When our proceedings were interrupted I was dealing with the very serious menace to the coal industry which is furnished By the development of oil. Oil is becoming the principal means of transport in the world. Almost all the steamers in the East, large and small, are driven now by oil fuel. A few years ago there was an enormous traffic to all parts of the world in British coal. Ships went out with coal and came back with merchandise. That trade has almost entirely ceased. Oil fuel is to-day at a price that, for practical competitive purposes, coal would have to be sold at 7s. a ton delivered on board the ship. That cannot be done. Therefore, I deprecated even the Coal Mines Bill that was passed last year. There is really no hope for this obsolescent industry. That is why we have the cry for nationalisation. Whenever an industry is getting out of date it begins to cry to the Government to take it over. All the big liners are now running on oil, and even tramp steamers are adopting this change. The biggest private owners in the country had the prescience seven or eight years ago to perceive what was coming and built over 30 ships to be run by Diesel engines.
Oil is the real danger to the coal trade. The Coal Mines Bill of last year simply endowed the oil interests of the world. The miners simply handed over their trade; the Miners' Federation foolishly and ignorantly handed over the wages and occupation of their own constituents to the oil interests of the world. Anyone who has been in a ship when coaling, and has seen the toil and the dust that are inevitable, and then has been to St. Vincent or Lisbon and seen one of those long oil ships alongside a steamer, and in two hours has seen hundreds of tons of oil taken on board, almost enough to take the ship round the world and at far less cost—the Diesel engine is used at less than one-fifth of the cost——
I am warning the Government and those Members of the House connected with the coal industry that they need place no hope on the Geneva Convention mentioned in Clause 4 of the Bill. It is all very well for the coalowners of the world to meet the men and say, "We will restrict our hours and output to make sure that we get a comfortable price for coal, and comfortable hours of labour, and to ensure that this somewhat harsh occupation of hours is made easier for our men." I have always thought that the miners have been underpaid and have had a very hard life. The one thing that is creditable to the mining industry is that it has turned out so splendid a body of men. But the real enemy of the coal trade is now the oil industry. It is time that the coal industry adopted different methods and made sure that the customers were convinced that they could always get orders fulfilled and would not be hung up by disturbances. Unless that is done there is a very black outlook for the coal trade. The other day I saw in Scotland one of the beautiful new ships provided for the West Highland transport. There was an economy and freedom from cost as compared with coal which was so gigantic that they were proposing to replace the old engines in the other ships.
I am simply pointing out that this Bill will not save the industry. Something very much more drastic is needed. It is not nationalisation that is needed. There is no use in the hon. Lady the Member for North Lanark (Miss Lee) talking about prosperity in some of the mines because, of course, there are some which are prosperous. Every mine has a character of its own, and you cannot rationalise them all. To talk about reorganisation is no good, because it does not alter the fact that one pit is in one place and another pit in another place, and they all have a different character. That is not going to help the industry at all. The harm that is being done is that now that the price of coal is practically fixed under last year's Act, it is possible for the competing oil industry to say that it is going no further, and that every shipowner can make the calculation that it will pay him to take to oil. Something much more drastic is necessary. There are far too many men in the coal industry, and fewer will be required as time goes on. Attempts to make a sheltered trade out of it will have the same effect as the Railways Act, 1921, had on transport.
With the oil industry in its present position the coal industry is in the worst possible condition to compete with it. Unless some much wiser method of dealing with the coal trade is adopted, and an attempt is made to get a large number of men out of the industry into some other means of getting their daily bread, there is very little hope for the return of prosperity, because the market for coal is going to be very limited. Unless we get a different method of dealing with this raw material, I see no future for it. The Government, I admit, are on the horns of a dilemma. The position before them is that they have this Act falling out within 48 hours. I wish they had taken a little more time to consider. They need only have intimated that the Act would not come into operation in England, just as it did not in Scotland, and there would have been time for consideration to be given. I think they will find that in relying upon the Miners' Federation they have been relying upon a broken reed, and a body which has shown the greatest possible unwisdom in dealing with the affairs of its constituents, the working miners.
