HL Deb 09 November 1909 vol 4 cc542-6

My Lords, I rise to ask the Lord Steward whether he can state what decrease in the output of coal has occurred since the Mines Eight Hours Act came into operation, and whether His Majesty's Government still contemplate introducing an amending Bill during the present Session. In putting this question I am afraid that there is very little probability of obtaining a satisfactory answer, because the noble Earl is pretty sure to say there are no official statistics available at the present moment. So far as my information goes with regard to the working of this particular Act I find that, while in the Yorkshire collieries, where the hours were already short, no special effect has been felt, in Lancashire the average reduction amounts to something like ten per cent., and I believe that that figure applies also to portion of the Midlands and South Wales. In addition, I am informed that the hewers are earning from 9d. to 10d. a day less than they did before the Act was passed. Notwithstanding the efforts on both sides to make the Act work smoothly, serious difficulties have arisen in various parts of the country, and grave strikes have been averted with great difficulty. This Act, which was intended to be so beneficent, has, as a matter of fact, shown itself so inconvenient and unpopular that when a prominent member of His Majesty's Government was seeking re-election not long ago in the Cleveland Division he was obliged in order to retain his seat to promise an amending Act. In view of this unprecedented event in our history of a Minister promising to undo the work of his Government I asked in this House when the amending Bill was going to be brought in, and the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack assured me that it was going to be a very small measure and would be brought in at an early date and, he understood, with the general consent of both employers and employed. In fact he rather implied that it would be a Bill of such a universally popular character that it would be impossible even for me to find anything to object to in it. I want to know what has become of that Bill. I am informed, although it sounds almost incredible, that when it was drafted the Labour leaders in another place at once announced that they would have nothing to say to it whatever, and thereupon the Bill was dropped and nothing more has been heard of it. I now wish to repeat the question, and perhaps the noble Earl will be able to clear up the mystery that surrounds it.


My Lords, before the noble Earl the Lord Steward replies I should like to ask a supplementary question on the same subject. I do not know whether the noble Earl has any statistics, but I should imagine that it is quite impossible for any available statistics to have serious value. There have been very great difficulties in bringing this important new legislation into working order, and those difficulties have undoubtedly tended for the moment to decrease the output. I do not know whether the noble Earl is in a position to answer the question or not, but if he has any really serious body of statistics I should like to ask whether the Act has increased the cost of working by 5s. or 10s. a ton, as was stated would be the case by the Coal Consumers' League, of which the noble Lord opposite was president.


My Lords, dealing first with the interrogation of the noble Lord behind me, I think the question whether the Act has increased the cost of working by 5s. or 10s. a ton would be more properly addressed to the noble Lord the president of the Coal Consumers' League.


I don't know.


At the time that the Bill was under discussion a good deal of scepticism was expressed by members of your Lordships' House as to whether that forecast was likely to prove correct, and it was not one that the noble Lord himself was inclined to support with any degree of confidence. With regard to the general question put to me by the noble Lord opposite, he has prophesied correctly that no official information is available at present as to the output of coal during the current year. The returns are not required to be made up until the end of the year, and when received will only show the total output for the whole year, without distinguishing between the six months before the passing of the Act and the subsequent six months. The Secretary of State, however, has consulted the Inspectors of Mines, and they have reported that there have been more or less generally in England and Wales some decrease in the output since July 1 last. That decrease appears in some cases to amount to as much as ten per cent. or more, but these cases are very exceptional. The average decrease is a great deal lower. In Scotland the Inspector reports that there has been little or no decrease at all. The inspectors point out that in addition to the restriction of hours there are other causes which have tended to the restriction of output; in particular the general depression of trade has influenced a good many industries, and also, in the second place, some strikes and difficulties with the men, which were naturally to be expected before they were able to adjust themselves to the new conditions. Therefore, at the present time it is quite impossible to estimate the real effect of the restriction of hours on output.

With regard to the second part of the noble Lord's speech, I am afraid I am quite unable to recognise in it anything like the Bill which has been introduced in another place. The description which the noble Lord gave of the Bill as having been promised by the late Under Secretary for the Home Department with the object of undoing the work of the Eight Hours Mines Act was somewhat fanciful. If he would look up a fuller report of what occurred, I think he would find that the amending Bill was only intended to deal with one very small part of the question—whether the men might go to work at an earlier hour on Saturday morning in order to get the full advantage of their Saturday half-holiday. That Bill which has been introduced has been blocked by representatives of the Miners' Federation, and, therefore, it is impossible to say whether it will proceed any further this session, but the Government do not at present contemplate introducing another amending Bill.


I remember that in the course of the debate on the Mines Eight Hours Bill in your Lordships' House some allusion was made to a possible rise of ten shillings a ton in the cost of working, but I am sure I am right in saying that none of your Lordships who took part in the debate adopted that, figure. I recollect speaking upon the matter myself, and I am pretty certain that what I said at the time was that most of the best authorities on the subject thought there would be some rise, but that they could not say how much. I think they put it at more like 2s. a ton. That, I think, is what happened.


The noble Lord who initiated this discussion quoted me as having given some promise about a Bill being introduced. I am sorry he did not give me notice that he would refer to this. If he had done so I would have looked up what I said. As it is, I have not the smallest recollection of what happened; but I am quite certain that I did not say anything which would commit the Government to bringing in any Bill beyond that which has been already brought in in the House of Commons.