I beg to move,
That leave be given to introduce a Bill to constitute a Commission to inquire into the position of and conditions prevailing in the Coal Industry.
I apologise to the House for having to place a Bill in front of the Bill dealing with National Health, but there is nothing more essential to a community than the adoption of means for the prevention of civil strife. That is the prospect with which we are confronted, and which each and all of us ought to do everything in our power to prevent occurring. As time is a matter of very considerable importance, after I have introduced the Bill, I shall ask the House to consent to proceed with the measure; and if we can got it through the whole of its stages to-day, there will be an advantage which all of those who are familiar with the details of this controversy will realise, because they know perfectly well that time is very essential, and that it is a matter of hours, let alone days.
I have no doubt that hon. Members have made themselves acquainted with the controversies that have arisen, and for the settlement of which this Bill is one of the methods of procedure. The miners of this country, through their organisations, have put forward certain demands. The first deals with the demobilisation of miners, the second with wages, the third with hours of labour, and the fourth with the conditions under which the mining industry is being conducted. With regard to demobilisation, I will only say this much, that it is a demand for special conditions for demobilised miners. Up to the present a special effort has been made to demobilise miners. They have been placed in front of other industries, and very nearly 200,000 have already been demobilised, owing to the importance of getting as much coal as possible in order to set industries going. The terms of demobilisation may not be satisfactory, but, at any rate, they are the most generous terms given by any country in Europe; and in making a demand for their increase one must bear in mind that a con- cession of that kind would add to the very crushing burdens under which the community is now groaning, and will groan for some time to come. I will therefore say no more about the conditions of demobilisation, beyond this, that if there be anything that can be done to improve them we are willing to discuss it.
I come to the more important demands formulated by the mining industry—demands which are more permanent in their character and which are certainly more permanent in their effects. They are demands in respect of wages, of hours, and of conditions. The first is a demand that the wages of the miners should be put up by 30 per cent. With regard to hours, they demand that they should be reduced from eight to six, which is not a reduction of 25 per cent., but of two hours taken off the working hours. It is a reduction of one-third in their effective hours. [Several Hon. Members: "Oh!"] That is another argument for a Court of inquiry. It shows that there is a dispute as to the effect at the very start. I am advised that that would be the effect, but I can see that is not what my hon. Friends wish it to be. That shows—I am very glad to perceive it—that at any rate there is ground for accommodation in that particular.
But I want to tell the House why the Government have hesitated to grant these terms without a most careful inquiry, and without an inquiry that would elicit more information than is now in the possession of the Government—information which we could not obtain without a Bill of this character. What will be the effect of those terms? I am advised that it will be a very serious burden upon other industries, so serious, so grave that it might have the effect of throwing scores, indeed hundreds of thousands, of persons out of employment. It might cripple our export trade, and if it crippled our export trade in coal, in iron, in steel, in machinery, it would cripple our shipping, and when I mention these trades I am mentioning those on which the strength and the wealth and the prosperity of this country largely depend. It may be that the figures we have are inaccurate. It may be that the figures with which we have been supplied could be sufficiently explained. That is a reason for inquiry. What is the information in our possession? That the cost of steel, which is already high, would go up by at least 10 per cent.; the increased price of coal would be between 8s. and 10s. a ton. In the steel trade it would add 10 per cent. at least. It would affect the blast furnaces, the engineering trade, the shipbuilding trade, the shipping trade, the house-building trade, railways; in fact, there is hardly any industry that would not be impaired very seriously by an increased charge of that kind. The coal trade itself would be seriously damaged.
It must have struck the House as very remarkable that the minority against striking was so much higher in South Wales than in any other coalfield. That is a very significant fact. It means that the South Wales coalfield depends very largely upon its exports; but so does the industry of this country. We exported in 1913—I take a normal year—very nearly 74,000,000 tons of coal. That does not include bunker coal, which would add another 23,000,000 or 24,000,000 tons. That is an important element, because it enters into the price of everything—raw material, food and general business with foreign countries. Now it is proposed to put it up another 8s. or 10s. Let the House consider for a moment how serious that is. America is a very serious competitor of ours in this respect, and the export trade of coal is more important for us than it is for America. Coal fetches food; coal pays for food; coal pays the outgoing charges of a ship which comes back with food. What is the result? Half of the freights are paid by coal. If we destroy that export trade in coal, food goes up, inevitably. You have got to send your ships in ballast to fetch it. Raw material goes up. I know of nothing more dangerous to a country like this which must, whatever you do, depend for its raw material and largely for its food upon foreign lands.
At the beginning of the War, I am told, the cost of coal at the pit's mouth in America was pretty much the same as ours. There was not very much difference. At the present moment the cost of Pocahontas coal is a little over two and a half dollars—about 11s. I think. The cost of coal in this country at the pit's mouth now is given to me from one source as 18s. It was then—1913—about 11s. It is now about 18s. as against American 11s. The figure given me from another source is 18s. 11d. It does not matter very much whether it is 18s. or 18s. 11d. There is a difference of 7s. It is proposed now to add another 8s. to 10s. to that 18s. Some say more, but, at any rate, let me put the figures as they were presented to me officially. These are the figures supplied to me officially. That means that the cost at the pit's mouth, if these concessions be made, will be something like 26s. a ton, as against the American Pocahontas coal at 12s. at the outside. What is going to be the result? Those who know the South Wales coalfield know what has happened already. We have lost huge orders in Brazil, where we practically dominated the market before the War. We are losing in the Argentine. That is very important. We used to send coal ships to the Argentine, and come back with wheat and meat. We have lost that trade. Can anyone, then, in reason complain that before the Government made a concession of this kind they should say, at any rate, "Let us examine the thing carefully"?
We have come to a very serious turning-point in our trade. What does it profit a miner if this happen? Scores of thousands, hundreds of thousands, will be thrown out in the blast furnaces, in engineering, in machinery, in building, in all the export trades of this country, and we depend more on export than any other country in the world. That comes home to the miner. The demand for coal will go down, and he will lose immediately by the loss in the export of coal from the coalfield.
There are two objects for this demand. There are not merely two, but there are two. The first is to meet the increased cost of living; the other is to prevent unemployment by having more work. Let me point out, if these figures be correct, so far from improving these two conditions, it will aggravate both. It will increase the cost of food by forcing ships to fetch your food in ballast, and it will increase unemployment by destroying your export trade, unless these figures can be shaken, and we are quite willing that every opportunity shall be given, and no one will be more delighted than my colleagues and myself if it were possible to show that these figures are inaccurate. That is why we have hesitated to make this concession without the closest inquiry, not merely into the justice of the demand, but into its effect on all other trades and industries of the kingdom, because the Government is not the trustees for one class, but the trustee for all classes, not merely for one section of workmen, but for all workmen in the United Kingdom.