The House must have regretted that, following upon a Debate in which all the points of this Bill have been very fairly and temperately argued, the Secretary for Mines did not devote himself to replying more on the merits of the proposals which the Government have put before us. He really made no answer to the criticisms which have been advanced against this Bill in several quarters of the House, and not only on this side. He made no answer to the interesting criticism of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel) on the wages side, and he gave no answer to some of the very pertinent questions put to him by the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) about which I will say a word in a moment. He con-fined himself to making an attack on speakers in different quarters of the House. I am not concerned to repudiate or reply to polemical attacks of the hon. Gentleman on what is far too serious a subject to be dealt with in terms of party controversy.
I would only in one sentence or two deal with what, after all, seemed to be the staple of his speech—that it was our fault that this Bill had to be introduced, Really, that cannot be allowed to pass without a word of reply. His theory was that because when we introduced the Act of 1926 and limited it to a period of five years, we are responsible for everything this Government has done or left un-done. Those who were in the House in 1926 will well remember the bitter criticism which came from the opposite side of the House because that Bill was made to last for a period of five years. I quite agree that hon. Members who felt strongly about it were perfectly sincere and consistent in their argument, and I should like to know what their comments would have been if we had put forward a proposal that the Bill should have been indefinite in its application? Their comments were stringent as it was, but I think they would have been almost un-parliamentary if we had extended the Bill beyond a period of five years. We are all in agreement on that, but, that being so, it is fantastic for the hon. Gentleman to come down to the House and say the only reason why this Bill has to be passed is because we made our Eight Hours Bill last for five years, and not for longer.
In order to save the coal industry. I would much rather not on this occasion be drawn into the old controversy over that Bill. If I have to be, I will argue the case for it, and show that miners' wages would have come down by 1s. 6d. if that Bill had not been passed.
I would much rather do so, and I will be strictly relevant. What the hon. Gentleman has apparently forgotten is the Bill in which he had some small part, and in which the President of the Board of Trade had a great part in 1930. The President of the Board of Trade spent nine months of a Session of this Parliament in passing the Bill of 1930 through the House. It was not an easy Bill for him to pilot, because one of the things he had to do was to say at the outset that he could not redeem the pledge to give a 7-hour day. He was very frank. He said it was impossible for them to redeem that pledge, and the most they could do was to redeem it to the extent of 60 per cent., and to put 7½ hours in. Did he make that 7½ hours a provision which was to last until times were better, until the economic blizzard was passed and some Convention had been concluded? Not at all. He made that for one year, and, therefore, the reason why we are here to-day, legislating in this Bill, has nothing whatever to do with the Act of 1926. We are here to-day because the Government have found, quite honestly, that they cannot possibly redeem the 7-hour day promise, and because they have found that the provision which they made in the Act of 1930, to carry on the 7½-hour day for one year, is quite inadequate to meet the situation in which we find ourselves today. I do not propose to say another word on that subject, hut I sincerely hope that, in view of what I have said, the Government will face their own difficulties, and not suggest that those difficulties were the creation of those who went before them more than a lustre ago. The hon. Gentleman also said that he regretted that there had been a failure to reach settlement by agreement. I profoundly regret it also, for I am perfectly certain that in any industry it is essential to get industrial negotiations out of politics; and that statement applies more to this unhappy industry than to any other. The greatest service which anybody, inside or outside the industry, could render to it would be to take it out of politics and keep it out of politics.
It does not matter whose fault it is. The hon. Member is dissatisfied. He was very dissatisfied with our Government and he is very dissatisfied with the present Government. As the Prime Minister said, this is a settlement which pleases nobody, but if the result of this settlement which pleases nobody is that the industry itself will try to get a settlement which pleases itself, then the industry will have been taken out of politics with great benefit to itself, and to the rest of the country. But I am bound to say this, in justice to the people who negotiated. I, naturally, have not been a party to these negotiations, and I do not know the details of them, but it seemed to me that the negotiators on both sides were acting with a genuine desire to reach an agreement. That desire appeared in the speech of the hon. Member for Morpeth (Mr. E. Edwards). I believe that he was a keen and broadminded negotiator. I have often criticised, and perhaps all of us in this House have been a little irritated at times with the negotiators on both sides in these coal disputes. But they came to the negotiations this time with a great realisation on both sides of the issues involved and the importance of arriving at a settlement, and they seem to have come very near to reaching a settlement. One of the unfortunate things about this industry—and I am sure that the hon. Member for Morpeth will agree with me in this—is that when he and Mr. Cook and the coalowners meet they are all much more reasonable people when they are talking with each other round a table, without any politicians there, than when they are talking at each other across a table, with a row of Ministers on the opposite side.
