§ 6.35 p.m.
§ The Minister of Labour (Mr. Ernest Brown)
I beg to move,That leave be given to bring in a Bill to confer on the Minister of Labour powers with respect to the control of employment during the present emergency; and for purposes connected with the matter aforesaid.Before I explain this most important Measure I must make crystal clear, if I can, what it does not do. It does not require a worker to leave employment with which he is content. It does not require a worker to accept employment with a particular employer. There is no question of any pressure being put upon a worker to remain in work which he wishes to leave. Finally, where consent to engagement or re-engagement is refused, the position will be that the worker, if unemployed, will be offered alternative employments in his or her own occupation. I am aware that that is not the usual way of explaining a Bill but, because this is such an important subject potentially, I thought it wise to make these things clear at the outset. I have said these things to avoid any misunderstanding, for the industrial, scientific and professional knowledge and skill of our people will be more vital in this war than ever before.
The Bill has as its main object to secure that the man and woman power of the land is used to the best advantage, that in cases where there is a shortage of essential labour and the work for which these workers are wanted is of vital import- 508 ance, any labour and knowledge not engaged at the moment shall be directed to the employment most useful to the nation in this struggle. The processes of the Bill are devised so that personnel may be guided as to the employments which are the most vital. The Bill affects, first, the advertising of vacancies by employers and, second, new engagements of labour. It will be seen in Clause 7 that advertising must be interpreted in a wide sense. In both cases the Bill gives power to the Minister to make orders specifying to what classes of employers and workers the requirements are to apply. I wish to make it clear that, before any order is made relating to particular classes of personnel, the recognised bodies of employers and workers will be taken fully into consultation. We have been in consultation with the Trade Union Congress General Council and the British Employers Federation, and they accept the principle of the Bill on the understanding that they will be consulted on any orders to be made and that there will be no undue interference with the arrangements now existing between employers and trade unions in regard to the engagement and employment of workpeople. I wish also to make it clear that it is not expected to use these powers widely in the early days, they will be used at first in the case of limited classes of occupations affecting skilled personnel in those vital industries where there may be a very special demand for them.
There is also a special purpose for which the Bill will be utilised. The Home Secretary yesterday explained the general arrangements which it was intended to make as regards aliens. They involve that aliens who are not interned will in general be free to take employment, but it is necessary that such employment should be controlled by the machinery which this Bill will provide. The Minister, in giving his consent to the employment of aliens, would of course have regard, first, that they are employed on the work most necessary to the nation which they are capable of doing and, second, that they do not displace British workers.
I want the House and the country to understand that in all our dealings in the testing time that lies ahead of us it is our intention to use to the fullest extent the existing voluntary industrial machinery both on the employers' and the workers' side. This is vital as the operations of the Bill potentially, though not in the early 509 stages, affects all classes of employés, whether manual, technical or professional.
Apart from the restrictions on advertisements, the essential feature of the Bill is that, in the cases to which, after due consultation, it is applied by Order, no new engagement or re-engagement shall take place without the Minister's consent. The primary machinery will, naturally, be that of the Employment Exchange and, in the case of scientific, managerial and professional workers, the National Service Central Register. The Government intend to use to the full the machinery which now exists in various industries, subject only to the governing condition that the labour must be used for the best interest of the national struggle.
After these general words I will say a word about the Clauses, because it may throw light on the Bill and shorten the Committee Debate after this House has passed the Second Reading.
Clause 1 gives the Minister power to make an order prohibiting unless with the Minister's consent an employer to whom the order applies from advertising his wish to engage and from engaging or re-engaging an unemployed man. I need not stress the fact but you have seen it in recent days. It is most undesirable in the national interest for advertisements to appear offering inducements to workers to go from one employer to another, when it may not be to the national advantage that a worker should leave that employer because he may be doing work with the new employer not as essential as the work which he leaves. It happened in one particular direction which I need not stress because hon. Members are aware of that in recent days with regard to building hutments.
§ Mr. Brown
I agree. Clause 1 (1, a) makes it illegal after the date specified in an order for an employer to whom an order applies to advertise a vacancy for an employé to whom the Order applies unless the Minister consents. Where there is a shortage of a particular class of labour the employer naturally resorts to advertising in various forms. In war time unregulated advertisements for essential classes of work cannot be accepted because of the unsettling effect throughout industry, and particularly upon the ordinary trades union and 510 organised machinery for settling industrial conditions and carrying out of agreements. I want to make it quite clear also that consent to the publication of advertisement will not be unreasonably withheld.
