HL Deb 27 February 1924 vol 56 cc397-407

My Lords, I desire to ask His Majesty's Government whether, in view of the notice given by the Miners' Federation for the termination of the national agreement, they can give the House, any information in regard to the matter. I shall not detain your Lordships for more than a few moments. I have no intention of discussing the merits of the present dispute between the Miners' Federation and the coalowners. As a matter of fact, I am more or less ignorant of the actual merits of the dispute. But we must recognise that the Miners' Federation, representing practically the whole of the miners of the United Kingdom, have given notice to terminate within the next few weeks the national agreement dealing with wages which was arrived at a year or two ago, and unless some agreement is come to within the next few weeks the country will be again faced with a great and disastrous strike.

I rise to ask this Question because I want to be assured that the Government will give us such information as they can in regard to the present position, in order that we may feel that we are not drifting into a great strike, and that everything has been done, and is being done, to prevent such a calamity to this country. I venture particularly to put the Question at this moment because I think that the public at large in the last few months has been not unduly alarmed at the position of affairs which has arisen through the great strikes which have lately taken place, both the railway strike the other day and the transport workers' strike a few days ago. These strikes came upon the country suddenly and without notice, and so far as one can judge, without, of course, having any inside information, they were both brought about before any real attempt had been made to negotiate the differences between the two parties and to bring about an amicable settlement. I think we must, if possible, avoid a third example of that method of conducting industrial disputes.

I need hardly say that I am not asking the Government to intervene in this dispute at the present moment, or, perhaps, at all. My experience at the Board of Trade and elsewhere has shown me conclusively that these industrial disputes are far better settled by the parties concerned, if they can come to an agreement between themselves, than by any intervention of the Board of Trade or the Ministry of Labour. Unfortunately, however, the two parties very often fail to come to an agreement, and a deadlock ensues. In that case it is to the advantage of the country that the Government Department concerned should offer its good offices in order, if possible, to come to an arrangement before the strike takes place, and it is with a view to obtaining such information as can be publicly given that I am venturing to put this Question to His Majesty's Government. I need not say that I do not ask it with any desire whatever to embarrass them. On the contrary, I believe, as I think the most rev. Primate said just now, that in some of these Labour matters the Labour Government have an advantage over their predecessors. In any case, I am sure that they will do all they can to prevent the calamity of a great coal strike. I will conclude by asking whether they can give us any information for the benefit of members of your Lord ships' House, and also for the benefit of the public at large.


My Lords, my noble friend is quite justified in putting this Question. The situation is a very grave one, and the Government are watching it anxiously. I will tell my noble friend all I can say definitely at this moment, and it is very little indeed. The Government are watching the development of this matter. The controversy between the miners and their employers is one which has threatened for some time past, and certainly it has not escaped the notice of the Minister in charge, who has been observing the situation. The agreement between the miners and their employers expires on April 17 next. It is better in every way, if it can be done, that a solution should be come to in conference between the employers and the miners. Whether that will happen or not remains to be seen. The Government are watching and are quite ready, if and when they are required, to intervene. But it is not desirable that they should offer to intervene before they are wanted, or if they can be dispensed with. Meetings will take place between the miners and the employers on the 6th of next month. There has been some delay in regard to these meetings, by reason of circumstance into which I need not go, but I do not know that, in any event, the meetings could profitably have taken place any earlier. In any case, the parties meet on March 6, and then we shall be in a position to observe the situation more closely.


My Lords, I do not know whether I might intervene for one or two moments. It appeared to me from the speech of my noble friend who sits beside me that he gathered that the Miners' Federation represent the great bulk of the miners of the United Kingdom. As a matter of fact, there were employed at the mines in Great Britain, at the time when the recent ballot took place in connection with the agreement, 1,175,800 men. There were only 624,861 who voted, and I understand from Mr. Hodges that most of the men voted who were members of the Miners' Federation. I do not for one moment dispute the point that a very large majority of those who balloted voted on the recommendation of their leaders in favour of the termination of the agreement. I regard the agreement as one of the most advantageous agreements in connection with wages that has ever been reached, because the wage earners shared to a very great extent the proceeds of the industry, and, for the first time, we were able to work in co-operation, coal owners and miners, so as to have a practical and similar interest, not merely in the prices which we were able to obtain for the commodity from the public, but also in reducing costs. I am sure that during the thirty months in which it has been in operation, it is due to the agreement that among all the industries in this country the colliery industry is the one which has been most progressively developed, not only in regard to the increased output of coal, but also in respect of the number of men who have been employed. At, a time of general unemployment I think it is a matter of great satisfaction that an agreement of this kind should work with a considerable amount of success in the interests of the country, and especially in connection with the development of the export of coal.

