Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a sum, not exceeding £175,521, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1932, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Mines Department of the Board of Trade."—[NOTE; £145,000 has been voted on account.]
§ Sir HERBERT SAMUEL
In dealing with questions relating to the great mining industry the House has been under the necessity of concentrating its attention upon relations between capital and labour. The frequent and prolonged controversies that have distracted that industry for many years past, and have involved heavy loss on the community as a whole have tended to concentrate the attention of Parliament rather upon this side of the industry; but there are other sides. There is the question of the efficiency of the industry for the production of coal, the distribution of coal and the utilisation of coal, and this matter also, as every miner knows, in the long run, and indeed in the short run, affects the well-being and the fortune of everyone connected with the industry in as great a degree, or even greater degree, than the particular controversies that may take place between employers and employés. Every miner depends on the efficiency of the industry, and it is to that aspect of the mining question that I would venture to direct the attention of the Committee, but not of course to the exclusion of many other matters which other hon. Members may desire to bring before it.
The tendencies that are at present at work in the industrial world give cause not for less, but rather for greater anxiety as to the future fortunes of this industry. There is the cheapness of its 1970 great competitor oil, and the fall in the price of oil has made its competition even more formidable than before in relation to shipping and transport. Those great pylons that we see striding over the English landscape foretell the increasing and rapid electrification of British industry, and that again may effect great economies in the use of fuel and prejudice the fortunes of the mining industry in an increasing degree, unless indeed the electrification of industry brings greater prosperity and expansion to our manufactures and so increases their output. Railway electrification is now in prospect, and the Minister of Transport told the House only a few days ago that if that is carried into effect it will mean the diminution of the consumption of coal in this country by about 10,000,000 tons a year, or 3 per cent. of the whole output.
In these circumstances, it is, I submit, more than ever necessary for the coal mining industry, either by its own efforts or by outside pressure, to be raised to the highest possible point of technical efficiency in the mining, in the preparation, and in the marketing of coal. It is now five years since the Royal Commission, of which I had the honour to be a member, presented its report containing a large number of recommendations dealing with various aspects of this problem, and I would ask the Secretary for Mines to tell us what progress has been made under certain heads with regard to these recommendations. I would remind the Committee that all these recommendations were agreed to unanimously by that Commission after prolonged and minute inquiry, in which we were aided by the best expert opinion from within the industry and outside. I would remind the Committee also that the Commission included a distinguished financier and industrialist in General Sir Herbert Lawrence, one of the managing directors of the banking firm of Glyn, Mills & Co., who was charged with the successful reorganisation of the great iron and steel firm of Vickers. It included also one of the leaders of the textile industry, Mr. Kenneth Lee, and one of the most distinguished of British economists Sir William Beveridge.
We came to this as our chief conclusion, that the industry as a whole had grown up almost haphazard, and was in urgent need of a complete reorganisation; that 1971 it was diffused into the ownership of far too large a number of separate firms; that it presented a most striking contrast with the competing industry on the Continent, in Germany, France and Belgium, where production was concentrated in comparatively few hands. When the present Government introduced last year a Bill to deal with the mining industry, we were amazed that that Bill contained no provision for such a reorganisation of the industry, but under pressure from the House of Commons, from both the benches opposite and these benches, provisions were inserted, and now form part of the Statute, for establishing a commission to insist upon the necessary reorganisation of the industry in the lack of adequate initiative from within. I would like to ask the hon. Gentleman who is at the head of the Mines Department to give us, so far as he can, the results of the work which has been undertaken by that statutory commission, of which Sir Ernest Gowers is the head.
Sir Ernest Gowers made a public statement only a few days ago in which he came, after a preliminary investigation of the industry, to just the same conclusion as that to which the Royal Commission came five years ago, to which the Sankey Commission came previously, and to which the Lewis Committee on coal marketing also came. Every inquiry that has hitherto been held has always come to precisely the same conclusion almost with unanimity, namely, that there is urgent need for a concentration of the industry, for amalgamation. Sir Ernest Gowers found that there are still about 1,500 separate owners of coal mines. He also came to the same conclusion that our Royal Commission came to, that it would be exceedingly difficult to secure effectively the necessary reorganisation so long as the mineral itself and the royalties remain in private hands. That, however, is a matter for legislation, and it would not be in order to dwell upon it, but I would only repeat that the very clear conclusion which I came to, with my colleagues, was that we should do in this country what has been done in every other country owning coal mines except the United States, namely, secure effective social control over the use of the mineral itself, and in our case that it 1972 should be by the State acquisition of the mineral.
Until that is done the work of Commissions such as that of Sir Ernest Gowers is not likely to be wholly effective. Perhaps the Secretary for Mines will tell us what Sir Ernest Gowers has so far done, and what he has in prospect. I do not ask that the work of this Commission should be pulled up by the roots to see how it is growing, but I have no doubt the Secretary for Mines will be able to make us some satisfactory statement, and I hope that in all quarters of the Committee this matter will no longer be regarded as one of controversy, but that this statutory Commission will be assured of the general support of the House of Commons in any measures which it may think necessary to take to overcome the difficulties which undoubtedly are in the way, and to achieve what is, unquestionably, the greatest reform of which the coal mining industry now stands in need.
The second matter on which I would ask the hon. Member to give us some information is the transport of coal, a matter which may appear at first sight to be unimportant but which is by no means unimportant. When we are dealing with so bulky a commodity as coal, effective means of transport may make the whole difference between the industry working at a profit or at a loss. The Royal Commission recommended that the Ministry of Mines and the Ministry of Transport should come together to establish a standing joint committee to watch all questions relating to the transport of minerals, and to effect improvements which were urgently needed. That committee was, in fact, appointed following upon our recommendations, and it has now been sitting for some years. There was long delay before its appointment, and there was great delay before the committee issued any report at all. It was a standing committee. The committee stood, the committee sat, it did not move, but at last, as the result of its investigations, a report has been issued which confirms, I think I may say in every particular, the conclusions which had been arrived at in the recommendations which had been made by the Royal Commission, after what was necessarily a far more hasty and less complete inquiry.
1973 The costliness and the waste of the transport of minerals in this country can only be described as a scandal. Here, again, if we compare Continental countries, if we watch, on the great waterways of the Continent the enormous barges swiftly and cheaply carrying coal from point to point, if we study the statistics showing how infinitely more economical is the user of the railway wagons on Continental railways, and how much more frequent is the employment of far larger wagons than the little toy trucks that are used here, we get some conception of the handicap under which the British coal industry labours owing to the deficiencies of our transport system. I trust the hon. Member will tell us to-day what has been done as the result of the recommendations in the first report of the standing joint committee, and I do most earnestly hope that he will not merely tell us that this and that are "under consideration," but that some effective measures have been taken by his Department, the Ministry of Transport, the mineowners and the railway companies in order to carry out the useful recommendations which were ultimately made by that joint committee.
The third matter on which I am sure this Committee and the country at large will be glad to have information is research. The utilisation of coal is at the basis of any effective progress that is likely to be made in the industry. The crude methed of using coal raw instead of splitting it up into its constituents and using those constituents for various purposes is most primitive. Low temperature carbonisation has not made the progress that many people hoped, partly because of the drop in the price of oils, which makes it difficult to find remunerative employment for plants occupied with the distillation of coal. The large scale experiment by the combination of the Fuel Research Department of the Government and the Gas Light and Coke Company in London has, unfortunately, not succeeded from a commercial point of view. Perhaps the Secretary for Mines will tell us more about low temperature carbonisation and its prospects, and also the prospects of other processes, such as hydrogenation, and, generally, what measures are being adopted in research to assist the industry.
1974 Next with regard to the methods of sale. British coal is, on the whole, of better quality than any produced by the competing coalfields, and we should use every endeavour to make this better quality tell in the competition in the world's markets. The Coal Commission found that our methods here were deficient in that there was no proper system for the sampling of coal and its analysis. The general public is inclined to think that coal is just coal, and that one piece of coal is much the same as another, but those engaged in the industry and those who have made a study of it know that that is very far from being the case. They know that there are differences in the quality and chemical contents of coals from different mines and different seams, even from different parts of the same seam. The purchaser of coal, particularly for industrial purposes, needs coal of specific qualities with particular contents, and the importers of coal in Scandinavia, Germany and other countries need to be assured that the coal they are buying is precisely the coal which they require. Therefore, there has come into use in recent years the system, which is widespread, of buying coal on specification, with a guarantee of its chemical contents. We find that disputes often arise, or sometimes arise, between the purchaser abroad and the seller here as to whether particular cargoes of coal really did fulfil the specification. We suggested that it was most necessary that there should be some official system of sampling coal and analysing it.
It is very difficult to get a true sample of a great mass of coal, such as a cargo. It requires expert handling and a highly elaborate technical system to get the sample which will be accepted as a fair sample of the whole—or the right numbers of samples of a big cargo—and, furthermore, the analysis of coal is a highly expert matter. I would ask the Secretary for Mines whether any progress has been made in this matter, and what precisely has been done. I know there have been conferences and discussions, but has there been any outcome from those conferences and discussions? Has any definite step yet been taken in order to supply for our producers, and, if possible for the benefit of foreign purchasers, a system of sampling and analysis which will really be accepted 1975 and will avoid the practice, now frequent, of a double analysis, one on behalf of the producer and the other on behalf of the purchaser, whenever some dispute may arise as to the content of a coal. It is five years now since that recommendation was made. Has any progress been made in regard to it?
With regard to the general organisation for marketing, it has become increasingly obvious that a high degree of cooperation is essential. The Government Bill of last year, now a Statute, aimed at establishing such a system. We on these benches were never greatly enamoured of the quota, and subjected that proposal to a good deal of criticism. We thought that the proposal contained within itself certain dangers, and would prove to be of doubtful value to the object in view. Those dangers were, to some extent, mitigated by changes made in the Bill as it passed through Committee and on the Report stage, but I should like to ask the hon. Member now what is his experience of the Act in its working? I observe that Sir Ernest Gowers repeats a scepticism that was expressed here. He has said in a recent statement that the evil of the whole situation arises from two causes—too many people are (independently offering coal for sale, and costs of production are swollen because the mines are not working to their full capacity, because too many independent concerns are working the coal. He went on to say:To the minds of the Commissioners the essential rightness of the policy of amalgamation was established because it satisfied both these tests and no other policy that they knew of did. The quota and minimum price system clearly did not; it was not meant to do. In the main, the effect of that system "—That is, the quota and minimum price—so far from concentrating production, was to stereotype its dissipation. It sought to alleviate the symptoms, but did not attack the disease.That is a very strong confirmation of the view that the Government last year were beginning at the wrong end in trying to establish a quota, instead of trying to insist upon reorganisation and concentration of production, and I observe that the hon. Member for Morpeth (Mr. E. Edwards), whom we wish to congratulate 1976 on the important appointment he has received as President of the Miners' Federation, spoke at the recent Miners' Federation Congress on "the failure of the scheme," and attributed that failure to the mineowners not having worked it efficiently. Mr. S. O. Davies, who, as hon. Members know, is one of the leaders of the federation in South Wales, said:Part I of the Act of 1930 was almost futile.I know it is early days yet to expect any large results, and the report on the first quarter's working of the quota system has only just been presented to Parliament; still, we would all, I am sure, like to have the views of the Secretary for Mines on the working of the scheme thus far, (and to what degree it has fulfilled the expectations that were raised in the House of Commons when the Bill was passing into law during those weeks and months of political controversy and occasional political crises.
Then there is the international marketing of coal. I observe that Mr. A. J. Cook said the other day that "international agreements were the only salvation," and there is a great deal of force in the observation. I hope that the Minister and members of the Miners' Federation will not put their hope in any system of subsidising coal for export. I am sure the country will not agree to that. Subsidy to reduce the price of coal, whether at home or abroad, is merely pouring water into a sieve. There will be no end to it, and, in the long run, will be detrimental to the national finances or else impose a heavy burden on industry. On the contrary, our object should be to get countries to agree to the prohibition of all forms of subsidies, direct or indirect. The International Economic Conference at Geneva, in 1927, recommended that the tendency should be rather in that direction, and I think recent discussions have been somewhat of the same trend.
I should like to ask the hon. Member how that matter stands, and particularly whether British coal owners are taking this question of international agreement seriously, and whether they are doing their best, through the new organisation established under the Act of 1930, to get into touch with producers in other coalfields, many of whom are producing and selling coal at a loss, with a view to some mutual arrangement which will put the 1977 coal markets of the world on to a more satisfactory footing. Those are the five points to which I would invite the Minister, if he would be kind enough to do so, to give his attention, and on which I would ask him to provide the Committee with information, namely, the general organisation of the industry, particularly in relation to the work of Sir Ernest Gowers' Commission, the transport of coal and the action taken on the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee, the present situation with regard to research and with regard to sale by specification, and the organisation of the marketing of coal at home and abroad.
Lastly, if the Committee will allow me, I would refer to some aspects of the labour question in relation to the coal mines. The Royal Commission recommended, and that recommendation also was adopted, that the Miners' Welfare Fund should be greatly strengthened and its finances largely increased by a new levy on mining royalties. That was done, and the Welfare Fund has much greater resources at its disposal than it had in earlier years. Our recommendation was intended to enable pit-head baths to be established more generally throughout the coalfields. Such an extension was not universally popular, but we were convinced, after taking much evidence, and after hearing what was done abroad, that it would contribute greatly to the homo comfort of the whole mining community if these pit-head baths were generally established. It cannot be established quite universally, because coal mines which are about to be worked out cannot, of course, justify the heavy capital expense which is involved in establishing these baths, but the movement has been greatly extended during the last five years, and perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us how far we are approximating to the ideal that a pit-head bath should be available for every miner when he leaves his work and before he returns to his home.
With regard to hours, we have already congratulated the Secretary for Mines on the success which he achieved at the International Conference. The fact that all the countries of Europe concerned with coal mining have agreed on a draft international convention for fixing a uniform maximum for working hours in mines is a very great achievement. I 1978 had the honour—it is now 25 years ago—to negotiate on behalf of this country at Berne the first International Labour Convention that was ever concluded, and I know how great the difficulties are which arise from every quarter when you try to achieve unanimity on the complicated matters which arise in this connection. I would like to ask the hon. Member what prospects there are now of the early ratification of the convention and of its general enforcement.
The shock that was anticipated when the Mines Hours Act came to an end a few weeks ago has, happily, been avoided, and there has been no stoppage in any of the coalfields. Perhaps the hon. Member will be able to tell us how the situation stands in Scotland to-day, and what prospects there are there of an early agreement. There are still risks that may arise a year ahead when the Act, which we passed so speedily a few days ago, comes to the end of its term. I hope the industry will not get into the habit of mind of regarding something in the nature of another crisis inevitable at the end of another 12 months. A great deal of mischief is done in international relations by people talking glibly about the next war. I have seen an admirable poster issued by those interested in the Disarmament movement, "Stop that next war now!" and one may say to the mining industry, "Stop that next crisis now!" I would beg them not to wait, as they so often do, until the last day of the eleventh month, and then come hurriedly to Parliament with some hastily arranged agreement; but in good time to set their house in order, and to prevent any crisis at that date.
I do most earnestly hope that the employers will not refuse to enter into negotiations on a national basis. It, really, is essential that they should do so. That is another matter which was investigated by the Royal Commission, and, again unanimously, we came to the conclusion that, while there must be district variations to meet district conditions, there ought to be national decisions with regard to the co-ordination of the district agreements and for dealing with matters which are national. Every other industry in the country except the mining industry agrees to that. We were supplied by the Minister of Labour with a list of 30 trades, all the great manufacturing 1979 producing industries of the country, and every one of them had a national joint organisation of capital and labour for dealing with labour conditions. The mineowners alone have refused to engage in such negotiations, and thereby, in the eyes of the public opinion of the whole nation, they put themselves in the wrong.
Part of the Statute of last year consisted of Sections for the establishment of a National Industrial Board, and that board is in existence, but we hear very little of its operations or its activities. Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us how far the National Industrial Board is a really effective body, and how far it can be invoked so as to avoid any disputes when the Act which was passed a few days ago ceases to operate. It is a propitious sign that during recent negotiations the mineowners did say that they would be willing to discuss round the table with the Miners' Federation at three months intervals questions which might arise, including, apparently, hours and wages, which had then been under discussion. I hope that they will not withdraw from that position, and, if I may venture to say so, the somewhat different spirit which has been shown on the other side in the Miners' Federation, particularly in the statesmanlike address delivered by the new president of the Miners' Federation, and also in recent speeches by Mr. A. J. Cook—that frame of mind shows a different attitude from the intransigence of 1926, and should, I hope, evoke from the employers' side a more conciliatory spirit.
We have to remember that again we shall be working to a date, and measures must be taken in advance to settle this question before that date is reached. The 8th July is an appointed day once more. There are disadvantages in working to a date. On the other hand, there are some advantages. It does bring things to a point, and does force a decision at a particular time, and there might possibly have been some advantages if it were only possible, which it is not, to fix some terms to the discussion of these other problems with which I have been dealing—problems that relate to the efficiency of the industry, to its marketing organisation and so forth. There is no fixed date for it, and as a result we are drifting month after month 1980 and year after year, and only very rarely is anything really effective done. These questions are less sensational, but in the long run they are more substantial than those which attract so much Parliamentary attention.
I have been reading a volume written by a German professor entitled, "The Spirit of British Policy." The book is addressed to the people of Germany, and it is designed to prove that it was a myth that Great Britain was engaged before the War in a policy of "encirclement" hostile to Germany and aiming at attack and the outbreak of war. The volume I have referred to contains 500 pages, and no less than 70 pages are devoted to an attempt to prove that the British nation is essentially irrational, that compared with the continental countries we are inexpert and unsystematic, and for that reason we should have found it impossible to pursue any policy such as that suggested. The instances which this author gives to prove our irrationality are the spelling of our language, our weights and measures, our legal system, the drafting of our Acts of Parliament, and the organisation of the Labour movement. We are to so high a degree irrational that it is ludicrous to accuse the British nation of any long pursued systematic foreign policy. I feel that the same may be said in regard to a great deal of our industrial organisation, and especially the coal mining industry. This is a very grave national defect. What we need here, as elsewhere, is to substitute for the method of drift a policy of drive, and we on these benches have asked for this Vote to be put down and have raised this discussion to enable the Minister for Mines, if he is able to do so, as I hope he may, to convince the House and the country that in these matters the Minister of Mines is not continuing that method of drift, but introducing that energy which the conditions of the industry so urgently require.
§ Captain PEAKE
I hope that I shall be forgiven if I confine my remarks to a much narrower sphere than the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel) has done. The right hon. Gentleman has touched upon innumerable topics, most of them exceedingly contentious in their nature. I will confine myself to two topics about which 1981 I do not think there is a great deal of contention between the two sides of the Committee. First of all, I want to say a few words about a very interesting White Paper which the Minister issued 10 days ago dealing with the operation of schemes under the first part of the Coal Mines Act, 1930. Anybody who has any conception of the vast amount of work which had to be done upon the drafting of these schemes, the fixing of the standard tonnages and the schedules of minimum prices for every class of coal in every district, knows perfectly well that the coalownens have kept their promise to the President of the Board of Trade, and have done their utmost to make these schemes successful. I have had some experience myself of fixing standard tonnages and things of that kind, and I know that if every coalowner had stood out for what he conceived to be his legal rights in this matter, there would have been no end to the arbitrations and the law suits which would have ensued. It is only due to the extraordinary forbearance which the coalowners have shown and their spirit of co-operation that these great schemes have come into operation with so little friction and so litle difficulty. The White Paper tells us that:on the whole, apart from the difficulties which are bound to occur in the early stages of legislation of such a novel character, no major difficulties were encountered and there was every sign that the coalowners were trying to work the Act in the best possible manner.There are aspects of the quota scheme about which I admit I am not altogether satisfied, and the scheme does not seem to me to be functioning in the way in which those who sponsored it intended it to do. The quota has been much maligned and it is also much misunderstood. It is misunderstood by such an eminent gentleman as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen, and it appears to be misunderstood by the eminent gentleman who is chairman of the Coal Mines Re-organisation Commission. The essential thing about a quota is its transferability from one mine to another, and this is something which can be of very great assistance in concentrating production. Under a transferable quota system, the economic pit purchases quota, and goes on to a full-time basis, and secures the 1982 market for its coal which was previously held by the colliery which has closed down. Only a comparatively small amount is added to the cost of production and that is far more than outweighed by the reduction of cost due to the pit working full time. The uneconomic pit gets compensation by the sale of its quota upon closing down.
