HL Deb 18 December 1908 vol 198 cc2198-205

Order of the Day for receiving the Report of Amendments, read.

Moved, "That this Report be now received."—(Earl Beauchamp.)


My Lords, on the question that the Report be now received I should like to ask His Majesty's Government a question. I will preface it with only a few words. As the Bill was introduced it was to come into effect on 1st January, 1909, but, as a matter of course, when delay took place and an autumn session had to be called, the date was put off until July, 1909. I understand that at a late stage of the Bill, in another place, an alteration was made giving a preference to certain districts in the North-East of England, and making the date in their case 1st January, 1910. Last night a further Amendment was made in your Lordships' House, altering the date for all districts to 1st July, 1910, and of course in that case all are placed on the same level. Some of us ventured to speak very strongly against the preference shown to one district over another, on the ground that in the case of two districts competing, say, for the export of coal, it is radically unfair that one district, such as the East of Scotland, should be put at a great disadvantage as compared with another like the North-East of England. But that is not directly connected with the question of the postponement of the date of the coming into operation of the Act to 1st July, 1910. I felt at the time that decision was come to that it was rather a long postponement. I felt also that it was arrived at without a completely adequate discussion, having regard to the importance of the matter. The noble Marquess who leads this side of the House made a very distinct appeal to His Majesty's Government to give us some help and guidance in the matter, having regard to the fact that the preference, which was the cause really of much of the discussion last night, was almost universally condemned on all sides of the House. Personally I deeply regret that that appeal was not responded to, and I venture to think that even now, at this late period in the discussion of the Bill, it would be only proper if His Majesty's Government would tell us whether some other date earlier than July, 1910—one which would be more generally convenient and would give people time to make arrangements as to their contracts, but would not make any preference between one district and another—might not yet be accepted. As on this stage of the Bill your Lordships have not the right to speak more than once on any particular question, I thought it would, not be inconvenient if I ventured to ask the Government whether, having regard to all that has taken place, they cannot give us some assistance in arriving at a solution that would be generally acceptable and avoid the much vexed question of a preference as between one district and another.


My Lords, I think the question is a very reasonable one for the noble Lord to have asked after the discussion that took place yesterday, but in saying a few words upon it it is impossible for me to avoid the merits or demerits of different dates which the noble Lord himself avoided, partly because the discussion itself depends upon them, and partly because as no Amendment has been, so far as I know, moved to the conclusion which the House reached at our last sitting on this subject, there would be no opportunity except this of going into detail on the matter. The noble Earl, Lord Camper-down, when I last spoke, complained that I had given no very definite opinion on the subject; but when the Government bring in a Bill in a particular form it has to be assumed that, unless they make some definite suggestion to the contrary, that is the proposal which they desire to submit to the House. At the same time thatdoes not, I think, prevent the Government doing what I did on the last occasion, which was to point out, as I hope quite frankly, that there are objections, so far as I can see, and I think we all agree, to every course that can be suggested in this matter. It very often happens in matters of policy, as your Lordships very well know, that there is no course which is entirely free from objection, and I think we are now in one of those situations. The question lies, I think I may say, between three different courses. There is the course which the House ultimately adopted, that of the postponement till July, 1910. The objections to that course I think are obvious. So far as the time of year is concerned, it is probably the best time that could be chosen, but still it is a very serious matter to postpone the operation of a Bill of this kind for a period of eighteen months; and it has to be remembered in this connection that those principally concerned, the coal miners, are not directly represented in this House, and that, therefore, their point of view was not and could not be explicitly stated. Under those circumstances the Government were not able to agree to such a long postponement. The next alternative is to make the Bill come into operation everywhere in January 1910. The noble Marquess who leads the Opposition directed his observations mainly to that point at the last stage of the Bill, and I think it was evident to everybody who listened to what he said that he and, I have no doubt, many who agree with him were most unwilling to take any responsibility whatever for that date. He pointed out, as I ventured to point out, that there might be some very considerable risk in bringing this Bill into operation in mid-winter for the whole country, and, as I say, the noble Marquess very clearly and explicitly announced that he meant to wash his hands of any responsibility that might arise from a panic and consequent rise of price, owing to that date being inserted. If that is the date which your Lordships prefer, I must say that it does not appear to me that you can divest yourselves of responsibility in this matter. Your Lordships take the responsibility sometimes of throwing out our Bills and at other times you will not take the responsibility of passing them. But, if you pass them, it really is not possible to say, being in possession of all the facts, that you at any rate will not, hold yourselves responsible for whatever the consequences may be. The Government also, under those circumstances, are not willing to take that responsibility, and therefore we cannot undertake to agree to the date of January, 1910. Noble Lords will see that I have dismissed two of the alternatives. There only remains, as far as I can see, the alternative of the preference. That we know is strongly objected to on account of its being a preference, but I think it is only reasonable to point out that it was not assented to by the Government on the ground of its giving any preference to the counties of Northumberland and Durham, and the noble Earl on the cross benches warned us that he asked for no preference of the kind. The extension to January in favour of those two counties was given simply and solely on the ground of their statement, which my right hon. friend believes to be correct, that the mere organisation of labour owing to the peculiar system which obtains in these counties would be an exceedingly difficult thing to effect by so early a date as July. Under those circumstances my right hon. friend thinks, and the Government also think, that, although we fully admit the-incidental objections which arise from a preference being given to those two counties for a period of six months and the unpleasant consequences which in some degree occur to other districts in consideration of that, yet on the whole the least objectionable of the three courses which I have indicated lies in the maintenance of the term as stated in the Bill. Therefore, while we do not ask your Lordships to readmit it at this stage, that remains the policy of His Majesty's Government.


