HC Deb 11 May 1944 vol 399 cc2178-90

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

Mr. Tinker (Leigh)

I wish to raise a matter relating to miners in the Armed Forces. We cannot get a full explana- tion in such cases by way of Question and answer. I am not criticising the Ministry of Fuel and Power, but I am raising this subject in order to get a fuller explanation of the present position and to see whether any improvement can be made. Mining Members are constantly being asked to get release for miners in the Forces. We have done our best, but there is a certain amount of looseness, and nobody is able to answer our inquiries in the matter. The present position, as outlined on 16th December in reply to a Question by the Minister of Fuel and Power, is as follows: It is essential that my Ministry should have an offer of underground employment from a particular colliery before the War Office is approached. That is to say, anybody wanting to get release from the War Office should have had the offer of work. The Minister went on to say: Any man not barred by the age limitations who wishes to be considered should ask his commanding officer whether there are any military reasons to prevent his release and, if not, approach the colliery at which he wishes to work underground."—OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th December, 1943; col. 1718, Vol. 395.] That is where the trouble arose. Let us try to follow what happens to a man in the Forces who has worked in the mines previously but before joining the Forces had gone to some other job. In his desire to get away from the Forces because he thinks he can do better service in the mines he has to approach his commanding officer first of all, to see whether he can be released. The commanding officer says: "Yes, I think we can spare you." Then it is the man's task to approach some colliery manager to see whether the manager can get release for him. Because the man was not working in the mines immediately before he joined the Forces, no colliery manager seems anxious to have him, and so the man comes to a dead end. He cannot get the consent of any colliery official to take him on, although the Army is willing to release him. Because there is no offer of work for him the Ministry cannot allow this potential coal worker, of great value to the State, to go. Many hon. Members have experienced that kind of difficulty. We have done all we can. I have wandered from Department to Department and have had letter after letter, and finally the matter has come back to the point that as there is no work for the man he cannot be released.

We want to clear the matter up and we want the Minister to do something more definite. It is necessary that we should get into the mines all the available men who can be of any use at all. I put a Question down the other day in regard to the "Bevin boys" to see whether we were getting all the labour we needed. We require 720,000 persons in the mines. We are many thousands short, and the "Bevin boys" can hardly meet requirements at the present time. Even if the numbers are obtained they have to be trained. You cannot make a miner in a short time. It requires almost a lifelong experience to be an accomplished miner. Therefore, we say to ourselves, "If you have accomplished miners in the Forces who are willing to go back, and can be released, why should there be any difficulty?" Why should there not be some greater authority to say to the mineowners, "Here is a man from the Forces for you. You must take him on." So far as I am aware we have not arrived at that position at the moment. I am asking that this power should be given to the Regional Controller of every area.

Parliament is determined during the war not to let private enterprise have all its own way. A White Paper was submitted to the House that there should be reasonable control, and a voice in the management of the mines. I do not see any reason why we should not go a little further and say to the mineowners, "It is not for you to decide whom you shall take on. We want the mineworkers. Therefore, if you do not find work for a particular man released from the Forces the power should be vested in the Regional Controller to examine the whole position." If, say, in the case of Lancashire, there are 20 men who can be released from the Forces, and there is no one prepared to take them on, I want the Regional Controller to be able to say, "I shall allocate them to where I think they ought to go." This is the point I want cleared up. I ask that the Regional Controller shall have the power to allocate these men to the mines to which he thinks they ought to go, if possible as near to the men's homes as he can get them. If he does that it will save the men having to move about unduly.

The only reason why I am bringing this up is for the purpose of getting the position cleared up. It is very hard at the present time for mining Members. We are agitating for more mineworkers, and we get word that someone wants to come back from the Forces and we cannot get him a job, and when we appeal to what we think is the appropriate quarter they cannot do anything. Another point I wish to make is that it has been brought to my notice that certain people in different units have been told that they can be released from their units, even though they are under the age specified here. If that is so it is queering the position for these other people, because we have told them that they must be a certain age before they can be released. I may have no authority on this, but definitely we get word that some units have told certain of their men, "If you can get a job in the mines we can release you." When we get word to that effect we say, "Something is wrong. No one can be released before a certain age." We are told, "The commanding officer said that if we can get work we can be released"—that is, men who have had no previous mining experience. There is a mix-up somewhere, and I want it cleared up.

I want a definite lead to the whole country now, especially the mining areas, on what can be done regarding persons in the Armed Forces. If we can get a satisfactory answer on this it will go a long way towards alleviating the difficulty. There are many men in the Forces who would be serving the country better in the mines than where they are at the moment. I wish to make it clear that I do not advocate taking everybody out. There are key men, experienced men, in the Army whom it would be wrong to take away, because the job they are doing is the more essential one. But there are other men, with mining experience, who could be well spared from the Forces, and who could render greater service in the pits than in the Army. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to clear up 'the whole matter to-day. I ask, also, that whatever ruling he gives to-day should be communicated, as an order, to the Services, so that commanding officers may know exactly what powers they have.