The pit which is closed down gets paid for the sale of its goodwill and something for the los of its best men, managers and so on, and is put into a sort of cold storage pending the re-expansion of the industry when those mines will in all probability be required. I am concerned with one of those mines myself, and I should think that it is the only pit in Yorkshire which has been working six days a week all through the long depression of the last three years. This method has proved economically satisfactory, at any rate to myself. Of course, you do not get the same benefits under compulsory amalgamation. It is said that if you have a number of pits, you can concentrate your output by closing down one pit and working full time in the others, and so, by amalgamation, get exactly the same result. May I point out that if you close down a pit under an amalgamation and put the other pits on full time, you have not a secure market for the coal, and your market is still at the mercy of your competitors; whereas if you buy quota and it is properly adjusted, you secure a market for the coal produced.
What troubles me about the scheme at the present time is that there is no quota to be bought, and that mean? that the scheme is not functioning so as to concentrate output in the way which it ought to do. There is no quota to be bought for a variety of reasons, and I think that the Minister for Mines can do something to remove some of those reasons. In the first place there is a great political obstacle to concentration. Every time a pit closes down the Minister gets shot at from behind, and he does not get credit for the increased employment given by the transfer of the quota somewhere else. Politically speaking, every constituency ought to have its own quota, and it ought to be non-transferable. I sympathise with the Minister for Mines when he is shot at from behind, because 1983 the concentration of output in the coal industry is a thankless task for the Minister as well as for the coalowners.
Apart from the political obstacles, there are certain practical obstacles which the Minister can do something to remove. In the first place, the price fixation under Part I has encouraged the owners of uneconomic mines, and has tended to stabilise production where it is. Secondly, I am not satisfied that the quota is transferable sufficiently freely in all the schemes of which the Minister has approved and in some of the schemes which the Minister has made himself. But apart from that, there is a very great uncertainty in the mind of the coal owner who closes his pit in order to sell his quota whether he will be allotted any standard tonnage after his pit has been closed down for two or three months. No one will be induced to close down his colliery unless he can see more than a few months compensation. A coalowner will not be willing to lose his goodwill and his best men and suffer all the expense which closing down involves, unless he can see some security of tenure in regard to the compensation which he is going to obtain. That seems to me to be a point upon which the Minister might be able to give the executive boards a certain amount of guidance. He might be able to say to them, "Will you please be good enough to see that nothing is done to prevent the closing down of collieries under Part I in order to secure concentration at the more economic mines?" It is far cheaper for the industry to pay some compensation, for a few years if need be, to induce collieries to go out of production, than it will be to have the liabilities of the uneconomic mines hung round the heads of the good mines by compulsory amalgamation. By compulsory amalgamation you saddle for all time the economic mines with the costs of carrying uneconomic mines, and I assure the Committee that it is far cheaper to keep the liabilities of the uneconomic mines to their banks, their landlords and other people, quite separate, and to permit them to draw some compensation money by the sale of quota and to close their mines and secure compensation in that way.
The other point to which I want to address myself is the work of the Re-organisation Commission. We all knew, 1984 when that Commission was being established that there were two quite distinct policies which the Commissioners might see fit to adopt. There was the policy of initiating amalgamations on grounds of physical and geographical convenience. There is the sort of amalgamation which has proved very successful in the coal industry, and has been carried out a good deal by the more enlightened of the coal-owners, which consists in throwing together adjacent properties, where seams interlock, where joint schemes of pumping, ventilation, and things of that sort can be put into operation, and which forms a very useful amalgamation. A great many of these amalgamations are being hindered to-day by quite small things, in overcoming which the Commissioners might have done useful work. There are personal considerations, and there are financial difficulties in amalgamation where it would be geographically and physically suitable and convenient, and economical in every way. Some collieries in which I am interested are the result of that sort of amalgamation, in which you can centralise your washing, coking, and so forth, and from which advantages can undoubtedly be obtained, as has been proved by experience.
The other sort of policy which was open to the Commissioners was to try to do something big, something spectacular, something which had never been done before, in the coal industry at any rate, or in agriculture—something on the lines of what has taken place in tobacco, or in oil, or in banking, or on the railways, something that really amounts, so far as the coalmines are concerned, to regional grouping. That is a policy in which you have little or no chance of carrying the coalowners with you. If you were to put into operation amalgamations on grounds which have been tried and proved in cases where amalgamations are desirable, you would undoubtedly convince the coalowners and prove to them by demonstration that your policy was right; but if you seek to group the mines regionally on a huge scale, making 20, 30, 40, or perhaps 100 collieries into one giant concern, you are doing something in which I do not think you will be able to carry the coalowners with you, and you will have to do by force what you cannot do by persuasion.
1985 Just lately two very important statements of policy have been made by two members of this Commission. Sir Ernest Gowers spoke at a coal trade luncheon about a fortnight ago. I will only quote one sentence from what he said, but it indicates the conclusion to which he appears to have come:If the premises of the Commissioners were right, then combinations ought to be large; the greater the area over which the concentration of production could be made, the more effective the concentration would be. It followed, also, that amalgamations ought ultimately to be complete, that each amalgamated concern should eventually be the only concern working coal in its particular area.He then stressed the word "ultimately," and said that he did not expect to achieve this result all at once. The second statement which indicates that the Commissioners have in mind what I call regional grouping was made by Mr. Joseph Jones, who is a members of the Commission. It was made to the Miners' Federation, assembled at Blackpool last week. He said:If the advantages of amalgamation are what we think them to be, it follows that, other things being equal, the larger the size of the unit the greater will be the benefit that amalgamation can bring. The Commission, therefore, contemplate, as the ultimate goal of the policy of amalgamation, that the country should be divided up into large geographical units, in each of which there should be only one colliery undertaking; but we do not suppose that that is going to be reached everywhere in one stride.Afterwards he set out the six areas which he thought ought to comprise the six concerns which would ultimately be the only coal producers in this country.
I think that one has to take these statements of policy by the Commissioners, if I may say so with respect to them, with a grain of salt. They require to be discounted a little, for this reason, that hitherto the public mind has been more impressed by the size of the Commissioners' salaries than by the size of the Commissioners' task, and I have no doubt that we see here a little attempt on their part slightly to counterbalance the impression already existing in the public mind. It surprises me that the idea of regional grouping should emanate from this Commission. It is in fact the new Socialism; it is our old friend the public corporation of the President of the Board of Trade, with all the attendant 1986 concomitants of elimination of competition, wide-scale co-ordination, and so on. I can well understand the Minister defending this policy and believing that you can eliminate competition. He was up in Durham over the week-end, and he was in, I must say, extremely doubtful company; or rather, I ought not to say that, because, Sir Robert, your Deputy-Chairman was on the platform with him; but he had with him the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) and Mr. A. J. Cook. While the orchestra was all playing at once, it was certain playing four different tunes, but the melody enunciated by practically all of them appeared to be, "We must proceed as rapidly as we can towards the unification of this great industry; we must seek to eliminate competition, which is a deadly thing."
The Minister is pursuing something which will dissolve into thin air if he thinks that competition can be eliminated. I do not think he can have any idea of the vast number of poorer people who, in 1926, took to cooking their food by oil, and never returned to coal; I do not think ho can have any conception of the force of that competition at the present time. If you eliminate competition in the coal trade in Great Britain, it will be a very long time before you eliminate the competition of either alternative fuel or foreign competitors. It is flying in the face of all known facts and of past experience to think that competition can be eliminated. It has been tried by the oil trusts; it was tried by Mr. Leiter in regard to wheat. No attempt to eliminate competition has ever so far succeeded, and I think that to try to eliminate competition in regard to coal is simply a waste of time.
I can well understand the Minister putting forward a policy of regional grouping, and I can well understand him defending such a policy, but what I cannot understand is that the Commissioners should put it forward. After all, while we do not know very much about the members of this Commission, of one thing we are absolutely certain, and that is that they are not Socialists—not practising Socialists, at any rate. There is no nonsense with these Com missioners about working for use and not for profit. I should think that the only persons in the Commissioners' office 1987 who do work for use and not for profit are the two charladies who get 18s. a week and seem to me to be performing the most useful task that is performed there.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen skated very thinly to-day over these two statements with regard to this proposal of regional grouping. I do not think he had read the statement of Mr. Joseph Jones, but this is not the policy which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen put forward—not by any means. His policy was one of following the already trodden and proved path, of following up the amalgamations which have been made by beginning with the laggards in the coal industry, and gradually getting the units larger and larger. I would refer to the Report of the Royal Commission on the Coal Industry, one of the best chapters in which is the chapter dealing with this question of amalgamation. Of course it is only fair to say that the right hon. Gentleman did arrive at the definite conclusion thatthe size of the undertakings is not economically the best, and that there are great advantages in large-scale production which are not now being realised.But he qualified that, and on page 58 of the report there is this statement:At the same time we consider that it has been established that any general measure of compulsory grouping on uniform or arbitrary lines is open to grave objection. We have outlined the arguments that are advanced by the opponents of such a measure, and we think that they are cogent. We should be unable to recommend a policy of amalgamation if it were to take that character.Then, later, in answer to the question, "Are further measures desirable," the very first point that the right hon. Gentleman makes is this:The fusions that are desirable must be effected with great care and with intimate knowledge of the physical and financial considerations that are involved in each case.The right hon. Gentleman has not changed his views since that date, because, when these reorganisation Clauses were introduced into the House some 18 months ago, and the President of the Board of Trade was making his speech on 13th February explaining his proposals, the right hon. Gentleman intervened to say: 1988The right hon. Gentleman does not mean that all the owners in one district would be obliged necessarily to come into one scheme?The President of the Board of Trade replied:Oh, no, not at all; there is provision, of course, for great elasticity."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th February, 1930; col. 661, Vol. 235.]And, when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen himself came to speak on this question he said:Let me quote one sentence from the report of the Royal Commission:'Any general measure of compulsory amalgamation on arbitrary lines would be mischievous. The action to be taken should be elastic, and should enable each case to be treated individually.'That is precisely what is now proposed. …. If there was any suggestion of any measure of uniformity, I for one should oppose it, and if I support the proposal it is because I am convinced that it will allow the necessary elasticity in bringing about the results required."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th February, 1930; col. 682, Vol. 235.]The proposals, therefore, which the Commissioners outlined, are not founded in any way upon the report of the Royal Commission or upon anything which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen has ever put forward in this House.
I want to put forward two or three considerations about regional grouping of collieries from the point of view of management. The greatest drawback of all is that it is going to involve taking over the uneconomic pits, which will have to be closed down, saddling the new amalgamated concerns for ever—because you will never get rid of them—with the vast liabilities which every colliery company in the country is under towards its royalty owners. It is also going to fix upon the amalgamated concern the whole burden of carrying the uneconomic mines in good times and in bad. It is going to improve the security of creditors and of royalty owners, and in that way it is going to throw a heavy-burden upon an already overburdened industry. Perhaps the gravest objection of all is one which may well be put forward by those who represent the miners themselves. When the new President of the Miners' Federation, the hon. Member for Morpeth (Mr. E. Edwards), whom I congratulate on the high office to which he 1989 has been chosen, heard the statement, parts of which I have read, by Mr. Joseph Jones, he said:Mr. Edwards, in thanking Mr. Jones for his statement, said the federation accepted it as important information. He would add that it committed the Miners' Federation to nothing, and the federation held itself free to consider it and reach its own conclusions upon it.I am very glad indeed that the hon. Member opposite should have spoken with such caution upon such an important proposal because, to my mind, regional grouping is fraught with very considerable danger from the point of view of the miners themselves. Who, for instance, is going to get control of these giant concerns? Suppose that you had one company for the whole of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. I will not suggest any names at all, but the man you have to have at the control of a giant concern like that is a man with a tremendous knowledge of finance and financial problems. It seems to me that you are bound to have financiers at the head of these new giant concerns and, from what I have seen of the incursion of the financier into coalowning, it is surely followed by a long trail of dissatisfaction and discontent and suffering among the workers at the pits. In the second place, are you not forging a powerful weapon, more powerful than you have ever faced before, to be used against the men themselves? At present, mines are closed down, unfortunately, from time to time for purely economic reasons, and no coalowner would ever close down any mine for anything else but an economic reason. If you get one giant concern controlling all the mines in South Wales or Scotland or Yorkshire, and there is a cheek-weighman or a miners' official who is making things difficult for the management—and they do sometimes—is it not possible that these giant concerns may say, "We will teach so and so a lesson. We will close down his pit." I sincerely appeal to the Minister, not only in the interests of tens of thousands of shareholders who have all their savings invested in the industry, but on behalf of the men themselves, before he lets a commission go forward with a policy of regional grouping, to think once, twice and a third time because, if you have a giant grouping of mines which falls into 1990 a financial disaster, it will take a long time to recover from it and it will injuriously affect the lives and livelihood of the men employed for many years to come.
§ Mr. RITSON
I should like to thank the hon. Member for his complimentary remarks with regard to the new president of the Miners' Federation. We have never in my opinion had a more able, useful and vigorous man than the hon. Member for Morpeth (Mr. Edwards), and I can assure the modest, kindly coalowner that be will not have long to wait—he will not have to wait for 12 months—before my friend is knocking at the door trying to arrange the next issue. He will do it constitutionally. He will fight you hard but he will fight you clean. The hon. Member referred to the Durham Miners' gala. It would be a sad Heaven if the harps played one tune all the time. I do not know how it fell upon the hon. Member's ears, but I am sure the people I represent were delighted with the tune. The hon. Member is very reasonable. We cannot find any faults with his speech. He puts his points clearly and without bitterness. I am pleased that he mentioned the quota, but he should go along to the Press and ask them to desist from this terrifically mistaken idea that they have. The transferable quota will be to the benefit of the industry and of the men. The hon. Member speaks against amalgamation. I am not allowed to suggest legislation. I have to imagine it. That is usually what is done in this House. I have always said, if you take imagination out of the House you might as well shut it up. So I have to go on and imagine without stating any particular form of legislation. I could tell the hon. Member, if I was not pulled up by the Chair, what sort of legislation I should propose. It would be a general amalgamation.
I am sorry we have not the new coal experts who have been sitting on the back row. This great industry in the last year or two has been lectured and guided by schoolmasters and tonsorial artists, or barbers. We have a galaxy of talent with an imagination which would do credit to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), I am a rough, unlettered man and I object to intellectuals 1991 coming along to tell me what I am to do. I do not care whether it is my party or not, whether it is this new party or the new Hitler party that sits opposite. I am prepared to meet coalowners either in the office or in Parliament, but I object to people who do not know a pick from a dredger. What we have had to suffer from is always a question of legislation. It is the cranks of legislators that we suffer from, and they are not confined to this House. There is another part of the building that I sometimes visit. There I have the same complaint that I have against my hon. colleagues on the back benches. Whenever we have had legislation we have had interference. I am not complaining of the coalowners apart from their age. They are entitled to defend their own property. But we have to meet pensioned lawyers, frothblowers in the shape of brewers, and, last but not least, bishops, and everyone at the other end of the building without knowledge interfering in our legislation. It is the class of legislation, mixed with the legislators, that has left us where we are. Some of us went into the pit at 12, and have grown grey in the service of our fellows. It has been rather annoying to hear this galaxy of talent.
Now we have the chairman of a onetime commission, who always puts his case clearly before us. He is rather alarmed. He spoke of the electrification of the railways. I have no objection to that. I believe electrification must come. I think the countryside will need all the electrification it can get, and I am sure the miners are not against that. I feel that the country wants electrification from Land's End to John o'Groats. I am looking forward to the day when every farmhouse will work its churns and everything else with electricity from the mines, and we can produce it in the unproductive mines in the hill areas to which I belong. I hope some of these old mines, where there are perhaps 60 men working, which have been outpaced by large concerns 40 or 50 miles away, will be allowed to develop and they could create electricity on the spot, which would be beneficial to the people in the area and to the miners working there. Would it not be better to allow some of these smaller collieries to keep going and keep together these groups of 60 to 1992 100 men in the small areas rather than crowd them into the larger collieries? There is the question of the Research Department which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. I believe that if we had spent as much money upon research with regard to this great commodity as has been spent upon war and the preparations for war, it would be in a better situation than it is to-day. On the question of calorific values, we are very fortunate in this country. I do not know any country which produces coal of such calorific value. We have a very fine steam coal, and fortunately we have very fine coke ovens. I am confident, in view of the calorific values of our coal, that with proper marketing our coal ought to be able to compete with that of any other country.
I should like to congratulate the Minister. I have never yet seen a Minister who objects to praise. I was brought up in an old puritanical home, and I had to carry my light everywhere, because I was told that the great recording angel would be looking down upon me. The only recording angels in this Debate are the gentlemen above the Speaker's Chair, and we seem to be more concerned as to how they will record us, and that is the disastrous thing with regard to it. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend will withstand the flattery which I am going to heap upon him. I congratulate him upon taking the first great step in going to Geneva and trying to get an international understanding. I can assure the hon and gallant Gentleman the Member for North Leeds (Captain Peake), who spoke with great knowledge of the industry, that nothing less than an international agreement is likely to prevent the competition that goes on. When we got the eight hours there was an increased output thrown on to the markets in order to try and overthrow those who were competing against us. There was Yorkshire competing against Durham; the Londonderry's against the Joyces.
§ Mr. RITSON
Of course, South Wales is always against everybody. That sort of thing went on. We complained very bitterly about it. We pleaded with the 1993 owners. We begged of them to come to some sort of agreement. We asked them to follow the example of gentlemen opposite with regard to rubber and to restrict output. The only hope that I can see is for the whole of the coal-owners, not only in England but in Europe, to get together and say that this system cannot be allowed to go on. I agree that there is nothing in the subsidy, if you are going to do what you did the last time. We got £20,000,000 of subsidy, but what good did it do us? Poland are subsidising, and the more we subsidise the more they will subsidise, and we shall go on cancelling each other out. And the men are suffering all the time. In 1925, when we had the seven-hour day, our wages were 10s. 6d. per day. In June 1930, although we produced 3.44 cwt. more per man per day—in the year 75 tons per man—our wages came down by 1s. 3d. a day. That sort of thing cannot go on. This is the point I am trying to make. I am glad that we have had an opportunity of discussing this Vote, and that the Minister has made such a gallant effort to get an international agreement. I can assure the hon. and gallant Member and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel), who was not in his place when I stated what would happen under the new President that my hon. Friend will not wait for 12 months or even three months before he shows that he is determined that there shall be no stoppage at the end of the 12 months. If there is any stoppage or any disaster it will not be his fault or the fault of his Federation at all. We shall begin at once to see what arrangement can be arrived at, first of all, with the owners. I hope that the owners will be reasonable and that we shall keep all the interfering people out of it, If we cannot agree, let us hope that we shall come to this great arbitration court with us in power.
Right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite have always wronged us with regard to this matter. We are as keen upon keeping our industry intact as any one opposite. We are as keen upon protecting our marketing rights as any hon. Members opposite. I think I can speak for my hon. Friend when I say that strikes for the mere sake of striking were never a thing that we desired. I think 1994 that many of the strikes could have been avoided if we had had reasonableness and the same sympathy that we seem to be acquiring to-day. It is the misrepresentation by the ignorant that always injures the miners. I say to the hon. and gallant Gentleman as representing the owners that he should get along to the other end of the building and see if he cannot replace the old by the young, or stop them altogether; at least he should see that they do not interfere in something which is most vital. I have the greatest respect for old age, which was never made to carry a burden. I would give them a complete rest.
§ Sir ARTHUR STEEL-MAITLAND
I am sure that everyone in the Committee has heard with amusement and also with a measure of agreement the remarks which have fallen from the hon. Gentleman the Member for East Durham (Mr. Ritson), though not perhaps in regard to every item. I am not quite sure that when we come to the end of the period we should agree with him as to who would be the best controller and guide of the destinies and the policy of the country. That, however, from his point of view, is really a comparatively minor matter. The chief point upon which he laid emphasis was that, in so far as it can be put up to the employers and the miners, it was for them to work out their own salvation without any undue interference from people who have not such a good knowledge of the mining industry. I am sure that he would find a lot of sympathy from all quarters of the Committee and from all people who have the real welfare of the mining industry at heart. There is also a very great deal of sympathy with him in another respect, and that is in regard to the difficulty there is at the moment of disposing of all the coal that the world can mine. If there is too much coal, or at any rate too much possibility of putting out coal at the present moment, what are the prospects of a convention dealing with it? I will put this point before him for his consideration. Compare the present position with the position before the War. It is true that there is a great increase in the potential output of coal and in the actual output of coal, but not in this country. As the hon. Member and other hon. Members opposite who are connected with the mining industry—and I have been side 1995 by side with mining operations all my life—are perfectly well aware, there has been no increase in the output in this country as compared with the years immediately before the War. Even today the output is less that it used to be then.
