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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 George Spencer Mr George Spencer , Broxtowe

I would like to remind the House that there were two Reports issued by the Coal Commission. The first Report, which was signed by Mr. Justice Sankey and three representatives of the commercial classes, testified to the fact that they had come to the conclusion that the present method of working the industry stood condemned, and that some other system would have to be substituted for it. During the subsequent proceedings in the second half of the sittings of the Commission, Lord Gainford gave evidence, and stated on behalf of the mine owners that they were totally opposed to any system whatever which would mean dual authority, and that if it had to be decided between a system of nationalisation or a new system in which there would be joint ownership between the owners and the workmen, they would prefer to have nationalisation. If that is so, I think I should be right in saying that the scheme which has been adumbrated by the Prime Minister is one which will not receive the consent even of the owners of the mines, and it is quite evident that it will not receive the consent of the men actually engaged in the industry. Therefore, if you are going to continue to press the proposed scheme of the Government, you have a scheme which neither the owners nor the workmen desire, and that does not argue very well for the success of the Government's scheme. On the other hand, if you have nationalisation, you have at least got the workmen who are strongly in favour of the application of that principle to the industry, and furthermore you have undoubtedly a great body of the electorate of this country, who are themselves consumers, in favour of the application of the principle of nationalisation. Therefore, between the two schemes, I think it is fair to come to a conclusion that behind the scheme of nationalisation you have a far greater electoral support than you have behind any scheme such as has been outlined and adumbrated by the Prime Minister. It might be said to us, why do you desire to nationalise the mines? There is a variety of reasons, one or two of which have been given, and I desire to give one or two more. In the first place, we desire to nationalise the mines for the purpose of preventing the waste which has been taking place. Waste has been mentioned from the point of view of the undesirable barriers which have been left in, and waste has also been mentioned in respect of the small coal which has been left in, amounting, it is estimated, to about 2,500,000 tons per annum, of a commodity which is extremely valuable, and which, if it had been treated upon scientific lines, would have been of very great value to the nation.

But I want to deal with it from the point of view of the waste of coal when it is actually got. The miner has a right to protest against the use of his energy and skill, running the risks that he does to get coal, and knowing perfectly well that when he has got it it is not scientifi- cally dealt with. At the present time more than 80 per cent. of the calorific-value of coal is actually going up the chimneys of the houses and the furnaces of this country, and the coal of this country when it has been won from the earth ought to be treated in quite a different and distinct way from that in which it has been treated in the past. It is because we believe that only under a scheme of nationalisation will you get a force directed towards utilising coal to the best possible advantage that we are supporting the principle of nationalisation. Wherever the mines are in the hands of private enterprise and run for private profit, those who are working the mines will simply work them to get the maximum amount of output, irrespective of how it is used and whether it is wasted or not, and if you had got the nation interested in the preservation of coal and in the right use of coal, the nation would interest itself in bringing forth such scientific methods as would derive the maximum of value from the coal when it was actually used, but you cannot say that so long as you adhere to the principle of private enterprise. For these reasons I am in favour of the Amendment, but I want to come now very briefly to another reason. During this Debate the questions of safety and the health of the miner have been brought up. Everybody knows that so far as the calling of the miner is concerned, it is a very dangerous one. I want quite frankly to admit that undoubtedly many accidents cannot be avoided, and never will be avoided, for reasons which are best known to men who have actually worked in the mines, but I am very sorry to have to say that there is what is known as the miners' nystagmus, an awful disease to which the miner is subject, where his eyesight is damaged, and this could be very greatly avoided if the owners themselves had been in favour of the introduction of electric light. Now I never like to say anything unfriendly against the owners. I have had long relationship with them, and, so far as concerns those with whom I have had to deal, the relationship has been very good. But on the point of introducing the electric lamp in place of the old oil lamp with its minimum of light, I have to say that they have not done as much as they could. During the war they even allowed notices to be put in to suspend operations when the coal was actually needed, and the Coal Controller desired us to meet him at his office to see whether he could persuade the owners to introduce the electric lamp which the men were demanding. The owners did not willingly do it, and they tried to keep off the introduction of the lamp as much as possible. The reasons they gave for not being in favour of introducing the electric lamp were, first, that there was no efficient lamp upon the market, and, secondly, that the cost would be increased to a halfpenny per day per head as against a farthing per day in the case of the oil lamp.