What is the miners' answer? I am going to put it quite fairly. I had the privilege the other day of meeting the Miners' Federation, when their case was very temperately and very ably stated by Mr. Smillie, their leader, and I have also read, as far as I could, every statement which has been made on behalf of the miners in every paper in the kingdom, and in so far as I can see—I will just summarise the answers—they state, first of all, that it is not true to say that other industries will be damaged by this increased cost, and that these figures are inaccurate. I have not seen the ground on which these figures are challenged, but you cannot allow one industry to be the judge in a case affecting all other industries without any inquiry at all. I know hon. Members sitting opposite to me represent organised labour, very nearly half of them are miners' representatives, and I should like to ask those who represent iron and steel whether they are equally confident that their business is not going to be damaged by the miners' demands?
That is not an answer to my question. I can understand that spirit of comradeship, but at the same time I should like to ask, on their responsibility—those who are acquainted with the business—whether they are quite confident that the figures I have given are not correct about the effect on the iron and steel trade? [An Hon. Member: "Ten per cent. would not affect it very much."] I hope the hon. Member is correct, but, if he be, he can state that fact before a court of inquiry, and no doubt that will be evidence in support of the miners' claim. The other answer is this. They say: Even if it were correct, that is no answer to a legitimate claim for improving the standard of living among the miners. Well, it is, up to a point, If the miners were paid starvation wages it would be no answer. [Interruption.] I am coming to that—I am dividing the two. First of all, there is the case of sweating, where a man is paid something which would not enable him to keep body and soul together with his family. No one puts that case for the miners. If it were a case of the sweated wage, I agree it is no answer, but that is not the case which is made. The coal getters, I find, receive an average of 81s. a week—that is on five days' work. I think it was Mr. Smillie who said that the average for all those who were working would be a little over £3 5s. a week. I do not say that is adequate for the dangerous character of the work. That is not my case. All I say is that when you are improving the standard, when the wage is not a sweated one, when it is not a starvation wage, and when you are seeking merely to reach an ideal we all hope to attain, it ought to be done in such a way as not to precipitate disaster upon other industries. Other industries ought to have, at any rate, time to adjust themselves to a demand of that character.
The third point made by the miners is that the mines could afford this extra burden, provided certain measures were taken to save waste. They say that the mining industry in this country is so organised that there is an appalling waste. I am not challenging that in the least, but I say it is a matter for very careful inquiry after hearing evidence. I have no doubt improvements could be effected. Whether they could be effected to the extent of wiping out 8s. or 10s. a tonI doubt. But let us find out. If it is, that is a complete answer. There is nothing worse, in my judgment, than quoting balance sheets of very prosperous collieries as if they represented the whole of the coal trade. That is done rather too frequently. You may pick out a colliery where the profits are very considerable. I know collieries of that kind in Wales—they are very exceptional—but I also know collieries which have not paid, and where the colliery proprietor only went on working, at any rate before the War, because he had to pay a dead-weight charge. There are others where the profit is practically insignificant. If you take all the profits of the collieries throughout the United Kingdom—I think it is right this should be known—for the five years before the War, they come to exactly 1s. per ton. The royalties come to 6d. per ton. If you wipe the whole of that out, you do not cover 8s. to 10s. per ton. So it is no use branding profiteering as if it explained everything, and as if you got the extra 8s. or 10s. per ton out of the colossal profits that some were making. I think it right that that should be known.
I now come to the question of the reorganisation of the mines. I think the mine owners themselves admit that some savings could be effected if there were a more complete organisation of the whole of the mining industry. That is worth looking into, but there is no man here who can get up and say that he has investigated the matter, having had all the facts and figures in his possession, and has come to the conclusion that so many shillings per ton could be saved. It is a question which has to be gone into with that closeness and with that information which this Commission may have placed at its disposal. It is worth looking into. It is a matter of vital moment to our industries that there should be savings, and I think the industries of this country would be all the better for having facts of that kind looked into by able men, competent to examine the facts impartially, who will have the power to command the presentation to them of all the relevant facts. I am not for the moment saying that there might not be a great deal of saving, but I should be very doubtful if you could save 8s. to 10s. per ton, or anything approaching it.
I was very much struck in that statement made by Mr. Smillie, and I think by others, by another question which seemed to be affecting the miners' minds, and I was not surprised that it should affect their minds—that is, the general social conditions under which the miners live and carry on their business. There is a very bitter feeling about the housing question. I am not in the least surprised. I know something of the housing conditions in some of the coalfields. I hope they are better in those I do not know. If they be not, I can understand the sense of indignation that has been aroused. I go beyond that—I can understand even the spirit of unreason that is provoked by constantly living in these appalling, and I would even say, degrading conditions. Those conditions will be examined, among others, by this Commission, and evidence can be brought before it to deal with mutters of that kind.
For that reason we propose to set up a Statutory Commission. A Royal Commission would not answer the purpose. A Royal Commission would not have the necessary powers to command the attendance of witnesses, to compel them to give evidence, or to force them to produce all the documents which are relevant to the inquiry. For that reason we have decided to have a Statutory Commission with the authority of Parliament behind it. The terms of reference will cover
"Wages and hours of work."
That will cover inequalities between grades, because that is important. They will cover
"The cost of production and distribution of coal, and the general organisation of the coalfield and the industry as a whole."
That will cover questions like joint control. I see that the coal owners have gone very far in their reply towards meeting that demand, but whether they have gone far enough it is not for me to express an opinion. It is no use setting up a Commission and then pre-judging it by expressing opinions on subjects of that kind. They can inquire into the question of nationalisation, as to whether that would produce economy in the coalfields, or whether it would produce even greater waste. All these questions can be examined and ought to be examined—
"Selling prices and profits in the coal industry."
So that the whole question of profiteering may be examined—
"The social conditions under which colliery workers carry on their industry."
That would cover housing.
Any scheme that may be submitted to or formulated by the Commissioners for the future organisation of the coal industry, whether on the present basis, or on the basis of joint control, nationalisation, or any other basis.
The effect of mining royalties and way leaves upon the industry.
The effect of proposals under the above heads upon the development of the coal industry and the economic life of the country.
There are full powers to see what the effect of this will be upon other trades and upon other industries. We then seek in the measure the fullest powers, as I have already indicated, to enforce the attendance of witnesses, examine them on oath, affirmation, or otherwise, and to compel the production of documents. There will be the same power vested in this Commission to compel the production of relevant documents as now vests in a Court of Justice. There will be full publicity. There will be power vested in the Commissioners in special cases, where they think it is fair that the evidence should be given without the presence of the public, to decide that for themselves. But the rule will be publicity, because it is
of the fullest importance that all the facts in connection with the coal industry should be made public so that the miners and Parliament and the public should know all about it. I think that will avoid disputes instead of creating them. That covers a wide field.
