HC Deb 12 May 1931 vol 252 cc1135-44

Not amended considered (in the Standing Committee).

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

The SECRETARY for MINES (Mr. Shinwell)

During the proceedings on this Bill in Committee, Members in all quarters expressed approval of the excellent use to which the Miners' Welfare Fund had been put and the magnificent work of the Miners' Welfare Committee. I join in those tributes, and for these reasons I am anxious that the activities of the fund should not be arrested. At the same time, several hon. Members were apprehensive regarding the scope and administration of the fund and expressed doubts as to whether it was desirable in the interests of the industry, particularly having regard to the economic position, to raise, as they described it, so large a sum of money in any given year. I responded to the mild criticism that was offered, and I believe succeeded in convincing the Committee that to interfere with the finance of the fund at this stage would throw the scheme out of gear, and would not only be resented by the mining community but would not be in accordance with the wishes of the House when the Act was passed. At the same time, I shared the apprehensions of hon. Members regarding the future of the fund. For that reason, I promised to conduct an investigation by means of a committee to be set up, and to ensure that the committee would report as quickly as possible. I also promised to make a statement on Third Reading of the Bill to that effect. Since that time I have negotiated with certain persons regarding the personnel of the committee, and although I have not been successful in securing a full complement for the committee I am able to say—T believe the statement will meet with general approval—that Lord Chelmsford, who is at the moment the chairman of the Miners' Welfare Committee and is due to demit office very shortly, has consented to preside over the deliberations of the investigation committee to be set up.

I propose, in addition, to appoint a member of the Mining Association and a member of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain, and to give the committee an element of Parliamentary representation by asking an hon. Member from the official Opposition to participate in the proceedings, and to invite an hon. Member of the Liberal party and an hon. Member of the Labour party also to participate. I think it was the desire of the Standing Committee upstairs that there should be an element of Parliamentary representation. We shall have a committee of six members over which Lord Chelmsford will preside. In consultation with Lord Chelmsford I have ascertained that the amount of work involved will make it difficult for the committee to report within 12 months at least, but that everything that can be done will be done to expedite its proceedings. I have invited the Mining Association and the Miners' Federation to nominate representatives, but so far they have not decided who those representatives are to be. However, I hope very shortly to make an announcement to the House of the names.

As to the terms of reference, I am not yet in a position to give them exactly, but I can give the House a broad outline of our intentions. The committee will examine the extent to which the objects of Section 20 of the Mining Industry Act have been met, and what remains to be done, whether the scope of the fund as defined in that Section, and its administration for the future, are satisfactory, and the committee will be asked to make recommendations on all these matters, with particular reference to the question of the amount and duration of the levy in future. I wish to emphasise the latter point, because several Members of the official Opposition expressed doubts as to the desirability of raising such a large amount in the future and as to the duration of the fund itself. I hold very strong views on this point, but it remains for this committee to conduct its investigations and make recommendations to the Government. I think it unnecessary to make any reference to the finance of the scheme, because that is a point which we fully discussed in Committee and although there was some doubt left in the minds of several hon. Members with regard to the financial position, I did my best to convince them that the finance was sound and that it was essential to raise the amount mentioned by me during the Committee stage. I hope, in these circumstances and in particular, having regard to my confirmation of the promise which I made during the Committee stage to set up this committee and ensure the expedition of its work as much as possible, that the House will now agree to the Third Reading of the Bill.


Ther is an old proverb about putting the cart before the horse and I think the first thought which will occur to ail Members of the House is that we would have been in a much better position to deal with this Bill, not only on Second Reading, but in Committee stage if this investigation committee had been appointed previously and if its report had been available. Here is a Bill which is not in the least controversial, about which there is no party controversy, but which deals with the entirely practical question of how far the objects of this fund have been met, how far the finances at present available—a very considerable sum, running, I think, into something like £1,500,000—are adequate to discharge the future obligations which can reasonably and properly come upon the fund, and how far further levies should be made in this industry to discharge necessary and convenient obligations. There has never been any factious opposition. What everybody wanted to know was the facts, but we could not get at them and we cannot even get at them now.

The hon. Gentleman says with perfect truth that this Welfare Fund is a very good thing and we all agree, but the question is whether the fund has to-day enough money at its disposal to discharge those commitments which are already in view, and those further commitments which may properly come upon it in the future. But nobody can answer that question and he has very properly said that in order to decide the matter, we are to have a committee. I think it is probably a very good committee. Nobody could better preside over such a committee than Lord Chelmsford who, for 10 years I think, has presided over the administration of the fund. Quite obviously members of the Mining Association and of the Miners' Federation are proper parties to any such deliberation. If we are to have a Council of State it is convenient that three appropriate Members should be drawn from the three parties in this House, and if I might make a suggestion, no one would be better fitted to take part in such an inquiry than the right hon. Member for North Cornwall (Sir D. Maclean), who took a very active part in our deliberations in Committee and obviously takes a great interest in this matter.

