§ THE EARL OF MUNSTER
My Lords, I think that some brief explanation is required for the Motion which stands in my name: That the Special Order, as reported from the Special Orders Committee on Thursday last, be approved. I shall endeavour to be as brief as I possibly can at this late hour in explaining the provisions of this Draft Order. It will, I think, be within the recollection of the House that during the last General Election the Government announced that their contribution to the coal industry would be the unification of royalties, the setting up of organised selling, and a Royal Commission on Safety in Mines. Moreover, an assurance was given to my honourable friend the Minister of Mines that the colliery owners would, by the middle of this year, cause to be set up a complete and effective organisation for the sale of coal in each district, with co-ordination between districts through the Central Council. It is this latter Order which requires an affirmative Resolution, and which might well be described as the axis around which these seventeen District Orders revolve. The House will, therefore, observe that it is the necessary mechanism for the completion of the promise which the coalowners gave, not only to the Government but also to the workmen.
Part I of the Schedule gives power to the Central Council to issue directions to any district with regard to the terms and conditions of sale in that district. At present the Central Council can only 477 act on the complaint of a district and with regard to minimum prices. In the future, however, they are required to act on their own initiative in regard to prices, terms and conditions of sale, and complaints on any other matter. I think that is the whole of this Order, and if there is any further information the House requires I shall, of course, endeavour to give it. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Special Order, as reported from the Special Orders Committee on Thursday last, be approved.—(The Earl of Munster.)
§ LORD GAINFORD
My Lords, as the only representative in either House on the Central Council, and as one who has been on that Central Council since the 1930 Act came into operation, and as I have been a vice-chairman and one of the district members since that period, perhaps a few words from me may be permissible on this occasion. The Draft Order seems to us, as coalowners, to be necessary to carry out the arrangements for central selling. We have undertaken to avoid competition and evasions, and the co-ordination required by the Central Council is essential in order that we may carry out our obligations to the Government. Personally, I always regarded the Act of 1930 as somewhat opposed to the free operation of economic law, but this alteration is now required after the experience which we have had in conducting the Act of 1930 and is only a natural development. While we have had powers to regulate our prices and quota, yet, in the light of experience, further powers of central selling are now required.
I believe that the operation of the Act of 1930 has had a really beneficial effect upon the industry. We have been passing through a period of great depression, with a capacity, over the greater portion of the period, greater than the demand, and if we had not had the operation of that Act of Parliament, inevitably there would have been further difficulties of many kinds occurring in the coalfields: reactions both of an economic and of a social character. Some coalowners appear to have either voted against the schemes in the locality or to have criticised the central selling scheme, but, so far as I am aware, no coalowner has done that with a view to preventing the passage of this Order or of the schemes. Their 478 motive has been one of genuine belief that the schemes might be simplified and that some money might be saved in their administration. The schemes have, however, been put forward with a view to trying to help the men to have their conditions improved and their wages increased, as well as to secure increased profit for the industry. The Amendments, as I say, are designed merely to simplify the schemes and reduce the expense of operating.
The schemes have to some extent, up to the present, failed to fulfil all our hopes, and when the demand came last autumn by the Government that we should secure some form of central selling in order to obtain increased revenue, it was in response to that invitation of the Government that we undertook to carry out a central selling scheme both in our districts and centrally. That has naturally raised the apprehension of some of the consumers, because they see in the possession of a monopoly the possibility that prices might be raised to a height which would do some harm to certain industries in which the consumers are interested. As a rule the consumer is always right; at any rate, he has to be protected. There is no desire on the part of the coalowners to exploit the consumers; their interest is naturally to try to secure a steady trade at a reasonable profit, and to obtain only reasonable prices. I believe there is no reason now to apprehend that there will be any difficulty in finding a tribunal which will satisfy the consumers in the event of their taking any exception to the prices which may be asked for—a tribunal which will be impartial, which will be effective, and which will be prompt in its decisions.
Bearing all these questions of organisation in mind, I come to a point which the Minister for Mines made in another place when moving a Motion similar to that which the noble Earl has just moved here. He referred to the desirability of a reduction of units for which the Mines Bill which has recently been introduced was an integral part of a Government policy. The Coal Mines Bill already in the last six years has effected a great diminution in the number of units and it is surprising to-day to realise that 75 per cent. of the industry is carried on by 150 undertakings, and a great number of 479 these undertakings are associated with other colliery owners so that they have arrangements inter se which really make it not necessary at all to consider any further compulsory amalgamations. Amalgamations have been suggested to be made compulsory and it seems to me that probably the main motive was to find work for a commission which has not operated during the past five years by securing compulsory amalgamation. That commission requires no doubt to find some work, but there is no work really for that commission to do in the interest either of the trade or the country. The ostensible object was to close down redundant collieries. The effect of the Mines Act of 1930 has been already to close down redundant collieries, and I say generally we have not redundant collieries which need to be forced down compulsorily by any Government organisation. Mechanisation will effect far more than any compulsory amalgamations which the Government can make. The operation of the selling schemes will conduce to voluntary mergers wherever required, and compulsory amalgamations are unnecessary.
One of the objects which I have in rising to-night in connection with this matter is to warn the Government that the miners are opposed to such compulsory amalgamations, that all those who have investments in collieries or in other businesses are opposed to forcible amalgamations such as are suggested by the Government, because those who have invested their money in undertakings will have no longer any concern with those who are going to direct them, and will have no opportunity of going before a judicial tribunal and securing justice if in the public interest their money is going to be extracted from them and dealt with by some other controlled body, which will put an end to all liberty of investment, which is the basis of successful enterprise in this country. The problem is a very important one, and we as coalowners intend to carry out selling arrangements to the advantage of the whole community, and we can do it best without further amalgamations being inserted in the Bill during the coming autumn.
§ THE EARL OF MUNSTER
I may perhaps just reply quite briefly to the remarks which the noble Lord has made. 480 I am of course glad that he supports the Draft Order which I have presented to your Lordships to-night, and indeed for one with such knowledge as he possesses of the coal industry to support it, is some sort of comfort to my right honourable friend. With regard to the question which he put to me dealing with amalgamations I am afraid I am not in a position at this time to give him an explanation. He will observe that the Bill is now before the House of Commons, and I think the proper time to discuss it would be when the Bill arrives in this House. I am afraid I cannot go further at the present time.
§ LORD GAINFORD
I would not have referred to the subject unless the Secretary for Mines had referred to it in moving a similar Motion in another place.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.