§ Sir A. STEEL-MAITLAND
Certainly it is greater per man, but then the effect upon employment is all the greater. The actual aggregate output in British tonnage, as every hon. Member knows, is less to-day than it was before the War, and there has been an increase in every other producing European country. It is not here that the actual increase in the aggregate of tonnage has occurred. From that point of view, I think we have to bear in mind, when it comes to international conventions, the fact that we are suffering to-day in the coal mining industry not because of the increase here but because of the increase that has taken place in other countries both for domestic consumption and for export. I am sure that the hon. Member will agree with that. As he has said, the output here per man or per shift has increased as compared, say, with 1913. Of course it has, greatly, and the result is that with diminished aggregate sales large numbers of people have left the mining industry. When I was Minister of Labour I did my best to try and get them alternative occupations, yet even so the unemployment to-day is greater than it has ever been. That is another fact we have to take into account before we go to any international convention.
Thirdly, there is the great decrease in the export of coal from this country as compared with those days. It has varied up and down during the last year or two, but, if I take the results of the first half of this year and compare them with the last year before the War—I am taking the monthly average—they mean a falling off, owing to the export trade alone, of the employment of something like 120,000 or 130,000 men in the pits. That is the situation at the moment. It is peculiarly serious, because it cannot be cured, as far as I can see, simply by an agreement among our own coal producers to restrict output. If we are going to 1996 restrict output further it means a restriction coming on top of a great comparative fall here, as compared with an increase in every other country on the Continent.
There have been requests for information by the right hon. Member for Dar-wen (Sir H. Samuel) in regard to the Convention. I would ask the Minister for Mines a further question. The Convention fills me with misgiving. I do not know whether the hon. Member for East Durham has read the Convention. When I read it, it certainly struck me with a good deal of misgiving. I do not see how anybody can honestly say that they can ratify the Convention, and work it. Take Article 5 of the Convention. It contains a prohibtion of work on Sunday. In the ordinary arrangement of shifts, as I know it in Scotland, when a pit is working full time you get the back shift and the fore shift and it means that you will be working for two hours on Sunday night. Having regard also to the practice in Continental countries, I cannot see how any country can really keep the letter of the Convention and at the same time continue ordinary working when there is a prohibition of work on Sunday.
It may be said, "That is a small, technical matter. It is not a matter of great importance. We can all agree to wink at an infraction of the Convention of that kind." But I put it to every mining Member, that it is a very serious thing to start a Convention by disregarding comparatively slight infringements of it. In factories it would go to the root of the administration of the Factory Acts. You cannot disregard these matters; you must obey them. Otherwise, if you allow certain minor infractions no one knows to what extent they may proceed and how difficult it may be for one country to complain of others who otherwise break the Convention or disregard it in some important particular. I should also like to put a point with regard to the spread-over. There are two things about which I think everyone will agree in regard to the spread-over. In the first place, from the point of view of the economical working of the mines, it is an advantage. I doubt if that fact will be contested. The second point is this. There are many miners who have differences of opinion about the spread-over.
§ Mr. TINKER
On a point of Order. It the right hon. Gentleman in order in discussing the spread-over? It is not in the Vote, and! it has been removed by Act of Parliament. It would mean special legislation to bring it in.
§ The CHAIRMAN
If the spread-over would require legislation the right hon. Gentleman would be out of order in discussing it.
§ Sir A. STEEL-MAITLAND
I am connecting it with the question of the Convention, which is before the House for ratification.
§ Sir A. STEEL-MAITLAND
At the present time there is a draft Convention and I think I am strictly in order, seeing that the ratification of the Convention is clearly contemplated by the Government, who can do it as an administrative act. Therefore, subject to your Ruling, I think I am in order in discussing it. The difference about the Convention is this, that formerly there was a question as to the inclusion in the Convention of the possibility of the spread-over. In this particular case it has been excluded from the Convention. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] Hon. Members opposite say, "Hear, hear!" When our negotiators went out to Geneva to deal with the Convention, it was hoped and expected at one time that the representatives of all sections, not only the Government but the employers and the employed, would be able to produce and to support a common policy. One thing that was possible was that they would be prepared to support the inclusion in the Convention of the possibility of the spread-over, without making it obligatory for this country to adopt it. Of course, it would be within the power of this country by legislation to adopt it, but in a Convention which contains no provision for the spread-over, we are disenabled from taking such a course. I believe the Minister opposed it. Therefore, the possibility of any spread-over, as understood in the British sense, was excluded from the Convention. That is the position and I hope that the mining Members opposite will realise that and also the fact that there has been difference 1998 of opinion in their own ranks on the subject. On the score of economy there can be no question about the matter. From the point of view of this country it would have distinctly been wise to have left the question of the spread-over open for consideration by both sides in the future. I would ask the Committee to mark what has happened. There are some Clauses in the Convention, Clause 9, for example, which allow extra working on 60 days.
§ The SECRETARY for MINES (Mr. Shinwell)
I only intervene because you have asked me. I have no desire to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but I must confess that I cannot see the relevance of his observations on this Vote. It would seem to me that the proper occasion for raising the question of whether ratification is right or wrong is when the House is asked to consider ratification.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
I am altogether responsible. I should like to have the position made clear. Am I to understand that we are permitted to discuss the Clauses in the Convention?
§ The CHAIRMAN
No. In so far as the Minister is responsible for the Convention the right hon. Gentleman is entitled to make some remarks but not to discuss the details with reference to future legislation.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
My submission is, that the right hon. Gentleman is now discussing something which is excluded, from the Convention, and he desires that it should be included. Clearly it is not in order to discuss that.
§ Sir PHILIP CUNLIFFE-LISTER
The position is this, that the Minister has told us very often, at Question Time, that he has been negotiating the Convention. The negotiation of the Convention and the discussion in which the Minister and the British delegation engaged at Geneva are entirely administrative acts. I agree that if the Minister proposes legislation the House can discuss what is in the legislation. What has happened so far 1999 is, that negotiations leading up to the Convention have taken place, and I submit, with respect, that we are entitled to ask why in conducting the negotiations certain things were put in and certain things were left out. Those, obviously, are matters to be discussed on the Minister's Vote, otherwise there is no opportunity before he produces the legislation, which he may or may not produce, of criticising what has been his principal administrative act of the year, namely, the conduct of negotiations at Geneva. I have been responsible very often for conducting negotiations at international conferences and always when I have returned there has been a debate in the House on the whole conduct of the negotiations as to what I have done and as to what I have left undone. Surely, that is a matter for debate.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
It is a matter that ought properly to be raised on the Ministry of Labour Vote, on the item for expenditure for the International Labour Office.
§ The CHAIRMAN
In so far as the Minister has any responsibility, he cannot escape. I recognise what the right hon. Gentleman has said. If the Minister has been responsible in any way for negotiating the Convention, the right hon. Gentleman is in order in raising the matter, but anything that requires legislation cannot be discussed for and against.
§ Sir A. STEEL-MAITLAND
The question was originally introduced by the hon. Member for East Durham. I have no desire to go into detail, except so far as they reflect on the degree to which the interests of the British coal mining industry have been safeguarded by the Minister in his discussions at Geneva. On those broad grounds when we are taking the Vote on the Mines Department I submit that it is in Order to introduce some remarks with regard to the Convention. It is from that point of view that I would ask the mining Members to note the very grave position in which we may be put. We find that under a Convention which we are asked to ratify, because it may be of use to the British mining industry, it will be made possible for our competitors abroad—I wish no harm to our competitors abroad—to work, let me 2000 say in France,120 half-hours during the year. Knowing the French practice I think that is a thing that will probably occur.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but he is quite wrong. It is specifically laid down in the Convention that only one hour on not more than 60 days in the year can be worked.
§ Sir A. STEEL-MAITLAND
I am sorry to go into these details, but I have been challenged. The Convention says:To put not more than 60 hours overtime in the year at the disposal of undertakings.That does not mean 60 days. The Minister ought to know his own Convention a little better. It say, "60 hours overtime in the year at the disposal of undertakings." What that means, quite clearly, is that it will be possible to work an extra half hour a day throughout the winter months. I ask hon. Members to note whether, if the Convention is carried out, it does not mean that in some foreign countries it will be possible, instead of working 7¾ hours during 120 days, to work a lengthened period of 8¼ hours. I have had a good deal to do with Conventions, and one thing that I am also always extremely anxious about is force majeure, because that can be interpreted to authorise a further spread-over of time, and it makes possible a spread-over over a whole half-year in some European coal-producing countries, but makes it quite impossible for us to have a chance of working our smaller spread-over, which is admitted by every one to be economic from the point of view of working coal. Now that the Secretary for Mines has the text of the Convention I ask whether it is not as I have said, that it is not possible for us in the future, even if we were to pass legislation, to have a short spread-over here whilst foreign countries will be able to have, a spread-over over 120 days of an extra half hour a day.
At the present moment the coal trade is faced with the possibility of a restriction on imports into France, and I hope the Secretary for Mines will tell us what steps the Government have taken in regard to the measures which we are told are contemplated by France. Owing to the present depressed state of the coal 2001 trade in France, as elsewhere, they propose to introduce a restriction of 20 per cent. on imports of coal. What direct action have the Government taken in this matter? I should further like to know how the 20 per cent. is to be calculated and over what period, and, again, what classes of coal will be included? That is to say, whether it includes coke as well as coal. Obviously, as the importation into France from different countries is of different kinds of coal, it is important to know whether the restriction will apply to coke as well as coal. Under normal circumstances we should hope that representations and negotiations would be undertaken by the Government or through their representatives in Paris. Has it taken any steps, or has it left it to the trade itself to make representations? These are the two points in regard to our trade abroad upon which I should like some information from the Secretary for Mines.
Now with regard to our home trade. There is the question of amalgamation, which has been raised in the last few days by the two speeches to which reference has been made. What is the exact significance of those two speeches? It is clear that they were the result of very deliberate thought. One was made by the chairman and the other by another member of the Commission. The audience was balanced. The employers were at the first and the miners' representatives at the second. These two speeches were a synoptic gospel. They had a common origin. They were alike in substance, and extraordinarily alike in the actual phrases in which that substance was expressed. The importance of these two speeches is quite clear. The only thing in which they differed was this, that in the speech of the chairman of the Reorganisation Commission there was a phrase in which he carefully emphasised the word "ultimate." He spoke of the regrouping of mines, and the amalgamation of mines by districts, and he used these words:I say 'ultimately,' deliberately and with emphasis.On the other hand, the emphasis was all the other way in the speech made by Mr. Joseph Jones to the Miners' Conference. You do not know whether it is this year, next year, sometime or never, 2002 if you take the one speech by itself. It might be that they were only preceeding in that direction, or, at all events, that the policy was only provisional, but when I look at the speech of Mr. Jones, the emphasis is altogether different. In his case the policy is definite and very soon to be carried out. He indicated definite things in his speech. He enumerated the six bag districts which they hope to make into one, but in referring to the six smaller districts he said:We are still considering these, but as yet we have reached no definite decision.That means that the decision as regards the six big districts is already clear and definite. I should like to ask the Secretary for Mines whether he knew of the gist of these speeches, and whether they state the policy of the Government, or the policy of the Reorganisation Commission. The importance of this matter is quite clear. What was the reason given for the amalgamation? It was this:The task of the central directorate would be to determine where the coal for which there is a demand can best be produced,and then direct the development of the coalfield accordingly. One thing is quite clear from this. As every mining Member knows, whilst there may be a great difference in coal between one pit and another in Durham yet there is an even greater difference between mining districts. In other words, if a difference between coal is to be a reason for making an amalgamation of the whole of one district then according to the premises in these speeches, that ought to be only one stage. And it is only a stage on the way to nationalisation and nothing else. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] Hon. Members opposite agree with that. As I read either speech the combinations ought to be large, butIf the premises of the commissioners were right,then combinations ought to he still larger and the goal should be nationalisation. Hon. Members opposite say "Hear, hear," but I should like to know what the right hon. Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel) says to such a proposal. He talked generally about the desirability of amalgamation, but if he had heard the interesting speech of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Leeds North 2003 (Captain Peake) he would have heard that he himself and the Commission were against nationalisation. My hon. and gallant Friend told us the membership of the Commission and pointed out the importance attaching to every member of it. It is a Commission which carries great weight, and it is against nationalisation. My hon. and gallant Friend also quoted from the right hon. Member for Darwen declaring that while amalgamations were necessary they ought to be carried out with extreme care and with regard to the individual circumstances of the case, physical and financial. There is an absolute divergence of opinion between hon. Members opposite and the right hon. Member for Darwen on the question of amalgamations. Hon. Members opposite welcome the statement from the Reorganisation Commission because it is one step, and the next step is complete nationalisation. From the point of view of the right hon. Member for Darwen that would be anathema. I do not want to take up the time of the Committee in discussing the question of amalgamations, and I know from personal experience how very difficult they, are. It is difficult to form a cartel and it is equally difficult to form an amalgamation.
What exactly is the import of these speeches? Do they represent the policy of the Government? If they are the policy of the Commission what do they mean? They may be right or they may be wrong; but some of us agree with the right hon. Member for Darwen that if amalgamations are necessary the process should not be carried out in this sweeping manner. And how is Parliamentary control to be carried out? It is clear that no such important change should be carried out unless it can be subjected to the most searching criticism. I may be told that there is the Railway and Canal Commission, but every hon. Member knows quite well that that body is far from being an adequate safeguard. What is wanted is control, discussion, criticism and justification before a policy of such importance is started, not when it is nearing fruition.
§ Sir A. STEEL-MAITLAND
What does arise is this—the position of the Statutory Commission. In a recent Debate on another subject I said that one matter which would certainly come up for consideration was the position of statutory bodies. You want to remove them from immediate political pressure, but, on the other hand, you want to preserve ultimate Parliamentary control over policy. What is the case with regard to definite control by Parliament and the ultimate policy for which practical steps are intended to be taken? I agree with the right hon. Member for Darwen, and I think we all agree, that further amalgamations are necessary. I do not want to elaborate the reasons.
§ Sir A. STEEL-MAITLAND
No, I am not. But at the same time further amalgamations are necessary. One reason why there is talk of compulsory amalgamation is that amalgamations are not proceeding quickly enough to suit some people under the present quota system. Is the present quota system properly devised to facilitate amalgamation, or does it not rather militate against it? In my time I have arranged a cartel with quotas and have got smaller and uneconomic mines closed. It is a very difficult operation to get done. One is always up against the difficulty that if you pay a smaller mine to keep closed and the payment stops it raises its head again. Of course the uneconomic pits are really the great difficulty. What is necessary is to make the quota more easily transferable. At the present time the owner of a coal undertaking will probably say to himself, "Is it worth my while to sell the quota?" Another might say, "Is it worth my while to purchase the quota?" Until it is known what is going to happen it is doubtful whether people who are prudent would want to sell their quota. On the other hand if a person is going to buy a quota, or a pit because of its quota, he wants to know that the advantage to be got will be continued for a sufficient number of years.
2005 That is the difficulty that I used to have to face. I remember that when the Germans representing the Westphalian coal industry were over here they asked me whether there were any questions which I wished to put. My first question was, "How do you manage to get rid of the small mines so that they become extinct?" They replied that that was the greatest difficulty. It is a difficulty which has not been faced here but which ought to be faced in order to make a- quota more transferable, so that it would be worth while for one person to sell and another person to acquire. I ask the Minister when he replies to tell us how he proposes to deal with that side of the subject, which is perhaps the most important in the practical working of the Coal Mines Act to-day.
§ Mr. EDWARD WILLIAMS
I do not propose to follow the arguments of the right hon. Gentleman who has just spoken, but I wish to state what I conceive to be the mining problem of to-day and what we are likely to have to face next year and for many years unless the question is tackled in something like a practical manner. Most of the arguments that we have heard from the right hon. Gentleman are again conclusive evidence that Mr. Justice Sankey was right in his conclusions in 1919. Most of the trouble to-day is attributable to the fact that you have one vested interest fighting another. But that is no argument against quotas as such. It is rather an argument against vested interests in general. During the War things were quite all right. There were three things required, men, money and munitions, and the most important of those three were munitions. To produce munitions the best smelting fuel, namely, coal, was required. We then had an enormous market. It was possible to dispose of coal in enormous quantities in this country. Coal could not be sold in this country under the Coal Mines (Limitation) Act beyond about 46s. a ton, but on the export market it was possible for us to realise £5, £6, and even £7 10s. a ton.
During the War period we were not confronted with a coal problem at all. Upon the termination of the War the problem that is now confronting us actually began. It was known by most mining economists that reparations in the form of payment in coal would do irreparable 2006 harm to the export trade of this country. That was stated by the Miners' Federation and by most miners' leaders during the General Election of 1918, when we were faced with such political cries as "Making the land fit for heroes to live in." The Versailles Treaty was signed, and the supply of 25,000,000 tons of coal per anum was diverted from this country to Germany. Italy, France and Belgium obtained their quantities of coal every year in that way, and with one fell swoop we damaged our export market for all time. I want to compliment the Secretary for Mines on what he has done at Geneva. The establishment of a convention making it impossible for more than 7¼ hours to be worked underground on any given day throughout Europe, will be of immense benefit to the coal trade. I certainly trust that it will be the precursor of an international arrangement which will lead to the ascertainment of world demand and the allocation to each of the countries of a given quantum of that ascertained demand. That will certainly be a splendid thing. But it will not solve the problem. The export market which takes only one-fifth of the total production of this country. By international arrangements, therefore, we shall not be able to solve more than one-fifth of the coal problem.
If the home market, that is four-fifths of the problem, were tackled with a will by this House, it could be solved without any reference to international markets at all. It is appreciated by most people who have studied the coal problem that we have lost Russa. There we had a market for nearly 6,000,000 tons before the War. Compared with 1913 we have lost a market for nearly 5,000,000 tons in France alone. Owing to the Navy having adopted oil fuel we have lost another market of about 4,000,000 tons. Scandinavia has gone to Poland for supplies, and there we have lost a market of about 2,600,000 tons. In Italy, owing to the use of hydraulic power, and in the countries of the Near East, we have lost a market of nearly 8,000,000 tons. In South America, which was obliged during the War period, because she could not obtain coal, to turn vegetable products into fuel, we have lost a market of 2,500,000 tons.
There is the problem. We have lost all those markets, and as far as I can see it 2007 will be impossible at any time in the future for us to recover them. I submit that the leading coalowners could see that that was to be the problem. A comparatively few people were able to foresee precisely what would occur when the War ended. Instead of endeavouring to recover the export markets, or having realised that those export markets were irrecoverable, they set about doing the next best thing for themselves, and that was to have for themselves the available market known to them at home. They set about a policy. Their policy was the cutting of prices, internecine competition. Prices have dropped since 1920 from an average of £5 a ton, using round figures, to 15s. 3d. In a period of 10 years we have eliminated practically 900 pits in this country. We have also been faced with what is after all the tragic side in mining—the creation of unemployment. While the world market was contracting hon. Members opposite conceived that it would be a splendid thing to increase the output of coal. The miners were called upon to work an additional hour and to produce more coal at a time when the world was being surfeited with coal. The miners increased their output by more than 20 per cent. per person employed. Almost to the exact decimal point that has created unemployment in the industry. That was done upon the pretext of recovering the export market, but the real object was to destroy internal competition until, at last, a comparatively few concerns in this country would be able to control every ton of coal produced and charge, ultimately, monopoly prices for it. I do not desire to treat this matter historically or at length, but it is well that the Committee should know the price which the miner has had to pay. I endeavour to visualise this problem through the eyes of the persons who are struggling in our coalfields. I do not want to deal with the question of bonus shares, because that, certainly, would strike a discordant note, but I may mention that one firm known as the North's Navigation Company in the Llynfi Valley, in 1920, allocated £600,000 in bonus shares. Unemployment on 2nd February in that valley was 1,870 and on 8th July of this year it was 3,790. I think it is well that the light hon. Gentleman the Member for Bewdley (Mr. S. Baldwin) 2008 should appreciate precisely the results of his handiwork and realise what he has done to make this industry much worse than it was before, and how this problem will continually arise in Parliament unless it is tackled properly.
