HL Deb 30 August 1926 vol 65 cc519-35

My Lords, I desire to read the following Message from the King:

"The continued cessation of work in coal mines on the 25th day of August, 1926, having constituted in the opinion of His Majesty a state of emergency within the meaning of the Emergency Powers Act, 1920, His Majesty has deemed it proper, by Proclamation made in pursuance of the said Act, and dated the 25th day of August, 1926, to declare that a state of emergency exists."


My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend the Earl of Balfour, I beg to move, That the Regulations made by His Majesty in Council under the Emergency Powers Act, 1920, by Order dated the 25th instant, shall continue in force, subject, however, to the provisions of Section 2 (4) of the said Act. Your Lordships have heard the gracious Message which has been received from His Majesty the King, and you will have seen from the Order Paper that in the event of such a Message being received this Motion would be brought before you. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Regulations made by His Majesty in Council under the Emergency Powers Act, 1920, by Order dated the 25th instant, shall continue in force, subject, however, to the provisions of Section 2 (4) of the said Act.—(The Earl of Onslow.)


My Lords, I rise to give one or two reasons why the members of the Opposition who are also members of the Labour Party regret that His Majesty's Government have found it necessary to move the continuance of the existing Emergency Regulations. Before I come directly to that point I should like to say in reference to what the Lord Chancellor has said that, while one is bound to recognise that in a matter of this kind the general convenience of the House has to be consulted, we should have desired a meeting to-morrow if it had been practicable. I think it would be premature on this Motion to discuss in any way what I may call the general outlook as regards the position of the strike at the present moment. Moreover, I think it would be inconvenient to do so until the matter has been raised, as I am told it is to be raised to-morrow, in the House of Commons.

But I want to make my opinion quite clear that for the honour of this House, when matters of grave public policy of this character are raised there should be a full opportunity given for discussion in this House. I believe the desire of this House is in accordance with what is obviously the general earnest desire in the country that some way may be found on a fair basis of settling the present dispute on such terms as will make the settlement, I will not say of a permanent character but of a character which is likely to last for a long time without further disturbance. I do not assume that any one in this House would take a different view from that and it might have been—we have tried more than once on this side of the House—that during the debate some suggestions might have been thrown out which the Government would have been able to consider and which might possibly have resulted in a fair termination of the existing strike difficulties.

Coming to the Regulations, I want to make it quite clear that I only approach them from the point of view of considering whether their reintroduction at the present moment is likely to encourage a spirit of conciliation and settlement. It is true, as appears upon the face of the Motion, that we are not asked to impose these Regulations for the first time, but we are asked that the Regulations already in force shall be continued, "subject, however, to the provisions of Section 2 (4) of the said Act." As regards the continuance, of the Regulations, I think the question arises whether the course of the strike has been such as to justify the continuance of these exceptional Regulations of an emergency character. There must be difficulties, of course, where you have questions at stake affecting the lives of a large number of people, but I should say that on the whole the strike has been conducted with good sense and good nature on both sides. While there must always be exceptions in matters of this kind, we ought not to be governed by exceptional incidents but rather by the general tone and temper of the people under such a trial. If, as is the case in my opinion, the bringing forward of Emergency Regulations of this nature is more likely to produce friction than conciliation and settlement, in what respect can it be said that anything has happened which could not be met by the ordinary provisions of the Common and Statute Law?

I see here the noble Lord who represents the Home Office. We have seen a good many suggestions or memoranda coming from the Home Office, but having examined them carefully and having so far as possible made inquiry into particular cases which I have noted as having been brought before various benches of magistrates, I can find nothing whatever that has happened in this present dispute that might not readily and easily have been settled under the principles of our Common and Statute Law. To my mind that is a very important matter. Are we to have Emergency Regulations whenever a strike occurs? I claim, as I said before, that in this instance nothing can be pointed to as showing that the strike has been conducted in a manner which makes Regulations of this character necessary. With what, after all, are we dealing? Speaking from a legal point of view, I at any rate am very proud of the Common Law and the Statute Law of this country as on the one hand giving security for our liberties and on the other hand preserving us against the risk of disaster. I ask again—perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Desborough, will tell me—what are the special circumstances that have occurred, let us say, during the last month or during the continuance of this strike, that have necessitated the continuance of these Regulations? It is no good saying in answer to my argument that certain difficulties have arisen. I know that perfectly well, but I want to know what risks have arisen which could not be met, and properly and conveniently met, under the provisions of our Statute Law and Common Law, upon which our security rests and which are based upon our sense of justice and fair play.

