HL Deb 16 June 1927 vol 67 cc740-52

VISCOUNT BURNHAM rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they have taken any steps to promote the formation of industrial councils and works committees recommended in the Report of the Committee on Relations between Employers and Employed presided over by Mr. Speaker Whitley, in how many trades they have been set up, and whether the Ministry of Labour can call conferences in the important trades in which they do not at present exist to consider the expediency of adopting them.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, the Question that I am putting to His Majesty's Government has been set down, like most Questions in this House, with a purpose, and my purpose, as Mr. Speaker Whitley's successor in the chair of the Industrial Council, is to draw your Lordships' attention to what I believe is one of the most important, though it be one of the least spectacular, aspects of industrial life. We are suffering badly from the itch of disputation in industrial matters, and it is even poisoning the whole of our national life. I want to suggest to this House that there is no more effective and no more hopeful machinery for introducing some measure of wisdom and concord into our industrial affairs than by setting up the joint industrial councils and the works committees in the various industries that were recommended by Mr. Speaker Whitley ten years ago.

A question of this sort is really debated better in your Lordships' House than in the somewhat mephitic atmosphere of another place, in fact, it is rather difficult in these days to get any industrial question reasoned out with much fairness when those who deal with such questions have one eye on the workshop and the other on the Treasury Bench. What we have to strive to do above all is, I think, to seek wisely to prevent industrial disputes. It is no use talking of settling industrial disputes after they have broken out; I am not sure that you ever obtain a settlement, you only get an interruption, which is a very different thing; and if in the scheme that was proposed by that Committee you do effect something like prevention, or at any rate give sweet reasonableness a better chance, then surely it is worth doing more for it than has been done hitherto.

It is ten years since Mr. Speaker Whitley brought up the Report of his Departmental Committee which was appointed to improve, if possible, the relations between employers and employed. First of all, no doubt, it was thought and intended that they should do something to widen the basis of collective bargaining and to institute permanent and systematic means for the review of wages and working conditions. But that was by no means all that was intended by setting up industrial councils. In the words of the Report it was stated that they would afford means for the better utilisation of the practical knowledge and experience of the working people, and, apart from settling general principles of employment, that they would be able to discuss technical education and training, industrial re- search and the full utilisation of its results, the provision of facilities for the full consideration and utilisation of inventions and improvements designed by workpeople and for the adequate safeguarding of the rights of the designers, the improvement of processes, machinery and organisation, and appropriate questions relating to management; and, in fact, all those matters with which the industries of the country are concerned.

It is quite true that they did contemplate setting up boards which would act in the case of trade disputes, but in several cases these were not part of the plan adopted. In some of the greatest trades of the country in which industrial councils exist, whilst they nominate panels, or at any rate take some hand in fixing the composition of tribunals for settling trade disputes, they are not themselves empowered to do so. That is the case in the boot and shoe trades, where the industrial councils work most successfully. It is so with the printing trade, with the building trades, and with other industries. In fact, in some ways these councils have been able to work better where they have not undertaken the fixing of wages and conditions of work, but have left that to other bodies which were often in existence in the trades before they were set up.

On the other hand, where they have so acted it is remarkable how well they have done. In the last annual report of the National Wool and Allied Textiles Council the following statement is made: Having regard to the difficulties associaated with the adjustment of wages, and bearing in mind that the negotiations conducted by the Council have embraced all sections of the industry from the raw material to the finished article, hardly any two of which being subject to the same conditions as regards activity of trade, it may be claimed as a tribute to the spirit of forbearance and compromise which has been apparent on the part of employers and employed, that in no instance has a breakdown attended negotiations. It is also satisfactory to add that the agreements entered into have been honourably observed. What these councils have created has been the habit of counsel and conciliation. Meeting as they have done for many purposes besides that of fixing wages, which turns to a large extent upon antagonisms and disagreements, they have been able to create a spirit which has acted to the best advantage of all the trades with which they have had to do. Some of them have taken great strides to advance the interests of those industries as much for the benefit of the employers as for the benefit of the employed. There has been no more successful body than the joint industrial council in the pottery trade. It is one of the most active and it has discussed at various times the questions of open scholarships, of lead poisoning, of pottery regulations, and of first aid, and has arranged visits to foreign countries and provided for industrial research to the great advantage of the industry.