Clause 1 (1, b) requires consent to be given by or on behalf of the Minister to any engagement or re-engagement covered by an Order.
Clause 1 (2) provides penalties for offences which strike at the root of the Bill, and the maximum penalty —of £100 —is therefore made correspondingly heavy. In addition, the Sub-section makes it an offence, punishable with a maximum penalty of £5 a day, to continue to employ an employé whose engagement was a breach of the provisions of Clause 1 (1, b).
The effect of Clause 1 (4) is that if a person is employed without the Minister's permission in a case where permission is necessary then, although an offence has been committed for which the employer may be punished—and this is important to trades unions—the contract of employment will not be regarded as invalid for other purposes by reason only of such offence. Without this provision it might be held that the contract of employment was invalid, with the result that the employer might, for example, refuse to pay arrears of wages or national insurance contributions; or a claim for workmen's compensation might suffer under Section 3 (3) of the Workmen's Compensation Act, 1925.
Clause 1 (5) gives the Minister power to vary or revoke an order by a subsequent order. A provision for variation is obviously necessary to enable the Minister to use the new powers to best advantage in conditions which are constantly changing.
Clause 2 gives power to appoint inspectors. In order to secure enforcement of the provision of the Act, it will be necessary for authorised persons to have access to workshops and factories where workpeople within the scope of the orders which may be made are employed. It is anticipated that at the outset it will be possible to secure all the necessary inspection required by arrangement with the existing inspectorates of Government Departments, including my own. If the House will look at the actual Bill they will see that in Clause 3 we take power 511 to use the inspectors appointed under the Coal Mines Act, 1911, the Unemployment Insurance Act, 1935, the Factories Act and the Trade Boards Act. This will have the double advantage from the employer's or worker's point of view that then the inspectors will be accustomed to visiting the factories or workshops or other places of industry concerned. Although there will be the Financial Resolution to-morrow in order to provide any extra finance that may be desired, it is not anticipated that extra finance will be needed, at least in the early stages.
Clause 3 defines the powers of the inspectors, and also provides for penalties for refusing to give the inspectors information properly demanded or for giving false information. Clause 4 provides that the Orders made under the Act shall be laid before Parliament with the greatest possible speed, and shall come into force with speed, and the details are given in the Clause. Clause 5 makes any officer or a corporate body who is proved to have connived at or consented to an offence under the Bill liable to prosecution as well as the corporate body itself. It thus makes an officer of a corporate body who is responsible for or assists contravention subject to the same penalties as an individual employer. As to Clause 6, I need to say nothing, except that it is in common form and provides that the expenses incurred shall be met from moneys provided by Parliament. Clause 7 lays it down that in order to give effect to the intentions of the Bill it is necessary to regard as an employer any person who wishes to become an employer within the scope of an Order and similarly to regard as an employer any person who wishes to become such an employer. This Clause defines "employer" and "employer" accordingly.
§ Mr. Brown
It is not. Clause 8 gives power to the Government of Northern Ireland to legislate for Northern Ireland on matters similar to those contained in the Bill. That is necessary from a legal point of view. In Clause 9, which provides the short title, provision is made that the Bill will continue in operation until an Order-in-Council is made declaring that the emergency which occasioned the Bill is at an end. 512 The House will recognise that this Measure is not only necessary on the productive side of our national effort, but is in the interests, as the General Council of the Trades Union Congress and the Federation of Employers are agreed, of the harmonious working of industry in which the Government, the trades unions and organised employers will all play their part in securing victory for our cause. I would like to add that when the industrial history of the last four years comes to be written the story of the organisation, production and delivery of national industrial supplies will reveal a wonderful effort on the part of all concerned— the man at the bench as well as employers, technicians and managers. We must have no doubt that it will grow in intensity and practical effect until the victory of the free peoples is assured in this country.
§ 6.49 p.m.
§ Mr. Grenfell
In these recent days when Parliamentary discussion has been so much curtailed the Minister has rightly taken more than the usual time to call attention to the main principles in this Bill. The title of the Bill is not very reassuring. There is a good deal of distrust whenever it is suggested that employment should be controlled. We speak on this side of the House with a full knowledge of the effect that its passage may have on the mass of the people of this country. I took the trouble to ascertain the truth of the statement made by the Minister, that he has been in consultation with those who represent organised labour in this country. His assertion has been corroborated to me. I should not have been prepared to accept the Bill without a definite assurance that those who are responsible for watching over the conditions of labour and employment in this country have been fully consulted and that they have gone so far as to give approval to the principles of the Bill.
