Clause 5. — (Reports.)

Orders of the Day — Coal Industry Commission Bill. – in the House of Commons on 25 February 1919.

Alert me about debates like this

Any Report of the Commissioners and any Minority Report shall be laid as soon as may be before both Houses of Parliament, and the Commissioners may, if they think fit, make interim Reports, and shall, as soon as practicable, make an interim Report on the questions of the wages and hours of work of colliery workers, and the Commissioners may publish, or cause to be published, from time to time, in such manner as they think fit, any information obtained or conclusions arrived at by them as the result or in the course of their inquiry.

Provided that there shall not be included in any Report or publication made or authorised by the Commissioners any information obtained by them in the course of their inquiry as to any individual business (whether carried on by a person, firm or company) which but for this Act could not have been disclosed, nor shall any individual Commissioner or any person concerned in the inquiry disclose any such information.

Photo of Mr William Brace Mr William Brace , Abertillery

I beg to move to leave out the words as soon as practicable, and to insert instead thereof the words on or before the 12th day of March, nineteen hundred and nineteen. I feel extremely obligated to the Prime Minister for making it his duty to come down to the House to discuss with us this very important part of this very important Bill. We have been discussing the principle of an important question to-day, that of nationalisation. The question of nationalisation is important, but nationalisation is not pressing in the same sense that this questionis pressing. As the Committee will know, the Miners'Federation meets in conference to-morrow. It will meet in conference to receive the result of the ballot. The result of the ballot is a declaration by an enormous majority in favour of a strike. This Amendment is for the purpose of helping the conferenceto come to a conclusion which will avoid the disastrous result of withholding from the nation the driving power of the nation. My right hon. Friend, in his interview with the Miners' Federation, gave the 31st March as the earliest date upon which we might expect the Report upon the question of wages and hours. Last night we discussed this matter for some time, and my right hon. Friend was asked if he could not alter the date upon which we might expect to receive the interim Report from the 31st March to the 12th March. If we go into conference to-morrow with a declaration on the part of the Government that we should have an interim Report on the 12th March, we should be able to do our business in an entirely different atmosphere than if we have to go to the conference with no expectation of a report earlier than a date later than the ballot has decided that we are to take action as a federation.

My right hon. Friend will know that my colleagues around me and myself desire to exercise ourselves in an effort to find a peaceful solution of this difficulty, and it is because we think a peaceful solution can be found in this direction that we have brought forward this Amendment, putting the 12th March as the date on which we should expect the Interim Report. My right hon. Friend last night, in a very weighty speech, gave reasons why we could not expect a Report by that date. He said the inquiry the investigation, must be of a somewhat prolonged character. On the question of the 30 per cent. it really does not require a prolonged investigation. If the miners were making an application for 30 per cent. upon a basis which would necessitate an inquiry into the cost of living, or upon a basis which would necessitate an inquiry into the price of coal, or an inquiry into profits, there would be substance in his argument. But the 30 per cent. application is made upon the basis of lifting the entire industry to a higher standard than the present standard. Therefore, upon its merits the 30 per cent. increase must be granted or refused. The whole point is this, Is the application a just one between interest and interest; is the application a just one as between the miners and the State? If my right hon. Friend can put up the argument—but he will not attempt to do so because he knows the problem too well—that the present position of the miners is a satisfactory one, then it would be most difficult for us to resist an inquiry which might lead up to the 31st March, but when it is common ground, when it has to be admitted by the Government, and when it must be admitted by this House and the country, as to the conditions of life of these men, the enormous service they render to the State, and the great sacrifice they make to produce the nation's coal, it must be admitted that their application is not unreasonable. Therefore, because the application is not unreasonable, and because it has to be decided upon facts and figures, not upon cost of living, and not upon profits or prices, I should have thought the Government without any inquiry would have been in a position to say yea or nay to that application.

