§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Simmons.]
§ 6.20 p.m.
§ Sir John Mellor (Sutton Coldfield)
I take this opportunity to refer to matters concerning the National Coal Board, and, in particular, to refer to what is commonly, and I think accurately, described as the iron curtain which the Government have erected around the National Coal Board. Secrecy always gives rise to rumour, and, if some of the rumours—and there are many—which are now current surrounding the affairs of the National Coal Board are not entirely accurate, then the Government have only got themselves to thank. So far as I can see there has been no good reason why the affairs of the Coal Board should not have been given the fullest possible publicity, and I think that one of the deterrents to recruitment for the coal industry is the secrecy with which the affairs of the National Coal Board are enshrouded.
A number of Questions have been asked in this House from time to time during the term of office of the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor, and he declined to answer the very large majority of those Questions. From this side of the House there have been continuous protests, but the protests have not been confined to this side of the House, and I am interested to read a statement made by the Chairman of the Liberal Party Executive at 44 Sheffield, which I hope will have the active support of Liberal hon. Members in this House. He said:The iron curtain behind which the operations of the Coal Board take place must immediately be lifted. There is a growing anxiety about the absence of effective Parliamentary control over the Board.Then, it was the hon. Member for Enfield (Mr. Ernest Davies) who, in a Debate which largely concerned the affairs of the Coal Board and this question of secrecy, on 3rd April, made this reference to nationalised industries. The hon. Member said:When the legislation is going through Parliament the Ministers say one thing, but, once it becomes the law of the land, they are very much inclined to shirk their responsibilities, and to shelter behind the Boards which they themselves have appointed."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd April, 1947; Vol. 435, c. 2306.]Therefore this matter, which has been objected to on all sides of the House—and I could quote a number of other instances—should be regarded as a House of Commons matter and one which should command the attention of all hon. Members in the interests of the authority of this House. I am very glad to see the new Minister, the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Fuel and Power, in his place, and I should like, if I may, to congratulate him upon his elevation. I myself, in conjunction with everyone in this House, wish him success in his task. We shall be very interested to know whether the policy which his predecessor adopted with regard to Questions in this House about the National Coal Board is going to be pursued by him or not. I feel that he has a great opportunity now. Of course, while he was Parliamentary Secretary, he was necessarily associated with that policy, and, in a number of cases, he had to give that refusal to answer Questions which caused us so much indignation. I would now like to give him the assurance that, if today he says it would be right to give the House full information about the affairs of the National Coal Board, there will be no sneers from this side of the House on the ground of inconsistency, having regard to his previous answers. It will be most warmly welcomed. In my humble experience as a back bencher, I have always felt that, provided the rights of the House are acknowledged by Ministers, hon. Members are singularly reasonable in questioning Ministers. If a Minister is 45 prepared to give all the information in reason, the House is always ready to accept it, and is not unduly exacting.
I am afraid that I must refer to some of the statements of the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor, who elected to pick and choose the Questions which he would answer, apparently according to his taste and fancy. After a very careful examination of those Questions which he answered and those he refused to answer, I have been unable to discover any underlying distinction at all. Indeed, he constituted himself the arbiter of the suitability of the Question. On one occasion, on 1st May, he said:I am responsible to the requirements of the House in general; indeed, I must be, but it depends on the merits of the Question that is put to me."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st May, 1947; Vol. 436. c. 2149.]According to HANSARD, hon. Members very naturally ejaculated "Oh." In my submission, there could be no question about the propriety of the Questions. Mr. Speaker would not permit Questions to be put on the Order Paper which are not, prima facie, within the Minister's responsibilities, and the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor, although he refused to answer, never so far as I am aware, took exception to the Question being in order. The right hon. Gentleman never, as no doubt he could have done, took the point that the Question was out of Order on the ground that it was not within the scope of his responsibilities.
I want to rest my case for full Parliamentary information upon the text of the Act which set up the National Coal Board. In my submission, the provisions of the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act, 1946. are entirely clear. Section 3 (4) gives to the Minister unqualified right to obtain information. I think the Section ought to be read to the House. It is as follows:(4) The Board shall afford to the Minister facilities for obtaining information with respect to the property and activities of the Board, and shall furnish him with returns, accounts and other information with respect thereto and afford to him facilities for the verification of information furnished, in such manner and at such times as he may require.Nothing could be stronger than that. If the intention of Parliament, which we can only now assume from the terms of the Act, was that the Minister should be limited in any way as to the information he could obtain or divulge, surely, that 46 would have been put into the Statute? There can be no question that the Minister has absolute responsibility for the National Coal Board, and complete control over it. The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but if he will look at Section 2, with which, no doubt, he is quite familiar, he will see that it states that the Minister appoints the members of the Coal Board, and, in conjunction with the Treasury, he determines what remuneration they shall receive, and, further, by regulations, he provides their tenure of office. Therefore, the Minister has complete control over the National Coal Board. He has the fullest possible access to any information he requires, and, that being so, I can see no excuse whatever for his not divulging that information to this House.
On 19th September the former Minister of Fuel and Power addressed a Press Conference, which was reported in "The Times" of 20th September. The report read:Mr. Shinwell, speaking at a Press Conference, said that there had been a lot of silly talk and ill-informed criticism of the Coal Board. … It might suit certain people to criticise the Coal Board for political reasons, but those who knew what the Coal Board was doing, and he included among those the National Union of Mineworkers, were fully convinced that … the criticism was completely without foundation and those who did not like that could lump it.I do not know whether that is one of the public utterances which the former Minister wishes to repudiate. We are getting rather accustomed to his whining that he has been misquoted. Be that as it may, what he then said was entirely of a piece with his conduct towards this House. He sneered at those people who are ignorant. We have been ignorant because he has kept us in ignorance, notwithstanding our persistent demands for information. This House does not enjoy the privilege of the Minister's confidence, as does the National Union of Mine-workers.
I would now refer to some of the Questions—there has been a great number, but I will only mention a few—which have been put to the former Minister, and which he, personally, or through his Parliamentary Secretary, has refused to answer during the past six months or so, and which will, I think, give a fair sample of the sort of thing about which I am complaining. On 19th May, it was stated by the National Coal Board that they had 47 placed £50,000 at the disposal of certain trade unions in the county of Durham for distribution to mineworkers in that county who, through no fault of their own, had been out of work. On 21st May, I asked the Minister of Fuel and Powerwhether he is satisfied that all mineworkers received their fair share irrespective of trade union membership.The Parliamentary Secretary, on behalf of the then Minister, replied:Subject to their Statutory functions and duties the National Coal Board have the same liberty as any other employer to make such payments to their employees as they consider proper and in such manner as they see fit, and I regret that I have no information on the points raised by the hon. Member other than that contained in the statement issued by the Board on 9th May."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st May, 1947; Vol. 437, c. 261.]Surely, it is right for an hon. Member of this House, when he knows that public money has been dispensed, to do his utmost to ensure that that money has not been dispensed with any discrimination of the nature of political or industrial favour. I think it was very unfortunate that the then Parliamentary Secretary declined to give me any answer or assurance on that point.
I will give another example. The Government have seemed particularly anxious to conceal from this House the industrial relations of the National Coal Board. On 3rd July, I asked the Minister of Labour:if he will identify the trade unions which are recognised by the National Coal Board for purposes of negotiation about wages and conditions in the industry.The right hon. Gentleman replied:No Any question of recognition is a matter entirely for the parties."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd July, 1947; Vol. 439, c. 177.]In my submission, one cannot treat the National Coal Board as a private party. It is financed with public money, and is a matter of grave national concern. It is a monopoly which has been erected in place of private enterprise in the coal industry, but because it has taken the place of private enterprise that, surely, provides no grounds for saying that it should operate in private. Because it is a monopoly is no reason why it should be irresponsible. Therefore, I feel that this House should have access to the fullest information with regard to such matters as the recognition of trade unions by the National Coal Board.
