HC Deb 10 July 1941 vol 373 cc415-24

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Major Dugdale.]

Mr. David Adams (Consett)

Some little time ago I put a Question to the Minister of Labour, and that Question, with the answer to it, is the foundation on which I hope to present briefly to the House a certain case. Therefore, it will be necessary for me to read the Question and the answer. I asked the Minister of Labour: Under what powers boys who, at one time, were engaged in coal-mining but had entered other occupations, are being ordered to leave such employment by the Consett Employment Exchange and re-enter the pits; and whether guarantees are being given to such entrants that they will be taught one of the recognised crafts of the industry and not be entering blind-alley employment with the status of labourers?

It being the hour appointed for the interruption of Business, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Major Dugdale.]

Mr. Adams

The Minister of Labour replied: A few boys at Consett who had secured employment outside the coal-mining industry in contravention of the Undertaking (Restriction on Engagement) Order, 1940, were directed by the National Service officer under Regulation 58A of the Defence (General) Regulations to return to coal-mining. Persons so directed have the right to appeal to the local appeal board. With regard to the last part of the Question, I have brought to the notice of my hon. Friend the Secretary for Mines the importance of providing adequate training for boys in the coal-mining industry, but it would not be practicable to confine the issue of directions to cases in which the boys are to be trained as craftsmen. It is the last part of the answer which has been highly unsatisfactory to the boys, their parents, and, I imagine, to Consett generally. For some time past, certain of those boys have been in other occupations, and one at least had become an apprentice to a somewhat important trade. Certainly, all of them believed that they were improving their position. The determination to bring them back to the pits meant that, if there was not to be a specific undertaking that they would learn to be craftsmen in the pits— and there are many occupations which are not those of craftsmen— they might end their days merely as unskilled labourers. I contended that the determination—whether it was avoidable or not, perhaps does not matter—was unjust to the boys, and accordingly, the Consett Labour party, which is composed almost exclusively of miners and their wives and daughters, passed a resolution: The Consett Labour party strongly protest against the operation of the Restriction on Engagement Order in the coal industry, which is forcing boys back to the mines after they have obtained work of a more beneficial nature, including apprenticeships. No one could take exception, in the circumstances, to such an attitude by a party representing the miners, but the position of any boys entering this industry is, or may be, generally speaking, unsatisfactory to them, to their parents, and, in my judgment, to the coal industry as well. My hon. Friend the Member for Spenny-moor (Mr. Batey) and I were invited prior to the war by a number of men representing the miners' lodges in my division to address a very largely attended meeting on what we considered to be a great hardship to young men in the industry. No fewer than 60 young men in this group of collieries had suddenly been dismissed at the age of 20 or thereabouts. I made careful inquiries and found, as far as I could ascertain, that every one of these young men was of a good standard, a good worker, a good time-keeper, and had played his part in the industry. But the offence was that they were reaching man's estate, that is to say, in a few months they would be entitled to a man's wage, and, if they happened to be married, which was not very likely at that age, then they would be entitled to a house and coal.

It certainly cannot be contended that there was much justice or fair play in the industry towards these 6o young men. It is not that this was an extraordinary or exceptional occurrence, because it had occurred many times before, and it no doubt occurs in other collieries. But in similar cases it had been in small doses only, whereas in this connection a very large number was involved. These young men had fulfilled their contract to the letter. They had studied safety-first, rescue work and pit experience, and many had gone to classes which were held in the employer's time and at the employer's expense to gain additional experience. I was told that some of them had attended night classes with great regularity to prepare themselves for some higher office, such as deputies or other positions in the industry, and that some had been making preparations for marriage. This sudden dismissal, before they had completed their time in the pit, meant that their life's work was shattered. Accordingly, many of them— and I was very careful to keep in touch with them— left the district and entered other industries. Some, under the pressure of unemployment and poverty, became labourers to the local council and elsewhere. It was a situation which appeared to be grossly unfair, particularly when there was added to it the injunction, when they received their notice, that if they had any younger brothers of 14 or so, they could send them to the pit to take their place.

The position is that these young men may be suspended or dismissed at any time, without appeal, remedy or compensation. Young men in our district may enter the industry at the age of 14, which I consider to be far too early an age, and then, when they reach the age of 20, they may be dismissed, thereby losing a life's vocation. They may give of their best, and yet their career may be shattered before they have completed their training. It is a loss to the individual, to his parents, and certainly to the local authorities, who spend much on the scholastic side in training a boy for a career. I do not think it can be controverted that under existing conditions the young mineworker due to unemployment is exposed to moral, mental and physical losses due to casual, blind-alley and ill-paid employment. The nation in self-defence should strongly repress any misuse of young labour in any of our trades or businesses.

