rose to ask His Majesty's Government what is their present attitude towards the proposal now before the International Labour Office for a forty-hour working week in industry; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I should not have proceeded at this late hour with the Motion that stands on the Paper except for its very great importance, also because this is the last opportunity that presents itself before the meeting of the International Labour Office Conference in Geneva early in June—I believe on June 4. That the matter is important I think will be generally accepted. As the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, who I believe is answering for the Government, is aware, my Motion was on the Paper a good many days ago, and the White Paper issued last night, although it only partially answers the questions that I intended to put, will nevertheless have a tremendous effect in all industrial countries, and on all those who have been working for some amelioration of the condition of the mass of the workers and for the mitigation of unemployment caused in part by the great increase in the efficiency of machinery.
The White Paper, if it is adhered to, and if certain ambiguities are not cleared up in a favourable way, ranges His Majesty's Government on the side of one other Government of a principal industrial nation in opposing the proposal for a forty-hour week in certain industries, first put forward in December, 1931, by the Unemployment Committee of the International Labour Office. That other Government with which His Majesty's Government is ranged is the Government of His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Japan. The White Paper is a remarkable document. We enjoy in this country the advantage of an admirable Civil Service, but it is never so efficient as when it is set the task of finding reasons why nothing can be done, and in this case it has succeeded admirably. The facts, however, as I hope to show, are against 479 them. Anyone reading this White Paper would think that this was some revolutionary proposal brought forward by cranks and visionaries, and that it would ruin industry in this country.
Before I remind your Lordships of the actual facts, may I put two specific questions to the noble Lord, the Paymaster-General? In the White Paper it is declared that it had not been possible to consult all the interests concerned with a view to reaching a sound judgment on the main issue set forth in the Questionnaire. Your Lordships will be aware that a Questionnaire has been sent out, following the three or four years of intensive study of this problem by the staff of the International Labour Office and the Governments concerned, principally under the stimulus of the efforts of the Italian Government, who, with the French and the Poles, and now the Germans, have been pressing for this great measure of human reform. It is said that the interests most directly concerned have been consulted. May I ask whether the trade unions were consulted? It may be that, as it is stated in the next paragraph that the inquiries and consultations referred to have not been concluded, they have not yet all been consulted. I imagine that the trade unions have been consulted, but I think we ought to be reassured on that point.
The second question I want to ask—and it is the most important of all—is as follows. In paragraph 4 (and this is the main conclusion, which is described as His Majesty's Government's opinion) these words occur:His Majesty's Government does not take the view that weekly hours of work are immutably fixed at their present levels.That, at any rate, is something. It goes on:A continuous review of the problem industry by industry will, in the opinion of His Majesty's Government, reveal the scope for useful action as and where this exists and it is contended that the question of the limitation of hours can only be dealt with, either nationally or internationally, industry by industry in the light of the special characteristics of each industry.Now, what does that mean? And, secondly, may I ask the noble Lord what is going to be done? Does that mean that we are really going to tackle the question through the International Labour Office at Geneva, industry by industry?
480 Are you, for example, going to start with the textile and rayon industry, where a great deal of progress has been made, and are you going to do it immediately, or is His Majesty's Government going to continue to block all efforts to reach international agreement to reduce the hours of labour? On the 8th May the International Congress of Textile Workers met at Lucerne. There was general agreement as to the desirability of reducing hours of labour by international agreement, but Mr. Naesmith, the representative of Lancashire, drew attention to two points. He said this could only be done internationally. My noble friends agree entirely with that, and our friends in another place who represent the great unions agree also that it can best be done internationally. Secondly—this is very important—Mr. Naesmith hinted at the necessity of some form of sanctions for nations who, having signed a Convention, would not keep it, or did not keep it, or would not come into line when the other nations were in agreement. The sanction he suggested was a prohibition of imports from countries where labour was sweated, abnormal hours of labour were worked, and abnormally low wages paid.
Now if His Majesty's Government from the beginning—not only the present Government but their predecessors—had proceeded along those lines, we should not be entering singly into a trade war with Japan without allies, without the support of the organisations in the other countries in which the standards of living of the work people are threatened. I consider that this action of His Majesty's Government in challenging the Japanese to a trade war at the present time without any co-operation with America, or with Germany or with Italy or France, all of whom are directly menaced by unfair labour conditions in Japan and the dumping of Japanese goods, and in entering into this trade war single handed, is the height of folly. It may have results that no man can foretell.