The miners may say: "Are we to wait until the whole of these very important matters"—which, by the way, are covered by their demands—"are investigated before we get an increase in our wages or a reduction in our hours of labour?" An instruction is to be given by the Government that the Commission shall report on wages and hours of labour by the 31st March. I ask anyone who is acquainted with all the difficulties—the accounts that will have to be examined, the evidence that must be taken with regard to the effect upon other industries—whether it is unreasonable to give to the 31st March for this Commission to examine, a matter which will affect every trade and industry in the whole of the United Kingdom? The miners insist upon the reply being given by the 15th March—that is sixteen days. I cannot, believe, when they find that the Commission is a bonâ fide one, that it is conducting a searching examination into the whole of the facts with a desire to do justice between them and the rest of the community, that they will throw the whole of the industries of this country into confusion and disaster for the sake of sixteen days.
Let me point out what these sixteen days mean. Sixteen days' strike under present conditions would see the majority of the industries of this country closed down, and the Government would have to feed the community with such fuel as was at its disposal. If there were distress, it would fall upon every branch of the community. It would not be a question whether you could pay. The food would be entirely in the hands of the Government, and they would have to distribute it. The miners would have to depend, like every other branch of the community, upon such food as we should be able to distribute with the exhausted fuel resources at our disposal. I cannot believe that these disasters would be brought upon the community for sixteen days, which would have been spent in an honest inquiry directed by Parliament to the wages and hours of labour of the miners.
With regard to the composition of the Commission, I hope the House of Commons will enable us to proceed, at any rate, to the appointment of the Chairman. We cannot even do that until we have got this Bill through. The composition of the Commission we shall not be in a positon to give the House, for a very obvious reason. The miners have summoned a conference for Wednesday to decide whether they shall take part in the Commission or not. Obviously the composition of the Commission will be a different one according to whether they are members or whether they are not. For instance, if the miners be on, the mine owners ought to be on. If the miners be not on, I do not think the mine owners ought to be on. There ought to be men of other industries and men of other professions sitting in judgment, and the mine owners and the miners giving evidence. I am expressing no opinion at all, I am not even giving my view as to what is desirable in that respect, but at any rate we cannot determine the composition of the Commission until we know what is the view of the miners upon that most important point. We made an offer to them. If they desire to go on, we are prepared to put them on, in which case we should also put on the mine owners. If they come to the conclusion that they would rather not be members of the Commission, we must have a Commission of a different character. But that does not prevent our making up our mind as to the Chairman. We have come to the conclusion that it is desirable here to appoint a judge, and we have chosen for this purpose not merely one of the ablest judges on the Bench, but one who has special qualifications in this respect, because he has been practising in one of the most important coalfields, has seen a good deal of local miners and mine owners during that period, and knows more about them than probably any other judge on the Bench. I mean Mr. Justice Sankey. He has consented to take the Chair.
Although we cannot complete the Commission until after Wednesday, no time will be lost the moment the chairman is appointed, and the Bill is through. He can then take steps to notify Government Departments as to the kind of information which he desires. When the composition is complete, as time is so pressing, it is important that the Chairman should get to work at once with his secretary, and give notice all round as to what informa- tion he wants preparing by all those whose business it will be to enlighten the Commission upon the various branches of this Inquiry. I therefore strongly urge the House to let us have the Bill to-day if they possibly can. It is drafted in the form in which all Statutory Commissions have been prepared. We have had a good many precedents, and have proceeded upon them.
If the miners—and I feel certain they will—act in a spirit of toleration towards other industries which are so vitally affected, of consideration for the special difficulties of this country, with its gigantic burden—a country for which hundreds of thousands of their men fought so valiantly and so well—they will find that as the result of this Inquiry, in my judgment, they will get a Miners' Charter which will be the beginning of greater and better things for them, and if they do so, and throw themselves into this Inquiry and present their case—in some respects, as I know, irresistible, in others requiring undoubtedly some greater proof than I have seen up to the present, but I am not prejudiced—they will achieve great things for their industry and for the men whom they so ably lead, and will have the satisfaction, when they have got these things, of knowing that they have obtained them without inflicting any hurt upon hundreds of thousands of other men and women engaged in honest toil like themselves.
I am sure the House will appreciate the very interesting statement which we have just had from the Prime Minister, and I think there would be no difficulty in him getting facilities for proceeding with the Bill. At the same time, the issue raised in it is of such an important character that I hope he will not seek to rush it through the House in the time that he has stated. It will be the only opportunity that the miners will have for putting their case fully before the public, and I therefore strongly urge upon him the advisability of giving us adequate time for discussing this matter in all its bearings. He has already stated that it will not be known until Wednesday or Thursday whether the miners themselves are agreeable to take part in this very important inquiry, and, therefore, there is no hurry for proceeding with the Bill. I am pleased to observe that the Prime Minister is taking such a keen per- sonal interest in the subject. I hope he will be able to continue to keep in close personal touch with the dispute until some satisfactory solution is found. The issue involved are of such a serious character to the nation and to the other nations dependent upon us for their coal supply that not a single opportunity should be lost of examining every avenue which may lead to a satisfactory solution of the dispute which is pending. I was also pleased to observe that at the Conference last week the Prime Minister fully recognised the responsibility of the Government for finding a just and equitable settlement of the points at issue. He recognised that the Government was as fully responsible for securing a just and a lasting settlement as were the miners themselves. In my opinion, if the spirit which animated both the Prime Minister and the President of the Miners' Federation on the occasion to which I refer is maintained, we are not so barren of statesmanship as to prevent the finding of a solution to this dispute which will avert the disaster involved in a fight between the State and the workmen engaged in one of the most vital and most strongly organised industries in the country. Already we are dangerously near a conflict. The fact that the minors have voted by a majority almost amounting to five to one in favour of a strike shows how near the country is to disaster. The total figures for the ballot, which have just come to hand, are, in favour of a strike 611,998, against 104,997—a majority in favour of a strike of 507,001.
No; not consolation. I only pointed out the very significant fact that in the one coalfield which depends very largely upon export you had a substantial minority.
In the words of his correction, the Prime Minister noted the interesting fact that there was a larger minority in the Welsh coalfield than in any other part of the Federation area. I am not in a position to say whether that is correct or otherwise, but the minority all told is not a large one. Further, the South Wales coalfield is not the only part of the Federation area where there is a large export trade. In my own district in normal times at least 70 per cent. of the total output is sea borne. Up to the present I do not think the Government has done all it could to meet the miners' demands. Apart altogether from certain phases of the question which may require a Commission of the character that the Prime Minister is providing for, I think there are certain points in the dispute with which the Government has sufficient data at its disposal now to deal effectively. For example, I think the Government has sufficient data for dealing with the question of wages and hours. I would strongly urge upon the Prime Minister the desirability of dealing with these two claims now. I have no intention of going very fully into these matters at this stage. Others will follow who will deal with them at greater length; but I would like to point out in a few words that so far as the question of wages is concerned, I think that the justice of the miners' claim is so obvious that the Government does not require to set up a Commission of Inquiry to enable them to deal with the matter. As a matter of fact, the Prime Minister in the course of his speech at the Conference last Thursday, pointed out that if the miners' figures were correct their claim would be conceded in full. I think I am using the exact words.