48 On 15th November, my hon Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) raised in Debate the question of the salaries paid to members of the Divisional Coal Boards. The then Minister declined to give him any information, but, towards the end of his speech, the right hon. Gentleman did say:The accounts will go before the Public Accounts Committee and the Committee can at any time ask for information on any item connected with those accounts. That is traditional, and no one can take exception to it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th November, 1946; Vol. 430, c. 482.]That is all very well, but, as the House knows, the Public Accounts Committee cannot begin examining these accounts until 18 months or two years after the event. Therefore, while it has a certain value, it really has a very small value in assuring the control of this House over the finances of the National Coal Board. Indeed, the Board may well be insolvent long before the Public Accounts Committee is able to examine the situation.
We should derive some warning from what is happening in France. I am informed that at present the French Government are having to provide a 50 per cent. subsidy upon every ton of coal raised. This House is, above all, the guardian of the nation's purse, and unless we have some opportunity of watching the financial progress of the Coal Board we may well find ourselves suddenly faced with a situation either of having to pay a prohibitive price for coal or else of having to provide a very heavy subsidy out of the Exchequer. Yet we have not been able to get any figures with regard to costs of production. The Ministry has insisted upon treating the Coal Board as though it was a sort of subsidiary company with a limited liability. One cannot by any manipulation or legal fiction limit the liability of this nation with regard to its national property. We have bought the industry, and it looks as though it will be a pretty expensive affair. But at least this House should have every possible opportunity to keep down the cost.
A great number of Questions have been asked, and I will give one or two more instances. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Gammans) asked about the number of new motor cars ordered by the Coal Board for the delectation of its 49 officials. That is a sore subject with a lot of people, and we ought to be told the answer, because a lot of people write to me saying that these officials drive about in magnificent cars, and so on. They may be under a misapprehension, but, if so, surely, it would be much better that they should know. Silence provokes these kinds of rumours. Then my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames asked questions with regard to a political poster which was issued by the National Coal Board. That was a rather remarkable document, because it contained the statement thatThe alternative to the policy of nationalisation is capitalist Fascism.When the Coal Board puts out that sort of thing at the public expense, it is right that an hon. Member of this House should ask a question about it. Further, it is right that he should have an answer. I hope that the new Minister will agree about this. Then the hon. and gallant Member for Knutsford (Lieut.-Colonel Bromley-Davenport) asked a question about the £10,000 which was being allowed for the expenses of the members of the National Coal Board. The then Minister told us that that was the figure which had been allowed, but he would tell us no more. He would not tell us what the money was for, or how it was allocated among the members of the Board, or how it would be accounted for, or anything of that sort. He just flatly refused to answer. Again, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames asked about the acquisition of properties by the National Coal Board, and he got a flat refusal. All these are matters about which we should know.
It does not necessarily involve interference by the Minister with what the Coal Board does. It is a request for information. The right hon. Gentleman's predecessor seemed incapable of distinguishing between the two things. It is quite right, perhaps, that he should refrain from an undue amount of interference with the affairs of the Coal Board, although he has almost unlimited power to do so. At the same time, that is no reason why he should not answer our questions, and I insist that great harm has been done in the country, and that the National Coal Board has lost a lot of the good will it might have had, because of the secrecy with which its activities 50 have been surrounded. Not only that; but, what is also a very grave matter, this House has been flouted. An attempt has been made to oust the jurisdiction of this House. It is a matter of very far-reaching principle, because it will not only apply to the affairs of the National Coal Board; it may well apply to the affairs of a number of other nationalised industries. Therefore, I await with considerable anxiety the right hon. Gentleman's reply. Apparently, his predecessor regarded the status of this House as something inferior to the Communist controlled National Union of Mineworkers. I very much hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be strong, that he will re-assert the right of Parliament, and will give the House what is due to it. I am confident that if he takes that course he will get a great deal of help from all quarters of the House.
§ 6.47 p.m.
§ Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)
Several of the statements which were made by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir J. Mellor) will, I think, receive some measure of general agreement from the men who actually do the work of producing the nation's coal. During the Recess, I visited a coal mine in my constituency which achieved the record output, and where there is no doubt the miners are pulling their full weight in producing the coal which the nation needs. But the Coal Board is certainly coming under fire from the men at the coal face, although the criticism is from a slightly different angle from that indicated in the speech of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield. I believe that we should obtain the fullest possible information about the finances and activities of the Coal Board. After all, we are a democracy, and we should have the right to question on the Floor of the House the activities of the Coal Board. The people who are anxious to see the fullest possible light thrown on the activities of the Coal Board are those who believe that there is something in the assertion that if we do not keep a vigilant eye on the Coal Board, it will become a top-heavy bureaucracy carrying on the traditions of private capitalism. It is from that point of view that we want the fullest possible information.
Although certain criticisms may be made against the Minister, who has refused to answer questions, I would ask: how much information did we really have 51 about the working of the coalowners under private capitalism? It depended upon whether or not a company was registered at Somerset House. Very often we had a great deal of difficulty in finding out what profits the coalowners were making and what were the salaries of the managing directors under private capitalism. The information that I would like to obtain is how the salaries of the Coal Board, under nationalisation, compare with the salaries of the managing directors of the Bairds, Dalmellingtons and big combines which controlled the industry under private capitalism. [An HON. MEMBER: "They are much higher today."] Well, I have my doubts.
When a request is made by the Opposition for the fullest possible information about the finances of the Coal Board, I would very much like to support that request in order that we may get the fullest possible information about the compensation which is to be paid to the coalowners. If the industry is going to become bankrupt and not pay its way, because under private ownership the industry was inefficient, are we still going to pay big sums in compensation to the people who are dispossessed? There is a very definite feeling in the coalfields that inflated salaries are being paid, and I entirely agree that we should obtain the fullest information and have the searchlight of democracy turned upon our nationalised industry.
The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield spoke about industrial relations. In some parts of the industry, industrial relations have deteriorated because of the continuation in the industry of Conservative-minded capitalist managers. What is wrong with the Coal Board is that it took over too many Tories who were in key positions in the coal mines. Therefore, I hope no attempt will be made to suppress the fullest possible information. A great deal of the future success of the Coal Board depends upon its handling of industrial relationships, and it has made blunders in that respect during the Recess. It was a blunder to negotiate with two different unions in the mining industry. It was also a blunder to give the higher paid sections of the workers increased wages, while neglecting the claims of the men at the very bottom. We want to see the fullest possible co-operation 52 between men and management, in order that we may achieve the necessary target.
A great deal depends upon the consultative committees. I attended a meeting of the consultative committee in the colliery which achieved the record output. The chair was taken by the colliery manager who, I believe, was a very efficient manager because he had the confidence of the men. He opened the meeting of the consultative committee by saying, "We will take the minutes of the last meeting, gentlemen." He refered to the miners who were selected democratically by the men to attend the meeting as "gentlemen." [An HON. MEMBER: "Why not?"] Why not, indeed! But were they described in that way under private ownership? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] We know they were not. The miners were never treated as gentlemen by the coalowners; the coalowners did not describe them as gentlemen, but something very different, and often with a sanguinary adjective in front. The industry is a thousand times better under nationalisation than under private enterprise, and I hope it will not go back to those conditions. The men are slogging away for all they are worth, producing the coal, because they believe that they are now co-operating in mining as a social service and are not being exploited. But I do agree that we should have the fullest information in order that we can turn upon any bureaucracy the criticism of democratic opinion from the men at the bottom.
§ 6.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Holmes (Hemsworth)
I am wondering whether the speakers in this Debate are trying to get at the Minister; otherwise, who are they trying to get at? I hear something about "Quislings." I know a little about mining. I happen to have in my constituency the Grimethorpe colliery. I have spent some very anxious hours in Yorkshire. The National Coal Board and their area boards took over a situation that was extremely difficult. They had to look at the set-up anew. They had to look to private enterprise. They had to look to the educational system to produce the technicians. They had to look to private enterprise to find the people to fill technical posts. They had to have first-class mining technicians and engineers. Where did they go for them? They looked to the Mining 53 Association. They had to have people who understood the distributive side of the coal industry. Where had they to go? They had to go to private enterprise to find them. They were compelled to do that, because our educational system had not given us the opportunity to produce that type of expert. I say this boldly: the National Coal Board and the area boards are doing a great job of work, bearing in mind the big job they took in hand.
