HC Deb 29 June 1944 vol 401 cc929-38

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

Major C. S. Taylor (Eastbourne)

On 25th May last I asked the Minister of Labour a Question about certain aspects of the scheme, which has been brought into being, of a ballot for the coalmines. I do not much like having to raise this matter to-day, when military operations are progressing with such vigour and such good effect, but, for a country that has resisted so long all ideas of national or State lotteries, I believe that this ballot scheme is, to put it mildly, very unwelcome. All of us, perhaps, like a little bit of a flutter or a small gamble, but in this case those mostly concerned are not entering the gamble because they want to do so; they are not in any way staking their worldly goods. They are merely the chips of the party, by Government decree, and they are being gambled with to decide whether they shall be allowed to play their part in winning this war in the way they would like to do it or be sent underground to the coalmines.

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

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

Major Taylor

In war-time, some people may say that this is not particularly harsh, as I think everybody throughout the whole country has had to suffer some hardship or inconvenience due to wartime conditions, but the case that I want to put to-day is the case of the boy who has joined the A.T.C., or some other pre-Service organisation, and who, having fitted himself for a Service life, and perhaps a Service career, having trained himself and become enthralled with the idea of the Service into which he hoped to go, is debarred, by the unlucky draw of a ticket from a hat, and is sent down a coalmine. He is no longer a possible recipient of the V.C. or some other lesser decoration for gallantry, about which he has so often dreamed. He is sent away to do a job for which he has no training whatever.

I do not think anybody will accuse me of being a snob, and I am not making a special appeal for any class of boy in this matter. I believe that all those who go into pre-Service organisations should have the same chances and opportunities, and I and some of my hon. Friends feel that those who prove themselves willing and fit by training for modern warfare, those who aspire to be parachutists or glider pilots, or even the ordinary, plain infantry soldier, should not be sent forcibly down coalmines. I believe there are a number of miners in the Services now who would only be too ready and willing to return to their pre-war occupations and to their wives and families, and I would like to know from the Parliamentary Secretary whether any suggestion has been made to these ex-miners. They know, of course, that a miner gets very much more pay than, a soldier, but I want to ask if they have been invited to return and if it has been explained to them that they would come back to their wives and families and their pre-war occupations. Has the suggestion been made to ex-miners who have had three or four years abroad? I feel that many of them would welcome the opportunity to return if the suggestion were put forward in the proper way. I want to know why it is that, when you have these skilled workers in an industry who are, or could be made, available, you should take skilled workers or men who are training to become skilled workers, from another industry, the Army, because there is no more skilled workman than the private soldier in the Army in these days.

We know there has been a serious coal shortage, and I am afraid it is very largely due to weakness on the part of the Government. I am not going into the merits or demerits of private enterprise or State control, but I must say that the miner, who has a very unpleasant job to do, deserves fair and good wages, but he has not got the danger, and has got far better pay than the man in the Army. [Interruption.] I wish I had time to read a number of letters which I have received about these boys who have become known as Bevin boys. I want however to read some extracts from one of them. It came from a sergeant in the Royal Engineers, who writes about his younger son being ordered down the mine. He is a sergeant who was evacuated from France and went all through the North African campaign. He has five brothers, all volunteers in the Services, and the whole family is proud of the record. At the age of 17 the youngest son volunteered for the Navy and was accepted, but there was no vacancy, so he volunteered for the Army. He passed all his tests and he was told to go home and wait until he was called up, and he eventually was not allowed to join the Army but was sent to the pits.

Some of the Bevin boys have done a grand job and they have not reasoned why, but because the letter must be observed I should like to know how many potentially brave soldiers have been perhaps sent to prison because they refused to obey the Minister of Labour's directions to go down the pits. It would be interesting also to know how many, if any, of the men who joined in unofficial strikes in various industries have been sent to prison for disobeying Government orders. I do not believe that the boys who disobey the order are cowards. Everyone admits the need in these days for conscription for National Service, but we still like to believe and think that we are a free people. The scheme of the ballot is something quite different and is taking away a little too much of our freedom. I believe now that poker has been made an illegal game. We should stop using chaps as chips. The fate of these boys is not decided by merit, by their training or their desire to serve but more or less by the spin of a wheel.

I urge the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary to get together and reconsider this very undesirable system, and if they are still convinced that it must remain, I urge them to consider exempting those who have shown themselves specially fitted for a Service career. The hon. and gallant Member for Oxford University (Petty Officer Herbert) wrote a poem on this subject, and I make no apology for reading it to the House before I sit down: Yes, Yes, my boy, by all means train for war: Do knots and splices, morse and semaphore; And learn to drill, and how to use a gun, To sail the ocean, and destroy the Hun. Study the stars, the secrets of the sky, And fix your dreams upon the day you fly. And then, when you're proficient, keen and fit, We'll raffle you, and put you down a pit. Science prevails. The more that we advance The fewer things we like to leave to Chance. See how the racehorse, from the age of two, Is fashioned for the job he has to do. We do not train the falcon or the hound And then decide to send them underground. But when we want our boys to give their best We use a hat—and Fortune does the rest.