On the whole they have been an unqualified success. It is a curious fact that in the two trades of the country in which disputes have been the most embittered and prolonged and in which there has been the greatest discord between employers and employed, there are no industrial councils. I allude, of course, to the mining trade and the engineering industry. As a consequence of the Report on its first presentation there was an active movement which accomplished considerable results. There were some seventy-three joint industrial councils and some thirty-three interim joint industrial committees formed between 1918 and 1921. A certain number have fallen upon the way. One council has been definitely dissolved; there are others now in a state of suspended activity. But there are fifty-six joint industrial councils which are now performing their functions in great harmony and without any stoppage of any sort in the good relations that they have created. It is a matter of satisfaction to note that all the councils in suspense comprise those whose organisation is weak and whose suitability to form a council in the first place was due more to an enthusiasm for the cause than to the fitness of the industry for the institution.

These councils have been through a very difficult time in the industrial turmoil of these latter years. They now feel that the outlook is improving with the signs of trade revival and that the conditions at present are likely to favour a fresh impetus to their development. It is also apparent that the machinery thus provided is being viewed with even more favour by employers and employed than it has been hitherto, and I should not be surprised if, after the bitterness of this period is passed, there is not a universal movement to bring about the useful working of these joint industrial councils as being perhaps the only means open to us to rescue our industries from this antagonism of workers and employers which we all admit is causing such terrible evils.

I could give a good many examples of the manner in which these institutions are conducive to the general good where they are working. On the other hand, though, many of your Lordships are just as well acquainted with them as I am. The only pity is that in public discussion and even in Parliamentary debate the very existence of this great machinery of conciliation seems almost to have been forgotten. The best of it is, perhaps, that it is working outside the range of the limelight. I do not think your Lordships can be surprised—and I certainly bring it as no charge against the trade unions—when I say that one hardly ever hears of the existence of the joint industrial councils at the Trade Union Congress or at any of the great public meetings which are promoted in the interest of the Labour Party. In fact, there is a good deal of objection expressed at trade union meetings at the allocation of any funds for the purpose of facilitating the formation and the functions of industrial councils. They do not give the opportunities for public display which are afforded in so many other ways.

Personally, I cannot believe that the institution of what is called an industrial parliament would be of the smallest avail. On the contrary, it would be only intensifying the industrial evils from which we suffer. As it is, when the representatives of employers and employed meet on opposite sides of the debate, if their proceedings are given wide report, it seems always unlikely that they will arrive at any conclusion. In an industrial parliament all that would happen would be that the chosen spokesmen of the two interests—as they are always assumed to be opposed to one another—would make platform speeches and repeat the catchwords and commonplaces of which we are most of us so weary. In the joint industrial council there is no temptation to rhetoric or display. They are not reported; as a rule they are not open to report. What they do is done in the spirit of the round table and when they are not acutely antagonised, as sometimes happens in settling rates of wages and conditions of work, if this power is entrusted to their hands, I am credibly informed—in fact, I know from my own personal knowledge—that all their duties are conducted in good temper and good sense.

I do not claim, and no man in his senses could, that the institution of the industrial councils will be a panacea for our industrial troubles. There are no panaceas or cure-alls of that kind, but if they tend to promote a better spirit they will surely have done far more than any other device which has been brought to our notice to justify their existence. Two days ago in another place, in a debate on the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Bill, which, whatever its merits, is not going to end industrial disputes, the Minister of Labour announced that he would propose the appointment of a Departmental Committee to consider all the means of conciliation of which we knew. He included not only industrial councils but also arbitration and industrial courts, profit-sharing, co-partner ships and all the other different social schemes that are so often discussed in the country. I think in its present form this would be a mistake. The subject is too big to be remitted to one Committee. Were it so referred and if there were to be a proper examination, it would take, not months but almost years of investigation before a Report could be made. It would be far more helpful, of these subjects are to be examined in this way, that there should be several Committees. On the other hand, some of the subjects have been recently under review. As a matter of fact, there was a Departmental Committee of the Ministry of Labour which examined into this question of industrial councils up to the year, I think, 1925, and gave an account of the way those councils had made good. I hope we have passed that stage.