We on this side of the House have not forgotten the Reid Report. We know what it told us about the coal industry. If I remember rightly, we have been told that the National Coal Board has to reorganise, and that it will take £150 million to reorganise the industry that the nation has taken over. I think it ill becomes anybody to comment critically when we have such a burden as that to face. It is not long since I went down a pit. I had the pleasure of taking the Minister down. We had to walk three miles. Some miners have to walk three miles, and some four miles, underground to work. I know a pit in Yorkshire where the miners have to walk four and a half miles to work. Those are the conditions in some pits in Yorkshire. Because of the distances some miners have to walk to get to work, they spend only four hours at the coalface. I would sooner work 10 hours at the coalface and walk less. These facts illustrate some of the problems that the National Coal Board are facing. The Coal Board, from both the management side and the men's side, are sick and tired of perpetual criticism. They have not been given an opportunity to answer.
What I am worried about is the set-up in the pit where the coal is produced. From my own close examination of the situation, I would say that the problems that have been taken up by the National Coal Board and the area boards are so great and grave that the rank and file have not been able to understand the situation properly, and there is not today that co-ordination, there is not that understanding, that is necessary, simply because the situation has not been "got across" and explained properly. I am hoping that the area boards will be like football teams and that they will improve by trial and error. I know there are some square pegs in round holes. It may be that the outside left will have to be 54 shifted. I am hoping that if people are found to be inefficient, they will be shifted and people put in their places who can fill the bill. But while the rank and file as a whole do not understand, while there is a misconception of the policy of the area boards and the National Board, there will not be the best results. The rank and file do know, however, that they have something to do; and they are putting their trust to a great extent in the area boards and in the National Coal Board. But they do want, by some means, closer co-operation between the technicians and the rank and file.
I know some pits today where nothing has been done with regard to mechanisation. We must have first-class men there who know about the technical work of installing and operating machinery. I hope we shall have not only technicians but men with practical experience. I have known instances where technicians with technical knowledge could not deal with the practical side. They were people who assumed things on averages and on reports. A good deal can be done if the rank and file are taken into consideration. I am not going to talk about the Grime-thorpe situation, except to say that if we had had a clear conception and understanding between the management and the workpeople, the Grimethorpe situation would not have arisen. It arose simply because of lack of understanding, lack of approach, and lack of knowledge so far as the operations of the Board were concerned. We shall not have clear understanding between the two sides of the industry so long as the national Press and other people are continually and regularly condemning people for doing their best, and, particularly, if Members of Parliament state that men who have come into the industry from private' enterprise, and who are holding technical positions, are types of people who are Quislings. If we have that sort of thing, we shall get nowhere.
§ 7.3 p.m.
§ Mr. Jennings (Sheffield, Hallam)
I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir J. Mellor) in what he said. In doing so I have no intention to criticise the activities of the Coal Board or the activities of the miners at the coal face or in the colliery areas. I think that in a great many areas they are doing an admirable job, 55 and it is a great comfort to the country to see that they are breaking targets up and down the country. Particularly in the North-East I think they are pulling their weight. But there seems to be some confusion as to the object of this Debate. The objection is that the Minister—or the late Minister—will not give information as to what is happening. My hon. Friend below the Gangway, the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Holmes), said he could not get information out of private companies and limited companies with regard to salaries of managers and managing directors. In this circumstance, however, we are in a very different position, because the Coal Board is being financed by public funds, and it is the duty of every Member of this House to see that those funds are properly administered; and, if any waste is taking place, it should be tackled at once and cut down.
What can the general public think when they get no information at all as to the costs of production of coal, and as to activities in the coalfield, so far as the financial set-up is concerned? Yet they are told they must pay another 4s. a ton for coal. Surely, it is only fair to the nation as a whole that the Minister should, at the earliest possible opportunity, give to this House every possible information—not secret information that might do the activities of the Coal Board harm: I am sufficiently sane to see that the Minister cannot disclose private information that might damage the Coal Board. Surely, however, we ought to know something as to the salaries paid to these officials out of public funds? I do not want to repeat things that have been said that have no foundation in truth, but I hear periodically that large houses are bought in which to house the staff and officials of the Coal Board, and that the prices paid for them are above what private buyers are prepared to pay. If that information is wrong, for heaven's sake let the House through the Minister deny it, so that these rumours do not get about, and so that the Coal Board can have the sympathy and the confidence of the people.
I remember, when the Coal Industry Nationalisation Bill was going through Committee upstairs, pressing the then Minister very hard on the matter of information, asking that he should give to the House and to the country a record of its activities through both yearly 56 accounts and half-yearly accounts of the costs of production. The Minister assured the Committee upstairs on the point. He said, "I have nothing to hide. I shall give the fullest possible information. The House of Commons will be told by Question and answer." Perhaps he did not use those very words, but he indicated that the House would be given the fullest possible information. I say, frankly, I am disappointed at the late Minister's refusing to give the information to which I think the public are entitled, particularly in view of the fact of these increases in the price of coal which are being put on to the consumer. Industry is being asked to pay a bigger price for coke. I do think it is high time some information should be disclosed. The fullest possible information ought to be given to the House, and I think that Members in all parts of the House would like to know that things are going on well.
I do absolve myself, if I may, from any suggestion that in what I have said there is any question of criticising the work of the miners. Nor is there any question of criticising the miners in what my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coalfield said. We are not on that subject at all. We are criticising the Department for not giving the fullest possible information as to how this nationalised industry is going on. The whole country is in the dark, except a privileged few in the Department. The late Minister did not seem to mind that, apart from those few in that privileged section, people were in the dark. He thought they did not care and could be left alone and kept in ignorance. I strongly support the plea for the fullest possible information being given to this House by question and answer to any Member in any part of the House in the interests of the national finances. Any Member, I feel sure, will agree that if we do not raise this matter on every possible opportunity, we are not carrying out our job to see that public funds are well spent.
§ 7.9 p.m.
§ Mrs. Braddock (Liverpool, Exchange)
I am a little bit concerned about taking part in this Debate because of the way in which it has been raised. My reason for taking part is not to ask for information that is likely to damage the National Coal Board and its administration, but, rather, to make the position of the public perfectly clear. There is always the difficulty, when 57 information is asked for and is refused, that that creates a very strong suspicion that there is something to hide. My hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Holmes) referred to Grimethorpe. I am not apologising for referring to it, because I think what happened there is an admirable reason why, if mistakes are made and the wrong advice is given, information to that effect ought to be clearly and openly stated. I visited Grimethorpe on my own, because when men are on strike for a long period and thousands of others are striking in support of them, with a situation such as we have in the country at the moment, with the miners having the nationalisation they desired, there must be something seriously wrong. There must be something seriously wrong if, in these circumstances, men continue out of work for a period of five or six weeks. I am one of those who believe that the best and easiest way to find out the true position in relation to a dispute of that sort is to go and talk to the men themselves. I went to Grimethorpe on the Tuesday before the strike finished, and I was amazed to find out what was the actual position. The men made no bones at all about the fact that they were not on strike but were locked out by the Coal Board. On more than two or three occasions, when numbers of them had presented themselves to the pit to commence work during those five weeks, it was closed to them; they were refused the right to return to work. I asked why that position had arisen, and why it was that a decision had been taken by someone who gave as a reason the fact that extra production had to be got out of the pit.
The facts given to me by the men who worked at the coal face, the coal cutters, were very illuminating. If men can talk to someone, as they did to me when I arrived in their midst, and openly give information which proved that there was something definitely wrong in the decision that had been taken in asking them to work an extra two-foot stint, why was it not openly available to those who had taken the decision that the men must do what they said they could not do. I asked for information, and these are the facts I elucidated. The pit had been producing 20,000 tons of coal per week. The output per man was very high. The average output was some 13½ tons per man. They said that with the five-day week and the available machinery for bringing up the coal from the pit it was impossible to 58 raise even the 20,000 tons of coal. There was only one shaft in the pit, and they told me it was impossible to bring up all the coal over a period of weeks, with the result that their output had been some 18,500 tons. If that was the position—I do not understand coalmining, although I understand expressions of opinion from the class to which I belong—and it was proved impossible to bring up 20,000 tons of coal in the five-day week, then it was impossible by sensible reasoning to think that they could get more coal than they were already capable of getting during the week. On asking what the position had been and how the decision had been arrived at by those who constituted the deciding committee, I was amazed to discover that two of the people responsible for taking the decision had not even seen the coal face where they said the extra two feet should be worked.
