HL Deb 12 August 1919 vol 36 cc786-96

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the purpose of this Bill is to give effect to the recommendations for the reduction of the hours of underground workers in collieries, which are contained in paragraph 1 of the Interim Report of Mr. Justice Sankey and three other members of the Coal Industry Commission, issued on March 20. I will read to the House the exact terms of the Commission's recommendation—

We recommend that the Coal Mines Regulation Act, 1908, commonly called the Eight Hours Act, be amended by the substitution in the clauses limiting the hours of work underground of the word "seven" for the word "eight" as from July 16, 1919, and, subject to the economic position of the industry at the end of 1920, by the substitution of the word "six" for the word "eight" as from July 13, 1921. Certain adjustments must be made in the hours of the classes of underground workers specifically mentioned in the Act.

The Bill is limited to carrying out these recommendations. The Government are pledged to carry out the recommendations, and the principle of the measure was not questioned in the other House. Indeed, the first part of the recommendations, which proposes the immediate reduction of the hours below ground from eight to seven, was also accepted by the three representatives of the coal owners on the Commission in their Interim Report; and, so far as the second part of the recommendations is concerned, your Lordships will see that under the Bill a Resolution will have to be passed by both Houses of Parliament before the further reduction to six hours can take effect.

It might be convenient to your Lordships if I say a few words in explanation of some of the provisions of the Bill. In the first place, it will be noticed that the Bill is limited to mines in which coal is worked. The terms of reference of the Coal Industry Commission were limited to the coal industry, and no inquiry was made by the Commission nor was any evidence placed before them as regards any other class of mines or industry. The Government therefore considered that the Bill should deal only with the coal industry and should not include certain other classes of mines which are included in the principal Act of 1908. These classes of mines were shale, stratified ironstone, and fireclay mines.

Secondly, the recommendation in the Sankey Report left certain adjustments to be made by the Government in the hours of some special classes of underground workers. For these special classes the Act of 1908 allowed nine and a half hours below ground as against the eight hours allowed for the ordinary underground workers. These classes are men with special duties of supervision, like the firemen or deputies, or men engaged on special work such as the fanmen or pumpmen. The Bill proposes to reduce the nine and a half hours for these special classes to eight. This is in accordance with the recommendation made by the expert adviser of the Government, the Chief Inspector of Mines, after hearing the views of all the parties interested. The Chief Inspector advises that a period of eight hours will be sufficient to enable the duties of these men to be carried out with due regard for the safety of the mine.

The only other matter which I need mention is the proviso at the end of Clause 1. In certain kinds of operations underground it is necessary to carry on the work continuously without interruption, by a succession of shifts. Examples of such work are sinking of pits, driving a cross-measure drift through broken ground, boring towards old workings which may contain water. It is necessary to have some provision which would enable this practice to be continued, and it is accordingly proposed in the proviso that the Secretary of State may in such cases allow the shifts to be below ground each for a period of eight hours out of twenty-four. It will be observed that the proviso is safeguarded in the first place by requiring that the consent of the Secretary of State should be obtained, and, secondly, by the provision that the' men affected or their representatives are to be consulted. The cases to which the proviso will apply will not be numerous, and the power is needed for the purpose of safety.

In asking your Lordships to give a Second Reading to this Bill it may be convenient, and may remove possible misunderstanding, if I make it clear that the acceptance of this measure in no way carries with it an undertaking, implied or otherwise, to accept the second part of the Report of Mr. Justice Sankey's Commisssion. I do not wish to be misunderstood. What the Government may decide to do on this further Report I have no idea. I only want to make it clear that those of your Lordships who have decided views on the subject of nationalisation can safely accept this Bill without prejudice to any future action.