Mr. Glanville (Consett)

The hon. and gallant Gentleman who has just finished his marvellous oration has talked about the mining industry as though it were something to be despised and about the Army as a glorious career.

Major Taylor


Mr. Glanville

The hon. and gallant Member has talked about the dangers of the men in the Forces and about the high wages of the men in the mines. He thinks that our right to work in the mines is the heritage of those of us who are born miners. The hon. and gallant Member may shake his head as he likes. I commenced work in a coalmine at twelve years of age. I only finished it six months ago when I came to this House. I feel that the whole of my life I have followed an honourable occupation and worked among heroes. Every man among them is a hero. Where are our young miners? After the capitulation of France the coal mines in our areas were closed down. These men were not allowed to remain idle and draw the dole; they were drafted to the factories all over the country to assist in supplying munitions of war. From there they were automatically transferred to the Services at calling-up age. That is where all our young miners are. We have many young miners at this moment who would return to the mines to-morrow but the unfortunate thing is that they are soldiers who are really necessary in this war. They are out on the various fronts going through hell—as they have done all their lives in the coalmines. You cannot bring them back and send these ballotees out to take their places.

The man-power problem of this country is surely a difficult one, and any man at the moment ought to go wherever he is directed, realising that every job is important. What is wrong with the ballot? The hon. Member says it is a lottery—a lottery in human beings. Well, in the mines we put what is called a "cable" in every three months. We have good places and bad places in the pit. The name of every man goes into the "cable" every three months, so that if he gets a bad "cable" one quarter and has to work under wet, low, and difficult conditions, he has a possibility, in three months' time, of getting a good one. What is wrong with that? All our lives we have been balloted—we have come out of the hat. It is not a new experience for us, but now it is affecting other people.

Let me say this. Stop talking about these lads as boys—they are not boys, they are men. They are 18 years of age, the youngest of them. I went down a coalmine when I was twelve, and I was a developed, experienced man by the time I was 18. Why instil the spirit of fear into these lads? Why not accept it as a "cable" which is drawn only for a temporary period? As soon as we have reached the successful conclusion of this war our own boys will come home, and they will supply all the coal that is necessary. Surely if the right hon. Gentleman has said that so much man-power is available, so much is needed here, so much there, so much in the Forces, so much in the mines, under a system of conscription of man-power, every man, no matter where he draws his "cable," ought to be prepared to shoulder his responsibilities. The miners invariably go wherever their "cable" takes them; they always face up to their responsibilities.

Let me say this in conclusion. The young fellows who are going up there to train will get every encouragement and assistance from the men already in the industry. We welcome them. We understand that the job is new to them. We understand that it will be strange, but why terrify them before they come, and why seek these subterfuges and dodges to take them away from their responsibilities? Why not say, "Well, boys, it is the luck of the ballot. Go that way." But hon. Members opposite seem to think that we are the only people, that we were bred and born to be miners and we have no right to expect to be anything else; that we are a sort of underground rats for you people; that we were made to ferret in little holes, while you glory on the surface. It is quite a horrible view, and it says very little indeed for the patriotism of the people who occupy those benches.

Major Taylor rose——

Mr. Glanville

I am not concerned with interjections. I do not talk much in this Chamber but when I do, I know what I am talking about. I say again that we accept as inevitable that there must be conscription of man-power when there is a shortage. That was accepted as a general principle. But as soon as it comes to the point where your sons have to enter the horrible occupation of coalmining, you are immediately up in arms and you say, "Oh, but we did not mean them to go down the mines at all." Hon. Members opposite will not be able to forget that, and when miners apply for increased wages and shorter hours after the war, they will not be able to say that that application should not succeed.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. McCorquodale)

I think it is a good thing that we are having this brief Debate today. The hon. Member for Consett (Mr. Glanville) will not mind if I do not follow him into the matter of wages and hours after the war, otherwise I should not have time to say what I really want to say. The House has accepted the principle of the ballot, as being the fairest and most impartial method of recruitment of a special class of young men to the mines. I say that definitely because I, at any rate, have not heard of any other solution of the problem which could be compared in fairness to that. I do not believe any other solution has been forthcoming from any other quarter. I will not take up the time of the House by re-arguing the case of the ballot, but there are two things I would like to say about it: I agree with the hon. Member for Consett in saying that there is nothing wrong about going to work in a coalmine. There is no indignity in it, and I hope that that idea will never become widespread.