This is a Bill which has been brought forward to meet grave emergency conditions. We are confronted with a very grave national task which will tax the entire energies of our people, if the end is to be successfully attained, and from all parts of the House there is ample evidence forthcoming that we are all in this task. Nevertheless, we on these Benches must put forward our views, and 513 I hope that we shall continue to do so and that there will be a greater response from the other side of the House than there has been hitherto. It seems to me that often when we have spoken our words have appeared to fall on deaf ears on the other side of the House. [Hon. Members: "No."] Yes, it is true I have been very grievously disappointed in that respect. Now that we are in an emergency which calls for organisation, method, and control of every aspect of our national life, we are entitled to urge that in this Measure the widespread control of labour shall not be exercised at the expense of any rights and of any measure of comfort and contentment which our people have a right to expect.
The Minister has rightly said that the task in which we are all engaged will depend more than ever before upon satisfaction of the claims of the work people, and that there is evidence that they are not being ignored when the task of national organisation is being undertaken. Of the men who are wearing uniform and will be called upon to fight, we are exceedingly proud. Men drawn from our class, from the ranks of the common people of this country, have already given evidence of the willingness to run risks, and the courage and bravery which have always been displayed by our men when called upon to fight. There is ample evidence that the spirit and the courage which have characterised our men in the past are not decadent. That is something of which we are proud, and we shall find in that fact consolation and encouragement in the struggle. But the courage and the devotion to duty of the men who are wearing uniform, whether at home or abroad, will be of no avail in the struggle if a dozen or a score of people are not available to supply every fighting man with what is necessary. For every fighting man there will have to be 12 or 15 producing munitions and food and carrying on essential national services. Unless that overwhelming majority during the period of emergency, which may be long or short, are kept contented, unless they are assured of full consideration on the part of the Government and of this House, we shall never get that uninterrupted, loyal and consistent service which will mean success to us in the end.
I speak as one who has been a workman and has been engaged in the 514 struggle, not against a foreign country but against people who dissented from the proper assessment of our claims. I have even fought against my own neighbours in order that the workers might be assured of proper working and living conditions. I have always had and still have a very grim suspicion of any plan for the regimentation, militarisation, or conscription of labour. I do not believe that this Bill proposes anything of that kind. If it did, I would not stand here to support it. I would not say a single word in support of it if I thought that that was its object. We must be prepared to consider what steps are necessary in the emergency. In normal times I should say that labour should be free to go where it will. We have always made that claim. We have always said that labour should be able to take advantage of all the prospects that offer.
§ Mr. Grenfell
I agree, and I hope that labour will get more out of a Bill of this kind, with the full recognition of its place in the national life. If this House is prepared to give labour a square deal to-day and to-morrow, then labour will get more out of this Bill than if it was not organised in this emergency. We must have organisation. If I were not convinced of that necessity in this emergency, I should hesitate to put any restriction upon the rights of labour. You must have organisation if you are to win through in this struggle. It is vitally necessary that labour should in certain circumstances, even in war, certainly in times of peace, for personal, social and health reasons, be allowed to change its location. It is not always well that a man should remain in the same occupation and in the same place. It is right that he should change the location of his employment, and there is no reason why that should not be done, with proper organisation. But I can see the possibility of its being very difficult to ensure that freedom of movement unless there is organisation in the production and the use of labour.
I hope that whatever is done in this House in the organisation of labour will not be done at the expense of the freedom of the worker, but that we shall give the worker the greatest freedom and the 515 highest measure of reward and remuneration possible, for the services he renders. There is nothing said about that in the Bill. It refers in the Preamble only to the control of employment. I hope it will be made sufficiently clear that this is not a Bill to put labour in handcuffs, and all that kind of nonsense. I am sure that is not intended. If I thought that such a thing was intended, I should not be supporting the Bill. I do not think that if we examine the Bill we shall find that there is much curtailment of the rights of labour, except what is necessary for its more efficient organisation, and to prevent labour being wastefully used and being lured from a place of most efficient service to a place of less efficient service.
I am old enough to remember the last War, when men were drawn away from places of useful employment to places of less useful employment, and I remember that when a sufficient supply of labour was available the concessions which had been promised to them were taken away. That was in the last War; and I say to the Minister that unless he does better than the Government in 1914-18 there will be trouble even during this war. I hope the House will be convinced very soon that the Government are more ready and more prepared to acknowledge the claims of the workers than any Government in the past. I utter no threat, it is just my opinion, but if the Government are not prepared now it had better make up its mind that the workers must be treated better than they were in 1914-18. There will be a good deal of dislocation. There will be local unemployment and it will be necessary to move men about from one part of the country to another. We remember what happened in 1914-18 and the transfers of those days. Let us see that when a transfer is made the utmost guarantees are given that the man shall not suffer.
