HL Deb 21 June 1922 vol 50 cc1047-54

LORD VERNON had given Notice to ask His Majesty's Government—

  1. 1. Whether the coal industry in the Lancashire and Cheshire district have asked the Board of Trade, or the Committee set up under Section 20 of the Mining Industry Act, 1920, for an allocation in aid of wages from the Miners' Welfare Fund in order to relieve the distress which prevails in that district.
  2. 2. Whether this request has been refused, and, if so, for what reasons.
  3. 3. What is the total sum paid into the Welfare Fund by the Lancashire and Cheshire district up to date, and how much of this sum has been spent.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is well known that during the last eighteen months the coal industry has gone from bad to worse, and it is also admitted on all hands—and is, indeed, proved by the published figures—and is admitted by the miners themselves, that the industry cannot at the present time do more for the men than it is doing. But that there is real distress I should like to show your Lordships by giving some figures. To-day, the collier's minimum wage in Lancashire is 8s. 7d. per shift, and the ordinary day wage of the labourer is 5s. 6d. If they were working at full time that would be a desperately low wage, because it would represent at the most only three-fourths of their pre-war wages. But that is not nearly the worst of it, because actually the average is between three and four shifts a week at the most, and in many cases three shifts, or even two, are being worked. If you take three shifts, which is quite common, that means that the collier is getting 25s. 9d. a week and the labourer 16s. 6d.

That represents very serious distress among a body of 130,000 workmen, and I am sure your Lordships will agree that at such a time the State should do nothing which would make matters worse, but, if it can, should help. Under Section 20 of the Mining Industry Act, 1920, a Welfare Fund is established by a levy of one penny per ton on all coal raised throughout the country. The purposes to which it is to be devoted are purposes connected with the social well-being, recreation, and condition of living of the workers in or about the coal mines. I understand that at the end of 1921 the Fund had in hand very nearly £47,000 for Lancashire alone, which represents about £1,000,000 for the whole country. Both the owners and the miners in Lancashire desire that the money should be temporarily used to alleviate this very serious distress, and I understand that they have both approached the Board of Trade with that object. If the money was not being collected for this Fund it would go, under the present agreement, in the proportion of 83 per cent, to the men and 17 per cent, to the owners; so that practically four-fifths of this money is coming straight out of the pockets of these workmen, who are already grossly underpaid.

I understand that the Law Officers of the Crown have given the opinion that it is legal to use the money for this purpose, and I cannot imagine how you could do more to improve the condition of living of the workers than by utilising the money to subsidise the most necessitous eases where short time is being worked. It cannot be held that that would be contrary to the intentions of the Fund when it was established, because that Fund came from the Sankey Report, which was almost entirely influenced in the desire to establish the Fund by the question of housing, and that was definitely excluded—a matter to which attention was called when the Bill was before the House. So it cannot be held that this Fund has been shared in any way in accordance with the special idea of the Sankey Commission. If the contribution of Lancashire be put roughly at £50,000 per annum at the present time, one year's contribution to that Fund would supply an average of 5s. a week for 20,000 of the most necessitous cases, and it would last for ten weeks, by which time we might hope that there would be some improvement in the coal trade in that district. Although that does not sound much it is a great deal of money to the homes in that district. It is something also which can be done without any cost to the taxpayer.

I do not consider it fair that this money should be taken directly out of the wages of workmen who are paid as little as the Lancashire miners are at present. I know it is keenly resented by the men in that district, and even on the owners' side. There have been very grave differences of opinion between the two sides in the coal industry recently, as everybody knows, and it seems extraordinary, when both sides get together in the desire to try to live through this very critical period, that a little assistance from this Fund should be refused by His Majesty's Government, or by the Committee who work under their instructions.


My Lords, I think it may be convenient if I intervene before the noble Lord, Lord Somerleyton, replies on behalf of the Government, because I happen to be Chairman of the Committee who have the responsibility of administering this Fund, and we have not been able to grant the request of the Lancashire and Cheshire district committee. May I say to the noble Lord who has raised this Question that we do not act under the instructions of the Government. We are a statutory Committee set up under Section 20 of the Act, and absolute discretion is in our hands. The only matter in which we are controlled by the Government is in regard to the purposes for which we use this Fund. If we were to use it for purposes which were not approved of by the Board of Trade, it would be competent for the Board of Trade to veto what we had done. The purposes are set out in Section 20 of the Act, and I will not repeat them because they have been broadly stated to your Lordships by the noble Lord; but they were further defined and elaborated in a memorandum which was drawn up by my Committee in October, 1921. This memorandum received the imprimatur of the Secretary for Mines and was circulated to all those concerned.