Yet we had this machinery ready to be used. We could have pursued a steady policy of raising the standards of all labour, including Asiatic labour, and if we were frustrated by the Governments of the Asiatic countries, then we could have called upon the Western countries and upon America to have joined with us 481 in prohibiting the import of goods made under these inhuman conditions. That would be statesmanship, that would show vision. I regret to say His Majesty's Government have shown neither statesmanship nor vision in this matter. I am not going to attempt to apologise for the action of the last Government, the Labour Government, which I had the privilege of supporting in most things in another place. They did not ratify the fortyeight-hour Washington Convention, and I make a, present to the Paymaster-General of that fact. But I believe it would have been done. It is no secret I am now giving to your Lordships when I say it was a cause of great criticism In the Parliamentary Labour Party that that had not been done. I believe it would have been done if we had remained longer in office. The reason it was not done was that we were led by the gentlemen who lead His Majesty's Government to-day. They blocked and frustrated this great reform, and industrial Britain has not led the way, as it should have done, in using the great machinery for raising international wage standards and conditions through the International labour Office, as should have been expected from so progressive a nation.
The actual proposals at Geneva on June 4 which will be debated and which, I suppose, unless there is a rapid change of opinion in the Cabinet, will be blocked and frustrated by Es Majesty's Government, are not for an all round forty-hour week at all. The proposal is that where there is factory work there should be an average working week of forty hours calculated over an average of four weeks. Where there is continual process work it is to be forty-two hours, and in transport undertakings forty-eight hours. I believe I am correct in that statement, though I have only had access to what has appeared in the Press. And, most important of all, the wages of the workers where the reduced hours are agreed to are not to be reduced. That is, of course, of the utmost importance, and, as the White Paper is fair enough to say, the Trades Union Congress of this country has laid that down very clearly indeed. In these days of under-consumption, where the purchasing power of the people requires to be raised rather than lowered, it is absolutely essential that this great reform should be accompanied by stringent 482 regulations to prevent wages being reduced.
I said that this was no revolutionary proposal of a number of idealists and cranks and visionaries. In 1926, Mr. Ford, in the United States of America, in his great motor car factories, reduced the hours of labour to forty per week, and that same working week was introduced, or is being introduced, into all his European factories as well. Just after the War the great confectionery firm of Rowntree reduced their working week to a five-day week of forty-four hours. At Billingham to-day, in certain departments of the Imperial Chemical Industry, a forty-hour week is being worked, and in all these cases the wages have not been reduced. Manders of Wolverhampton, the great firm of paint and colour manufacturers, have adopted the forty-hour week. All these are highly successful firms. I could mention others. To-day in the United States 270 firms employing over a million workpeople are working the five-day week without reduction of wages.
What are the objections? I cull from the White Paper the objections put forward by engineering employers and other employers of labour who have resisted demands from their unions. It is said foreign countries will come into a Convention with us but will not keep their bond. I do not think that is a just argument to use, but if they do break their word there must be some system of sanctions. The great safeguard against foreign nations doing that is the trade unions in the foreign countries who want their working hours reduced. Even the Indian trade unions are demanding the forty-hour week as part of their programme. It is said that this will raise prices. Incidentally, there is a great deal of exaggeration about that because with greater efficiency it does not necessarily follow that prices will be raised to a very great extent.
To-day The Times newspaper devotes its first leading article to this question of the forty-hour week and I am sorry to say supports His Majesty's Government's attitude. They use a very misleading series of sentences when they say that the reduction from forty-eight hours to forty hours will add 20 per cent. or one-fifth to the wage costs. Reading that one might be led to suppose that that meant there would be a 20 per cent. in- 483 crease of price. That is not so. What happens is this. When we have calculated the overheads and the on costs whereas the wage rates may represent a 20 per cent. increase—that is of course keeping the same rate of wages for the shorter working hours—actually the total cost increase is only 6 per cent. That is a calculation of the engineering unions and is to be found in the very interesting report of the proceedings of the engineering and allied employers in their National Federation and of the engineering trade unions. Time will not permit me to analyse this interesting calculation. It is of course traversed by the employers, nevertheless it is traversed only in detail, not in principle. It is a fact that taking into consideration all the other costs that enter into the price of the article that leaves the factory the reduction from forty-eight to forty hours does not represent a 20 per cent. increase but only represents a little over 6 per cent.
