven, it means that the wage for these men is but little over 4s. 3d. a day. Allowing, for the two adults in the house, three meals a day at 6d. a meal, that means 3s., so that there is 1s. 3d. left for all the rest of the family, and, if there are three children, that amounts to less than 2d. a meal. That is not allowing for clothes, there is no question of household utensils, nor of anything for the church collection—there is nothing even to buy newspapers.
It can be understood that the men in the mining areas are not only down physically, but down morally. What must these men feel, looking upon their relatives as the husbands in this House look upon theirs, when they see their wives and children having to live on this pittance? It is no wonder that there are oases where men wish that God would take away the spark of life that He has created, so that the misery may end. This Measure is a temporary Measure. It is a truce under existing conditions for 12 months, without the spread-over in Scotland. It is merely a truce. The alternative is a stoppage, and, speaking 1769 for the Miners' Federation of Great Britain, I say that we do not want a stoppage. We want to utilise from now onwards, and I take this opportunity of making the offer to the employers now—we want to utilise from now onwards the two great national organisations so that we may not only maintain the existing conditions in the industry, but, by joint conscientious and considered action, we may be able to build that industry higher towards the day when it can give to our men a living wage—a real wage on which they can live.
§ Major COLVILLE
It is a very heavy responsibility that rests on the House this afternoon. We are asked to pass this Bill as an emergency Measure. It is a Bill which deals with the wages and hours of very nearly 1,000,000 workers in this country, and we are asked to rush through this important question in three or four days, because the Bill was only made available for Members on the afternoon of Friday. We have spent weeks in this House discussing a land taxation Measure which affected the employment of no one, and yet we are asked in a few hours to examine all the questions which arise in relation to the livelihood of many thousands of men. There is no need to hold a pistol at our heads in this matter. The Prime Minister himself has clearly said that 60 days could have been granted if the Government were so minded. I understood him to say that 60 days was not enough, and that, if we thought that 60 days was enough, we were wrong. I say that 60 days are better than three days, and provision might well have been made for a longer period in which to consider what would be the outcome of passing this Bill in its present form.
In the first place, I think it is agreed that there is a general recognition among all parties that it is not possible to return at this moment to the 7-hour day. It would be very easy for us to twit the Government with election promises and so on in regard to that matter, but that would get us nowhere. [Interruption.] What we want to visualise is the situation as it is to-day, and we have that common agreement that at the present time we cannot return to a 7-hour day because of the economic position which exists. Let us examine the grave state of the coal trade. There are 1770 about 100,000 more miners unemployed since the present Government took office. I am not blaming them for that, but am merely pointing out that during the time they have been in office, owing to various circumstances, the number of persons unemployed in that industry has gone up by almost 100,000. The market at home is grievously contracted. The industries which use coal—the heavy industries and others—have been passing through a time the like of which we have not seen in our lifetime. The market abroad is most fiercely contested by other exporting countries. I think I am right in saying that the competition has never been more severe than it is at the present time. Why, therefore, should we be asked to rush through a Measure in a few hours which affects this great industry? It is at least entitled to the careful consideration of every Member of the House.
What are the points in favour of and against this Measure? Briefly, the point in favour of it is that, in those districts where 7½-hours are being worked at the present time, the men will not be asked, on account of the automatic shortening of the day which would take place if no legislation were passed, to suffer an automatic reduction of wages. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel) said that we were responsible for that automatic shortening of the day, because we fixed the date. I am not going into that question, but would merely point out that the Conservative party at any rate laid down a five-years limit, while the present Government are proposing a one-year limit. If a five-years limit were proposed at the present time, the objection of uncertainty would at any rate be, not removed, but postponed. That is the only point that I am going to make in favour of the Bill.
Coming to the points against the Bill, I would say that it fixes the date for the next crisis, in many parts of Great Britain, at a year from now, and it fixes the date for a crisis in Scotland immediately. That is a very strong indictment against the Bill, but I am prepared to justify it. Take the general position in Great Britain. It has been said already, and I only repeat it briefly, because the points are well known to all, that the fixing of a time limit, by causing uncer- 1771 tainty, has a bad effect upon contracts, both at home and abroad. I do not merely believe that to be the case; I know it to be the case. This uncertainty has been a considerable factor in causing cancellation of contracts and withholding of buying from abroad. Let us realise that by fixing this relatively short time we have added another difficulty to those of this struggling industry in relation to the export market. With regard to the Geneva agreement, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen congratulated the Secretary for Mines on his achievement. The congratulation was received with cheers by many hon. Members, and rightly, but let them have some faith in their achievements. If they believe in Geneva at all—and, surely, we all believe that something can be done on those lines—let them show more faith than by placing this time limit one year hence. Surely they believe that they can get ratification of the arrangements at Geneva within a measurable time, and that would be fixing the date in the proper way, because it would be a date on which there was an international understanding with regard to reduction of hours, and it is only by international understanding that we can give the British coal trade, all sections of which stand to win or lose by this arrangement, a chance to keep its world position. Every Member of the House knows that that is the case.
I have said that the crisis would come within a year in the country in general, and at once in Scotland. It is generally known that the Coal Mines Act of last year contains a provision as to a permissive spread-over of hours, so that the statutory number of hours can be worked over a fortnight, that is to say, 11 days of eight hours and a free Saturday. That provision was qualified by a veto which could be used either by the Mining Association or by the Miners' Federation. When that Measure became law, several districts—I am speaking now particularly of Scotland—elected to work the spread-over. In Scotland they decided to carry on the spread-over rather than endure a reduction of wages. The Miners' Federation objected, and there was some little discussion at first, and then the objection was, if not withdrawn, at any rate not pressed, so that Scotland continued to work the spread-over and to retain sub- 1772 stantially the old rates of wages. It had been established that in Scotland, on account of the high level of mechanical operations in the mines, under the spread-over arrangement at least 8 per cent. more wages could be paid than with a reduction of half-an-hour on the day, and, therefore, the miners in Scotland decided to carry on and work 11 full days and alternate Saturdays,
That was carried on daring the winter, without complaint and in a good atmosphere between masters and men. At the end of March, however, the Miners' Federation definitely exercised their right to apply a veto, and the other districts which at that time were working the spread-over then dropped out—[Interruption]—except North Wales. I am not going into the settlements that were made, but in almost every case they meant a reduction of the wages of the men. Scotland decided to carry on, and, since the end of March, has been carrying on, technically illegally, with the spread-over; but there was no prosecution. Why was there no prosecution? Because the Government and the Law Officers of the Crown knew very well that the overwhelming body of men in the mining industry in Scotland wanted to be left alone to work their spread-over and have more money; and they also realised, though they seem to have forgotten it to-day, that it was of national importance to Scotland that the spending power of these men should not be reduced, and that their wages should be retained at as nearly as possible their present level. On any day a miner could come to the shaft and demand to be taken up; but no such thing happened, and there was no prosecution. [HON. MEMBERS: "What would have happened?"] He would have had the whole might and power of the law of this country behind him. The Government know perfectly well that that is the case.