I am raising this matter because I think it is of the utmost importance. It is important that the men in the pit who have to do the work, whom we are asking to increase our coal production, should have perfect confidence in the knowledge of the people who are dealing with the position as far as the Coal Board is concerned. I say that because once we reach the stage where the men working in the pits cease to have confidence in the decisions of those responsible for administration from the top, then we shall get complete chaos in the industry itself. If, in a matter of this sort, where the Press put forward every possible reason why the men in Grimethorpe were still unemployed except the true reason, someone on the Coal Board, whoever it might be—I am not going to mention any names mentioned to me by the men—gave wrong information to those who had to put a decision into operation, there ought to be some way of knowing who the responsible person was. If wrong information is given, a completely wrong impression is given in the country as to why the miners remained out of work, which does the Government no good and the country no good, but merely creates in the minds of the public a very deep suspicion that there is something desperately wrong with the type of organisation which has been set up.
I think we all agree that, to begin with, the creation of the Coal Board is an experiment. We have to experiment in a completely new form of organisation, 59 but when mistakes are made and wrong decisions are arrived at, it is completely unfair to blame the miners at the pits, especially when it is perfectly well known that in this case it was not the fault of the miners but the responsibility of some elected representative who either advised wrongly or was not prepared to admit that a mistake had been made, thereby creating the situation we had in Grimethorpe. I think that the information which is asked for, if it is in order to be constructive, ought to be given, but I agree also that a very strong hand must be kept on the people who ask for information in an attempt to destroy the organisation that has been built up to make the coal industry of this country a success. We have to keep a very even balance. I ask the Minister not to create suspicion in the industry. I ask him not to keep a veil of secrecy over difficulties, because it is only by our errors and difficulties that we shall create the right type of organisation.
§ 7.19 p.m.
§ Mr. Osborne (Louth)
It is not often that I can agree so much with the hon. Lady the. Member for the Exchange Division of Liverpool (Mrs. Braddock). Until the very end of her speech I could have said, "Hear, hear," to almost everything she had said. Our plea is not that we want information to attack the Coal Board. We merely want information, and as Members of this House we are surely entitled to it. Just before the Recess I had occasion to ask the Prime Minister a Question about information being handed out by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to certain outside bodies when it had not been made available to this House. I said at the time that I thought it was wrong and was derogatory to the standing of the House. I think that the same thing applies to questions which are put in regard to the Coal Board. The hon. Lady said clearly at the beginning of her speech that if information is refused publicly the public naturally think the worst. I ask the Minister to do as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Cold-field (Sir J. Mellor) has asked him to do, change the policy, be frank with the House, tell us what is happening. We want the facts, that is all. We hope the Coal Board will succeed. The fate of this country depends on the Board being a success. We merely ask the Minister to 60 give us information if it is asked for in a proper way.
I want to put these points to the Minister. I went to South Wales twice at the beginning of this year, to talk to miners and their wives. The criticism I found of the Coal Board there was that most of the men said that they had the same bosses now as they had when the industry was run by private enterprise. They could not understand it, and asked the reasons. If the reasons were given it would help to allay a good deal of suspicion and fear. About a month ago I went to Seaham Harbour, and spoke to miners and their wives there. Their criticism of the Coal Board and its working was that there had been many good soft jobs going, and that the men who had not got them felt that those jobs had gone to the wrong men. They felt that those soft jobs had not only gone to the wrong men, but that there were not enough of those jobs. There was a good deal of suspicion in Seaham Harbour on this point, much of which would be allayed if we had more information. Therefore. I ask the Minister to reconsider the attitude of the Government, and not only give this House, but the miners themselves, all the information which is available.
Last night I went to Nuneaton and talked to miners there, and their criticism was that the Coal Board had appointed far too many non-producers, that the men who were getting the coal were carrying on their backs too many men who were doing nothing. That is a suspicion that ought to be put on one side, and the Minister could do something about it. I was told by some responsible people in one of the districts I visited that already certain coal mines were producing coal at a loss of more than £1 per ton. We should like to know whether that is true or not. If the Minister refuses to give us information to which we are entitled, that figure will increase, the task of the Coal Board will be harder, and the men who are trying to get the coal will be discouraged. As a back-bencher, I plead for the rights of this House to be re-established, and that we should be given the information to which we are entitled. If that is done many ugly rumours that may have no foundation in truth will be scotched. If that is done both miners and engineers—and when Members opposite are talking about the coal industry I ask them not to forget the engineers who run it—will 61 put their hearts more into their job, and suspicion will be removed.
§ 7.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Ivor Owen Thomas (The Wrekin)
I wish to take this opportunity of a Debate on the National Coal Board to seek some information about certain aspects of the work of the Board. It should be obvious to any reasonable person that to expect the coal industry to be brought into a healthy state within seven months, after the depression, desuetude, and despair which existed for many years, was to expect the fantastically impossible. What was the problem, the terrific problem, which the Coal Board had to face when it came into power under the new Act? As I have indicated, the Board has been in existence for seven months. Every expert report on the condition of the coal industry in the years before the war pointed clearly to the fact that the industry was rapidly reaching a state where, unless some drastic steps were taken, it could not continue to produce even the reduced quantity of coal it was then producing. Men were leaving the industry because of conditions in the mines, the sad tale of industrial depression, the series of national strikes, and the like. But that is history, and I will not go into it deeply tonight.
I seek to obtain some information about the functioning of the Coal Board, because I think it is as well that this House and the public outside should be given as full information as possible on this subject. I do this with no reason which might prompt hon. Members opposite to seek to bring deliberately into disrepute the new administration. It is not my purpose to seek to prove that the Coal Board has been a failure. It may be proved to be a failure as an administrative setup after a certain time, but that is not the point so far as the future of the mining industry is concerned. The real point is that it is impossible for the nation to allow the industry to go back to the old regime. I have not heard that suggested seriously, even from the other side of the House. We must look upon the National Coal Board as an experiment in the new administration of a great national industry. As a result of our experience of the functioning of that new authority, we might have to make certain adjustments which are essential to achieve the ends we set out to achieve.
62 Take the question of sinking a new pit. It might appear from a cursory examination of the subject, that after soundings for coal had been taken, all that was required to be done was to get skilled men at work, to lay out the plan of the new sinking, to order new machinery, and in 12 months there would be a full pit which was being worked by a happy, thriving, community. That is reducing the problem to ridiculous simplicity. In the first place, the sinking of new pits involves a fundamental social problem, for unless they are sunk conveniently near to already existing mining communities, they will require to be staffed either by newly-trained personnel or by men from pits in other areas which have become disused. Whether this is possible or not, I do not know. I am seeking information as to the stage which has been reached by the National Coal Board in its plans for the sinking of new pits. I have tried unsuccessfully to find the information in various publications; and I am not aware of any statement having been made by the Government about it.
The problem of sinking new pits is not merely a question of machinery; it is a question of personnel. Therefore, before any definite step is taken for the development of new mines, there should be some detailed consultation between the Coal Board and those who are responsible for the general welfare of the mining community. I do not know what machinery exists for that purpose, and if there is no machinery for such consultations, I suggest that the matter should be given serious consideration, for new pits will have to be sunk sooner or later. The National Coal Board will probably be issuing, in accordance with the Act, periodical reports. Presumably, the first report will come along after the Board has been functioning for 12 months. In the meantime I make this serious suggestion to the Minister: there is—and this is a general impression that I have found in the country—a sad lack of public relationship in the functioning of the Coal Board. I cannot find any record of a statement having been made by a responsible officer of the Board on any of the plans of the Board, and of what has been achieved up to the present; in fact, almost the only occasion when the functioning of the Coal Board comes into the news is when there is trouble in a particular district. Therefore, I think that the question of the 63 public relations of the Coal Board should be given serious attention.
