HC Deb 06 April 1944 vol 398 cc2173-9
The Minister of Fuel and Power (Major Lloyd George)

I would like with the permission of the House to make a statement on the situation in the Yorkshire mine dispute. Before, however, I describe the position which exists to-day, it is, I think, of importance that hon. Members should be in possession of the history of the stoppage. As the House is aware two awards dealing with minimum wages have been made since 1942, the first by the Board of Investigation presided over by Lord Greene, and the second by the National Reference Tribunal for the Coalmining Industry presided over by Lord Porter. Both these awards fixed minimum wages for mineworkers, and it was provided that the minimum wage should include the value of allowances settled in accordance with the practice prevailing in each district and, where necessary, averaged on a weekly basis. On 31st August, 1942, Lord Greene ruled that the actual value of any allowances received by an individual worker must be added to his cash wage for the purpose of determining whether he is entitled to any, and what, additional cash payment to bring his wage up to the minimum applicable in his case.

In Yorkshire on 26th January, 1943, that is, over a year ago, the two sides of the industry agreed the value of allowances for home coal for the purposes of the Greene minimum wage at 3s. 6d. per week per man, the allowances to apply to all underground and surface workers of 21 years of age and over. Because of the comparatively high wage level, however, few men in Yorkshire were affected when the minimum set by Lord Greene was in operation; but a greater number benefited when Lord Porter's tribunal made its award, and when payments under that award came to be made, trouble arose at certain collieries because of the home coal allowance. I had no knowledge of the Yorkshire district agreement on home coal about which I was neither consulted nor informed. Indeed, there was no duty on either side of the industry to do so. I obtained a copy of the agreement on 24th March, and on an examination of its contents it appeared to me to be inequitable, if not indeed illegal, to take into account the coal allowance in the case of men who were not, in fact, receiving the coal. After I had taken further advice which confirmed this view, my officials informed both sides of the industry on 25th March, 1944,that the agreement was not in accordance with the award. They concurred in that view and agreed at once to rectify the agreement by providing that it should apply only to those workmen in receipt of home coal. The two sides subsequently agreed to reduce the value of the allowance.

Strike action in time of war cannot be justified and indeed after 27th March there was in my judgment—and that of the men's own leaders—no further ground for complaint. Nevertheless last week the strike spread rapidly and from the reports I had it was clear that, while the county and local branch leaders were anxious to secure a return to work, the bulk of the workmen were completely out of hand and refused to accept the advice of their own leaders and, contrary to the terms of the award, pressed for the complete abandonment of home coal allowances in the make-up of the minimum wage. Hon. Members sitting for mining districts in Yorkshire addressed many meetings and I am grateful to them for the assistance they gave. I think they will confirm the account I have given. The House will be glad to learn that the position has improved this week. About 60 per cent. of the pits are at work this morning.

The effect of this strike on the war effort was bound to be serious. We have lost over 1,000,000 tons of a quality of coal which is essential to many vital factories; coke ovens, gasworks and railways for instance depend largely upon Yorkshire coal. The stoppage has, of course, occurred at the end of the winter when stocks are at their lowest. Drastic steps have therefore had to be taken to maintain essential services, and, in collaboration with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Production, I have had to impose cuts upon industrial users of gas and electricity of 25 per cent. and 10 per cent. respectively. All necessary fuel supplies, however, are being sent to vital factories on prepared lists. The movement of opencast coal has been increased by 80,000 tons per week; and the export of coal to neutral countries has been stopped. Mined coal has been diverted on a very large scale, from district to district, and from less essential to more vital consumers. Coking coal has been diverted from the Durham ovens but this can do little more than enable the ovens in Yorkshire to be kept warm. So far, I am glad to say, it has been possible to keep nearly all gasworks in operation, but the position of many is now precarious.

This and other recent stoppages have laid bare some fundamental issues of industrial relations within the industry to which I am bound to refer. The mineworkers have long sought a national minimum weekly wage and by the Porter Award have now achieved this aim on a generous level. A minimum wage on a national basis and particularly on its present scale could not by its very nature fail to produce varying effects on districts and individuals. It is a matter of the gravest concern that the inevitable accompaniments of this national minimum weekly wage award should have been made the occasion for friction, strife, and the loss of production by strikes and "ca'canny" in different districts.

The Government share to the full the apprehensions which have been expressed on all sides about the lack of discipline within the trade unions of this industry which has manifested itself particularly in the last few months. Without discipline on both sides of the industry collective bargaining cannot survive. In fact the whole fabric of proper industrial relations rests upon the honouring of agreements and their being carried out and interpreted in the spirit as well as the letter. The younger and less responsible men too frequently exert an undue influence. A special responsibility therefore rests upon the maturer members of the Unions to assert their position and to support the executive authority of their Unions so that agreements entered into will be properly observed. The Government are fully alive to the vital part that collective bargaining has played and will still be called upon to play in the national effort. The Government, therefore, cannot stand aside and allow collective bargaining or the machinery of conciliation and arbitration in this fundamental industry to be weakened or destroyed. Where the Government have intervened they have done so only to help in the operation of industrial relationships, to maintain the effectiveness of agreements and awards or to assist in carrying them out.