The Minister knows how necessary it is for him to have a contented people. What a hopeless job he has unless he maintains the confidence of and friendly relations with organised workers. His job is going to be the most ghastly failure unless he obtains this confidence and these friendly relations, and unless we get a contented body of 12,000,000 workers in this country this House will 516 still hear from them. We have no truce with the Government in these matters. We have agreed to do everything we can to win this war, to defeat Hitlerism and industrial conscription, and to defeat the serfdom of the workers, and we shall not willingly consent to have any instalment of that imposed on the workers of this country by any Government which is in power. I am not so very much afraid of the Bill because there have been consultations, and I have been assured on the matter by those who speak for organised labour. I do not say that anybody outside this House speaks more directly for organised labour than any hon. Member inside the House. I speak for the mine workers; I belong to them even much more than I belong to this House. We represent our constituents because we are members of the industrial community first, and afterwards political representatives in this House, and it is because I know that people outside the House have examined this subject and have been in consultation with the Minister that I say that we have no objection to the introduction of the Bill. There is, however, one particular point on which I hope the Minister will assure the House. I have had conversations with him and have suggested an Amendment which I hope he will see his way to accept. The operative Clause of the Bill is Clause 1. Let me read it:
That is the vital provision of the Bill, and I would like to suggest that in the Clause, after the word "Minister," in line 18, should be inserted these words:
- "(1) The Minister of Labour (hereinafter referred to as ' the Minister ') may by order direct—
- (a) that, after such date as may be specified in the Order, an employer to whom the Order applies shall not, except with the consent of the Minister, publish any advertisement stating that he desires to engage any employé to whom the Order applies; and
- (b) that, after the said date, such an employer shall not engage or re-engage any such employé unless consent to the engagement or re-engagement has been given by or on behalf of the Minister."Before making an order under the preceding Sub-section the Minister shall, so far as may be practicable, consult such organisations representing respectively employers and employés in any industry as appear to him to be concerned.Were it not for the problem of the refugees and the possibility of the utilisation of the labour services of many of 517 these people I would require it to be given a more definite committal, but I know that a large number of these refugees do not belong to any trade union yet. They have no representative labour organisation, and I want it to be possible for these people to come under the care of this House and that they shall not be occupied in labour at the risk of displacing any workers of this country, that they shall not come into competition with our own people for any work. I know that many of these refugees are highly skilled and that many of them would find great joy in being allowed to work for this country. A large number of them are being allowed to fight. These are the services which can be given by these refugees, and I am glad that the Government have made provision for the absorption of these people, but under safeguards and under conditions which will not cause unemployment or be in any way detrimental to the workers of this country. I hope the Minister is prepared to accept such an Amendment.
§ Mr. E. Brown
I am glad in this case to be able to give an instant response. I made it perfectly plain that we should consult the organised workers and the employers concerned. That is our intention. Now the hon. Member has put it to me, on behalf of the party opposite and on behalf of the organised workers, to make statutory what is our intention; that they would have a statutory right to be consulted. I make an instant response and I say that I will examine these words and, subject to any technical Amendment which may be desirable, I shall have great pleasure in doing that. I am quite sure it will make for a very solid basis for the orderly development of what is not merely in the vital interests of the nation but in the vital interests of no one more than the workers themselves.
§ Mr. Grenfell
I thank the Minister for that assurance, and I appeal to my hon. Friends to support the insertion of such an Amendment. There is one request that I would make to the Minister now. It is really difficult to make arrangements for the introduction of these fundamental alterations in labour conditions. This Bill might be very dangerous, but with proper safeguards, I believe it will be of immense benefit to the 518 workers and to the nation at this time. In receiving that assurance from the Minister, I appeal to him not to press on with the Second Reading of the Bill to-night, and if he can see his way to do so, to allow the Amendment to be put in before the Bill is brought up for Second Reading.
§ Mr. Brown
The hon. Gentleman made a request to me, and my response was instant. If the Bill is given a Second Reading to-night, it will facilitate my carrying out the assurance I have given. As hon. Members will have gathered from the speech which I made, it is important, especially from the point of view of aliens, that we should get these powers as quickly as possible. I should have thought that, after my ready acceptance of what will be a statutory right for those concerned to be consulted, the House would have had no difficulty in giving the Bill a Second Reading, and putting the other points on the Committee stage to-morrow.