I would like to make one or two suggestions. For instance, is there a public relations officer of the National Coal Board? If there is not a public relations officer, I suggest that consideration should be given to the appointment of such an officer, and that his function should be to convey to the public, through the Press, the wireless and by any other means, such as lectures, some idea of the operation of the Board, their plans, and a general outline of the whole working of the administrative set-up. I hope the Minister will give serious consideration to that suggestion, and that if steps of that kind have not already been taken, they will be taken without delay, because I am sure that the more the public are taken into the confidence of the National Coal Board, either through the Minister or through a specially appointed public relations officer, the easier will be the position of the new régime. I am also confident that such a scheme of public relations and information would have the full support of the miners; in fact, I think the miners, through their pit production committees and area committees, should form a part of the public relations organisation. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will reply to the points which I have raised. I suggest that he might give some indication, if none is already available, as to the progress made up to date in the sinking of new pits, and when it is likely that new pits will be brought into production.
§ 7.35 p.m.
§ Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)
The House must be grateful to the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir J. Mellor) for raising this important matter, because from the speeches which we have heard it is obvious that there is a very keen desire to discuss the National Coal Board in all its activities. I was interested in the remarks of the hon. Member for the Exchange Division of Liverpool (Mrs. Braddock) who has spent her vacation so usefully in visiting Grime-thorpe. I can hardly pay a similar compliment to the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. I. O. Thomas), because, during the Recess, I received a large green, expensive book published by the National Coal Board, dealing at great 64 length, some 60 pages, with many illustrations, with the achievements of the National Coal Board in the field of miners' welfare to which he referred; and I feel that it is rather a feather in my cap, not professing to be so deeply interested in industrial matters as hon. Members opposite, that I should not have failed to notice the activities of the Coal Board in this somewhat expensive reference.
§ Mr. I. O. Thomas
I do not know to which publication the hon. Gentleman refers, but, if it is a publication on coal, I certainly had a copy. I was not referring to the social activities of the miners which might be sponsored by the National Coal Board. I was trying to bring out the functioning of the Board in relation to industry, and the part which is being played, or attempted to be played, as between the Board and the elected representatives of the miners—the functioning of the Board as part of the industry and not merely from a social service point of view.
§ Sir W. Darling
I am grateful for the hon. Member's explanation. I feel that if he is curious on this matter I should procure for him from His Majesty's Stationery Office a copy of the illustrated book which deals with some of the matters to which he has referred. My intervention in this discussion is not with a view to enlarging on the faults, if any, or virtues, if any, of the National Coal Board. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield has raised the question of whether we are getting sufficient information from the former Minister of details of management and other business of the National Coal Board. He has raised a powerful and impressive argument that satisfies me that we are not getting that information. I am not so sure that the House, when it reflects on this matter, will want the information for which my hon. Friend makes such an eager claim. When the nationalisation of the coal mines came before this House and became the law of the country, I was among those who demurred at the policy. The policy of nationalisation of the mines seemed to me then; as it does now, to be unwise, a foolish one and probably an ill-starred one, and what I have heard this afternoon shows that these doubts and anxieties are not held only by me in this House.
§ Sir W. Darling
I am not at all sure that some of the deeds of private enterprise would not be enjoyed by the public today for they are not enjoying much under the present direction.
§ Mr. I. O. Thomas
Would the hon. Member for South Edinburgh (Sir W. Darling) be in favour of going back to the old régime of private enterprise? If not, what would be his positive suggestion for the future of the industry other than the National Coal Board?
§ Sir W. Darling
If I answered the hon. Member for The Wrekin I should be distinctly out of Order, and I do not propose to enter into a general discussion although it seems to me that other speakers have done so. I content myself with saying that if we are to have, as apparently we are to have—the Gracious Speech is a further indication of what we are to expect—further nationalisation of the means and instruments of production and exchange, I would ask the House to consider what the position will be in this House if the desire of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield and others who have spoken this evening is gratified. If we nationalise not only coal and transport, but steel and iron and all the multiplicity of our national services, as I understand is the policy of His Majesty's Government, then the question raised by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield is one which should be raised acutely indeed, because it is apparent that the managers of these State-owned industries cannot within the scope of the House of Commons give the detailed answers which the shareholders of a private limited liability company demand from their managers.
If the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield has his way, it is perfectly obvious that something like 30 or 40 Ministers, each responsible for one of the nationalised industries, will occupy the time of the House—and it will not be the amount of time which has been spent today but a very much greater amount of time—in answering such questions as the hon Member for Sutton Coldfield says have not been answered. I suggest that the Government of the day and those who are students of Government must make up their mind on this important matter. 66 This House cannot be a board of directors; it must remain a House of Commons. If it becomes a board of directors in deference to the wishes of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield and others who want to raise questions of the detailed management of industry in what is a debating and political assembly, then I say this is one of the gravest objections—and there are many other objections—to the whole proposals of nationalisation which has not been considered by those who believe that the blessed word "nationalisation" will be a solution of all our troubles and difficulties.
The House will note the attitude of mind of some of those who have taken part in this Debate. I was struck by one of the speakers who said that he was sick and tired of criticism. Those who are in the way of conducting industry other than nationalised industry and who had experience of conducting industry during those last 20 or 30 bitter years have had to put up with criticism. They may have been sick and tired of it, but they continued still to supply all the goods and services the community required. Who are His Majesty's Government that they are to be so tender or so easily wearied in well doing? Who are they that they are not to be criticised? Who are they to say that they feel tired with the burden of carrying on one of our great national services?
§ Mr. Holmes
I think, recalling what I said, my words were that the rank and file of the management were sick and tired of criticism.
§ Sir W. Darling
The hon. Member did not comprehend what I said. I wrote it down and I am satisfied that he said that the rank and file of the management are sick and tired of criticism. But who are the rank and file of management? Those engaged in the industry, and, in a wider sense, the customers. Again, who are the management? In a wider sense, the right hon. Gentleman sitting there—the Minister of Fuel and Power, for the management of the National Coal Board is his Parliamentary responsibility and that of no one else. Is there any denial of that assertion? The right hon. Gentleman is in the position of a managing director. He has to answer the complaints, grievances and criticism of this House. What I am suggesting to the House is that that kind of thing, 67 obviously, cannot indefinitely continue, and if the hon. Member for Sutton Cold-field has his way—and I think he has a perfectly good case as far as it goes—and this House has to deal with a multiplicity of industries, it will reduce the whole Parliamentary system to a farce.
After all, rightly or wrongly, the people of this country look on the Minister—although he may not, realise it—in a homely sense. They look on him as their coal man, and they have had very friendly relations with their coal men in years gone by. Those relations were happy and jolly in past years. If the Minister of Fuel and Power is going to assume what the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield desires him to assume he will be a great merchant, a great organiser of an industry, and a great distributor of the goods produced by his Department. That is the kind of business man the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield wants him to be, but personally I do not accept that view. I think the criticism made by my hon. Friend has been justified, and the elaborations of hon. Members opposite and of the hon. Lady the Member for the Exchange Division of Liverpool have been interesting, wide though they be of the point, but I do not agree with the direction of them. If the Minister, when he comes to reply, is going to say: "My predecessor did not answer all the Questions properly or did not answer them at all, but in future I am going to answer all complaints," he will place himself in an extremely difficult position. I hope he will not do so. I hope His Majesty's Government will think over their policy of nationalisation and the implications of it from the managerial point of view, not in terms of one or two industries being nationalised, but rather of 20, 30 or 40, with that number of right hon. Gentlemen as heads of different Departments answering questions in this House in regard to the services of this country. If that is going to be the case with all the industries which it is intended to take over, the Government will require to reconstitute the House of Commons on a new basis.