In 1925 the net aggregate loss in the industry generally was just 3d. per ton and in South Wales 16. a ton, over a period of six months. The industry had been the subject of a commission of inquiry; it had been in the hands of the investigators on three previous occasions, but it was thought wise to have the subject again thoroughly investigated and it was referred to another commission under the chairmanship of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel). What happened? At the end of nine months, instead of £10,000,000 having been spent by way of subsidy, the amount was increased to more than £23,000,000; instead of the loss being 3d. a ton in the industry generally, it was Is. 6d. a ton, and in South Wales instead of being 1s. it was 4s. 7d. That position was created at the end of nine months because selling prices fell equivalent to the increase per ton of the subsidy. The subsidy had been used just as all subsidies will be used, whether they come from increased working-time, or from reduced wages, or from the Treasury. Subsidies will always be used, while we are living under the regime of private enterprise, in order to increase the competing capacity of the efficient concerns.
That is what has happened in the coal industry—so much so, that in South Wales alone, more than 100 pits have closed since 1926. We have to-day in South Wales 52,000 permanently unemployed and 23,000 working short time. We have local authorities facing bankruptcy, we have whole communities speedily decaying, and half the shops of many villages are closed. That situation is due to the fact that the Sankey Commission Report was not adopted and was not applied, after the undertaking which was given, I think, by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George). Had that report been carried out, we should not have to face these recurring crises in the industry and while I appreciate the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen, I see no means whereby we 2009 could avoid a crisis next year or the year after. How can we hope, in present circumstances, to have efficiency in this industry, with all the geological vagaries, with all the varying thicknesses of strata, with all the varying ages of pits which have to be considered. We have some pits which are 30, 40 or 50 years old. We have some with seams which are a mile or two miles or three miles from the shaft. I was at one pit recently where the seam is six miles from the shaft. How is it possible for those pits to compete with other pits, where the seams are right at the shaft mouth.
Considering all these diversities, it is impossible, while the industry is in private hands, to have anything like a solution of the problem. If the industry were unified, treated as a unit of power and co-ordinated with gas, electrical and other undertakings which consume coal, then the good could make up for the bad, and, by the law of averages, we should be able to get the best out of it. But as things are now, we are obliged to face recurring crises because though a colliery may be old, it has to pay the same wage, in a given district, as one which is comparatively young. A colliery may be decadent and its machinery may be getting archaic, but it has to compete with another colliery where machinery and technique are up-to-date. How, then, can we escape this coal problem? How can we escape these periodical discussions in Parliament? How can we escape the problem as it confronts the miner in every district, every year or on the termination of every agreement? If we face the facts of the situation, we must realise that it is impossible under present conditions.
I know that we are forbidden to discuss legislation on this Vote and, consequently, one cannot advance what one believes to be the remedy for the situation, but I sincerely urge the Minister to take advantage of the fact, known, I think, to most mining Members, that there are scientists, technicians and managers, who have had life-long experience of mining, and who would be ready to co-operate with anybody in order to make the industry more efficient from a national point of view. I do not say more efficient purely from the profit-making point of view. I am inclined to believe 2010 that the trouble appertaining to the synthetic treatement of coal arises because it is being looked at, purely as a business proposition. We are asking, can we produce from coal oil which will compete with the imported oil, and how can we, by low temperature carbonisation or hydrogenation, produce something which will be a marketable commodity and which can compete with the other commodities? So long as we treat the subject of synthetic coal from that point of view, so long will little or nothing be done.
I therefore beg of the Committee to urge upon the Minister—and I do not know that he requires very much urging in this respect—to treat the mining problem as a first-class national emergency, just as we would, for instance, treat the problem, if it arose, of 300,000 of our people and their dependants being faced with a plague. If 300,000 of our people were threatened with a plague or some disease, Parliament would treat it as a national emergency. Here we have 300,000 miners and their families whose plight should equally demand our attention. These men, as far as one can see, can never be reabsorbed in the mining industry and are unlikely to be absorbed in any of the other staple capitalist industries of the country. If this problem were faced as a national problem, they could be absorbed, in time, in agriculture and many might be absorbed in some of the other industries. But from 1920, the coal mining industry, and other industries dependent upon mining, have been passing through a serious time, because it was conceived by hon. Gentlemen opposite that it would be a good thing to cut wages and cut prices. As a result, we have lost £150,000,000 a year in the purchasing capacity of the miners alone. We have lest, since 1920, £1,000,000,000 a year in our national wages' bill. That is how we have lost the home market for coal, steel, iron, textiles. Likewise each of the other nations has been cutting its wages bill, and that is how we have lost the international market.
I sincerely trust that we shall reach the time when all Members of the House of Commons will look upon the mining problem as a national problem. I know that, in speaking upon this matter, I am bound to be partial. I have lived in the industry; I have worked in the mine for 2011 12 years, and I am partial to the people with whom I have worked. I admit that, but I trust that I am sufficiently broad-minded to see that this is a national problem and one which ought to be confronted in a proper national manner. I somehow think, when I hear hon. Members opposite speaking on this subject, that they are representing a Scottish coalfield, or a Scottish firm, or their own particular firm, or some individual interest; and it recalls to me the days when I was a miners' agent and had to meet the colliery manager or representative. I always found that he was representing his firm and doing the best he could for it. Consequently, the national problem was never faced. It cannot be faced by the coalowners, because the coalowner represents the firm and not the industry, and only a body such as the people who are sent here to the House of Commons can face this problem as a national problem and take a national point of view.
The coalowners will continue to represent their individual firms. I am sorry if I have to strike a discordant note, in saying that they only organise upon national lines when they organise to fight the miner, when the miner is trying to resist a cut in wages or an increase in the working day. It is difficult for them to take a national point of view, because they are still representing their individual firms and are mainly pleading for those firms which are efficient and are consequently able to defeat the others. That is why I am endeavouring to stress these points in this, my maiden speech, to the House of Commons in the hope that Members of this Committee will appreciate the complications of the problem and how those complications are directly attributable to the fact that the industry is in private hands. Miners are working for 9s. per day on piece work, and day-wage men for about £2 2s. a week, before deductions are taken from their earnings. In 1920 they got from £4 10s. to £4 16s. We have had this enormous cut in prices, and the industry is no better; in fact, it is distinctly worse than it was in 1925, before subsidies were given or before the Act was placed on the Statute Book that made it incumbent that the miner should work extra time.
2012 Things are certainly worse, and in my opinion will continue to be so—I say it quite frankly—until this industry is taken out of private hands and made a public monopoly. We could then treat it as an industry and as a means that produces power, whether electrical or otherwise. It is a question of research, and whatever comes from that research should go into the industry and not into the pockets of the people interested only in profit-making. I trust, in conclusion, that the Minister will reply to the questions put to him by the right hon. Member for Darwen as to what he proposes to do with some of the very difficult matters which were reported upon' by him when he was chairman of the commission in 1926, and whether during this next year there is any likelihood at all of putting some of these recommendations into operation. If some of those recommendations were put into operation, much good would come to the industry, and I sincerely trust that we shall have a satisfactory reply from the Minister.
§ Mr. DUNCAN MILLAR
I feel sure that I shall voice the feelings of Members in all parts of the House if I convey to the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. E. Williams) our congratulations upon the maiden speech which he has just delivered. We feel that not only has he spoken with a very extensive knowledge of his subject, but also with a depth of sincerity which we all appreciate. I should like also to say that following, as he does, in the footsteps of a late Member of this House who was held with very great respect on all sides, we hope that he may assist us in the same way as his distinguished predecessor did in dealing with these serious problems. I confess that I should feel out of order in following the hon. Member in the discussion which he has raised as to the merits of nationalisation as distinguished from private enterprise. I do not think that that is a matter which really does arise on this Vote, but I can assure him that, while I cannot speak with the same personal experience as one who has worked in the mines—and in a Debate of this kind one regards those Members who can so speak as occupying positions of great advantage—I can speak with very deep sympathy as representing a division in Scotland in which there is a very large 2013 number of miners and also as having had the honour of representing for eight years in this House one of the largest mining divisions in the West of Scotland.
I agree with the hon. Member that it is always the heaviest burden that rests upon the working miner, who is engaged in this dangerous occupation and in many cases is kept in a constant condition of uncertainty and insecurity in regard to the earning of his livelihood. In Scotland, during the past week or two, we have been living in anxious times, following upon the negotiations for a new wage agreement. Reference was made by the right hon. Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel) to the situation there, and I should like to associate myself with him him in asking the Secretary for Mines if he can give us a little further information as to what is going on there. As the Committee well knows, the situation in Scotland is different from that in other parts of the country. There were only two divisions, North Wales and Scotland, where the spread-over, which is now coming to an end under the new Act, had been adopted. The miners in Scotland never cared for the spread-over; they were forced into it in order to avoid a break in wages, but in adjusting a new-agreement it is very desirable indeed that everything should be done to avoid a reduction in the wages of the workers themselves.
I am glad to think that in North Wales there is no reduction involved, and it seems to me that any cuts in wages in this particular industry always prove to be not only unprofitable but disastrous in their conesquences, because, after all, it is to the interests of both parties, employers and employés alike, that there should be a secure and decent scale of remuneration settled for those engaged in the industry. We have been told that it is essential to reduce wages in other industries as well. I do not desire to enter upon this point further than to say that it appears to me that there are always methods of reducing the costs in other directions which ought to enable an industry to pay a fair wage to those engaged in it; and in connection with the proposals which have been put forward for reorganisation and amalgamation, one of the principal arguments in favour of these proposals is that it is hoped that under them the industry will 2014 become more flourishing and prosperous and that in the cutting of costs it will be possible to afford at least a larger fund and margin for wages. I would also point out that the enormous expenditure which is involved to-day in meeting the cost of compensation in the mining industry, which involves something like 3½d. per ton of output, it was stated the other day at one of the conferences—in Scotland it cost £400,000 during the last year, amounting to 3½d. per ton of output—that that in itself is a burden which might be very much alleviated if better and more up-to-date methods were adopted for preventing accidents in mines.
I do not desire to follow the right hon. Member for Darwen in discussing in detail the question of reorganisation, but as a Liberal I feel proud to be associated with him in the work which he has carried on for this industry. We feel that he has rendered not only the industry but the country, time and again, a great service in the efforts which he has put forth on its behalf, and I am convinced that when the whole history of mining reform comes to be written, his name will hold a very honourable place. With regard to reorganisation, it is obvious that unless some further step is taken to secure the purchase of the mining royalties by the State, no immediate progress can be made. That was one of the recommendations of the right hon. Gentleman's Commission, and I should like to know what view the Government hold as to the steps which can now be taken to deal with this matter, especially as it has been raised so sharply in the speeches of Sir Ernest Gowers and also by speakers at the Miners' Conference at Blackpool.
The working of the quota system, which the Liberal party viewed with very grave doubts, has also, I understand, in the view of those who are anxious to make progress in reorganisation, created a serious difficulty. The right hon. Gentleman has quoted from some of the speeches at Blackpool. I should like to take one quotation from a speech by Mr. Joseph Jones, the secretary to the Yorkshire Miners' Association and a member of the Reorganisation Commission, in which he stated:A quota system, which gives an artificial value to the intrinsically valueless and perpetuates part-time working, is the very antithesis of true rationalisation.2015 That is a view which, I imagine, is held by a good many others than himself within the Miners' Federation. While proposals have been put forward for grouping of collieries under amalgamation schemes, I do not think it is right that hon. Members opposite should suggest that that means in every case the closing down of all the outside pits. There are inefficient pits which, I understand, all agree should be closed, but there are other pits situated in areas that afford a substantial amount of employment which might still continue and would be able, under a scheme of amalgamation, to continue to be run as belonging to the amalgamated unit and as part of that undertaking itself. I feel sure that progress in regard to reorganisation to-day is essential to the future welfare of the industry, and we are glad to note that steps are being taken to carry out the policy which this House has approved.
Reference has been made to the working of the Act of 1930 and of the quota. I have in my hand a White Paper which has just been issued by the Secretary for Mines, and as a good many inquiries have been made as to the effect of the quota and the limitation of output under the Act, it is interesting to notice that there is at least, for the last quarter, a 1,000,000 tons shortage of the actual output as compared with the allocation of the Central Council; and when I come to Scotland, I find that there is again something like 210,000 tons less actually raised as compared with the allocation of the Central Council, amounting to something like 3 per cent. of the total amount allocated. That appears to indicate that at the moment there is no undue restriction of output, although I confess that I have received complaints that it has not been possible to get the class of coal which was desired in certain districts. I think a certain amount of elasticity is still required in order to enable particular pits to place on the market the same amounts of the particular grades of coal which have been in use in certain districts. I think that is a point which still deserves consideration.
The enormous importance of the work which has been carried out by the Fuel Research Board has been referred to. As 2016 a Member of this House, I had the privilege, along with certain other Members, of visiting last week the fuel research station at Greenwich, where it was obvious that a very splendid effort is being made by Dr. Lander and his staff in trying to make some definite progress in the experiments which they are carrying on as to low temperature carbonisation, the hydrogenation processes, and also the processes in connection with pulverised fuel. While it appears to me that it may be difficult for some time to come to compete with the actual cost at which oil is produced from other sources, that seems to be one of the most important lines upon which progress can be made. I, like a previous speaker, would like to see a larger sum of money devoted to the purpose of research under the Fuel Research Board, and I feel certain that the future of the industry depends in no small degree upon the solution of this problem, which is not insolvable and which, I believe, in the course of the next few years may be not only solved but solved on the basis of providing oil from coal at a commercial figure.
I should like to refer specially to the question of safety in the mines. It may be remembered that considerable anxiety was shown in the Debate in December, 1930, at the very marked increase during recent years in accident and mortality rates. The Secretary for Mines informed the House on that occasion that the accident rate per 1,000 persons employed above and below ground had increased from 158.85 in 1924 to 181.39 in 1929, and that during the same period the mortality rate had risen from .98 to 1.11. A good many speakers pointed out how largely that increase was due to accidents arising from falls of roof and sides and to haulage accidents. We have not yet before us the report for 1930, and we should like to know whether there is any indication of an improvement in those figures. We should also like to know what has resulted from the co-operation between the subcommittees of the Miners' Federation and the Mining Association with the hon. Gentleman's officials and the other committees that were set up.
I congratulate the Secretary for Mines very heartily upon his effort in connection with the conferences which were held throughout the country to discuss the 2017 question of safety in mines. There was a conference in Newcastle last year, and I am glad to say that the conference in Glasgow in February of this year, which was exceedingly well attended, was most successful in bringing out a number of valuable suggestions with regard to the methods which might be adopted to lower the heavy mortality rates due to accidents in mines. I would like to refer to one or two suggestions which were put forward, and to ask the Minister whether any effect has yet been given to them. The Inspector of Mines for Scotland, Mr. Masterton, informed the conference that in 1927–30 the haulage accidents amounted to 112 killed and 355 injured, and he indicated that in his view these accidents could be largely reduced by having roomier roads, by the due care and use of safety devices, and the provision of separate travelling roads for workmen. It is clear that the question of higher, wider and roomier roads can be dealt with, and ought to be dealt with. Indeed, in his report last year, Mr. Masterton, dealing with underground haulage accidents, says:If roads were made and kept of adequate height throughout, this kind of accident—and a good many others as well—could not happen.Then he went on to say:Roads can be made of adequate size, and steel arching will keep them to such size better than anything else I know.In other words, we have already the means within our power to deal with this very serious question, and I hope that the Secretary for Mines—I have no doubt that he has addressed himself to this question in connection with the Mines Research Department—will be able to give us some information, about the progress that is being made. It was also proposed at the conference that the men should be conveyed to their work underground, and that all shot-firing should be carried out by competent and certified persons appointed by the manager. I welcome the statement made by Sir Henry Walker, the Chief Inspector of Mines, as to the advantage of pit-head baths in securing better health and comfort to those engaged in the industry. Reference has been made already to the necessity for pit-head baths, and I sincerely hope that the progress which has been made in that direction will be maintained. There is a general desire 2018 throughout the country for a large extension, and the funds which are being used by the trustees of the Miners' Welfare Fund are being well applied to this object, which is certainly likely to result in great advantage to the miners.
It always seems to me that in these mining problems, the great need of the hour is a larger measure of co-operation between all the parties concerned. All sections and all interests engaged in this industry are bound up together, and there are many problems which could be solved very much better by those directly engaged in the industry without the interference of Parliament. The last speaker put it very well when he said that we should look at these things from a purely national point of view, but I should go a little further and ask that party and class feeling on all sides should be eliminated, and that we should approach these problems from the point of view of what is in the interest of the miners and of the industry without introducing prejudice or class feeling. It is true that charges may be made and have been made, but I feel that we should get far better results if we got together a little more closely and, instead of magnifying differences, tried to secure what is in the best interests of the industry in the coming days.
I should be glad if the hon. Gentleman could give us some information with regard to the question of protecting young boys who are engaged in the mines. That question was raised in the last Debate, and created a profound impression in the House. The number of boys under 16 years of age who are engaged in the mining industry was stated to be about 29,000, and according to the report of the Chief Inspector, the death and injury rate is very high, namely, 251 per thousand, as compared with 212 per thousand for all ages. The Secretary gave an undertaking that he would consider the provision of special training for these boys. I noticed that at the conference in Glasgow, Professor Briggs indicated the necessity of commencing a safety campaign in the elementary schools, with a further systematic training as to the risks that have to be met. Beyond that, there should be a large extension of technical training in different districts. It is true that in certain districts wide facilities are afforded, but 2019 in other districts it is difficult for the boys and youths who are entering the mines to get the necessary training.
There is need for immediate action in carrying out the recommendations of Sir Thomas Holland's Committee as to the raising of the standard of technical qualifications of the mine officials. We have had great changes in the industry during the last few years. Six per cent. of the coal in 1910 was cut by mechanical means; in 1929, 28 per cent. was cut by that means. With the development of electricity and of these special methods of cutting coal, it is very desirable that we should have a fresh effort to secure a higher qualification on the part of the officials. I should like to pay my tribute of respect and admiration to the firemen who are engaged in our mines, and who have very often heaped upon them far too onerous duties for the time and energy which they can command. It is important that some effort should be made to encourage the promotion of men working at the face to positions of responsibility, and to increase the inspectorate, which I think the Secretary for Mines himself regards as a desirable thing. In the last Debate, he told us that he was trying rather to relieve the inspectors of some of the duties that they have in order to make them available for other duties in connection with safety, but there is a general feeling that there should be an increase in the number of inspectors, and that further facilities should be afforded to practical miners to secure appointment to positions of responsibility.
I am sure that this Debate will serve a good purpose, and that the Secretary for Mines, who has shown himself sympathetic to all proposals to increase safety in mines, will be the first to desire that some fresh assurance may be given that progress is being made, and that the still deplorable mortality which is associated with the work in our mines will be diminished in the coming years. This is one of the objects to which the House of Commons ought to devote its attention most fully. The nation is determined that the provision of better conditions for the workers in the mines should be brought about by the association of all parties in securing what is 2020 right and just for those engaged in the industry.
§ Mr. SHIELD
It is true to say that, perhaps, no question looms so large in the public mind to-day—certainly no question occupies more time of this House—than the very important question which we are discussing to-day. Nor can this be wondered at when we recognise the chaos and dislocation which have taken place in what was once a flourishing industry. As one representing a mining district depending largely on its export trade, I was exceedingly interested, as indeed I am always interested, in what the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel) had to say. As one who has studied the question so closely, and has given sc much time and attention to it, all sides of the Committee consider what he has to say upon it as always helpful both to ourselves and to the industry. I was interested in what he said on the need for greater research work. Our export trade is a decreasing quantity. The first six months of this year as compared with the corresponding six months of last year, shows a decrease of 27 per cent. in our export trade, and for the corresponding period in 1913 it showed no less than 57 per cent. decrease. Surely it is essential that everything possible should be done to put this great industry, so vital not only to those who are engaged in it but to the nation as a whole, once more upon a sure footing. In view of the fact that countries which we at one time supplied with coal are to-day competing with us, and are using resources other than coal, it becomes imperative for us to see that the fullest possible research work is undertaken to find new uses for coal.