I believe that there is a better chance of getting agreement in this industry if the politicians on all sides can be kept out, and if the industry conducts its negotiations, not at Downing Street, where everybody is going to keep something in reserve, but man to man across a table, with the feeling that they are there to come to an agreement and that it is that agreement which is going to solve the industry's problems. I pay my tribute to those who negotiated on this occasion. I think they came near to a settlement, and I wish profoundly that their settlement had been completed. But I do not think that the hon. Gentleman the Secretary for Mines was altogether helpful in the negotiations. It was a profound mistake, surely, when the negotiations were going on to make a speech and to say, that unless the parties came to an agreement, Parliament would do nothing. I cannot conceive anything more embarrassing to the negotiators on both sides than this unfortunate statement by the Secretary for Mines:
Unless the miners and the owners come to an agreement and ask the Government to do something else, there is going to be no legislation to prevent the 7-hour day coming into operation in July. The 7-hour day will come into operation whatever the consequences are in accordance with the pledge that was made by the Socialist party, unless the miners and owners come to us and ask us to do something else in their own interests. If they ask us to do something else, we will, of course, have to listen.
Does the hon. Gentleman deny that that is a correct report?
I am sure the hon. Member would not deny the accuracy of the report. He stands by it, and I stand by what I have said—that I cannot imagine anything more embarrassing to the negotiators on both sides than that statement. Of course it bore no relation whatever to the facts. The Prime Minister himself told us to-day that it was inevitable, if the parties did not agree, that the Government should propose this legislation. The Government made their announcement last Thursday night that the legislation was going to be introduced, and the Bill was introduced before it was known whether there was going to be agreement or not.
The right hon. Gentleman is making very ill-informed statements, and I am certainly not prepared to allow that last statement to go. It was clear to everybody concerned in the negotiations that there was not the slightest possibility of reaching agreement, and it was only at that point that the Government decided to introduce legislation.
Sir P. CUNUFFE-LISTER:
That is exactly what I have said. It was perfectly plain and has always been plain that if the parties failed to come to an agreement the Government would have to act. The Prime Minister announced on Thursday that that was so, and the Prime Minister said in his speech to-day that the parties having failed to reach agreement it was inevitable that the Government should act. I am not quarrelling with what the Prime Minister said or with the Government for taking action, although I criticise the action which they have taken for reasons which I shall state later. What I am criticising now—and I am sure that, on reflection, Members in all quarters of the House will realise that what I say is true—is that the position being that if the parties failed to reach agreement it was inevitable that the Government should impose their settlement on the industry, nothing could have been more unfortunate than that the Secretary for Mines should go down to a by-election in a Welsh mining constituency, and say that unless the parties came to an agreement and asked the Government to act, the Government would do nothing, and the 7-hour day would come whatever the consequences. It was a most mischievous speech, and when the history of these negotiations comes to be written the hon. Gentleman will be found to have been responsible in no small measure for the failure to arrive at agreement.
Let me pass from that to the account which he gave of the Scottish position. It was not very clear, and I do not think it was very fair, and he stated two things which were inconsistent. One was that the Scottish miners do not want this. I speak with no particular knowledge of the Scottish position. If it be the fact that the Scottish miners, uninfluenced by outside considerations, do not wish to have this spread-over and prefer to take a settlement which will involve them in a reduction of wages rather than to continue to work with a spread-over, I do not think there is a Member on any side of the House who would wish to impose a spread-over on them.
My attitude with regard to the spread-over has always been consistent. The House will remember that I accepted the proposal of the President of the Board of Trade that a spread-over agreed to in a district should be approved by the Miners' Federation and the Mining Association, but in that Debate, which all mining Members will remember took place late one night in the House—and the House found itself then in general agreement—it was common ground to all, I think, that the object of putting in this safeguard that a spread-over must be approved by the Miners' Federation and the Mining Association was not to enable a veto to be put upon a spread-over agreement for outside considerations, but was to ensure that the men in each district should come to an absolutely free and unfettered decision upon it. I accepted it certainly in the interests of the men of the districts, so that they might have an extra guarantee that they were absolutely free and unfettered in the agreement at which they arrived.