Under free and private enterprise we did not concentrate all aspects of an industry in one hand. The management of that industry was spread over and the Government of the day were always in a 68 position to park the responsibility somewhere else. If someone complained that the coalowners were not managing their business well or the distributors of commodities were taking too big a profit the Government were able to take note and pass the matter on. The Government themselves were out of the business. Now owing to bad economics and unsound policy this Government are accepting the responsibility for all the socialisation of the means and instruments of production and exchange. They have no one on whom to park the responsibility as under the private enterprise system, when persons conducted the business with a due sense of responsibility to the public at large. When the State enters, controls and handles these industries it sets up one system of monopoly and all the protection that the public are going to have is five, 10, 15 or 20 right hon. Gentlemen sitting on the Treasury Bench. That is the proposal carried to its full length if the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield and others who have spoken are to be answered. I hope that the Minister of Fuel and Power will make it clear how limited are the responsibilities and how restricted the services which he can give to this House, and by so doing he will show what a farce nationalisation is from the point of view of the customer.
§ 7.50 p.m.
§ Mr. Platts-Mills (Finsbury)
I was greatly impressed by the number of assertions made by hon. Members opposite that they did not wish to ask any questions to embarrass the Minister or the Coal Board. It is moving to hear the assurances that they would not for one moment be a party to broadcasting any rumour which would cause embarrassment to any section of the coal industry. The House has the great advantage that hon. Members in all parts of the House, as we have heard tonight, made a sort of an investigation, or universal snoop or quiz in the coalfields during the summer Recess. I have the impression, however, that some hon. Members opposite have taken the opportunity to collect the wildest series of rumours that they could and are using this Debate to spread them as widely as they possibly can.
§ Sir J. Mellor
Can the hon. Member give the House one single example to support his accusation of rumours which we are endeavouring to spread?
§ Mr. Platts-Mills
I had not the privilege of hearing the hon. Member's speech. I took it from the remarks of those who followed him that the suggestion is that country houses of great distinction and slight value have been bought at outrageous prices which no private bidder, or bidder in the open market, would have paid. There is not a word of evidence that the Minister could answer, but there is a general challenge. There is the suggestion that officers of the Coal Board, for their own advantage, have caused such prices to be paid for such houses. I repeat that that is a wild rumour without foundation which has been spread in this Debate. That is an example which is sufficiently striking.
I suggest that it cannot possibly be the job of the Coal Board or of the Minister to send out a staff of high-pressure reporters to try to catch up with all this wildness in order to answer it in detail. I have dealt with the matter, although my intervention in the Debate was really intended to be by way of entering a caveat against what the hon. Member for the Exchange Division of Liverpool (Mrs. Braddock) said. The hon. Lady has had the privilege of being with the Grime-thorpe miners in the fifth week of their strike. I had no such privilege, although I had the embarrassment of being inadvertently on strike with them. I know how difficult it is for those who are not pit people themselves not to get a misconception about the miners. I differ sharply from the hon. Lady about what happened in Grimethorpe, what caused it, and what the results were, as they have been put by the hon. Lady. It seems to me that it is quite inappropriate for us to ask the Minister to deal in this Debate with questions which arise from Grimethorpe. The Debate was not initiated with that object. I understand that the Debate is limited to the question of the kind of information which is to come from the Minister about the conduct of the National Coal Board. The various things that happened in Grimethorpe were only very remotely connected with the Board. Whether they sprang ultimately from the personnel of the Board is another matter.
As to the Board giving information, I have had some personal experience of getting such information, and it is a matter which the Minister might have in mind. I quite see the point made about public relations, but there was an instance of a 70 miner on strike and in London wishing to know whether his own pit was still on strike or not. In the days of private enterprise every office boy in the head office of the company would have known almost the minute the pit was back at work. It might be a mine producing gold in Rhodesia. The minute the pit went on strike the news would electrify the office. The minute it was back at work everybody in the office, down to the typist and the office boy, would know. There would be a telephone message that the pit was back at work getting more gold for the directors for their fees and their dividends. Such a close personal interest in the successful running of the job must be engendered in every employee of the Coal Board though not of course for the same purpose.
The miner who was on strike and in London wanted to know whether it was time for him to go back to his own pit. He was referred by the office of the Ministry of Mines to the office of the National Coal Board. At the office of the National Coal Board he was referred to six separate departments, each of which was in despair, saying, "It's not mine, I don't know this pit; it must be under some other department." Finally, the department responsible was found to be the Department of Industrial Relations. They gave information to the miner. The information was entirely correct, and it was only two days out of date. The question of arousing interest in every section of the Coal Board about what the industry is doing is one that might well be considered. We cannot have an inquest on what happened at Grimethorpe. I know that many hon. Members on this side played a magnificent part in dispelling the confusion which arose about this strike. I am sure it will be for the benefit of the House if there is an opportunity to hear their reports and conclusions about the strike.
§ 7.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)
Unlike some other hon. Members who have spoken from this side of the House, I cannot claim to represent a mining constituency or to have had any personal experience at Grimethorpe. I represent a London constituency and I know that the profound interest which is taken in all that occurs in the mines is not limited to mining constituencies. It is nation-wide. That is my experience from having 71 addressed meetings in London and elsewhere during the Recess. There is everywhere great admiration for the work which the miners have done and for the response which they are making to the appeals that have been made to them. There is also widespread interest in the activities of the National Coal Board and the area boards. Everyone is conscious of the overriding importance of the mining industry in these critical days.
The hon. Baronet who initiated this Debate raised the subject of the degree of information which the Minister should give about the activities of the National Coal Board. I would ask the House to bear in mind that one of the causes of the unrest in the days when the mines were under private ownership was the degree of secrecy with which the accounts of the coal owners were shrouded. There was a very great deal of dissatisfaction because the miners did not know the profits which were being made at the collieries, the fees being earned by directors, the extent of management expenses, and similar relevant information.
§ Sir J. Mellor
Was it not a fact that auditors who acted on behalf of the miners' unions had full access to the accounts?
§ Mr. Fletcher
The auditors may have had access to certain totals perhaps, but the accounts of public companies—still more so of private companies—did not give the detailed information which was of particular interest to the miners. Absence of that information was frequently a cause of great dissatisfaction in mining areas. Now that we have the great national experiment of a nationalised coal industry, the House and the whole country are watching with great interest the progress it is making and are anxious to have full information about it. I am sure we are indebted to the hon. Gentleman for having initiated this very profitable discussion.
It is a little odd, but it may nevertheless be a good thing not to try to lay down too hard and fast a rule as to the extent to which the Minister of Fuel and Power should answer questions as to the activities of the National Coal Board, area boards and management committees. As I have said, this is a great experiment, and it may be desirable that the 72 machinery of our Parliamentary procedure for dealing with a nationalised industry should be approached experimentally. We have a new Minister of Fuel and Power and I would take this opportunity of offering my right hon. Friend my most sincere personal congratulations on his appointment. He has a great responsibility and a great opportunity. I am sure we all wish him every success in the post to which he has been called.
In my view it is right that the Minister should have considerable discretion as to the kind and the degree of information which he gives in answering questions of the type to which the hon. Member for Sutton Cold field (Sir J. Mellor) referred. Personally I thought it was unfortunate that the previous Minister of Fuel and Power did not frequently appear to be very forthcoming in giving the House information of the kind which the House appeared anxious to have. I ask the new Minister in exercising his discretion as to what Parliamentary Questions he will answer to bear in mind the wisdom wherever possible, unless there is some reason for secrecy—and there may be good reasons which only the Minister can estimate—of giving information about the particular matters, which concern Members of this House.
Subject to the reservation that the Minister must be the final judge, I would ask the Minister in his own interests in securing, as I am sure he wishes to, the confidence and support of the House, to give the House the fullest possible information about the activities of the National Coal Board, the area boards and what is happening in the mines. I am quite sure that in that way the Minister will be able to contribute materially to giving the country the detailed information it is so anxious to have as to the way in which this great national experiment of the nationalisation of the coal mines is proceeding.
§ 8.1 p.m.