But in any case the problem is not only one of selling as cheaply as possible, no matter at what cost in unemployment and human misery and degradation. His Majesty's Government at the World Economic Conference said that the object of this country was to raise prices which were too low, to raise, at any rate, the price of wholesale goods, and if by international agreement prices all round can be raised to a moderate extent it would be of great benefit to the whole industrial world. I agree that the most serious objection is that the gap may be widened between industrial and agricultural prices, and if I were devil's advocate I would fasten on that particular argument. But agricultural prices represent a separate and gigantic problem that is not going to be settled by reducing the price of manufactured goods or by artificially raising the cost and the price of agricultural products or by destroying God's bounty of the fields.
It is a much larger problem than that. We hear complaints to-day in rather picturesque language of man being the slave of the machine. I do not want to exaggerate, but I would remind your Lordships that long hours were bearable when a man was working on his own initiative, when he set his own pace, when one day, feeling fit and vigorous, he could work at a fast pace, and 484 another, feeling off colour and not so fit, he could slow down; but now it is the machine that sets the pace. The belt goes on unrelentingly and the man has to adjust himself to every phase of the time machine that is driving him on. It is perhaps necessary to adopt these mass production methods but they are very detrimental in their effect on human mentality. That is one main argument with those who urge the necessity of reducing hours of labour—the monotony and the strain and the stress of modern industrial methods. This is a huge subject. I believe it will be admitted to be one of the greatest importance. I apologise for keeping your Lordships on it to-night at this late hour, but it concerns the welfare and happiness of millions of people in our own and other countries. I hope that the White Paper is not His Majesty's Government's last word and that the International Labour Office is going to be supported instead of, as in the past, thwarted and hampered. I beg to move for Papers.
§ THE PAYMASTER-GENERAL (LORD ROCHESTER)
My Lords, in rising to reply on behalf of His Majesty's Government I am sure your Lordships will permit me first of all to say that those interested in the immediate adoption of a forty-hour week have been very fortunate in the advocate they have secured in your Lordships' House in the person of the noble Lord opposite. Nobody could have put the case more forcibly or with greater cogency. I am only sorry that the Ministry of Labour is not directly represented in your Lordships' House, for thus it falls to my lot to speak for a Department other than my own. The subject raised by the noble Lord is really, if he will forgive my saying so, not quite so simple as he would make it appear. In fact it is really both complex and difficult. It is, however, one to which His Majesty's Ministers have given, and are continuing to give, much thought. The noble Lord has referred to the fact that his Motion had been upon the Order Paper for some two or three weeks. With that courtesy we have already come to associate with the noble Lord, although he has been so short a time a member of your Lordships' House, he gave your Lordships ample notice of his intention to raise this matter, but in the interim, 485 as he pointed out, the Government's White Paper, Command No. 4584, has been issued which goes far to meet the interrogation the noble Lord has addressed to the Government.
The position is that next month when the International Labour Conference meets at Geneva consideration will be given to two draft International Conventions which are designed to reduce hours of work to forty a week throughout a wide range of industry and commerce, the principal exceptions being those of mining, maritime, and agricultural workers. They are, of course, excluded from the field of consideration. The general attitude of His Majesty's Government to the Geneva proposals is, as the noble Lord has pointed out, set out fully in the letter and accompanying statement which were sent to the International Labour Office on the 14th of March this year and which have been published in the White Paper to which the noble Lord referred. The White Paper is, I think, explicit and self-explanatory. It is widely discussed in today's Press. The noble Lord has referred to the very able leading article in The Times of to-day and I, too, will revert to that, if I may, in a moment, but it is, I agree, appropriate that some further observations on the subject from the Government's point of view should now be made with reference to the Question put by the noble Lord.
