HL Deb 22 March 1934 vol 91 cc374-83

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move the Second Reading of this Bill, and in doing so I wish to make one or two introductory remarks. The Bill is to give legislative effect to nearly all the provisions requiring legislation which were recommended by the Departmental Committee of Inquiry of 1931, set up by the late Minister of Mines in the Labour Government. This Committee was presided over by the late Lord Chelmsford, and contained representatives of both sides of the industry. Its terms of reference were: To enquire how far the objects of Section 20 of the Mining Industry Act of 1920 had been met, what remains to be done and whether the scope of the Fund and the existing machinery for its administration as defined in that section and as developed in practice are satisfactory for the future, and to report on all these matters with particular reference to the question of the amount and duration of the levy in future. I mention these terms of reference to draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that the Labour Government of the day were doubtful whether, in view of the fact that the welfare levy of one penny per ton had then been in force for more than ten years, and that upwards of £9,000,000 had been collected, a sufficiently good case could be made out for a further extension of the levy at the existing rate.

On the one hand, they were faced with the views of the miners, who expressed their belief that the levy should continue at a penny per ton, and on the other hand, by the mine owners, who thought the levy should be reduced to a figure in the neighbourhood of one farthing per ton output. Unfortunately, no compromise between the different views could be reached, and the then Secretary for Mines agreed to set up a Departmental Committee, whose terms of reference. I have read to your Lordships. The outcome of that Committee is the Bill I present to your Lordships to-day. The original Miners' Welfare Fund was constituted under Section 20 of the 1920 Act, and provided for an annual levy of one penny per ton of coal output for a period of five years, and it was renewed for two further periods by the Acts of 1925 and 1931. The Bill which I present to-day proposes to reduce the rate of levy from one penny to one halfpenny per ton, but to extend the period of the levy for twenty years from 1932. This was the first recommendation of the Majority Report of the Committee.

The second recommendation, which is accepted and included in the Bill, amounts to nothing more than a declaratory provision. Doubts have arisen from time to time whether certain objects of expenditure and certain classes of persons were strictly within the legal scope of the Miners' Welfare Fund as defined in the principal Act, and those doubts are now to be removed by a declaration in terms that expenditure in those particular directions is in fact within its scope. The third legislative recommendation of the Chelmsford Committee suggested that in view of the proposed reduction in the rate of the levy, and the consequent need for strict economy and wise and careful planning of expenditure, the existing statutory obligation upon the Miners' Welfare Committee to allocate four-fifths of the levy for purposes in the various districts should be removed, so as to leave the Committee with full and unfettered discretion to deal with the whole of the levy as they thought fit, and without reference to the claims of individual districts. But owing to the unanimous opposition of both sides of the industry to this proposal, His Majesty's Government have decided not to do away with the one-fifth and four-fifths division, and so they have embodied in the Bill certain other proposals of their own in order to safeguard the most important objects of expenditure.

I hope I have explained clearly the reasons for the appointment of this Committee, and I have dealt with the recommendations which call for legislation. Clause 1 of the Bill provides for the continuation of payments to the Fund and that they should be extended for twenty years from 1932. The Act of 1931 extended the levy for five years from that year; the present Bill partially supersedes that provision and makes the twenty-year extension operate from the year 1932 to 1951. Clause 2 reduces the amount of the levy from one penny per ton output to one halfpenny per ton output. Subsections (2), (3), and (4) deal with the machinery of collection and accounting. Clause 3 concerns the purposes for which the Fund is to be applied. Subsection (1) brings within the definition of "pithead baths" such facilities as canteens, which have proved both popular and successful. Subsection (2) makes special provision for the two really outstanding purposes of the Fund—namely, pithead baths and health and safety research. It provides for a total expenditure of £375,000 per annum upon pithead baths and canteens. Of this amount, about £200,000 will be available from the royalties levy, which your Lordships may remember was imposed by Part III of the Mining Industry Act, 1926, at the rate of one shilling in the pound on the annual value of mineral rentals. The remainder will come from the output levy.

It also provides, for the purpose of promoting research into methods of improving the health and safety of workers in or about coal mines, the sum of £20,000 per annum. The object of this provision is to secure that these contributions to pithead baths and research shall be a first charge upon the reduced output levy before the proceeds arc divided into one-fifth and four-fifths, or the general and district funds. Subsection (3) gives the Miners' Welfare Committee authority, if they so wish, to devote additional sums of money for the purposes set out in subsection (2) of the clause. If they do this, however, it is laid down that these sums must come from the General Fund and not from the district funds, unless with the specific consent of the district committee concerned. Subsection (4) is simply declaratory, and gives effect to the recommendations of the Inquiry Committee already referred to. It clears up any doubt as to the strict legality of certain objects of expenditure and brings within the scope of the Fund aged miners who have given up work, unemployed miners, and their dependants. Clause 4 is the short title of the Bill. I trust that I have covered the necessary ground to indicate to your Lordships the desirability of this Bill. It removes any existing doubts as to the proper mode of expenditure of the money obtained from the output levy, and it gives effect to the principal legislative recommendations of the Departmental Committee of Inquiry. If there is any further point on which I can give your Lordships some information I shall be happy to do so. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of munster.)