What is the industry's viewpoint in this matter? We were warned by statisticians of population that there would be a progressive decrease in the supply of juveniles for employment between 1938 and 1941. The calling up from the ages of 18 to 35 of men except in certain reserved occupations has naturally created a much increased demand everywhere for boys and young men. The Secretary for Mines has informed us that the shortage of boys has become so acute that he would not be surprised if certain collieries, for lack of such labour, would be incapable of running their pits at a reasonable margin of profit. Therefore it is necessary that there should be some schemes for attracting boys to this industry. In my judgment apprenticeship is the remedy. I was apprenticed to engineering, and I have every sympathy with apprenticeship. Its advantages are quite obvious. It is a singular thing— I think it may be due to controversies within the industry on both sides— that it is not classed among the great crafts. We have this position, that in the new age of mechanisation the mineworker may shortly be a jack of all trades and master of none. Under the swift and far-reaching changes in production wrought by mechanisation there has been established a large and increasing number of occupations in this industry deemed to be casual apart from filling, coal cutting, hewing, putting and stonework, which are piecework and are not so designated, although mechanisation is eating into these, and perhaps they will be unknown in a few years' time. My proposal is that this skein formed by the multiplicity of separate operations, each assumed wrongly to be unskilled, must be woven into one or more comprehensive operations of production to form the basis for apprenticeship, and in that way we can avoid the casualisation of the army of youthful labour and initiate a new era of craftsmanship in the industry.

I have a cloud of witnesses in favour of this suggestion. I am glad to advise the Secretary for Mines that I had a pleasant and somewhat protracted interview with the General Secretary of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain, Mr. Ebby Edwards. He was, naturally, not expected to give his unqualified blessing to the proposition, but he was good enough to say that it decidedly ought to be examined by those concerned and that it might prove to be of great benefit to the industry. I have conversed with certain colliery owners, and they said that it was a practical scheme and asked what objection could they possibly have to it. Parents who have declined to send their older sons into the industry said that they had no objection to their younger boys going into it, if the scheme gave them greater security. The details can be worked out by the miners and the owners. Mr. Ebby Edwards stated that the Secretary for Mines, if he agreed, might submit to the National Joint Consultative Committee, which is a committee of masters and men, a scheme for apprenticeship and invite those concerned to work it out. A complaint I have had is that if this scheme were initiated and boys were bound to the industry, they would be at the mercy of the coalowners. On the contrary, in my judgment, the welfare and wages of the bound apprentices would be the concern of the Miners' Federation to a degree that has not been noticed up to date, in the same way as the Amalgamated Engineering Union protects the interests of and is continually humanising the industry, as far as boys and young men are concerned.

The broad results of the reform would be that there would be a steady flow into the industry of qualified labour which is now declining, and a greater sense of responsibility and of personal interest by that labour in the industry. The lads and the parents would have a sense of security which hitherto has been absent, and I know that they would give the scheme their blessing. As far as the nation is concerned, this basic industry would he-come free from the casualising influences of mechanisation, which is really sapping the vitality of the industry in many directions. I believe that the nation would be able to enter the international competitive struggle with a greater assurance of solidarity throughout the industry. I believe the change would add to the dignity, interest, attractiveness and safety of the industry and usher in an era of good will and settled peace and prosperity for it.

Mr. Leslie (Sedgefield)

The deplorable plight of many of these pit-boys has been brought to my notice recently and I want to cite two cases. One is that of a lad who left school at 14 years of age and went to the surface to do screen work for a short period. As the work did not agree with his health, he got a job in the building trade. After being 12 months away from the pit he has been refused his green card at the Exchange and told that he must return to mine work. The other case is that of a boy who applied for a situation with a railway company. The company said he would be all right for the situation, he had passed his medical examination, and they were waiting for a vacancy for him. In the meantime, he took a temporary job at screen work on the surface. Again, this boy has been told that he must return to the mines and he has been refused his green card. The railway company are unable to accept him. In both cases the mine manager was prepared to release the boys but, up to the present time, they cannot do so. The Army refuse to allow miners to come back even for a short period, but they are prepared to allow workers to come back to farms in order to produce food. Yet they do not recognise that we need production of coal. They refuse to allow men to return to the mines, but these boys are told that they must return, and be deprived of good situations elsewhere.