What is the position to-day? I asked a question recently which brought it out. Without going into actual rates and percentages, the position is that for that period the general average weekly earnings of the Scottish miners have been the highest of any district; but, even so, can anyone suggest that they were getting too much money? The hon. Member for Morpeth (Mr. E. Edwards) devoted 1773 part of his speech to a very powerful appeal that the men engaged in this hard industry should get a decent wage. I agree with every word of what he said. I live in a mining county and represent a constituency with many miners in it, and I fought in a battalion in France that was largely made up of miners. The miner's is a hard job in comparison with other industries. If we can reduce his hours we are entitled to do so. We can, at least in Scotland, ensure that he gets a better wage than he will do under the Bill. The position at present is that, if the Bill passes in its present form and no provision is made for the continuance of the spread over, a new agreement will have to be negotiated and it will almost certainly involve a reduction of at least 5s. per week in average earnings. There are approximately 85,000 miners in Scotland. A reduction of 5s. a week will come to £20,000. That will be lost to the miners' homes if the Bill passes in its present form. Why reduce the purchasing power of this important section of the working classes by 5s. a week at least by passing a Measure which has no provision made in it for working the spread over? That is a question which Members of the Government representing Scottish constituencies will find it difficult to answer.
The hon. Member for Morpeth said we must have a national machine. If we had a national machine in Scotland we should be left alone to work the spread-over that we have and retain the present rates of wages. The trouble arises because of the interference with the Scottish machine by the Miners' Federation, who have exercised a veto which they have shown they have used to the detriment of a great section of miners by enforcing that this spread-over arrangement should be dropped.
I am afraid I have been contentious although I tried not to be, but I plead with the Government to consider very carefully, before they pass this Bill in its present form, what the effect will be in that great mining district of Scotland. It is a great responsibility that we take to-day. It may be said that the owners could pay the same rates by raising the price of coal with the powers that they have under the Coal Mines Act. That Act gave full powers to fix prices, and it has been suggested in certain districts 1774 that they have not made full use of these powers. It may be put forward that the coalowners in Scotland could make fuller use of those powers and get prices up and by that means avoid any reduction at all, although working a shorter day.
The Secretary for Mines knows the shale oil industry, and so do I. Can that industry afford to pay more for its coal—and it uses any amount of it? There are other great industries that I know well and that he knows too. Can they afford to pay more for their coal? Can that market be screwed up? Do not use that argument to me that coal can be raised in price and thus a reduction in the men's earnings be avoided. Before we leave the Bill we have to come to a decision which will affect the homes of many people. It may be a wise or a foolish decision, but unfortunately it is going to be a hurried decision. I once more plead with the Prime Minister to consider what will happen if the Bill is passed in its present form.
I have listened with mixed feelings to the hon. and gallant Gentleman's expressions of indignation and friendship, and I could not help feeling that it was an infinite pity that his regard for the miners should be so belated and that his sentiments of friendship and good will should not have found practical expression in the years of suffering through which they have passed during which the party with which he is associated had ample power to prevent the position in which the miners find themselves.
§ Major COLVILLE
Does the hon. Lady know that I moved the spread-over Amendment, the result of which is that the miners in Scotland have had higher rates of wages than they would otherwise have had?
I shall come to that. I want to tax the hon. and gallant Gentleman's memory back a few years before last year's legislation. During the War years, the mines made profits of £135,000,000, equivalent to their capital value. I have here the profits per ton of coal made in the years following the War, and there, again, you find that high dividends and ample profits were the order of the day. During those years you had the Sankey Commission and the Samuel Commission and well-informed 1775 people of every shade of political opinion who were examining the conditions inside the mining industry and presenting the House and the country with ample information showing that the mining industry could not be conducted on a lasting profitable basis unless the owners themselves had something more in their conception of management than merely making profits from year to year, unless they were planning ahead and were united amongst themselves to make the industry that organised and scientific unit which they must have known it would require to be in order to meet international competition in world conditions. I was sorry that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel) made no reference to the very valuable and useful information given by his committee where they gave example after example showing obsolete working inside the industry, showing overhead charges higher than they ought to be because of the conglomeration of small ineffective concerns, about 1,600 individual companies in this modern world, with trade going on vaster and ever vaster scales, carrying on in their own separate way and refusing to amalgamate and to make the most even of the international conditions in the industry.
You are apt to get the point of view which says: "Laissez faire, the economics of the last century, are good enough for us. We can manage our affairs with perfect confidence. We do not want any quota scheme, any amalgamation or any marketing. Just allow us to carry on." It is impossible for the House of Commons and the country to expect that there is going to be anything else but one crisis after another inside the industry, that there is going to be anything else but prolonged suffering, until we bring forward proposals which are commensurate with the magnitude of the problem we are dealing with and until we make it impossible for a group of private citizens—colliery owners—to dictate the terms under which the industry shall be carried on. I very greatly regret that we should be patching up a kind of truce, and a sorry truce as far as Scotland is concerned, instead of doing the work which hon. Members, with their very much greater opportunities, neglected to do, that is, to put the industry on a proper, unified, scien- 1776 tific basis under national management and control.
There are hon. Members opposite who want to say, "Are you going to claim that, if you organise the industry, you will thereby be able to give better wages and improve the working conditions?" All of us are prepared to make that claim, and at least we are entitled to ask that, if we know the wages of the workers, we ought to know the money that has been paid to directors. I asked that question the other day and could be given no information. We ought to know how much of the profits of the industry is coming from by-products. We ought to be able to examine every detail of the resources inside the industry. We shall never be able to do that properly until we have it under proper national control.
Now I come to the hon. and gallant Gentleman's interjection. He asked me to remember that he was responsible for introducing the spread-over Clause last year. Scotland is very largely an exporting area.
§ 6.0 p.m.
Roughly speaking, a third of the coal produced in Scotland is for export purposes. That is a very considerable factor. The exporting districts were put in an absolutely impossible position last year, when this House in its wisdom decreed that there was going to be no special levy for these exporting districts. My view is that something very much more than that is required. Even that would not have been sufficient, but at least it was the absolute minimum in the legislation we had last year which would have been of any use to the exporting districts. I am sorry that the Prime Minister could not tell us exactly what this Bill is going to mean in wages to the miners of Scotland. I know he will appreciate as much as anyone in the House that that is the dominant question in every miner's home. A representative of the Miners' Federation has already made a very moving speech in which he showed his emotion and his concern about the suffering that this wage legislation is imposing throughout the country. The feeling in Scotland is that the miners are at rock bottom, and have been living at rock bottom for some considerable time, that 1777 the mining industry has been the puppet of Liberal Governments, because of the reports which they did not implement. That may be one reason why, in spite of all the eloquence and the great influence in the House of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), the miners in my constituency sit dumb and hostile whenever his name is mentioned. They do not forget the opportunity he had and they do not forget the subsequent years. Hopes were held out to them, and they have always been dashed. At this point of time they are living absolutely on the minimum condition. They have been living for years with no money in the house to renew furniture and clothes, and even food has been scanty and of inferior quality. And the one thing the miners in those homes have had, especially since the advent of the Labour Government, has been hope, that at last their problems were to be faced, not only by industrial methods but by bringing to the assistance of the trade unions all the power that they could give them politically. They believed that generally we were really going to begin to tackle their problems. There are many Members on this side of the House who owe their presence here to-day to the belief among mining communities that they cannot solve or tackle their problems merely by negotiations regarding wages and hours such as the mineowners are willing to concede or the trade union representatives are willing to agree to. If this House does not realise it, every miner realises that the problem must be tackled, first and foremost, by nationalising the mines, and that we must exploit every possible means inside the industry itself in order to give him a living wage. We believe that if we could do that, we could give him a living wage. But we also believe that if we could not do that there would still be a responsibility upon the State. If the State wants coal to be produced, and if we require coal to maintain our other industries, we should not allow the general economy of this country to be based upon sweated labour.