Unless it be the free and unfettered desire of the Scottish miners that they should have the spread-over, I should certainly be no party to trying to insist upon a spread-over; but the hon. Gentleman said in the next sentence that Scotland must not be permitted to have the spread-over, that they must not be permitted to obtain advantages in this trade which other districts have not got. That may be a defensible attitude from some points of view, but it is quite inconsistent with the attitude and point of view that what Scotland ought to have is what the Scottish miners genuinely desire. I think I can put the spread-over position fairly from the point of view of the rest of the coalfields when I say that probably to-day, outside Scotland, the miners and the mineowners, on the whole, are against the spread-over in this country, and therefore in Scotland. They have come, whether it is the best arrangement or not, to an agreement in this country in which the spread-over has no part. They feel that if the spread-over—I am talking now from the point of view of all the English coalfields—is continued in Scotland, that may have its repercussions over the border, and that there may be a movement to renew the spread-over, certainly in Northumberland and Durham, possibly in Lancashire, and possibly in Wales.
Therefore, if I interpret that sense of the English coalfields aright, they feel that there is a conflict of interests between them and Scotland, and that in the interest of the English coalfields, on the whole, they are opposed to Scotland having the spread-over, because if the spread-over comes in Scotland, it cannot be decided quite as a Scottish issue, because, as I say, it may have its repercussions in the English coalfields and reintroduce the spread-over question into the English coalfields. If I have interpreted that position aright—and I think the indications that have come from the other side are that what I have said is rather near the truth as far as the English coalfields are concerned—I do not deny that that is a factor to be taken into account in deciding this House whether the spread-over is right in Scotland. But that point of view has nothing to do with the point of view which the Secretary for Mines tried to take, that it was really a Scottish interest. If you are going to attack the spread-over in Scotland, you must not attack it as a Scottish problem. You must oppose it as a problem of the whole of the mining industry of this country.
It was stated by hon. Members opposite that the Scottish miners desired the spread-over. I responded by showing that the Scottish mine-workers had opposed the spread-over through the decision of the Miners' Federation.
That is a rather different thing. What I should have thought was a more important argument to advance was that there had been a meeting in Scotland at which the Scottish miners, meeting alone and outside the Federation, are reported to have voted against the proposal——
Perhaps that is the better way of putting it. I do not know whether that is correct or not, but it seems to me that you are leaving it to chance. You are telling the Scottish miners that they have to accept a reduction of wages. There is no doubt about it, and I do not believe that anybody facing this position frankly believes anything else. They came to an agreement with the spread-over under which they could have certain wages. It is known that there is no possibility of getting a chance in Scotland of paying the same wages without the spread-over, and it is common ground that the spread-over was agreed because, owing to conditions which prevail in many of the Scottish pits, it is economic and much cheaper to work the spread-over. Therefore, you are undoubtedly taking the position in which, if this Bill goes through as it stands, the Scottish miners will have to accept an agreement under which their wages will be reduced, perhaps not largely, but certainly some reduction will have to be suffered.
I do not put it higher than this: Is it wholly incompatible with the interests of the English coalfields, and is it not on the whole perhaps reasonable to Scotland, unless you are quite clear that the Scottish miners have come to a free and unfettered decision upon these facts—to leave open the possibility that Scotland may say, "We would prefer to go on with this spread-over and the existing rates of wages"? I do not put it higher than that, but, as it stands, you are closing the door on the possibility of that, even if the Scottish miners in the end come to the conclusion that that is what they would wish.
I want now to pass to the main criticisms on the Bill. The Secretary for Mines said that he could not understand the criticisms. I should have thought that they were very plainly stated by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, and that, as regards one of the Clauses in the Bill, they were equally plainly stated as regards another by the right hon. Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel), Let me take his criticism first. It was—and he made it fully and forcibly—that it is a bad precedent to put the fixing of wages into an Act of Parliament—not the machinery for fixing wages, but the wages themselves. I think it can be said of this particular proposal that it is not intended to do that, but that what is intended is to take wages and conditions which have been settled by agreement in the different districts in the industry and to continue those for a certain time. I certainly should repudiate here and now this Bill ever after being taken as a precedent for establishing definite minimum wage rates in an Act of Parliament, and I sincerely hope that, if the House pass this Bill, it will not be used as a precedent of that kind.