My Lords, as I proposed the Amendment which was adopted by your Lordships, without any opposition from His Majesty's Government, perhaps I may be allowed to say a few words on the subject. What was the position in which we found ourselves? The Government proposed that the Bill should come into operation for the country generally on 1st July next year, but for the counties of Northumberland and Durham not until six months afterwards. It was the general feeling in the House that it was unfair to give a preference to some districts over others. It was also clear that the Government were pledged to Northumberland and Durham that, so far as those counties were concerned, the Bill should not come into operation until January, 1910. Those seemed to be matters which were practically settled for us. Then came the question whether the date should be 1st January or 1st July, 1910. I think your Lordships were mainly guided in arriving at your decision by the views expressed on behalf of His Majesty's Government. At any rate that was my case. I had no particular preference for the date chosen, but I was muck impressed by what was said from the Government bench. The noble Earl the Lord Steward said that— it would be much harder on the consumer if the change took place in January than if it came in July, and my noble friend who has just sat down followed in the same sense. He said it would be— infinitely more serious if the change took place in winter than it would be in the summer. Those were very strong words. If this Bill is to come into operation in January it is to be infinitely more serious to the consumer than if it comes into operation in July. Those words impressed me, and I think it was that language on the part of His Majesty's Government which induced your Lordships to take the course you did. If His Majesty's Government think it would be better to adhere to 1st January, 1910, instead of putting it off for another six months, then I submit it is for them to take the responsibility. If the Government consider, on the whole, that the effect of the Act on the consumer will not be so great as the language they used yesterday led us all to suppose, then surely it is for His Majesty's Government to take the responsibility of themselves determining what is the best date upon which the Bill should come into operation, and I have no doubt your Lordships would respectfully take into consideration any opinion that the Government might express. But the responsibility of fixing the date is one which surely ought to rest with them and not with the House.


My Lords, I am glad that my noble friend Lord Balfour has recurred to the history of this matter. He has renewed the appeal which was made last night for some guidance on the part of noble Lords who occupy the Front Bench opposite. I do not know that that guidance has been of a particularly vigorous or distinct description. Let merecall to your Lordships what happened last night. The noble Lord in charge of the Bill, replying to an Amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Newton, admitted that in his opinion there were very great objections to bringing the Bill into operation in the winter months, and he also let us see very plainly that to his mind there was also a good deal to be said against granting a preference to one class of collieries against another. His attitude certainly did not show that, so far as he was concerned, His Majesty's Ministers had any very decided or precise views on the subject. Then the noble Lord who leads the House, in reply to a challenge from myself, made his contribution to the debate. He also let us see quite plainly that in his opinion it was a very dangerous thing to give a preference to one part of the country as against other parts and, so far as I was able to gather, he showed a certain preference for accepting the date of 1st January, 1910, for the whole of the collieries. That left us in rather an embarrassed position, and Lord Newton said, I think very truly, that he detected an attempt on the part of the two front benches to bandy responsibility backwards and forwards between them. I think we are quite justified in throwing back the responsibility on the benches opposite. The noble Earl has spoken this evening as if we on this side of the House were responsible for the Bill to exactly the same extent as he and his colleagues. Clearly that is not the case. Responsibility lies with the authors of the measure. Noble Lords opposite declined to accept that responsibility. Thereupon the back benches intervened, and intervened with great effect, and an Amendment was carried which I dare say would not have been carried at all if His Majesty's Government had had the courage of their opinions and had told us frankly what in their opinion was and was not a possible arrangement. To-night I gather from the noble Earl that His Majesty's Government are opposed, in the first place, to a long postponement, which would carry the operation of the Bill to July, 1910. I gather that they are also opposed to taking the midwinter date of January, 1910, and, therefore, the noble Earl is driven, I think rather reluctantly, to the conclusion that there is nothing for it but 1st July, 1909, and the retention of the preference. That is, so far as I was able to follow him, the conclusion which he recommends to the House. If that is so, all I can say is, speaking for myself, that if the Amendment carried last night does not find approval elsewhere, I will not take the responsibility of attempting to force it upon the framers of the Bill. I feel very strongly about, at any rate, one of the Amendments—the Amendment, I mean, which was put down and carried by my noble friend Lord St. Aldwyn. To my mind that Amendment is one of vital importance, and I regard it in an entirely different light from that in which I regard the Amendment we are now discussing. The Amendment moved by Lord St. Aldwyn does not in any way interfere with the machinery set up by the Government for working the Bill as soon as it comes into operation. This Amendment, however, would very materially disturb and interfere with a scheme prepared, no doubt, after due reflection by the Government—a scheme to which we now learn that they desire to adhere in its original shape. That being so, I think it my duty to say frankly that I would not go the length of endeavouring to persuade them to accept the Amendment.


My Lords, Lord Balfour has entered a protest on behalf of those interested in the coal trade in the East of Scotland. I cannot let the occasion pass without entering a protest also on behalf of those interested in the coal trade in Yorkshire. Those who are concerned with Yorkshire coal mines and who will have to start a second shift will be confronted with difficulties at least equal to those that would have to be met by the collieries in Durham and Northumberland. They think they will lose considerably in their contracts, both for export and gas coal, in their competition—and the competition is keen—with Durham and Northumberland. I have had communications to the effect that whatever date is fixed, let every one start fair.

On Question, Report of Amendments received.

Then (Standing Order No XXXIX. having been suspended) Bill read 3a with the Amendments, and passed, and returned to the Commons.