Mr. A. Bevan

May I say as a preliminary that we on this side of the House appreciate the very moderate language used by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman in his statement? In view of the great difficulties that many of us have when we address miners' meetings at this time and try to prevail on them to continue to work and in view of the fact that the circumstances created for us by the Government in the industry make that very difficult indeed, may I ask whether the Prime Minister does not think that the time has now come to review entirely the mining industry with a view to the establishment of the principle of public ownership? That would enable some of us to speak to the miners without being made to appear the spokesmen of profiteering in coal. Is it not a fact that many of us have, for the last two years, endeavoured to prevail upon the House and the Government to realise that a very serious situation was developing in the industry; and are not the Government and the House, therefore, mainly responsible for the difficulties now created in the industry.

Major Lloyd George

I am sorry my hon. Friend should have tried to convey the impression that the Government have any responsibility for an award to which they are not even a party.

Mr. Bevan

I did not say that.

Major Lloyd George

My hon. Friend said that the Government had landed us in that position. If my hon. Friend wants material with which to go and speak to his district, I suggest that he should explain to the men what benefits they have received in the last two-and-a.-half years. I have gone round a good many coalfields and quite frankly my experience is that there is a great deal of ignorance about what progress has been made. I am prepared to take my share of the responsibility, because possibly we have not publicised it properly, but I cannot accept that the Government have any responsibility for an award to which they are not a party. The scheme which, afterwards, we did put forward for consideration has been accepted by the Miners' Federation.

Mr. Bevan

In order that I may not be misrepresented, may I say that I did not state the Government were responsible for the award? What I did indicate was that the Government and the House are responsible for the scheme under which the industry is now managed, which is revealed by all the facts as having completely broken down. Will the Government, therefore, review the whole situation as regards that scheme.

Sir John Wardlaw-Milne

While everybody is anxious that the miners should be dealt with fairly and, indeed, generously, and is anxious that the trade union machinery should be kept in operation, may I ask the Prime Minister to have it in view that, if it becomes necessary for the Government to take serious action, so as to prevent the war effort being impeded, he will have the whole House behind him.

Mr. Colegate

In view of my right hon. and gallant Friend's statement that there has been growing indiscipline in the industry, will he not consider restoring to the managers, as requested by the National Association of Colliery Managers, the same power of discipline as that possessed by other industries working under Essential Work Orders.

Mr. James Griffiths

May I ask the Minister, as one who, with many others, has had years of experience among the miners and has shared their life and understands them, to believe that the suggestion in the question of the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Colegate) is not one that will lead to the desirable discipline we all want in the mines.

Major Lloyd George

My hon. Friend who asked that question has, I think, failed to realise that there are two sides to his proposal. If you allowed the one sanction which managements always had in peace-time, that is, dismissal, you would have to restore to the men the right of freedom of movement. I have discussed this matter with both sides, and I can assure my hon. Friend that both sides realise the difficulties and neither supports his proposal.

Mr. Shinwell

While I appreciate the great difficulties which have confronted the Minister and the Government over this coal trouble, may I ask my right hon. and gallant Friend. whether he appreciates that the Porter Award and what has emerged from it are now the subject of discussion among the miners and that there is a strong probability that the Award may be rejected—or I should say possibility? That has been suggested; at any rate, that is the assumption. There is a possibility that what has emerged from the award may be rejected. In these circumstances, will my right hon. and gallant Friend consider—because this seems to be the point of substance in all this trouble—whether the alleged anomalies, which the miners regard as real anomalies, which have emerged from the award can be speedily removed by the Government in order to settle this problem, even if it means further expenditure by the Government, though not an excessive expenditure.

Major Lloyd George

My hon. Friend will appreciate that the suggested agreement which I put forward as a proposal to the two sides of the industry, and which the national bodies accepted, is now being discussed in the various districts. I am 10th to believe that it will be rejected, because it is a very definite step forward. With regard to the anomalies to which my hon. Friend referred, the Government made it perfectly clear several weeks ago that they could not expect the consumer in this country to carry any further heavy burden, because the burden is already heavy and amounts to something like £80,000,000 a year extra. The agreement which I put forward does, in fact, deal with a good many of the anomalies, and I have not taken any steps here without the consent of both sides. Within the limits of no further heavy expenditure we have in our proposed agreement removed as many anomalies as I think it is possible to do.

Mr. J. Griffiths

May I put one thing to my right hon. and gallant Friend? The men are voting now upon these proposals which I gather they are getting from him. In the event of the proposals being rejected on particular points, do I understand the Minister will be prepared to receive representations from the men's union.

Major Lloyd George

I hope that my hon. Friend will not press me on that, because I am to-day meeting the executive of the Miners' Federation.

Mr. Gallacher

Has this not been a continually developing crisis since the beginning of the war; and is it not the case that only the strong influence of the Scottish officials prevented similar troubles in many parts of Scotland? In view of this situation, would not the Minister accept the suggestion of the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. A. Bevan) and consider the question of Government control in the industry, during the war at any rate.

Major Lloyd George

May I bring my hon. Friend back to what we were talking about? I made a statement and what he has said has nothing to do with the dispute in Yorkshire.

Mr. Greenwood

May I put it to my right hon. and gallant Friend and to the House that as consultations are going on, the matter might be dropped.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.