Debate on the Address
Orders of the Day — Queen's Speech
Mr Stephen Swingler (Newcastle-under-Lyme)
The Minister says that we have now, for the first year, reached the rate. In the previous five years the rate has been too low, and considerably below the programme of investment which was actually fixed.
The coal mining industry does not attract enough people to work in it. In that respect, as the hon. Member for Kidderminster says, we have a static position. As one goes about the country one still hears widespread criticism of the people who work in the mines. The trouble is that there is no widespread enthusiasm to work in them. We need a greater spread of the desire to come in and to solve the immediate problems of the coal mining industry by taking up the very many jobs, for example, in and around the West Midlands, that are now going begging.
The Coal Board today is faced with some particular problems that many people outside the mining areas simply do not understand. They do not understand many of the technical problems that prevent the smooth flow, or the smooth rise of production and productivity; nor do they understand some of the very great problems now involved in transferring mineworkers from one part of the country to another. I have been particularly concerned about that in my own constituency and in other parts of the West Midlands.
I hope that the Ministry as well the Coal Board, will pay great attention to studying some of the economic and social consequences of transferring people from one coalfield to another—from Durham to Staffordshire, or from South Wales to Warwickshire. These resettlement and social problems which arise on entering a new community very considerably affect the productive capacities, as well as the industrial relations, which exist in many of the pits. Recently, there has moved from one part of the country to another a quite considerable population to whom the ways and customs are strange and many of the wage rates and economic conditions quite different. Some of the problems of production are very much bound up with these difficulties of settlement.
I say that only by way of introduction to the point which, in my view, the Minister—besides being very much and urgently concerned with the future in terms of atomic energy and atomic power stations—must, if he is to solve the immediate problem of getting rising coal production, pay more attention. The Minister has fallen down on the job, and I wish to draw the attention of the House to what I regard as a deplorable failure on the part of the Minister since he has been in office.
I refer to the problem of mining subsidence. If there is one problem which the people in the coal mining areas want dealt with—and dealt with urgently, because it considerably affects the welfare as well as the attractiveness of mining districts—it is the consequences of mining subsidence. In addition to all the hazards and dangers of working in the mines, there is the problem of the sterilisation of land because of the danger of subsidence. Houses are being broken up, shops being damaged, sewers being opened up, and water pipes bursting week in and week out. Those hon. Members from other coal mining areas know that I am not exaggerating.
I know, also, that to a great extent the responsibility for dealing with all these problems is still laid upon the people in those districts. Although the nation has at last taken responsibility, thank goodness, for the coal mining industry, for the planning of its resources, for attempting to attract into it enough workers, and for the solution of its problems, it has still not taken responsibility for all the consequences of coal mining which the people to whom I refer have to suffer and for which they have to pay.
The Minister knows very well that the Labour Government set up a committee, following upon a Royal Commission which had sat nearly twenty years before, to inquire into the whole problem. That committee went into the subject exhaustively over a period of four years. Two hon. Members of this House, one for each side, were on that committee, under Mr. Turner's chairmanship, and it reported in 1949. What did it find? Let me remind the Minister that the Turner Committee on Mining Subsidence found
… an illogical and chaotic state of the law affecting specific properties and types of property. Out of this chaos has grown much of that real sense of grievance and unnecessary hardship which has led to the appointment of this Committee.
As the Minister knows, in place of that illogical, chaotic state the Turner Com-
mittee recommended that there should be introduced
… a new and comprehensive scheme of compensation for all existing rights of compensation whether these were acquired by contract or by statute and whether they provide for restoration of the surface or otherwise.
The Minister knows that a few months after the Turner Committee's Report was published the Labour Government acted upon it. In 1950 a Bill was produced, which became an Act of Parliament, to give a first instalment to implement this survey of the rights of compensation for mining subsidence. That was the Coal-mining (Subsidence) Act, 1950, which dealt with dwelling-houses of a rateable value of up to £32. That was merely a first instalment. It was generally recognised that another Bill—or several Bills—would have to be introduced if all of these problems were to be dealt with and if the owners and occupiers of houses and of shop and factory premises—as well as the local authorities with their undertakings—were to be properly covered.
One of the very considerable grievances in the mining areas is, of course, the way in which the rates are affected, because whenever local authority undertakings are damaged by mining subsidence it is the local authority there that has to meet the cost of the repairs. There is no system whereby any financial grant is made from the Exchequer to help them. It falls on the ratepayers of the mining districts. They have to suffer the consequences of the interference with their services and have also to pay in full to have those services repaired.
We feel that that is unjust. It was recognised by the Turner Committee as unjust. It is unjust that the Minister, after occupying his office for more than three and a half years, still cannot produce any legislation and will not even indicate when he will produce such legislation to compensate local authorities in mining districts for what they are suffering in this respect, and cannot produce also a comprehensive scheme of compensation as was outlined in the Turner Report.
The hon. Member for Kidderminster referred this afternoon to the action of the Minister on the Beaver Report. Certainly we in North Staffordshire warmly welcome drastic action to cleanse the atmosphere. We have certainly suffered too long from what goes on up above, or rather from what is spewed up above. We are also concerned with what goes on underneath, and we wish that the Minister would act—one cannot say promptly, because more than five years have elapsed since the Turner Committee reported; but we wish that the Minister would search the pigeon-holes of his Department, where there must exist draft legislation to implement the recommendations of the Turner Committee.