§ Mr. Grenfell
Does not the right hon. Gentleman appreciate the advantage of obtaining leave to introduce the Bill to-night and then having our promise that to-morrow, on Second Reading, he will have the utmost of our good will and co-operation in getting through the Bill on these lines?
§ Mr. Grenfell
I will say no more now, if the right hon. Gentleman is content to allow the Second Reading to be taken to-morrow.
§ 7.13 p.m.
§ Mr. Markham
I want to put a point of view that has not been expressed in the Debate so far; namely, that of industrial firms which, owing to the crisis, have had to dismiss a great part, if not all, of their staff on account of the commercial and industrial upset. There are a great many firms which, owing to the cessation of orders, are laying off the whole of their staff, and there are a great many other firms which have laid off all but their key men. Many of those men are taking up work when they can find it, and indeed, there is every opportunity for them to do so at once, in what may be regarded 519 as war industries. In a short time the other industries may recover, but by this Bill an employer who has had to stand off his men may be forbidden to invite back the men he has had to discharge. They may not be doing work of anything like the same value as the work they were formerly doing, and to which they brought a lifetime of skill. Not only does the Bill prevent an employer from inviting those men back, but it also forbids him to engage or re-engage them if they want to come back on their own accord. Obviously, the first step that firms of this kind would have to take— and I speak with a particular knowledge of the woodwork industries of this country—would be to go to the Minister and ask for permission for individual men. At the moment, when the Government offices are chock-a-block with work, one cannot reasonably expect speed of decision in cases that affect individuals.
§ Mr. Markham
I am very glad to have the matter put in that way, and I should be still more happy if we could have an assurance from the Minister that the Bill will apply to as few industries and employers as possible.
§ Mr. Markham
I appreciate that, but possibly the demand will increase as more and more men are called up for war service. I shall watch the further stages of the Bill with great interest. I think all hon. Members will agree that in normal times there is not a Member of the House who would have had anything but the greatest antagonism towards such a Bill. It is a terrible Bill. It is a Bill that absolutely restricts the freedom of a man to offer his labour where he wants.
§ Mr. Markham
It can be applied to all industries. Under the Bill, we are giving the Minister more power in some ways than any Fascist or Nazi Minister of Labour has in any totalitarian country. 520 While one has all faith and confidence in the present Minister of Labour, one has to face the fact that in certain war conditions there might be a Minister of Labour who was unsympathetic in the sense that he would not willingly listen to suggestions that were made outside the scope of the Act. We might then see an entire abolition of industrial freedom as we know it, a restriction so severe that it would mean that a man, no matter what might be his skill or ability, would be bound to one particular job for the whole of the emergency.
§ Mr. Brown
I think the hon. Member is entirely misinterpreting the Bill. Perhaps he was not in the House when I gave an explanation of the Bill, and if he was, I can only say that I am sorry if I did not make myself clear. This Bill will not prevent any man from changing his employment; it will not compel him to take any particular job. The hon. Member is making assertions which, however sincere he may be, show that he has a false impression of what the Bill does.
§ Mr. Markham
Perhaps I may draw attention to the actual wording of the Bill, for it is the wording of the Bill which will be the law, and the intentions of the Minister are a different thing entirely. What is said in the Debates in this House has no force in the courts of law, which have to go by the Act that is passed by the House. I challenge the Minister to deny that the Bill, as worded at the moment, and interpreted by an unsympathetic Minister, can only mean that the Minister would have power to conscribe every industry in the country without exception. The Bill states:that, after such date as may be specified in the order, an employer to whom the order applies shall not, except with the consent of the Minister, publish any advertisement stating that he desires to engage any employé to whom the order applies.That gives the Minister absolute power, with 40 Parliamentary days grace. There is no check or control for 40 days, and if Parliament were not called for some time, as it might not be in certain circumstances, the order might be more powerful than ever. I say that it is with the most extreme reluctance that one sees such a Measure brought in, and indeed, it could be brought in only in face of the great problem that is before us. I should like to see what the Minister has 521 said in his speech brought more into the Bill, for it is the Bill that has to be worked, and not the Minister's speech.