I will read the full sentence:—
If it is demonstrated that our figures are incorrect and your figures are right that will be conceded in the full.
I think that before this discussion finishes there may be sufficient information placed before the Prime Minister, if he has not already sufficient, to enable him to make up his mind on the question of wages and hours. In dealing briefly with the question of wages, I look at it from the Scottish standpoint. Naturally I am better acquainted with the position there than in other parts of the British coalfields. Our case is as follows: The pre-war wage of the Scottish miner was 7s. per day. Our wages immediately prior to the War in 1914 were 7s. per day. Since then we have received in advances of one kind or another 85 per cent. increases in our wages. The cost of living during the same period has risen by 120 per cent. An hon.
Friend of mine says it has risen more, but that is the figure given in the Government return as the increased cost up to 1st February. It may be that there is a later figure than the one I am quoting, but 120 per cent. is the latest figure in the Board of Trade returns up to the 1st February. That leaves the Scottish miner deficient in wages as compared with the increased cost of living to no less an extent than 35 per cent. That is not the only way in which he is affected. The increased cost of 120 per cent. on the pre-war cost of living does not take into account the fact that it is not for things that he was accustomed to secure; it is not for items that entered into his standard of living prior to the War. He cannot get them now. He has to take substitutes in quite a number of cases. These substitutes do not provide the same amount of nourishment in order to build him up for the arduous toil that he is engaged in. Consequently, if one could assess the entire increase in his cost of living, it would amount to a larger figure than 120 per cent.
The next point in connection with the claim for increased wages is that the miners, like other sections of the working classes of this country, are not going to remain content for all time with their pre-war standard of living. The Prime Minister, in one of his election speeches, pointed out that all sections of the people of this country would require to recognise the claims of the workers to a higher standard of living in the future than obtained prior to the War. The miner thinks that he is entitled to share in the higher standard of living. The Prime Minister, in the course of his speech this afternoon, seemed to indicate that that would depend on how this claim for increased wages would affect other trades. I want to put it to the Prime Minister, and I would remind him that it was put to him on Thursday, that that is a very serious proposition which he makes to the miners. The miner could understand that proposition if you applied the same logic to every other section of the community, but he cannot understand it when the Prime Minister and the Government do not apply the same standard of measurement to other sections of the community. He was telling us that we suffered very badly by comparison with America so far as the increase in coal prices was concerned. I think the figure that he gave was 18s. a ton for us and 11s. a ton for America. Will the Prime Minister inform us if the supplies that are necessary to carry on the coal industry, both in Britain and America, have gone up to the same extent in the two countries? Can he inform us whether wood, which is an important part of the supplies used in the coal-mining industry, the price of which has gone up 300 to 400 per cent. in this country, has gone up to the same extent in America? I am only giving that as an example. There are many other sections of the people of this country who have had no restrictions put upon the amount of money that they have been able to earn in the course of the last four years, and the miner will have something to say to the Prime Minister, the Government, and the country, if he is to be asked to undergo hardships and to accept a lower standard of living that he is entitled to, while at the same time the Prime Minister and the Government give free scope to other sections of the community to increase their earnings at their sweet will.
Yes. The average wage is over the standard wage of the miner. Let me point out that there are a large number of our mine workers who were not earning 7s. a day prior to the War, and there is a large number of them to-day who have less than the recognised standard wage, just as there were pre-war. I have some little knowledge of the Scottish coal trade, for I have spent my life in it, and I can assure the Prime Minister that there are a large number of workers in the country who before the War had lower wages than the standard of 7s. and who now have much lower wages than the present standard by which we measure the Scottish miners' wage. I will deal briefly with the miners' claim for shorter hours. The Prime Minister, in introducing this Bill, stated that the miner had an eight-hours working day, or words to that effect. It is generally supposed that the miner has an eight-hours working day. That is the impression that is abroad in every part of the country. I want to explain that while he may only do eight hours at the coal face or at the particular work that he is employed on underground, the miner spends on an average nine hours a day in the pit. Only eight hours elapse between the last man going down in the morning and the first man coming up in the afternoon, but that means that the average time that the miner is in the pit is at least nine hours a day, because on the average half an hour is spent in getting from the shaft to where he is employed and the same time is spent returning in the afternoon. In many cases it is harder work for the men when travelling to and from their work than it is at the coal face, arduous as their work is there. The Government itself has already, without inquiry, recognised an eight-hours day. Some employers of labour in this country have already, without inquiry, recognised loss than aneight-hours day. A forty-four hours week has been recognised by certain employers in this country. A miner is nine hours in the pit each day. Is he the only one who is to be refused the shorter working day without inquiry? Is he the only one who is to be told that before he can be granted a shorter working day we will have to see how that will affect the other sections of our industrial system? Are the Government to apply that principle to the miner who is working possibly under more adverse conditions than any other section of the workers of this country? The miner is working away from sunlight and fresh air. He is working in a vitiated atmosphere, which all the time is having a very bad effect on his health. He is working at a calling where the toll in death and in accident is possibly heavier than in any other part of our industrial system. In these conditions, I ask the Prime Minister again, is the miner the only man to whom the Government is going to say, "No; you cannot have higher wages or shorter hours until we have a Commission set up and full inquiry made"?
I hope that between now and Wednesday the Prime Minister and the Government will see their way to come to a satisfactory settlement with the miners as to wages and hours before that meeting takes place. I would also ask the Prime Minister to agree at least to the principle of nationalisation. I am not doing that in the interests of the miner alone. I am doing it in the interest of the whole of the people of this country. We have reached a time when, in the opinion of very many people outside the mining industries, such an important industry as coal mining cannot remain longer in private hands. We have reached a time when we cannot afford to have an industry so vital to the industrial system of this country subject longer to the higgle of the market, subject to the innumerable disputes that arise between employers and employés. I urge the Prime Minister to agree to the principle of nationalising the mine, leaving it to the Commission, which he proposes in that Bill to set up, to go into all the necessary inquiries that are bound to take place prior to such a big deal as that being made. I hope that the Prime Minister will give us the fullest opportunity of putting our case here. It is the only one we will have of putting our wishes fully before the public, and I do not think, if we get that opportunity, that we need shirk the issue. I think that our people can put forward such a strong case as will justify the claim that is being made by the miner, and I hope that the Prime Minister will give us the fullest opportunity of discussing it.
Sir J. WALTON:
I have the honour to have represented in this House over 20,000 coal miners for more than twenty-one years. They did me the honour of giving me in last December an unopposed return. Therefore, anything that touches their just interests I am prepared strongly to advocate on their behalf. I happen also to be interested in the distribution of coal, and to a small extent as a coal-owner. Therefore I am able, I claim, to look all round at the serious question under the consideration of the House. Before proceeding, may I be allowed to say with what deep regret I saw in this morning's paper the announcement of the death of Sir Guy Calthrop, the Coal Controller. I have often criticised his proposals and his administration, but I had the fullest respect for him personally, and I always received the most courteous and straightforward treatment at his hands. I deplore that we shall not have the advantage of having his services in connection with the Commission which will be appointed to examine the critical position in which we stand in regard to the coal trade.