My right hon. Friend says there must be some kind of inquiry, that there are certain things we must inquire into as to the effect which the 30 per cent. advance in miners' wages would have upon the other industries of the country. I say very well, then, the inquiry is a limited one, and it is because the inquiry is so limited in character that I venture with confidence to put forward the proposition that when we ask the House of Commons to say that the 12th March is the date that we might expect the interim Report, we are giving sufficient time to that inquiry, and as a result our conference will not be asked to suspend the operation of the ballot to a date later than that which has been decided. I would have the Prime Minister and the House of Commons realise that the governing factor at to-morrow's Conference is not so much the desire of the Conference for a peaceful solution on a particular basis, but the result of the ballot, and unless we can go there with an overwhelming case for delay, then we shall stand discredited before our people, and a discredited body of leaders is of no value to the men they lead andof no value to the country of whom they form a part and whom they would like to serve. I hope that my right hon. Friend will see his way to accept this Amendment and undertake that we shall have an interim Report presented upon the wages'question by the 12th March.

I come to the question of hours. There also we stand or fall on a matter of principle. Is the six hours proposal illegitimate comparing the interest of the men with the interest of the State? The six-hours day is one of the things that they workers have been agitating for. They have come to the hard conclusion that inasmuch as other sections of the community who work upon the surface are having reduction of hours, the men who work in the mines ought as compared with eight on the surface to have six underground. As explained yesterday, six hours from bank to bank is broadly seven hours for the miners as compared with eight hours on the surface, and comparing like with like it is their opinion that eight hours on the surface is not greater than seven underground. Then if my right hon. Friend will appreciate that the six-hours application will have to be determined upon purely as a matter of principle, he will see at once that it will not require any prolonged inquiry for the Commission to report on this question. At any rate, I hold that with determination and under the skilful guidance of the distinguished Chairman, Sir John Sankey, the Commission in a fortnight could arrive at a conclusion.

I am not unmindful of the fact that the introduction of a six hours' shift would require some careful surveying of the organisation of the collieries. I believe that a six hours'shift, when the whole industry will come to be reorganised upon that basis, will not mean any reduction in output. But I quite realise that some surveying of the problem will be necessary, but it is not an extensive survey that will be required, and in selecting 12th March as the date for a Report we think that we give the Commission sufficient time to make their Report. My right hon. Friend will see at once that what my colleagues and myself are working for under this Amendment is a reasonable opportunity at the Conference to-morrow to find a peaceful solution of this problem. Therefore I ask him to be frank with the House of Commons, and through the House of Commons to be frank with the Miners'Conference to-morrow. If the 12th March in his judgment is not a sufficient time, will he tell us what is the absolute limit he can work it into? The 31st March is a most extreme time. That figure, in my judgment, is indefensible for such an inquiry. I have put in the 12th March because that would enable us to get the Report and get a conference of the Miners' Federation before the 15th March arrives, which is the date decided by ballot for the Miners' Federation to move into action if they have got to fight.

I pray that we shall not have such a result. I am afraid at the thought of the consequences. I am pressing this point most earnestly and most solemnly, for I feel that it will have such a bearing upon the result of to-morrow's Conference. The Prime Minister will not misunderstand my colleagues and myself when we say that when we put in the 12th March it is not our figure. It is a figure that has been forced upon us as the result of the ballot vote of the miner, and the situation that will arise on the 15th March. I do not want to prolong the argument. My right hon. Friend knows the position quite as well as we do. He is as anxious, to say the least of it, as we are, to find a peaceful solution. Therefore, when I move the 12th March, I do so under a great sense of duty to the Conference, which we have to meet to-morrow, and I make an appeal to him to be quite frank with us, and if he cannot meet us in our figure for the 12th, at least lethim tell us what is the nearest day to the 12th on which he thinks the Commission can report, so that we may be quite frank with our Conference, and get them to co-operate with us in the effort for a peaceful settlement rather than to have the shadow of industrial warfare hanging over the nation a moment longer than is necessary.