No legal system could have attained such a position or have influenced the character of the people of this country so profoundly unless it had been in accordance with the general sense of justice and fair play. If that be so, why depart from it? What reason is there in a case of this kind for departing from the general scheme of legislation unless—and no statistics on this point have been brought to my notice—it can be shown to be essentially necessary? It is perfectly certain that an atmosphere of suspicion and an increased difficulty of settlement are likely to arise from action of that kind. I do not want to introduce names, but, since the representative of the Home Office is here, I desire to say most distinctly that I do not think that the Home Office have been sufficiently careful, in the memoranda that they have issued, to preserve an entirely independent and impartial attitude between the two parties to this unfortunate dispute.

I now come to particular Regulations to which I desire to call attention, quite shortly and not with the purpose of impugning the Regulations as a whole, for I should have to go through a very large number of them to do so. A Regulation which sufficiently shows the character which I regret to see in Regulations of this kind is Regulation 21, to which I would call your Lordships' attention. A variety of acts are subjected to penalties by that Regulation. To a large number of them, if we are to have Regulations at all, I should not raise any objection, except to repeat that they are all governed by Common Law or Statute Law and that the liberty of the persons affected is sufficiently safeguarded under general principles. The Regulation says: If any person attempts or does any act. … I leave out the intervening words— to cause. … sedition or disaffection … among the civilian population. … What does that mean? I see that in another place the head of the Department represented by my noble friend Lord Desborough said that it was impossible to define very closely or to put into a certain category cases of this character.

I do not know whether this particular case was discussed. What do you mean by civilian disaffection? Precisely the same acts which to one class of mind bring the idea of allaying civilian disaffection would to another class of mind raise the idea of causing disaffection among the civilian population. What is meant by a phrase of that kind? In one sense every strike may be said to cause disaffection among the civilian population. In another sense every mine owner who has locked miners out of his mine might be said to be a person causing disaffection among the civilian population. But it cannot be supposed that disaffection of that kind is intended. It cannot be supposed that this would render a person liable to a heavy fine and to a considerable term of imprisonment. I do not want to mention names, nor would it be right, but I saw the other day that a fine of £10, with the alternative of three months' imprisonment, was imposed upon a certain miners' agent for what was called promoting disaffection among the civilian population. Who is to determine that?

I say quite frankly that if we were to have the most impartial minds of noble Lords on the other side of the House attempting to deal fairly and judicially with a matter of this kind, they would be almost certain to come to different and opposite conclusions. Unless a power of that kind is most carefully safeguarded it may become an engine, not for allaying disaffection but for arousing it to the utmost extent. I hope that we may have some answer as to what is meant by civilian disaffection—an answer, I mean, such as would be a guide to the magistrates who have to deal with questions of this kind.

Let me take another illustration. I turn to Regulation 33, which deals with arrest without warrant. An arrest can be made, apparently, by any police officer who considers that a person is guilty of an offence under these Regulations—for instance, if he has done something to provoke civilian disaffection. That is a very extreme power to give unless it is essentially necessary. If we look back upon our history and the struggle for our legal rights in this country, we see that this has been one of the most serious matters of controversy and that only after long discussion did we obtain the right of not being arrested without a warrant except in the particular occasions that are common to us all under either the Common Law or the Statute Law. In the same way and under the same Regulation, No. 33, any police constable, without any limitation, may stop and search any vehicle which he has reason to believe is to be used for any purpose prejudicial to the public safety or contrary to the Regulations. That gives practically an absolute power. I cannot imagine any act on either side in a dispute of this kind in reference to which it might not be argued that it would provoke some form of disaffection and therefore render a person liable to arrest without warrant and any vehicle he is in liable to be stopped and searched.