I welcome the proposal of the Government to set up a Statutory Commission as a most fair and reasonable one and one necessary to secure that searching, straightforward, above-board, and exhaustive examination of every aspect of the question which is necessary to ensure a settlement that would be just to the employers, just to the coal minors, and just to the country and the nation as a whole. I know from personal knowledge for the last more than fifty years of my association with the coal trade how arduous and dangerous a calling that is, and there is no one who knows anything of the conditions, especially in some of the pits, where thin seams are being worked and in pits that are wet, in which the coal-miner has to work, who will not advocate the shortest hours and the best wages that can be given consistently with the fair and the just interests of other sections of the community.
Perhaps I may be permitted to point out the enormous variation in the working cost of different collieries. At certain collieries, new collieries with thick seams, with a good roof and wording comparatively near the drawing shaft, an increase in cost might well be borne. But there is a large number of other collieries with seams of coal under 2 ft. thick in which the working places, by reason of most of these collieries being old collieries, are very distant from the drawing shaft, so that if the result of granting the demands of the coal miners were anything like what has been foreshadowed, these collieries will have to cease working. Indeed, to my mind, conditions of working vary so very greatly in different pits that the question of a variation in some way of working hours might well be considered. I advocated, during the passage into law of the Mines Eight Hours Bill, that the eight hours should include the time occupied in winding; but in the House of Lords that unfortunately was altered, and I should say, whatever else is done, that, as a step in the right direction, the first thing to be done is to make the Mines Eight Hours Act a really eight hours bank-to-bank Act, including the time occupied in winding. I do not say that it should stop there, but that was what I advocated at the time the Bill was passed, and I advocate it now before any inquiry is made.
The price of coal is a vital national question. Under State control the price of coal has been advanced 10s. 6d.per ton over the pre-war price. In my judgment, if the Coal Control Bill had not been passed—and it will be within the recollection of the House how strongly that Bill was opposed by myself and other hon. Mem- bers—and we had continued working under the Coal Prices Limitation Act, the rise in prices would not have been so great. At any rate, I can claim this. I said that I was to a small extent a coal owner. I am not here speaking in my personal financial interest as a coal-owner, and I could not be doing so on this occasion, because the Government not only take 80 per cent. of any excess profits as Excess Profits Duty, but they also make a special levy of 15 per cent.—that is, 95 cent. in all—to go to the Finance Department of the Coal Control.
Sir J. WALTON:
Yes, but the great majority of coal miners reap no benefit by the levy of 15 per cent. Only a small minority of costly poor collieries do get a grant. I submit that it is vitally necessary, if we are to secure a rapid economic recovery in this country after the War, that the output of coal should be increased largely, and that the sale of it should be arranged at a sufficiently low price, not only to restore our home industries but also to enable us to regain and increase our exports of coal the world over. America and Japan and other coal producing countries are making it very difficult for us to regain the markets we had before the War, but it is so essential to us, as the Prime Minister has said, that we should export coal to the Argentine and in other directions, and bring back wheat or other food supplies to this country. There is no question that this is vital. It is vital I know in South Wales and Northumberland, and even to the district to which my right hon. Friend (Mr. Adamson) the Member for Fife has referred. The export trade in coal is really a most vital factor in the future economic prosperity of this country. There is also the question as to what the cost of coal will be after the concessions are made to the coal-miners and how that will affect the home industries. These are matters which deserve and need searching inquiry by the Statutory Commission to be set up.
To show the effect of what has been done by Governmental control and rises in wages so far let me instance the case of London gas works. I have returns here from two great London gas companies from which I find that they bought in 1913 gas coal at 11s. 8d. per ton, and they are paying now 22s. 9d. The cost of freight from Newcastle to London at the beginning of 1914 was 3s. per ton, and to-day it is from 15s. to 17s. per ton with the difference also that the shipowner does not bear the cost of unloading. There are millions of tons sent to London for gas making purposes, and whereas coal costs 14s. 8d. c.i.f. in London before the War it now costs 39s. 9d. per ton. The effect of that on the inhabitants of London is that the price of gas in the case of one company has been raised from 2s. 6d. to 4s. 4d. per thousand cubic feet and in the case of another big company from 2s. 2d. to 4s. 4d. I think that the effect of further rises in the price of coal as affecting gas works like those in London and on the whole community must be included and taken into consideration in any inquiry. Personally I believe that there is an alternative which ought not to be lost sight of by this Statutory Commission. We have not the terms of reference clearly before us, but I sincerely hope that those terms will allow the Commission to consider this alternative, and that is as to further rises in wages or too much further rises in wages in every trade in the country increasing the cost of production. A determined effort should be made to reduce the price of food and the general cost of living so as to increase the purchasing power of money and render further advances in wages unnecessary. It is all very well for working men to receive double the wages they did before the War, but they are no better off when the cost of living is so enormously high, and I believe many were better off in pre-war days than they are to-day in spite of the large rise in wages that has been secured. Therefore, I say that, alternatively, if we are to keep down the cost of coal to a reasonable and moderate figure, and the cost of producing all the finished and manufactured goods that we wish to export all over the world, then the one essential thing to be done is to reduce the cost of living. Then the working men would be better off with their wages and their hours and you would effect a recovery of the country by increased prosperity, increased production, and by exporting all over the world. Personally, I am hopeful that a solution of the serious situation with which we are confronted will be found I cannot forget that many of the miners' leaders have advocated the settlement of international disputes by conciliation and not by dictation. Let this principle of conciliation be applied by them in this case. Personally, I am extremely hopeful that the coal-miners of the country will at any rate see the wisdom of waiting a fortnight longer in order to have the Report of the Statutory Commission before plunging the country into the grave disaster involved in the stoppage of all industries. That, indeed, would be a serious disaster. Let us have the pride at this crisis as Britishers of showing to the whole world how we can bring into play those principles of conciliation, yes, and of good judgment and common sense, as an example and for the guidance of all the other nations of the world where to-day there is so much chaos and revolution.
I think the Prime Minister when introducing this Bill suggested that one of its objects, at any rate, was to avoid or prevent civil strife in this country. I am sure that with that object we should all be in full sympathy and agreement. But I want to suggest that certain matters should be deleted from the terms of reference, because I do not think by referring these matters for inquiry that the Bill will accomplish the object with which the Prime Minister stated the Bill has been introduced. I refer to the questions of the miners' demands for hours and wages. The Bill, I understand, provides that the Commission shall report upon those two items by the 31stMarch. We have been told by the leader of the Labour party that the miners have decided by half a million of majority that if there is no settlement by the 15th March a strike will take place throughout the nation. The Prime Minister has been suggesting that it is not too much to ask the miners to defer their decision, having regard to all that is involved, for a further sixteen days, and I agree that there is not very much in sixteen days, one way or the other. But what we have to bear in mind is this very important fact: that this movement of the miners has now reached the stage when it is very uncertain whether it is possible to defer this matter for a further sixteen days, or even for one day. I do not think there is any subject upon which so much nonsense has been talked and written as on the question of labour unrest and the labour movement. Anybody might judge, from reading Press comments and listening to conversations, that the Miners' Federation of Great Britain is a one-man business, and if Robert Smillie were taken out and put up against a wall and shot, that all the ills with which we are at present afflicted would disappear. That seems to be the general sort of impression and I am afraid that too many people, in dealing with this, problem, conclude that it is with Robert Smillie and his colleagues on the executive and a few other individuals we have to deal, where, as a matter of fact, this movement of the miners present programme did not emanate either from the mind of Mr. Smillie or from the executive committee. It sprang direct from the miners in their own lodge meetings at the collieries.