Up till recent times the question of reducing hours of work has been approached primarily from the point of view of ensuring that the health and wellbeing of the worker were not impaired by excessive hours of toil. Latterly, however, owing to the wide incidence of unemployment, the movement for reducing hours of work has had for its main incentive the sharing of work so as to reduce the number of workers wholly unemployed. Recent discussions at Geneva have, in general, been conducted on the latter basis, and the proposals now made must be considered in flat light. There is, of course—and I am sure the noble Lord would himself concede the point—no sanctity in the number of forty in regard to the weekly hours of work, and it is not a figure scientifically related either to current methods of organisation or to the social and industrial habits of the people. The number of forty is in the nature of a 486 slogan designed to promote the movement towards shortening hours of work with a view to relieving the unemployment position. A slogan of this kind, even if its underlying significance were acceptable, does need careful consideration before there is any question of adopting it as the pivotal point of an administrative code of wide industrial application. No two industries are alike, and no two countries have the same social and industrial history.
Hours of work and wage rates differ widely from industry to industry and from country to country, and with every sympathy for the idea of improving the position of the workers, whether by reducing hours of work or otherwise, it does seem to His Majesty's Government that at the present time a general limitation of hours of work to forty a week is not going to be accepted internationally as meeting the varying circumstances of wage-earners in the multifarious occupations which they follow in the world of industry and commerce. For instance, there is a great difference of conditions as between the operative engaged on manufacture indoors in a factory and an operative in the building trade subject to the state of the weather and the duration of light; but a general Convention containing limitations of hours to forty would be in the nature of a steam-roller designed to obliterate the natural divergencies of conditions in the various occupations and in the circumstances of the various industries.
It is not unreasonable to argue that the increasing efficiency of machinery should lighten the burden of labour falling upon the workers; nor does it seem equitable that some workers should have to work overtime while others are idle. Accepting these conditions as valid, it is for all interests concerned to embrace any opportunity of shortening hours of work provided that this can be done without serious detriment to the prosperity of industry and the development of trade. There have, in fact, been recent examples of firms which have found it possible to reduce hours in departments of their undertakings. The noble Lord referred to one or two specific cases. It is indeed the case that experiments of this kind have been made in certain undertakings. Those experiments have differed from 487 one another in their underlying basis and the experience so far gained shows that the principle of the Government's reply to Geneva as set out in the White Paper is sound. By that I mean that the fact that each experiment has differed shows that it is impracticable to draw up a satisfactory Convention which endeavours to apply the same system to every undertaking and to every country.
The noble Lord referred to Imperial Chemical Industries. As he has done that, I think I cannot do better than quote from a letter issued by Imperial Chemical Industries, Limited, with regard to the four eight-hour shift experiment which they have instituted at their works at Billingham. The letter reads:I should explain that the introduction of the scheme was rendered possible solely because it became necessary to put certain departments, which had been working a 47-week on daywork, on continuous shift-work. This change in the method of working naturally yielded an increase in weekly earnings over the daywork wages formerly paid.Instead, however, of adopting the usual three eight-hour continuous shift system, a four eight-hour shift system was introduced by taking on an extra man as relief; consequently, instead of working on the average 56 hours over the the three weeks' shift cycle, the average hours worked per week are 39.375. The wages that would have been distributed amongst three men under the three eight-hour shift system are distrbuted amongst four men.The experiment cannot of course be compared with the conversion of any existing 47-hour week into a 40-hour week on daywork, and therefore does not represent the adoption of the 40-hour week in the sense in which that phrase is generally accepted. Further, it would not have been practicable had the men concerned been already working on the usual three eight-hour continuous shift system, owing to the reduction in individual weekly earnings that would have resulted.I have read that extract from that letter because the noble Lord instanced this actual case. He will have noticed that the writer said: "therefore [it] does not represent the adoption of the forty-hour week in the sense in which that phrase is generally accepted."
Other experiments, as the noble Lord has pointed out, have been based on a five-day week, on speeding up the work, on periodical closing down and on various other bases. I can only say that the Government will continue to watch the results of these experiments with the greatest interest, but it is unable to find 488 in them justification for supporting an attempt to compel a reduction of hours to forty per week or to establish internationally a rigid system applicable to the whole of industry and commerce. The noble Lord referred to other cases. He will not expect me to deal with them, but he mentioned the firm of Rowntree. Only the day before yesterday I was myself in York in the immediate vicinity of the Rowntree works. I do not think the noble Lord himself claimed that as an instance of a forty-hour week.
§ LORD ROCHESTER
I think probably the facts would show that it is forty-four, but I am not going to split that difference with the noble Lord. I want to make the point that it is only an instance and cannot be claimed as supporting his contention of a full forty-hour week.