I have heard hon. Members waxing indignant about conditions in Russia. I wish they would come to Lanarkshire and Fifeshire. I wish they could see the conditions under which their fellow countrymen and their countrywomen are work- 1778 ing and living, for then, I believe, some of them at least would join with us in the view that we simply could not go on avoiding our responsibilities, in the hope that something would turn up, knowing all the time that nothing would turn up. We are faced with a situation in the House of Commons to-day that we are being forced into the Division Lobby at the point of the bayonet, not because of something in which we believe, but simply because we know the alternative. We know that a conflict would be a calamity, but we are not getting on with what some of us at least consider to be the distinctive function of Socialists in this House, namely, to carry this mining conflict beyond mere trade union negotiations and to assist in building up trade union powers to the very maximum, and to see that whatever happens the miners in this country are not underpaid. They cannot go on with their present rates of wages, and our task is to try to improve those rates.
The Prime Minister to-day said that we cannot separate wages from hours. I agree with him. We on these benches specially emphasised that point last year, and that is why, when the Coal Mines Bill was being introduced into this House, we made a special point of saying that if the Measure was to be of real service to the miner we must protect his wages. Poverty is so acute in the mining homes and mining villages, that if you ask the average miner whether he would have a reduction in hours and also a reduction in wages, or whether he would go on working his present hours without any reduction in wages, every time he would tell you, "Whatever we can stand, we certainly cannot stand a reduction in wages." It is not fair to put the miner into the position of having to make that very cruel choice. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen has already explained that a 7-hour day means at least a 7½-hour day and that a 7½-hour day, for which we are now legislating, means at least an 8-hour day, and miners do not work those long hours for pleasure. They work because of bitter necessity.
I am sorry, indeed, that to-day we should merely be calling a kind of truce in our mining difficulties and that once again we should merely be postponing the big issues, instead of the House of Commons facing up to its responsibility 1779 and taking hold of this problem by nationalising the mines and guaranteeing the miner a living wage, to which every man and woman know that they are entitled. We should tackle this thing, not in a mood of depression, but in a mood that makes us feel that whatever the consequences to ourselves or the party, we are tackling a big responsibility in the way the miners expect us to tackle it. If we went down in the fight we should still have this gallant body of men and women behind us, and in going down we should only come back again to carry on the fight to success.
§ Colonel LANE FOX
I am sure that the House listened with great sympathy and interest to the speech of the hon. Lady the Member for North Lanark (Miss Lee), but I suggest to the hon. Lady that in allowing the expedient of the spread-over to go by the board, by supporting the Government, is not a kind and generous action to Scottish owners. I do not wish to follow her along the lines as to how the coal industry might be reorganised. I regret—and I think all will regret—that once again the industry has had to come to the House of Commons. It is the one great industry in the country which, when it is up against difficulties, has always to come to the House of Commons in the end. It suffers from the bad tradition of the past by which it has always been the subject of discussion, legislation and action by this House. I know that with that precedent behind us it would have been impossible to have avoided coming to the House on the present occasion, but I should be glad indeed if some Government could be found to say, "Go and settle your own affairs; we will have nothing to do with you,"
I know that both sides of the industry were very anxious to avoid a stoppage. Nobody who has followed the controversy that has been taking place could have failed to see that whatever may be the conditions—and they were very different from those which obtained before the great stoppage of 1926—there was certainly no desire on this occasion on the part of either side to precipitate a stoppage. I believe that if the Government had had the strength to make it clear to the industry that they were not going to come in and take part in the struggle, 1780 it would have been possible for the two sides to have come to some agreement. The effect of the House of Commons constantly coming into these controversies is absolutely fatal, because it means that negotiations are constantly vitiated by politics. The two sides of the industry naturally think of the party which they would like to be in power, and the chances of dealing with the problem on its merits are severely interfered with. It is a great misfortune that the industry should have to come here. At any rate, we have been assured that both sides are disappointed by the result. If that has the effect of making them realise that the House of Commons is a bad negotiator in industrial disputes, something at least will have been gained as a result of this unfortunate Bill.
It is a thoroughly bad Bill in principle. I agree that it has one merit in that it will, for a short time at any rate, postpone a crisis which otherwise might have occurred. If you once begin legislating to fix the wages in one particular industry, where are you going to stop? How soon will it be before other industries come to the House of Commons and expect their rates of wages and hours to be fixed for them? It is inevitable that you cannot set a precedent of this sort without creating serious difficulties in the future. What is going to be the effect in our Parliamentary elections and for democratic system in this country? Once you allow it to become a matter in which one party can pit itself against another at an election and say what rates of wages and hours are to be maintained, you are holding out a prospect which is likely to have a very serious effect upon the Parliamentary and political history of this country. I believe that the less you bring politics to bear upon industrial questions, you will have a far greater chance of securing a satisfactory settlement. The Bill has not even the merit of effecting anything like a lasting settlement.
We have heard a great deal of the international settlement which the Secretary for Mines has been instrumental La pushing through—and I give him credit for the work he has done—but it is clear that the Government have no faith in that settlement. If we are to hear so much of the Convention and the great success it has been and the great benefit it is 1781 going to be to this industry, how is it that the Government are not prepared to pin their faith to it in a far greater degree than they have shown their desire to do to-day? I agree that in finding a solution of our mining difficulties we must try to bring about equalised conditions in foreign countries and assist in raising their standards in order to maintam our Own. But the moment the Government have succeeded in doing something on those lines, they have brought in a Bill which shows that they can have little faith in what they have done. What are the other countries going to think of our implementing the convention, and what chance is there of their believing that the Government really mean business? The time limit will have a most unfortunate effect. We have been told that there is no need to anticipate a crisis. The mere fact of having a time limit means that both sides will make preparations, and that inevitably there is a feeling of unsettlement and unrest from which you cannot get away. If you had left it with the mere limit at the end of the operation of the Convention, you would have had an agreed settlement in sight; you would have had an agreement at the end of the period. You would not have had a crisis or a conflict but a real settlement based on an agreement by a combination of nations in regard to coal legislation. I believe that to put a short time limit of this kind into a Bill when you had a golden opportunity of achieving an agreed settlement at the end of the period, will be disastrous. I only hope that the Secretary for Mines will give us some reason to believe that there really is some chance of a settlement coming about and being operated at any rate by the great countries of the world. Otherwise, all that is happening to-day in the gloomy passage of this Bill, which everybody agrees is merely a wretched expedient, will, I am sure, cause very great disappointment throughout this country, and throughout the world.