I should like to be perfectly clear on this point. I understand that the miners were asked to take a popular ballot upon whether they should or should not accept the Government terms, but is it the fact or is it not the fact that there was no popular vote of the miners taken instructing the conference to make those demands upon the Government?
I will explain exactly what was done in the matter, and I think I shall satisfy the hon. Member when I have made my explanation. I was pointing out that this is not a one-man business, and that the programme sprang from the miners themselves in their lodge meetings. I would like further to make clear to the House that in all these big movements—
I hope the hon. Member will bear in mind that this is my first experience as a speaker in the House. [An Hon. Member: "Let him go back to the miners in Wales and talk to them; go back to Glamorgan."] I stated that this movement has emanated from the miners. I would like the House to appreciate this fact that long before the public knew anything at all about a movement. of this kind it had been afoot for months. The Miners' Federation of Great Britain is a big powerful machine, and it is not easy to move. If a miner in any part of the country wants to use his Federation he has an enormous amount of work to do. The present movement originated in this way. One of the coalfields, feeling the pressure of increasing prices, urged the executive to call a conference to discuss the matter. The miners had, first of all, to go to their lodge meetings, and then they had to go to a coalfield conference in their own district. The coalfield had to send a resolution to the national executive, and when the national executive received the application, realising that this was only a demand from one coalfield, they did not feel under obligation to convene a conference to get that matter discussed. That started last September, but by October and November that movement had spread throughout every coalfield in Britain, and demands were coming in for an advance in wages from every coalfield throughout the Kingdom. By December we were not only getting demands but we were getting censures from all the coalfields because the executive were not putting this matter forward. We called a conference in December. That conference authorised the executive to put in an application for an advance in wages. In the meantime the executive had been endeavouring to get reliable data to move upon. We had gone to the Coal Controller and asked him to supply us with that information which we knew was in his possession, so that we might defend and justify any demands we might make. He told us, after consulting the Law Officers of the Crown, that although the information was there, it could not be supplied to us. I put down a question in this House, asking the Chancellor of the Exchequer what the profits of the colliery owners were since 1911–12. These figures have been published for the last twenty or more years, why have they not been published during the War? I was told they had not been tabulated, and that is the reply I got. At the Coal Control we were told they had got the information there, but that it could not be supplied. As a matter of fact, we have done everything we can to get official information in order to test our demand by it, and we have been met with a refusal on the part of the Government or Government Departments whenever we have moved.
Now I am saying this, that having put the demands forward in conference, having discussed them and determined the programme, we were not content with merely sending them back to the lodges or to coalfield conferences, but we submitted them to an individual ballot vote of the members. The rules say that unless two out of every three are in favour of striking, a strike of a national character shall not take place. This ballot has shown that six out of every seven of the men who have participated in the ballot are in favour of a strike. While it is quite possible for a movement of this kind to be controlled in its early stages, the conference which will be meeting this week to discuss the matter will be up against this very salient fact. They will say they have carried the movement now to its final stage and that the miners have balloted and have given their decision. Neither the executive nor a conference can overrule and override the decision of a ballot vote, and whatever we may advocate or recommend in that conference, there will be any number of delegates prepared to rise and declare that we have no right under our constitution to defer the action which has been determined by ballot vote. If that is the position in which we find ourselves on Wednesday, I ask whether we shall accomplish the purpose suggested by the Prime Minister of preventing civil strife by having the miners of this Kingdom out for a fortnight before we shall get the interim Report on those two subjects? It is because I realise, and the Federation realise, the real serious possibility of that situation being developed that we are anxious for the Government to delete those two items from the terms of reference, not because we shirk an inquiry, not because we are not prepared to have our demands thoroughly inestigated, but because we know the Government can institute that inquiry themselves in the meantime, apart altogether from this Bill, and can get adequate information which is in their possession or which is available to them, if they will only undertake an inquiry of their own, long before 31st March. The Prime Minister said that the wage for a miner was 81s. per week for five days. I do not know where he got his information from. What are the Government going to inquire into on the question of wages and hours? It will not be sufficient for them to prove that the miners do not require 30 per cent. in order to make good the increase in the cost of living. It will not be sufficient for them to prove that the present price of coal does not justify an increase of 30 per cent. The miners are putting forward their demands on the plea that they are entitled to a higher standard of living than they at present enjoy, and what we have to consider is this: Can the miners defend their claim on that ground? Have they at present a standard of existence with which they ought to be satisfied? Can they put forward justifiably a claim for a higher standard of living, and, if so, is that higher standard of living one beyond what they ought to have conceded to them?
The Prime Minister stated that a miner's wage was 81s. for five days. I have read, as most hon. Members present have read, all sorts of fairy tales about the miners' wages, and occasionally we get a figure stated without any information as to where it comes from or what relation it bears to the general wage system of the mines. Fortunately, we are in a position to give some reliable data as to the wages which represent the standard of living among the miners in the Welsh coalfields, and we can obtain and tabulate the same information for every other coalfield in Britain. In 1912 a Minimum Wage Bill was passed, one of the provisions of which required the independent chairman set up to fix minimum wages having regard to the average daily wages of the men employed in each grade. Under the provisions of that Act we got in South Wales the daily wages of nearly every man employed in the Welsh coalfield. We had the individual daily wages of 69,000 day-wage men over twenty-one years of age. We had the individual daily wages or earnings of over 63,000 piece-work colliers. We had the individual earnings of 28,000 persons under twenty-one years of age. Between 1912, when those figures were given, and the outbreak of war all that took place was that six and two-thirds per cent. was added to the wages prevailing. I have tabulated the actual information supplied to me. They are not figures manufactured by us, but figures taken from the books of the colliery owners and submitted by them to the independent chairman as the basis upon which he was to fix minimum rates. These are the average wages of the men based on five days a week. Of the day-wage men, 21,693 had an average wage of 26s. 8d. or less; 11,300 had an average wage of 29s. 6d.; 22,717 had an average wage of 31s. 10d. That accounted for more than 80per cent. of the men. Less than 20 per cent. of the men were getting more than 32s. a week, and less than 2 per cent. were getting more than £2 a week, and among those 69,000 day-wage men are some of the most skilful workers who are to be found in any industry in this country. I said that we had between 21,000 and 22,000 men with wages at 26s. 8d. or less on the basis of five days a week, but the Welsh coalfield is only one-fifth of the mining industry, and there are even lower wages in other coalfields than we have in South Wales, and it is not too much to say that at the outbreak of war we had in the mining industry at least 100,000 men over twenty-one years of age whose wages varied from £1 to 27s. a week. We come now to the colliers. These are the millionaires of our industry these are the men who get such fabulously high wages. On the same basis again of five days a week 21,792 colliers averaged £1 16s. 8d., 10,518 averaged 39s. 3d.; that is, more than 50 per cent. of your skilled piecework colliers under £2 a week on the basis of five days a week. Twelve thousand eight hundred and eighty-six averaged £2 5s. 5d.; 10,972 averaged £2 12s. 10d.; and 6,353, or 10 per cent., got an average of £3 7s. We have now covered nearly 99 per cent. of the men, and there were less than 1½ per cent. of the men who got £1 a day in the industry. As a matter of fact, according to the coal-owners' own showing 154 men out of 63,000 were all the men who got that wage.