§ The Minister of Fuel and Power (Mr. Gaitskell)
This has been a useful, interesting and, in some respects, rather remarkable Debate. We have had the unusual spectacle of my hon. Friend the Member for the Exchange Division of Liverpool (Mrs. Braddock) in some sort of loose alliance with the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne). I even find myself to the extent of 5 per cent. in 73 agreement with the hon. Member for South Edinburgh (Sir W. Darling), and that is something which I do not think has happened before.
I am glad to have this opportunity—I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir J. Mellor) for raising the Debate—of making a statement about the attitude of the Government to this important question of principle. I shall confine most of my remarks to the question of principle which the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield and other hon. Members have raised, but I shall also take the opportunity of saying something in reply to various comments on other matters connected with the National Coal Board.
To start with I think we can agree on certain propositions. The first is that socialised industries must be free from day to day interference by the Minister. There is not the slightest doubt that when the Coal Bill was going through this House—and the same applies to the other nationalisation Measures—it was the general understanding not only of the Government, but certainly of the party opposite as well, that there would be no interference in day to day matters by the Minister. I could very easily quote speeches by hon. Members opposite in support of that principle; and indeed the Act itself shows the traces of that, because, contrary to what the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield said, the powers of the Minister are extremely restricted. It is true that hon. Members opposite wanted to go further. They wanted to restrict the Minister even more. Judged by what they say in their publication "The Industrial Charter," they are anxious, supposing they ever have the opportunity, to limit his powers in future, though they are not proposing, I understand, to denationalise the industry.
§ Sir J. Mellor
The right hon. Gentleman rather implied that I had given incorrect information to the House with regard to the terms of the Statute. What I said was that the Minister's powers to obtain information were unlimited. On the question of control, I also said that he had absolute control because although he can only give directions of a general character, none the less by virtue of his power of appointment and control of remuneration and the tenure of office and so on of the Coal Board, he has in fact absolute "control over the Board.
§ Mr. Gaitskell
I am coming to all those details in a moment. It is quite evident, is it not, that power and responsibility must march together. So far as the Minister has powers he is responsible to the House. I fully accept that, "but if he has no powers then he is not responsible. I do not think that it is right or reasonable that a Minister should be required to answer when he has not got effective control. It is not necessary for me to argue whether or not the nationalisation Act was right in separating the Minister from the Board in this way and in laying it down that he should not interfere in day-to-day matters. I could argue that, but it is not in dispute, and perhaps we may therefore pass on.
What the Opposition say is that they agree that the Minister should not intervene, but why should he not give them the information as he has the powers to require the information? The answer in my view is that if the Minister were to use his powers to obtain information about day to day administration he would in fact be producing just that kind of bureaucratic paralysis which it is the whole intention of the Act to avoid. Anybody who has ever worked in a Civil Service Department would agree with me that if there is one major thing which leads civil servants to be excessively cautious, timid and careful, and to keep records which outside the Civil Service would be regarded as unnecessary, it is the fear of the Parliamentary Question. It is not so much a matter of whether or not I can intervene. The mere fact that I am continually asking for information to answer questions will undoubtedly produce those results. Of that I am convinced.
When all is said and done, we know perfectly well that many, if not most, Parliamentary Questions are put down with a view to supplementary questions being asked. That is perfectly fair. It is all part of the game. It is often the case that the supplementary question is designed to elicit some weakness which the Government is not anxious to divulge. If he were to answer the Question the Minister would be in the position of having to defend the Coal Board, and the same argument applies to other nationalised industries on matters of detailed administration. I think the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield asked my predecessor why the Coal Board used some particular type of furniture. The Minister could probably find an 75 answer, but no doubt that simple answer would not be enough and he would have to anticipate supplementaries about the whole situation surrounding the purchase of that furniture. From that he would be led inevitably to intervene and to control.
As a matter of fact if they wished the Coal Board could no doubt say, "We are not going to do this. We will give you the information, but we shall not do anything you tell us to do unless you issue a direction." We do not want that sort of relationship to, develop between the Minister and the Coal Board. We must be clear that if the Minister is to get information on all points of detail like this it will lead to the worst kind of bureaucracy and to that very failure of the National Coal Board which hon. Members in all parts of the House have said they wished should not happen.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Dower (Penrith and Cockermouth)
Surely questions also lead to far greater efficiency and prevent the wasting of public money?
§ Mr. Gaitskell
No doubt these things are matters of opinion, but certainly Parliament in passing this Act decided that there should not be this kind of detailed information. However much I might wish to give the House that information, I am convinced that it would have a very serious effect on the efficiency of the National Coal Board, and that is why I am not intending to do it. I am not intending to answer Questions on points of day to day administration for which I am not responsible. May I add—it may anticipate what I may be asked—that this is not the only way in which statements of this kind can be made. If the National Coal Board wishes to inform the public about the type of furniture or the number of motorcars it has got, or any such thing, it is perfectly entitled to do so.
There is a great deal certainly in what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. I. O. Thomas) about publicity and public relations, but I do not want to be put in a position in which I am answering a lot of points of detail to the House, because that would lead me to intervene when I should not intervene.
§ Mr. Emrys Hughes
When a serious industrial dispute takes place, as in the mines in Scotland, would it be competent 76 for me to ask a Question, and would the right hon. Gentleman answer it?
§ Mr. Gaitskell
As a matter of fact, in that case the Question should be addressed to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour. I agree also with what my hon. Friend the Member for East Islington (Mr. E. Fletcher) said, that it is not easy to decide what is a day-to-day matter and what is a matter which involves policy. I concede that fully.
§ Mr. Jennings
Would the Minister allow me to interrupt? Is it not a very dangerous practice for a Minister to withhold information from Members of this House on questions of public funds? This is a question of public funds.
§ Mr. Gaitskell
With great respect, it is not public money. I will come to that point in a minute.
I want to sum up this part of my remarks by saying that in these detailed matters the National Coal Board is, in my opinion, in its relationship to the Minister no different from an ordinary private undertaking. I know that is probably going further than many of my hon. Friends would concede, but I think it must be made perfectly plain because, as I said, I have not the powers under the Act; I am not supposed to control matters of detail, and there is no reason why the Board should be subject to interference and questioning which does not affect private companies. After all, shareholders' meetings may take place once a year—I will come to that analogy in a moment—but no company is subject to a shareholders' meeting in continuous session, a large part of whose members are hostile to the whole enterprise; and, in fact, that is what you would be subjecting the National Coal Board to if the House insisted, and the Minister were to give way, on having all this information.
I do not really believe that there is a great deal of disagreement so far on this; at least, if there is, I shall be interested to know if it is the policy of the Conservative Party to insist that Ministers should answer on points of detail. It may be that they assume the prospect of their coming into power; in that case, the sooner they begin to think about what their position would be in those unlikely circumstances the better, but I certainly have heard no party pronouncement from them on this point. Nor do I think that their record 77 in the past suggests that it would be very different on this from the Government. Certainly, so far as the Central Electricity Board is concerned, which was set up under an Act passed by a Conservative Government, there was no provision for Ministerial intervention, and as far as I know, Conservative Ministers have never been willing to disclose information on points of detail.
§ Mr. Osborne
The Minister is making the point that we have no right to ask for day-to-day information which requires the Civil Service to go to a lot of unnecessary trouble; that it would be bureaucracy and would break down the system. What we would like would be to have information supplied to the Minister regularly which would not cause all that extra bureaucratic work. Are we not entitled to that?
§ Mr. Gaitskell
I do not get detailed information about the day-to-day work of the administration of the Coal Board, and I do not seek to obtain it, because if I were continually to ask questions about the day-to-day administration, it would make it a very bureaucratic organisation. That is my position. Of course it does not mean that Parliament is debarred from seeking information. Indeed, on the contrary. If I may say so to the hon. Baronet, what he asks is not my affair; I have to decide whether I shall answer him or not. However, I would not for one moment suggest that I should refuse to answer every question about the National Coal Board nor that there should not be such an excellent discussion as we have had this evening.