§ LORD ROCHESTER
That was my information. I am obliged to the noble Lord, but I was not trying to make a debating point of that. I was only trying to show that we cannot argue from the specific to the general. The Government have at no time taken up the attitude that hours of work should remain immutably at their present level. They have at all times welcomed any movement for shortening hours which did not suggest disadvantages of a major character. The proposals framed at Geneva, however, appear to the Government to be such as would be unlikely to fit the picture of industry as we know it in present circumstances. Rough and ready attempts at uniformity in plan may well bring disaster in industry where the elements of diversity and complexity are increasingly apparent. In fact, the instrument of a general forty-hour Convention is, in the view of the Goverment, too crude and unscientific in character to admit of its general acceptance and its effective application throughout the countries of the world.
To turn to another aspect of the problem, that of international trade and competition in world markets, Great Britain has a very special interest in international trade and the element of costs of production, including labour costs, is one to which we must pay great 489 attention in so far as we hope to sell our products in world markets. In the matter of labour costs, hours of work and wage rates must obviously be considered together. Shorter hours, related as they are to wage rates, naturally affect labour costs and they may also raise overhead charges by way of increased expenditure on supervision, social expenses and the like. Moreover, shorter hours may mean expensive machinery lying idle through more hours of the day unless double or multiple shift systems are employed. In the world markets of to-day this country has to meet intensive competition from countries which work longer hours and pay lower wages than are the general rule here. Many of those countries show little or no disposition to approach our standards and this is a grave difficulty in the way of our making a general forward movement.
It is true that one of the aims of the International Labour Organisation is to raise low standards of working conditions wherever these are to be found, and with this aim His Majesty's Government are in full accord. But it is obviously difficult for the Government to agree to tie this country down to reduce hours of work arbitrarily to forty, while a number of important competing countries have already intimated their unwillingness to agree to international regulations of this kind. I submit that the noble Lord is not entitled—he will forgive my saying so—to hold up this country as the black sheep among the nations in this respect, because I think that is what he really did. I took down his words. He instanced cases of Italians and French and Poles. He stated that we were associated with Japan in his opinion amongst, the black sheep.
Of course it is very clear that the Japanese are not prepared to concede this contention of the International Labour Organisation. They said in their reply:… the prescription by legislation of compulsory reduction of hours of work which could be effective in alleviating unemployment would be difficult from the economic and technical points of view under the existing conditions in Japan. Further, in such a case it would also be difficult in practice to ensure the maintenance of wages by legislation. Consequently, the Government is not in a position to agree, for the time being, to an international regulation on this subject.That is Japan. The noble Lord said that we were hanging behind France, Italy 490 and Poland. I think that he will concede as a premiss that it is no use having a Convention unless it is going to be put into force. It, is very easy for countries to say that they are prepared to be parties to a Convention and then to attach to that statement conditions which make it for all practical purposes more or less valueless. We in this country are accustomed to state quite frankly our decision when we have come to it and to accept responsibility for it.
I agree that the Italians, the French and the Poles, as the noble Lord said—and I am only confirming his contention—were agreeable to the admission of the forty-hour question in the Questionnaire, but the noble Lord, if he will forgive my saying so, handled the truth rather carelessly, because he did not inform your Lordships of the conditions which they attached to their answers to that question, and I feel that it is so important that I want to read to your Lordships of the conditions attached by all three of those Governments to which the noble Lord referred. I have here the replies of all the Governments. I think he first of all instanced the Italians. Tt is stated with regard to Italy:The Italian Government proposes that the group should include the States of chief industrial importance, including the extra-European States.That includes Japan. Therefore Italy says, for one: "We will adhere to a Convention if Japan adheres to it"; but Japan have already made it abundantly clear that they are not prepared to adhere to it. I ask the noble Lord therefore whether he is entitled to hold us up as black sheep in comparison with a country who say that if the impossible can be done, they will fall into line?
