HC Deb 02 May 1944 vol 399 cc1273-85
Mr. W. J. Brown (Rugby)

I wish to raise rather a different matter from that which is under discussion, but perhaps I may add one word to what has been already said. It seems to me that the conclusion to be drawn is that the Minister has done what he can do—

Major Thorneycroft (Stafford)

On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. While I do not wish in any way to preclude the hon. Member from pursuing the no doubt very interesting matter which he is going to raise, I would ask whether it would not be convenient for the House to finish first the subject which was under discussion?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. W. J. Brown) caught my eye, and I called him. I do not know what matter he is going to raise.

Mr. Bellenger (Bassetlaw)

We quite recognise, Mr. Speaker, that you have power to call any hon. Member who catches your eye, but I would like to point out that on a matter of great importance we shall want the attendance of the Minister, if some of us are successful later on in catching your eye. Would it not be for the convenience of the House, since the Minister concerned will be asked to stay in attendance until the matter can be raised after the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. W. J. Brown) has submitted the fresh matter, if we continued the Debate upon the same subject, and finished with it?

Sir H. Williams

The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards), when he got your assent, Mr. Speaker, to raise this matter on the Adjournment, tacitly assumed that he and the Minister would have half an hour in which to deal with it. They have had an hour, owing to the other business being finished early. There are many other matters to be raised. Why should an hon. Member who expected half an hour, and has already carried on for an hour, think he is entitled to the rest of the Sitting?

Mr. Driberg (Maldon)

If, Mr. Speaker, the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. W. Brown) should be graceful enough to yield now to the hon. and gallant Member for Stafford (Major Thorneycroft), who wishes to pursue this very important subject, would he be likely to be fortunate enough to catch your eye later?

Mr. Speaker

I hesitate to say in advance what I may do. I understand that the hon. Member who initiated the previous discussion has already had an hour. I must point out that the Minister has no right to make a further reply.

Mr. W. J. Brown

If the hon. Member has had an hour, he should not object that somebody tries to introduce another matter. My judgment upon that subject is that the Minister has done what he could, within the limits of the Regulation, which is narrowly drawn, but if the Minister reaches the conclusion, as I do, that the Regulation does not give him enough power to catch all sorts of people, who ought to be caught, because they are engaged in land speculation, I hope that he will not hesitate to come to the House of Commons for wider powers, which will enable him to deal with the kind of case which we have been discussing.

The matter which I want to raise is of a rather different order. I want to raise a question arising out of the speech delivered at Bristol on Saturday night by the Minister of Labour. In my opinion, that speech represented the greatest misservice and disservice to this country, at a very critical hour in its military fortunes. The description given by the Minister of the Debate here on Friday was an unscrupulous travesty of what took place. The statement of the Minister of Labour at Bristol that he had listened to the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. A. Bevan) attacking the trade union movement for half an hour, was as much a lie as the statement which the Minister of Labour described as "a lie" during the Debate on Friday. The issue between the Minister of Labour and the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale is not my primary purpose in raising this matter. I think that a grave disservice was rendered to the people in Britain on Saturday by a speech which suggested that on the eve of the second front there was a danger of 3,000,000 people ceasing work in Britain. If the ordinary soldier took that seriously, it would send him into battle in a very downcast frame of mind. If the country treated it seriously, it would give a wrong impression of the attitude of organised labour in Britain. If the world treated it seriously, it would get a strange idea of the mentality of the people of Britain on the eve of the greatest military opera- tion in history. There is no justification for what the Minister said on Saturday. It was not dissimilar to what he said here on Friday. He talked about the Government being confronted with a situation in which 3,000,000 men might be out of work. It was plain to those of us who know something about the labour movement, that he was referring to three main strikes. One was the coal strike, the second was the London bus strike, and the third was the gas strike. To suggest that the coal strike was the result of the work of outside agitators or "instigators," which needed to be put right by a special Regulation, is to suggest something which every Member, especially on this side of the House, knows to be untrue. There have been serious strikes in the coal trade and I, as much as anybody, deplore that they should take place in present conditions, but everyone of us knows that the cause of those strikes has not been the outside "instigation" of anybody. It has been the natural resentment of men at the anomalous terms of an award by the Porter Committee, which would not have been necessary if the Government had faced their responsibilities in the matter.