I am clear that any attempt to fix wage rates in an Act of Parliament is thoroughly unsound. That was plainly borne out by the interesting speech of the hon. Member for Don Valley. He put certain very technical but what appeared to me to be very pertinent questions to the Secretary for Mines as to whether certain base rates could be altered outside the provisions of this Bill. I observe that the Secretary for Mines was very careful not to give him any answer at all. I do not know whether the hon. Member has got one since, but he did not get one that was made public to the House. The hon. Gentleman always intervenes in these coal Debates in a most reasonable manner and with great knowledge, and the very fact that he put questions of that kind and that they occurred to him on the Second Reading of the Bill shows how impossible it is to attempt to fix wage rates and conditions in an Act of Parliament. It is one thing to say, "Here is an agreement and that agreement is a possible excuse for the Bill "; but you have not accepted the conditions under which agreement has been arrived at. I take it that what you say is that at any rate——
Surely the right hon. Gentleman will not deny that, if it is permissible and discreet to guarantee subsistence wages for a period, it is equally easy to guarantee a basic wage on which the additional percentages are paid.
I dare say it is, but this is not my Bill, and I am not in a position to answer cross-examination on it. I am suggesting that the hon. Gentleman's speech showed, by the very fact that he put these technical and apparently unanswerable questions to the President of the Board of Trade, how impossible it is to fix conditions inside a Bill. It is, too, against trade union interests. The whole practice of trade unions has been to negotiate and get agreement, or, if necessary, to fight. I am sure that the oldest trade union Members in the House will agree that the power of a union, certainly the power for effective work, is gone if wage rates are put into an Act of Parliament and are not to be settled by negotiation and agreement. The Government accept that, because the Miners' Federation at one time were putting up an appeal to the Government that a minimum wage should be put into an Act of Parliament, but the Government—and I think quite rightly—refused to look at such a proposal, and they must have turned it down on the ground that it is impossible to put wage rates into an Act of Parliament. They come very near to doing it in this Bill. There is another objection to attempting to put wage rates into an Act of Parliament; they are not elastic, and you have to have another Act of Parliament to vary them. If both sides are anxious to get a variation, it is impossible, because an Act of Parliament has laid them down. The other criticism of this Bill is in regard to its temporary character. If it is necessary to impose a settlement in this Bill, it should be a settlement which gives some certainty of security. I agree with my right hon. Friend that it is reasonable to propose that whatever you do now should last until the Convention comes in. May I observe, incidentally, that apparently everyone has lost sight of the fact that the Convention, of which the hon. Gentleman is quite reasonably proud, is not a convention for seven hours at all; it is a convention for seven and a quarter hours. Therefore, there is no question of going back to the 7-hour day, if we are, as I agree that we shall have to be, governed by international action in these matters. The proposal to which the hon. Gentleman has put his name, and for which he is claiming such credit, is not for a 7-hour day, but a proposal for a 7¼-hour day. That is a very relevant consideration to bear in mind on this Bill.
One of two things will happen. One possibility is that the Convention will come into force quite soon. I think that is rather unlikely. The hon. Gentleman suggested that it might be within a year, but I would like to ask the President of the Board of Trade whether he thinks that there is a probable chance of that. He has had a good deal to do with Conventions, and he knows that they do not always proceed so rapidly as he would wish. Does he really think that there is a probable chance—I even put it to him that there is a sporting chance—of this International Convention being made effective in the signatory countries within the next 12 months. I should think that the odds are heavily against it, but I am not making a book on it. The President of the Board of Trade knows, and he ought to tell us with his knowledge what probability he attaches to the Convention becoming law in the different countries within 12 months. If he thinks it will become law within 12 months, there is no earthly reason why this Bill should not be made to last during the period uneil the Convention comes in.
There is the other alternative which we must face equally plainly. There is the possibility that the Convention will not be ratified for 12 months, or it may be for a considerable period thereafter. The right hon. Gentleman told us a good deal about the difficult economic conditions of the world, and about the increased competition. I know what the Prime Minister said in his speech to-day. I know the development that is taking place and of the large stocks that there are in Germany; I am told there are 16,000,000 tons of coal and coke in that country. I know the way that Holland is beginning to develop as an export country, I know of the increase of water power, and I, think that probably there will be considerable development in the Mediterranean markets in Russian coal. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that there is really the least chance that economic conditions will have so changed in the next 12 months that he can introduce a 7-hour Bill into this country? I do not for a moment believe that he does; and, if he does not, and if we have to superimpose a settlement, everything is to be gained by giving a reasonable term of certainty.