The Secretary for Mines (Mr. David Grenfell)

I am very pleased at the interest which has been shown by my two hon. Friends on this subject. I cannot be expected to deal fully with the details of the cases which they have raised, but I have a very hearty sympathy with the general case put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Consett (Mr. David Adams). That sympathy was not aroused solely by the capable way in which he presented his case, on which presentation I compliment him. It began when I was a member of the Royal Commission upon Safety in Mines. That Commission gave very close attention to this very serious social problem. I can tell my hon. Friends that the number of young people under 20 years of age in the mining industry has been steadily declining. There is a considerably smaller number of men employed in the industry under that age than was the case 10 years ago. Between December, 1929, and December, 1939, the number of young men under 20 years of age in the industry declined by 40 per cent., while the number of men of all ages declined during the same period by just over 20 per cent. Undoubtedly there is a dearth of young labour. There is increasing evidence of the unattractiveness of mining labour to young people. There is an even more serious aspect of this matter. Boys who have been employed for a time and who have done everything that ambitious and eager boys can do to qualify themselves for a place in the industry have found that, when they attained the age of manhood and were in the neighbourhood of 20 or 21, they were no longer required. This work is one of the worst blind-alley occupations in the country, because a boy who is thrown out of work at the age of 20 finds nowhere else to go in his mining village. The position is far worse for him than it is for a boy in a town with mixed industries offering a choice of occupations. When this boy is denied one occupation, he may have the chance of half a dozen others.

The case made out by the hon. Members has been conceded in advance by the Royal Commission, which dealt with it at very great length. I will bring to the notice of my hon. Friend the Commission's recommendations, and at some time they will come before this House. I am seriously perturbed regarding the supply of young labour to the mines of this country. More and more men are needed in this industry with a knowledge of the principles and supervision of machinery. A special class of skill is increasingly required because of the considerable increase in the mechanisation of mines. When one is considering the question of apprenticeship, one must recognse that the methods of training boys in the pit to which many of us were accustomed do not apply to modern mining conditions. Many of us began work in the pit with our fathers, who taught us all there was to be known about the handicraft and the rude tech- nique of mining in those days. We reached full competency in our mining work by the age of 20 or 21. That is not the case to-day. Electricity, compressed air, and machines of all kinds are in the mines and have considerably increased the proportion of boys employed to tend those machines. The boys have to see that the machines do not jeopardise the safety of the men in the mines. The mere presence of the machinery in the mines does not make the mines more safe, because, with the high potential of electricity, and the pressure of the compressed air, it is necessary for the machines to have adequate and skilled supervision. There is additional danger to the men in the mines if that is not forthcoming. On grounds of safety in the mines, these young men must have an opportunity of becoming skilled in occupations that remain open to them.

The case has been fully made out. One of my hon. Friends said that he had been speaking on this matter to the general secretary of the Mineworkers' Federation, who is very familiar with this problem, especially as it exists on Tyneside. In Northumberland and Durham many youths engaged on these occupations are from 18 to 20 years of age. The general secretary of the Mineworkers' Federation took a prominent part in the work of the Royal Commission in dealing with this subject. I know that he is very keen about it, and I know that the coalowners are too. I have discussed this matter during the last 12 months, in connection with the general operation of the industry, and I made a recommendation over 12 months ago that we should give some solid inducement to young men to come in and remain in the mining industry. I do not know that there is any better way of providing that inducement than the plan proposed by my hon. Friends. I know that there are very serious difficulties. Mining is not an industry that goes on for ever. A mine which employs 1,000 men and offers sufficient inducement to young men to come in may become exhausted in the course of time. The minerals are worked out and the pits close down.

There are technical difficulties in the way, but I make this specific promise to my hon. Friend the Member for Consett. I will send him the recommendations of the Royal Commission, and I will bring more immediate pressure to bear upon the subject by submitting the matter to the joint consultative committee of both sides of the industry. With my knowledge of the opinions and practical knowledge of both sides of that body, I have every confidence that the matter will be thoroughly considered and examined with the intention of formulating some scheme, in groups or areas, for giving permanence and stability to the conditions of employment. The youth who enters this industry should have thorough technical instruction, so that he can feel he is entering upon a career as a skilled worker in an important industry and gain a feeling of stability and security which will stand him in good stead later in life.

It being the hour appointed) for the Adjournment of the House, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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