How much more convenient it would have been if we could have had a Committee of this kind in the course of the last year, and if the hon. Gentleman had been able to come to the House with a report from such a Committee. If he had been in that position, I am certain that the recommendations of the Committee would have been adopted by the House and the Bill would have passed straight away, but now we are placed in this really rather absurd position. The object of this Committee is to inquire into the extent to which the objects are met, what remains to be done, and the amount and duration of the levy in the future. But those are the very matters which really came up in the consideration of this Bill. What we wanted to know in debating this Bill was for how long we ought to continue the levy and so on, and we really are now putting the cart before the horse

We are voting to continue the levy at its old rate for a period of five years, and we are setting up a Committee to inquire how long the levy should go on and how much the levy should be, and that is the kind of thing that ought to have been done before the Bill was introduced. The Government have a passion for Committees—even the Chancellor of the Exchequer says that when you have got 70, one more will not do any harm—and another one really would have done no harm; in fact, it might have done a good deal of good. I accept the proposal to set up this Committee. [Interruption.] Certainly I do. It was a proposal that I myself made in Committee, but I suggested then that the convenient course would have been that we should put a temporary limit upon the Bill and reconsider it when the Committee reported.

The position is this: The Bill gets its Third Reading, the Committee is set up, the Committee will conduct an exhaustive inquiry, and when it has reported—at the end, it is suggested, of a year, though I hope, if possible, its deliberations may be more rapid—we shall then have an authoritative report as to what the position of the fund is and what its needs are Quite obviously, when that Committee reports, the report will have to be presented be the House, and the House will have to review the whole position, whatever Government is in office. It is very improbable that the hon. Gentleman will still be there, but whether he is there or whether somebody else is there, the report of this Committee will be presented to Parliament, and Parliament will have to consider it. I have no doubt it will carry very great weight, and probably conclusive weight, with the House as to what the future conduct of this fund is to be; and when that time comes, we shall have to take the decision upon whether the fund ought to be continued, for how long it ought to be continued, and upon what terms. That, in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, is probably the most practical course that we can take, but I venture to express regret that we could not have had, when we considered this Bill in Committee, a really informed discussion upon the findings of the Committee, whereas now we shall have to take that discussion, it may be, 12 months hence.

Viscountess ASTOR

If the hon. Gentleman wants it to be a strong committee, will he not consider the practicability of putting a woman on it? I am not asking this from any narrow point of view. I have been recently to Wales, and I have seen some of the work of the Welfare Committee; some of it is splendid, but if they had any difficulty in spending their money, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that a woman could suggest really constructive things. There is so much that the best of men cannot think of that even the worst of women might suggest and I hope the hon. Gentleman will consider it. I saw in Wales that there were things that needed to be done, and which would benefit, not only the fathers and mothers, but the whole mining community, if they could be done. A good practical woman is needed on the committee—not a woman with a party point of view; that would be fatal. I say that with real feeling, because I have seen women on committees blinded by party bias: and they do not come from this side of the House. If the hon. Gentleman would appoint a woman, I am sure that Lord Chelmsford would welcome her.

Colonel LANE FOX

Without entering into the troubled waters that the Noble Lady has endeavoured to stir up, I should like to make one or two remarks on what the Secretary for Mines has said about this Bill. He will remember that he promised that there would be an absolutely independent committee, and the reason why we asked for it was that on this occasion, for the first time in its history, this Bill was not brought in with the agreement of all the parties who have to provide the levy. The committee was set up to inquire into the future working of, and the necessity for, this fund, and it should have on it, as far as possible, absolutely independent persons. Nobody can possibly object to the name of Lord Chelmsford; I cannot imagine a better man; but, as regards the rest of the committee which the hon. Gentleman suggests, I very much regret that he should hare brought into it elements of controversy which might have been left out. It is a mistake to have representatives of the Miners' Federation or the Mining Association, because the controversy, if there be any, about this Bill, has arisen about the difference of opinion between these two bodies. As regards the Members of Parliament, far be it from me to say that they, as representing all parties, are not excellent elements on any committee, but, if any politics were brought into this matter, it would be a great mistake. The success of this work must depend upon maintaining the harmony which has hitherto characterised it. It is one of the finest things in connection with the mining industry that although there has been constant controversy about other things this welfare work has been run with the best of good will by all parties concerned, and I only hope that the hon. Gentleman, in composing his committee as he proposes to do, is not making a mistake. I would far rather have seen three independent people appointed from outside. What they have to deal with are largely questions of figures and ordinary common-sense affairs which do not require special technical mining knowledge. I hope it is not too late even now to alter the composition of the committee.


I have consulted Lord Chelmsford about this matter, and he agrees that it is absolutely desirable to do as we have done.