I rise to say just a word in support of the very eloquent appeal of my right hon. Friend. I also want to tell the Committee an additional reason to show that all importance is attached to these dates. The position to-night has changed from what it was last night. The Committee will see the situation by to-morrow morning's papers, and I may as well tell it now. The position of the miners, railwaymen, and transport workers'executive this afternoon, after a very full and long discussion of the whole proceedings, was given unanimously that no one section was to settle this question without consultation and agreement with the others. That decision means that the miners will conduct their negotiations—I say conduct, because I hope we will not assume that even now negotiations are off. I hope that there will be further negotiations—the railwaymen will reopen their negotiations to-morrow, and then the transport workers will resume theirs. But no one of these three bodies will be in a position to make a separate agreement without a further conference of the whole three, and that conference is fixed to be held before the 1st March. The object of fixing the 12th of March briefly, is this: that on that date the miners'notices expire, and I want the Committee to understand that however difficult an official strike may be, a non-official strike will be worse, because there is always the grave danger in unofficial strikes of no one being able to control them.

What the miners feel and said frankly this afternoon was, that they must be the body themselves to make a recommendation so far as suspension of notice is concerned. That is the all-important point. Therefore, I want the Prime Minister to realise that if it is impossible to give us a full Report by the 12th March it ought not to be difficult to give an interim Report on one side of the question. My right hon. Friend has referred to the question of nationalisation.It has been admitted in Debate that that is not only a most difficult question, but one which requires the most searching examination. But surely it ought not to be difficult for the Prime Minister to say that so far as the second half, if I may so call it of the Inquiry, that which relates to nationalisation, is concerned, it could form the basis of the final Report of the Commission, and that we could have an interim Report on these other two questions. I quite see the difficulty of the prime Minister altering this day, but I beg of him to realise what my right hon. Friend has said. There are people undoubtedly who are not so anxious for peace as others, but there are people who are anxious for peace. There are people in all these sections who know perfectly well that the conflict if it comes will be the most terrible that we can contemplate, and the responsibility on any man is terrible. Now it is for the Government to strengthen the hands of those who desire peace and who are striving for peace. It is for the Government to give us an opportunity of saying, "This is not camouflage. This is not an attempt merely to do the miners out of their claims. It is a genuine attempt to be as just with the miners as the Government want to be with the State as a whole."

It is for all those reasons that I supplement the appeal of my right hon. Friend. I beg the Prime Minister to say here and now, that the 31st March is not the date. It is all very well to say that only sixteen days divide us, and that the men ought to wait those sixteen days. That is not the temper and feeling of the men.We could understand it if it were merely the House of Commons we were dealing with, but if the Government will show that they have a genuine anxiety to meet the miners on this particulardifficulty I am absolutely certain that it will go a long way to ease the situation. I do not think that it will be the last we shall hear of these matters in the House of Commons, but, so far as this claim is concerned, whatever the difference is on that side or this, whatever hard things may have been said by any Member against the Labour party or against Labour leaders, I do beg the Committee to realise that no Labour leader with any sense of responsibility would face the consequences of such a struggle as this with other than a very heavy heart. For this reason I make this further appeal to the Prime Minister.

8.0 P.M.

Photo of Mr David Lloyd George Mr David Lloyd George , Caernarvon District of Boroughs