Now the question is, have we maintained that standard of living, or have we increased it, or have we not kept it up to scratch? It is rather difficult to say what has been obtained in the mining industry in the shape of percentage, because we have had advances on two bases, first, on a percentage basis, and second, we have had a sort of flat-rate advance. The flat-rate advance means a different percentage for every different grade. For instance, 3s. paid to a boy with a wage of 3s. means 100 per cent advance, 3s. paid to a man with 5s. a day means 60 per cent. advance, and 3s. paid to a man with a wage of 10s. a day means 30 per cent. advance, so that the amount of percentage advance that has been obtained varies in accordance with the varying rates paid to the workers. But if we take the miner's rate, and his minimum rate at that, we find this, that in South Wales the colliers have had 87 per cent advance, the Durham coalfields 78 per cent., York 68 per cent., Scotland 85 per cent., Lancashire and Cheshire 68 per cent., the Midland Federation 70 per cent,, Northumberland 85 per cent., Derbyshire 68 per cent., Nottingham 68 per cent., North Wales 74 per cent., Cleveland 105 per cent., Cumberland 97 per cent., Leicestershire 70 per cent., South Derby 74 per cent., Somerset 113 per cent., Forest of Dean 88 per cent., Bristol 113 per cent., and Kent 66 per cent., and the average of all the coalfields runs into the region of about 80 per cent. Now, none of the skilled colliers have had more than that for their respective coalfields, and only those who were on the minimum at the outbreak of war and on the minimum still have received as much. Every miner getting a higher wage has received a less percentage advance. On the other hand, some of them who were low paid wage-men averaged somewhat more than that. But, on the whole, taken in the mass, our men have not maintained during the War the very unsatisfactory wage they had before the War, and they are now determined, as they were determined before the War, that a movement which they were then developing, and which has been suspended during the War, is now to be continued and pursued in order to increase their standard of living above what it was before the War.
We suggest, in all seriousness, that it is useless talking about the impossibility of reform and improvement in the lot of the workers and of industry being ruined and disaster overtaking us if the miners get a 30 per cent. advance in wages. If we cannot stand that, then we may just as well admit before the world that we have reached the end of all progress. We hear from the Prime Minister what it is going to cost, and how it is going to affect other industries, but the thing we marvel at is that we never hear anything at all about those items which enter into the cost of production and which might easily be taken off without any injustice to anybody. What is the use of my going to the men I represent and telling them, "Now you must not ask for this advance in wages; it is going to affect other workers and other industries"? I will give you a case in point. I only represent a small district of about 7,000 miners, and one colliery company employs about 5,000 of them. Twenty years ago that colliery company had a capital of £400,000 in ordinary shares and 50,000 preference shares. In the last twenty years they have paid about £80,000 a year in dividends. They have had the money back four times over in twenty years. In the interval they have distributed a share bonus of 50 per cent. among the ordinary shareholders. They increased their share capital from £400,000 to £600,000 by bonus. Then they split their 600,000 shares into 5s. shares, and to-day those 5s. shares are selling in the market at 12s. 6d. What does that mean? Simply this. Assuming that one of the original shareholders had £10,000 in the concern, in twenty years he has drawn £40,000 in dividends, and he can now sell his shares for £37 10s.
And you expect the workers who are working in those collieries producing coal to listen to an argument that an advance in wages would increase the cost of production! They say there is a very substantial margin there for improved wages for them, without bothering about adding to the price of coal. They know that during this War the landowners of this country have exploited war conditions in connection with the supply of pit-wood from their land. Landowners, directly submarine warfare commenced, directly our ships became scarce, directly we were in difficulties to get pit-wood from foreign countries, exploited those conditions, and sent up the price of pit-wood 2, 3, 4, and even 500 per cent. not due to increased labour, but for timber as it stood in the woods. The miners want to know if the Government are going to allow that to continue. All that has entered into the cost of production, and, if it is too high, the miners say there is margin enough to bring some of it down, and that there is room for improvement here for the workers, without attempting to keep costs down by depressing wages. It is because the miners know that there is a general understanding of these facts among the workers that we say it is useless for anybody to talk to them to-day about the impossibility of their having a higher standard of living. They are out for it, and they intend to get it. The result of this ballot proves it conclusively. I welcome the inquiry proposed in the Bill so far as the future of the mining industry is concerned. We shall welcome it, and give every assistance in our power to enable the Government to reach a right conclusion on the question of wages and hours. But we say it is useless, for the purpose of avoiding industrial strife in this country, to bring in a Bill, and force it through this House, which will defer or which will keep us waiting for a Report until the 31st March. That will not solve the trouble, in the opinion of the responsible heads of the Federation.
I only want to say one word in conclusion. We are keenly anxious that the mines of this country should be nationalised. The case I have given in point—the North Navigation—is not an isolated case at all. It is typical of Welsh mining enterprise. We say that if they have had their money back four times over in the last twenty years, we ought to see that they do not get it back four times over in the next twenty years. Justice will be done if they get it back once again, and finish with it. We say that proposition means the taking over by the State of one of the chief national assets, and that a policy under which, in the past, colliery owners have been getting something for nothing has got to cease if there as to be any peace in the mining industry in this country. We are prepared to have as much investigation as you like about it. We are prepared to give all the assistance in our power. But as to the two points which I have been emphasising, we do urge this House, and we urge the Government, not to press them, for the reason I have already given, that any conference, or any delegates in conference, will not feel they have the power to override the decision of a ballot, and defer the date of coming into operation of the strike. That being so, a Report by the 31st March will not serve the purpose for which this Bill has been introduced.