Then he instanced the case of the French. Now what is the French condition?The French Government considers that the Convention should provide a procedure for ensuring its simultaneous ratification and putting into force by the Governments of States which are in economic competition with one another.Clearly that includes Japan and Germany. Japan again! The same point can be made there as I made in the case of Italy. The other case which the noble Lord instanced was that of Poland. Now what is the Polish reply? 491>"The Polish Government names ten States for this purpose….that is, should ratify the Convention—and amongst them Germany, the Netherlands and Japan. In the case of Germany, as they have left the International Labour Office the noble Lord will realise that they cannot have their adhesion, and in the case of Japan he is already aware of their answer. What is the answer of the Netherlands? The Netherlands say:that this matter cannot he considered as being yet ripe for international regulation.I do suggest to the noble Lord that in view of those conditions attached to their adhesion, the relationship betwen his statement and the truth is so distant as to be scarcely recognisable, and I feel that he will not press that element of his argument in the circumstances.
The protagonists of the forty-hour week in the British trade union movement postulate that no reduction of wages should accompany a reduction in hours, but, considered internationally, no feasible plan for carrying this into effect has yet been devised. The noble Lord asks, and as I understood him it was one of his specific queries, whether the workers had been called into consultation.
§ LORD ROCHESTER
Quite so—whether the trade unions had been called into consultation. I can only answer that by saying that to my own knowledge the General Council of the Trades Union Congress have been consulted, both orally and in writing, by the Minister of Labour on the forty-hour week question. I have not the data with me at the moment, but speaking from memory I am almost sure that I am correct in saying that in fact only last week—certainly quite recently—a deputation was received by the Minister of Labour and had the opportunity of laying their views before him. The Geneva proposals include a recommendation concerning the maintenance of the standard of living of the workers, in the event of a reduction in the hours of work, but such a recommendation, as distinct from a Convention, can have no binding validity, and I should be surprised if it satisfied British trade unionists as giving them the safeguards for which they have asked.
The industrial policy of the United States of America, to which the noble 492 Lord has referred, is frequently quoted as showing what can be done in the way of reducing hours of work and increasing the leisure of the workers without reducing their standard of living. It is, I suggest, too early yet to form a clear view as to the results of this policy, but the position of the United States is different from our own in many important respects. Within the borders of its immense territory the United States has natural resources and economic potentialities which make an approach to national self-sufficiency less difficult than is the case in this country, where we are more dependent upon international trade. We hope that the social experiments of the United States will succeed, but it is relevant to point out that, even in that country, the industrial codes which have laid down hours of work in the various industries have not proceeded on the proposed Geneva model of a universal limitation to forty hours, but have fixed a variety of hours for the different industries in accordance with their varying circumstances and requirements. Incidentally, I would mention that the United States of America are not members of the International Labour Organisation, although I am glad to learn that the United States Minister of Labour is likely to attend the forthcoming International Labour Conference as an observer.
Without wishing to touch more than briefly upon the matter, I might mention the recent statements of my right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade, to which the noble Lord has referred, with regard to the competition of the Japanese manufacturers with the Lancashire cotton manufacturers in supplying cotton goods to various parts of the world, and more particularly to our own Colonies. I am sure that in considering this matter my right honourable friend has had in mind the desirability of obviating any worsening of the conditions of work of Lancashire operatives for the purpose of maintaining our hold on markets in which we have to meet Japanese competition based, as it is, on hours of labour which are longer and rates of wages whicih are lower than in the Lancashire cotton mills. To reduce hours of work in the Lancashire cotton mills from the present agreed number of forty-eight to the forty proposed by Geneva would certainly further load the dice against Lancashire, particularly as I 493 understand that the Operative Weavers' Association are strongly opposed to the two-shift system and have never, to my knowledge, been parties to an application for permission to work two shifts.
In this connection I gather from the Press—a matter to which the noble Lord also referred—that the International Congress of Textile Workers, meeting in Lucerne last week, had the question of Japanese competition before them. The noble Lord has given us an extract of what was said by Mr. Naesmith, the secretary of the Lancashire Weavers. I would like to mention that he is reported to have pointed out that one of the difficulties of the situation was that Japanese weaving machines were worked 120 hours a week as against the normal 48 hours in Lancashire. The proposed Convention does not deal in any way with this most important difference in working conditions. To ignore this is to ignore one of the most important questions affecting the maintenance of the employment and Standard of life of the Lancashire operatives.