As regards the London bus strike, it is equally true to say that there is not the slightest foundation for suggesting that it was the result of outside instigators or inciters. I know something about that industry. The plain fact is that in that industry, the majority of the servants of which are represented by the union of which the Minister of Labour was general secretary until he became Minister of Labour, the cause of strikes is to-day, and has been for ten years past, the merciless speeding up of schedules by the London Passenger Transport Board. I think it a disgrace that a great trade union leader should get up and suggest that there was any danger of the strike of 3,000,000 men. There never was, and he knows it as well as I do.

Mr. Evelyn Walkden (Doncaster)

The Minister of Labour never said that, and I challenge the hon. Member in the name of honesty. The Minister never said that there was a danger of 3,000,000 people going on strike, and if the hon. Member refers to HANSARD he will find sufficient evidence to be truthful with the House.

Mr. Brown

I will pass over the last part of that statement because I want to deal with a serious issue. I listened to the speech of the Minister of Labour on Friday, and I read it on Saturday. Although it became clear on subsequent analysis that what he meant was, not that 3,000,000 men would go on strike, but that 3,000,000 men would be put out of work, the initial phraseology he used would have conveyed to anybody that what he had in mind was a strike of 3,000,000 men. Whatever he meant, I say that for the Minister of Labour to convey to the country that there was a danger of a stoppage of 3,000,000 men was utterly wrong and ill-founded.

Mr. E. Walkden

Will the hon. Member allow me—

Mr. Brown

No, I will not. My hon. Friend will have an opportunity to have his say when I sit down, and I hope I shall be allowed to develop a serious argument.

Sir Percy Harris (Bethnal Green, South-West)

On a point of Order. I assume that my hon. Friend has advised the Minister of Labour that he is going to raise this criticism on the Adjournment? If so, a representative of the Ministry ought to be present.

Mr. Brown

I did not anticipate that, of the 324 Conservative Members who were here on Friday, there would be fewer than about 50 here to-day. I did not expect a situation in which the Debate would collapse so early, and what I am doing is to take advantage of the occasion which the Adjournment gives me, to raise certain matters about which I feel strongly.

Mr. Beverley Baxter (Wood Green)

Even if 324 Conservatives are not here, there are others who are willing to take the hon. Member's place. Would it not have been a matter of courtesy for the hon. Member to have informed the Department?

Mr. Brown

When I came here to-day, I never thought there was an outside chance that the Debate would collapse so early. It is not my business to provide the Business for the day. That is the business of the Government, and it is the business of the supporters of the Government to sustain the Debate. If an occa- sion arises when the Debate collapses early, those of us who feel strongly about matters are entitled to use Parliamentary time to express our point of view.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture (Mr. Tom Williams)

I think it is fair to say that one of the three representatives of the Ministry of Labour is not in this country. Both the other two may very well be involved in meetings previously arranged over which they have no control, and it ought clearly to be understood that they are not subject to criticism for not being here. Neither of them enjoys the gift of prophecy, and I hope that hon. Members, in anything they may say, will have regard to the fact that their absence may be enforced.

Mr. Brown

I do not make a word of complaint that no representative of the Ministry of Labour is here. If I had given notice a week ago to raise this matter on the Adjournment, and if no Minister was here, I would have had reason to complain, but I have no reason to complain, and I have made no complaint. If neither of the representatives of the Ministry can be here I am sorry. But I need only point out that there are many hundreds of towns in Britain, besides Bristol, and if there is anything I say to which the Ministry of Labour wants to reply, there are plenty of Saturday evenings, and many towns, where he can do it.