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."—[Mr. Pym.]

Mr. Tinker

Let there be one definition, showing what the man can do and what should be done by the commanding officer. If we get this matter cleared up, we shall have done service to the miners, to the community, and to the Forces.

Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)

I want to support the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) in his efforts to secure some clarification of the position regarding the release of mineworkers from the Army. I will go a bit further back and quote from HANSARD, which, after all, is the authority. The hon. Member for East Rhondda (Mr. Mainwaring), on 19th October last, submitted a Question to the Minister of Fuel and Power, and the Minister, in a written reply, explained the method by which miners could get release from the Army. I will read the Question and the answer: Mr. MAINWARING asked the Minister of Fuel and Power what procedure is to be followed by mineowners, and/or ex-miners, to make application for release from the Armed Forces of those who had previously been in their employ? Major LLOYD GEORGE: Only men with previous underground experience serving in the Army at home who were born on or before 6th October, 1907 (6th October, 1913 in the case of the Pioneer Corps) will be considered for release. The War Office will supply my Ministry with particulars of such men who are not barred for military reasons and who are shown in War Office records as ex-underground workers. When it has been established that immediate underground work is available the War Office will be asked to authorise release. Within the limits indicated and subject to certain military provisos, the War Office are also prepared to consider applications for the release of men with previous underground experience who were not working in the coal-mining industry at the time of enlistment. Any such man who wishes to be considered should apply to the colliery at which he desires to work giving full particulars of his previous underground experience. The colliery will then apply to my Ministry and if it is clear that the applicant satisfies the age condition the War Office will be asked to consider the case."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th October, 1943; cols. 1221–2, Vol. 392.]. The concluding part of that answer caused a great deal of trouble and discontent. The statement was issued to the Press on 19th October. On 20th October the Ministry of Fuel and Power sent a circular to all mine managers or colliery companies within the British coalfields asking them to send word to the Ministry—I presume the Labour Bureau—making application for those men whom they thought it was advisable should be released for the purpose of the production of coal. My complaint is this. There is too long a delay—and the Parliamentary Secretary has already had intimation of this—between the application being made by the mine manager and the man's case being considered by the Ministry of Fuel and Power plus the War Office.

I have been inundated with letters from members of the Forces and also with letters from colliery companies, stating the difficulty they have in getting men released for mine work. I have not the time at my disposal now to read them, but I will mention one case. Immediately that circular was issued, the mine managers set to work to find out what number they required and what class of worker they required, and to send word to the Ministry of Fuel and Power, according to the instructions contained in the answer to the Question on 19th October. I have here a copy of a letter sent to the Department on 23rd November last, giving the date of birth and other particulars, the man's experience and what he was wanted for, and calling the attention of the Ministry of Fuel and Power to the importance of his being released, as he was a key man. Here is my complaint.

It was not until 1st March of this year that the colliery company got a reply from the Ministry that this man could not be released. I think that, by no stretch of imagination, should three months be taken to find out whether a man can be returned to the industry or not. Not only that, but this man, due to some confusion either at the Ministry or the War Office, had to suffer the unfortunate experience of having his pay stopped. When I got the letter stating that his pay had been stopped, simply because he had made application to be released for work in the mines, I took the matter up.

I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will not take it as a personal attack upon him, but I think there is a lack of co-ordination, co-operation and collaboration between the two Departments; it ought not to take so long to get that information. Here is a mine manager who makes application for the release of a particular man because of his adaptability and experience. He cannot make application for another man until he has received information from the War Office or the Ministry of Fuel and Power that that man can be released. Therefore, for three months, he is held up, waiting for a reply from one of these two Departments. We have a phrase in the pits—I do not know whether I should use it in the House, but I will do so—and it is "passing the can, "or" passing the buck."

This man wrote me several letters, and he has in his possession a copy of the letter given to him by his commanding officer, who said: "Yes, we can spare you, and you are in duty bound now to get back to the pit." I wrote to the Minister of Fuel and Power, and he replied that the matter was under consideration, but that it was in the hands of the War Office. I wrote to the War Office—in point of fact, I went down to the War Office with the particulars—and the War Office told me "It is in the hands of the Ministry of Fuel and Power."