§ Mr. SKELTON
I am anxious to bring before the House once more the situation which will be reached in Scotland if this Bill passes into law without the addition of the spread-over conditions. I wish also to make my protest against the speed with which it is attempted to bring the Bill into operation. I agree with much that has been said on the point that 60 more days will be inadequate for the final 1782 deliberations between the two sides of the industry, but I suggest that some of the 60 days that are available to let the industry continue as it is now, should be used for a full and proper discussion in Parliament of this Bill. Whether the discussions be long or short, and whether the form of the Title of the Bill makes it in order or out of order, it is absolutely essential that before the House passes from this Bill it should realise to the full what is involved for Scotland if, during the temporary period covered by the Bill, no provision is made for the continuation of the spread-over.
With inevitable differences of opinion on certain broad matters, I listened with great interest and agreement to the speech of the hon. Member for North Lanark (Miss Lee). She spoke, with the knowledge that comes from a mining constituency in Scotland, of the desire of the Scottish miners, whatever other alternative they may have to face, not to face the alternative involved in a reduction of wages. It is certain that unless we have in this Bill a provision whereby the 7½-hour day may be spread over the fortnight, a reduction of wages there must be. I fully understood the anxiety with which the hon. Member questioned the Prime Minister as to whether he could throw any light in regard to what in Scotland is a most urgent problem. I do urge the Government to take their courage in both hands in regard to this matter—if it be out of order, as I take it to be, for such an Amendment to be introduced in this House—to indicate in their reply that for the year over which this Bill is to extend, the spread-over shall he introduced.
§ Mr. SKELTON
Call it an 8-hour day if you like. The fact remains that it is 11 days spread over the fortnight. The result of the spread-over is that it prevents the decline in wages which all are agreed is inevitable in Scotland. I do not believe that it is right on any ground, at any time, when times are so hard and conditions are so severe, either in the mining industry or any other industry to take any step which will reduce 1783 wages. It is not right. I believe the people of this country will say that the Government are wrong if they do not take all steps possible to prevent the reduction of wages that must follow the disappearance of the spread-over. Let the House recollect the position of Scotland in this matter. Let mining Members recollect that Scotland depends upon the heavy industry far more than does England. On more than one occasion I have said in this House that we have far fewer secondary industries and that our chief industries are agriculture and the heavy industries. Everybody knows the state of the steel trade and the shipbuilding trade. If you strike another blow at the earning power of the coal trade, you will undoubtedly be thrusting Scotland further down into the morass of depression.
Taking the most recent figures of unemployment in Scotland, they are most definitely worse than in England. Take the figures of the amount of unemployment in Scotland as compared with England on 15th December, 1930, the most recent figures that I have. In Scotland the men unemployed was 27 per cent. and in England it was only 19 per cent. I leave out the decimals in both cases. That shows how peculiarly heavy has been the blow to Scotland, and the depressed state of the heavy industries. It shows how hard industrial Scotland has been hit by the present conditions. I cannot believe that this House or another place, when we are dealing with this temporary Bill, will turn its eyes away from any expedient whereby the heavy depression of Scotland can be prevented from becoming worse.
§ Mr. SKELTON
I am not suggesting that this Bill should not pass. I am suggesting that this Bill should include the spread-over.
§ Mr. SKELTON
For the reasons that I hope I am giving clearly. For reasons that to me, as a Scotsman and as a Scottish Member of Parliament, seem to be vital. For the reasons that I believe the Government, at a time like this, when it is passing this temporary Bill, 1784 should not turn its mind away from any expedient which would prevent the depression from becoming worse. Therefore, I say that we must have the spread-over in this Bill.
§ Mr. SKELTON
I am afraid the hon. Member is not giving me the attention which my remarks deserve, or that his interest in the subject should enable him to give. Why should we not have it? Because, if Scotland does not get the spread-over, there will be an inevitable reduction of wages. The hon. Member knows that. The Government know it. Every mining Member knows it. The Miners' Federation know it. The hon. Member for Morpeth (Mr. E. Edwards), who has taken such an important and distinguished part in recent negotiations, knows it. I say that it is a wicked thing to do, to whatever party one belongs, to force down wages unnecessarily, and I do suggest, seeing that this Bill is to operate for a period of 12 months only, that the Government, this timid Government, should not be frightened of the Miners' Federation and should include in the Bill the spread-over.
What has been the history of the spread-over? It is one of the queerest bits of history in economic organisation in this or any other country. What happened? In the large Coal Bill of 1930, for which the Labour Government, assisted by the Liberal party were responsible, we had the lines upon which the coal industry should be reorganised. The spread-over was introduced in another place, and it was accepted here. Unfortunately, there was a qualification that the spread-over had to be approved in any given district by the Mining Association and the Miners' Federation before the Board of Trade could give its sanction. That was a most unfortunate qualification, as it has turned out. When that provision became known many districts took advantage of it. From December to March the spread-over was worked and, as far as I know, it was worked with perfect amity and perfect peace, and with economically successful results. Then down came the axe, the guillotine, of the Miners' Federation. They said, "You shall not work the spread-over after March." There were only two districts that had the courage to continue the spread-over—Scotland 1785 and North Wales. They continued, and as far as I know they will still continue, to work it. Certainly Scotland will, until the Government bring along their policemen.
One thing is certain, that from March to July the Government never attempted to stop the spread-over being carried on. One hon. Member opposite shakes his head. I say that they never attempted, and I will explain what I mean. The law was technically being broken. The law could have been invoked, but it was not invoked. Therefore, when I say that the Government did not attempt to prevent it, I am saying what is correct. The Government's way of preventing it was to invoke the law. That was not done, and I believe most wisely. I am sure the hon. Member for North Lanark will agree, and all who are concerned for the welfare of Scotland will agree, that it was most wise on the part of the Government not to invoke the law, because the result of the non-invocation of the law has been that the spread-over has been continued, and higher wages have been paid.
§ Miss LEE
I am sure the hon. Member does not wish to misinterpret me. My point of view is, that as long as there is one penny of profit being made out of the Scottish mining industry, or as long as there is a single step that can be taken to increase the efficiency of the industry, there is no case for reducing the wages of the men or of requiring them to work longer than seven hours.
§ Mr. SKELTON
When I opened my remarks I said that I did not agree with the hon. Lady in all her general propositions. What she has said now falls in that category. There can be no doubt that the non-attack upon the Scottish mineowners and miners in continuing the spread-over has enabled higher wages to be paid since March, and I believe the Government were right in not interfering with them. It was wise not to invoke the law against the spread-over, and it will be wise to include the spread-over in this Bill. It is a monstrous thing to do anything which will reduce wages. On merits, and from the point of view of the working of the industry and of the lives of the men and their families, there can be no excuse in Heaven or earth for forcing a reduction of wages, 1786 when a simple amendment of this Bill would prevent it.