It is perfectly true, as the noble Lord has said, that the Law Officers gave it as their opinion that it was legally competent for us to allocate money in augmentation of the wages of miners on short time, but we, the Committee, as statutory trustees for this Fund, have been bound to consider what was our duty in that respect, and we have been very careful to look into the whole past history of this matter. The Report of the Sankey Commission was, as the noble Lord has said, the genesis of this particular Fund, and there is nothing in the Report of that Commission from beginning to end which shows that they contemplated the use of this Fund in aid of wages. Really, their objective had reference to the amenities of the mining districts, and throughout the passage of the Act it was never suggested from first to last that this Fund was to be used in aid of wages. If I may put, in a sentence, the objective of this Fund as it appears from the history of the passage of this Act, it was established in order to bring sweetness and light into the mining districts and to brighten the individual and social life of those districts.

I should not like the noble Lord to mistake for one moment the attitude of my Committee. We have the most profound sympathy for the distressful conditions of the mining community, especially in Lancashire and Cheshire, but, as trustees of this Fund, we say that we cannot allocate moneys out of it for this purpose. In support of the arguments I have put forward I hope your Lordships will permit me to read a short quotation from an article written on this very question—the Welfare Fund in mining areas—by Mr. Frank Hodges, Secretary of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain. This is what he says on the question raised by the noble Lord: One distressing feature, however, of the existing situation is the fact that the Lancashire and Cheshire district joint committee have applied to the central committee for the right to use their share of the money for the purpose of supplementing wages. Wages are low in that area—far, far below the level of the cost of living. That fact alone is an eloquent criticism of the state of affairs in some districts in the coal industry. The Law Officers of the Crown have reported that the use of the Fund for this purpose is legally admissible. It may be, but it is economically and socially unsound. If the money is secured it can go but a little way to alleviate wages, and that district's share would disappear in a very short time. But in doing so the men, wives, and their children will be deprived of many of those joys and amenities so necessary for sunny lives. The wage position will right itself in time. The present depression will pass away, and it would then be a source of regret to both employers and workmen in areas where the money has been absorbed by wages to find that, as compared with other districts, they are worse off in the real things that give meaning to life in the otherwise dull round of the miner's existence. The welfare scheme is the brightest thing that has come into the social life of the miners for many, many generations. In my judgment it is only a beginning, and if worked properly now will be but the precursor of a larger and nobler scheme by which industries can be made responsible for much of the happiness and well-being of their members. That is written by Mr. Frank Hodges, whose name is very familiar to your Lordships in the mining industry. It is not in any sense written by him as an official of the mining industry, but as one who is deeply interested in that industry.

May I sum up the reasons why my Committee have felt unable to listen to the application of the Lancashire and Cheshire district? In the first place, we are satisfied that it was clearly not in the contemplation of Parliament that this Fund should be used to supplement and aid wages. In the second place, if we were to agree to that suggestion we should dissipate these funds in a few weeks and that Welfare Fund, from which men like Mr. Hodges look for so much for the mining industry in the future, would disappear, leaving not a wrack behind. In the third place, I would urge that such a section of an Act of Parliament as Section 20 does not appear on the Statute Book except as the result of the two sides—owners and miners—having come together and agreed that they would agree to such a fund being established. It is almost always the case where you get an impost, as you do in this case of one penny a ton, in an industry like the coal industry, that it is because the two sides have come together and have said: "Yes, we should like this Fund established." I think it would be of very evil augury when a fund of this sort had been established that we should proceed as a Committee to put an interpretation upon the principles of allocating that Fund which was never within the minds of those who had come together.

There is, however, one solution which I would recommend to the Lancashire and Cheshire district committee. It is a solution which we have used in the case of other districts in respect of this Fund. We have said to them: "We cannot help you in regard to unemployment, but we can help you in this way. If you bring forward a scheme which is within the purposes of this Act and which incidentally leads to employment we shall be only too happy to provide funds for that scheme." By incidentally leading to employment I mean in the carrying out of schemes for playgrounds, buildings and institutions. If any such application is made to my Committee in that way, I can assure the noble Lord that it will be met with the greatest sympathy.