The Minister's speech at Bristol misrepresented the position to the country. What was the picture that he drew? Here was Britain on the edge of a great military operation, and here was a "vast industrial volcano" developing under the feet of the Government; that industrial volcano was in the main the result of "outside inciters" and "instigators," and nothing would meet the situation but the adoption by the Government of extraordinary Measures such as Regulation IAA. I affirm that that is a travesty of the situation in Britain at this time, that the Minister did a public disservice in presenting it as a picture of Britain at this time, and that he did not at Bristol give a single convincing reason for the adoption of that Regulation. What are the considerations that arise? When the House is asked to adopt, and the Minister advocates a Regulation of that kind, we are entitled to ask a number of questions. One, have the Government powers enough under the existing law to deal with the situation? Two, if they have not, is it necessary for them to acquire additional powers? Three, if they have, is this the power that ought to be acquired? Four, will this power, if applied, achieve the desired result? Five, what will be the effect of the exercise of that power on the trade union structure in Britain? Finally, what will its effects be on the long-term approach to peace in Britain?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member is reopening the question that we debated last Friday. That, clearly, is out of Order. He cannot revive a Debate that has already been concluded, for there is a rule against debating the same subject in one Session.

Mr. Stokes (Ipswich)

If the Minister took part in the Debate and then goes into the country and uses arguments which he never used in the Debate, although he had an opportunity, surely a Member has a right to answer him on the Adjournment?

Mr. Speaker

Not necessarily. Some particular new aspects put by the Minister in his Bristol speech can be discussed, ibut not the whole subject.

Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton)

Surely the position is this. If my hon. Friend keeps off the Debate or anything the Minister said in the Debate, he is in Order. If he refers only to what the Minister said at Bristol, he is in Order.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member is also out of Order if he discusses the decision we came to in the Debate.

Captain Cunningham-Reid (St. Marylebone)

It seems to me that the Rule concerning repetition is becoming somewhat chaotic, because only the other day the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) again brought up the subject of the Jews in the Polish Army, which was a distinct repetition of a previous Debate, and no exception was taken to it.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member was allowed to raise it again because I understood that there were new facts. The hon. and gallant Member will recollect that he himself has fallen a victim to that Rule.

Mr. Brown

I want to deal with what I regard as this utterly deplorable speech at Bristol. It seems to me that, subject to what you say, Mr. Speaker, I shall be in Order in attacking the Minister for the way he presented the case of the House of Commons to the country, and that I would be justified in attacking either the grounds he put forward, or the grounds he failed to put forward; that is, both the positive and the negative aspects of the speech at Bristol. It was a deplorable performance. The Minister gave no evidence that this Regulation was necessary. It is true that he said he had a volcanic situation to deal with, but he did not give the slightest evidence that that was the result of outside instigators or inciters. He gave no evidence that the Government did not already possess adequate powers. The present powers of the Government are very wide, and it would not exaggerate too much to say that they have power to put us in prison every time we sneeze. They can put us in prison for "causing alarm and despondency"; they can put us in prison for "conduct prejudicial to the safety of the realm." They have an omnibus power, under 18B, to put us in gaol with no ground at all cited for doing it. They have ample powers for dealing with the situation. The Minister, in his Bristol speech, gave no evidence that the existing powers were inadequate, nor did he give any evidence that this particular power was called for. This is a power which introduces a new principle into English law:—the principle of discrimination between two men who do the same thing if one is a trade unionist and the other a non-unionist, and which imposes penalties in one case which it does not impose in the other.

Mr. Lipson (Cheltenham)

On a point of Order. Is it the speech which the Minister made at Bristol that does all this, or is it a matter which was decided by the House last Friday?

Mr. Speaker

I have listened very carefully, and my impression was that the hon. Member was saying what the right hon. Gentleman had not said at Bristol. He was explaining what the Minister had not said, and referring to what had been said in the Debate last Friday. I think he had better be more careful.

Mr. Brown

I think it will put me in Order if I say that the Minister of Labour, in that Bristol speech, advanced no justification for a new Regulation which differentiated between trade unionists on the one hand and non-unionists on the other. In that Bristol speech he gave no evidence that the policy he was pursuing would yield the desired result. The whole House would agree that the desired result was to prevent a diminution in output at a critical stage of the war effort. I share that view as much as any hon. Member. I have two sons in the Armed Forces, and I do not want their position to be made any more difficult by anything that happens in this country. But there are two ways by which production can be lost. One is by an outright stoppage, whereby so many thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of men cease work. The other, and, in my view, the much more serious, is by a diminution of enthusiasm on the part of millions of men, because they feel that something is being put across them behind their backs. I assert, with regret but with conviction, that the net result of what the Minister defended at Bristol, may be to stop a certain number of strikes, but with disastrous effects to the efforts of millions of men in the factories. I believe that that speech at Bristol will contribute largely to that result. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] That is my view, and I think I am as closely in touch with workpeople in the factories as other hon. Members.