There can be no real solution of the mining problem which leaves out of consideration the wages, the hours and the well-being of the men engaged in the industry. In 1925, there were 1,102,000 men engaged in the industry, and we had an output of 243,000,000 tons of coal a year. In 1929 there were 950,000 men engaged, with an output of 253,000,000 tons. The total wages had gone down in that interval by £33,000,000 a year. Not only does that loss of wages affect the miners directly—and God knows it affects them sufficiently!—but it has an indirect effect upon everybody in the country. Just as a pebble thrown into a lake 2021 starts ripples which reach to the edge of the lake, so we cannot take away £33,000,000 of purchasing power without its effects being felt by everybody in the country. Therefore, we say that in all negotiations the wages of the miners must be a paramount consideration.
In Northumberland, which is the district I know best, the average weekly wage of the miner during the quarter ended September, 1930, was 34s. 8d., even with all perquisites taken into account, it is agreed both by owners and men that the highest possible computation could not make the wages amount to more than 39s. 9d. These are not the wages of single men, but of men with wives and families to keep How can they be expected to do it? There are men on a subsistence wage of 6s. 9½d. Subsistence wage! I do not like that phrase. It is a phrase that will always stand out as a disgrace in industrial negotiations. It is the Plimsoll mark of human existence. The slave-owner knew better than to keep his slaves at a subsistence level if he wanted to get the best possible work out of them. There is not a colliery owner in this country who keeps his ponies at a mere subsistence level. He knows that he will only get the best out of his ponies if he feeds them well and looks after them. But there is a subsistence wage for the man; the supposition is that he can subsist on it, but that if the wage falls below that figure he cannot subsist at all.
Surely this great industry has fallen on evil times when it cannot provide better conditions and better wages for its workers. It is tragic, especially to us who have been brought up in mining homes in mining villages, who have spent all our lives in the mines and have become interested in the industry. We are interested in the industry. We do not just work to make a living. Mining is our life; it is what we know best. When we travel we see other mining villages, such as the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. E. Williams) spoke of, in North Wales and South Wales, which once were flourishing villages radiant with happy faces today dull and sad and filled with unemployed, and with the dismantled pits standing as monuments to the failure of private enterprise. We have just passed a short Act which at least guarantees a 2022 certain amount of peace in the coalfields, we hope, for the next 12 months. I wonder how the people of the country generally would consider themselves justified in being at peace with a wage such as I have mentioned? We must use the best brains we have between now and next July in order to avoid a stoppage, and we must see to it that in all negotiations and in all our efforts the welfare of the men engaged in this industry is at least the first consideration. It is incumbent upon all who have the mining industry at heart and the welfare of the nation at heart to use every effort to make what was once a flourishing industry, upon which the welfare of the country has been built, into an industry again pregnant with peace and prosperity.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
The right hon. Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel) has earned the thanks of hon. and right hon Members for having directed their attention once more to the importance of this great problem. The Debate has produced some thoughtful and interesting speeches, not the least effective of which was the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. E. Williams), who revealed a very wide and deep conception of the mining problem. I join with the hon. and learned Member for East Fife (Mr. Millar) and the Committee generally in expressing the hope that the hon. Member for Ogmore will frequently invite us to listen to his remarks. The discussion has ranged over a wide field, and many interrogations have been addressed to me. I am sorry to say that some of them I am unable to answer. Reference has been made to subjects which are matters for legislation. The hon. and learned Member for East Fife, who is not now in his place, and other Members, have made reference to the question of the nationalisation of mining royalties. With the beat will in the world I am unable to respond to the invitation to discuss that interesting topic, because I feel sure that I should be immediately ruled out of order. That is precisely my position as regards the comprehensive tackling of the coal problem as envisaged by my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore. He invited the Committee to depart for the time being from the parochial outlook so frequently displayed in connection with this problem, and to 2023 regard it as a national issue. That, certainly, would involve the consideration of legislative proposals, and, again, much as I am tempted to embark upon such a controversy, I am afraid the rules of order would not permit me to do so.
I propose to reply as shortly, and I hope as tersely, as I can to the several other interrogations that have been addressed to me, but may I preface those replies by a very short review of the present position of the mining industry? In all quarters of the Committee the grave position in the industry must be deplored. I have the unfortunate task of having to administer the various Coal Mines Acts, to engage in negotiations with owners and men, to discuss the situation with Governments and coal-owners in other lands, and, more serious still, to have revealed to me almost daily the tragic facts of the coal situation as revealed in statistics compiled by my Department. What are those facts? There is a steady diminution in our export trade, and the consumption of coal at home shows no appreciable increase—remains almost stationary. Large numbers of men engaged formerly in the mining industry are being steadily disemployed. Whether they can again be absorbed is a matter on which we need not speculate at this juncture. There are the facts of the present situation, and, if I may add to that series of facts one more, it is notorious that coalowners themselves in many instances are not able to extract any profit from the operations of the coal industry for which they are responsible. There is tragedy, social, economic and financial.
If there is one consoling factor, it is that the situation in other coal-producing countries is not any better. Huge stocks are accumulating in all the coal-producing countries of Europe. I need not detain the Committee by giving figures. No doubt they are familiar to most hon. and right hon. Members now present who familiarise themselves from time to time with the facts of the coal problem. Even the export trade of Germany and Poland, our principal competitors, is diminishing. It is true, unfortunately, that Poland has succeeded by divers means, by the adoption of subsidies in a variety of forms, in wresting 2024 from us much of the trade which we regarded as belonging to us in the Scandinavian field. Yet Polish miners are being disemployed. There are fewer employed this year than last, and fewer employed last year than the year before. There are huge stocks of coal accumulated and, generally speaking, the position is just as tragic there as at home. Even France, a country regarded as singularly free from unemployment in the mining as well as other industries, is now feeling the full effects of the world depression. Reference has been made in the Debate to the French Government's decision to restrict coal imports. I shall deal with that at a later stage, but the decision of the French Government is entirely attributable, not to any desire to embarrass this or any other country, but to the unfortunate unemployment among miners in France. It is a measure of self-protection, whether it is regarded as satisfactory from our standpoint or not. In short, the situation in every coal-producing country in Europe is comparatively similar to our own. We are anxious, naturally, to improve our own position, and, while paying due regard to the position of other countries, we must concentrate upon our own affairs in the coal-mining industry in this country whenever the opportunity offers.
Having said that, I proceed to address myself to the interrogations of the right hon. Member for Darwen. He asked me, in reference to the Samuel Commission Report, whether any progress had been made in so far as the recommendations of that report were concerned; whether any had been adopted, and, if so, what special features I could present to the Committee at this time. I regret to say that many of the recommendations have not yet been adopted. As the right hon. Gentleman is well aware, some of these recommendations would involve legislation which would not have been acceptable to this House in the years subsequent to the recommendations. As regards certain features, the question of improved transport facilities, the improvement of terminals at collieries and at docks, and, generally speaking, the results of the deliberations of the Standing Joint Committee on Mineral Transport, some progress has been made. I hope to draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman and of the Committee 2025 to the results of these deliberations in a moment. Similarly as regards research, the question of means for regulating wages, the question of a more efficient method of distributing coal, and in that connection the question of selling agencies and of co-operative distribution, the question of social progress in the minefields of this country, pit-head baths and the like, and the sampling and analysis of coal—on all these matters some substantial progress has resulted.
The right hon. Gentleman, however, addressed himself more particularly to matters of rather more recent origin. It is true the Samuel Commission did make reference to amalgamations, but the subject has become more acute in the last 12 months as a result of legislation for which the House was responsible. The right hon. Gentleman asked me, quite properly, if I could tell the Committee what had been done by the Reorganisation Commission over which Sir Ernest Gowers presides. I am very happy to be able to give the House what information I have in my possession, but I am bound to remind the Committee that the policy of the Reorganisation Commission is strictly defined in the Act of 1930. The right hon. Member for Tarn-worth (Sir A. Steel-Maitland) asked me something about the policy of the commissioners. Section 12 of the Act provides a strict definition, about which there is no ambiguity whatever. It tells us:It shall be the duty of the Coal Mines Reorganisation Commission …. to further the reorganisation of the coal mining industry with a view to facilitating the production, supply and sale of coal by owners of coal mines, and for that purpose to promote and assist, by the preparation of schemes and otherwise, the amalgamation of undertakings consisting of or comprising coal mines where such amalgamations appear to the Commission to be in the national interest.That is the whole policy of the Reorganisation Commission. It is not indeed for my Department to interfere with the policy as formulated by the Government and subsequently accepted by this House.
§ Sir A. STEEL-MAITLAND
Of course one understands that Section 12 states the general policy of the Commissioners. It being clear as to the general policy, what I asked is whether there would ultimately be any control by this House or 2026 any power of discussion or criticism either here or elsewhere.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
The right hon. Gentleman has now departed from the realm of policy. Policy is strictly defined in the Act, and nothing that I can do or that this Committee can do within the terms of this Act can in any way interfere. The right hon. Gentleman, how ever, is now asking a specific question with regard not so much to policy but to the methods adopted by the Commissioners in their wisdom or their lack of wisdom. It is not my function to defend the Commissioners, as I shall point out much more freely at a later stage. Whether the Commissioners decide to pro mote amalgamations for two, 20 or 200 collieries, grouping these collieries into one concern, two concerns, or 200 concerns—
§ Captain PEAKE
Does the Minister not remember that every scheme has to be submitted to the Board of Trade and approved by the Board of Trade?
§ Mr. SHINWELL
If we are going to debate this matter, perhaps the right hon. Member would allow me to develop my argument. The point I now make is that the method of preparing amalgamations is a matter for the Commissioners. The hon. and gallant Member put the point to me whether schemes must not be submitted to the Board of Trade. Let me explain to the Committee what I think the Committee already know, the terms of the Act and what arises from these terms. The Commissioners are charged with the responsibility of promoting voluntary amalgamations. That is their first consideration. If colliery owners will not agree to voluntary amalgamations, the Commissioners may decide to prepare a scheme promoting amalgamations in the coalfields, which may affect two collieries or 200 collieries, linking them into different groups and different units, and, having done so, they may submit that scheme to my Department.
When that has been done, my function, as laid down in the Act, is quite clear. If a prima facie case is made out, it is not possible for me, as the Minister responsible for the administration of this Act, to reject the submissions of the Commissioners or to amend them in any way. All I can do is to provide a free passage for the schemes of the Reorganisation 2027 Commissioners on their way to the Railway and Canal Commission who must decide whether these amalgamations are or are not to be made effective. My powers in this respect are strictly limited by Act of Parliament. The Amalgamation Commission is a statutory body of an independent character. May I direct the attention of the Committee to some observations made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen when this matter was under discussion? At that time an Amendment was proposed, the effect of which would have been to transfer the control to the Board of Trade—the Mines Department. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen and the Government resisted that Amendment, and the right hon. Gentleman said:The House of Lords has thrown back the whole of that duty upon the Board of Trade. The President of the Board of Trade, a Minister, is to exercise these duties and to wield these powers of compulsion. Instead of a Commission, specially chosen, of experienced men, you are to have a political Minister, a Member of the Government of the day, who is to be given these very large powers. … Here we find the House of Lords and hon. Members above the Gangway proposing that this task shall not be given to an independent Commission specially erected for the purpose, but shall be made a political matter under the control of a Minister in the Government of the day."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th June, 1930; col. 2287, Vol. 239.]Clearly the idea was that they should be an independent body not subject to the daily and constant supervision of Parliament. I assume that the official Opposition supported that point of view, because I know that they are not partial to political control as affecting any industry, and certainly not the mining industry. Now we have a Commission over which the Minister for Mines has no control at all, and I should have thought that that was something which suited the purpose of hon. Members opposite. That is the position, and I am glad to be able to give such information to the Committee.
§ Sir A. STEEL-MAITLAND
I do not want to quibble about policy, but supposing the Commission decide to group amalgamation by great districts such as was indicated in the speech made by Mr. Joseph Jones. Is that entirely outside the control of the Minister and of this House?
§ Mr. SHINWELL
In the terms of the Act of 1930 it is outside my control, but Parliament can decide so to amend the Act of 1930 as to give me power to dismiss the Commissioners. Parliament has not asked me to exercise such powers. The Commissioners consist of Sir Ernest Gowers, Mr. Lawrence Holt, Mr. Joseph Jones, Sir Felix Pole and Sir William Whyte, and as the hon. and gallant Member for North Leeds (Captain Peake) has stated, these gentlemen are not Socialists, and I take it that they will have the wisdom to take note of the observations which are made by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen in this House and have some regard for the facts stated by them. No doubt all this will be on record, and the Commissioners will doubtless take note of any observations which are made. I should regard the Commissioners as very foolish if they neglected to take note of what was said by those who have an interest in the welfare of the mining industry. The chairman of the Coal Mines Reorganisation Commission has had negotiations with the coalowners in every district of the country, and they have made considerable progress.
Certain essential statistics and information about the coal mining industry and about individual undertakings have been obtained. The Commission have been discussing the best basis upon which to secure effective amalgamation, and they have decided to prepare a memorandum outlining the policy of the Commission which is to be sent to the coalowners of the country. I have no doubt that the colliery owners will be ready to meet the Commissioners on the basis of their proposals when they have been submitted, and, of course, the general public will be made aware of those proposals. I think that is quite a proper way for the Commission to proceed.
It may be said that the Commissioners have done very little for their salaries, but did anyone in this House really expect that effective amalgamations would be promoted in the course of even six or 12 months? It must be admitted that amalgamation will take much longer than that. Surely the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen, with his great knowledge of the mining industry, could not have expected effective amalgamation to be in force by this time. 2029 The Commissioners are now preparing a basis for active operations, and I should not be fulfilling my proper function if within the next six or 12 months I did not ask the Commission, to furnish me with a report of their progress. I feel sure that a gentleman of Sir Ernest Gowers' capacity and foresight would readily respond to any reasonable request which I made to him for information.
I should like to say that I am exceedingly apprehensive about the possibilities of amalgamation, but, at any rate, amalgamation must precede efficiency, and we must have units embracing a larger number of collieries, but not unwieldly organisations, and they must have some flexibility. Amalgamation need not be based upon any particular geographical principle, but such organisations must be promoted amongst colliery undertakings to secure a high coal producing standard If the Commission proceeds too rapidly with its task in promoting amalgamations, it might have the effect of making large coalfields derelict. There are few Members of this House who have not been troubled about derelict villages growing up all over the country, and this has been attended with terrible consequences. Therefore, it is not a good policy to precipitate a further social disaster of that kind. When amalgamations are promoted, I should like to exercise some control in regard to the social aspects of the question, and I hope the Commissioners will take note of what has been said on this question.
Something has been said about the capacity of two or three coalfields or undertakings to furnish all the coal that is required. It has been said that if two-thirds of the South Wales coalfield was closed down, if Somerset disappeared as a coal-producing area, if Bristol no longer existed, if Kent disappeared and if North Wales was no longer an entity in the coal industry, and if we were left with the Midland areas, a little coal from South Wales, and some from Scotland, Durham and Northumberland, there would be no need for the other coalfields if all those coalfields were concentrated. I cannot at the moment consider the awful possibilities of such a concentration, and if we embark upon a policy of that character, at any rate we must have regard to the social aspects of the problem. 2030 There is much to be said about the theory of amalgamation and its effects.
I now pass on to the question of the quota. I put it very bluntly when I say that there has been more nonsense spoken about the quota than any other subject. Who is to blame if some coal merchant finds that his customers are not prepared to take the particular class of coal supplied to him under the quota system? I will give a typical case. Suppose that a coal merchant discovers that the colliery from which he obtains his supply is only prepared to give him 75 per cent. of his previous supply for a business reason, in other words because he is a little reluctant to pay what he owes. That merchant would probably induce a Member of Parliament to write to the Secretary for Mines, and complain that he is not getting 100 per cent. of his supply. That sort of thing has happened all over the country.
In these cases I have endeavoured to ascertain the facts, and to do that it is much better to go to the coalowners and ask them for the facts, because they would be sure to be accurate. In a speech which I made on Saturday, I made reference to the position of Durham county. The Durham Executive Board have reported to my Department that not a single complaint has been received from all the colliery undertakings in Durham about a shortage of coal due to the quota. As regards the transfer of quotas in Durham, the Durham Executive Board have informed me that in some cases they had been transferred without charge. That is how the scheme is working in Durham; that is the statement of the Durham Executive Board. I now submit the opinion of the Central Council of Coalowners. They say:In reviewing the operation of the scheme during the first quarter of the year, the fact that the general level of coal prices has been maintained during the last 12 months, when all classes of commodities have consistently shown a fall, is no doubt to be attributed in some measure to the operation of the scheme under Part I of the Act.It is clear that Part I of the Act satisfies the Central Council of Coalowners. It is true that there was some shortage of coal in the Midland area, and I have already had the opportunity of explaining to hon. and right hon. Members why that occurred. There was in the Yorkshire area an arrangement to provide 2031 a monthly instead of a quarterly quota, and, as the Yorkshire coal-owners absorbed most of their allocation in the first month, there was very little left in the subsequent two months, and therefore dislocation occurred. During the past two or three months I have heard hardly any complaints about the operation of the quota system. It is true that the quota principle is not a perfect one. The Government never regarded it as perfect. All that was done was to embody the quota principle in the Act of 1930 because it was desirable to provide a temporary expedient for the purpose of regulating the output of coal, and my submission to the Committee is that generally speaking the quota arrangement is working satisfactorily. If it is not working satisfactorily, surely the coalowners will tell me, and I have had no representations from them in that regard. I am happy at any time to meet the coalowners and discuss the matter with them, and if they come to me I can assure hon. Members that I shall do what I can to help them to overcome their difficulties.
Reference has been made to the subject of international agreements, and that arises naturally out of the difficulties that confront the industry at this time. There are coalowners in this country who foolishly imagine that all that is required is to wait for a time and then proceed to recapture the whole of the trade in Scandinavia and other countries. Frankly, I believe that to be quite impossible. They may capture a little here and a little there; prices may change; or coal importers in Scandinavia and other countries may be dissatisfied with Polish or German coal; but generally speaking it is impossible to recapture the whole of the trade that we have lost in those countries. Many coalowners are turning their eyes, therefore, in the direction of a possible international economic agreement.
I do not pretend for a moment that an international economic agreement as easily secured, or, for that matter, that when it is secured it can solve the coal problem of this country. We shall still require organisation on efficient lines on the basis of the recommendations of the Samuel Commission and the recommendations made subsequently to 1925. We may 2032 have to go a long way still before we reach efficiency as regards organisation at home, but clearly the proper thing to do is to engage with coalowners abroad in endeavouring to find a means of maintaining a reasonable price level for the coal of Europe. Reference has been made to the difficulty that now faces us regarding the decision of the French Government in restricting coal imports, and I was asked whether I could give any information with regard to that decision. We have been dealing with this matter. The Mines Department has had much work to do in recent times, but I can assure the Committee that nothing is neglected if it appertains to the well-being of the mining industry. We honestly try to meet the coalowners, the miners, and all those concerned, in the endeavour to maintain the industry in as prosperous a condition as we can in existing circumstances.
What are the facts with regard to the decision of the French Government? It is related to the question of an international agreement. The French Government have been of the opinion for some considerable time that an international agreement was desirable. So have the Belgian Government; so have the Polish Government; so have the German Government; and so have the British Government in recent times. The Polish coalowners are in favour of an international agreement; the German coalowners, who are syndicated under Government supervision, are in favour of an international agreement; and so are the Belgian coalowners. I cannot at the moment, speaking off-hand, recall whether the French coalowners are in favour of such an agreement, but I certainly know that the French importers are. The French Government expected that some international arrangement would be concluded, having regard to the depressing circumstances of the past few years. The negotiations proceeded. During the past six or eight months I have known of negotiations, in which the British coalowners have played their part, of meetings at Paris, Caen, and various other places in France, of discussions between French and British coalowners. But they have come to nothing, and the French Government at last came to the conclusion that something must be done, in the absence of international agreement, to regulate the flow of coal into 2033 France, in order to protect their home industry, and so they issued a decree.