This Bill is in fulfilment of a definite pledge given by the Government that they would give effect to a Report by the Commission on the question of hours and wages. Perhaps I may be allowed to quote the statement made in another place by the Leader of the House on March 20 before the second Report of Mr. Justice Sankey's Commission was issued. He said— I say now, on behalf of the Government, that we are prepared to adopt the Report in the spirit as well as in the letter, and to take all the necessary steps to carry out its recommendations without delay. That refers, as I have pointed out already, to the Interim Report. I am not concerned with any of the subsequent proceedings of the Commission. I only suggest that, however much the forecast as to the limited reduction of output may prove too optimistic, it is eminently desirable that no excuse should be given to any one to say that the Government had played them false. At this time of all others the Government should scrupulously keep its pledge to the workers. For that reason I ask your Lordships to give a Second Reading to this Bill.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Jersey.)


My Lords, if I may be allowed to say a few words on the Motion which is now before us, I should begin by saying that the request which is made on behalf of the Government that we should read this Bill a second time is an instance, if I may say so with all respect, of the extraordinary manner in which legislation is conducted in this House at this period of the session. This Bill is a measure of almost incalculable importance. No one will deny it. And on whose authority and on whose recommendation is it that we are asked to read it a second time this afternoon? It is, due to the recommendations of Mr. Justice Sankey. The noble Earl has read them out to you, and I need not therefore repeat what he said.

I will, however, read one sentence from Mr. Justice Sankey which follows immediately after his recommendations. It runs— It is thought that these results may be obtained, as explained in our Report, without raising the price of coal to the consumers. In his own words he supplies his own condemnation, and there, never was a greater or a stronger condemnation of the recommendation of any Committee appointed by the British Government during my fifty years of Parliamentary life than occurs in the Interim. Report of Mr. Justice Sankey. What is the answer to that recommendation and to the words which I have just quoted? That the Government have found it absolutely necessary to raise the price of coal to the consumer by not less than 6s. a ton. This is nothing but an outrageous scandal on the way public business is being conducted in this country, and especially with regard to the questions raised in the Coal Commission, the importance of which it is absolutely impossible to calculate.

I am only a very young member of this House, but I was a very old member of the House of Commons, and in the whole of my career I have never known anything to equal that which we are asked to do tonight. The noble Earl said that this was passed without controversy in the House of Commons. Yes; but the position is very different to-day. He said that the Government were pledged. So they might have been, and intolerably foolish it was on the part of the Government to commit themselves to a pledge of this kind before they knew and had really grasped what was going to be the consequence of accepting this Report. If it rested with me, and if I occupied a position of experience and standing enough in this House to do so, I should have moved the rejection of this Bill on Second Reading without the slightest: hesitation, but I am new to your Lordships' House. I recognise also that at this period of the session it would be taking a grave responsibility on my shoulders in which perhaps I should not be justified, especially when I look around and see the thin attendance in the House.

This great question affects every interest in the country. People talk of the coal industry. But what is the coal industry? It is the pivotal industry of every single industry in the whole of the country, and unless the coal industry flourishes it is impossible that any other industry can flourish. Our trade, the comfort of our citizens, and especially the comfort of our poorer classes, all vitally depend upon this industry; and yet, if I understand the coal position at all—and from the moment that I read Mr. Justice Sankey's first Interim Report I have done my best to make myself master of it, and that is why I am taking this course on this occasion—the issues are so vast that how any Government could ever have pledged itself to so wild and foolish a policy as this before they knew what it really meant I am quite unable to understand.

I have endeavoured, I hope with all due moderation, to say what I have thought it my duty to say to-night, and I do not know that I should do any good by prolonging my statement further, but this I do wish to say in addition, that it is only since I came into the House five minutes ago that I have had any opportunity of seeing this Bill. I do not know when it was circulated. I have never received it, and I obtained it the moment that I got into the House, and had read the Orders of the Day showing that the Bill would come on for Second Reading. I have read it since I took my seat upon this Bench. What the Bill points to is this. It points to nothing but a continuance to every imaginable industry in the country of the most disastrous policy that I have ever heard of in the whole of my political career, and that is why, if I had been an older and more experienced Member of your Lordships' House, with a better knowledge of the conduct of your proceedings at a period of the session like this, I should without a moment's hesitation have moved the rejection of the Bill.