I am sure the noble Lord will concede that if our machines are to be operated for 40 hours a week only, against 120 hours a week worked by Japanese machines on the shift system, then a fortiori we should require for the same production three times the number of machines, with their attendant overhead charges, and additional electrical energy and other power, that the Japanese require, making competition in neutral markets increasingly difficult, if not impossible. I also gather from the Press that Mr. Naesmith indicated the possibility of the forty-hour week proposal being approached, not from the standpoint of reaching a general international convention, but by way of considering the application of reduced hours of work to separate industries where agreement to that end could be reached.
Whatever may have been said at Lucerne, however, I am brought back at this point to the letter to which I have already referred as having been sent to Geneva on behalf of His Majesty's Government, on March 14 of this year, and of which the final paragraph reads as follows:In conclusion, … His Majesty's Government does not take the view that weekly hours of work are immutably fixed 494 at their present level. A continuous review of the problem, industry by industry, will, in the opinion of His Majesty's Government, reveal the scope for useful action as and where this exists, and it is contended that the question of the limitation of hours can only be dealt with, either nationally or internationally, industry by industry, in the light of the special characteristics of each industry.I suggest that this conclusion represents a realistic approach to the hours problem, and I commend it to the consideration of this House.
The noble Lord referred just now to the leading article in The Times of to-day, and I said that I would refer to it. I want to complete the paragraph that he quoted from because I do not think he did complete justice to the point they make in that article. It reads:To pay for forty hours' work the amount now paid for forty-eight hours' work will increase the wages costs of production by one-fifth unless the output of the shorter working period is proportionately greater than that of the longer period.I think the noble Lord will allow me to say he did not emphasise the point that they were speaking of the wages costs. I should like, if I might, to commend this leading article to noble Lords in all parts of the House. I would also like, greatly daring, to read the final paragraph of the same article, which says:The more the forty-hour week proposal is examined the more specious it is seen to be as a remedy for unemployment, and it involves hazards which no Government of this country dare take. Less spectacular but more sure is the suggestion which the Government have made to the I.L.O. Progress to a shorter working week should he made, not by a daring and dangerous leap, but gradually, industry by industry, as the way opens.In this world of infinite variety and complexity it is scarcely to be expected that easy solutions of major difficulties will present themselves, and on the hours question I feel it is wise to realise this, and to approach it in a scientific spirit by examining the facts, industry by industry, so that wherever progress may be found possible it may be secured on a sound and constructive basis. That progress may be secured on such a basis is not only the wish of His Majesty's Government but is, I am confident, equally the desire of the noble Lord who moved this Motion, and of his friends and mine associated with him. I hope that with this explanation my noble friend will 495 see his way to withdraw his Motion for Papers, for the very good reason that since his Motion was put on the Paper this White Paper has been presented to Parliament, and there are no additional Papers.
There is only one further matter, and that is the reference to the Washington Hours Convention. May I just emphasise that that rather strengthens the position taken up by His Majesty's Government? The Washington Convention was drawn up in 1919, and was based upon a working week of forty-eight hours. Its history, I suggest, bears out the truth of what I have said about the impracticability of applying a single rigid standard to all industries and all countries. The Labour Party when in Office in 1924, and again in 1930, made efforts to prepare legislation upon which a ratification of the Convention by this country could be based. I submit that it was the inflexibility of some of the provisions of the Convention, and doubts as to the precise meaning of other parts, which raised difficulties which it proved impossible to overcome. In consquence neither of the Bills reached a Second Reading in another place, and therefore never reached your Lordships' House at all.
That the experience here was not unique is shown by the fact that the great majority of countries of industrial importance have not found it possible to ratify the Washington Convention. I therefore take the view, that so far from the Washington Convention providing an argument for the adoption of a Convention on the forty-hour week, it provides a lesson as to the impossibility of framing satisfactory Conventions on hours of labour of wide application. As I have already said, I would ask the noble Lord not to press his Motion for Papers. If there were any that could be laid I should be only too glad on behalf of the Minister of Labour to lay them, but I think he will appreciate that the matter 496 has been brought right up to date by the White Paper issued yesterday, and if I have not answered all his questions I think he will admit that I have at least attempted to meet all the points he has raised.
My Lords, the noble Lord has answered the points which I put forward in a most satisfactory way. I thank him for the very full answer which he has given, and the frank way in which he has laid the Government's case. He has not convinced me, and I have not convinced him, but nevertheless I will accede to his request and withdraw my Motion for Papers. My complaint is not that this country is a black sheep, but that it is not leading the flock.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.