Surely, my Lords, before you adopt Regulations containing provisions of this kind you ought to have some evidence that they are rendered necessary, and the fact that they are being continued is, to my mind, of greater importance because we are not without experience of the difficulties that are likely to arise during a strike. Are we really going to lay down the principle that wherever there is a strike, whatever the conditions may be, Emergency Regulations of this character are, to be adopted? I have seen it stated, and I do not think it makes any difference, that the Prime Minister of the Labour Government was prepared to adopt similar provisions but the occasion never arose. If this Government had done what the Labour Government did—that is to say, stopped the strike—then that would have been a real feature of most beneficent importance to the working classes and the industrial interests of this country.

I do not propose to go into the general question, but I should like to say this to the Government. In the Ruhr district they had the same difficulty as we have had in this country. They had what I may call a redundant mining population and a number of mines which could not be worked on what is called economic commercial principles. I wish they would look to the Ruhr for reorganisation. Prices and the amount of coal sold are regulated and the inferior pits have been closed, the persons interested having come to the conclusion that the source of evil had been over-production which could never be cured by the multiplication of the time table in the matter of hours. 170,000 miners were removed from the district to other occupations with the result that whereas two years ago the ordinary earnings of the miner were between 4s. and 5s. they are now 9s. per day.

I do not want to go into the general question, but we must remember it. There is no cure without reorganisation. The mere increase of hours only increases the difficulties of over-production and we have to face, as the Royal Commission said, the fact that radical reconstruction ought to be undertaken and that if it is undertaken on a proper basis then, in the words of the Commission, the prosperity of our coalfield may be at least as great in the future as it has been in the past.


My Lords, it is more than three months since you gave approval to the Regulations which we are now asked to continue and no one can deny that the circumstances which then justified your Lordships in passing those Regulations still remain. I do not think any one who gave his approval then can justly and reasonably withhold it now. The noble Lord who has just sat down has raised objections, as I understand it, to the consideration of this question at the present moment. Why, I am at a loss to understand. First of all, he said that if we waited until to-morrow we should have the advantage of the discussion in another place. On a matter of this kind I venture to think that this House is perfectly capable of forming its own opinion without waiting to be instructed from another place.


I never suggested that for a moment.


Will the noble and learned Lord tell us what he did suggest?


I suggested that, as it is very often arranged on matters of this kind, it would be convenient to have the discussion in both places at the same time. It is a principle of great importance and it is to that principle that I referred.


The noble and learned Lord will forgive me if I say that my recollection is not in accord with his own. My recollection is that he emphasised the importance of the debate taking place in the House of Commons first, but even supposing that my ears or my memory should have misled me, what advantage do your Lordships gain from discussing this matter at the same time as it is discussed at the other end of the passage? Further, he suggested that there should be abundant time for the discussion of the matter, which no one will dispute is of the utmost gravity. Is there not time this afternoon? What is to prevent anybody who desires to dicuss the matter—I propose, even at the risk of wearying your Lordships, to discuss it a little myself—from saying what he thinks for as long as he pleases, provided he does not offend against the well-known courtesies of debate? I see no reason why the debate should be adjourned.

Then the noble and learned Lord says this is a very bad time for renewal—that you may increase bitterness, which every one would desire to allay, and that there has been no real use for the Regulations up to the present time; and, therefore, why should we not trust to the old law and go on as if no trouble existed? It seems to me that a more irrational policy cannot be imagined. No one can read what is taking place Without seeing that grievous as it may be this dispute is fast reaching a climax and a climax in which, although it is deeply to be regretted, passions and forces that operate against order are more likely to find free play than at any time during the past three months. I should have said, if I were asked to form an opinion, that if the Regulations were needed originally, as your Lordships said they were, they are ten times more needed at the present time. The noble Lord said in effect: Really, they have never been used, so why pass them? Leave them alone. It does not at all follow that because you have a weapon which has not been used, you should therefore go about unarmed. You never can tell at what moment, in circumstances like the present, with men one of whose leaders appears to me to have so little sense of public duty, these Regulations may not become of urgent value.