I need not go into the details, and of course we have only semi-official information with regard to it, but the general effect of the decree is that coal imports are to be restricted by 20 per cent. on the basis of an average of the three preceding years, and the home production is to be restricted by 10 per cent. also. It is not certain what the actual effect of that will be, but, if I may venture into the realm of speculation, with some information at my disposal, I should say that its effect will be that Great Britain may lose, on her exports to France, something like 600,000 tons. But Belgium will lose 2,000,000 tons, because Belgium has been throwing—I want to use as mild an expression as I can—coal into France on a very low price level for some considerable time. Only the other day I received a deputation from Belgian coalowners to ask whether I could, on their behalf, do something to prevent the restriction so far as they were concerned. There is to be a very considerable reduction also as regards Polish imports into France. The percentages work out in this way:
|Belgium and Luxemburg||…||39.03|
§ A considerable quantity of coal has gone into France from Holland, where of recent years the production has been considerably extended. Therefore, Great Britain, in the event of this decree being applied, will suffer less than other countries. We considered whether it was desirable that representations should be made, and we approached the Mining Association, but they did not regard the reduction as serious, and therefore it was thought undesirable to make representations at this moment; but, since we met the Mining Association, they have decided, at the request of the French importers, to send a deputation to the French Government. I have been responsible for this matter during the past two or three days, and I have done what I could to facilitate their representations, although personally our view is that the matter might have been left where it stood.2034
§ Sir A. STEEL-MAITLAND
Did I understand the hon. Gentleman to say that the Mining Association were not desirous that the Government should make representations as a Government?
§ Sir H. SAMUEL
Can the hon. Gentleman say on what principle these proportions have been arrived at?
§ Mr. SHINWELL
That is a difficult thing to say. The French Government have issued this decree, but all the facts are not available at the moment. I shall, however, endeavour to secure for hon. Members what information I can. The Mining Association, when one of my officials met them to discuss the situation, certainly did not ask that we should make representations to the French Government, and did not regard the matter as a serious one. They were concerned, as they must be concerned, about these matters, but were not disposed to ask that we should make immediate representations.
If that is the situation in Europe at the moment, it seems to me that the proper thing to do is to proceed as rapidly as we can towards an international economic agreement. I repeat that there is in this country a considerable volume of opinion among coalowners themselves which is favourably disposed towards such an agreement, and certain coalowners have asked me to bring it about, but, on the other hand, the official organisation is disposed to treat the matter, in my judgment, somewhat lightly, and difficulties have arisen. The fact is that the British coal organisation is not constituted for the purpose of dealing with international matters. The coal organisations of Poland, Germany, and most of the other countries are syndicated, and when I have ventured to speak to Polish and German coalowners about this matter their reply has been invariably, "Put your own house in order," and they have asked me whether there is any organisation of coalowners in this country capable of speaking with one voice for the British coal trade. I must confess that I have been unable to give them an affirmative reply.
What we have been endeavouring to do has been to stimulate the British coalowners with a view to the establishment of such an organisation, and I fortify 2035 myself in this matter with the unanimous recommendation of the delegation, of which I was chairman, which went to Scandinavia to explore the position of the British coal trade in Scandinavian countries. One of their recommendations was that the possibility of an international economic agreement should be explored. That we have tried to do, and I hope that before long we shall have further meetings at Geneva or elsewhere, though not for the purpose of concluding an agreement, because that is not the function of this Government, or of the other Governments. We are required to exercise some supervision, for obvious reasons, over agreements that are concluded or about to be concluded, but it is the function of the coalownere themselves, the industry being in private hands, to conclude agreements, and we shall do all that we can to stimulate them in that direction.
That brings me to the question of the International Hours Convention. It seemed to me, if I may say so, that the right hon. Gentleman opposite was not very helpful and not very constructive in his criticism. Perhaps he did not intend to be, and I accept that. As regards the Convention, he sought to select two or three trifling points, and completely ignored the essential feature of the Convention, namely, uniformity as regards the length of the working day. But complete uniformity has not been established, and no one would expect it to be established. We have to deal with the variations in the methods of working in all the countries of Europe. But I was able to secure, from the Committee and from the International Labour Conference, the acceptance of the principle which is embodied in our method of working in this country, namely, our individual method of measurement. There was a strong fight about it. For a period of years we have managed to retain our own method. There is a departure from uniformity. As regards the point raised by the right hon. Gentleman, it is true that the Convention does not expressly provide for the working of 60 hours on not more than 60 days in any one year, but we made it clear that consistent with our legislation in the Act of 1908, it naturally would operate in that fashion, 2036 and if it is discovered that in other countries it is operated in a fashion that is adverse we have always the right to take the matter to the International Labour Office and have the point investigated and seek some means of redress.
§ Sir A. STEEL-MAITLAND
I have experience of the Convention. May I ask the hon. Gentleman whether under the terms of the Convention it is not possible for any country that wishes to work the spread-over of half-an-hour a day for 120 days during the winter months. May I also ask whether he would have any hope whatever of that country being stopped from doing so by any representation that he might make either through the International Labour Office or, if need be, through a further appeal.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
A spread-over is not permissible under the Convention. A spread-over of hours which interferes with the length of the working day over a period, whether a week or a fortnight, is always operated without payment of overtime rates. That is the method of working the spread-over in Scotland, Wales and elsewhere. Once you depart from the principle of paying the same rate of remuneration for the hours of work there is no longer a spread-over. You are working overtime—an entirely different proposition—and we have laid down in the Convention that wherever there is overtime it must be paid for at time and a quarter. It makes all the difference in the world. The right hon. Gentleman asks whether the 60 hours could be operated by means of half an hour a day during the winter months. I am not sure how the various nationals would operate it. If we placed our own interpretation on it we could work it consistent with our own legislation but if other countries work it in that way—the spread-over as we understand it—they are working on the basis of payment at overtime rates. In addition to that the spread-over was definitely defeated at Geneva. If the right hon. Gentleman accuses me of being responsible for that I glory in the fact because I regard the spread-over as a departure from the principle of a short working day whether that day is seven, seven and a quarter or seven and a half hours. The hours are fixed in that way and they ought not to be interfered with by the adoption of a spread-over.
2037 I can only say about ratification that we are proposing to engage in discussions with other Governments as early as a conference can be convened but it will be impossible to ratify the Convention until we have discussed the matter with our own nationals—the mineowners and the miners. We must consult with them. There may be questions of interpretation and questions of time. They may desire information on various points embodied in the Convention and I propose as early as I can to meet the coal-owners and the miners separately and jointly if they will agree to discuss the terms of the Convention. Before doing that I want to assure myself and those concerned—that all the other countries that are parties to the Convention—will simultaneously adopt the same procedure so that if ratification is decided upon in the course of 12 or 18 months—I cannot fix a definite date—we shall at least know that none of the countries that have appended their signatures to the Convention will seek to remain outside. It is of no use in my judgment unless it is simultaneous in its application.
§ Sir H. SAMUEL
The hon. Gentleman said he hoped action would be taken as soon as a conference could be convened. Does he contemplate another international conference or does he mean a domestic conference?
§ Mr. SHINWELL
The countries that are primarily concerned in the matter are Germany Poland, Belgium, France, Holland, and, I think, Czechoslovakia, though I am not sure at the moment. I am trying to secure a conference at Geneva or elsewhere for the purpose of discussing the procedure to be simultaneously adopted by all. That is the best means of arriving at ratification. Much as I desire shorter hours for miners, I am thoroughly convinced—and I shall hold this conviction for some time to come—that it is impossible to apply the principle of still shorter hours so long as our competitors are working longer hours. I hope that at the next international conference an opportunity will be afforded for discussing the wages question and its application to the mining industry.
I want to run over a number of points that have been raised by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen. With regard to the sampling and analysis 2038 of coal one recommendation of the Scandinavian delegation was that definite steps should be taken to instal anti-breakage appliances at ports. We have had a conference with the railway companies, with the assistance of the Ministry of Transport, and the matter is now engaging the active consideration of the mineowners, railway companies, and dock authorities. We have no power other than this. We can bring the parties together. Unless they are prepared themselves to provide these appliances, very little can be done, but they can acquire them with assistance under the Development (Loan Guarantees and Grants) Act, 1929, if they are public utility undertakings, that is railway and dock authorities. That also applies to the question of the improvement of terminals at collieries and docks. As regards the adaptation of terminals, that matter has been discussed. The Government has made a definite offer, but so far there has been a meagre response. We shall continue to make our representations and do all we can to secure the adaptation of these terminals in order to use as largely as possible 20-ton wagons instead of 10 and 12 tons. As regards pooling, the committee unfortunately decided that the* time was not opportune to press this matter, and it is therefore in abeyance, but these and other matters have been referred to the Standing Joint Committee, and I hope they will enable us to proceed as rapidly as we can. As regards sampling and analysis the British standard specification is now available and the industry is in possession of it. I understand they are using it in the discussions with regard to the method of sampling and analysis, and everything that could possibly be done in the limited time since we gave active support to this proposal has been accomplished. All the representative institutions or bodies have been brought together for the purpose, and while the right hon. Gentleman quite properly can express disappointment as we all can about the prospective application of this policy it is not within the power of the Mines Department to apply it. The industry is in private hands, and all we can do is to stimulate the coalowners and the railway companies.
Something has been said about the social side of the case. Pithead baths are 2039 being provided by the Miners Welfare Committee as rapidly as possible. Fifty-nine baths have been erected since September, 1928, 40 are in course of construction and the new programme aims at three a month. I am afraid that is as rapid progress as we can make.
I should like to say a word about research. I have left it to the last not because I think it unimportant but because I attach considerable importance to it. I agree that not until we treat coal scientifically and cease to use it in its raw state will it be possible to secure from it a profitable yield. But while saying that I do not pretend for a moment that the problem has been solved. There is still room for a considerable amount of research. There is rather too much loose talk about the extraction of oil from coal. All sorts of extravagant claims are made. I am regaled every day by astonishing tales told by inventors and promoters of schemes about the startling effect of their particular invention or proposal if once applied. All sorts of offers have been made to me. Temptations have been strewn in my path. I do not care to tell the Committee about these matters but there are over 200 processes in the country for the purpose of producing oil and! other valuable residuals from coal. I have no doubt they are all very good in their way but some of them at least bear obvious defects. The chief defect of all of them is—and I can always quote the word of their promoters—that none of them can claim to be effective at all events at once, but if the Government will provide the necessary financial assistance the matter will be considered. As I remarked to some promoters who came to me, if I had the Bank of England in my possession I should be able to spend a large sum of money in facilitating schemes of that kind. But I try to be a little more constructive than that. In the first place I pointed out that if there is a process worth supporting the promoters can through a public utility undertaking—a gas or electrical undertaking—apply for a grant under the Development (Loan Guarantees and Grants) Act, and if there is anything in the scheme at all worth supporting the finances will be forthcoming. In addition to that we have done all we could in recent months to promote further research. 2040 Some weeks ago the hon. Member for Bedwellty on my behalf made a statement to the House in regard to research.
We are concerned as regards research particularly with three matters. One is the hydrogenation and refining of tar oils. One of the principal difficulties confronting the low temperature carbonisation firms and gas undertakings that are concerned with the production of oil from coal is the distillation of tar oils. Take for example the Richmond experiment under the supervision of the Gas Light and Coke Company for which the previous Governments were responsible. £100,000 was spent on that experiment, and that £100,000 has been lost. Now we are in process of dismantling the plant. It has been found necessary to do so. Their chief difficulty was that they had tar oil residuals which required further distillation; they required further plant for refining. It was not possible for them to undertake the task. At the fuel research station at East Greenwich, which some hon. Members had an opportunity of visiting last week, we are now hydrogenising those tar oils, and I believe that it will prove eminently successful. When we reach the point of success at which we can switch over from a semi-commercial to a commercial scale we shall do so and the results will be available to the industry.
As regards the hydrogenation of coal it has been claimed that by the hydrogenation process we can produce 160 gallons of petrol from each ton of coal. If so we are in sight of a solution. On the other hand it must be remembered that when petrol is entering this country at a very low price there may be difficulties in making it commercially profitable. Although I cannot deal with the matter speedily, I am willing to proceed steadily with experiments now proceeding. The Belfast Corporation the other week gave the general public information regarding experiments on their omnibuses by the use of low grade oil which can be sold at 4d. a gallon. There would be no advantage in producing petrol at high cost if we could produce low grade oil at low cost involving less expenditure and labour. Whether it can be done or not I cannot say but the Director of Fuel Research has declared that the low grade oil used 2041 by the Belfast Corporation on their motor omnibuses is certainly quite useful for heavy vehicles although not quite so useful for the lighter vehicles.
Our desire is to promote further research into these processes, and, in addition, on the question of pulverised fuel, we are doing what we can to ascertain whether a profitable process can be obtained. I am getting in touch with the shipping companies to ascertain whether they are prepared to experiment, and if we find them prepared, I believe that it will be quite possible to provide the financial assistance necessary.
I have ventured, perhaps at some length—but that was rather because of the large number of questions put to me and because of the complexity of the problem—to reply to the points which have been raised. I do not pretend for a moment that I have satisfied all hon. Members. But it has been open to me—and that is what I have tried to do—first of all to assure the Committee that this grave problem is being seriously considered and tackled by the Mines Department, and we are working to do what we can within the limits of the administrative powers at our command.
But at the end it might be necessary to ask Parliament for further powers in order to facilitate in the words of the Coal Mines Act, 1930, the production, distribution and sale of coal. There are economic considerations, international considerations, and above all social considerations. I hope that the hon. and learned Member opposite will forgive me if I do not embark upon the subject of safety. There have been safety conferences and in Yorkshire education committees have assisted boys at continuation classes in connection with the mining industry to undertake educational work on the safety of mines. There have been joint committees of the Miners' Federation and Mining Association dealing with it, and in many other ways we are doing what we can to promote safety. Social conditions and labour questions are being considered, and I can assure the Committee that the Mines Department will continue its activities in the administration of the Mines Act and at the same time use whatever opportunity it can to stimulate the coal owners of this country.
§ Sir ROBERT HORNE
The hon. Gentleman referred to various experiments being made in connection with the producers of coal, and I was much struck by his reference to the hydrogenation process, and to the low temperature carbonisation process. He said to-day that which I have said myself in this House with regard to the incompleteness of the system so far as they have at present achieved success. But with regard to pulverised coal, does not the hon. Gentleman know that so far from shipping companies having failed to make experiments there are in fact experiments being made to-day and ships running effectively long voyages and using pulverised coal? Is he not aware of the fact that the steamship "Hororata" has made a voyage from New Zealand and back on pulverised coal with complete success? Is it not also a fact that some indication was given by the First Lord of the Admiralty that pulverised coal was to be tried out in the ships of His Majesty's Navy, and will the hon. Gentleman inform the Committee as to what advance has been made with regard to this experiment?
§ Mr. SHINWELL
As regards the use of pulverised fuel in the Navy, I understand that it is regarded as impracticable and that experiments are not proceeding further. I am well aware of experiments tried out by some New Zealand ships and certain tramp vessels, but generally speaking it has been found difficult to induce shipping companies to take the matter up. Most experiments proved unsuccessful, and they have failed to convince us. We have tried to stimulate shipowners but there has not been much done generally speaking. What we are trying to do at the Fuel Research Station is to devise some satisfactory process and having done that to furnish all information to the shipping companies, and at the same time if the shipping companies desire any assistance we shall only be too willing to consider it.
§ Sir R. HORNE
I do not want an impression to go out from this Committee that no advance was being made on that particular line. I mentioned one ship, but there are other ships whose names for a moment I have forgotten otherwise I would have mentioned them also. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, instead 2043 of giving a discouraging aspect to these experiments, will really encourage them when they come along, and will indicate to the public that there has been considerable success achieved.
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
I wish to direct attention to a single point. The Minister some time ago promised that we should have a White Paper setting out, as I understood him, the Convention and details of the negotiations leading up to the Convention. It may be due to my carelessness, but I have not so far seen any evidence of the White Paper having been published.
§ Sir P. CUNLIFFE-LISTER
I do not mind who publishes it, but I want to know when the White Paper is to be published, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman can find out. I hope that he will try to ensure, whatever Department is responsible, that there is no undue delay in publishing the Convention, and that whatever White Paper is issued, it will not deal with the Convention purely and simply, but will be a full explanatory document giving all the negotiations that took place. It is a very important matter, and it is very difficult to follow it from disconnected reports of what has happened published from time to time in the newspapers. The Committee ought to have a complete report not only of the Convention itself but of the negotiations which led up to it.
That leads me to the only point I wish to make. I am as keen as anyone in this House in regard to international agreement about hours. When I spoke upon this matter before, I had not seen the Convention and really knew nothing of what had occurred. I am rather horrified to learn to-day for the first time that the Convention contains a power to work 60 hours overtime in the year and that that power can perfectly well be so arranged, if a country likes, that it can work the extra half-hour on 120 days. The Minister said that that was very different from the spread-over—I do not want to touch upon the spread-over at all—but as an overtime rate of, I think, an extra wage and a quarter was to be paid if overtime was worked, 2044 it made the thing comparatively unimportant. I do not take that view at all. Supposing a country wishes to work 7¾ hours instead of the 7¼ hours of the Convention, it is perfectly easy for the employers and workpeople in that country to arrange that the wage-rates shall be so fixed that no overtime is really paid. They would fix rather a lower rate for 7¼ hours, which is the normal working time, and then pay an extra rate for the half-hour which is worked. But, in fact, what would take place would be that for an agreed rate of wages, day in and day out for 120 days in the year, half an hour more could be worked in a foreign competing country than is being worked here. I do not think that that is good enough. I do not want that to be done.
While I agree entirely with the Minister that we cannot proceed further with hour reductions except by complete international agreement and by concurrent action, I must point out that whereas until the Act was passed a few weeks ago it would have been possible in this country, not to work as normal overtime, but as an emergency an extra hour a day for 60 days in the year. That power has altogether gone now. I do not think that it would be at all satisfactory, as at present advised, to go into a convention which said to us, "You work 7¼ hours a day," and to competing countries, "You can work 7¾ hours a day on 120 days in the year." I am sure that it would lead to trouble. It is going to be difficult enough to work this thing if you get complete agreement as to hours, because the wage question will still stand over. I want to get not only uniformity of hours but of wages as well, and it is going to be difficult enough if you get uniformity in hours with no uniformity in wages.
If we are to have a complete disparity in hours, which, apparently, this Convention would permit—and hon. Gentlemen opposite will feel as strongly about this as I do—it will be difficult to bring things up to the mark where such a loophole is made. A coach-and-four has been driven through the eight-hours' agreement, and you find people working two hours extra under the Eight-Hour Convention by what I must say, in our legal interpretation, is a mere subterfuge. It is not good enough. We all want to get an agreement as to uniformity 2045 of hours, but we must make it a real guarantee if we are to do any good. If the hon. Member has put his name to a Convention which allows other countries to work half an hour extra on 120 days in the year, he ought to go back and say that that is not good enough. Put something in if need be about emergency which makes it necessary to exceed the hours. We might agree to that. But do let us get a Convention which really means the same number of working hours in foreign countries as it does in this country. I plead for that, and I raise it now on the first occasion that I have heard what the conditions are in the Convention. I plead for it as one who is just as keen as any mining Member to get uniformity of hours.
Mr. ERNEST WINTERTON
A great many hon. Members will sympathise with the right hon. Gentleman opposite. Whether the Secretary for the Mines Department is able to do what the right hon. Gentleman desires or not, even the proposal which has been made this afternoon will be a great deal better than the conditions that are obtaining in this country at the present time, where a great deal of overtime in excess of 120 half-hours in the year is quite common in many pits.
In this country. In many of our pits there is a great deal of overtime being worked, even under a nominal 7½-hour day, and it was worked while we were presumably under the 8-hour working day. I have frequently called attention to the almost consistent overtime working in many pits in this country. It does not obtain all over the country, but it obtains especially in the Midland area. I hope the Minister will use all the administrative powers that he possesses to prevent abuse of the existing Act. I wish to express my gratification at the very informing speech that the Minister for Mines has given, and my regret that he has not made allusion, except the very cursory allusion in reply to the hon. Member for East Fife (Mr. Millar) in regard to the question of safety in mines, particularly in regard to what I believe is one section of that difficult problem with which he can effectively deal, the accidents which are 2046 arising from explosions of gas. I want to ask him very frankly what progress has been made with regard to the experiment for testing automatic gas detectors, and whether there is an early possibility, I should like to say immediate possibility, of these gas detectors being installed in the coalfields of this country. In the Vote there is an increase in the amount for testing and research. I understand that there have been considerable experiments with gas detectors and that those experiments are quite satisfactory. There seems to be no reason why early steps should not be taken to make their use compulsory in all dangerous places.