Where are we? Talk about Dickens' "Circumlocution Office." It is not in it. There ought to be co-operation and collaboration between the two Departments. If a man comes into the category to be released there is at least three months' work lost due to delay. There is another point I want to raise in connection with the statement, "Colliery managers should apply." Colliery managers ought not to be given the power to apply for any men they want; it is wrong. We have been examining the figures in Lancashire. A statement was made in this House about the number of men released and we made a comparison last Monday. The figures in Lancashire for March, 1943, as compared with March, 1944, show that 136 more men were employed in the collieries of Lancashire and Cheshire in 1944. I beg of the Parliamentary Secretary and his Department that, if they intend to release the men, they should speed up the machinery so that they can get back to work when they are anxious to work in the pits.

Mr. Foster (Wigan)

I would like to lend support to the plea put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) for clarification of this matter. The scheme for the release of miners is badly conceived. It puts the obligation for release in the hands of the colliery manager, and there are any number of cases where a colliery manager, when approached by a member of the Forces, has refused to make application for his release. That sort of thing lends itself to a form of victimisation of men who, perhaps, have not been altogether satisfactory to a particular colliery manager when previously employed. Further, the scheme has not been properly carried out either by the Ministry of Fuel and Power or by the military and other authorities. It is a singular thing but true that, if a colliery manager makes an effort to secure the release of a member of the Forces, he can generally succeed.

The charge I make against the Ministry of Fuel and Power is that there are men who have been released who do not conform to all the conditions laid down under the scheme. They are too young to start with, and I do not know whether they conform to the medical category or other conditions that are laid down. My other charge against the War Office or other Service Department is that, in many cases, members of the Armed Forces have been approached by their commanding officers when they have been under age. I have sent a case to the Ministry of Fuel and Power of a member of the Air Force who is not yet 22 years of age. He was approached by his commanding officer and asked if he would volunteer for the mines. He volunteered. His medical category was all right and he satisfied the other conditions. He approached the colliery manager and made application for his release, and after all the machinery had been gone through, his release was refused, and yet in other cases release has been granted. I know that there are explanations for that from the Departments, and probably the Parliamentary Secretary will have an effective explanation in reply to the charge that I make against the Ministry of Fuel and Power. I honestly believe that a lot of the confusion has arisen from the fact that the original scheme has not been carried out in its entirety.

I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to clear up this matter, and to lay down a definite procedure to be taken to obtain release. We, as mining Members in particular, are inundated with letters from ex-miners in the Armed Forces who think they would be rendering the nation a better service by being in the pits getting coal instead of brushing out some shed or hanging about some camp, or not doing what they consider to be work of national importance. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary can clear up the matter.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. Tom Smith)

I am sure nobody will complain at any time of the tone and temper of my hon. Friends from Lancashire with regard to this and other matters, and I think I can say that generally they can take it for granted that we in the Ministry of Fuel and Power will do all we possibly can to get men into the pits in order to get coal. Evidently there is a little confusion. That is why I think the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) asked for clarification. It is true that on 19th October last the outline of a scheme was given in answer to a Question. There were two age limits laid down: one was 36 years of age in the Home Forces generally, and the other was 30 years in the case of the Pioneer Corps. There was also a proviso that the War Office had the final say as to whether any individual would be released or not. I am sure my hon. Friends will agree with me that it is not my particular "pigeon" at the moment. Later on—and this may account for the confusion of the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker)—it was agreed that men of any age who were in medical category C. could be considered. There are many units from which release is impossible and the War Office, as I say, reserve the right to refuse.

Mr. Foster

Have they not had to have previous underground experience?

Mr. Smith

I am coming in a minute to the different methods. There are two procedures. There were men known to the War Office as ex-underground workers. In their case the War Office supplied particulars of men, not barred for medical reasons, who were shown in their records as ex-underground workers. We offered these men to the collieries at which they wished to work, and if they were accepted, release applications were made. If they were refused, we then asked our regions to try and find employment unless the colliery reasons for rejection were sound. It may be that in individual cases work has not been found, but I can assure my hon. Friends that a good many men have been found employment by our regional officers. It is only fair to say that.

Then comes another case. It will be realised that there are many men in the Army with previous underground experience who were not shown in the War Office records as colliery workers. For instance, a man may have had many years' experience in the pits but owing to some cause had to leave the colliery and go into another occupation before going into the Army. In that case he would not be classified as an ex-miner underground worker. When the War Office agreed to consider applications for the release of such men, all collieries were advised to make the necessary application for release. Now there was considerable publicity and the men were advised to apply to the collieries at which they wished to work. All applications made by the collieries, excluding a few which related to men clearly inadmissible as regards their age condition, were sent to the War Office and there is still a steady flow of applications.