I should like to add that there is no disposition, I believe, on the part either of the miners or of the coal owners to allow the present position to drift. What we did after the notice was given on January 17 was to agree at once that our accountants should go into the books of all the colliery owners in this country and ascertain what were the actual earnings of the men. We did not wish, on either side, that statements should be produced on one side or the other which might be inaccurate, and we agreed to ascertain the actual earnings of each class of workers in the colliery fields of Great Britain. That process is still going on, and we expect very shortly that the result of the accountants' labours will be made known. The only figures which are really of any public interest at the moment concern the average earnings, and are given in the Board of Trade returns. These give 10s. 7.20d. as the average earnings per shift in the quarter ending September of last year. Those are the last figures which the Board of Trade have published in connection with a three-monthly period.

Our difficulty in connection with the arrangements have been added to by the fact that many of the miners' leaders have accepted positions in His Majesty's Government. That has to a certain extent delayed our meeting with the men, but, as the noble Viscount on the Woolsack has already stated, it is arranged that we shall meet them in conference on March 6 next. During the last few weeks we have had sub-committees of the Miners' Federation and ourselves meeting and looking into the whole question connected with the capacity of the industry to pay wages. That investigation has been going on, and we shall have a report which we shall be considering early next week. Now it is not to be assumed that we shall have power to deal definitely with any proposals that are made on March 6, because it is obvious that in a complicated concern such as the colliery system of this country, the coal owners in various parts of the country will have to be consulted in regard to any proposals which may emanate from the conference with the miners. I know, however, that a very large number of the miners are anxious that there shall be no cessation of operations, and the coal owners are anxious that what can be fairly paid to the men by the industry shall be paid in a way satisfactory to the men and to the nation.


My Lords, for a very few minutes I desire your attention, while I speak from the point of view of a man whose duty it is to live, year in and year out, in a great coal field, and I wish most earnestly to emphasise the appeal which has been made, that no effort should be left unattempted in order to prevent the great disaster, alike to the country and to the county of Durham and other great mining centres, of another coal strike. It is scarcely three years since we had a prolonged and disastrous struggle. Your Lordships must know that the population in the mining districts, certainly in Durham, have by no means recovered from the disturbance and loss of that great conflict. It will be a great mistake if your Lordships imagine that the miners are a population overpaid and possessed of an exceptional measure of comfort and advantage.

The mining population at the present time, as I have said, has not recovered from the great loss to which it was subjected during that protracted period. I recognise, and your Lordships must recognise, the impossibility of anybody not an expert in that extraordinarily complicated industry venturing anything in the nature of an opinion upon the merits of the case. What I want to put to your Lordships is this: If that industry is so extraordinarily complicated that it is extremely hard to understand the rights and wrongs, even if you address your mind to the question, how can you wonder that these great multitudes of miners find it extremely difficult to recognise the justice of much which they have seen? I think the conscience of the country is becoming extremely restless in regard to these recurring strikes. It is beginning to feel that the whole method is obsolete and costly. I want to put to your Lordships this point. In these strikes, what do we see? The country is thrown into the utmost confusion; there is great exasperation of feeling developed between classes; we are assured by the employers that it is absolutely impossible for the industry to sustain the cost of the demands made upon it; and then, after a period more or less protracted, in which the country is brought almost to the brink of violence, we find that concessions are made and the industry goes on.

What I want to put to the Government and to the employers—because I think I may say that employers are represented in this House—is this: If the Government are going to intervene, as they may well have to do, I think that Government intervention ought to relieve us of the necessity of a strike. Take the, case of the strike of the transport workers. When it was announced that the Government were taking a hand with a view to a settlement, why was not work at once resumed, without prejudice, so that the country could have been spared the loss and distraction of a strike? So in this case, if we are going to have Government intervention, why not let it be understood that the questions upon which the Government are going to adjudicate shall be considered without prejudice, and so we may be exempted from a strike?