I am bound to say that I do find this fault with the Ministry of Labour. Whilst nobody thinks His Majesty's Government ought to attempt to dictate to the industries of the country or to force upon them institutions for which they are not ready or which they are not willing to bring into being on their own account, still the Ministry might, I think, do more to encourage their formation where you have such a deadlock as you have now in so many of the spheres of industrial life and smouldering discontents which, though they do not flare up for a moment, are always a source of fear and danger to us. I venture to suggest to His Majesty's Government that they should give a more distinct lead. I do not think that referring this question to a Departmental Committee—and I have sat on a good many such Committees—is the best means to accomplish this purpose. I hope, therefore, that my noble friend who is to reply on the part of the Government will be able to answer satisfactorily the second part of my Question, and that he may be able to assure your Lordships' House that, considering the great measure of success that these industrial councils have already attained, altogether apart from the promise and the potency for the future that is in them, the Government will do their best by light and leading to extend them to the other trades and to the most discontented trades of all in which at present they are not in existence. I beg to put the Question that stands in my name.


My Lords, I not only have no kind of complaint with my noble friend for putting this Question, but I share very much with him the view that discussions of this kind are particularly appropriate to the atmosphere of your Lordships' House. And, let me add, we have the great advantage of having as members of this House many noble Lords who have a great personal knowledge of these subjects, and I certainly feel that we should be greatly enlightened if they were from time to time to furnish their views to your Lordships' House. It is quite true that the representation of the working class is perhaps not completely adequate in this House, but I am sure that the noble Lords who represent the Labour Party will do their utmost to present to your Lordships the view of those whom, at any rate, they regard themselves as peculiarly qualified to represent.

I was grateful to my noble friend for treating this matter not only from the strict rigid point of view of the Whitley Councils but as part, as I am sure it ought to be treated, of the general question of what can be done in order to minimise such evils as exist in the industrial system of this country. There are really three currents of opinion, as it seems to me, in connection with this question. There are those who think that no change should be made in the original system of industrial organisation—that in which the owners and the plant and the capital hired their labourers and, as long as they paid them, that was the whole of the transaction as far as the two parties were concerned. I do not think that that is a view of industry which it is possible usefully to maintain at the present day. At the other extreme there are those, as we know well, who wish to throw the ownership of industry into the hands of that abstraction which they call the State and desire, as I understand it, that the whole of the industry of the country should be directed by Ministries or Committees sitting in Whitehall. That, I am also, personally, quite clear would be, apart from its other objections, no remedy whatever for the industrial difficulties in which we find ourselves.

Between those two extremes there is quite a large number of definite schemes in existence all of which aim more or less directly, more or less completely, at maintaining the existing organisation of industry in its main lines but recognise that it can only succeed, at any rate that it can best succeed, by the closest co-operation between all those who are engaged in it. That, of course, is the policy with which the present Government is completely identified and with which it is entirely in agreement. I do not think it can be better described than in a passage which will be found in the very interesting Report presented by the Delegation appointed to study industrial conditions on the other side of the Atlantic. They quote in that Report—page 23 of Command Paper No. 2883—a passage from a Report of the American Committee which seems to me to put the point extremely well.