The noble Lord complained of two of the Regulations in particular—not necessarily exclusive of all the others, because he objected to all the others, as the criminal objects to the whole jury—Regulations 21 and 33. With regard to the first, I do not think it is really quite fair to ask your Lordships to consider one isolated word like "disaffection," which is admittedly hard to define, and then say: Who is to know who is disaffected, and how are you going to bring this into operation without the risk of injuring some perfectly innocent man? The word "disaffection" lies very near to another word, the meaning of which is not so doubtful, and that is "sedition," and the phrase as a whole is "likely to cause sedition or disaffection among the civilian population." And, although it may be difficult to give an exact interpretation to language—it always is so—yet you have to trust the good sense of your tribunals to give a fair and sensible interpretation to a phrase, however difficult it may be. I do not for a moment doubt that any tribunal before whom a man was charged with disaffection would have his case considered in relation to the fact that disaffection must be of the character of sedition, something grave and serious, and not some mere dispute which would affect nobody. Then the noble Lord points out that in those circumstances the police may arrest without warrant. Of course they may. That is the whole point of the Emergency Regulation; that is why it is passed. It is because the ordinary process of law, though perfectly fit for and applicable to ordinary conditions, requires to be suspended when you are in the face of a crisis which may require prompt action.

Then he seems to think that if in fact, as he says, the necessity for using these extreme powers has not yet arisen, and therefore they have not yet been put into operation, that may save him from some of the calamities which he seems to anticipate from Regulations 21 and 33. It shows perfectly well that the authorities are not using these powers unreasonably, and that there is no instance which may be brought before your Lordships to show that these powers have been abused. Had that been done I think a very different set of circumstances would have arisen. The case to which he referred is, of course, perfectly useless for the purpose of discussion, for all we know is that somebody was fined £10, with an alternative of three months' imprisonment but what he was fined for I have not the faintest idea, and I do not think any of your Lordships, unless you are gifted with some psychological power which I do not possess, could determine what that man had done. I do say that people who assert that these powers should not be continued ought to show either that their existence has been abused or that the circumstances which originally rendered them necessary no longer exist. You may ask why, if I hold those views, I continue a discussion upon the Motion, which, after all, merely asks that you should resolve that these powers should continue? My reason is this. I do think that when such a Motion is made it entitles everyone to examine the circumstances which have rendered the prolongation of these powers necessary. I must say that I cannot think that those circumstances reflect any credit upon any of the parties who have been engaged in this dispute, nor, I regret to say, upon His Majesty's Government.

With regard to his Majesty's Government, I should like to begin by saying that I think the attack that has been made upon them, as having championed the mine owners' cause, as having attempted to crush the workmen, and of being engaged in acts of oppression, are wholly without warrant or justification; and with regard to the personal attacks that have been made upon the Prime Minister, in many cases the people who have made them must have known perfectly well that they were untrue. I feel that strongly, and I think it is right to say it. But that does not mean that the Government can be acquitted. Just see what the history of this matter is. In July of last year, when precisely this same crisis was threatened, the Government refused to help by subsidy, and within twenty-four hours of the strike maturing they changed their policy, and provided what ended as £23,000,000 of the taxpayers' money to keep the industry on its feet. Now, is it surprising that people like the miners and their leads should think that, if they went on and on, the same thing would be repeated? And though we know that it is not going to take place, I do say that the Government cannot acquit themselves of the responsibility that attaches to the action which led the men to believe that if they were only persistent enough some further aid would be given.

Further, I am bound to say, having read carefully the account of the interview that took place between the miners and the representatives of the Government the other day, that I think the attitude of the Government is deeply to be deplored. So far as Mr. Herbert Smith is concerned, to the very best of his power he was representing a large body of men, among whom he had spent his life and who, he thoroughly believed, were suffering from a very deep and real grievance—and I am not prepared myself to differ from his view. I think that the miners are suffering from a very real grievance—not necessarily one that you can relieve, but a very real grievance indeed. I do think that, in those circumstances, it would have been well if the Government had shown themselves more sympathetic to the men's cause. If they were determined that they would not help them, it might have been done without addressing to them the lectures that appear in the newspapers as the retort to their request. I know quite well that the miners' leaders are difficult men to negotiate with. Mr. Herbert Smith at least is fair, even if he is obstinate, and he would have been far more ready to see if it were not possible to come to an understanding had he been more considerately met.

