HC Deb 16 April 1946 vol 421 cc2494-8
27. Mr. Mathers

asked the Minister of Fuel and Power whether he will withdraw the notice to close Knowes Colliery, Fauldhouse, in view of the firm pledge to prevent another stoppage given by 97 per cent. of the men employed, who have greatly increased production during recent months and who will be affected should the colliery be closed, because a few youths and the management had a dispute over a recent grievance affecting part of the pit.

Mr. Shinwell

With permission of Mr. Speaker and the House, I propose to make a statement in answer to this Question at the end of Question time today.


Mr. Shinwell

During the past six months the number of unofficial stoppages in Lanarkshire and the adjacent area in West Lothian was 285— compared with 194 in the rest of Scotland and 288 in the whole of England and Wales. Stoppages in this small area are thus proportionately far in excess of those in any other section of the British coalfield although in this, as in other areas, there exist joint agreements entered into voluntarily on the workers' behalf by their trade union representatives providing comprehensive machinery of collective bargaining, conciliation and arbitration for the settlement of any dispute on wages and conditions without recourse to direct action of this kind. Following discussions which I had with their Executive, the Scottish Area of the National Union of Mineworkers, recognising the dangers inherent in the situation, issued at my request in January of this year a general warning to a number of collieries that the continuance of unofficial stoppages was likely to involve the risk of the collieries concerned having to be closed.

There have been nine stoppages at Fauldhouse during the past six months, involving numbers of men ranging from six to 180, of which four have occurred since the beginning of this year Following one which took place on 25th and 26th February, I authorised my Regional Controller to cause a notice to be posted at the colliery to the effect that if any further stoppage of the colliery or any section of it took place after 1st March. the colliery would be closed without further warning being given. This notice was posted on 27th February, but notwithstanding its unequivocal terms, a further stoppage involving 18 men took place on 3rd April. Although I carefully considered the facts, I was unable to discern any extenuating circumstances in connection with this stoppage which would have justified me in intervening to prevent closure, and all the men employed were accordingly given notice terminating their contracts of service with effect from 13th April.

Every effort is being made to find alternative coalmining employment for the men displaced, and there is every prospect that the great majority will be engaged at other collieries in the vicinity with outputs of 25 cwts per manshift and over, as against an output at Fauldhouse varying from 12 to 17 cwts. This level of output at Fauldhouse had resulted in heavy losses being incurred, and since 1942 the maintenance of the colliery in production has cost the Coal Charges Fund £190,000. The position in Lanarkshire and the adjacent area in West Lothian is that the value of the joint machinery of conciliation and arbitration is gravely endangered by the recent course of events, which has also resulted in the loss in that area of over 100,000 tons of coal during the past six months. The maintenance of this machinery is of the highest importance not only in the national interest but also in the interest of the general body of workers in this basic industry. I cannot stand aside and see it weakened or destroyed as must ultimately happen unless there is an end re unofficial stoppages on this scale.

Mr. Mathers

Limiting anything that I have to say to the Question I put on the Order Paper with regard to this one pit, may I ask if my right hon. Friend is aware that the last stoppage there could have been avoided if the management had accepted the desire of the hulk of the men, 370 of them, to dispense with the services of the nine who caused the stoppage? Does he not agree that that would have allowed production to go forward at a time when production was being stepped up owing to the way in which the men were trying to play their part? Does he not think it would have been advisable to deal with nine men who caused the stoppage instead of scattering 370 others over the whole of the coalfield?

Mr. Shinwell

There is no evidence to show that the nine men were entirely responsible for the stoppage. In any event, in all the disputes, unofficial disputes, which have occurred at this colliery different men have been responsible, and if on each occasion we dismissed those who were regarded as primarily responsible we should have no men left. Obviously, that is not the way to deal with this problem. This is not the only colliery in Lanarkshire and it is obvious drastic steps must be taken to put an end to this unconstitutional action.

Sir William Darlinģ

Arising out of that historical survey, would the right hon. Gentleman care to indicate to the House that he at one time was the representative of West Lothian? Has his personal influence entirely abated in that constituency?

Mr. Shinwell

Unlike the hon. Member I have learned some sense.

Mr. Scollan

I would like to ask, on a point of elucidation, whether the Minister in his original reply, which if I followed it correctly—[HON. MEMBERS: Speak up."] In the original reply given by the Minister, if I followed it correctly—

Mr. Churchill

Is this a question?

Mr. Scollan

Yes, it is. I want to know the point or policy in the original answer —[Interruption.] Please give me a chance. The point is that the Minister did state that he was looking for alternative employment for the men. He was having the machinery of the pit looked after. At the same time, he wanted disciplinary action. I want to know exactly what disciplinary action can be taken if the pit is closed, the cost of maintenance of the machinery is incurred, and men are sent to work somewhere else.

Mr. Shinwell

The cost of care and maintenance is not considerable. In any event, it is desirable to take precautions. Some day we may require to use the coal resources of this colliery. As for the distribution of the men over the collieries in the adjacent area, we shall get higher production, as I indicated in my reply, and that is very essential; apart from that, we think that distribution will prevent recurrences of this kind.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether the Government could give consideration in connection with all these unofficial strikes to the question of dealing with the Communist shop steward movement?

Mr. Shinwell

We have no evidence that the Communists are responsible for these unofficial disputes. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] No. I have nothing to do with shop stewards. This matter relates to colliery undertakings where there are no shop stewards. We have no evidence that the Communists are responsible. We must be fair in this matter. There is evidence which goes to show that the Communists, at any rate in this area, are anxious to avoid these unofficial stop pages. It does not follow that every unofficial stoppage must be dealt with in this fashion. There are occasions where an unofficial stoppage is attributable to causes outside the control of the men. In these circumstances we are very careful not to take action which would seem unfair; but in the present circumstances it was impossible to do other than I did.

Miss Herbison

Is the Minister aware that immediately after his notice was put up at the pit head the whole of the miners in the colliery held a meeting? They conveyed to the manager of the pit the majority decision of that meeting, which was to discharge any man who caused an unofficial strike? Immediately these men struck unofficially, the secretary of the union went to the manager and asked that these men be discharged. Surely it is not at all the fault of the men. It is the fault of the management. I ask the Minister whether this is the sort of treatment to be expected by these 370 miners, who are willing to raise production and to back the Minister to the hilt in keeping unofficial strikes away—to be penalised for nine men whose action they deplored?

Mr. Shinwell

I must point out to my hon. Friend that on previous occasions the majority of the men were implicated. They cannot be excused on the ground that they did not all come into the dispute on this occasion. It may well be that in certain cases the manager may have been responsible. I direct the attention of my hon. Friend and other hon. Members to the fact that the men can always have recourse to the constitutional machinery and should not defy their union or its leaders.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I do not think we can debate this matter by question and answer.

Miss Herbison

I wish to give notice that I will raise this matter on the Adjournment.