There has been another alternative, that is with regard to men in the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines and the Royal Air Force. Hon. Members will recall that in February the Minister announced that certain men with previous underground experience, serving in these branches of the Forces, would be considered for release. This is the procedure: information as to the conditions governing eligibility for release was issued to units by the Admiralty and the Air Ministry, and all men who qualified for consideration have an opportunity to see the conditions. All applications had to be made to commanding officers, in the first instance, and their decision as to eligibility for consideration is final. If the conditions are satisfied, forms are completed, giving full particulars of the men, and are sent by commanding officers to the Admiralty or Air Ministry. The Service Departments send us forms for men they are prepared to release and we offer them to the collieries at which they wish to work. If the men are accepted we make release applications to the Service Departments. If they are not we ask our regional officers to try to find employment unless the colliery's reason for rejection is sound.

Mr. Tinker

Can the Regional Controller insist on work being found for a man, if he is satisfied that he is eligible?

Mr. Smith

We have power of direction over civilians through the Ministry of Labour and National Service, but up to now no compulsion has been used the case of ex-miners available for release for the Forces, and I do not think we have power to compel. But in some regions we have disagreed strongly with some of the managers' reasons and we have got men back to work, although, in the first instance, the collieries did not want them back. But, as I say, we have not exercised compulsion, and I doubt whether in these cases we have it.

Mr. Bernard Taylor (Mansfield)

Is there an age qualification for naval personnel?

Mr. Smith

I am not quite sure, but I am inclined to think there is not. Last Tuesday we gave, in answer to a Question by my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh, a very full answer on this subject. Let me now try to break down a few of the figures that were then given, in order to show the difficulties with which our officers have to contend. Out of 1,848 men, the Ministry of Fuel and Power returned to the War Office, as not being required, 136. Obviously, we were trying to get underground workers, particularly skilled men, back to the mines and of that 136 there were 55 who were either surface workers or unwilling to return to underground work. The medically unfit numbered 33. Here I want to say that some men have been released from the Forces to work in the pits whose physical condition was such that it would have been wrong to send them down the pits.

Dr. Morgan (Rochdale)

Yet they were fit for the Services.

Mr. Smith

That is another matter. In one case I know very well it would have been wrong to have insisted on the man going below ground. Of the 1,848 men, 22 came in the category of unsatisfactory and persistent absentees. I have handled some of the individual cases with the regions concerns, and some have been pretty difficult. We have managed to get some back, but there were 22 that we could not. We have had men released who have been out of coal mining for so long that obviously they were not fitted for the work they were expected to do, and there are others who said they had had certain experience but we found on checking up that they had not had the requisite experience. There have also been men who were fit for by-work but were not fit for coal face work, and at some of the collieries we have not been able to absorb them simply because there were not vacancies for that particular type. I am talking generally now and not particularly with regard to Lancashire.

We have said that, if there is any individual case which anyone thinks has been treated unfairly, we are quite prepared to go into it. I anticipated that my hon. Friend the Member for Ince would charge us with delay. In listening to him, if I had not known the facts, I should have thought he had a good case, but he has not. There was such a large number of legitimate cases coming in that colliery managers were told not to send applications for any man who did not come within the scheme and, naturally, cases obviously outside the scheme were delayed and attention was paid to men who wanted to get back. But the colliery manager ought not to have sent that case in. I sent my hon. Friend a letter which I think quite disposed of that. One could apologise for undue delay if need be, but this was a case that ought not to have been sent in. I have had letters from my hon. Friends and I do not think any of them could complain of lack of attention on the part of the Ministry, but this is not one of those things that you can go straight away and get into. There must be checking and records must be looked up. There are bound to be applications to colliery companies and in some cases colliery managers had to be reminded more than once to send in these applications. Some of them have told me they have had so many forms to fill in that they admitted they had not sent the applications in as quickly as they ought.

On the whole, looking at the scheme, imperfect though it may be, with all its limitations with regard to the C.O. having the final say, I do not think the Ministry of Fuel and Power need be ashamed of the way they have handled the scheme. We recognise that a man who has had some years' experience in the pits usually knows the craft of the game, and as we are particularly anxious to maintain manpower in order to secure the highest production, I can therefore assure the douse that we shall do all we possibly can to get that manpower and, if there are any individual cases which hon. Members think have not been treated adequately or fairly, if they will let us know we will do all we can to put the matter right.

Mr. Arthur Jenkins (Pontypool)

What is the number who have been returned from all the Services since November to the mines?

Mr. Smith

My hon. Friend will find very full information in the reply that we gave on Tuesday. With regard to the Navy, the Royal Marines and the Air Force, we are not at the moment in a position to give much statistical data. If my hon. Friend looks at the answer he will find that we have given all the information on the point that we have.

Mr. Bernard Taylor

Will it include inexperienced miners as well as experienced?

Mr. Smith

It is very difficult to classify, but I will have a look at the matter again, and if there is any further information to give, I will give it.

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.