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Coal Mines (Nationalisation).

Part of Orders of the Day — King's Speech. – in the House of Commons on 11th February 1920.

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Photo of Mr Vernon Hartshorn Mr Vernon Hartshorn , Ogmore

After listening to the Prime Minister I think a few words ought to be said on one or two points. Personally I am very pleased that this subject is being discussed on the basis of broad principles. I consider that the Amendment which is now under discussion raises a principle which will become the dominant issue in British politics in the very near future. The Prime Minister has given to the House, I think, the strongest argument that I have ever heard adduced against private enterprise, because he says that personal gain and self-interest are the only factors that will bring about the best interests of the nation. That is the basis upon which private enterprise is built. I am not going to discuss whether or not that is a sound basis upon which to move, but I" am convinced that if we cannot produce better results than have been produced by activities actuated and promoted by motives of self-interest then we shall certainly never become what I may call a highly civilised community.

7.0 P.M.

What has private enterprise done for our people up to now? Has there ever been a time in the history of this country when we have not had a third at least of the people beneath the poverty line and in a state of semi-starvation. Is not that the position of this country to-day? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Has there ever been a time in this country when there has been more poverty rampant than there is to-day? I know that in making that statement I am going in the teeth of a very popular conception as to the condition of the people to day. If you want to know the facts I ask you to study the estimate which has been submitted by the Inland Revenue authorities as to the incomes of the people of this country. The Chancellor of the Exchequer recently gave a very glowing tribute to the Inland Revenue authorities for the accuracy of their estimates. According to their estimate, we have 5,250,000 people in this country with incomes in excess of £130 a year. Assuming that is correct, then you have about 26,000,000 people with incomes exceeding £2 10s. a week, and you have 20,000,000 people with incomes below £2 10s. per week. In my opinion, when this question comes to be settled by the electorate or by the public, the continuance of private enterprise will have to be justified and defended on the ground of what it has done for humanity. An hon. Member asks me whether children are included in that estimate. I simply give the estimate of the Inland Revenue authorities. They include every person with an income of over £130 per year. They allow for those who do not pay Income Tax on account of children, and so on. They are all included in that 5,250,000. I want to say two or three things about the effect that will be produced if, as the result of the discussion, we do not get a decision in favour of the Amendment. The Prime Minister has said that we have never up till now had any prosperity in the industry without the miners sharing in it. That is true up to a point. For forty years the miners' wages have been governed by the principle of the sliding scale. For every shilling that the price of coal has gone up in the market, the miners have received a certain percentage on their wages. For forty years we have had a joint audit, and every quarter we have received a certificate from the joint auditors as to the price. As soon as the auditors' report has shown that we have become entitled to an advance in wages, we have simply put in an application, and, if the owners have declined our application, we have gone before an independent chairman and have secured the advance under the terms of our general agreement. To-day the position is entirely different, and it is because I know the changed position in which we find ourselves that I am so anxious about the kind of vote that we shall have to-night.

We were told before the Coal Commission that in the South Wales coalfield it cost 23s. 6d. per ton to produce coal. That was the figure put in by the coalowners. For the three months ending 31st December last the coalowners received 53s. 6d. per ton, 30s. per ton more than it cost to produce the coal when their figures were before the Commission. An hon. Member asks where the profits go. That is exactly what we want to know. Out of that 30s. we have had 2s. per day, which is about 2s. 3d. per ton. Those are the auditors' figures taken from the coal-owners' books, and under any agreement that we have ever had in South Wales we could claim over and above the wages that we are receiving to-day and succeed in getting from 7 s. 6d. to 10s. per day on the ascertained audited price of Welsh coal. There is no question at all about those figures. They are certified and declared by the coalowners' auditor and by our auditor jointly. What does all this mean? Why are we not getting demands from the miners? In the past when there has been only an increase of 3d. per ton the miners have claimed the increase in wages to which they have been entitled. To-day they are allowing an increase of 30s. per ton, and I have no hesitation in saying that if the price of coal from the Welsh coalfields, including coal which is sold for household, industrial, and export purposes, is maintained there will be at least £50,000,000 profit on the actual figures ascertained from the books and the coalowners have had that for the last three months. [HON. MEMBER: "No!"] The colliery owners of South Wales have received that and put it into their books. [Hon. MEMBER: "Not their pockets!"] It is from their accounts that the auditors have taken the figures. It is all very well to talk about what has boon done in other coalfields. All that we have had has been a concession of about £12,000,000 in respect of domestic coal, so that we need not talk any more about that.

If self interest is to be the policy of this nation, if we are to go upon the old philosophy that when every man seeks his own with all his might, then the whole world will be prosperous and happy, all I venture to say is that it will suit the miners down to the ground. The miners are sufficiently strong to hold their own and to compete with every other section of the community. Personally, however, I regard that as the policy of despair and as a fatal policy. We are satisfied that there is an immense amount of profit in the industry. It is only six months since we had an estimate for July to July, but that estimate has been so far changed that to-day they have gone back and have estimated from March to March. They now estimate that in eight months we shall receive so much profit that we shall be able to wipe out the deficiency before July, reduce domestic coal, and still leave a margin, notwithstanding the strikes that have characterised the industry and the railways. We know that there is a big margin, but we are anxious to avoid creating a situation in the mining industry which will be impossible to maintain in the future. There have been some jeers at the suggestion that people would work for humanity. Since we have had an advance of wages the cost of living has gone up very considerably. In July last it was 109 per cent and the latest returns show that it is now 136 per cent. We have not asked for an advance in wages, and we are not even now demanding an advance in wages, but we are asking that the vast profit that is being made in the industry shall be utilised to buy out the shareholders and that this great national concern shall be taken over by the nation. It is a purely unselfish demand that is being made by the miners. "Yes," it is said, but what is the difference? You simply take one piece of script and give another." I quite agree. What is our object? We are decidedly anxious having regard to the fact that we have allowed private property to develop in the mining industry, to treat those who have vested interests in it fairly, honourably, and squarely, but we are also anxious to bring it to an end somewhere and some time, and we say that having offered the shareholders a reasonable, fair, and square price for the shares that they hold they ought to be content and allow whatever can be produced from the mining industry to be utilised, not for individual gain or for the private profit of shareholders, but for the benefit of the general community. That at least is the object which the miners have in view in bringing this matter forward.

If we are voted down, as I suppose we shall be—I have no delusions on that score; I expect to see a very substantial majority against us—I want to assure the House that it will no sooner have given that vote than it will have created a situation in the mining industry which will place the miners in a position of having to decide which of two things we shall do: Shall we go in for a big advance in wages and get our share of the swag, or shall we go in for using our power to compel the Government to use that surplus for the purchase of the shares? I am merely putting the alternatives with which the Conference will be faced when it meets. It does not in the least matter which of those two alternatives is adopted; a state of things will have arisen in this country which we ought all of us to be anxious to avoid. If it be a case of everybody seeking his own, we are not going to continue to be the victims of that system; we shall make the best of it that we can, and I venture to say that the miners have the power to do as well for themselves as the coalowners. They have quite as much power, and, if we once get wages commensurate with the profits of the industry, we shall have created a situation within the industry which cannot possibly be maintained in normal times, but we shall have a wage system which I question whether any power on earth will be able to undo once it is done.