I deplore unofficial strikes, but I cannot help recollecting that the Labour movement in Britain has been built up on strikes. The great dock strike of 1891 was led by Tom Mann, an engineer, and Mr. Cunningham-Grahame, a Scottish landowner, both of whom would have been liable to gaol under the policy advocated by the Minister of Labour in his Bristol speech as "outside instigators." But that dock strike was an historical landmark in the evolution of the Labour movement in Britain. Apparently the Minister has not heard that agitation is never the occasion of a strike, but that a strike is often the occasion of agitation! The Labour movement has been built up in this country on a recognition of that fact, which the Minister so signally failed to appreciate in the speech he delivered at Bristol.

I take the view that the policy advocated by the Minister on Saturday takes us the most serious step, so far, along the road to the "servile State." I remember the book which Hilaire Belloc wrote on that subject 25 years ago. I was then a young man of 25, and I thought that he was sketching a wholly remote and fantastic possibility. But today I am not so sure that he was not wiser than all of us. Because he foresaw that the evolution of things in Britain might reach a stage where you had not only the power of the State, but, associated with that, the power of the trade unions, and that the two, operating together, would produce a situation not dissimilar from that which I saw in America two years ago. There the workmen were tied hand and foot by the union, and the union had sold out to the employer. In the 19th century there was a tendency for capitalists to compete against each other. Later, the tendency was for the capitalists to combine against the community. Still later, the tendency was for the trade unions to fight the capitalists. At a still later stage, the tendency is for the trade unions to combine with the capitalists. Then, you have both, marching straight ahead to the totalitarian State.

Mr. E. Walkden

And the hon. Member marches with the trade unionists.

Mr. Brown

It is true that I am a trade union officer, and it is because I have a deep love for the trade union movement that I am sensible of the danger. I see no greater danger confronting the trade unions than that of becoming the instrument of the capitalists in denying freedom to the workers.

Mr. E. Walkden

That is why the hon. Member has created another trade union.

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman laughs at his own joke, amid the silence of the rest of us, who do not see it.

Mr. E. Walkden

We know that the hon. Member created another union, with someone else's money, and the rest of us do not know where the money came from.

Mr. Brown

It is true that I have started three unions—

Mr. E. Walkden

The hon. Member is an expert on it.

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman has made a charge that I have started a union on someone else's money. If that were true, I do not know that there would be anything shameful about it, because it is part of the practice of capitalists to start businesses on borrowed money! But, in point of fact, I have started three unions. I formed the Civil Service Clerical Association. That was formed on the money of myself, and others like me, who were clerks in the Government service. It started with 300 members, and now has 150,000; and there has never been a penny of outside money in it. [Interruption.] If that charge is made, I think I ought to be allowed to reply. The second union which I helped to start was the Association of Prison Officers, and to that neither I nor anybody else contributed any money: it was formed by the men themselves, who came to us for help. A third union which I helped to form was the National Passenger Workers' Union, which was a breakaway from the union led by the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Labour, the Transport and General Workers' Union. Towards that I advanced £200, which I rejoice to say has all been repaid.

Mr. E. Walkden

Was all that office equipment bought out of £200?

Mr. Brown

The hon. Member knows well enough that when I speak about my personal affairs, popular or unpopular, I speak the truth. I have recited the simple facts about the three unions with which I have been connected. But it does not matter with what unions I have been connected. What does matter is the effect on the trade unions of the policy elaborated by the speech of the Minister of Labour at Bristol.

