HC Deb 02 December 1943 vol 395 cc521-9
The Minister of Labour (Mr. Ernest Bevin)

My right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister of Fuel and Power announced in the House on 12th October that it would be necessary to call up men for the coalmines in the same way as they are called up for the Armed Forces. A scheme for the selection of men for this purpose has now been worked out and will begin to operate shortly. The selection will be made from men born on or after 1st January, 1918, who would otherwise be called up for the Armed Forces and are placed in medical grade I or in grade II if their disability is foot defects only. My object has been to devise a scheme that will be recognised as fair and which would not place the duty upon the officials of my Department of selecting according to merit or suitability. I therefore propose to resort to the most impartial method of all, that of the ballot. A draw will be made from time to time of one or more of the figures from 0 to 9 and those men whose National Service Registration Certificate numbers happen to end with the figure or figures thus drawn by ballot will be transferred to coalmining. In the interests of fairness as between individuals the exclusion from the ballot will be limited to three classes of men only who I think it will be obvious must be kept for other duties; they are (1) men accepted for flying duties in the R.A.F. or Fleet Air Arm; (2) men accepted as artificers in submarines; and (3) men in a short list of highly skilled occupations who are called up only for certain service trades and are not even accepted as volunteers for coalmining. I propose to make arrangements for special medical examination of any man who claims that there are medical reasons why he is not fit for coalmining before he is sent to a training centre. Arrangements will also be made for men to be medically examined again at a later stage with special reference to their fitness for underground work, and so far as possible this will be done at the training centre before they are finally posted to a colliery. Individuals whose call up to the Forces would be postponed on the grounds of exceptional hardship will not be transferred to coalmining.

Men selected for coalmining work who have had no previous experience of the industry will be given four weeks' preliminary training both in classes and in actual underground practice at special training centres organised for the purpose by my Department in consultation with the Ministry of Fuel and Power. On completion of the training at a training centre they will be directed to working collieries for employment where (subject to special conditions in South Wales) they will be given further training for a fortnight before being employed on work below ground and for a period of at least four weeks after starting regular underground work they will come under the personal supervision of an experienced miner. There will be similar supervision for a sufficient time whenever they change from one class of work to another. Except in South Wales they will not go to work at the coal face until they have had at least four months underground experience. During the period of surface training they will be paid not less than the surface worker's rate. The men selected will be given an opportunity of stating a preference for a particular coal field, and an endeavour will be made to post men in accordance with their expressed preference, but it is impossible to guarantee this as a number of considerations must be kept in mind in posting men, such as the kind of coal produced, the productivity of the pit, and the availability of living accommodation. The Ministry of Fuel and Power will decide to what pits the men are to be directed.

In conclusion I want to say that the Government would not have resorted to this scheme of compulsion had it not been for the most urgent national necessity. There is no form of service which at this stage of the war is in greater need of young active recruits. Those who are chosen for transfer to coalmining will be doing their war service in a form that is as important as any, and I am sure that they will do their best to make a success of it.

Mr. George Griffiths

May I ask the Minister whether this matter will be discussed further in the House? While there are some advantages, there are some very great disadvantages involved in the statement which the right hon. Gentleman has just made.

Mr. Bevin

If hon. Members want to discuss this arrangement, they must make approaches through the usual channels. I must begin to put this announcement into operation forthwith, if I am to save the situation in the coal trade for 1944.

Mr. Austin Hopkinson

Are these men, in order to prevent constant pit stoppages, to be compelled to join the miners' trade union?

Mr. Bevin

The question of joining the union will be dealt with in accordance with the arrangement between the employers and the miners' union. I do not interfere with that, and there is no compulsion behind it. If I know these lads aright, I do not expect trouble over that.

Sir Hugh O'Neill

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether this can be done without fresh legislation, and, if so, under what powers?

Mr. Bevin

Yes, I am entitled to direct anybody anywhere, including the right hon. Member.

Sir H. Williams

On a point of Order. Is it not the case that the Minister has no power of direction over a Member of Parliament?

