Coal Supplies.

Part of Orders of the Day — Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill. – in the House of Commons on 5th August 1941.

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Photo of Mr Robert Taylor Mr Robert Taylor , Morpeth

I am glad this Debate has taken place if for no other reason than the useful purpose it has served in giving Members on all sides the opportunity to say that the miners are not to blame for the threatened shortage of coal in the coming winter. In Debate after Debate, whenever we are in a national crisis, we hear nothing but good of the miners, and to-day compliments have again been paid to them for their loyalty, for their patriotism, and for everything that stands well in the national well- being. Those compliments are justified. In the last war we had more or less the same situation, when miners had to be brought back from the Forces, and even from France, to meet the demand for coal that then existed. It has been said by an hon. Member opposite that coal is the basis of our national prosperity. That is true, but the remarkable thing is that never has the miner been looked upon as the instrument that has produced that basic material for the national welfare and prosperity. Had we tackled this problem in the beginning by nationalising the mines, the present position would never have arisen. As far as the miners are concerned, this is not a new thing. Our memories are green and fresh. We remember in the last war the promises that were held out to the miners. They were told that the conditions that were given up by them and the heroic efforts which they put forward would always be remembered to their credit, but they were all forgotten when the need had gone. We also remember 1926, how at that time the miners were borne down because they dared to fight for this country. There is not a mineowner who can deny that the sacrifices that were wrenched from the miners did not benefit the industry one iota. The benefits were passed on to other persons and other places, and the miners received no benefits.

Never have I known the miners as angry or as discontented as they are today. If ever a thing was badly handled, this was, and the Government are to blame. Our people met the Secretary for Mines, but the Secretary for Mines had no power, and it was the President of the Board of Trade who had to be met before a decision could be taken whether anything could be done to grant the request of the miners for an increase in wages. When that increase was given, on what terms was it conceded? There was to be a bonus for attendance at work. That was an insult and a humiliation which, in face of all the good things that are said of the miners when we need them, was the last thing that ought to have been done, if there is any sincerity in what is said about the qualities of the miners.

In that first agreement, as I understand it, the only way in which a miner could get a bonus if he lost a day's work, was if he lost the day because of an accident; if he lost a day in order to attend his wife's funeral, he would lose the bonus for that week. That was the atmosphere in which an increase in wages was handed to the miners, the most poisonous and most pernicious way in which it could have been done, considering that what was wanted was attendance to increase the production of coal. If there was a wrong way to go about giving that increase, believe me the Government went that way. It is not too late for the Government to retract their steps. This Government, and Governments in the past which have been very firm and rock-like have, when it suited them or was worth their while—and remember that it is expediency which is at stake now—retracted their steps. If I have one thing to say to the President of the Board of Trade and the Secretary for Mines, it is this—for goodness sake, if you have time between now and 7th August, and if you have the influence, withdraw those conditions attached to the bonus. That is the plea I make.

In regard to the Essential Work Order, I believe that if the Government would say to the miners that this guaranteed week is for the future as well as for the war, it would be a splendid thing. We should then-get clear of all those accusations that have been levelled against the miners in peace-time that they were responsible for the rise in the price of coal. Those who know the industry know that those accusations were false, but they have always been made. If the guaranteed week for the industry could be permanent, it would be a very fine thing. There have been some modifications of the bonus conditions —and as I have said, they have come too late—but there appear to have been no modifications of the Essential Work Order. Let it he remembered that hon. Members on this side know the industry better than gentlemen who sit in offices. The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade is a man whose repute is high because of his integrity and ability in industry, but I do not know whether he can see these things as we see them. We have met the colliery managers and agents in the principal offices, and we have had fair words and good promises from them. We have left these places expecting everything in the garden was lovely. It is when they are interpreted by the servants in the collieries that things go wrong. There are men of good reputation and respected by their fellows who have been elected to serve on public assistance committees, with the Ministry of Information, or on the executive of their own association, but if they lose a day to attend these duties, then their waiting time or the money to which they are entitled is lost. Surely that is not the intention. It seems to me to be practical to say, if a man is; a representative of a local authority and has to attend a public assistance committee meeting regularly once a month or once a fortnight, that so far as he is concerned he is entitled to his 5s. He should be entitled to the same benefits as his mates when he has put in five days. These things are irritating, but with the application of a little common sense they could be put right.

I want to say one word about food. We have been trying for weeks and months to persuade somebody and everybody that the miners want more meat. They want a square meal when they have finished their shift—some thing to give them a packing, and something which makes them feel they have had a real good feed. We have not been making a great deal of progress in Northumberland. However, we have been making a start, and some companies have been granting facilities for canteens and others have been providing pies. What a commentary it is that it has taken 21 months of war to provide a pie for a miner. I am not going to decry the pie, because it is a decent pie, but it you had a pie stuck into your hands every day, you would get a bit fed up with it. Do not forget that so far as the meat ration is concerned the miner is receiving the same as everyone else, and that little is left for the rest of the week after the Sunday lunch. There is not sufficient variation. A little change of diet is good for everyone.

I want to finish with what I believe is a practical suggestion to the Secretary for Mines. I have covered a considerable part of my county this week-end, and I have heard it said off and on that the men could produce considerably more coal than they are doing if they had facilities for clearance, in other words, if they could get their coal to bank. I hope there is no slackening on repair work, but the men are not getting their work out in many cases. There may be reasons for it. I had a case given me where the men were complaining that they were only filling a little more than half the tubs they could fill. The agent went to a mine, and one of the men told him they were getting out only a little more than half their produce because they could not get the tubs either in or out. The agent stopped the district, and it had been stopped three weeks when I heard of it, though it may be going now. The whole thing was to be reconditioned.

My practical suggestion is this: The Lord President of the Council addressed representatives from the whole of the Kingdom and told them of the need for coal. We do not need to be told that now, because we know the need there is. But, instead of bringing representatives to London, why not ask someone to go into representative areas and have a conference of the men on the spot? Ask them to put their position, ask them what their grievances are and how they can be remedied. Then you will get firsthand knowledge of the cause of the trouble, and, when you have got it, will you please put the remedies into operation?