HL Deb 15 July 1930 vol 78 cc419-26

Order of the Day read for the consideration of further Amendments made by the Commons to the Lords Amend- ments, and the Commons Reason for disagreeing to certain Amendments last made by the Lords.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Commons Amendments to the Lords Amendments and the Commons Reason for disagreeing to certain of the Lords Amendments be now considered.

Moved, That the Commons Amendments to the Lords Amendments and the Commons Reason for disagreeing to certain of the Lords Amendments be now considered.—(The Lord Chancellor.)


My Lords, I hesitated to rise for a moment, for I was not quite certain whether the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, was about to make any statement in reference to the position in which your Lordships' House finds itself placed by the Motion which has just been moved from the Woolsack. I assume that the Government are not prepared to say anything for the moment, and perhaps it may be to your Lordships' convenience if, as on previous occasions, I were to state very shortly how I think many of your Lordships sitting on this side of the House would regard the business which is now before us. The Bill has been returned to us, and the points which still remain to be settled are not new. There were Amendments on Clause 5, an Amendment on Clause 3, and the Amendment at the end of the Bill which is known as the spread-over Amendment. As regards the Amendments made by your Lordships to Clause 5, the Commons have proposed to add certain words—certain conditional and limiting words. I have done my best to consult those who are specially conversant with that clause of the Bill and I find that there is no very great objection among them to the words which the Commons propose to insert. They are, perhaps, [...]miting words, but they do not go very far, and, so far as my humble voice extends, I would suggest that your Lordships accept the Amendment which the Commons have proposed to Clause 5.

Then I go back to the Amendment on Clause 3—the district levy. In respect of the district levy, I hope to make quite clear in a word or two how the matter stands. It is a little bit complicated as it appears on the Paper, but the matter is really comparatively simple. The Commons appear on the face of it to accept the position of the Lords in respect of the district levy—that is to say, they do not any longer insist upon paragraph (b) of subsection (3) of the clause. But they add a proviso to the next subsection which goes back a part of the way which they have already traced. The clause is drawn in this way. As it reached your Lordships originally there was a special power given to the district scheme to provide for a district levy. That, for reasons which I will not repeat, was struck out and the Commons have accepted that. But there is another subsection to the clause which gives a general power to modify schemes subject to the consent of both II oases of Parliament, and by a proviso which the Commons now propose the question of the district levy is to be put amongst those powers which can only be brought into force with the consent of both Houses of Parliament. In other words, wherever a district levy may hereafter be proposed as an amendment to a district scheme, it will be in the power of your Lordships' House—and, of course, of the House of Commons—to dissent from it and therefore to reject it.

I admit that that proposal of the Commons does constitute a very considerable concession to the views of your Lordships. I think—I continue to think—that the way the Lords left the Bill was the right way. It is hardly conceivable, having regard to the views which your Lordships hold in this matter, that we should be willing to consent to a district levy and therefore it seems unnecessary to put a provision into the Bill which will be subject to rejection by your Lordships, if it be true that your Lordships will always wish to reject it. It is not necessary to be too absolute in this matter and it is, of course, conceivable that there might be a very exceptional case where a district levy might be acceptable. But I do not conceive it myself. I do not see the possibility. Therefore there is a distinction between the position as it now reaches us and the way it left us when we sent the Bill back to the Commons. At the same time, there is no doubt whatever that as the Bill now stands, as it comes from the Commons, it remains absolutely in your Lordships' power to prevent a district levy if you so think fit. That is so great a concession that, as far as I am concerned, I should be prepared to rest content with that arrangement.

Now I come to the much more important question of the spread-over. I would like to make this point absolutely clear. We have said so over and over again, but I would like to make it absolutely clear that the spread-over provision is absolutely permissive. There is no obligation under the words as we framed them and as we sent them to the Commons upon either the employers or the workers in any district to adopt the spread-over system. They are absolutely free. It is essentially a permissive clause. As I think I said the last time your Lordships did me the honour of listening to me on this subject, that is, in our view, essential. So essential is it that we were quite willing on the last occasion to modify the form we had originally adopted in order to make that more evident. That still is the view which I take and which I believe all your Lordships on this side of the House take. We would be very glad to take any words which make it absolutely clear that the option to the employers or to the men is absolutely free.

I know it is said that in the form in which the Amendment stood when we sent it to the Commons the men would not be really free. There was a suggestion that in any negotiations which might take place the men would be acting under a sort of duress and might be morally compelled to accept what they did not approve of. Is there any ground for believing that? Does anyone who has watched industrial developments of late years think that the great trade unions of the country are so weak that, when they are engaged in an industrial dispute with employers, they act under duress? Of course it is not true. If you want an example look at the position of the Eight Hours Act, as it exists until this Bill passes into law. Under that Act it would be possible for the employers to insist that the men should work eight hours, not only on five but on six days a week. But, of course, it has never happened, except by consent in parts of Scotland. The workers' organisation is amply strong enough to prevent it. But take a still stronger case. Take Yorkshire and the counties that are allied with Yorkshire. Do the men there work eight hours now? Are they forced to do so because the present Act of Parliament leaves it possible for them to work eight hours? Of course not; they work only 7½hours. Accordingly it is abundantly clear that the men are free agents in this matter and that their organisation is free.