The right hon. Gentleman knows the coal industry inside out, and he knows how contracts have, perhaps, been lost lately, and how difficult it will be to get long-term contracts for fear of a dispute. I was asked, and took upon myself to say to the people who consulted me that I was perfectly certain there would not be a coal strike. I am not sure that I did not speak with more certainty than I ought to have done, but I was going to base myself upon the common sense of my countrymen, and try to get contracts for the coal trade as long as I could. And I know this further, that it is not only the coal trade which is interested. I know of other industries in which foreign buyers were hesitating to place orders because they were not sure whether there would be another stoppage in the coal trade in this country and whether the heavy industries would be able to get coal with which to carry on. I know that sort of thing was present to the minds of the negotiators. That is the price we pay for uncertainty, and to save that uncertainty it would have been worth while to make this Bill last until another certainty can be established. That course has been rejected. The Prime Minister said that was done not because it is hoped to see this thing swing up to a crisis in another 12 months, but in order that immediately this Bill is passed the parties must try to get to work to secure an agreement which is going to last, and please God they will. If they can take this industry out of politics, and keep it out, they will have done a tremendous thing for themselves and for the country. But for Heaven's sake lot us not again leave the negotiations till the eleventh hour. That is not the time at which to negotiate, and I beg of the Government to make sure that these negotiations start early and come to an end early; and if they do not come to an end in reasonable time at any rate do not let us be brought up to a crisis within 48 hours of the Act running out. If Parliament should have to deal with this matter again, and I hope to goodness it will not, let us deal with it a long time beforehand, so that if the industry of itself cannot give certainty Parliament may give it that certainty, in order that it may keep and develop its trade.
With the concluding sentences of the speech to which we have just listened I find myself in complete agreement, for I believe it is nothing but a misfortune that we should always be having to deal with coal subjects at the eleventh hour. But the right hon. Gentleman himself has had some ex- perience of the eleventh hour. In 1925, I think it was, he and his Government allowed the crisis in the coal trade to run right up to the month of August, and the result was that we had ultimately to provide about £23,000,0000 as subsidy, very little benefit from which came to this country, a great deal of it going abroad. That was a heavy sum to pay for delaying until the eleventh hour. I agree with my right hon. Friend that it was a mistake then, as it is a mistake to-day. If the Government will allow me to say so, I think they could have done a great service to the coal industry and to this country if they had taken the whole thing in hand long ago. We knew what was to happen in June, 1931, and it would have been far better to reach some sort of an agreement, or at any rate to have put the negotiations further ahead at an earlier date.
I do not wish to lay too much stress on the part that Governments can play in the settlement of these matters, though anyone who has had any experience in the settlement of trade disputes knows perfectly well that the negotiators on both sides do not like settlements made early in the day. They very much like to be able to show that they had to make a great physical struggle, and that it was only at half-past one in the morning that they secured agreement. That is common, knowledge. All of us have seen it who have been in great disputes, I do not remember any settlement which I ever had anything to do with which was arrived at before midnight. It is a great pity, because the trade itself suffers by it, and it would have been much better if a calmer atmosphere, as calm as is exhibited in the House to-day, had prevailed in the coal industry long ago.
I have one or two comments to make on the Bill itself. As nearly every speaker has said, it is an unsatisfactory Bill, and it could scarcely be anything else. It does not do all that the miners want, it does not do all that the coalowners want—although it is extraordinarily difficult to find out what they do want—and it certainly does not appear to satisfy the general public, for they do not know where they will stand a few months hence. Stress has been laid in various speeches on the importance of knowing what conditions are to prevail in the coal trade if we are to secure long-term con- tracts for supplying coal abroad. The Secretary for Mines did what seemed to be an extremely wise thing immediately he took office. He went on a tour of some of the most difficult markets which this country is now trying to supply. He saw with his own eyes the men who carry on the negotiations for the purchase of British or other coal, and he realised how extraordinarily difficult it is to arrive at terms with the people to whom we wish to sell our coal and how adroit our competitors are in cutting us out. I am sure there will be no argument that he heard then used by our competitors which will not be repeated with redoubled force now that they can say that one knows what is to happen in the English coalfields only a year at a time.
This "year at a time" is the very curse of business, and I cannot imagine that we shall regain our export coal trade unless we can give assurances which will extend over more than 12 months. The long-term contracts to which many of us were accustomed years ago were the very making of the coal trade. We knew where we were. Developments in mines were based on the fact that there were these long-term contracts. Contracts were made—of which the miners were perfectly cognisant—which led to settlements in the trade itself. In fact, nothing had a greater pacifying effect than a very large group of three-year contracts—perfectly well known to the miners as well as to the exporters and the coal-owners. We want to get back to that state of affairs. We cannot do business on a yearly basis.