We have heard a great deal about all kinds of problems, organisations, amalgamations and hours, but the thing that concerns some of us more than any other is the safety of the miner in the pit. Those of us who sit for mining constituencies are continually being faced with the terrible problem of the unexpected loss of life. Some of us have had the painful experience of visiting men after these terrible explosions have taken place, and we cannot sit on these benches month after month knowing that apparatus has been invented for warning men in dire danger and that the Ministry, apparently, is in no great haste, by administration or new legislation, to insist on coalowners introducing these life-preserving inventions. In my constituency recently we had a very serious explosion. I have gone most carefully into the evidence given at the inquest, and I am convinced that if there had been these gas detectors in this particular pit the eight or nine men who were injured and the three or four men who died would have been saved from the disaster which overtook them. I think that will be the explanation of a great many disasters, many of which are avoidable. This House would be failing in its duty if it did not urge that all the administrative ability that falls to the Minister's Department should be used and that there should be no further delay in bringing into operation the automatic gas detector.
I have asked several questions on this matter and my hon. Friend the Member for the Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) and others who are concerned have also asked questions. I hope that the Minister 2047 will be able, before the Debate concludes, to add something more than the reply which he gave to the hon. Member for East Fife, and to assure the House that before very long there will be installed into all dangerous places an automatic gas detector, which will warn the men of their impending fate. Since I became a Member of this House I have been struck by the way in which the business of the House ceases in order that the Minister may announce an explosion in which brave men have lost their lives, and he then asks the House of Commons to sympathise with the relatives who are left behind. These pious expressions of opinion and sympathy are all very well, but we ought to put our hands to the more practical needs of saving the lives of these men, and they can be saved. The Department of Mines, once it is satisfied, as I understand it is, as to the effectiveness of the gas detectors, it ought to insist that they shall be installed in every pit in order that lives may be saved in the future.
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Winterton) on dealing with one point, and sticking to it, and I hope that in the multitudinous duties which he has to perform the Minister for Mines will see that this matter is attended to. May I also take the opportunity of congratulating publicly the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. E. Williams) on his maiden speech. I am sure that the hon. Member is a great acquisition to our ranks. I intervene with diffidence in a mining Debate, but I represent a constituency which is one of the greatest coal exporting ports of the world. Whereas the miners and their able representatives are engaged in winning the coal, I and my hon. Friends from Hull represent a port which sells the coal abroad. I congratulate the Minister for Mines on the magnificent courage displayed in his speech. I am only sorry that during his speech the House was not better attended. One of the features of this Debate on a most important subject has been the disgraceful attendance of hon. Members opposite. Even on our side, where the benches are usually well occupied, there has been a sparse attendance. I am sorry that the Minister had not a better audience, but I hope that 2048 his admirable speech, which was distinguished for its courage, will be read throughout the country. He did not mince matters. He told us the absolute truth, which everybody in touch with the industry knows, of the parlous condition of the industry and very dangerous circumstances with which we are faced economically.
It was a gloomy speech. The only time my hon. Friend showed any sign of cheerfulness was when he made some remarks about unfortunate inventors who were trying to find other methods for dealing with the products of coal. Inventors, I know, are sometimes very trying, they are rather difficult, but it was the inventors who brought us out of the cave age. Without them we should still be running around in skins, and they do sometimes make a hit, gain a success, and improve the lot of mankind. They are usually poor men; and they are often shockingly exploited by financiers. I beg of my hon. Friend to be patient with them. I did not quite like his attitude. The Department of Scientific Research, and particularly the Fuel Research Board, takes quite a different attitude, and have been of tremendous service to this country in testing their inventions. When my hon. Friend talked about 200 or 300 processes I seem to remember something I wrote some years ago on the subject. It is the work of the Research Board to test these processes because on the better use of coal the prosperity of this industry depends. I agree with him that there has been shocking financial speculation in connection with some parts of this aspect of the coal industry. It has to a certain extent become the prey of speculators, but the same thing is true of almost every other industry. It was true of the textile industry, and the snipping industry. There have been terrible financial ramps in those industries. I hope he will treat these men sympathetically. Very often they are very small men, who devote themselves to trying to discover better means of treating the products of coal.
That brings me to the first point I want to put to my hon. Friend, who I presume will wind up the Debate. I want to draw the attention of hon. Members on this side to the speech made by the Secretary for Mines at Bathgate in West Lanark on 20th July. It was a very courageous and frank speech, like the one he has 2049 given to the Committee this afternoon; but I have never read anything more gloomy. He told us that we were going to spend further money on research into the utilisation of the products of coal, but when are we going to get to the stage of application? Since the Lord Privy Seal made a speech from that Box and since my hon. Friend had a statement read out by one of the Whips on this subject, promising that the whole question of extracting our great oil needs, and our increasing oil needs, from our own coal would be seriously tackled we have gone backwards instead of forwards. Since those statements were made there has been actual retrogression. The shale oil industry in Scotland, which was a small but sure source of liquid fuel, is in a worse condition to-day. My hon. Friend gave the reason; it is the catastrophic fall in the price of natural oil products. Natural oil is being sold ex-well in Texas now as low as 9d. per ton, which is practically giving it away. It has to be carried over here to be sold, but the fact that petrol is being landed here at 2d. a gallon, a terribly low price, has affected the shale oil industry, and unless special measures are taken nobody on this earth could have prevented the shale oil industry suffering severely. In the speech to which I refer my hon. Friend said:It had been found impracticable to give any financial assistance to this industry. The obstacles had been too great.What obstacle? We have the answer later on in his speech.The Chancellor was unable in the present state of national finances to afford a subsidy, and, even if such a grant were possible, it would raise the question of subsidies for other and greater depressed industries.That is quite sound, but this House cheerfully votes millions to beet sugar, and the profits of beet sugar go into the pockets of the beet sugar manufacturers, into the pockets of the very company pro-motors and speculators whom my hon. Friend denounced in his speech.
§ The DEPUTY-CHAIRMAN (Mr. Dunnico)
I do not see how the Secretary for Mines in his administrative capacity is responsible for granting or withholding these subsidies.
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
I was dealing with the question rather 2050 broadly and as affecting unemployment in the coalmining industry. I was using the sugar beet industry as an illustration. The shale oil industry is of great importance as affecting employment, and it is an industry which produces oil. The Admiralty have found that by buying heavy fuel oil, such as is used by motor omnibuses in Belfast and elsewhere, they could buy it in bulk for 30s. a ton, whereas shale oil fuel would cost something in the region of £6 per ton. I am quoting from my hon. Friend's courageous and frank speech. There you have the problem. It is not a commercial proposition at all; and that is quite true. In addition to that, the low temperature carbonisation industry has had a severe set-back, and for exactly the same reason—the catastrophic fall in prices of the natural oil. There is also the case of the Killingholme refinery, where a lot of men are threatened with dismissal. The principal low temperature carbonisation installation just across the river from Hull is having to close down. That is a particular company which has made commercial progress, and set up plant to work low temperature processes on a large scale. They are threatened with a stoppage owing to the dreadful fall in world prices. Therefore, my hon. Friend is perfectly right that it is not a sound commercial proposition. It is absurd to think that the Admiralty should be asked to pay for oil fuel at three or four times the world price in order to provide employment for our men. That is my hon. Friend's job in conjunction with other Ministers concerned, and without enlarging upon the matter it is a question for hove development combined with the more strategic question as to whether we can afford to make ourselves more and more dependent on imported oil fuel.
§ The DEPUTY-CHAIRMAN
The hon. and gallant Member is getting rather too far from the main point of these Estimates.
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
I will leave that question. While we are trying to stop the leak in the mining industry further holes are being made in it. There is a huge building going up m London on the site of the Hotel Cecil, for the Shell Mex Company. It is going to be heated with oil fuel. Most modern buildings of that class in London are. The right hon. Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel) 2051 mentioned the electrification of the main railway lines, and how it would affect the coal industry. The electrical dynamo will use coal to generate the electricity; but there is an even greater danger than that, and that is the use of the Diesel oil-electrical engine for drawing railway trains, which I believe is the latest method of transport, and which will mean a still less demand for coal in this country. So that whereas the Secretary for Mines has told us that there is little prospect of our recapturing many of our foreign markets for coal, our own home market is being undermined the whole time, and the situation becomes progressively worse. This is a question which will have to be tackled on the broadest national lines. But I will not pursue the matter any further now.
Let me come to my second point, which particularly affects the coal exporting ports. With regard to the working of the quota, things are a good deal better now than they were. I speak from the point of view of the North-East coast. We were put to some inconvenience when first the quota was introduced. The fishing industry particularly was hard hit for peculiar reasons. It is an immense industry, and one of the industries that have held their own during a time of general depression. The fishing vessels use boilers designed for a certain type of coal, and it is a fact that they were put to great trouble and loss through not being able to get their ordinary requirements of South Yorkshire hard coal. As I have said, things are far better now. Nevertheless from time to time friction arises, and the Secretary for Mines has been very good in dealing with actual cases as they have arisen. He has helped in many instances. But the coal exporters are still complaining.
I do not believe that this is just a political dodge to discredit the Government. I believe there has been much exaggeration and a tremendous lot of nonsense talked about the quota. Yet we are suffering loss in the export trade still. Is there any way that can be used to prevent one district underselling another district after the price has been fixed? You have, for example, Durham fixing the price, or Lancashire, before Yorkshire, and then South Yorkshire fixes a lower price and undercuts Lancashire 2052 or Durham uses up its quota and we cannot get coal for our trawlers and for our export work on the Humber. They cannot give it to us and we go without it. We are the poor people who have to pay the penalty by loss of trade and general inconvenience, and I suppose the unfortunate miners have to go without their pay for not working. Is there any way of preventing that kind of thing? I am reminded by an hon. Friend that Scottish coal is going to South Wales in the same way. All this shows that there are weak points in the quota system. I hope that they are being tackled, because we are going to face even a worse time in the future. Here we are discussing the coal export trade as well as the home market trade. I wonder whether the Committee realise that the results of the events of the last fortnight, and especially the conversations of last week which are so taboo in this House—the Seven Powers Conference—may very probably be a tremendous dumping of German coal everywhere at under cost price, so that Germany can get credits, cash and foreign currency at any price as part of her resistance against financial difficulties? What is to be the effect of that on the coal exporting trade and even on the home market?
§ The DEPUTY-CHAIRMAN
That is not a matter which the Minister can prevent in his administrative capacity.
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
I suggest that in cases of this kind the whole working of the quota needs very careful examination. I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel) has had to leave the Committee, as I would have liked to have made one comment on his speech. Most of my hon. Friends here heard the speech—most friendly and helpful criticism and so on. But do not let us forget the right hon. Gentleman's action last year. We were then trying to deal with this industry in the best way possible in the circumstances, and we had then nothing but hostile and destructive criticisms from him. But now the right hon. Gentleman seems to be rather sorry and promises all sorts of support if we will act more rapidly and energetically in putting the industry on its feet:When the devil was sick, the devil a saint would be;When the devil was well, the devil a saint was he.2053 Let us try to bring any of these proposals into legislative effect, and the right hon. Gentleman and his friends will be threatening the life of the Government again.
§ Mr. WOMERSLEY
I would like to say a word or two about the effect of the quota system upon the Humber ports. First of all I would congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy) on his splendid apology on behalf of the Minister and the Government. He has spoken on behalf of the fishing industry and emphasised the importance of that industry. Let me add that British trawlers took 3,000,000 tons of British coal last year. I am sure the Committee will agree, therefore, that the fishing industry is an important factor in the British coal industry. But when I heard the hon. and gallant Member apologising for the Minister and his own Government it made me smile. The hon. and gallant Member knows very well that, as far as the quota system is concerned, every trawler owner in Hull and Grimsby hates it like poison, because he thinks it is thoroughly unjust in its application. I should have preferred to have heard the hon. and gallant Member hit out straight from the shoulder, as he did last year, and tell whoever is in charge that they were wrong and where they were wrong.
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
The hon. Gentleman has made an accusation against me, because my own party is—
§ The DEPUTY-CHAIRMAN
As far as the quota is embodied in an Act of Parliament it cannot be criticised, but its administration can be criticised, but only in so far as the Minister is responsible.
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
The hon. Member has accused me of sparing my own Government. Of course I do. The Act establishing the quota was not the Act that we wanted to pass.
§ Mr. WOMERSLEY
It is the administration of the quota that really is the cause of complaints, and although what the hon. and gallant Member has said is true—
§ The DEPUTY-CHAIRMAN
The quota can be considered only in so far as the Minister is responsible for it. If I understand 2054 the Act aright the quota is operated by the coalowners themselves and not by the Minister of Mines.
§ Mr. WOMERSLEY
I want to comment on the Minister's action. It is the fact that when we had all these difficulties to face early in the year the Secretary for Mines did exercise his influence and power under the Act to make things as easy as he could for the fishing industry. Unfortunately, he has not been able to ease matters as regards the export trade, and at present in Hull and Grimsby there is an immense amount of unemployment because of the way in which the quota system is being administered.
§ The DEPUTY-CHAIRMAN
The hon. Member must convince me that the administration of the quota which is causing this unemployment, is due to some action or inaction on the part of the Minister. If I understand the Act of Parliament aright, the quota is controlled and regulated by the owners themselves and not by the Minister.
§ Mr. WOMERSLEY
Yes, but the Minister can use his influence, as he did earlier in the year in connection with the coal supplies for the fishing industry. I wish to emphasise the statement of the hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull that in these ports we are suffering severely at the moment. If the exports for this year from those ports are compared with the exports of the year before, it will be found that there is an enormous diminution and there is a corresponding increase in unemployment.
Lieut. - Colonel WATTS - MORGAN
How does that arise on this Vote, having regard to the fact that the Central Council allocate the quantities to each district, and if a producer chooses to sell inland, coal which he ought to try to export, and if he exceeds the quota, he is subject to a penalty under the Act of Parliament? How does that affect the Minister?
§ The DEPUTY-CHAIRMAN
I think it is perfectly clear that the hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Womersley) cannot get in a general criticism of the quota embodied in an Act of Parliament in this Debate. The only thing to which he can call attention is some action 2055 or inaction on the part of the Minister, or some administrative matter for which the Minister is responsible.
§ Mr. WOMERSLEY
I am not going to attempt to get in any general criticism of that kind, but I want the Minister to inquire into the question which I have brought forward, and to take what administrative action he has power to take in regard to this export of coal from the Humber ports exactly as he took action during the period already referred to—that period of great trial and difficulty for the trawler owners. That is all I can ask him to do under this Vote, and I hope that my request will be conveyed to him by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade.
§ Mr. VAUGHAN
May I be allowed to add my congratulations to those which have already been offered to the Minister on his wonderful speech, in which he displayed the intimate knowledge of this complicated problem, and the grasp of the multitudinous matters coming within the scope of his Department acquired by him in the short period of a little over 12 months since he assumed office. I have never yet ventured to interfere in a mining Debate although my justification for doing so now is that I was born and brought up in a mining area of South Wales and that I at present represent a mining area. During this Debate, I have been struck by the fact that with all our boasted civilisation, and after all the actions of Parliament during the last 50 years the industry is in a worse position to-day than it was when some of us were born. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel) mentioned how foreigners discant on the way in which we British "muddle through" and how illogical we are. I have in my hand some cuttings from local papers in South Wales and other coal-mining areas of the year 1878—over 50 years ago—which almost depict the present situation. I may be allowed to quote one:At the half-yearly meeting of the coal proprietors in the Dean Forest, the chairman said that if the cost of production could be cut down, no doubt there would be a revival of prosperity in the coal trade.At that time, in that district and in South Wales, soup kitchens and canteens 2056 were opened by the charity of benevolent people, otherwise the miners would have starved. We were told during the boom years preceding the War, by those who had studied the question, that the basic wealth of this country was coal and that it would shortly become a criminal action to burn coal in its raw state. Here we are to-day hearing from various authorities the fact—borne out by our own experience—that this great natural wealth of Britain is now such a drug on the market, that it is hardly worth extracting from the soil. I have never been able to understand why such products as cocoa and chocolate can maintain splendid institutions and great playing fields, while the coal industry after all the millions of profits which it has provided, has created Siberias in South Wales and other mining districts, many of which are almost unfit for human habitation.
I pass from that aspect of the question to concur respectfully with the Minister in his statement that he dreaded amalgamation. I represent a coal area where amalgamation is not going on very much, but while we look forward to it, in the distant future, as a necessary factor to maintain prosperity, at the same time we dread the prospect of amalgamation, if it is to be taken alone. I regard amalgamation as almost synonymous with rationalisation, and a system of the survival of the strongest, though not perhaps always of the fittest, under which, not only the people who have invested their savings, but the miners are likely to suffer horribly if we stop short at amalgamation. I look forward to the time when this Government, with its long view and virile imagination, can deal with the matter, but I have no hope of any prospect of building up this industry coming from a Government composed of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite, and I am afraid that the amalgamating of mines alone, will prove as much a curse as a blessing unless followed up with enterprise and research such as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Ken-worthy) has indicated. I noticed that while my hon. and gallant Friend complimented the previous speaker upon sticking to one point, his precept was at variance with his practice, because he went on to deal with various points. I was pleased to hear from the Minister 2057 his statement regarding research work, and I wish to pay a tribute to the research committees and the Department for all that has been done in this connection. I cannot do better that quote from a speech made by a valuable servant of the State, Lord Rutherford, in another place in May last, when he said:There are thus two methods, carbonisation in which you obtain coke and gas, and the oil as a by-product, and the other the method of hydrogenation, where a large part of the coal is converted into oils of various kinds. The development of these two processes in this country would have certain advantages. On the one hand, the carbonisation would give us a useful smokeless fuel and some oil, but the advance, apart from the improvement of technical method, depends not upon science but upon how far the nation is prepared to pay for a purer atmosphere. It is also a question of the development of the hydrogenation method of production of oil from coal, and of how far the nation is prepared to pay for the independence of its oil supplies from other countries.If I have one gentle criticism to make of the Department and of the Minister's speech to which we listened with such admiration, it is this—and it was summed up in a sentence from the Minister's own lips—that he and his Department are working within limits. I hope it will be possible for those limits to be removed or at any rate to be extended. After all the money that has been spent and lost in research work by private individuals and by Government Departments, set up even by the Opposition, need we wait at this urgent juncture in this basic mining industry, upon which so many other industries depend, for experiments such as have been carried out in Belfast, when crude oil has been found able to drive tram and motor cars? Is it not possible for the Government to step in and accelerate that, instead of waiting for the slow process of private enterprise to bring certain results to the surface and then for the Government to take note of them?
I pay a tribute to what has been done, but as far as I can find out these are the three advantages that the Government have offered so far: First, an Instruction to Government offices to purchase smokeless fuel at the same price as for coal of equal heat value; second, a grant of £40,000 for research on car oils; and, third, a recommendation for 2058 the use of the Development Loan and Guarantees Act. I submit that that is not adequate. May I ask if it is possible for the Minister and the Government to consider setting up a special committee of independent and scientific as well as commercial experts, with even £1,000,000 at their disposal, which could collaborate with all the Committees and firms which have already been engaged—
§ Mr. VAUGHAN
I did not intend to transgress. Is it possible for the Minister to indicate to the Committee whether something more can be done for those of us who come from these mining areas where we have lived all our lives and where our material interests are, and who are here in our representative capacity? We see large numbers of men and women, among the finest in the British Isles, who for long years have been saving. In my own division in particular they are the most frugal of people, eking out their existence in the mines by poultry-keeping and the cultivation of land, spending a whole lifetime buying their little freehold properties, sparing every penny to pay off their liabilities, and now times come when they have not even got the work to bring in a regular wage. It is because of these, who lie so heavily on our hearts, that we ask the Minister, while being grateful for his great virility, enterprise, and commanding position in this industry, whether he will go still further, knowing that he has the whole House and the country at his back. May that inspire him to still greater efforts.
§ 9.0 p.m.