My Lords, I should not like the Bill to be read a second time without joining in the protest which the noble Viscount has made. As the noble Earl who introduced the Bill said, it is to carry out a pledge given by the Government several months ago. Since that pledge was given the anticipations of the output of coal have not been realised. Instead of the output being maintained there has been a great falling off. In view of the present circumstances of the coal industry of this country, in view of the effect that the concessions already made have had on the output of coal, and in view of the certain effects of this measure if it becomes law, I believe the Government are absolutely unjustified in introducing this Bill.

It is quite idle in a small House like this to divide against the Bill. If a Division were taken I should certainly without any hesitation vote against it in the interests of the country. It seems to me that the Government are far too prone to consider the interests of a particular class of workers and to sacrifice the interests of the country as a whole. I should add that many connected with the coal industry know that my sympathies for a great many years and all my efforts have been directed towards raising the conditions in that industry. Therefore what I have said is not said from the employer's point of view.


My Lords, I will add a word because I have had some responsibility in these matters since the findings of the Sankey Commission were published. I am unwilling that the important and weighty speech made by my noble friend Lord Chaplin should pass without a word at least that would make it plain that it has been listened to with respect, as anything he says in this House will always be listened to.

It is no good in this controversy using indiscriminately the language of censure. It is no good, in the dangers in which this country was placed, at the time that a grave decision was peremptorily called for, criticising those who reached the decision, one branch of which is conveyed in this Bill, as if they were deliberating in the spirit or with the opportunities or the leisure of men who could decide which of two possible decisions on their merits was the one that ought to be adopted. At the moment when this Commission sat the situation was more charged with peril than certainly at any moment that I can recall in domestic affairs. In many ways the situation is to-day very much improved. In many ways it is a situation which renders a decision upon merits alone an easier one than at the time these discussions took place.

The noble Viscount has spoken of the Report of Mr. Justice Sankey's Commission as a whole. That Report has very recently engaged the attention of the Cabinet and has been made the subject of long discussions, and Parliament will shortly be informed of the view which has been formed of that Report as a whole. I would only say this, that neither the noble Viscount nor the noble Earl indicated any intention of opposing this stage in the Parliamentary progress of this Bill. I should have deeply regretted if they or any other noble Lords had taken that course, because the problem is one of immense difficulty, and I do not think that your Lordships, if you had had the responsibility resting upon yon three months ago, would have taken a different decision.


My Lords, the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack has thought it right—and I am not surprised at it—to make some sort of apology for the position in which the Government stands in respect of this question. I do not think the Government can look back upon their relations with labour with any satisfaction. I quite agree that when they came to those decisions, to which the noble and learned Lord has referred, the country was in a position of great peril. But see what that observation really means. It is a perfectly true observation. It means that the circumstances were such that, though the country was in the gravest peril in respect to its foreign enemies, it could not rely upon the patriotic co-operation of a certain body of the working classes of this country. That is the plain English of it. Notwithstanding the peril abroad a certain body of the working classes of the country—I hope your Lordships will note the limiting phrase that I use, for it is not by any means all or the majority, or anything like the majority—a certain body held the country as it were to ransom, saying, ''You are in great danger, and we insist upon having our terms." That is the plain English of what happened. I do not mean that the noble and learned Lord in his polished phrases actually used that language, but that is what it came to.

That is a very grave statement, and I am afraid it is true, and it makes many of us convinced that the real line of policy in regard to that section of the working classes, and indeed in regard to the whole of the working classes, has not hitherto been well advised. You could not have produced a state of things like that if the policy of the country towards the working class had been well advised. We are driven therefore to consider why it was that this limited section of the workers behaved in the way they did. Of course, there can be no doubt of certain reasons. I do not mean to say that it was all the fault of the governing class, of successive Governments, but it was largely the fault of successive Governments because they have never dared to tell the truth to the working class on these matters of labour policy. And it is because recently in all the labour troubles which took place during the war the Government had not the courage to stand up and say what they really thought in these maters. And after having made some sort of show of resistance time after time they gave way and made concessions when they had sworn they would make no concessions at all.