My Lords, I hope the Government will take a different view from that which has just been stated to your Lordships by the noble Viscount. I happen to live in a coal mining area which is in the same distressing condition as, if not a worse one than, the Lancashire and Cheshire district. The noble Viscount, who is Chairman of the Committee, has told us that it rests with them and not with His Majesty's Government to grant the request of the Lancashire and Cheshire miners in this matter. The noble Viscount admits that there is no legal bar whatsoever, and that it is merely a question of sentiment that the Committee does not acquiesce in this request of the noble Lord. He went further and said that he thought the Committee would be going contrary to the Sankey Commission, as that Commission dealt only with the amenities of life, and there ought to be no suggestion of any help in wages. I do not suppose the noble Viscount knows much about the coal trade, otherwise he would not have referred to the Sankey Commission which sat when things were booming and men were earning large wages. There was then no difficulty in the matter of the amenities of life. Things are now very different. The noble Viscount talked as if the object of the Sankey Commission was to bring amenities and sweetness into life.


I beg the noble Lord's pardon. I only referred to the fact that in so far as the Sankey Commission had regard to this particular Fund the objective was to bring sweetness and light into miners' lives.


I do not see why the noble Viscount should have made that interruption. I was going to say that that was the object represented by the Sankey Commission as regards this particular Fund, but I venture to say that the Sankey Commission would not have recommended, under present conditions, spending money on recreation and playgrounds and enjoyments when men were actually out of work and starving. If the noble Viscount lived in the district where I live he would know that the poverty is enormous, that many men are only earning wages of about 20s. a week, and that a large number of them have to go to the Poor Law guardians to ask for poor law relief, a thing which they hate having to do.

Instead of being told, "You are going to have sweetness brought into your life by recreation grounds and by musical entertainments," these men would much prefer to have some assistance given to them that would enable them to pay their rents. The payment of rent in these colliery areas is one of the great difficulties of the present time. In the good time rents were very high, and now a man living in a colliery area in Somerset has to pay 6s., 7s., or 8s. a week for his house, and he is only earning 20s. or 25s. a week. He cannot give up his house, because he would not be able to get another.

It is a most serious thing that a large number of men are compelled at the present time, much against their wishes, to apply for outdoor relief. In addition to the high rents, in some districts the rates are as much as 20s. in the £. Therefore, anything that we can do to relieve the poverty of these men, and indirectly to relieve the rates, which are pressing very heavily indeed upon a poor class of the community in many of these areas, we should do. I cannot agree with the noble Viscount, and I hope the Government are not going to take his view. The best thing that Parliament could do to bring sweetness into the lives of miners would be to get them some assistance from this Fund so as to obviate their having to ask for outdoor relief. Recreation is, of course, a very desirable thing, but it is ridiculous to say that the miners now prefer the provision of means of recreation to assistance in paying their rents. I cannot think why the noble Viscount takes the attitude that miners would think more of recreation than of their daily bread.


My Lords, first of all, may I express on behalf of the Government the greatest sympathy with the men suffering in Lancashire and Cheshire to whom Lord Vernon has drawn attention to-day. We must all feel the very greatest sympathy with them, and hope that they will soon see an end of their troubles. The noble Lord who has just spoken said this was a matter of pure sentiment, but it does not seem to me that he has quite followed the case as put by the noble Viscount. This is not a question of choosing whether the men are to be supported out of this money, or are to have the various recreations and improvements which have been suggested by this Committee, and for the carrying out of which this Committee is responsible. As has already been pointed out, this sum of money would not keep the men who are only partially employed, nor could it possibly raise their wages to a sum adequate to support their families properly. It would be only a drop in the ocean, and would disappear very soon. Therefore, I do not think the matter can be regarded as if it were one of sentiment only.

With regard to Somerset, I am not prepared to go into that question, because I was not aware that any application was to come in from Somerset, or that the case of Somerset was to be raised. I shall, therefore, confine myself to the matter brought before the House by Lord Vernon. I need not take up much of your Lordships' time, because my noble friend, Lord Chelmsford, has already stated the case well, and has given the reasons for which the Committee was set up. Lord Chelmsford also quoted an article written by Mr. Frank Hodges, who is secretary of the Miners' Federation, and therefore is well acquainted with the coal trade, as even Lord Strachie might admit.

With regard to the Question put to me the answer to the first part is in the affirmative. I understand that the application was refused by the Committee on the grounds that it was not the intention of Parliament, in instituting this Fund, that it should be used for the purpose of augmenting wages; that the result of using it for this purpose would be to exhaust the entire sum available for the district in a comparatively short time, without having made any lasting contribution to the social well-being of the miners as a whole; and that the use of the Fund for such a purpose would be contrary to the best interests of the coal mining industry. I do not think it necessary to labour that proposition. The total sum paid into the Miners' Welfare Fund from the Lancashire and Cheshire district is £87,376 11s. 4d., and the sum which, under the Act, must be allocated in the district amounts, with interest, to £70,627 10s. 10d. No part of this sum has at present been allocated, owing to the fact that no application other than the application referred to in this Question has been put forward by the district welfare committee.