These were the arguments they advanced for not introducing an electric lamp, despite medical testimony as to the eyesight of the men. I asked the local committee to take, promiscuously, 30 men actually working in the pit at that time for medical examination, and the medical examination proved that of those 30 men, 20 were actually suffering from nystagmus and the remainder showed the usual symptoms of that disease. Yet the owners would not willingly introduce the electric lamp. That, more or less, has been the experience we have had in relation to that particular question. For that reason I say that, in the interest of safety, in the interest of health, in the interest of the sight of those who are members of our organisation, we are here to support the nationalisation of mines.

9.0 P.M.

There is another reason which, to my mind, is very important to the general community. It has already been touched upon in some degree by an hon. Member, who showed that it would be possible under the nationalisation of mines to reduce the price of coal to the British consumer by the simple process of pooling the whole of the costs and proceeds in one general pool, and that if you do not do that kind of thing you cannot sell coal at the minimum price. It is a general economic law, which applies more or less in normal circumstances, that whatever is the maximum cost of getting a certain coal, that maximum cost will influence the selling price of that coal. That is to say, if coal is got at 24s. a ton and also at 35s. a ton, it will be the 35s. coal which will, more or less, fix the market price, and the coal got at 24s. will have the advantage of the difference between that amount and what- ever the price fixed. That has happened, and cannot be avoided. The evidence submitted to the Commission by Mr. Lowes Dickinson was to the effect that in the September quarter, I think, of 1918 there were certain pits out of a number they had taken—about seventy-eight, I think—where there had been a loss of between 6d. a ton and 21s. a ton, but there were over 350 pits where there had been a gain of from 6d. per ton to 16s. 6d. per ton. Now, if you take away all forms of control and allow private enterprise again to regulate markets as it likes, then the coal which is being got to-day at the highest possible price will affect the market price more or less, whereas the pool would, to a very largo extent, dictate what the price is to be.

You have in mining a set of conditions unequalled in any other industry, except it be agriculture, and, different as the two industries seem, there is undoubtedly one point of agreement between coal mining and agriculture, namely, that the physical condition, so far as the land is concerned, vary in the case of agriculture just as the physical conditions vary-in the case of coal mining. In one instance you have the coal probably not more than eighteen inches thick, and in another case you have got coal which is five, six or seven feet thick, and where all the natural conditions are in favour of getting very cheap coal. The miner, in the interests of the nation, wants the seam, where there is a loss of 21s. a ton, brought into the pool along with the seam making 16s. 6d. a ton, so that you can strike an average price, which the consumers would never get under private enterprise. It follows that if a man has a six-foot scam to work upon, he will get a correspondingly greater amount than the man who is working on a two-foot seam, and he will get a far higher rate of wage. That is what is happening, and what has happened. That is what must inevitably happen if we go back again to private enterprise. Wages in the districts which are least economic will come down, and the others will follow, because the particular districts more or less regulate the market price. We want to bring the two together, and so to see that the workmen get a uniform wage right throughout the coalfield. That is another reason why we believe that the mines at this particular time should be nationalised.