May I congratulate the hon. Member who has just sat down upon his very admirable maiden speech? Whether we agree with his point of view or not, we are all glad to have the case presented in the temperate way such as he has put it forward. I suppose I do owe him a slight apology for pressing my question upon him during the moment of his maiden effort; but if hon. Members and right hon. Members in this House knew the hon. Member as well as I do as a protagonist on the South Wales coal-fields, they would know that what appears nervousness on this occasion was, as much as anything, the statesmanship in dealing with these questions that he practices on the South Wales coalfields. But, as the hon. Member has not seen fit to reply to the very specific question that I put, I propose to put it, for the information of the House, in quite another way. In this matter of grave, pending national conflict it is no good dealing in mere phrases. We have got to get down to the actual bedrock facts with regard to the position. I asked the hon. Member quite specifically whether, before the executive of the Miners' Federation and the conference of the Miners' Federation formulated their demands to the Government, consisting of the four points—wages for demobilised miners, the six-hour day, the 30 per cent. increase, and nationalisation—they had taken a popular vote of the men. To that question we have not had an answer. But I will answer and say definitely that the miners of this country were never consulted before their delegates in conference assembled and their executive formulated their demands. It is perfectly true that when the Government gave a qualified refusal to those demands the conference then decided to take a popular vote of the members in the country, and the members have supported the conference and the executive. [An Hon. Member: "What more do you want than that?"] My complaint is this, that the popular vote was not taken in the first place as to whether the miners should make those demands upon the Government, and should not have been left to the second place, when the Government have given a qualified refusal.
I rather follow it out on the lines of the hon. Member who has just spoken. He said that in the early stages the movement might have been controlled. Of course it might. It was absolutely in the hands of the delegates. But they then go to the great rank and file. They do not present a neutral case to the rank and file. They do not present a fair case to the rank and file. They do not present an honest case to the rank and file. They present such a case that the Government deems it necessary to publish independently what has been the Government's answer, and the party for which I have the honour to speak finds it necessary to formulate a case, so that the rank and file of the men may know exactly what they are being asked to vote upon in this rapidly-taken ballot. I think it is a very unfortunate circumstance that in this great crisis the Leader of the Labour party, apparently speaking for his colleagues, the hon. and right hon. Gentlemen who represent the colliery districts, should be sitting opposite in a dual capacity, sitting there as a twin Leader of the Opposition, and following out the tradition that it is the business of the Opposition to oppose. If he had been here speaking to-day with a single voice from the point of view of organised Labour he would have recognised that the great demand upon the representatives of the miners is that these things should begot through rapidly. The Government, and I congratulate them upon their courage and sympathy—the Government come to-day with a proposal to this House—even holding up so important a measure as the Health Bill—asking the House to pass rapidly into law, so far as all its stages in this House are concerned, a Bill to set up the necessary machinery to inquire into the facts of this dispute. Then comes the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, and he says: "No, do not carry the thing to-day; leave it over until to-morrow, leave it even beyond then until Wednesday, when the Miners' Conference will meet again." This great Parliament, Mr. Speaker, is going to take no dictation from anybody or any section of delegates or conference, however important they may be in the mind of the right hon. Gentleman. I venture to suggest that on the merits of the thing the right hon. Gentleman opposite rather gives his case away. He says: "Why should the Government have this inquiry into wages and hours at all. They have sufficient data that will enable them to decide?"
The right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister comes here and, epitomising the data in possession of the Government, says, as he is instructed, that the Government has not the economic means to do those very things that are being demanded. If that be so, I fail to understand the attitude of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Labour party. He must either take the view that the Premier is misleading the House or that those for whom he is speaking are in the wrong, and that the Government, acting upon the data in their possession, must definitely turn down the claims of the men. It seems to me there is no other logical alternative for the right hon. Gentleman. He says that this inquiry will hang up the case; that there is sufficient data in the hands of the Government. The hon. Gentleman who has just spoken has made a case to the House, or sought to make a case, that the miners have an overwhelming right to a higher standard of living; that the miners have an overwhelming right to shorter hours; that they have an overwhelming right to larger and better social conditions. None of these propositions is at all in question. We agree absolutely and entirely with every sentiment that he has uttered in respect to that claim. But the short point is this: If that claim is right, and if the circumstances of the trade will permit, there is no question about their having what they ask. May I put this to the hon. Member, who has a very great influence both by his voice and his writings amongst the men of the South Wales coalfields—he has a very admirable way of expressing himself. He has an influence that may be developed for great good in that coalfield. May I suggest to him that in putting the case that he has put to-day he has only put one aspect of it? It is perfectly true about this vast prosperity of the great soulless companies in the great South Wales coalfields—perfectly true! But is it the whole truth?
There is a margin. I shall not worry the hon. Gentleman more than I worried him and his colleague when they were speaking, but I should like him to tell the House what the margin left over from "nearly" is, because it seems to me that that is the vital factor. I mean there are certain considerations, and I put this as an argument in favour of a little extra time by the miners of the South Wales coalfields to consider, in connection with this proposition, whether, in the fiery pits, they are prepared to have three shifts of six hours in the twenty-four? Have they considered in connection with the increased wages whether they are prepared to accept that? Also the proposition from bodies of the coal owners that there shall be concentration of production? When it was proposed for the purpose of combing-out during recruiting the miners of South Wales were definitely opposed to the principle that there should be concentration of production in certain collieries. I am not saying that they are wrong. I am not saying that they are right. All I say is that time ought to be given, in their own interests, and for the sake of their future livelihood, for these matters to be thrashed out. If the case which is being made for the miners is right and sound there cannot be a particle of risk or loss to them in waiting for an additional sixteen days to enable the proposed Commission to report. If it is not right or sound, and they proceed as seems likely, the leaders of the colliers in this country will have brought ruin and damnation to that great industry. I warn them about it. The hon. Gentleman opposite says glibly as he would from a platform: "If the trade cannot stand 30 per cent. increase in wages, well then, let the trade go." Is that what he really means?
That is sufficient for my purpose, but I thought the hon. Member went a good deal further. The point is this: What blind folly for a man to set himself up as a great leader of labour and to say this cannot be done! Why not wait the additional fortnight to see whether it can be done. I would appeal earnestly to hon. Members, and to the hon. Member who has just spoken, instead of talking in this way with a sort of distant covert threat of what the men may do, to join hands in the great, bold, plucky, courageous appeal of the hon. Gentleman, the Secretary of the South Wales Miners' Federation, who has no scruple in going against his executive and making an overwhelming appeal for the men to be patient and to give time for the consideration of their claims. I hope that yet better counsels will prevail, and that the Labour party, standing there meanwhile on behalf of organised labour, will see that the attitude that the Government have taken up is not only the right attitude, which they should accept without qualification, but that they should also use their great influence in the country to appeal to the men to wait peacefully till 31st March.
I would make an appeal now to the House to allow the Bill to be introduced. The Debate can still go forward on the Second Reading, but the advantage of the proposal I put forward to the House of Commons is that Mr. Speaker will give the necessary instructions for the Bill to be placed in the Vote Office. Every Member can then have a copy of the Bill itself. There will be the advantage of the Debate on the Bill proceeding with the Bill in the hands of the Members.