I am glad the attempt that was made to reduce the levy or abate it for a time was not successful, because to any one who reads the last annual report it is clear that there is a large amount of work still to be done. The committee, in a number of passages in their report, show that they have been relying on a continuance of the Fund at the old rate for the work they have in hand. While I think the idea of appointing a committee is a very good one, and that the suggestion of the Noble Lady ought to receive consideration, it is very satisfactory to know that the work which has been carried out in such a splendid spirit by the miners and the owners will be continued without interruption for some years to come. After all, the owners are only to be asked to do what other industries are carrying out voluntarily, and I should be glad if it were possible to consider the extension of this principle to other industries. A levy might be made on the products of other industries in which welfare work is inadequate. I represent a number of miners, and have seen what has been done in my own area, and know how the miners, their wives and children appreciate it. Apart from that, I have had many other opportunities of seeing the wonderful work that this welfare movement has done in industry, and I am delighted to think it is going forward unimpeded.


There is one practical point to which I hope attention will be directed. A new factor has arisen since the Committee stage of the Bill which may alter materially the whole trend of welfare work. An analysis of the schemes up to the present shows that, in addition to the health and education work, there are some 1,196 recreation schemes, and that they cover a large area of land. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has brought forward a proposal to tax land values, and at no time during the three days' discussion of that question did I hear that the land for these welfare schemes was to be exempted from taxation. If the hon. Member can assure me now that such land will be exempted from this tax I shall not press the point, but I feel entitled to direct attention to this matter, because what is happening may alter the whole trend of the schemes. If the land is to be taxed it may induce the trustees of schemes to change the character of them. Instead of going in for recreation grounds they will develop pit-head baths or build pavilions. Further, if it is going to cost more to develop schemes the applications for them will be restricted. This is all new since the Bill was considered in the Committee stage, but I assume that the Committee to be appointed will have their attention directed to all these matters, and, having made such representations as they think necessary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, they will approach the trustees who hold land in the welfare schemes and take measures to protect them.


As one who has served on the Committee that dealt with this Measure, I was very pleased to hear that the Minister is going to appoint a committee of investigation. I am a little concerned about the terms of reference. The Minister will remember that during the Committee stage the Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) raised the question of miners' pensions, but he did not press his point very far. At the fourth sitting of the Committee, I brought forward a suggestion which had been handed to me by certain miners in South Wales. I had been down in South Wales myself. [Laughter.] I do not know why hon. Members laugh. I was born in a mining area, went to school with miners' children, went down the mine, and I know how to work in a mine. Throughout my life I have had great sympathy for the miners. I am bringing forward a matter which was mentioned to me by miners in South Wales, and they were desirous that it should be brought before the Committee. In that district in South Wales there are a large number of men who were not compensated because of accidents but were kept at work on light occupations. Owing to the fact that the collieries have been taken over by other companies these men have been thrown on the scrap heap, and they have been told that they are not entitled to unemployment pay, and in many cases they have had to apply for Poor Law relief. [An HON. MEMBER: "That is not correct."] That is the information which has been given to me from the men themselves. A very good way in which this money could be expended would be by providing some sort of pensions for these men who have been left stranded, and, if the terms of reference to this Committee are wide enough to include these miners, I shall be satisfied. I promised these men that I would bring their case before the House, and I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us whether the Committee will be able to make inquiries in that direction. This may be a little matter as far as the Welfare Fund is concerned, but it is not a little matter to the people who are suffering.


We fully appreciate what the Minister has done to get this Bill through. I hope the terms of reference will be made wide enough to include pensions, because in Lancashire we feel that there is no better way to spend this money than by providing pensions for those engaged in the mining industry.


I hope that the Committee which is going into this matter will note that sometimes, unfortunately, the money in this Welfare Fund is being used to build technical institutes and so on. It seems unfair that this money should be used for purposes which are essentially the purposes of education authorities. This money is primarily intended, not for the community as a whole, and I hope that it will not be used in order to undertake a burden which would ordinarily fall on local authorities, and especially upon education authorities, and so relieve the rates. I have in my constituency as association of miners which, like other associations, has had for a number of years a partial old age pension scheme, giving 3s. or 4s. a week to the older men who have retired. During the last five or six years that fund has broken down, and the pensions have been reduced almost to nothing, and I have been wondering whether it would not be possible, in the case of an association of miners who have some small old age pension scheme voluntarily established, to use the proceeds of this fund to supplement such a scheme, at any rate up to a reasonable amount.


Everyone seems to have gone committee mad, and to think that, as has been indicated by the last two speeches, you have only to set up a committee to be able to use it for a vast extension of this fund. If that is going to be the use made of this Committee, I do not believe that it can be successful in giving a report which the House can carry out on the lines on which this fund was originally established, and, as the Bill has gone through without opposition, and gives a long extension of time, I think it would be unwise and unfair to take advantage of that position to use the Committee for a large extension of the purposes of the fund. The work that it has done has been admirable, everyone agrees with it, and surely it is better to let the Committee go forward on the understanding that it will do what the Minister and my light hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Sir P. Cunliffe-Lister) have said, namely, inquire into the position of the fund, the amount of money available, how it is used, and if there is any possible way, not in the direction of large extensions, but of gradually using the money so as to get better value for it, and then reporting to the House on the whole position. The Committee ought to go into the matter from an impartial point of view, with a desire to come to a unanimous decision, and I should very much regret it if the sort of thing suggested in the last two speeches were used to upset the scheme.