But I am far more concerned, as Bishop of Durham with the effect of these disputes upon the population. It is impossible to exaggerate the mischief done in these districts. The noble Lord who has just spoken is a great authority, and his experience is possibly unrivalled in this House. He said, with truth, that there are large numbers of miners very much averse from strikes. One of the peculiar things about these conflicts is that the great mass of those who strike are swept into the strike without any real opportunity of expressing their opinions, because it is the fact that, from one end to another of the whole process of the machinery by which strikes are carried through, the great mass of the men concerned do not have a real opportunity of expressing their opinions.

I should not like to sit down without saying this: If we are disposed to judge the miners harshly, do let us remember that if there is any set of men in the country to whom we should give something more than the ordinary measure of patience with which we should regard all our fellow-citizens, I think it is the miners. I wish I could bring home to every member of your Lordships' House the singular and exceptional hardship of the miner's life. His industry develops very quickly, and it would be no unfair description of a miner's place of residence to say that it has the population of a city and the resources of a hamlet. It is really little better than a mining camp. I know that many of the mine owners are making most generous efforts to improve the conditions under which miners are living, but it is still the fact that the housing conditions of miners in the county of Durham are about the worst in the country; and what goes with housing conditions—the moral statistics of that population are also about the worst in the country.

The mining population shares with the seafarers a kind of romantic interest. If you take the average miner and the average sailor, they are not, perhaps, more exposed to the risk of death than other people, but into the life both of the sailor and the miner, at not infrequent intervals, there crashes some tremendous disaster which disturbs the imagination, throws the whole district into mourning and calls upon men—and never calls in vain—for prodigies of sacrifice and heroism. Therefore I do say that the mining population of all populations in the country is one to the faults of which we should be something more than kind.

I apologise for saying this, but I do feel most earnestly that no effort should be omitted by the mine-owners, whom I would entreat, if they can cast their minds forward and can see that in the end they will make a concession which at present they may be disposed to refuse—I would entreat them, for once, to make an innovation in the history of economic conferences, to anticipate the struggle, to make a gesture of generosity, and to do now what they ultimately will do, to save trouble and friction. And I appeal to the Government, if they are going to intervene, to omit no effort to prevent that friction.


My Lords, it is with great reluctance that I ask leave to say two or three sentences, and I am reluctant for a special reason. A custom has grown up in this House, to which I call the attention of the Leader of the Opposition himself, a most scrupulous observer of our forms. That custom is this. When a Question is put everybody seems to think that he is at liberty to make three or four speeches in the course of the discussion upon it. That has been happening night after night since this House met, and I wish to point out that, under the Standing-Orders, nobody can speak twice on a Question without asking the leave of the House. Therefore I ask your Lordships' leave to speak two or three sentences, and the reason I do so is that both my noble friends and the right rev. Prelate have raised new matter which was not within the scope of the Question, but which was highly relevant to what we were discussing.

I was very much impressed, and I think your Lordships must have been, with the eloquent words of the right rev. Prelate on behalf of a class which is numerous in his diocese and of which he has ample opportunities of observation. I myself have seen the condition of the Durham miners, which gives rise to a good deal of the unrest in the mining industry. I know, on the other hand, how difficult it is with a mine which is not of great economic value to do all that the owners would do, if they could, to improve the miner's position. That is a factor which one can never exclude in considering any situation which arises, but it is only one of the things to be taken into account.

My noble friend spoke of the anxiety of the mine owners to make a really just agreement upon this matter, and I have no doubt they are anxious, but he rather implied that the agreement which is still in existence, and which will terminate on April 17, was an agreement which had been insisted upon by only a fraction of the miners employed in the pits. That may be so, but the decision was the work of the Miners' Federation and, after all, the Miners' Federation is a body which represents the miners as a whole. I agree that it does not represent the opinion of every miner, but then does this Parliament represent the whole of the people in this country, or even more than a large fraction of them? These large representative bodies must at any rate be taken as being representative of the community for which they stand.

One of my noble friends said that inquiries were going on. That is true. What is called the census is not yet complete—that is to say, the report upon wages. That has been one of the causes of delay. There seems to be some idea that it is the safe thing, and the wise thing, to take speedy action and interfere as soon as possible. The Government ought always to be looking out, and I can assure your Lordships that it has been looking out, but as for intervention, premature intervention may ruin the position. The thing is to strike the right moment; then we can intervene very effectively. But if we intervene at the wrong moment we may spoil the whole chance of agreement. That is why I spoke with some reserve in answer to the original Question. I am hoping that facts will be so brought out that an agreement will result.