The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly right in saying that our one hope for the future lies in international agreement. So far as hours of labour are concerned, that appears to be the only way in which we can satisfy the conditions in such a highly competitive industry as the export coal trade. I hope he will make sure that if we bind ourselves down in good faith to a limitation of hours there will be an equally honest bargain in other countries. We must not be too suspicious of what happens abroad, but we have seen before in international agreements a little dodging to get outside the conditions of a convention, arrangements made which in this country would be regarded as not quite playing the game. If the right hon. Gentleman can so devise his international agreement as to make sure that it will be honestly carried out I believe that really will be the best way of reaching a settlement of stability for the future. It is very well worth while working towards that end, and I certainly wish him every success in his endeavours to attain it.
There is one other thing I wish to say to-night. It is no new thing, but it is justified by what has happened in recent years, and that is that the coal trade is gaining very little by its constant appeals to Parliament. For almost a generation we have been imagining that Parliament can deal with these great industrial and economic subjects with greater wisdom than those who have spent their whole life in those trades Parliament is no wiser than the people outside. The people who send us here are very largely interested in those trades because their whole livelihood depends upon them. There are entire counties which are dependent upon the wise administration of business men, and why should we have to rely in those trades upon a lower degree of general knowledge than is necessary for the administration of international trade. There is a higher degree of knowledge in the coal trade itself and among coalowners, exporters and miners than can be provided in this House. This House is not very well equipped to deal with intricate commercial and business affairs. There are some things which are absolutely necessary in the regulation of businesses, and we are apt to turn far too often to Ministers at 10, Downing Street, for the settlement of the conditions of labour and trade disputes. How infinitely better it would be if the coal trade could steer clear of No. 10, Downing Street and insist upon making its own settlements.
There is a sufficient degree of good sense in the coal trade, if it realises that Parliament does not wish to be bothered and does not regard itself as being properly equipped to deal with these questions, to reach a proper settlement of these disputes. The guidance of the Ministry of Mines and the arrangements made abroad must be supplementary to all these other arrangements, although I do not shut them out. All these disputes only lead to a succession of Bills such as the Act of 1929, which was as unsatisfactory as the Bill we are discuss- ing to-night. We have to deal with all these things in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. I think very little of the Act of 1929 as an industrial achievement. I wish we had never embarked upon that legislation, but we have to take it as we find it. Conditions would have been better if we could have avoided legislation two years ago and got a settlement in the industry itself.
I regret that that Measure was necessary, but hon. Members must not imagine that this Bill will settle the problems in the coal trade, because we are dealing with very serious matters which cannot be settled by an Act of Parliament. I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel) said that the settlement of rates of wages by an Act of Parliament is a pernicious system, and may result in doing more harm than good to the very people whom it seeks to assist. What is much more important is that we should turn our attention in the coal trade and its subsidiary industries from Parliament to the real scientific use of coal. Let me give a single illustration. I am concerned with the management of a vessel which steams 15½ knots per hour. Her sister ship doing the same service consumes between 140 and 150 tons of coal per day. The new vessel which I am now administering steams more than 15½ knots and burns only 46 tons of oil per day. The fuel occupies less space, and goes on board cleaner. What chance has coal against that? Coal is being beaten because we have not been applying the scientific knowledge which our race possesses. I am glad to hear that the Government favour the expenditure of more money upon experiments in producing coal in some other form. I do not say which is the right one, and I do not think anyone knows, but more money might have been spent with advantage on experiments in turning coal into a more useful form, and success would have kept open many collieries which have now been closed down. We should have been making experiments with as much keenness in the coal trade as we have been spending money upon the roads. There is a great deal to be said for facilitating communications ashore—for improving our roadways, building bypasses, and the like; but there is no argument in favour of the extension of our road services which cannot be put forward with 10 times as much force in favour of pursuing these coal problems. I suggest that, if we wish to proceed along the road of hope, it is rather with the assistance of the scientist than of the politician that we should proceed.