§ 7.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Kirk wood
I hope the Minister will take back this Bill as it stands. We had a bitter experience of this in the last War and it was because of words in the Defence of the Realm Act then, that all the trouble was caused in the engineering industry. Then the Government had the power which the Minister desires to have under this Bill and the workman was denied the right to leave one employer and go to another. Immediately that became the law of the land there was aroused, particularly on the Clyde, the desire to have that idea overthrown. I pointed out to the then Minister of Munitions, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) that I had had no desire to leave my employer up to that moment. But it was a different thing when I was denied the right of a free-born Briton to sell my labour, the only thing I possessed, to whatever employer I chose. The same think took place in practically every big establishment on the Clyde. All the key men, men who had practically been reared in the different factories in which they worked, men like the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) felt that desire. I could go over a list of many men, all in Weir's, who had no desire to quit their employers but who resented this. I pointed out to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs on behalf of the men of the Clyde, that that Act appeared to brand on my brow a letter "B" just as effectively as if I had been a slave of Beardmore's.
§ Mr. E. Brown
The hon. Member realises how much I know about his feelings on that matter, but this Bill is drawn in precisely the opposite way. There is nothing in the Bill which will prevent any man going to another employer.
§ Mr. Kirk wood
It is stated distinctly:after the said date such employer shall not engage or re-engage any such employé.We are not raising this matter merely in order to embarrass the Government. The 522 very opposite is the case. No one has been more fortunate than the right hon. Gentleman who is in charge of the Bill. Our union has met him in every way. There is, at the moment, a spirit abroad in our industry that never was in Britain before. We are all backing that spirit. We are all out to crush Nazism in no uncertain fashion. It is because of that I rise here to-night. It is in order that we may keep that spirit. It is all right that there should be the fraternisation which is going on in this House, but the workers in the workshops are still the workers. They had a bitter experience in the last War. We had some of the ablest men in our movement in this House—outstanding men who carried the country with them, in safeguarding our rights.
Those safeguards were not worth anything after the War, after we had surrendered and given up all our rights, although, to be perfectly honest, neither the hon. Member for West Fife nor myself agreed, and it was against our advice, because we said that those rights of ours were not ours to surrender but were ours to defend. But the engineers gave them all up, on the advice of their trade union leaders and the Labour leaders. We got all the pledges that men could get. We had two representatives in the War Cabinet. Let the House never forget. The men in the workshop do not forget, and they are still in the workshop, although we are here, and they know that we had two representatives in the War Cabinet looking after our interests— George N. Barnes, our general secretary, and Arthur Henderson. That is how the men in the shop are looking at it at the moment, and every pledge that was given to them by the Government, given to us in the workshop, was broken. Do not forget that. The result was that in 1920, as I have said in the House to-day already, the engineers were reduced below the wage level of the labourers in many municipalities, and some of our most highly skilled men, the best men we had in our industry, did what they could to get out of those conditions.
It is because of that bitter experience, and not in any way to trouble the Government, that we are suspicious. No one knows better than the Minister that anything that I can do to smooth out matters I shall do, but the workers have to be 523 considered. They have rights to safeguard. They are being shut up in the workshop the whole of the day, and they are working every day in the week. We have given away all our rights so far as overtime is concerned. We have conceded at the beginning of this war dilution of labour, and we did not do that until the end of the last War. That is the spirit that is abroad at the moment, and the Minister of Labour has to satisfy, not only this House, but the country. The most powerful thing in our country still, with all due respect to this House, is public opinion. It was public opinion that made the present Government give certain concessions, and particularly the statement about old age pensions. Do not let the House forget that public opinion in Britain is the most powerful thing. Public opinion is with the Government, in my opinion. The engineers are with the Government, and the workers in general are with the Government, but the Government have to see to it that they play the game by men who have given up their all and are prepared to give their lives for the land of their nativity.
I may be wrong, but I am utterly suspicious of the ruling class. It is in the marrow of my bones, because my class, right down the ages, have been treated in a manner in which I do not desire to see them treated in my time. I am hoping that, instead of harsher conditions or any division happening, we are getting nearer and nearer to a unified country, as there is at the moment. I have been spending the week-end in good understanding with employers who formerly had not a very good understanding, and it is because I desire to keep that understanding and have given pledges to the workers, who are watching us to see that we do not let them down, that I oppose this Bill. I am satisfied that if the Minister approaches the workers in that spirit and takes them into his confidence—
§ Mr. E. Brown
May I just say that my instant response to the hon. Member is that that is exactly what I intend to do. I do not intend to make any order without consultation with them. The hon. Member asked me whether I will put that in the Bill. I say that, subject to examining the Amendment, I accept that. Surely that should allay all suspicion. No 524 order that touches any body of workers will be made without prior consultation, not of my own volition, but because the Act compels me to do it. I understand how deep the hon. Member's feelings are. I have given profound study to the past history of this matter, and I ask him to believe me when I say that his suspicions are really unfounded. We intend to work from the beginning in the fullest and frankest co-operation with organised employers and workers because we know the great contribution that they will make in bringing us the victory we all desire.