The American Committee say, referring to industrial organisation:— It should emphasise the responsibility of managers to know men at least as intimately as they know materials, and the right and duty of employees to have a knowledge of the industry, its processes and its policies. Employees need to understand their relation to the joint endeavour so that they may once more have a creative interest in their work. Industrial problems vary not only with each industry but in each establishment. Therefore the strategic point to begin battle with misunderstanding is within the plant itself. Primarily the settlement must come from the bottom, not from the top. The passages which my noble friend quoted from the original Report of the Whitley Committee bear that out. As he very justly pointed out—and if he had not done so I had intended to have emphasised it to your Lordships' House—the conception was not only to create councils which would smooth over disputes or settle questions of wages, but would consider how best the whole energy and the intelligence of workpeople and employers alike could be utilised in the industry itself.

There are, as I have said, a great number of schemes in existence at the present time, all aiming at this object. There is the scheme, which I am afraid I have mentioned to your Lordships more than once, known as the co-partnership scheme, where you have the employers and the work-people and the consumers, as in the case of gas companies, all brought into co-partnership together and all their sympathies and support are enlisted in making the industry a success. It may well be—I do not doubt that it is the case—that the full measure of that system is not applicable to all industries. Each industry must have the organisation that is most appropriate to its own peculiarities, and it is as one of these proposals for improving the relations between employers and employed that the system of Whitley Councils or joint industrial councils seems to me to find its place. It is, I am quite sure, one of the most hopeful devices, and one which has been of the greatest success, but my noble friend will forgive me if I venture to impress upon him that it is only one of several different devices which have been employed for that purpose.

I am quite sure that this Government will not be suspected—at least I hope not—of any lukewarmness in the matter. We are very strongly in favour of Whitley Councils. Indeed my right hon. friend the Minister of Labour reminded me only the other day that he himself was partly instrumental in setting up the Whitley Committee which reported in favour of these councils and he himself attached the greatest possible importance to them. Undoubtedly they have done a very great work. It is true to say that the activity of the movement was greatest perhaps—that is natural—at its start. I think my noble friend gave the figures. In the four years from 1918 to 1922 there were established joint industrial councils—or, as they were then called, interim industrial reconstruction committees, which were substantially the same thing—to the number, I think, of 74 in all. Some have dropped out, as my noble friend reminded us, but the great majority of them remain. It is also true to say that the number of these councils is not increasing now with anything like the same rapidity, indeed I do not know that the number is increasing at all. That is a matter for regret. I believe that the conception of the Whitley Councils was admirable, not only because of the work they do in appeasing or in nullifying the possibility of disputes over wages or other labour conditions, but also because, if the system is applied as it was intended to apply, it ought to be laying the foundations of that more complete reconstruction of industry which is, I am convinced, necessary if we are to restore full prosperity to this country. But for the moment it is true to say that the movement does not appear to be actually progressing, though it is far from going back.


It is not going back.


It is not going back, but it is not moving forward as rapidly as it was. I believe—so I am informed—that the main difficulty is that to apply the Whitley system successfully to an industry you must have in the first place a fairly complete organisation of the industry. That is essential. You must have the workmen and the employers organised on each side in order that they can form a Whitley Council representative of the two interests in industry. There is another reason which we must not forget, and that is the existence in a number of industries—a very large number—of organisations with a like purpose. There is, for instance—I am not familiar with the details of it—in the steel industry a complete organisation which has been in existence for fifty years and has operated with complete success in preventing disputes and difficulties in that industry. Similarly there are other organisations of the same kind in other industries. There was a somewhat similar organisation on some of the railways, but that has now been converted into a system extremely like if not identical with, the system of joint industrial committees.