So much, therefore, about the Government's action at the beginning and the end of this dispute. But I think they are also to blame for what happened in the meantime. It is quite plain that when they set up the Commission they paralysed negotiation. It was not the least likely that, while a Commission was sitting to inquire into all the circumstances of this dispute, the men and the mine owners would come together. They were going before the Commission, and if that Commission was going to be established at all it ought to have been established under conditions which would have ensured that its findings would have been out, not five weeks before the subsidy ended, but much more nearly five months. Everyone knows that in this coal industry it is not easy to get things settled in a moment. The very complicated conditions under which the wages are paid, the innumerable varieties of labour, and the strange organisation of the whole coalfields forbid the possibility of such a thing. Therefore I do say that the Government ought either to have continued their subsidy so as to allow a longer time, or they ought to have set up a Commission under the conditions that it proceeded to sit at once, whatever the time was, and continued its work without delay under pressure to produce its Report in full time for prolonged negotiations.

The end appears to be the most lamentable thing of all. The mine owners begin by saying that they will accept the Commission's Report. The Government say without qualification that they will do the same thing. At this moment the miners are practically saying exactly the same thing, and yet this struggle is to go on. Why? There are two reasons, as far as I can understand. One is that a small suns of £3,000,000, which the Government were to offer to tide over the immediate difficulties, is no longer to be forthcoming, although the loss that this country will suffer before this dispute is ended will be measured by more like £30,000,000. And the other is that the mine owners have resiled from their original position. I cannot help thinking that when the miners met the Government in the circumstances in which they stood it would have been the Government's duty at once to see if it was not possible to assure a settlement on the basis of the Report which they said themselves was the thing they were prepared to accept. That opportunity has passed by.

Now, of course, we know there are different conditions. The mine owners who originally agreed to have national agreements have now withdrawn from that. I agree as to the difficulty of national agreements. None the less that has gone. In regard to the hours, I have always thought they ought to be extended by Act of Parliament in such a way as to enable the men, if they thought fit, to make a choice between two alternatives; that is now imposed upon the people and they do not think they are going to have any choice at all. The result is that we have at this time a condition of dissatisfaction and, I cannot help thinking, a state of feeling in regard to this dispute which had been most laudably absent in the earlier period of its history. It is true that some of the men are going back; but they are going back under the pressure of economic circumstances. From that you will get no settlement of this dispute; you will merely get a pause between two quarrels and the quarrel will break out anew.

I cannot help feeling very deeply for the men. I think they have been most bitterly misled. It appears to me that Mr. Cook has treated them exactly as a man might treat a flock that he took to the edge of a precipice, saying: "We will have no law of gravitation." He must have known that the economic necessities of the case compelled a concession either of wages or of hours unless there was going to be a very, very deep dip into the public purse. He must have known that; yet from the very first he has done nothing but proclaim, without any variation, that the men would have neither the one nor the other. He led them to believe—and this is the mischief of it all —that if they only held out long enough he would be able to secure them a settlement which he must have known was impossible. However much one blames him, one has to pity the men, because they have believed in their leaders; their loyalty to them is a very fine trait in their character.

And I cannot help thinking that a little more public expression of sympathy with these men, who at this time are being ground between the millstones of economic need, would have eased a great deal of the difficulty in which we stand. After all, the sympathy is real and it is felt. There is not one of us who does not think of the hardships of a miner's life, working day after day shut off from the sun. We all know it, and whenever the news of a colliery disaster appears in the newspapers, as it occasionally does, it strikes home to the heart of each of us like the news of a lost battle. If it were possible to get these people once to understand that they were not dealing really with enemies but with people who were their friends and were anxious to help them, I believe that half the bitterness of this struggle would be overpassed.


My Lords, His Majesty's Government, of course, make no complaint of the action taken by noble Lords on the Front Opposition Bench. It is entirely within their power and your Lordships' power to debate this matter, and to-day a full opportunity is afforded. But the Government understood that there was no desire to extend the discussion over two days in this House and, although the matter is entirely in your Lordships' hands, we thought it best to take the discussion this afternoon.

Upon the merits I have only a few words to say. Your Lordships have been reminded by the noble and learned Lord who has just spoken that you are asked to-day only to renew a Resolution which you passed a month ago. The Emergency Regulations only continue for a month and on each occasion when they are renewed your Lordships' approval has to be obtained. If there was need for these Regulations a month ago surely there is not less need for them to-day. This very deplorable conflict has gone on now for some four months and it does not, of course, become less acute as it goes on. Although the noble Lord, Lord Parmoor, has referred to one or two of the Regulations, I think everyone will agree that if you consider the Regulations as a whole they are indispensable at the present moment. Take the Regulations which enable us to control the supply and transport of coal, to assist shipping, and to control loading and unloading at the ports: Regulations of that kind surely are both necessary and desirable.