Are any further words required to make it doubly sure that the men of each district should be free to consent or not to consent to the spread-over system? I read in the Press statements by trade union representatives that no miners, or at least no representative miners, are in favour of the spread-over arrangement. If that be the case it will never take place. They have it absolutely in their power. If there really be a unanimous feeling of the workers in each district against the spread-over, no spread-over will come into force. But I do not believe for a moment that the men are unanimous in that matter; and, if it be not true that they are unanimous, if there are a great many men, and indeed a great many districts that would like the spread-over arrangement, why should they not have it? That is the question that I put to your Lordships' House.

I suppose that, while I am speaking on this matter, every one of your Lordships is thinking of the ease of South Wales. I need not tell your Lordships that I do not pretend to have any personal knowledge of industrial conditions in South Wales, but I suppose that all of us who are interested in this subject have been the recipients of a good deal of correspondence dealing with the point. I have received a number of letters. I received one only this morning. I have every reason to think that my correspondent merely states the truth. I dare say that the organisation in whose name he speaks is not the same as the great miners' trade union, but still he speaks with authority and, I have no doubt, with responsibility. He writes on behalf of the South Wales Miners' Industrial Union, and he says that there have been thirty open-air meetings in most of the prominent parts of the South Wales coalfields. He mentions a num- ber of the places by name, and states that 500 men attended one meeting and their decision was unanimous in favour of the spread-over; 700 men attended another meeting with exactly the same result; there were 500 men at a third meeting, and 600 at a fourth, and in each case they were, either unanimously or by overwhelming majorities, in favour of the spread-over; and so it goes on. He says that these meetings of which he gives the figures are only a small percentage of those that have been held, and he adds:— But I can assure you that the remaining ones have had the same results as the above mentioned, and we have vet to find a district in South Wales where they are in favour of a rigid 7½ hours. It is impossible, in the face of evidence of that kind, to believe that everybody is against the spread-over arrangement. Indeed, the inference is that there is a large body of miners in South Wales emphatically anxious to have that arrangement.

This is not surprising, for what is the alternative? Everybody knows that in that particular coalfield the industrial position is very acute, and it is only with the greatest difficulty that even the mines that are working can be kept in work. If an extra burden is thrown upon them, which is involved by the rigid 7½ hours arrangement, there are only two alternatives left. Either pits must be closed down or there must be a reduction of wages. Are not the men entitled to say: "We prefer the spread-over arrangement to the closing down of the pit or to a reduction of wages?" How can we reject a plea of this kind? We are not throwing any compulsion upon them, but we are saying to them: "If you men, fully able to think and act for yourselves, desire to avoid the great in-crease of unemployment in South Wales which would be involved in the closing of the pits, if you wish to avoid a reduction of wages, we give you an opportunity. If you think fit, to adopt the spread-over system, by which these things may be avoided." I cannot doubt that an appeal to Parliament of that kind is one to which we ought not to be deaf.

It is perhaps dangerous to speculate as to what is the true opinion of members of the House of Commons. Sometimes their opinion is a little disguised, but I will go to this length and say that, if all the members of the House of Commons voted in the temple of truth, this spread-over Amendment would be carried in that House, just as it was carried in this House. I believe that public opinion is in favour of the spread-over Amendment and that your Lordships, as interpreters of public opinion, ought to sustain it. Why should we not? What are the reasons alleged why we should not adhere to the spread-over Amendment? We are told that the reason is that the Members of Parliament representing miners' constituencies are against us. I want to speak, of course, with the greatest respect—respect which I entirely feel—for the representatives of the miners in another place. They are fully entitled to express their opinion, but we all know, unless rumour is strangely false, that the original decision against the spread-over Amendment was carried by a very arrow majority in the miners' organisation, and is it to be true that Parliament is to be controlled, not by the free 'opinion of members of both Houses., but by the despotic decree of the representatives of one particular trade union organisation? This matter does not concern the miners' representatives, or indeed the miners, only. This question concerns the whole country—all the working classes, and indeed every class—because coal enters into the life of every one, and we are not to be told that the House of Commons or the House of Lords is to be absolutely bound by the decision of the miners' representatives.

Then what other reason is there why we should not insist? It is said that, some Second Chambers could insist, but that the House of Lords ought not to insist. The House of Lords, it is said, is an hereditary chamber, and hereditary chambers must not insist. I have very little patience with arguments of that kind. Your Lordships are trustees, and are trustees who happen to be hereditary to be false to their trust? Why, it is quite evident that, however we come to be here, as trustees we must do our duty. It is not a game we are playing. We are dealing with the most essential interests of our country. One would think, as people discuss this matter, that there were no great difficulties in industries at this moment, that everything was prosperous and plain sailing. We know the country is passing through probably the most severe industrial crisis for one hundred years or more, and are we lightly to agree to throw an extra burden upon industry, an extra handicap in the effort to bring about the recovery for which we all long? Are we to agree to that because we are told an hereditary chamber has no right to an opinion of its own? I cannot ask your Lordships to take that view. So long as we are convinced that what we are doing is in the interests of our country, so long as we are governed not by extreme views but by what we can conceive of moderate statemanship, we may go forward without fear, and I shall ask your Lordships to adhere to your Amendments.

On Question, Motion agreed to.