I make no apology for intervening in this Debate. Practically every speaker hitherto has been connected in some way or other with the coal trade, and the House of Commons is representative of every section of the community. I thoroughly agree with a great deal of what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Runciman). It is an impossible position that any industry, whether it be coal or whether it be agriculture, should feel that it is permanently able to come to the House of Commons and levy a tribute on the House of Commons and the community at large. At the beginning of this Debate, the Prime Minister pointed out clearly that this was emergency legislation—that, unless the House of Commons passed it within 48 hours, we should have a 7-hour day. In other words, the House of Commons is to be threatened at the last minute by the Leader of the House that, unless it passes this legislation, which has been brought about, as we all know, by the muddle that the Government have made of this question, the country will be faced with the great national emergency of a coal stoppage.
It is wrong that the House of Commons should have that pressure put upon it, and I think it is only right that those who, like myself, have no connection with the industry, but who, again and again during this Parliament and the last Parliament—the last three or four Parliaments, for that matter—have always seen the position of this industry put first, and the rest of the country left to follow in any way that may happen to be convenient to the Government of the day. We all know that many mineowners have suffered entire extinction of their capital, and that many miners have been living for years under conditions which any humane Member of Parliament would like to see bettered. This question of hours and wages is not merely a matter of making a comparison, as was done by the hon. Member for the Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams), between what is happening to- day and what happened in 1919 or 1920, when the conditions of world trade were absolutely different. The question at the moment is as to how the trade is to be kept alive at all.
I would ask the House to consider whether it really thinks that this Bill will do anything whatever to improve the condition of the trade as a whole. It lays down a 12 months' truce. Our party were blamed earlier in the evening by the Secretary for Mines because we allowed a period of five years. If five years was not long enough under that Bill, the hon. Gentleman could easily have allowed a longer period under this Measure if he had wished to do so; it would have been perfectly simple. But I am not taking the point of the actual number of years, because, after all the Debates that I have listened to on this subject in the past, I see one sign of light at the present time. It is possible that you may fix a maximum day by means of a conference at Geneva, and you may have that agreement ratified by the whole of the great coal-producing nations. Would it not have been possible, instead of putting in your definite time of 12 months, to insert in the Bill a perfectly clear and simple statement that this time of 7½ hours went on until the position was made clear at Geneva and ratified? Would the miners or the owners have refused it? The leaders of the miners put their trust in international conferences. Would it not have been better to say, "We believe we can get this international agreement, and we believe that is the right way of doing it," and appeal to the House to put that in the Bill? I believe the miners outside would have accepted it. There may be reasons why that cannot happen, but, looking at it from the point of view of one who wants to see some permanent settlement arrived at, it seems that you have missed a great opportunity.
You are giving this 12 months and the Government are proceeding on exactly the same lines as they have done in finance and in every other method of legislation. You are laying down a period of 12 months, which you hope will see you over the present emergency, and which means that next year, when every human being in the House hopes there will be signs of better trade, when your trade and industry is rising and getting better, once again, unless you can have negotiations and a settlement, you will see the whole position upset. That in itself is an argument which ought to appeal to the Government. The result must be that this permanent lack of settlement in the matter of hours not only affects the working and development of the pits, not only affects your home trade, but makes it almost impossible to regain your overseas markets, and you are putting a great weapon in the hands of your competitors. The more you look at this Bill the more you come to the conclusion that this is simply another instance of the Government having failed, as it has failed, in almost every series of negotiations that have taken place, and are asking the parties in the House to help to get them out of their mess. On an occasion such as this, when we realise the position of our trade and industry, it is hopelessly impossible for any party to divide against the Government.
It is wrong that the Prime Minister—I blame him on this point more than anyone else—should again and again come before the House in this way and ask us to save him from his own mistakes. He has muddled and failed in nearly every single conference that he has touched in the last two years. The Prime Minister is almost perpetually coming to the House and curtailing or taking away the rights of private Members to discuss Bills and other legislation. He is asking us to-night to give a Second Heading to this Bill, and we are obliged in the national interest, although we thoroughly disapprove of the Bill, of the principles on which it is founded, and, still more, of the way in which the Government have brought it forward, to come to the help of the Primp. Minister, who never considers the interests of the House of Commons in these matters. We are asked to pass this Bill to-night simply because he has failed again to carry out the promises which he and many hon. Members opposite so freely made at the last election. When they go to their constituents, they are frequently asked why they are not keeping their promises. We are asked to pas" this Measure, but as far as I and a large number of back bench Members of my party are concerned, we do not accept the principle of the Bill.