What, then, should I answer? There again, if one turns to the Act one can see pretty clearly where the line is to be drawn. Under Section 3 of the Act:The Minister may, after consultation with the Board give to the Board directions of a general character as to the exercise and performance by the Board of their functions in relation to matters appearing to the Minister to affect the national interest, …That is one very definite power I have, and it would be perfectly appropriate for the Minister to be questioned about it. Indeed, it would be perfectly appropriate for any Member to ask me and expect a reply, and I should give a reply, why I had not made a direction on something on which he thought I ought to have made a direction. Similarly, if one continues with Section 3 one finds: 78In framing programmes of re-organisation or development involving substantial outlay on capital account, the Board shall act on lines settled from time to time with the approval of the Minister.I am responsible for approving them. Therefore on that I can answer to the House and would be glad to do so. To my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin, I would say that the Coal Board will no doubt be presenting to me fairly shortly their programmes of development under this Section, and an opportunity will no doubt arise for Questions to be put on that point. It may be that it can come up more satisfactorily on the discussion of their annual report. Then, again, there is a rather similar Subsection dealing with training, education and research where the Board must act on lines approved by myself. There, equally, it is clear that I must be responsible to the House.
May I next come to the question of accounts? Here there is a misconception in the minds of some hon. Members opposite. The money which the Coal Board uses to pay the salaries of, for example, its Divisional Boards and other Executives, wages and everything else, is not in the proper sense of the words, public money; it is simply the money which they use in the course of their trading activities, and it is not money voted by this House. If it were, certainly it would be appropriate that I should answer Questions on it, but it is not. All that has happened has been that the mines have been nationalised and compensation is being paid—by the way, if I may say so to the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. E. Hughes) the compensation will be paid whatever happens to the National Coal Board. That is an obligation assumed by the Government, by the Treasury. It is, of course, entitled to recover from the Coal Board the service, interest and redemption of the capital involved—
§ Mr. Jennings
If the assets have been purchased, and compensation is being paid, surely any income which derives from those assets is public property?
§ Mr. Gaitskell
I am sorry, the hon. Member is not right. It is not public money in the Parliamentary sense of those words.
§ Mr. Gaitskell
It is, of course, the case that the Coal Board is required to publish its accounts and, indeed, I have the power to direct how those accounts shall be made up. I have to present them to the House, and will do so in due course. Naturally it is not for me to say when opportunities for discussing them can be made but, for my part, I shall be only too glad if an opportunity arises to explain them and answer questions on them. I can assure the House, as indeed my predecessor frequently assured hon. Members, that we shall see to it that the accounts are in a very full and proper manner. I would also add to the hon. Member for Hallam (Mr. Jennings) that I was a little surprised at his statement, because when the increase in prices which occurred recently was announced, the Coal Board in fact published a very full account of the causes of the increase, and it is not fair to the Board to suggest otherwise.
§ Mr. Jennings
But the Board did not give a statement of the cost of production of coal, and surely any private enterprise which raised the price of its commodity would give full details?
§ Mr. Gaitskell
They gave a very full account of the reasons for the increase, in price, explaining that there had been an increase in costs and itemising the thing in great detail.
It is also of course quite clear that there may be opportunities from time to time for general discussions on the set-up of the Coal Board. We have had a brief discussion of this kind tonight. I should suppose that the most obvious occasion for a discussion of that sort would be when the annual report of the Coal Board is presented. That is not for me, but is the job of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I should certainly welcome that, and hope such an opportunity will occur. Then I should be glad to explain anything in the report and answer broadly for the success or failure, up to that date, of the National Coal Board. But even then I do not propose to go into matters of detail. It would not be possible to do so. As soon as I got drawn down that track, I should begin 80 to treat the National Coal Board as the Ministry of Fuel and Power, and that I am determined not to do. It is contrary to Government policy, and to what was understood generally in the House. But of course my powers and duties in relation to the Board in no way detract from my duties under the Ministry of Fuel and Power Act. I have been referred to as the nation's coalman and the hon. Member for South Edinburgh (Sir W. Darling) referred to the friendly relations between the public and their coalman. I am not quite so optimistic as he was about that, but I will do my best to earn them.
May I turn to some of the criticisms of the National Coal Board, bearing in' mind the background of what I have said to the effect that I am not in a position to deal with points of detail. These criticisms concern, for instance, the number of jobs which have been filled. I think the hon. Member for South Ayrshire mentioned one or two others as well. There have been criticisms of bad industrial relations, and so on. I am not going to say that there is absolutely no substance in any of these criticisms; it would be a miracle if there were no substance in them. In an organisation of this kind one cannot expect that everything should run perfectly smoothly, and that there should not be a mistake here and there. We should need a most gigantic centralisation to prevent such mistakes. But I ask the House to remember certain things before they jump to conclusions.
First, as an hon. Member said, whoever had been appointed to these jobs, it is quite certain there would have been widespread complaints. No doubt some of these complaints are due to the very natural and human element of jealousy. After all, when Ministers are appointed someone is jealous. Therefore, as I say, we must discount a certain amount.
Secondly, the setting up of any new administrative machine is bound to bring its own problems. I can remember early in the war being in a new Ministry, which was only set up at the outbreak of war. I was one of the foundation members and I can assure the House that for the first three months there was complete chaos for the simple reason that we did not know who was responsible for what, either on the horizontal or on the vertical plane, what was the scope of each section, nor who was to make the final 81 decisions. That is not an easy thing to lay down in black and white on paper but, it is the kind of thing one grows into.
Then we have to consider the background of the industry. Here we have an unfortunate record of industrial friction in the past. I am the last person in the world to want to go on talking about it; it is time we forgot it, but it is there. It was inevitable when the Coal Board appointed men who have been on the managerial side, no doubt doing their job very well from their own point of view, that some friction should continue. It is the job of the National Coal Board to weld managers and workers into a harmonious whole. That cannot be done all at once. I remember saying at this Box about a year ago that it would take time. I was laughed at, but I said that of course the men would be suspicious and that in some cases there may be reason for them to be suspicious. But what are the alternatives? We have to have people who are technically capable and reasonably trained, and most of them happen to have been employed on the managerial side in the past.
Then again far too much is heard of the bad side of the National Coal Board We do not hear of the bad side of any ordinary private enterprise company, because it does not get the same degree of publicity.
§ Mr. Gaitskell
Not nearly to the same extent. Naturally I am not proposing to give information about the Shell Oil Company or any other company—
§ Mr. Gaitskell
I do not deny it, and I am very glad they are.
Many of these complaints, as hon. Members have said, come from within the industry, from the workers themselves. But there is now set up in the industry a very complete and adequate consultative machine. The trade union leadership has rightly said, "This is something new which we have never had before, and we must work to make a success of it." I ask hon. Members who come across these complaints to tell those who complain to raise the matter on the consulta- 82 tive committee, and if these committees are not working properly it is the job of the unions to put them right. I am quite certain that the National Coal Board are only too anxious to see the consultative committees made a success, and it is up to the men in the industry to make them a success.
I do not want to be at all provocative, but this criticism of the Coal Board is, to some extent at least, encouraged and fanned by interests which are very hostile to the success of nationalisation. I am not making any criticisms of hon. Members opposite, but it is a very strange thing that newspapers which hitherto have always tended to take the owners' side in industries not nationalised, should take the strikers' side in an unofficial dispute, and that makes one a little suspicious.
We must look at this thing as a whole. It is no good picking out bits here and there. We shall have an opportunity for debate in the future—
§ Mr. Gaitskell
When the annual report comes out. I want to make it quite plain that I welcome the opportunity for a general Parliamentary discussion concerned with the major issues, but do not let us be continually sniping and snooping at matters of detail. It will not help the Board to be successful, but, if anything, will detract from its efficiency. I say to all sides of the House, this enterprise which has been described as an experiment, is certainly a great one in size and everything else. So far as I know it is unlike anything else that exists in any country in the world. An enormous amount depends upon whether or not the National Coal Board is successful in solving all these difficult problems. Do not let us be continually examining the roots to see whether the tree is really growing. It is not really a good thing for the tree, and it is not a very good thing for the National Coal Board. Let us give them their head and tell them to get on with the job. Let us keep an eye on them and discuss broad principles, but on matters of detail, let us leave them alone to make the best job they can of it.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at Half-past Eight o'Clock.