It is said that it is very hard for a young man who had been keen to go into the Services to be sent to the mines. Well, it is, but there are not very many thousands of boys who have been directed so far, whereas hundreds of thousands of women who have wished to go into the Armed Forces have been directed into industry, often dangerous, dirty and heavy work, in explosives and filling factories and the like. I have heard no complaints from the women at all, and I suggest to the young men who are making this fuss—there are only a few, thank goodness—that they should consider what their sisters have done in industry and what they are doing. They are doing a splendid job. There are exceptions to the ballot; there are special exceptions for certain military duties which had special treatment before the ballot was ever invented. The main exemption from the ballot is for those who volunteer and are accepted for flying duties, either in the Fleet Air Arm or the Royal Air Force. All those are exempted from the ballot. Before the ballot in many trades where they were not allowed to volunteer or enlist for other service they could volunteer for flying, and that is why we made that exception. Then those under the conscription age can volunteer, and there are one or two highly skilled categories who are always treated exceptionally.

If we make new categories of exemption from the ballot of boys who have been in one of the pre-Service training corps, we are making a breach in the impartiality of the ballot, and the breach would widen until the whole thing was swept away. An essential feature of the ballot is that all classes of the community are within the field of selection. Now boys from public schools, secondary, grammar and boarding schools almost all join one of the pre-Service training corps. In many places it is more or less compulsory. If we said that those who had been in the pre-Service training corps had exemption from the ballot, it would mean that we should remove those classes altogether, and I cannot believe that that would be acceptable in the light of the principle that all classes must come within the ballot. Therefore, if we are going to maintain this principle of the fairness of the ballot, we must not have any more exemptions, and I am afraid I cannot agree to any suggestion that boys who have been in pre-Service training corps should be exempted from the ballot. There are many boys who would like to join pre-Service training corps who have not had the facilities or opportunities to do so owing to the nature of their work or to where they have lived. If we are to be fair, we must not open any more exceptions. The ballot is working at the moment, admirably. There is very little trouble with it. The scheme is working very much better than we expected and I do not want to tinker with it, and possibly mess it up altogether.

The field of the ballot from the medical point of view is this. The ballot is confined to men under 25 and medically graded Grade 1 or Grade 2a (feet). Medical Grade 2a (feet) means Grade 1 physique but with some deformity of the lower extremities. If a boy who has passed in these Grades claims that he is unfit for mining, he is re-examined by a Medical Board. If he contends that he is suffering from claustrophobia and this is not accepted by the Medical Board, he is kept under observation at the training centre. If it is accepted, he is marked as unfit for coalmining. When men enter the Government training scheme they are inspected by a medical officer once more to see that there has been no obvious deterioration in their health. We allow all sorts of appeals to be heard to see that no exceptional hardship will be caused by the men being directed to the mines. Immediately after each ballot men whose numbers have been picked are sent a letter saying that they are selected for underground duties and that it is proposed to direct them to a training school for courses of training. The letter states that the man may appeal against his direction if he con-skiers that there are special circumstances. He has already had an opportunity of appealing on general hardship grounds when he has had his medical examination. Incidentally even after he has been accepted for the ballot and before he has received his direction, he can still volunteer for flying duties. If he is accepted he is excluded from the ballot.

When he gets to the Government training centre where he remains for a month, we endeavour to give him a short acclimatisation course. Emphasis is laid on very good physical training. I went round on a short inspection of some of our training centres with my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel, and I was much impressed with all I saw, especially with the physical exercises and training getting the men fit for the special strains they will have to undertake when they go down the mines. Lectures and cinema shows formed part of the training, together with a course on underground work and on a prepared tram above ground. We have found that wherever these young men have gone they have been welcomed wholeheartedly by the miners in the district. I cannot pay too high a tribute to the miners and their wives and families for the way they have accepted these young men. They have been billeted on them, and wherever I went in Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland—and I am told it is the same in other parts—there were no complaints from our welfare officers that there has been any lack of warmheartedness in the welcome the miners have given to these boys. I should also like to thank the managements who have co-operated with the Government training centres and the training managers for making the training as efficient as possible.

I was told everywhere I went that the young men, in arriving at the training centres and going down the mines for the first time, and generally entering into the life of the coalmining industry, have been one and all agreeably surprised at their welcome. They find that the life is not nearly so bad as they had been led to believe, and, indeed, a great number of them have taken to it with something akin to enthusiasm. The reports we have received on all hands show that the many thousands of those who have gone out of the training centres and into the pits are pulling their weight. We have had very few cases of young men who are not pulling their weight. In the overwhelming number of cases they are doing exceptionally well, and the mining industry is delighted to have them. I wish them luck.

Now the idea of training centres for the mining world is a new one and an interesting innovation, and I believe it will have far-reaching effects. I suggest that during the Recess hon. Members might pay a visit to one of the centres or one of the admirable hostels that have been put up by the Ministry of Works for housing some of these young men. I am sure they would be impressed and encouraged by the spirit in which these young men are going into the mining world. If hon. Members accept that invitation, I would like to suggest that they do not regard these young men as exhibits, but that they will go to see a decent lot of young Englishmen and Scotsmen doing a job of work which is the best they could possibly do in the interests of the life of the nation, at the present time.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.