There is one very cogent reason. I did not hear the speech of my right hon. Friend who moved the Amendment, and I may inadvertently repeat what he said. But it has been suggested by Mr. Justice Sankey that you should set up certain machinery for working and controlling, not only the individual mine, but the general district. During the past few years there have been a great many stoppages which have resulted in a great loss of coal. One of the points the Prime Minister this afternoon sought to press home was that we should give some evidence that the nationalisation of the mines would mean an increased output. Give us, he said, a guarantee that you are going to maintain the output. By the nationalisation of the mines, by the working of the suggested committees, you will put an end to strife. Why? Because for the first time the workmen would be given the advantage of knowing the whole financial condition of the mining industry. A great many strikes to-day arise from the fact that the man is in the dark as to the financial position of his particular colliery. He is never in the possession of data, and because of that he often thinks that the colliery company is making huge profits and is in a position to pay what he asks. Inevitably there is a strike because he thinks that he is not getting his rightful share. If the Sankey scheme be accepted and the Government nationalise the mines and set up these committees, you would first have the Pit Committee charged with the responsibility for the safety and health of the workmen; that committee would be charged at the other end with working matters out as suggested. The District Committee would be the most responsible and important of all the committees which Mr. Justice Sankey proposes to set up. Upon that committee you would have representatives of consumers and of the workmen. The function of the latter will be to extract the whole of the coal, and they will have a general oversight of the whole of the conditions of the undertaking.

The workmen upon that committee for the first time will have the financial knowledge upon which they can base a real and definite case for any proposed increase of wages. Being in possession of the financial data in connection with the undertaking and a general knowledge of the undertaking, their minds will be influenced in the direction of avoiding any future strikes. Furthermore, in this regulation of wages and conditions, the general public, along with the workmen, will be brought in. It is not going to be a method of settling disputes like we have had in the past. We are not going to have the masters, on the one hand, with the whole of the financial knowledge in their possession and the men absolutely in the dark, and the men consequently trying, in some instances, to get the last possible penny, while the master, on the other side, endeavours, not so much to protect his own particular industry, or his own particular pit, but the owner. I have always argued before the owners we have met, and do meet, that we as miners had a right to demand that the prices should approximate to the average profit of the undertaking. If you had the nationalisation of the mines, the committee of which I have been speaking would see that all these things go together. The workman would then be in the possession of that knowledge which would help him to fix his wages agreements. For these various reasons I am strongly in favour of the principle of nationalising the mines.

May I just touch upon one further principle which has been stated here by the Prime Minister to the effect that you cannot run an industry upon human sentiment, that you cannot expect any industry to be run upon human goodwill, and that if you have an end to private enterprise, you must have some method of payment by results if you are going to get the best out of an industry. I think the very strongest indictment that can be brought against the capitalist system either in this country, or any other, is this: that no nation, no country, ever sits down scientifically to compute what is required by that nation. There is not a man in the House, and never has been, who could tell us exactly what is required by the nation. There is no scientific method of arriving at it There has been no scientific method of applying labour to your resources to give you what you want. Until we do so, until we act upon scientific lines, we cannot hope to run our industries to give us what human beings actually require. If it is true that the only incentive in life is gold, if we are only animated by motives of that sort, then I am sorry, for the Prime Minister—and I say this most respectfully, and would say it if he were here—is a member of a Christian church, and has been all his life, we are told, preaching the possibility of human regeneration, and believing in the moral and intellectual capacity of the people. Yet he comes here and tells us that the only incentive in human life and effort is gain, greed, and gold. We do not believe it.

We say it is a travesty of human history. Every line of human history declares it to be false. We want nationalised mines because we believe in the intellectual and moral capacity of the people. We believe, and we are scientifically and psychologically supported, that if you create conditions which appeal to the worth of the people you will get development in the world. We believe if you create conditions which appeal to the work of the people you will develop the work. If I chain up my dog and do not let him loose and keep him away from water and other natural conditions and he goes mad, is it the dog that is responsible or am I responsible? Such is human life. If you create conditions which appeal to the baser side of human life they will respond to them; but if you create conditions which appeal to the noblest ideals in life, and if you educate them to respond, you will ultimately find that they will respond. If you deny this in the present case, then you are not fulfilling your promise to your constituencies. Is it gold that animates the Members of this House? I think it would be an insult to say that every man is doing his best only in proportion to the money he is actually receiving. I believe that on all sides of this House men are actuated by far higher motives, and the time will come even in the mining industry when they will respond to the higher call which the nation makes.