My noble friend asks us what we can do to encourage this movement as part of the general object which we have in view—namely, the promotion of co-operation in industry. One suggestion—I do not think he made it but it has been made—is that we should give to Whitley Councils rather greater authority, that they should be entitled to enforce their decisions in those branches of trade or industry in which they exist so that where there are employers outside such councils they should be bound to come up to the standard upon which the Whitley Councils have agreed. The Government received, I believe, a deputation quite recently on this subject and they are investigating it, as indeed they are bound to investigate any suggestions that are made. But I am sure it will be obvious to your Lordships that any such change can only be proposed usefully if the Government are satisfied that there is something approaching unanimity in the industry asking for such a thing to be done. That is a matter which the Government are investigating but they certainly have not arrived at the conclusion that any such state of things exists. They have only arrived at the conclusion, as I have already said, that the Whitley Councils are very useful, and their conclusion in that respect is greatly strengthened by the fact—an interesting fact—that in one of the industries in which a Whitley Council exists, the flour milling industry, the employers appointed a committee to investigate the matter and that committee reported that without doubt the Whitley Council had been of the greatest value.

That, I think, is an interesting piece of evidence because it comes from those who certainly cannot be supposed to be in any way prejudiced in the matter and from those who have the greatest possible technical knowledge to fit them for any such inquiry. But though, as I say, we are fully convinced of the value of the thing, I do feel there is a certain difficulty in knowing what exactly the Government can usefully do to encourage the formation of these councils. After all, the essential principle which we must not forget in this system, and indeed in all systems of co-operation, is that there should be willingness on the part of both sides to establish such a system. If you try to enforce co-operation by Statute or anything of that kind I am quite sure you would do much more harm than good, and that you would destroy the very spirit that co-operation was designed to bring into existence.


You could bring them together.


That is a different matter, and I agree that something might be done in that direction. I am pointing out that the sphere of action of the Government must necessarily be limited. It cannot be coercive, but must be persuasive. Within that limit, I am sure that the Government are anxious to do all that they can. I think that they ought to do, and are ready to do, all that they can by way of advice, if it is asked for, and certainly by way of furnishing information and expressing their warmest sympathy with the movement itself.

I was a little disappointed, if I may say so, by my noble friend's complete rejection of what my right hon. friend the Minister of Labour did in the House of Commons the other night. What actually happened was that an Amendment was proposed to the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Bill suggesting that there should be no strike in what were called essential services without an inquiry, and there developed a general debate as to what could be done to avoid strikes. It was in reference to that suggestion that, while rejecting the actual proposal that was made, my right hon. friend declared that he would be very glad to have a Committee to inquire, not generally into the value of these things, but specifically into what could be done to encourage the formation of any conciliatory machinery which such a Committee might recommend.

I agree that he merely expressed his willingness to consider what he could do. The actual proposal that was made to him was that he should appoint a Committee to consider the existing conciliation machinery in industry in this country and its possible development.… and whether any, and what, legislative or other action is possible. What was certainly proposed there was that there should be a Committee, not merely to investigate and consider the desirability of this or that proposal—and on that point I should agree with my noble friend that perhaps we already know enough about this subject—but what actual, definite policy could be pursued that would be most useful to encourage conciliation. I think my right hon. friend did well to say that he would look with favour on such a proposal and would certainly see whether such a Committee could be set up. But, while I think that the Government may do much by way of encouragement, by way of advice and by collecting and making available information on the subject, in the main I feel that in these matters industry must work out its own salvation. It must be the work of employers and workmen, coming together and realising, as they ought to realise if they are not perfectly mad, that their interests are not diverse but identical, to see how best they can foster and improve the conditions of industry as they exist at the present time.


My Lords, I do not rise to continue the discussion, nor to say anything upon the general question raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Burnham, because I think that the time is most inopportune for doing so. I merely wish to say one word about the proposal for a Conciliation Committee made by the Minister of Labour in another place. I think that the noble Viscount, Lord Burnham, seemed to feel that something should be said about that proposal from this Bench. What I have to say about it is just what was said in another place—namely, that under existing conditions Labour is not prepared to co-operate in any such Committee. It is indeed, in my view, a mockery to suggest any such thing, in view of the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Bill, unless the Government will first agree to withdraw that Bill. The noble Viscount, Lord Burnham, says that he wishes the Government would give a decided lead. They have given a decided lead, but unfortunately that lead is entirely in the wrong direction and, having given it, they must abide by the consequences, not only to themselves but also to the country.