My Lords, I hope the House will allow me to say one or two words with reference to the appeal that was made by the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack with regard to our proceedings. I can, of course, only do so with the indulgence of the House, and I cannot speak with any authority. Authority rests in this House upon the Bench opposite. But the subject of our proceedings here, and the degree of order which we may observe—which, I may say in passing, is very little—is a subject which has been a good deal brought under my notice in recent years, and when I was first Leader of the House, five or six years ago, I had to deal with it from that Bench.

The noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack is quite correct in what he says. I have refreshed my memory of the Standing Order, and it runs thus: No Lord is to speak twice to any Bill, at one time of reading it, or to any other proposition, except the Mover in reply, unless it be to explain himself in some material point of his speech (no new matter being introduced), and that not without the leave of the House first obtained. Your Lordships will observe how this deals, firstly, with Motions, and, secondly, with Questions. The Mover of a Motion has a right to reply, and that is the reason why any noble Lord who, in raising a Question here, desires to have the opportunity of replying, concludes with a Motion for Papers. Very often Papers are the last thing he wants, and still more often Papers are the last thing that the Government is inclined to give. But the putting down of a Motion for Papers gives him an excuse for saying something in reply, and that is a position which we all accept, and which we find very convenient.

Next, as regards Questions, the House will observe that the limitations are greater than those referred to by the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack. He said that any Member asking a Question and desiring to speak a second time can only do so after obtaining the leave of the House, But that is not all. He can only do so in order "to explain himself in some material point of his speech (no new matter being introduced)." That is the Rule, which is habitually and shamelessly disregarded in this House, for a noble Lord, having received a reply, does not only get up to explain himself, but he gets up to explain how entirely inadequate the reply from the Ministerial Bench has been. Only this morning I was reading a report of what happened yesterday. I happened to have gone out of the House when there occurred a debate on a question which was introduced by the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil of Chelwood, who is not here.


He moved for Papers.


Yes; but the debate degenerated or advanced into what, in my classical days, we used to call a sort of between the two parties. The noble Lord and the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil, both of them in gross violation of all our Orders, conducted a most interesting dialogue across the floor of the House. The only thing that is open to me to do is to remind the House, if I may do so without impertinence, of its Standing Order. I personally regret that at the commencement of our business every day that Standing Order is not read out. But the only way in which the House can check this form of disorder, if it desires to do so, is by indulging in what I may call orderly interruptions itself, and if, when a man deliberately violates the Rules, there is a general cry of "Order, order, order," that is the sort of reception which none of us very much enjoys and which soon reduces us to our seats. I, therefore, can do no more except, so far as I can, to set a good example myself and to encourage the House to act in the maintenance of its own rules.

May I add one more word ? I think the House when first I used to attend its proceedings, not as a member but standing on the steps of the Throne, was very much more orderly in this respect than it is now. I remember almost on the first occasion I spoke here, that on getting up to challenge some point in the course of the speech which was being delivered in reply to me from the other Party, I was greatly startled by Lord Rosebery saying: "Order, order," at the top of his voice, and I was so much overcome with confusion at his unexpected interruption that I as nearly as possible subsided. When I said to him afterwards: "Why did you call me to order?" he said: "It is entirely out of order for anybody under the Rules to make a second speech. You were making a second speech." That is rather erring on the side of rigidity, and your Lordships do not want to be too stiff even in the interpretation of your own Rules. But I think it is right that from time to time our attention should be called to them, and I warmly support what has been said by my noble friend.


My Lords, in regard to the incident to which the noble Marquess has referred, the difficulty arose in this way. The first time I answered a Question from my present position in your Lordships' House, the noble Lord who asked it started to make a reply and I pointed out that he was not in order. Immediately there were loud cries of "Hear, hear" in support of the noble Lord, who really was out of order because he had not moved for Papers, and there was no question of a Resolution. As to what happened in the debate yesterday I think there may be a little mistake; but in that case the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil, who spoke more than once, did as a matter of fact move a Resolution asking for Papers. Therefore I think he brought himself, in a sense, within the Rule to which the noble Marquess has referred. But I agree with what he said, and on this Bench we shall endeavour to preserve the Rule, which is a most valuable one and goes to the root of orderly proceedings.

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