§ Mr. T. WILLIAMS
My hon. Friend the Secretary for Mines has, I know, during the last seven or eight months applied his mind to the question of safety in mines. He has appointed certain committees, and he has been responsible for convening some very large conferences throughout the country to consider the question. I know also that for the last eight years no single year has gone by without a unanimous resolution being passed demanding that the Mines Department should take every step known to them for the purpose of securing far more safety in the mines of this country. 2059 To some extent the Mines Department, from time to time, have improved things, but even to-day we find that no year passes by unless a thousand men are sent to their doom.
The special accidents to which I refer are those due to explosions. We know, of course, that explosions are all due to the presence of gas and that if by any means we could discover a way of detecting the presence of gas before it reaches the explosive point, it would become a warning to the men, and they would immediately take steps to remove the gas or to remove themselves before an explosion occurred. Several instruments have been produced. It may be that perfection has not yet been reached, but some of us feel that one instrument has been produced to such a state of efficiency as to justify the Mines Department paying very special attention to it, with a view to giving the miners the assistance of what can only be described as a life-saver.
I know that the Secretary for Mines is looking into this problem, I know that he has had multifarious other problems to deal with during his period of office—the Mines Department, at least, has not been unemployed during the last 12 months—and I would be the last to express any disapproval or condemnation of any apparent indifference on the part of my hon. Friend, but I wish to bring to his attention these very simple facts: The producer of this particular machine or instrument has spent several years and a considerable sum of money in producing such an instrument as will become a life-saver to the mine workers in this country. Tests have been made of all kinds, above ground in laboratories and below ground. Some of the tests have given partial satisfaction and others less satisfaction. As month after month has gone by, improvements have been made, and I am led to believe that the latest trials of all, where they were carried out at two collieries, were absolutely unique.
At one particular colliery they gave entire satisfaction, both to the employers and to the employés who were invited to use them, while at the other colliery less satisfaction apparently was expressed by the workmen. I want to call the Minister's attention to this very simple and yet, I think, very significant fact, that 2060 the men at the second colliery who were entrusted with the instrument were known not to be members of the Yorkshire Miners' Association, and the officials of the association had no knowledge of the instrument having been used, or by whom it was used, or what actually happened. Therefore, if the report from the second colliery should appear to be adverse, I would invite my hon. Friend the Secretary for Mines to examine the test very closely, together with all the incidents that may have occurred, so that he can apply his analytical mind to ascertain exactly what he thinks about the method of testing the apparatus.
It is fair to assume that the coal-owners, who after all are called upon by the Goal Mines Act to care for their ventilation, and to that extent to obviate the accumulation of gas, are not going to fall over themselves with enthusiasm to adopt any measure which will compel them to prevent accumulations of gas, which the workman could detect if they were fitted up with these machines. Because the tests have had to be made by mine-owners, one must view any reports with some amount of reserve. Without reflecting on the mine-owners or the Research Department officials, or anyone else, I would invite my hon. Friend to see the results of the tests and to secure all the information he can with regard to the methods employed while the trials were taking place. If he can satisfy himself that, although the instrument may not be absolutely perfect, it is so useful as to give a warning long before an explosive mixture accumulates in any part of a mine, he will have every Member in all parts of the House behind him if he says that at least a minimum order for the compulsory use of the instrument shall be issued. I have spoken to hon. Members opposite who are responsible for running several large collieries, and they are anxious—so they tell us—if the Secretary for Mines can be satisfied that the instrument is of the value we believe it to be, to see it used, and they would welcome an order in the direction indicated. I would therefore invite my hon. Friend, in the midst of his multifarious duties, to examine this problem a little more closely than has been possible during the past eight or nine months.
I am sure that hon. Members who sit-on these benches, particularly those who 2061 have had the misfortune to see an explosion which sent a number of men to eternity leaving widows and orphans in an awful plight, will be grateful to him if he would take a step in this direction so as to prevent future explosions and to have a safeguard that will ensure the maximum amount of ventilation in every mine. In the reports of the inquiries which are conducted by the Chief Inspector of Mines, we always find that there has been some shortcoming on the part of somebody. All we require, therefore, is some instrument which will remove the human element and give the necessary warning of the presence of gas. The men could then take steps to remove the gas by opening a door or adopting some other means to divert the air, They could take such steps well in advance of the accummulation of an explosive mixture, and would thus save life and limb. Ultimately such steps would improve not only the health of the miners, but the output per shift. I invite my hon. Friend to look more closely into the possibilities of this instrument. He would do one of the biggest day's work for the miners if he satisfied himself that the instrument was sound, and he would help the miners to secure safety and security such as they never knew before.
§ Mr. KELLY
In more than one of these Debates on the Vote for the Mines Department, I have desired to say something about another section of the mining industry which has suffered as severely, if not more severely, than even the coal industry. In saying that, I do not want to take away from all that has been said with regard to the position of that industry. I am convinced that those engaged in it are deserving of far more than they have ever received from this country, even at the best of times. I want to refer to the tin mining industry, which has suffered for very many years, and in which the condition of depression and poverty has been such that even the police of the county of Cornwall have been compelled to assist in providing food and clothing for the men engaged in the industry and their families. I urge the Department to enter upon an investigation into this industry. Year after year we see mines going out of business, and the county in many parts now looks quite derelict because of the stoppage of pumping and the flooding of the mines. There 2062 is a greater demand for tin than ever there was. I know that it is profitable to some of those concerned in the ownership of the mines to pursue their interest in mines in Bolivia, Malaya, and other parts of the world, but it is the duty of this country to find out whether it is possible to work the mines of Cornwall where there is yet much tin to be found, and, we are told, even radium.
I urge the Mines Department to make investigations into the industry. They will not have to start out without the field having been partly explored by those concerned in it. Many of the mining engineers of Cornwall have considered the whole position, and have suggested in a report they prepared about two years ago that it is possible by a grouping of the mines, in North Cornwall particularly, to work them under methods that would be commercially advantageous and would enable the tin miners—the best miners to be found in the world—to engage upon the work for which they have been trained. I ask that an industry which has been of great advantage to the country for centuries, and which has not yet worked out the minerals of Cornwall, should be investigated so that we may know whether it is possible to give to these miners work which will be of advantage to the country and to themselves and their families.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
Apparently it is the? desire of hon. Members that I should reply now to the further points that have been raised. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Kelly) has raised the question, of a possible investigation into the condition of the tin-mining industry. It is' perfectly true that the Mines Department is administratively responsible for the tin-mining industry, as it is for all mining in this country. The position with regard to the tin mines is that some of them have gone out of action, largely as a result of the unfortunate drop in the price level of tin, and some time ago, as a result of representations made to me not-only from the tin-mining industry but from other mine and quarry undertakings in the country—the iron ore industry in the Forest of Dean and the lead mining industry in Leadhills, Scotland, and in North Wales—I decided, instead of dealing piecemeal with the matter, to have an investigation into the development of our mineral resources other than 2063 coal. I looked around for someone to undertake the investigation, and I discovered that there was at the Mines Department a Metalliferous Mines Advisory Committee. That committee had not sat for three years, and I thought it desirable to find some work for them. They have had under consideration for some time the question of whether the mineral resources of the country could be further developed. They set up two subcommittees, one for the Iron Ore Mines and Quarries and the other a Non-ferrous Mines Committee, and they have prepared an interim report.
I am afraid it is not altogether satisfactory, but it is much too early to judge the case, and further reports have yet to be submitted, but so far as I can gather all these mining industries, whether tin mines, quarries, iron ore or lead, all want money. They all ask for financial assistance, and all because the price level has dropped in every case. I do not know, whether it would be possible to do anything, but I shall certainly give the question very careful attention, not merely sympathetic attention but active attention.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
I could not say whether a report of that character will be available to the public and to hon. Members. I must see the report in full before I come to any decision. It may not be desirable to give Members information on certain of the points involved—I cannot say. Perhaps the owners of these mines are not anxious to inform the hon. Member, and may wish to save him from the misfortune of understanding the situation too thoroughly. But in any event I can assure hon. Members that I have not neglected to consider our mineral resources apart from coal. Therefore I do not need to respond to the hon. Member's desire for further investigation, because I have rather anticipated his desire.
The hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy) 2064 raised a number of questions, including that of price cutting, by which he meant, I suppose, the intensive competition now proceeding in the coalfields. It is perfectly true that the coalowners in certain parts of the country did not respond to the spirit of the Coal Mines Act, 1930, and engaged in a price-cutting campaign. For example, in Scotland coal-owners refused to fix minimum prices until quite recently, and as a result of that Scottish coal has been sold in other parts of the country at very low prices. Scottish coalowners are not alone to blame. Yorkshire coalowners did precisely the same thing. It has been going on ever since the Coal Mines Act came into operation. We have directed the attention of the coalowners to the need for coordinating prices and fixing minimum prices not for one district alone; we have asked them when they fix minimum prices to consider the effect of the minimum upon other districts. If that policy is pursued by the coalowners generally we shall get effective co-ordination and eliminate to a very large extent the intensive and unnecessary competition that now obtains. I can assure my hon. and gallant Friend that the Mines Department have done what was open to them in the matter.
As regards the shale oil industry, I am afraid I cannot properly discuss that tonight except in so far as I am administratively responsible for the shale mines. The matter is very largely a financial one, clearly a point for the Treasury and not for the Mines Department. I can say to this Committee that I am deeply distressed about the position in the shale oil industry. It is suffering not only from the effects of cheap imported oil, but from the further fact that much of the shale is now of inferior quality, and the yield of oil, by the processes common in that industry, is not so high as it once was, and that of course has made the position somewhat difficult. The industry has been protected to a considerable extent by the imposition of a duty of 6d. a gallon on impoted petrol. That is really a tax of more than 100 per cent., a preference of more than 100 per cent., and not even the most ardent Protectionists or Safeguardens have ever asked for so high a preference as that. They ask for a duty varying from 10 per cent. to 333/4 per cent. I have never heard 2065 them asking for more than 33⅓ per cent. Here we have an industry protected to the extent of more than 100 per cent., and yet finding it economically impossible to continue, except on a contracted scale.
We have considered various expedients for saving the industry until the world price of oil rises. I cannot discuss subsidies or financial assistance, but I can say generally that it was found impracticable to assist in those directions. The plain fact of the matter is that the industry has reached a point where no artificial device can enable it to resist the onslaught of imported oil. It has been said that we ought to exclude imported oil altogether, but when it is remembered that less than 20,000,000 gallons of petrol are produced from shale in Scotland as against a consumption of 1,000,000,000 gallons per annum naturally exclusion is hopelessly out of the question. As regards my observations in connection with inventions, I am sorry that another hon. and gallant Friend thought I had been flippant in my remarks. I had no intention of being flippant, I was very serious about the matter. If he had been in my position at the Mines Department, with all the difficulties of the last 12 months, and had to see all sorts of people—and sometimes deputations accompanied by Members of Parliament, voluble Members of Parliament, who take up a great deal of time though quite sincere in their desire to promote progress—if he had had to do that, and had discovered in the end that he had been asked to consider some process by an inventor which had been invented many years before and was quite familiar to the Fuel Research Department, well, though he might not be flippant he would probably be inclined to ask those people to retire expeditiously. I can asure him that there is no flippancy in the Mines Department as far as these processes are concerned. Every process can be subjected to a test at the Fuel Research Station.
There is one process I have in mind which was brought to my attention by hon. Members, and we were asked to agree to a further test. There had been an original test, but this further test cost us £1,500. That is an indication that we are not unprepared to consider processes. It is a standing offer to the promoters or inventors of any processes for low-temperature carbonisation or anything 2066 connected with the production of oil from coal that if they want apparatus tested and they will make application, we are only too willing to assist. Considerable work has already been done by the Mines Department in connection with this matter, though I am not directly responsible, for it is the Scientific and Industrial Research Council and Fuel Research Board who are responsible. At the same time, we have actively intervened, and there is a close liaison between the Mines Department and those bodies. If I had my way it would be completely under the control of the Department, for, with great respect to the other people, we might make more rapid progress—not because I think it is a more Capable Department than other Government Departments, but because it is our job—if it was part of the function of the Department to deal with the question of the production of oil from coal. I can assure hon. Members that I shall not relax my efforts in order to promote schemes of this character, and if I seem a little impatient when hon. Members approach me about new schemes, it is not because I want to turn them down, but rather because I have so many to consider.
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
In his speech the hon. Member said that if any process was brought to the Government as part of a public utility, gas or electricity undertaking's work, it would receive sympathetic consideration. The original announcement was made some months ago, but can the hon. Member tell us if there has been any actual proposal of that kind of a practical nature put before him?
§ Mr. SHINWELL
I am afraid not. I have been approached by certain promoters, who have informed me that electrical and gas undertakings were disposed to take their processes. I responded by informing them that if they would induce those public utility undertakings to undertake the task and apply under the Development (Loan Guarantees and Grants) Act for grants, we would make a favourable recommendation, but nothing has eventuated, and I can only assume that the public utility undertakings were a little more flippant than I am. We are prepared to consider 2067 any propositions which are put to us, and I have a dozen before me at present.
Coming to the remaining points that have been raised, namely, safety in the mines, this is a very big subject, and I do not propose to embark upon it now. I will reply briefly to the observations made by the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Winterton) and the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams). The hon. Members asked questions about the Ringrose detector. I have had this matter under consideration for several months. It has given me considerable trouble, and I regret that I am not yet in a position to recommend that the use of this detector should be made obligatory in the mines. I would ask hon. Members to bear in mind that I am not an expert in this matter. I am not ashamed to say so, for I must leave myself in the hands of experts, using what judgment I can. We have an expert body, the Safety in Mines Research Board, and two members of that body are members of the Miners' Federation and of this House. There are technicians on that body, mineowners, independent experts, and others associated with the mining industry. Yet when the matter came before them on one occasion they were unable to agree that this detector was a suitable appliance to be adopted in the mines.
§ Mr. T. WILLIAMS
Is the hon. Member aware that both the members of the Miners' Federation executive who are members of the Safety in Mines Research Board were, owing to trade disputes in their districts, unable to be present at the last meeting?
§ Mr. SHINWELL
The hon. Member is referring to the last meeting of the board. I am not referring to that meeting, but to a previous meeting when the hon. Members were present. I have reports in my possession, and therefore I am unable to say that there is a unanimous report, or, at all events, a report sponsored by the members of the Miners' Federation, which would enable me to use compulsory powers in this direction, even if I felt so inclined. In addition to that, surely hon. Members will not ask me to make an obligatory order involving the use of this appliance until I am absolutely satisfied that it is the right and proper thing. I 2068 cannot ask the mineowners to accept a device of this character unless I am sure it is a really satisfactory appliance. There is considerable doubt about the matter.
Let me refer further to the trials which have been held. The matter has been under my consideration for a long time, and it has been no easy matter to deal with sometimes because of the people concerned. I regret to have to say that, but it is just as well to be quite frank about it. I have had to exercise considerable restraint myself. The recent trials were arranged by the Safety in Mines Research Board. The hon. Member for Don Valley is very sincere about this matter as other hon. Members are, for we are all anxious to find the very best apparatus we can in order to protect life and promote safety, but he referred to the owners doing what they could to prevent the use of appliances which entail further expenditure. I am not proposing to defend the owners at all, but I am bound to say, in fairness to the owners, that I have very little difficuty in inducing them to consider safety devices. When I asked the Mining Association recently, as I did the Miners' Federation, to join with me in a great safety crusade and to set up sub-Committees to meet our officials, they did so readily and willingly.
I should not wish it to go forth from this Debate that there is any allegation against the owners on the score of not responding to safety needs. I say with the greatest deference to my hon. Friends that I must pay some regard to the opinion of the officials associated with safety in mines, because they are capable, expert, and sympathetic, and I should not care to repudiate any report which they make on the subject. We have received some very unpalatable reports about this new detector, and we have asked the Ringrose Company to consider those reports. If we can discover a safety detector which can be regarded as satisfactory and efficient, then I shall have no hesitation whatever in asking the mining industry to adopt it, but I would like to be assured that it is really a safety detector. Reference was made by the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Winterton) to a certain accident, but that has nothing to do with detectors at all, and the accident referred to was due to a violation of the regulations.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
With regard to the question of inquiries, I am bound to take the opinion of representative people. Generally speaking, there is some good reason for not holding an inquiry. With regard to the Ringrose detector, when we have an opportunity of testing it, we shall do so. On the question of safety in mines, the Miners' Federation and the Mining Association are doing all that they can to help us, and we are hoping to hold conferences later in the year in order to fix attention on these great questions, and by this means I think we shall do a considerable amount of good. I think I have now answered all the points which have been raised, and I hope hon. Members are satisfied.
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
The Minister for Mines has been very good in answering these questions, but I would like to raise another question which arises under Sub-head (I) of the Vote. The question I refer to is the Vote for the Coal Mines Reorganisation Commission. I am not discussing the fact of that Vote, but I wish to draw attention to its tremendous amount, and I ask the Minister to answer me on one point only. This is a matter of £200,000 a year, and it is the first time that this sum has come before the Committee for the purpose of discussion. In these circumstances I think that an hon. Member is entitled to raise a question as to the work which has been done by this Commission.
The Minister for Mines dealt with some observations which had been made by the hon. and gallant Member for North Leeds (Captain Peake), who gave the coal-owners' point of view of undiluted hostility to this Commission. What happens when this Commission brings forward an amalgamation scheme? This £200,000 a year will be absolutely wasted unless some arrangement is made to finance amalgamation schemes. If this is not done, the work of the Commission will be hopelessly hampered. Proposals have come from the coalowners' side, and no doubt they come to the Minister for Mines for help and assistance in regard to the organisation of these schemes. A proposal has been suggested for a 2070 voluntary levy of 3d. per ton on every ton of coal raised in order to compensate the weaker pits when they are closed down. Can the Minister tell the Committee anything about that proposal, because it is the most constructive proposal that has come from the coalowners? A levy of 3d. per ton in the way suggested would raise £3,000,000 a year, and they could raise a loan on that amount if it were guaranteed of £50,000,000 at 5 per cent. interest. With that sum, it is proposed to buy out and compensate the weaker and redundant pits which would be closed down.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Tamworth (Sir A. Steel-Maitland) told us, that when the quota is sold for a certain period by a weak pit that that pit may start work again. In that case, if the quota is not bought, the next time the quota has to be bought again. I think the Minister for Mines must agree that the only sensible way is to buy out these uneconomic pits altogether, and, unless some proposal is made upon the lines which I have indicated, what is the use of talking about amalgamations? The City is not going to put up any money to assist mines under present conditions. The public are shy of investing money. Therefore, I want to know what arrangements have been made for financing the amalgamation schemes other than the proposal I have briefly outlined? I cannot pass over the sum of £200,000 for the Coal Mines Reorganisation Commission without some explanation. Talk of a subsidy, this is getting on for a quarter of a million of money, and it is a sum which would keep the shale industry alive for a year. Therefore I must press for some answer on that point. I want to know is there anything in this proposal for a voluntary levy on the coal produced arising out of the working of the quota, and has the Minister studied that aspect of the question? Is the Minister prepared to assist the industry in this respect?
§ Mr. SHINWELL
I should have thought that my hon. and gallant Friend would have been familiar with the arrangements in this case. The amount referred to was provided by Parliament when the Coal Mines Act, 1930, was passed.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
Yes. I asked for a Supplementary Estimate some months ago for salaries and expenses, and the £200,000 is, of course, the main sum which is required for the purposes of enabling the Commissioners to carry on their activities. Part of their activities is to employ professional persons who can undertake the promotion of amalgamations. Investigations are required, and valuations and a considerable amount of technical work are involved. It is not, however, expected that much of this expenditure will be required in the current year, and in any event there will be appropriations-in-aid as the result of reimbursement by the amalgamated colliery undertakings for services rendered by the technical and professional people engaged by the Commission, so that my hon. and gallant Friend need not be unduly perturbed as to what he describes as the extravagant costs.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
I did what I could earlier this evening to explain the matter. It is not within my province, but, so far as I can express an opinion, I have done so, and I have also asked the Commissioners to take note of what has been said by hon. and right hon. Gentlemen during this Debate. The money will not be wasted.
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
I am very much obliged to my hon. Friend, and thank him very much for his valuable observations.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Resolution to be reported To-morrow.
§ Committee to sit again To-morrow.
§ The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.