My right hon. Friends who have spoken have made a very earnest appeal to the Government to meet them in the matter of days, and, apart from the gravity of the situation, the two right hon. Gentlemen have sought so earnestly for peace that they are entitled to special consideration in dealing with an appeal such as they have put forth. I have hadthe advantage of consulting the eminent judge whom the Government intend to advise to preside over this Commission on this very question—this all-important question. Other questions, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Abertiliery has said, maybe more important intrinsically, because they raise bigger and more permanent issues;but this is a more important question from the point of view of the removal of this immediate difficulty. Let me just state to the House the difficulties which presented themselves to Mr. Justice Sankey's mind. I asked him to go into the whole question in so far as the information at his disposal was concerned, and to examine the kind of questions which would come before him before he arrived at any decision. I have seen him in the course of the evening, and I shall be able to say before I sit down what his final view is on this subject. My right hon. Friend, I think, treats a little too lightly the special difficulties of even arriving at a provisional decision upon thesetwo issues. It is not a simple issue to decide whether you are going to increase by 30 per cent. an industry, the product of which enters into almost every other industry in the Kingdom; and it is not merely 30 per cent., because the curtailment of the hours of labour will decrease the output, and will increase the cost. Both of those are very important elements in the industries of the country—very important. Whereas you have the output per man of the American mines going up, for reasons that I need not examine—the perfection of machinery among other reasons—the output per man of the mines in this country has gone down steadily. Therefore, when you come to hours of labour, you have the double complication that if you are going to reduce the hours of labour, and to increase the wage, you will thereby add to the burden, and you will also be limiting the output, and both of those are very important elements in the industry of the country. No one can say that you ought in a hurry to come to a conclusion upon two such very weighty matters as those. The Chairman of the Commission has got to examine, first of all, what the effect is upon the industries of the country, and there he must take evidence from the representatives of those various industries. He must examine accounts, and perhaps balance sheets. Then the miners' representatives, whether they are on the Commission or whether they appear as witnesses, would put their counter-case. They will say "This is on the assumption that there is no saving." Very well; that is a matter that has got to be examined.

I do not mean to say that you could in the time come to a conclusion upon all the various schemes of reconstruction of the industry and the utilisation of the resources of the mines. You cannot do that, but you could examine it far enough to be able to come to a fairly satisfactory decision as to whether you could increase the wages without damaging other industries, and the extent to which you could go. But that will take time. What time have you got in which to do it, on the assumption that we fix the 12th of March? I will assume for the sake of my argument that this Bill goes through to-night. I hope it will, and that it goes to another place; and I will also assume, although we haveno control over the proceedings of another House, that it goes, if you like, to-morrow through all its stages, and—I am taking the most favourable assumption—that the Royal Assent be given to it on Thursday. The miners meet to-morrow. Whichever way they decide, we should on Thursday be in a position to invite the members of the Commission, send letters or wires to the nominees, to those the Government intend to form part of the Commission, asking them whether they are prepared to serve. Take,again, the most favourable assumption that they all reply in the affirmative, although you might have one or two saying that for some business or other reason they cannot possibly serve, and that would be another complication; you could not possibly form your Commission before Friday at the earliest possible moment. Then you summon them, and I cannot see any prospect of your getting them together to begin business before Monday. They meet together and they decide procedure. There are preliminary questions which they have to decide, because until they come together, the Chairman has no right to exercise the powers which you have in this Bill to call upon the different parties to furnish accounts until the Commission as a whole decide.

Let us assume thaton Monday they are able to come to a decision as to what accounts they propose to demand either from Government Departments or from the business concerns, and what witnesses they should bring forward. They cannot really get on very well with their work until the witnesses appear, and until the accounts are furnished. Monday is the 3rd of March, and the 5th of March would be about the first time they could begin to examine their witnesses. After examining your witnesses, you have got to discuss the points.It is too much to assume that they are all perfectly unanimous the moment they have heard a few witnesses, and you must allow time for discussion. And to put a date which cramps and crowds them, is really to prevent agreement. You might fail to come to anagreement on the first day, and get nearer on the second. My right hon. Friends are too experienced in negotiations not to know that it is much easier to come to terms if you are not too pressed to come to terms immediately. Therefore, from their own pointof view, which is also ours, to get a settlement that would be satisfactory to all parties, and which the nation as well as the miners and mine-owners, and all the other industries of the country, would feel to be just, and which would give confidence toall other industries—because that is important—it would be a misfortune to put a date there that the Commission themselves would feel made it difficult for them to come to a reasonable and wise solution.