My Lords, in spite of the invitation of the noble Earl to put further questions to him I am afraid, however lucidly he might answer them, he could not make this Bill into a good Bill. It is an extremely bad Bill, as I shall endeavour to show. The mining industry in this country, as we are all painfully aware, is in a very depressed condition, and has been in that condition ever since the great slump following the War. Its condition was made worse by our premature return to the gold standard—this is generally admitted now, it is not a matter of argument any longer—when Mr. Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The whole industry needs re-planning and reorganising, and I know that in saying that I shall carry with me the whole of your Lordships, in whichever part of the House you sit. The industry is in a chaotic condition. You have approximately 2,000 separate pits, which are managed, or mismanaged, by a thousand separate companies, each with its board of directors, each with its buyers, each with its selling agents, each with its technical staff, and in very many cases cutting each other's throats and unable to work the best seams of coal because they would get in each other's way. You have a situation wherein, in my County of Yorkshire, our pits, the best and most up-to-date of them, are paying good profits; while others, notably in South Wales, where the finest steam coal in the world comes from, are being run at a heavy loss. You have a condition under which miners ate engaged underground in their very arduous and dangerous undertaking in a high temperature, and very often, in some of the pits working the whole of their time stretched on their stomachs and their faces, and at the end of a week's work they only take home to their families forty shillings.

Now, that is the situation for which Parliament is responsible, for it has persistently refused to step in and do for this industry what it has been unable to do for itself: that is, to reorganise and re-plan it. In these circumstances we have tried to do something for the miners themselves by this Welfare Fund, under which one penny on every ton of coal produced is put into this special Fund, which is administered for the welfare of the miners. It has provided recreation halls, playing fields, bowling greens and all kinds of amenities in these villages, which are very often scattered and hideous. Many of the coalfields are remote from other centres of industry, the miners have in the past, as they do to a certain extent now, led isolated lives—if you like, narrow lives—and this Fund has done something to brighten these villages, to give an intellectual centre of life in the village hall that has been provided and in its library, so that the miners have something else to do besides toil and sleep.

A penny a ton! That did not come out of the pockets of the coalowners or of the royalty owners or of the shareholders. The present system of ascertainment is as follows. Of the proceeds of the sale of the coal 13 per cent. goes to capital charges—interest and so on, in many cases to try to pay off the debts to the banks. The other 87 per cent. goes to wages. You are, therefore, if you pass this Bill, not by any means relieving the coal owners of a halfpenny on a ton, you are only relieving them of 13 per cent. of a halfpenny, and that is not going to make the difference in any mine between profit and loss, and is not going to prevent it from closing down. The other 87 per cent. will, to a very slight extent, benefit the miners, but the miners do not want this reduction. They would far rather—and they are unanimous on this point—keep the Fund on its present basis of a penny per ton output. The Bill is therefore received with a good deal of hostility by the 600,000 miners engaged in the industry. The only good point about it is the one made by the noble Earl, that it does continue the Fund for a definite number of years.

There is, however, another very bad aspect of this extremely obnoxious Bill, and that is that it is made retrospective—a most mischievous principle in a Bill of this kind. May I ask your Lordships to look at Clause 2 (2)? You will see there that if any person or company producing coal has paid the penny a ton for last year, he gets half the money back by being excused the payment for next year to that extent. I cannot see that there is any defence for that, at all. I understand that the official apologia is that some of the companies have had great difficulties in paying the money and have fallen into arrears and that this will relieve them, and that some of them might be in danger of closing down if the full payment were insisted upon. Hard cases do not make good law if we legislate only for the hard cases. I suggest that it would be far better if the clause had been more narrowly drawn, so that in certain cases, where a real hardship could be shown, some easing of the burden might have been made. But to make the Bill retrospective for the benefit of the rich companies, which are making big profits in the North of England, and to excuse them the money which they have been slack in paying, because they were given to understand that the Government were going to be very tender with them, is a very bad principle indeed in legislation. Suppose the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is to introduce the Budget in a few weeks' time, were to do the same thing and that any concessions to the taxpayers were made retrospective, what would be the condition of the finances of the country?