I regret that the Rules of Order are such and that the Title of the Bill has been so drawn as to preclude a spread-over Amendment or any other Amendment of substance being brought forward in this House, but that does not apply to the whole Constitution and to the other Chamber, and I hope must sincerely that this Government, in which Scotland is so fully represented, will not subjugate the interests of Scotland to the rest of the country. It is not for me to urge upon the Government that they should give the spread-over from the point of view of the English districts which reluctantly abandoned it in answer to the behest of the Miners' Federation which was exercised last March. I do not pretend to be a mining expert, but I do say that if you will allow the spread-over to work, on its merits, and not be subjected to the ipse dixit of either of the two organisations, we shall be able to raise wages this year in other districts than in Scotland. There can be no doubt that we should find that the spread-over would be adopted in districts where it was abandoned. It is a pity that either North Wales, which is in the same position as Scotland——
§ Mr. SKELTON
That shows how great is the need there if that small organisation is still maintaining the spread-over. It also shows how necessary it is if a single body is not attacked by the Government. This is a foul deed which must not be done——[Interruption.] Is it not a foul deed that something like £20,000 per week less should be paid in wages in the coal mining industry in Scotland as a result of this legislation? How can it be justified? How can this House at the bar of history or in common sense justify such action at a time like this? When this Bill reaches another place, where it can be dealt with unrestrained by the Rules of this House, I hope that the provision which originally was put into the Coal Mines Bill will be inserted in this Bill and that the spread-over, which has proved to be a blessing to Scotland will not be removed. It is useless to appeal to a Government who have made up their minds upon policy, perhaps not altogether of their 1787 own free consent, but the case here is so strong, so dear and so dominating, that the Government should take their courage in their hands and say to the Miners' Federation that they must give up their foolish and wicked resistance to this method by which the miners' wages could be kept up.
§ Mr. T. WILLIAMS
One would imagine from the remarks of the hon. Member that increased output always means increased wages.
§ Mr. WILLIAMS
The hon. Member implied that the longer one works the more money one gets. May I suggest that we should look-at a few figures. In the first quarter of 1926, when the Scottish miners were working seven hours a day, their average wage per day was 10s. 3d., but in the first quarter of this year, when they were working the spread-over, their wages were 9s. 2d. per day. The longer they worked and the bigger the individual output, the smaller the wage, and this applies not only to Scotland but to all parts of the mining area in this country.
§ Mr. SKELTON
I do not know whether the hon. Member was present when the hon. and gallant Member for North Midlothian (Major Colville) was speaking, but he made it clear that the special importance of the spread-over to Scotland is connected with the highly mechanised form of the industry. I did not go over that ground again.
§ Mr. SKELTON
I thought it was common knowledge that where you have mechanised coal-cutters the shorter shift means only an extra shortness in the amount of cutting time, because the time required for transference and moving remains fixed. That is the economics of the matter; and hon. Members opposite will have to swallow it.
§ Mr. WILLIAMS
It is apparent that there is no hope of converting the hon. Member for Perth (Mr. Skelton). May I remind him of these figures, and ask him to reflect upon them between now and to-morrow evening when the Bill is to become law? In 1920, the individual out- 1788 put was 230 tons per year; in 1930, it was 330 tons. The wages in 1920 were 23s. 11d. per ton, and in 1930 8s. 8d. While the output increased from 230 tons to 330 tons, wages went down from £279 in 1920 to £110 in 1930. If the logic of the hon. Member is carried to its proper conclusion, longer hours and increased individual output should have resulted in the miners earning more in 1930 than they did in 1920.
§ Mr. MACQUISTEN
Does the hon. Member suggest that if the present hours were halved the miners wages would be bigger?
§ Mr. WILLIAMS
I suggest that if the present hours were doubled and the process which was operated since 1920 is allowed to continue the miners' wages will be 3s. to 4s. per day. I understand that there is a desire to secure the passage of this Bill by half-past seven tonight and, therefore, I will only put one or two questions to my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade. Clause 1 of the Bill deals with the question of hours, and I should like to ask my hon. Friend if he can tell us exactly what machinery he intends to devise for the purpose of enforcing that the 7½-hour day will be actually worked? After the experience of the spread-over we are entitled to know whether when the Bill has been passed the hours are going to be uniform and that they will be applied in every part of the mining area. Clause 2 states that the additional percentages and subsistence allowances shall be the same after the passing of this Bill as they were prior to its introduction. In Yorkshire the agreement saysThere shall be an allowance of 6d. per shift provided the gross daily wage does not exceed 8s. 9d.That is the subsistence wage—"That is if the wage s below 8s. 9d. up to 6d. per day can be paid as a subsistence wage.If the wage exceeds 8s. 9d. per day, clearly there are no guarantees under the Bill. The question I want to ask is this: Is there any implied guarantee in Clause 2 for a basic rate of wages? In Yorkshire for the whole of last month, out of a total of £1,344,901 paid in wages, only £13,000 were paid as subsistence allowances. Therefore, it there are no guarantees for basic rates of wages, 1789 there is no such guarantee at all as far as Yorkshire subsistence arrangements are concerned. When the hours were reduced in certain parts of the country from eight to 7½ per day 7.1 per cent. was allowed to piece rates workers for the lost half hour, Is there any guarantee that that 7.1 per cent. will be preserved under the terms of this Bill? It is well that we should know exactly what the Bill intends and implies, so that those responsible in various parts of the country will understand what the Bill actually means. These questions are important, and I hope that the President of the Board of Trade will reply to them. Then, with regard to the coal face worker. During the year 1930, his wages amounted to 45s. 6d. per week, that is for the best worker in the coal face; 39s. 3d. for the filler and for the surface worker 35s. 10d. per week. That, I understand, is to be rectified, and the surface worker is to be made part and parcel of the guarantee as far as the subsistence wage is concerned.
Then there is the question of reductions. This is the pay sheet of a boy 17 years of age, whose father because of illness had been dismissed from the colliery, but still lived in a colliery house. The son continued to work at the colliery and in this particular week he worked three days, as many as the colliery worked. His wages amounted to 15s. 6d., and from it were deducted 10s. for rent, 2s. 6d. for rates, 5d. for water. 1s. 3d. for doctor, 3d. for recreation, 2d. for the infirmary, 9d. for national health and something for unemployment insurance, making a total deduction of 15s. 5½d., leaving the boy with ½d. to take home. That is the sort of thing which is actually happening in mining areas. Whether these men work seven hours or eight hours, they get only just as much as they are strong enough to compel the coal-owners to pay notwithstanding my own predilections in regard to this Bill, my instructions are contained in a telegram I have received from the Yorkshire Miners' Federation, who while expressing their disappointment at the result of the negotiations, find themselves unable to do other than support the passage of the Bill. I hope that the President of the Board of Trade will answer the questions, which I can assure him have been put with the intention of clearing the air 1790 rather than of embarrassing the passage of the Bill.