The noble Lord's attack is only made upon one or two of the Regulations which deal with the preservation of order and of the liberty of the subject, and his view appears to be that for that purpose the ordinary law ought to be sufficient. Might I remind the noble Lord that if we had to deal with the matter under the ordinary law it would be necessary in many cases to prefer an indictment and take the cases to Quarter Sessions and the Assizes and that months might elapse before a decision could be reached? It is one of the most valuable elements in the Regulations that summary proceedings may be taken under them and that a man who is guilty, or who is believed to be guilty, of violence or intimidation may be arrested at once and prosecuted at the petty sessions, and a- decision reached within a short time. At a period like this, a period of emergency, I think everyone of experience knows that that is a most important element and that without it the law would have less force.

I do not want to be understood as saying that violence or intimidation is prevalent in many parts of the country. I believe that, generally speaking, the contrary is the truth. The good sense of the men has prevented them from indulging in threats or in violence. Indeed, the very existence of these Regulations, I think, has assisted somewhat towards that end. But there are exceptions. There are cases where violence has been threatened, and I am afraid cases where violence has been used. There have been speeches made by leaders of influence which, although they may not have been intended to encourage violence, yet might well be understood by their hearers to have that meaning. So we feel that we must ask your Lordships' House for a continuance of these powers. These Emergency Regulations have not led, I believe, to very many prosecutions, although they have led to some. During the past month, the month of August, or rather the period from July 26 to August 25, there have been 64 prosecutions under the Regulations, nearly half of them under Regulation 21, to which the noble Lord referred.


May I ask the Lord Chancellor whether they were in connection with sedition?


Yes, I think twenty or thirty of them were prosecutions for sedition. The noble and learned Lord asked who is to decide what is sedition and what promotes disaffection. In every case, of course, the prosecution is directed by the police who, I may say, have been very careful and very reluctant to take proceedings. As to the decisions they are in the hands of the magistrates, and having had many of their decisions brought to my notice I think they have exercised their jurisdiction with the greatest care and with every desire to give the persons brought before them the benefit of any doubt that there might, be. Prosecutions have been instituted in the cases to which I have referred and I have heard of no complaint as to the manner in which those cases have been dealt with.

I think there is very little more to be said to-day. It would only be repeating what was said a month ago and a month before that. My noble and learned friend Lord Buckmaste made some complaint against members of the Government, for the action which they have taken or have not taken. I listened carefully to what he said, and his great complaint seemed to be in regard to the subsidy. Twelve months ago, or rather more, the Government asked Parliament to agree to a subsidy to be granted to the mining industry pending the Inquiry by the Royal Commission. That is rather ancient history, but I would remind him that the subsidy was limited to the period of the Inquiry and every endeavour was made to accelerate the Inquiry, and when the Report was received—a Report which recommended that the subsidy should not be renewed—the Government at once said that no further subsidy would be given. The noble and learned Lord also rather complained of what was said at the meeting the other day as showing a want of sympathy with the men. I do not think he is right in that. Members of the Government who were present made quite clear this one fact, that the subsidy would not be renewed. But, except in that respect, I think they showed every endeavour to listen to what the miners had to say, and they said time after time that if any kind of proposal were made that could be considered, His Majesty's Government were only too willing and anxious to bring the owners and the men together. That offer is still open, and we should be glad if some kind of reasonable proposal were made which would enable the parties, with or without our help, to come to an agreement to put an end to this needless, hopeless and unfruitful struggle.

The men have been very badly led. It is only to-day, after some seventeen weeks of strife, that some of the miners' leaders have expressed their willingness to consider the question of a reduction of wages. If they had said that four months ago there would have been no strike at all, and the whole of the loss and the misery that have been caused by the strike is due to the fact that at the beginning of the conflict the miners' leaders laid it down that in no circumstances should there be a penny taken off the wages or a second added to the hours. That was a most unwise declaration. I will conclude to-day by saying that the offer which was made the other day remains open, and always will remain open. If either the owners or the men will come to us with any kind of proposal which has the least promise of resulting in an end of the controversy, my colleagues and I will be only too glad to take our part in bringing it to an end.

On Question, Motion agreed to.