HL Deb 12 August 1919 vol 36 cc826-30

EARL BRASSEY rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether, in view of the statements made in the Press as to the policy of Government intervention in labour disputes, they will define clearly what their policy is in the matter, and whether in view of the disastrous effects of Government intervention on the coal industry it is their intention for the future to leave the regulation of wages to organisations of employers and employed.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, a report appeared in the Press last week to the effect that the Government intended to abandon the policy of direct intervention in labour disputes, and the reason I have put this Question on the Paper is to ascertain to what extent that report is correct. It is obvious that in certain cases the Government must directly intervene in a labour dispute. Take, for example, a strike of dock labourers or transport workers which would have the effect of holding up the distribution of foodstuffs and placing people in a certain district in danger of starvation. Or, again, it is possible that the Government might have to intervene in the case of a railway strike. I remember very well a railway strike taking place some years ago in Italy in which the Government intervened; they succeeded in maintaining some sort of railway service until the strike collapsed.

I hope that the Government will be able to state definitely that it is not their intention to interfere in labour disputes except in cases of the kind indicated. Nothing, I am sure, would tend more to restore the confidence which is so essential to increased production than a declaration by the Government that the regulation of wages, at any rate, will be left to industrial councils of employers and employed as recommended by the Whitley Report. I think it is a matter of general satisfaction that the committee appointed by the Federation of British Industries, which represents businesses or firms with a capital of over £5,000,000,000, welcomes the fact that on these councils workers will sit on a footing of absolute equality with employers and will have an equal voice in determining the general conditions subject to which industry will be carried on. If that is the spirit by which employers are animated, there is no good ground for the interference of the Government, and the regulation of wages and conditions of labour may be safely left to the industrial council of employers and employed.

As I have more than once stated in this House, the interference of the Government has been absolutely fatal to our coal industry. The possibility that the conditions under which an industry is carried on may at any moment be changed by the Board of Trade, or the Minister of Labour, or some other Government Department, is paralysing British industries. Industrialists will not lay out capital on improvements; they cannot enter into contracts as long as such uncertainty prevails. Even a more important reason why I hope the Government will define their future policy is that it is perfectly certain, in my opinion, that their policy in the past in decreeing advances in wages and reductions in hours irrespective of the capacity of the industry to bear them, instead of removing discontent, has created unrest. The noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack has, perhaps, a better source of information than I have, but I entirely disagree with what he said just now—namely, that the situation is better to-day than it was six months ago. In my opinion the situation is infinitely worse, and it is largely worse owing to the action of the Government. With regard especially to the coal industry, I think it is important that there should no longer be this control by the Coal Controller. The natural check on reasonable demand does not operate, because the mines are kept going at the public expense. I sincerely hope that the Government will be able to give some sort of answer to the Question which I have placed on the Paper, and will, at any rate, be able to assure this House and the country that they do not intend to interfere any longer in the question of the regulation of wages between employers and employed.


My Lords, the noble Earl is a very severe critic of the Government on these matters. Everything the Government did throughout the war and has done since is wrong, according to the noble Earl. I have sometimes regretted that the noble Earl had not the responsiblity of facing some of the problems with which the Government were confronted during the period of which he speaks. The noble Earl says he does not agree that the situation is better to-day than it was six months ago. I must make my meaning plain to him. I did not mean the general industrial situation to-day was better than it was six months ago; what I said was that the position to-day was more favourable for confronting, and if necessary resisting, unreasonable demands than was the case six or seven months ago.

The noble Earl will forgive me if I tell him with great frankness that he does not know that the Government of this country was faced with a crisis which made it impossible and would have made it criminal to regard only economic considerations in dealing with these matters. What happened is plain. No economic defence whatever can be made for the state of affairs which prevailed and for which three successive Governments nevertheless made themselves responsible. I will tell your Lordships in a sentence what the circumstances were. In one short moment it was realised that it was necessary to transmute the whole character of the industries of this country; that it was necessary to detach them from peaceful purposes and to harness them to the purposes of war. Immense revolutions were required in the process of giving effect to the necessary change. Never in the history of any country has an industrial revolution so immense been carried through in a time so short. When you withdraw all the normal and natural play of supply and demand—all those disciplinary considerations which are supplied by the knowledge in the mind of the workman that if he does not work he will be dismissed and another man put in his place, and by the knowledge in the mind of the employer that if he does not treat his employees properly they will leave him and go elsewhere—when you withdraw all those controlling elements and substitute for them employment by the State worked out in circumstances of the greatest possible danger, does anybody imagine that in those circumstances you will find that the resulting and substituted arrangements can be carried out with the smoothness and efficiency which characterised our trading and manufacturing arrangements before the war? It is impossible. The noble Marquess, Lord Crewe, has great knowledge of these matters. He was a member of a Cabinet which played a great part in the shifts and devices to which we were driven in the attempt to obtain the best possible contribution to the necessities of the war.

If, however, it relieves in any way the anxieties of the noble Earl, I will tell him quite frankly that he has founded himself, as far as I can judge from the terms of his Question, upon a newspaper paragraph that appeared, I think, from some Lobby correspondent, which purported to indicate the intentions of the Government. The noble Earl might have drawn the same inference himself. The war is over and peace is signed. All those considerations which imperiously demanded the new arrangements—arrangements which would be indefensible except in reference to the crisis—should be abandoned, and they will be abandoned, at the earliest possible moment the circumstances render it possible. The noble Earl is also quite right in drawing the inference that whereas the policy of the Government when the war was raging was that the paramount consideration was to keep people working, that will no longer be the paramount, though an immensely important, consideration.

The noble Earl is perfectly right, again, in drawing the inference that the policy of the Government to-day is in the main to leave these disputes to be determined amongst these in whose centre they have arisen. That is and must be the best policy. Let the noble Earl, even on that point, have no misunderstanding. I do not suppose that he would lay down the doctrine that, even in peace time, there are no circumstances in which it would not be imperative for the Government to intervene. I am sure he would not. No one could give expression to an opinion which would be so thoughtless. There are grave occasions on which any Government, whatever its complexion, must intervene. The noble Earl is perfectly right when he conjectures that the policy of the Government is, under normal circumstances, to let these disputes find their own salvation and to let negotiations be carried on between the working men, who know their interests, and the employers, who know theirs. The ordinary salutary rule is that the State only ought to intervene in those cases in which some fundamental national interest is involved.

The noble Earl will not think that I do not do justice to the spirit and zeal which always inspire his contributions to our debates on these subjects, but I confess that I do sometimes detect, or I think I detect, in his criticisms and the criticisms of others, some slight failure to realise the overwhelming responsibility under which those of us who have been Ministers for five years have had to reach decisions upon these and cognate questions. I am sure the noble Earl and your Lordships will not expect, at this period of the session and in a thin House, that one should embark on a long discussion of industrial policy, but I fear that we shall make demands on your Lordships' time in the autumn for these subjects. I do, however, gladly embrace the opportunity, afforded to me by the Question which has been asked by the noble Earl, to make quite plain, so far as my words can do it, the policy of the Government.


I should like to thank the noble and learned Lord for his reply to my Question. When he says he wishes that I had some responsibility in dealing with matters of this kind, may I say, in reply, that I am dealing with these questions all the time? Only the other day, in a dispute affecting many thousands of workers, I urged people with whom I was acting that they should resist further concessions at all costs. The point I wish to make, and which perhaps I did not sufficiently make—


Would the noble Earl forgive me for pointing out that he has already exhausted his right to speak on this point?


I willingly submit to that suggestion, and desire only to thank the noble and learned Lord for his reply.