I hold the view that, when the war comes to an end, the problem of transition from war to peace is going to be very difficult and complicated. It is going to be much more difficult than at the end of the last war. Because of the degree to which this war has bitten deeper and hit wider than the last war, the problems of readjustment from war to peace will be correspondingly greater. One of the indispensable elements of a peaceful solution of our post-war problems is the existence of a trade union movement, strong, honoured, and independent.

Mr. Bartle Bull (Enfield)

I wish the hon. Member would organise a trade union for us in the House of Commons.

Mr. Brown

I could hardly advance with conscientious conviction the claim for shorter hours in which I should be involved. I should find it difficult to sustain the claim that Members should be paid their salaries, whether they were present or not. Altogether, the problem of leading a union for Members of Parliament would prove too difficult for so straightforward a mind as my own. Not even the assistance of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) would enable me to overcome that. But I am serious when I urge that one of the elements of a peaceful transition from war to peace will be a strong, independent, and honoured trade union movement in Britain. I regret to say that I think that the path which is being taken will give us, at the end of this war, not a strong trade union movement, not an independent trade union movement, and not an honoured trade union movement. For the trade union movement of my day is apparently content to accept the position of junior partner with the majority shareholders of that side of the House, and to devote most of its energies to expelling any independent figure in its own ranks! I regard it as a tragedy that the trade union movement of Britain should be taking that line. I think it is taking, unconsciously, the line which was taken by social democracy in Germany, which brought Hitler to power. I see in it a replica of what happened in Austria. I marvel that Members on this side of the House, with the experience of all Europe before them, should be so blind as they apparently are.

There was one other thing which the Minister said at Bristol to which I wish to make a reference. He attacked the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale for knocking down "the base ladder whereby he did ascend."—He so far misconceived the situation as to invert it! The charge against the Minister of Labour, in his speech at Bristol, is that he was knocking down the base ladder by which he did ascend, not in form, but in fact. [An HON. MEMBER: "It was a heavier ladder."] Yes! it is a much heavier ladder for it has a heavier weight to bear. I want to say that I think there is a national interest in asking the Minister of Labour, as the price of his office, to refrain from making any more speeches whatever.

Mr. E. Walkden

What advice to offer.

Mr. Lipson

Would the hon. Member be in favour of free speech for Ministers?

Mr. Brown

Certainly, I am only asking for silence, not commanding it. I ask for a little self-discipline by the Minister of Labour. I am confident that, every time the Minister speaks in defence of the kind of Regulation discussed on Friday, something of the heart goes out of the working class movement in Britain, something disappears of the spirit with which the masses of the people in Britain entered upon the war, something diminishes of the hopes they entertain of the outcome of the war, and a deeper note of despair and cynicism settles in among the mass of the people. For all these reasons, I deeply regret the speech which the right hon. Gentleman made at Bristol, and I should have liked to have answered it before the right hon. Gentleman made it. I sought the opportunity of answering it before he made it, on Friday. Now I take the opportunity, after he has made it, of replying to it on Tuesday. There are times when it is expedient in the capitalist interest to embrace the trade unions. Do not carry the embracement to the pitch of strangulation, or you may find that you may have in your arms, not a living lover, but a dead corpse.

Mr. Driberg

Since the joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture has been good enough to remain in the House, may I ask him one question in support of the demand, urged by the hon. and gallant Member for Accrington (Major Procter) for the strengthening of Regulation 62 (4A)? Did I understand him to say that one of the two considerations on which the Minister confirms these orders to quit is the possibility of an increase in production? If so, surely, the interests of production must be so paramount with the Minister that something less vague and uncertain than a mere possibility must be demanded? Does he not consider the probability as well as the possibility—the new purchaser's record and experience as a practical farmer, and so forth? Can he reconsider strengthening that Regulation?

Mr. Stokes (Ipswich)

On a point of Order. Has the Minister exhausted his right to speak? May he not answer a question and that is all?

Mr. Briberg

Surely, by leave of the House, he can give an answer?

Mr. Speaker

The Minister having spoken, he can only speak again with the leave of the House.

Mr. T. Williams

I certainly do not wish to intervene to rob other hon. Members of their prescriptive right. I would only say that the Minister does take into consideration every relevant fact bearing upon future production.