§ Mr. Kirkwood
I am in the same difficulty as those who occupied a like place in the last War. We want an Act of Parliament so framed that a Minister who may not be so sympathetic and have such an understanding and kindly disposition as the present Minister will have to operate it in the spirit in which the right hon. Gentleman says he will operate it. The workers in the shops to-day, just as in the last War, have the suspicion that under the cloak of patriotism employers may take advantage of them to lower their standard of life. It does not mean only money and so much an hour; it means what they hold more dear, the right to say whether they will work for this or for that employer. It may have its drawbacks for those in control.
I remember when our general secretary stated the case to us and I stated the case against him, he said it was essential when the country was at war that all regulations had to go, that every man would have to give of his best, that the soldier in the field was prepared to give his life and that we were in a like position. That was all very well, but is everybody being placed in that position? At the beginning of this business, when we conscripted the youth of the country, I asked, "Will you conscript wealth?" I am only echoing here the thoughts and aspirations of the key men of the engineering industry, the men that you will have to deal with—it does not matter a button who is on the Front Bench of the Labour party or on the other side. The key men will not be sat on on this occasion in the way they were last time. You can take that from me.
I warned the House on the introduction of the Conscription Bill that the boys on the Clyde would stop work. I have no 525 connection with them. The boys on the Clyde did stop work. I did what I could, and successfully, to get them back to work. I have seen the boys—10,000 of them. They are prepared to give up all their rights—they are away now to the other extreme—offering themselves as volunteers for any service. That is a spirit, believe me, that neither Germans nor any other race under the sun can crush. Nothing can crush them. It is because of that that I want the Minister to examine this matter thoroughly—because of the good spirit prevailing and because every one of us, as he knows, is backing him all the way, or standing by him. But if the worker is going to be let down then we shall be like those boys—away to the other extreme. That is my last word. I hope the Minister will not let us down on this occasion, and that the words will be in the Bill. I am not going to be satisfied because certain individuals are going to be represented. There was talk of those in the movement being in the Cabinet, but we are going to keep our hands clear, we are not going to be tied up—because we come from a race of servants. We have been the servants of this country, we have been the workers of this country, we have made this country what it is, and all the workers have got has been wages.
Only last Saturday a worker said to me, "What about the means test? Who put the means test on us? Was it the Germans?" I had to ask him, "For God's sake forget those things." Think of me having to meet them and ask them to forget. That is the spirit in which we in the Labour movement are approaching this issue. We are asking them to forget all that has happened in the past. Our class has been crushed and ground—have got mere pittances—no houses for them. Think of it—to have to go and appeal to those folk. It is because of all those things that I ask the Minister, and I ask my party, not to allow a Bill to go through that is not only going to let the worker down but is going to imperil the good spirit that is abroad in the land at the moment.
§ 7.40 p.m.
§ Mr. E. Smith
During the last day or two I have taken steps to ascertain over as wide an area as possible the views of the people of this country with regard to the present situation. I find that there is 526 a great spirit among our people with regard to it. In this House we have reflected that spirit, and the maximum amount of good will has been shown in the Debates which have taken place up till now. The minimum number of words has been used in expressing ourselves on any issue that has been raised. On this matter I would be lacking in my duty to the men I represent and with whom I have been proud to be associated since my boyhood days if I did not associate myself with the observations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood).
I would remind the Minister of the very fine spirit which has been shown. I was speaking to a very big employer a few days ago and he said how pleased he was-at the great spirit shown at the conference which had taken place between representatives of the Amalgamated Engineering Union and the engineering employers. That is an indication of how the people of this country are approaching this question. If the right hon. Gentlemen for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) and Epping (Mr. Churchill) were present this evening they would understand the indignation expressed by the hon. Member for Dumbarton Burghs, because it was they who, in 1915 and 1916, had to contend with a situation such as could easily arise under the Bill. It is because we consider that there are very dangerous elements within the Bill that we desire to put on record as soon as possible our observations.
I know many men who are without reproach in character and principle, but it may be that the charge hand takes a dislike to an individual or the foreman does not like how the man stands up for his fellow men, and that individual then loses his employment. That sort of thing creates an atmosphere of jealousy, with all that that means in the workshop. When an individual is placed in a position of that kind he ought not to be treated as is proposed in the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping will remember only too well what happened when he introduced the leaving certificates during the last War. They were more responsible than anything else for retarding production during that period, and within a few days the right hon. Gentleman came to the House with Lord Addison and those leaving certifi- 527 cates were withdrawn. The result was that all the friction was eliminated, good will was restored and production went up immediately.