Those are partly the reasons, and then there is a reason yet wider and deeper, for which we are all of us responsible—for I do not want; to take the attitude of a man who is finding fault with others for blameworthy acts for which we all must bear our share of responsibility. We have never in this country been prepared to take the workers sufficiently into our confidence. We have not admitted them to their full rights of citizenship in respect to industry. Those are some of the reasons. I earnestly hope that we have learnt our lesson, and that in the future we shall be braver to stand up to what we really believe when the workers are wrong; and, on the other hand, that we shall be prepared to accept their co-operation, not only in politics but also in industry, and place them on a more equal footing with the other classes who are engaged in those pursuits.

As to this Bill, I certainly should not counsel your Lordships to reject it; it is part of the policy of the Government to deal with the difficulty of the mines. A heavy responsibility undoubtedly rests upon the Government, and if disaster happens they must bear the responsibility, and that will be exacted from them by the electors of the country. But it would be a very ill-advised step to interfere in a vital manner with that policy while it is in progress. We must simply accept that policy, for what it is worth, as it stands, and, when the time comes, hold responsible those who may be responsible for any disaster which ensues. For these reasons I myself shall not be prepared to vote against the Second Reading of the Bill.


My Lords, the noble Marquess has stopped at what I thought was going to be the most interesting point of his speech—namely, a solution of these terrible labour difficulties. He told us in the first place that he thinks much trouble might have been avoided by greater publicity and propaganda; by spreading the true economic facts of the situation more widecast. That may be so. Many of you, I know, will not deny that tremendous efforts were made through our organised Propaganda Departments to make these things more widely known; but your Lordships, amongst others, disliked these "needless Departments." They came to an end at the termination of the war, and now propaganda has to proceed through the agency of Parliament or through public speeches, and so on.

I imagine that we all know—at least, all those who, like myself, are closely connected with these industrial matters know—how difficult it is to persuade certain classes of the community to devote their minds to economic problems. Public speeches, propaganda, and so on, might have done much, but they are really nothing compared with the complexity and the magnitude of the problem. The other solution or part of the solution, applied in particular to this industry, was the claim that labour should be made into better citizens and drawn more into the confidence of those who employed it. All I can say on that point is—speaking with a very full and complete knowledge of the coal trade—that there is no industry whatever in the British Isles in which those who are employed have closer, more official, more properly established, and more regular congress with those who employ them than in the coal trade. There is not one pit in Lancashire (I will not speak for other districts) which has not got its joint committee of employers and employed. We have done as much as we can in the coal trade. We have done far more, one hundredfold more, than a dozen other trades who tell us what we ought to do and who have no idea what we have done. Yet in spite of what has been done these difficulties exist. I do not say that they are insuperable, but I am sure that no cut and dried, ready-made method or remedy—laid down by Parliament, if you like, or by a Government which has not spent its time year in and year out in handling these problems—will find any ready solution.

I hope on some future occasion to hear the second chapter of Lord Salisbury's speech, and I, for one, will listen to it with profound attention. I want to add a word in respect of what Lord Chaplin said. He quoted Paragraph VI of Mr. Justice Sankey's Report—


Of the Interim Report.


Yes, the Report with which this Bill deals. I was not on this committee, and I do not know what I should have done if I had been on it; for all I know, I dare say I should not have signed this Report. But at least let us do justice to this committee; and if you will read Paragraph VI you will see that the expectation therein raised was contingent upon further paragraphs mentioned in the Report being fulfilled. The words are, "These results"—that is, from the shortening of hours—


And the payment of wages.


Yes; but that is Paragraph V. "These results may be obtained, as explained in our Report, without raising the price." It goes on to explain the qualifications in the subsequent chapters of the Report. The first is that "substantial economies in working shall be effected." The second is that "those employed shall reach a higher standard of comfort, with the result that they may be expected to work better." The third, ancillary to that, is that "housing accommodation will be improved." Another condition is, "The miners' leaders have pledged themselves to do their best to prevent voluntary absenteeism in the mines." Yet another condition is that "economies may be effected in production, in transit, and in distribution." How far those or any of those are going to be accomplished it is not for me to say, but in fairness to Mr. Justice Sankey and the three or four other people who signed this Report I think it is at least well that these qualifications should be placed upon record.

On Question, Bill read 2a and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.