On these grounds, Mr. Justice Sankey is very much opposed to accepting the dates mentioned in my right hon. Friend's Amendment. It is very important in a case of this kind that no promise should be given for which there is not a reasonable prospect of its being redeemed. Sir John Sankey will not be sitting alone. A judge sitting absolutely alone, and having only to satisfy himself, and going through these accounts alone and seeing the witnesses himself, would take very much less time I do not know whether you will have twelve or fifteen members, but, whatever the numbers that will be on the Commission, each man will want to put his questions. At any rate they have the right to put questions, and they ought to feel that if they want any information they can put the questions, without the fear of wasting time and of precipitating a strike. The miners' representatives would feel that, and so would the mine-owners and the representatives of the Government.

Therefore Sir John Sankey is of opinion that if he gave a promise for the 12th of March, it would be something he could not seea reasonable prospect of being able to redeem. Let me give exactly what he says after going into it very carefully He says it makes a great difference from the point of view of time whether the miners are on or not, and that stands to reason. If the miners are not on, the mine-owners cannot very well be on. You cannot have one party represented unless the other is represented, and it will be a different composition for the Commission. But that means that there will beno one there on the Commission who would have a direct acquaintance with the condition of the industry, and it would therefore take a longer time for the Commission to get at their work, and come to a conclusion. In his judgment he could save several daysif the miners were represented on the Commission, because then he would have the mine-owners as well. All would be there in the same room, and they could discuss the thing with knowledge, instead of having to send for experts every time a difficulty arose. There would be questions where the miners and mine-owners would be agreed, something about the working of a mine—whereas other men, not knowing anything about the mechanism of the industry, would say, "We are doubtful about this. We must send for somebody." And they would have to take evidence about something which would be simple to the miner and mine-owner, and which could be cleared up in five minutes.

The conclusion to which Mr. Justice Sankey has therefore come is that the date he gives depends very largely on whether the miners will be on the Commission or not. If the miners are on the Commission, it would also include the mine-owners. Then barring accidents, barring circumstances which he cannot foresee and which in his judgment are unforseeable—if there were conditions of that sort, then the miners are members and would be able to judge themselves—he is prepared to give a guarantee to the Government that the Report will be in their hands on the 20th of March. He cannot givea definite undertaking, which he feels in his conscience he would be unable to redeem, of any date before the 20th of March, but on condition that the industry itself is represented on the Commission—barring events which he cannot foresee, and there is nothing foreseeable in his mind to prevent his doing so—he is prepared to give an undertaking to the Government, and he permits me to give that undertaking to the miners and mine-owners of the country and other industries, that on this condition, he will guarantee that the Report will be in the hands of the Government at some hour on the 20th of March.


On these two points?

Photo of Mr David Lloyd George Mr David Lloyd George , Caernarvon District of Boroughs

Oh, yes; only on these two points. It will take a very much longer time to report on theother matters. The Government have met my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friends behind me very substantially. Sir John Sankey has taken a great deal of trouble, realising the importance of getting an early Report, and he is prepared to put the whole of his strength and great capacity, not merely in having a just decision, but on having it at the earliest possible moment, and I trust my right hon. Friend will feel that the Government have been fair in the matter.

Photo of Mr William Brace Mr William Brace , Abertillery

It would be not only ungracious but unfair for us not to acknowledge quite frankly how fully the Prime Minister has endeavoured to meet our situation. Of course, the Committee and the Prime Minister will understand that we are not clothed with anything like plenary authority as to what the conference will do, and I cannot commit my colleagues or myself in this House as to what may be the decision. I do feel that inasmuch as the Prime Minister has consulted Sir John Sankey that fact alone will have an important bearing, and indeed a very far-reaching influence upon the minds of the delegates who may assemble; and while I would have the Committee clearly to understand that I cannot accept the Prime Minister's statement as meeting our case, yet I feel that there is so much substance in it, and in fact such an ad mixture of fairness and a desire to come to a decision, that I must ask my colleagues to agree with me in asking the leave of the Committee to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause agreed to.

CLAUSE 6 (Short Title) agreed to.

Bill reported; as amended, considered; read the third time, and passed.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

Whereupon Mr. Deputy-Speaker, pursuant to the Order of the House of the 12th February, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."

Adjourned accordingly at Eighteen minutes after Eight o'clock.