We see the possibility of similar situation arising out of the administration of the Bill, and that is why we are placing these observations upon record. I hope that no hon. Member misunderstands our attitude on this matter. Our party has given an undertaking, and has made statements in public—and not only our party but our movement—in order to make plain where we stand with regard to the international situation. We are eager to maintain the spirit of our people and to maintain their good will, but a suspicion arises out of our experiences and that is why we are speaking in this way about the present proposals.
May I put the matter in another way? Some of us are concerned about the possibility of inflation. If inflation does come, where should we be under this Bill? Suppose we ask for an increase in wages in order to meet the inflationary policy. If the Government does not control food prices and speculation, the men in the shops will immediately begin to take action; and if the official movement does not reflect this feeling some other movement will grow up, and greater difficulties will have to be faced by the Government. Some of us realise that this situation is one of life or death for the nation, and, therefore, we are prepared to exert the maximum effort in order that the nation may pull through. The Minister gave away the reason for this Bill. He said he had had his attention drawn to certain cases. I spent some time in my holidays investigating criticisms which had been expressed by a Member of this House as to conditions at camps, and I found no justification for those criticisms.
§ Mr. E. Brown
I made no reference to that. The question was whether it was fair to have to compete with firms working 80 hours a week or more. Therefore, the number of hours was limited to 60.
§ Mr. Smith
I am sorry; I quite appreciate the Minister's attitude, and, therefore, I shall not pursue that point. But there was an hon. Member sitting on a back bench over there who, before the Recess, raised this question with the Secretary for War. I said at the time that that was an inspired question, and I have found that that is so. I have been round to these camps, and have found that the engineering firms are concerned about the increased rates of pay being given to these men, but do not make any allowance for the conditions under which the men are working. Some have to travel to their work from 20 miles away. The employers say that it is great to watch the men work, because of the effort that is being put forward. Should not the men have some consideration when they are working in that way? At present there is a great spirit among the men, and great good will. It is because we do not want to undermine that that we are hoping that we shall not make the same mistake as the right hon. Member for Epping would admit that he made.
§ 7.49 p.m.
§ Mr. Gallacher
I wish to impress on the Minister the necessity of withdrawing this Bill. In the first place, I would endorse all that has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood) as to his experience, and mine and that of many others, during the last War. The most important factor in securing the speediest possible defeat of the Nazi aggressors will be the sustained unity of the working-class people of this country. The one thing that may injure that unity which is so essential for victory is the slightest suspicion that Nazism itself is being introduced. This may not be industrial conscription but it is a very thick chunk of the thin edge. The Minister says that a man can leave his job if he is discontented. of course he can, but he cannot get another. He cannot go to another employer. That other employer cannot engage him. I had experience myself of how this principle operated during the last War. I knew where I was stopped by the Minister and the difficulty that I had. It took all the power and influence of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood) to get me into the place where he was employed. 529 Will the Minister say that if a man leaves his job, say in Dalmuir, and goes for one in Partick where his home is, the employer in Partick will employ him? It is a very dangerous principle that is being introduced and it can do incalculable harm to the unity of the working class and the people of the country. The Minister told us that if the history of industry during the past four years comes to be written it will be an epic. That is his own word. There has been, according to the Minister, the most remarkable co-ordination between employers, managements, trade union leaders, technicians and workers. If that is the case, where is the need for such a very dangerous expedient? Someone says we require organisation, but we have organisation. The trade union organisation is quite capable of relating the needs of particular industries. All the Minister has to do is to go to a particular trade union, the engineers or any other, and make it clear that skilled workers are required to be taken from one place towards another. The engineers' union will do that and the Transport Workers' Union will do it. It is not a question of organisation. Here is a question of inquisition, a very dangerous thing in the present situation. So I would earnestly appeal to the Minister to withdraw the Bill and to go on the lines of his own remark, that organisation curing the past four years, without any 530 compulsion of this kind, has produced the desired results in a way which can be referred to by the Minister in such high and glowing terms, and that organisation is capable of carrying on and ought to be encouraged instead of endangering it by a Measure of this kind.
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to confer on the Minister of Labour powers with respect to the control of employment during the present emergency; and for purposes connected with the matter aforesaid,
§ put, and agreed to.
§ Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. E. Brown, Mr. W. S. Morrison, Mr. Burgin, the Attorney-General, Captain Crookshank, and Mr. Lennox-Boyd.