Mr. Bevin

I apologise. I think I have the power, but I think there is an undertaking—[HON. MEMBERS: "No"] I bow to the wiser judgment of my colleagues.

Mr. Stephen

Has this scheme been accepted by the Miners' Federation?

Mr. Bevin

I explained to the Miners' Federation what it was necessary to do, and I undertook to deal with it again if I had to go below 18, but I am under an obligation, under the Act of 1940, to see that these industries are maintained, and this arrangement is, I understand from my right hon. Friend, well known to the Miners' Federation and the mining industry.

Sir G. Shakespeare

Can my right hon. Friend indicate to the House the total number which the Government desire to transfer in this way?

Mr. Bevin

Up to the end of this coal year, which I think is 30th April, 30,000.

Mr. Sloan

Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that there are other sources from which man-power could be secured either by taking men from industry or having men sent back from the Army; and would not this secure more than the 30,000 he expects to get by the proposal just outlined?

Mr. McEntee

In view of the very large numbers who may be drafted into particular areas, what provision is being made for housing and other accommodation?

Mr. Bevin

With regard to the question of the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sloan) my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War gave an answer earlier in the week which is the Government's policy. Subject to that, we are combing the Services to get as many as we can, and we shall continue to do that, but the situation in the war is such that the Government have decided not to break up field units, in view of the task which is ahead of us. With regard to accommodation, we shall proceed to billet where we can. Where we cannot, the Ministry of Fuel and Power and my Noble Friend the Minister of Works are arranging for accommodation to be established in the areas to which these people will have to go.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir William Allen

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether, in view of his statement that my right hon. Friend the Member for Antrim (Sir H. O'Neill) could be included in this scheme, he will apply it to Northern Ireland?

Mr. Bevin

No. There is no conscription in Northern Ireland.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

We have already had a large number of questions on this matter, and I must remind hon. Members that we have to get on with other Business.

Mr. Gallacher

On a point of Order. Is it not permissible to draw attention to the fact that if it is proposed to ballot young men into the pits, it is time to ballot the owners out of the pits, because they are responsible for the bad conditions?

Mr. Pickthorn

Can we be told whether we shall have an opportunity to debate this question?

Mr. Bevin

I cannot answer a question on the procedure of the House.

Mr. Pickthorn

Surely somebody must be able to answer.

Mr. Bevin

Perhaps the hon. Member will possess his soul in patience and allow me to continue. I have already said that if hon. Members desire to have a Debate on this I think representations can be made, and I have no doubt that if they are made, they will receive proper consideration.

Hon. Members

Can we have an answer?

Mr. Attlee

I was waiting for a question to be put to me, as had been suggested, on the time of the House; and I would remind hon. Members that it is usual to address a Minister in such a case and not just to call out "Can we have an answer?"

Mr. Colegate

May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister whether he is not fully conscious that the House must have a Debate on this very important and extremely unusual method of recruiting men, which I believe has never been adopted in this country before?

Mr. Attlee

I am aware of the novelty, and if there is a general desire for a Debate on the subject, representations can be made in the usual way.

Mr. Tinker

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it would be a great help to the mining industry to have a Debate?

Mr. G. Griffiths

I asked that question at the beginning.

Mr. Molson

There was a publication of this announcement in the "Daily Telegraph" yesterday.

Mr. Bevin

I do not know how the "Telegraph" has got it. I have been very careful as the Minister to make these announcements to the House. I certainly have not revealed anything to the Press as far as I know.

Mr. Maxton

Can the Minister say on what day this Order will operate?

Mr. Bevin


Mr. Maxton

Does that mean that before we have an opportunity of debating the matter it will already be in operation?

Mr. Bevin

The coal situation is such —[Interruption]—I do not believe in the competitive system, and therefore I will not compete with hon Members, but I will answer them if they give me a chance. The coal situation is such that the Government feel that we cannot delay the supply of man-power to get the necessary coal for 1944, and I could not, in view of the representations made to me as Minister of Labour, undertake the responsibility of jeopardising the war effort by any delay. I have delayed this compulsion to the very last possible moment, because I do not like it any mere than do hon. Members, and our having to put it into force now is due to the sheer necessities of the situation.