I should like to ask the noble Earl a question. He spoke of certain services that are safeguarded. I ask this question principally on behalf of my noble friend below me, Lord Sanderson, who has taken a great interest in this matter. There has been an admirable system of scholarships established for young miners who have been pit boys and have shown themselves suitable for higher education, and also for miners' sons; and this system has enabled the flower of the young miners of the country to have the opportunity of higher education. Will there be any reduction of those scholarships as the result of this Bill? If we could have any information on that point my noble friend and myself would be very grateful. I have had to speak against this Bill because we are opposed to it from every point of view. We think it is unnecessary, and we think, as I said before, that it is a mean Bill. We do not think it will help the mining industry, and we think it will inflict injury upon a great body of men who, through no fault of their own, have suffered terribly in recent years. I trust that the Bill will be so altered by the time it leaves this House that its worst features will have been taken out.


My Lords, I will endeavour to answer some of the questions and queries which the noble Lord has seen fit to address to me. In the first place I fear that he is wandering, happily I hope, but alone, in a wilderness. He could have read, as no doubt he did, the remarks which were made by Mr. Shinwell in 1931 in the Committee stage in another place, and I propose with your Lordships' permission to read that statement, for I think it will show the noble Lord that his opinion is evidently quite contrary to the one which Mr. Shinwell accepted in those days. This is what he said: I would say to my honourable friends, and particularly to those who represent mining constituencies, who are interested in the mining industry, that there is a case for very careful consideration of the whole question of administration, the amount of the Fund, and more particularly whether the Fund should be of a permanent or of a temporary character…. It appears to me, if I may say this in passing, that if you have to deal with a Fund of a permanent character, for one thing you do not require to impose the same amount of levy, and it is possible to reduce it; and, moreover, you can plan ahead, having the assurance that the Fund at no time is likely to be thrown out of gear. I believe, my Lords, that it is better to give these Miners' Welfare Committees the right to legalise and spread over a period of twenty years the work they propose to do in the mining districts, rather than give them a short period of time, of five years, at the end of which period the Fund may be reduced or increased.

There is another point which I would impress upon the noble Lord. The summary of recommendations on page 73 of the Department Committee's Report, said: That, owing to the present economic depression, the output levy should be reduced to a halfpenny per ton of coal raised, commencing with the levy in respect of the output for the year 1932, and that it should be continued for twenty years, but if and when the financial state of the industry permits, the amount should be increased. The noble Lord will observe that there is nothing to stop future Governments altering and amending the Act if so required.

The next point the noble Lord made was that he objected to the retrospective character of the Bill. I do not think that is quite right, for the levy is legally payable on March 31, and on March 31, 1933, there had not been sufficient time to consider this Report and introduce a Bill before that date. The penny has therefore remained legally due in respect of the 1932 output, payable on March 31, 1933, and will remain so unless this Bill becomes law. The Government, however, did give specific notice, in answer to Parliamentary questions, on April 5 last, that they intended to introduce a Bill to implement the recommendations of this Committee, so that there can be really no question at all of freir intention about this Bill being sprung upon Parliament or the industry at the last moment.

On the other hand, if, as I trust he has, the noble Lord has made himself acquainted with the Miners' Welfare Committee's Report for 1931, he will read there a reference to the appointment of the Chelmsford Committee, and they point out that it would be wise both for themselves and for the district welfare committees not to become too deeply committed as regards the application of future revenue, lest some modification in the rate of the levy, or the purposes on which it, may be spent, be recommended and adopted by the Government before the expiration of legislation recently enacted. I hope that that will clear up the point which the noble Lord made.

The next question he put to me was concerning really the wages agreement, which exists in the collieries, and the divisible figures are fifteen to eighty-five and not as mentioned by the noble Lord. Then, prosperity in the coalfields is certainly not apparent at the present moment, although the output is considerably better than it was a short time ago. But the greater part of the money which has been paid into the Miners' Welfare Fund has been paid by the owners for the greater part of the period, for there has been insufficient money in many cases to meet not only standard wages but standard profits as well, and the owners have therefore been asked to contribute the full amount. The last question put by the noble Lord was concerning scholarships. They, I am advised, will remain exactly as at present, for they are established upon a fund which will remain unaltered by the legislation I am asking your Lordships to pass. I hope I have dealt with all the questions raised, and that by my remarks I have converted the noble Lord to the view that this Bill is a highly desirable one.


My Lords, with the leave of the House I would like to make one reply. When the noble Earl speaks about my being in the wilderness, and quotes the statement of Mr. Shinwell in 1931, I would ask him to remember that that is three years ago, and I am talking of the present time. He must be aware that the whole of the miners' lodges in the country are against this reduction, because they have been converted to the great value of this Fund. This was part of the original Bill founded on Lord Sankey's Report—



I will merely add that therefore I am not altogether in the wilderness.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.