Mr. FRANK OWEN
I rise to protest against the substance of this Bill and against the time and mode of its being presented to this House. Hon. Members above the Gangway have criticised the Government and the miners, but have acquiesced in the Bill. Hon. Members opposite, and the trade union leaders who are associated with them, have criticised the coalowners and have acquiesced in the Bill. The right hon. Member who has spoken from these benches has criticised all parties, and has acquiesced in the Bill. I do not acquiesce in the Bill, and if any hon. Gentleman in any part of the House likes to meet me in the Lobby when a Division is called, I shall be pleased to meet him there. [An HON. MEMBER: "What does that mean?"] I mean that I shall vote against the Bill if anyone else will support me. I remember saying just about a year ago, when the present Coal Mines Act was being discussed, that at the end of a year we should have the coalowners back on the doorstep of the House, importuning and threatening the House that unless they got further concessions the coal industry would be held up. The Government, whose legislation is so largely responsible for the present impasse, whose lack of energy in finding any market after they had interfered so clumsily with the original market, has precipitated the present crisis, are now going to throw the miners to the wolves.
This Bill is a Bill to betray the miners and to blackmail this House. The Bill is a pistol held to the heads of Members of the House, with the threat that unless it is passed by Tuesday night the whole coal industry will be in a state of chaos. That is the threat behind the Bill. The employers and the Conservative party, who often talk about the need and the desirability of maintaining a strong trade union structure in our industries, have directed their policy with very great success to the end of preventing the re-forming of the united trade union front in the coal industry that they so successfully broke in 1926. They have done it in this Bill with the connivance of the Government Front Bench. What have the miners got out of this so-called settlement? They have not a national wage agreement. They have not the 1791 Minimum Wage Act, 1914, plus the increased cost of living rates; and they have not the Seven Hours Act—all of which the Socialist party led them to suppose they must get. What they have got is this: That their present low rates are guaranteed them, and the present hours, which the great industrial party opposite so fearlessly condemned a year ago.
No wonder that hon. Gentlemen on the Conservative side of the House wish that the Bill might be prolonged indefinitely, and that for an indefinite period the miners might have to submit to these conditions. I say again that the miners are being sold under this Bill. I have friends working in the South Wales coalfield now. They are earning 288. a week if they work for four days a week. By working three days it is possible for a single man to get 29s. 6d. by going on the dole for three days. That is the condition to which the Government, with all their great reforming genius, have reduced the wage-earners in the coalfields. This crisis has been looming before us for about a year. The Government have sat terrified and watched it sliding towards them. They have done nothing to avert it. Now they find it easier to tackle the miner than the industry. In the same way at the end of the week they will find it easier to tackle the unemployed than to tackle unemployment.
There have been commanders before today who have been forgiven by men they led to disaster. There have been commanders whose strategy or lack of strategy led their men into defeat. Yet they organised a rear-guard to cover the retreat. The present Government are leaving the miners in the line to fight a soldiers' battle. In every industry they are going to leave the men to fight a soldiers' battle in the next few months. Having led the miners into this position the Government are well content to leave them there. They have evacuated the general staff, and whatever happens to the miners His Majesty's Administration will still be on those benches. [Interruption.] I am here to say what I feel on the subject. As a private Member I have a perfect right to express my opinion, and I am going to say what no one else on these benches has yet said, 1792 that is, that the miners have been let down.
A Duke of York not otherwise entitled to a place in our military annals, achieved immortality because he had 10,000 men whom he led up a hill and down again. The present miners' leaders will be remembered for a different reason. They had 1,000,000 men. They led them up the garden and left them there. For the last week or more we have been reading, in the kept Press of the Government party, of dramatic last-minute interventions, of the Premier's lightning strokes to avert a crisis. The Government have not dared to come to the House and say that they have a treaty, because a treaty which lasts for only 12 months is only an armistice. But they pretend that they have a settlement. Everyone here knows that in 12 months time in this House the problem will be 12 times intensified, because the Government are now merely shelving responsibility. Perhaps at the end of 12 months the over-eager Gentlemen on the Conservative benches will be sitting on the Government side. The present Government will then at least have the satisfaction of knowing that the continuity of their policy will be properly preserved, and that wage cuts will go on in every industry. The Government cannot pretend that this is a settlement Yet in a way it is a settlement. A settlement in a commercial sense means a sale properly concluded. There has been a sale in this Bill, and every Member of the House and of the party opposite who subscribes to the terms of the settlement becomes a party to the sale.
§ The SECRETARY for MINES (Mr. Shinwell)
The hon. Member who has just spoken is certainly entitled to speak his mind, but the House would have been grateful to him if he had explained with some clarity the purpose of his speech. His speech seemed to me to be reminiscent of Russia, where he has recently been, with his references to millions of men and the Duke of York and military metaphors. All these things appear to have led the hon. Member in the wrong direction.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
At all events there is no truth whatever in the hon. Member's allegations against the Government, as to 1793 inactivity in relation to the mining industry during the past 12 months. We had the responsibility of promoting reorganisation in this industry.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
If attention is now directed to one point, it is a condition for which those who have refused to operate the reorganisation proposals embodied in the Coal Mines Act are responsible, and not this Government. We have directed the attention of the mining industry to the need for promoting international agreements for establishing uniformity in labour conditions, and for eliminating the competitive factors which are a real menace to the industry. All these things have been done. Moreover for several months now we have directed the attention of both sides to the need for cooperation in relation to 8th July. The hon. Member and other hon. Members complained that we had not reorganised the industry sufficiently. I can only reply that whenever this House is responsive to the principles embodied in the Labour party's mining policy and gives us power to apply that policy, no Members are more grateful than those on this side.
Several speakers have criticised this legislation, and some have gone so far as to say that this is a bad Bill. But I was left in some doubt as to the character of the legislation they would have proposed if they had been in office. For what are they asking? It can only be legislation or no legislation. If there is to be no legislation, clearly the 7-hour day will come into operation on Wednesday next. But that, we are told by one hon. Gentleman, would be a calamity. When the Government seek to avert the calamity they are criticised.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
Is it the nature of the legislation to which objection is taken? If that be so, hon. Members so far have managed to conceal their real opinion regarding this legislation. There has been some talk about the need for continuing the spread-over discussions, but who that has had experience of the spread-over in Scotland desires its continuance? [Interruption.] The hon. 1794 and gallant Member for Kelvingrove (Major Elliot) interrupts by mentioning the name of a prominent Scottish miners' leader, but presumably that leader is well able to speak for himself, and if he requires to select a proxy I can hardly believe that he would select the hon. and gallant Member. The acting President of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain has declared the policy of the federation—including the mine-workers of Scotland—this afternoon. In the operation of the spread-over there have been anomalies which make it essential to bring the spread-over to an end. There is no reason at all why Scotland should be permitted to operate a spread-over for which no other district in this country has made a demand, for which no other district has asked within the past few weeks.