If the Minister would do that, he would, at any rate, indicate to the people in the mining districts that he was paying some attention to their needs and problems, and he might thereby go some part of the way towards attracting more people to the mining districts. What is certain is that if the Minister continues deliberately to disregard these problems of the mining districts the people there will feel that their problems are not receiving proper attention higher up, and nobody will be attracted into these districts or induced to work harder to get the coal. The Minister is the fellow who is on strike in this matter and is contributing to the loss of coal. Not until he plays fair with the mining districts by dealing with such problems as this, which have been on the stocks for many years, can he expect enthusiasm in the mining districts for increasing coal production. I shall continue saying this until a Bill providing comprehensive compensation for coal mining subsidence is produced by this or another Government.
Having said that, let me turn briefly to another problem which has been raised in this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) referred to another acute manpower problem which confronts the Government. He referred to manpower in the Armed Forces, and I want to say a few words on the subject while the Under-Secretary of State for War is here. No doubt, the Secretary of State has gone away to ponder what my hon. Friend was saying.
Now that the Election is over, I hope that the Service Ministers will be able, in the cool of their offices, to reconsider some of the matters which have arisen. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley has said, nobody can be accused now of raising the question of the National Service period or the recruitment programme as an electoral issue.
We now have some time in which to deal with these matters, and we are anxious that the Service Ministers should now forget some of the things they said before the Election. We shall be reasonable in forgiving them for some of their past misdeeds, and perhaps they will now reconsider some of the suggestions which we have put forward.
It is obvious that people in general, including hon. Members, are no longer convinced that this country must have a period of conscription as long as two years on the ground of commitments. Most of the other countries of N.A.T.O. and of the Commonwealth do not have so long a period. Some people still argue on the ground of commitments, but now that we have withdrawn from the Suez Canal and from Trieste, and now that the Korean War has come to an end, sensible citizens are no longer convinced that we must have two years' conscription on the ground of commitments.
At the same time, intelligent people are no longer convinced that we must have two years conscription to get massive reserves in preparation for a third world war. They know, because they have been told by the Government, that the preparations for a third world war are of a totally different character. In any case, there are masses of reserves at the disposal of the Services and no more reservists are required. In fact, some of the Services are embarrassed by the number of reservists they have got. They simply do not know what to do with all the reservists.
It is becoming plain to everybody who has studied the question that this matter of reducing the conscription period depends upon getting a proper balance of manpower within the Armed Forces, and the Government have fallen down on the job. In particular, the Secretary of State for War has failed in what should have been his principal job of getting a proper balance of volunteer Regular members of the Army as against conscripts, so as to enable him, with the reduction of commitments and the removal of the necessity to build up even more massive reserves, to effect an immediate reduction in the period of National Service.
Here is the evidence in the letter from the Secretary of State for War to my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley. In this letter are now revealed the facts about the three-year engagement which the Secretary of State introduced with such a blare of trumpets and such a hullabaloo as the solution to the problem of recruiting to the Armed Forces. He said it was intended to induce men to join and then agree to prolong their periods of National Service in order to build up the regular content of the Army. That plan has failed. It is now revealed that in the initially attractive period only 5 per cent. of the men have prolonged their engagements. Only 5 per cent. of those who have chosen to volunteer for three years instead of being called up for two years have prolonged their engagements, and, therefore, the Minister now finds that he is worse off.
We have a right to request that the Minister should publish to this House regularly the numbers of men prolonging their engagements, having signed on for three years in 1952. When the next Army Estimates debate takes place we want to be in possession of that information so that we may review what has taken place in the first year of this three-year engagement scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley suggested that if we were in possession of these facts we might be able to give to the Secretary of State for War some sort of Christmas present when the Army Estimates debate comes along.
Naturally, we expect that the figure will not fall as low as 5 per cent. in the future. If it does, the Army will be in the most deplorable position of a continuous decline in voluntary recruitment. Nevertheless, nobody can now expect to achieve what the Secretary of State described as a desirable figure—one-third of the men prolonging their engagements beyond three years. Nobody can think that there is any hope of that being achieved, and it certainly appears that the three-year engagement has failed to attract the additional number of man-years, if we can put it that way, to solve the problem.
This is a desperately serious matter because it means an increasing dependence upon conscript forces. At a time when we should be able to expect the dependence upon conscripts by the Army to be declining rapidly, we have a situation in which the Army has to lean more and more upon those who are called up and might even have to consider extend- ing the period of conscription because of the lack of voluntary recruits. Surely there should now be from the new Minister of Defence a response to the plea of the Opposition that this whole matter ought to be discussed and investigated exhaustively by a Select Committee of the House. We had an extremely successful Select Committee on the administration of the Army. We had to do a good deal of work to persuade the Secretary of State that that was a desirable thing, but it was a great success which was welcomed on all sides.
So many of the arguments for the two years period of National Service have now gone by the board; they are completely hollow arguments and totally unconvincing to the people of the country. Now that we have one more example of the Government's deplorable failure to attract sufficient recruits to the Regular Army, surely it is apparent that before we enter into extremely partisan conflict on the matter a body should be set up by the House to go into the whole question of the Government's manpower policy for the forces, examining all the aspects of our commitments, all the arguments for reserves and the balance between volunteers and conscripts in the Armed Forces, so that we may carry out what is the responsibility of Parliament—the exercise of proper democratic control over the Armed Forces.