Mr. R. J. Taylor

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we are prejudicing the coal situation at the moment because we are not making the best use of the men that we have in the industry, largely due to the Government not making up their mind?

Sir J. Lucas

May I ask the Minister why his Department is stopping volunteers for the mines from taking up their employment unless they have relatives in the neighbourhood, even though they have their parents' consent?

Mr. Bevin

I have never heard of any such case.

Mr. A. Bevan

Has there not been ample opportunity for the Minister to consult the House of Commons about the point? Have we not reached a most intolerable position in which Ministers act in this way without consulting the House even when it is sitting? The House has become a Reichstag.

Mr. Bevin

I do not know whether my hon. Friend was present on 12th October, when the Minister of Fuel and Power announced in this House the steps that would have to be taken, and, speaking from memory, there was a coal Debate on or about that date. I am speaking from memory, and I do not know whether it was in answer to a Question or an announcement, but it was made perfectly clear in that Debate that steps would have to be taken. Further, in the manpower Debate previous to that I made it perfectly clear that these steps would have to be taken, and if the hon. Members after two announcements over a period of four months have failed to realise the situation, that is not my fault. The only question put to me is that I would not use undue pressure or adopt a priority attitude towards the boys living in the coalfields, and I gave an answer that this conscription would have to be universal, and, on that basis, without any challenge during these months, I have proceeded to develop what I think is the right policy.

Sir William Davison

Surely the present situation could have been forecast a few days ago at any rate, which would have enabled the right hon. Gentleman to make the announcement which he has made today and would have enabled the House, if it had thought fit, to debate this unusual method of recruiting. It places the House in an unfortunate position; it holds a pistol to their head.

Mr. S.O.Davies

Further to the answer just given, did not the Prime Minister the day after, on 13th October, assure this House and the country that there was not the slightest reason to be alarmed regarding coal production in this country, and did not many mining Members in this House at that very moment express their disagreement with the Prime Minister and regret that he had been so misinformed by his advisers?

Mr. Bevin

The Prime Minister spoke in the light of what my right hon. and gallant Friend had stated the day before, which was very clear. The Prime Minister in discussing the matter and presiding over the Cabinet Committee on Manpower, was fully conversant that this step had got to be taken, and it was with his approval. The announcement I have made to-day is not an alteration of policy at all. It is the method I propose to adopt, and the method I propose to adopt is the only method that I can think of which is fair.

Mr. Hammersley

In connection with the original statement, my right hon. Friend said there would be excluded from the scheme persons with technical qualifications under a short list. Would he tell the House what that short list is?

Sir A. Southby

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether, in view of the fact that these young men are being directed into the coal industry in lieu of being taken into the Forces before the House has had the opportunity of discussing the matter in detail, any young man who is injured or killed will receive the same compensation as if he had been serving in the Armed Forces; and may I ask you, Mr. Speaker, as the guardian of the liberties of this House, whether it can be made dear once and for all that no Minister of the Crown has any right or power to direct any Member of this Honourable House in such a way as to prevent him carrying out his duties as an elected representative of the people?

Mr. Bevin

With regard to compensation, the young man who has been selected to go into the pits will be in precisely the same position as any young man directed to the Mercantile Marine or anywhere else. He will get compensation under the Workmen's Compensation Act. That is the law. With regard to the latter part of the question, I thought the House enjoyed a little diversion.

Mr. Denman

On a point of procedure, with every desire to help the Minister who has told us he must operate this at once and in view of the opinion of mining Members that it would facilitate the operation, would you accept a Motion for the Adjournment of the House to discuss a matter of urgent public importance if any mining Member should choose to raise that now?

Mr. Speaker

I do not think it is a matter that can be discussed now with advantage. Hon. Members can do that better when they have read the Minister's statement.

Sir A. Southby

Mr. Speaker, on a point of Order and with the greatest respect. I asked you just now a question which I feel I am bound to ask—whether a statement having been made that Members of this House can be directed—

Mr. Speaker

If the hon. and gallant Member requires a considered reply to a statement of that kind, I shall require notice.