Reference has been made to North Wales. The spread-over there was of a modified character, a few minutes in excess of the 7½ hours. Therefore, on the ground of its impracticability, on the ground that the spread-over in Scotland gives Scotland an advantage over her competitors in England, an advantage resented by the coalowners in other parts of the country, and more particularly because it has been made abundantly clear to us by the Scottish miners and the Miners' Federation that they do not desire to continue the spread-over method of working in Scotland, it is to go. I observe in the speeches of hon. Members opposite a continuance of the threat that, if the spread-over were abandoned in Scotland, the wages of the Scottish miners must inevitably be reduced. That serves to confirm our suspicion in regard to the spread-over. We have maintained all along that the spread-over was utilised as a weapon, in effect, to intimidate the miners——[HON. MEMBERS: "Why did you not prosecute?"] I am asked by hon. Members why we did not invoke the aid of the law. I shall tell hon. Members why. Because we negotiated for several months with the Scottish Coal Owners' Association and the Scottish Union of Mine Workers with a view to removing the spread-over if both parties desired its removal by negotiation. When we ultimately failed by means of negotiation to remove the spread-over, we then had to consider in all the circumstances the effect of 1795 prosecution, and more particularly we had to concern ourselves with the imminence of 8th July.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
An attempt has been made, even in the very tolerant and generous speech of the Leader of the Opposition, to fasten the responsibility for this legislation upon the shoulders of this Government, but is there no responsibility on the shoulders of the Opposition? We have heard a great deal about limited legislation, and we have been told that the limited and restricted character of our legislation in the Bill will bring recurrent crises to the mining industry. I would remind the House that the legislation which is the principal cause of the legislation now invoked, was of a limited character. It applied for five years to terminate on 8th July. Therefore, on both grounds the accusation must fail. First of all, the responsibility is not upon the shoulders of this Government, but upon Parliament in 1926 when it adjusted the hours of labour in coal mines. Secondly, the charge fails because the limited character of the legislation is merely continuing the policy of the late Government with regard to legislation in connection with hours in coal mines. We have been brought to this pass by the fact that action required to be taken, not so much to prevent the 7-hour day coming into operation—because, indeed, it was the desire of every hon. and right hon. Member on this side of the House to bring the 7-hour day into operation as speedily as possible—but because in the present depressing economic circumstances, which cannot be concealed, which are obvious to everyone confronted with the facts pertaining to this industry, it was necessary as a temporary expedient to invoke the 71-hour day for a limited period. That is precisely the reason for this legislation.
Something has been said by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, who was on a previous occasion Secretary for Mines, with regard to the inevitability of a further crisis in 12 months. There is no need for a further crisis if the mine-owners will respond to the appeal of my hon. Friend the Member for Morpeth (Mr. E. Edwards), the acting president 1796 of the Miners' Federation. He has pleaded for co-operation and for negotiation; he asks, not for strife, but for order. Surely the owners cannot resist that appeal. If, in the course of the next 12 months, both sides of the industry will engage in discussions, will pursue the course asked for, there is no reason why a crisis should occur, and there is, on the contrary, every reason to suppose that a crisis can be averted.
We have been charged with ignoring the possibilities of the Geneva Convention. I am very much obliged to hon. and right hon. Members for their personal references in this regard. We have established the principle of uniformity as regards the hours of work in coal mines for the first time, thus eliminating one of the obvious factors of competition in the coal industry of Europe. I believe that is an achievement. But, when we are asked to take due regard of the possibilities of the ratification of that Convention, we must remind hon. Members that the matter is not entirely in our hands, that we must immediately enter into negotiations with other Governments concerned, and that we must seek their aid which, in my judgment, will readily be given. But, while negotiations must precede ratification, it may well be that ratification will be possible before the end of 12 months. Even if that is so, Parliament must be prepared to accept further legislation. I judge from the speeches of hon. Members that Parliament is reluctant to accept further legislation as regards the mining industry. In any case, negotiations must precede ratification of the Geneva Convention.
What is to happen between the end of the 12 months period guaranteeing wages and the date of ratification of the Geneva Convention? Now, when I have put that question, I have stated the whole issue as concisely as it can be stated. If negotiations broke down, they broke down on the issue, whether or not it was possible for both sides to agree as to the measures to be taken between the end of the 12 months' period and the period of ratification or, in lieu of ratification of the Convention, some agreement of a national character in the mining industry. If the coal owners had provided such a guarantee and had given the miners an assurance that at the end of 12 months, either by means of national 1797 negotiating machinery or in its absence a definite guarantee with regard to the continuance of such safeguards as are embodied in this Bill, if that had been done, there would have been no need to come to the House of Commons and ask for wages legislation. We might have contented ourselves merely by asking the House of Commons to agree to a continuance of the 7½-hour day. But the owners being recalcitrant—and I am not complaining unduly as the owners have had to consider the economic circumstances of this industry, the tremendous competition from abroad and the falling off in trade—have been reluctant to offer further guarantees. On the other hand, the men have asked—and, in my judgment, rightly so—for some guarantee of a safeguarding character so that they might be assured in the next 12 months, or for a longer period until new conditions can be in force, that the already low wages of the miners will not be interfered with. We heard this afternoon from the lips of the hon. Member for Morpeth a statement of appalling wage conditions in the mining industry. It was hardly necessary to make such a statement, for hon. Members on the other side have themselves declared that the wages in the mining industry are already too low. Surely, in those circumstances we are entitled to ask that such safeguards should be secured to the mine workers.
We have been asked to give the House a date when the Geneva Convention can be ratified. The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition put that question, and I venture to give what I think is the only possible answer. It is impossible to give a definite date, but it is possible to say that, having regard to the fact that at Geneva we carried the Convention by 81 votes to 2, with the employers abstaining, thus tacitly accepting the Convention—indeed during the process of the negotiations at Geneva they did not offer strenuous opposition to the main principles of the Convention—having regard to that fact, we are entitled to assume that, as soon as we can begin negotiations with the competent authorities in other countries, it is possible to reach agreement. If and when that is done, I assume it will be necessary to come to this House and ask for appropriate legislation. But we are not content with the efforts at Geneva. Refer- 1798 ence has been made to the need for pro moting marketing schemes and selling agencies and for tightening up the Coal Mines Act. In all these respects we have sought the aid of the mineowners. For example, in Scotland we have offered the owners our aid in securing some amendment of the Coal Mines Act. At all events, we have offered to give it consideration in order to protect the export trade of Scotland. When the owners come forward we are ready to consider their proposals with patience, and with some hope of promoting legislation.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
I am glad of that observation. If the mineowners of Scotland, or the mineowners of England, or any of the district associations, who, presumably, are best competent to judge of the effects of the Coal Mines Act and of what is required in the way of possible amendment, refrain from approaching the Government, we must accept their abstention as tacit support at least of the Coal Mines Act. I do not believe that to be the case. I have had conversations with coalowners in various parts of the country and they are now seeking some remedy for what they regard as defects in the existing legislation. It is a matter for them and not for us, and the House would not thank us if we introduced legislation against the express wishes of the coalowners. Indeed that is precisely the main contention against us in regard to the legislation now before the House.
I have been asked several questions with regard to the negotiations leading up to this legislation. I have already referred—and it seems to be unnecessary to indulge in repetition—to the steps which led to the negotiations in March of this year. During the negotiations of the past two weeks, the Government sought in every possible direction for a solution, and no blame devolves upon the shoulders of the Government for having failed to find a solution. If the coalowners and the miners had presented us with an agreement, the Government would not have rejected it. The Government would have been in duty bound to accept that agreement and such legislation as would have been introduced in this House would have been based upon that agreement. But it was the absence of agree- 1799 ment which compelled the Government to come forward with this legislation. This legislation is regarded as non-contentious—that is to say we are not to be confronted at the end of the Debate with a Division, although the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Owen) expressed a desire to test the issue in the Division Lobby.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
Well, I am bound to say in reply to that remark, that before the hon. Member proceeds to the Division Lobby he must be prepared to consider the alternative to this legislation.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
The hon. Member declares that he has given it consideration. That was not obvious from his speech but I forgive him for that.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
After all, the hon. Member has no right to make speeches of that character at a time like the present——
Is the hon. Gentleman trying to gag the House of Commons? Are we not to say our minds? It would be a better House if we all said our minds.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
The hon. Member has said his mind and I must say mine. All I am doing is to point out to the hon. Member and, indeed to other hon. Members, not with any desire to offend but merely with a desire to avert calamity that before he proceeds to the Division Lobby on this question he must be prepared to offer a satisfactory alternative which will avoid a stoppage on Wednesday next. The hon. Member has said that it amounts to blackmailing the House of Commons. As to that, I can only say that much as I would deplore having to adopt such strategy in the House of Commons, yet, on the whole, I think it might be better to resort to such tactics than to allow the mining industry to blackmail the House of Commons and the country. Therefore we have no alternative but to ask the House of Commons to accept this legislation, on the ground that it is practicable and that it meets the wishes of the miners in the existing circum- 1800 stances. It is not the best legislation that could have been devised from their standpoint, but, it is the best thing that can be done.
May I say a word about the general position of the industry. Whatever may be done to-night and to-morrow, in the promotion of this legislation this is not a final solution. It is in the words of the hon. Member for North Lanark (Miss Lee), a truce. It is a patching up; but, without this truce, a greater difficulty than now exists in the mining industry would fall upon it. Eventually, if I may say so with great respect, in this House we shall be driven to consider new organisations and organisational methods with regard to the mining industry. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Barkston Ash (Colonel Lane Fox) who was formely at the Mines Department said that the industry resented Parliamentary interference. If that be so, the sooner the industry proceeds to consider a solution of its own the better for all concerned. In the absence of that solution—and clearly no such solution is in sight—Parliament is compelled, having regard to the circumstances, to find a solution itself. As to the nature of that solution I shall not speak to-night. I believe it would be out of order to do so. But sooner or later we shall be driven to consider what that solution may be.
Meantime, we commend this legislation to the House not because we regard it as the final word, not because we regard it as the best kind of legislation that could have been introduced, not because we desire to ignore the claim of the miners for a 7-hour day or their claim for higher wages, certainly not because we refuse to respond to the claims of the mineowners—because we are only too ready to listen to them and to consider their claims and meet them as far as we may—but because 8th July is facing us only two days away, and unless this legislation is passed by Parliament within the next two days, we may be confronted with a serious stoppage in the industry with a possible wage crisis which the mining industry cannot endure.
I am sure that the House will accept it from me, as being said with some little knowledge of the position gathered during the past 12 months, that the menace of foreign competition is greater than ever. 1801 I had occasion some time ago, in company with coalowners and exporters, to explore the position in the Scandinavian countries. There we have the Polish menace—Polish coal sold at rock-bottom prices, at prices with which we cannot possibly compete, gradually superseding British coal in Scandinavia and elsewhere. We have the competition of coal sold at a loss which British coalowners are not prepared to accept, coal subsidised on the railways and subsidised in the inland market, by a national levy—a principle which this House would not accept when the Coal Mines Act was under consideration. We find stocks rising in Poland in spite of the rock-bottom prices. In spite of the elimination of British coal in the Scandinavian countries and elsewhere by Polish coal, the Polish coal industry is no more favourably situated to-day than it was three years ago. Similarly in Germany we find stocks accumulating, wages menaced, hours menaced, new legislation invoked by the Government frequently, arbitration awards set aside and new arbitration awards established. That is the position in Germany.
What is the remedy? I am glad to be able to tell the House that the coalowners themselves are turning their eyes in the direction of a possible economic agreement of an international character in an attempt to stabilise the level of prices throughout Europe, and with a view to the possible allocation of markets. In that way, in my judgment, a solution lies. But do not let us pretend for a moment that that provides the whole solution. Something must be done in this country in regard to organisation. We are ready to meet the coalowners at any time and discuss any proposition which they care to put before us. We are ready to listen to the House of Commons itself if any proposition is submitted for consideration. Clearly, in the present position of the mining industry no party in this House, whatever the circumstances, whatever the threats from outside, whether from the miners or from the mineowners, can afford to regard with complacency the possibilities inherent in the position which might arise in the course of the next few days. That being the case, I venture to say with the greatest seriousness to this House that this legislation must in the circumstances be accepted, the alternative being disaster 1802 probably as expensive in character and more fraught with calamity to the country than the disaster of 1926.
This is very hurried legislation, but there is no calamity involved. There is nothing to hinder the English miners and mine-owners doing what the Scottish miners and mineowners have done, and breaking this absurd legislation by simply defying the law and relying on it that the Government will not prosecute them for doing so. Let them go on working the 7½-hour day. I hope we will do it in Scotland. We have broken laws passed by English Governments before in Scotland, and I do not see any reason why the Scottish miners should be dragged at the chariot wheels of the Miners' Federation. Let them try to stop the miners in Scotland from working the spread-over. Let them try to take the £20,000 a week out of the pockets of the miners of Scotland and they will see what they will get.
§ Miss WILKINSON
On a point of Order. Is it in order for an hon. Member of this House to incite His Majesty's subjects to break the law?
§ Mr. MACQUISTEN
And no one probably has done it more frequently than the hon. Lady who has raised this futile point of Order. I quite agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel) when he said that the original Bill should have provided for more than five years, and I agree that it is very hard lines on the Government that they should have to deal with the matter now, but I cannot see why they should not take five years also. The spread-over in Scotland has been agreed upon and I do not see why it should be given up. It would be an intolerable hardship on the Scottish miner, and no finer fellow walks the earth than the Scottish miner. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Hon. Members opposite may jeer, but I have been the friend and defender of the Scottish miner for many years, and I have great faith in him, and, if be gets into any trouble by defying this legislation, I hope he will have no difficulty in finding defenders.
1803 One point has been omitted in this Debate and that concerns the real trouble in the mining industry and in our export trade in coal. I was speaking to a man recently who told me that he spent day after day in putting miners out of work. He was selling oil fuel, and the whole world is using oil fuel. All our great liners are using oil fuel and this particular man told me that in one week he had put 1,000 miners out of work. The constituency of the Secretary for Mines supplies one of the biggest manufactories in Scotland with some 50,000 tons of oil every year. They took to that after 1921, because they were not going to carry on their valuable business by the kind permission of the Miners' Federation, so they went into oil. Everybody is going into oil, and——
§ It being Half-past Seven of the Clock, and there being Private Business set down by direction of the Chairman of Ways and Means under Standing Order No. 8, further Proceeding was postponed without Question put.