Coal Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 1st October 1942.

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Photo of Mr Alexander Sloan Mr Alexander Sloan , South Ayrshire

I do not propose to follow the hon. Member into the woods. I have listened to a great part of this Debate, and it has not helped me very much. I have no great complaint to make about this speech of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman. He accomplished a very difficult task in a very capable manner. It is not easy to face this House and say that coal production has fallen to 200,000,000 tons per annum, that the mining policy has been a tragic and ghastly failure, that the country must face a period of austerity, and that, in the words of the Prime Minister, people must in the coming winter shiver in their homes. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman has stated that production is falling. If ever there was a time when I could claim to be a prophet and the son of a prophet, it is now. In the last coal Debate in which I took part, I prophesied that coal production would continue to fall. In that prophecy I have been completely justified, and, unfortunately, I am in the position to say to-day that if reorganisation of the industry does not take place production will continue to fall. The Minister had a great deal to say about man-power in the mines.

The name of the hon. Member for Stockport (Sir A. Gridley) is among those attached to the Motion on the Order Paper demanding the return of 30,000 miners from the Forces. The return of 30,000, or 100,000, people, without proper directions, will make no difference to the production at all. That has been demonstrated. Already 33,000 men have been returned from other industries, and after that happened production was lower than before. Men returned from the Army to the mines, and production then went lower still. It has been a progressive decline. We have now lost an output of three cwt. per man-shift since the war began: instead of having 23.4 cwt. per man-shift, we have now an average of something like 20.14 cwt. Yet without one single man being returned to the mines, if output was restored to 23 cwt. per manshift we should get all the coal that is asked for by the Minister. We must find the reason for this tragic drop in output. In spite of all that has been said, inside and outside this House, the sole responsibility for the drop in output lies with the management of the collieries. The workmen are as capable and as willing as they were three years ago. They are prepared to work as hard at the coalface as they were three years ago, and as hard as they were six years ago, when the output per man-shift was over 25 cwt. The same men are there, the same coal seams are there, the same people evidently are there to take the coal from the men after it has been hewed. This is a very elementary matter. We must look into the distribution of the men in the pits. The number of men at the coal- face has not increased; in fact, it has slightly decreased in the last three years. But the number of workmen other than at the coalface—those not engaged in active production, in cutting the coal and filling it into the tubs—has increased enormously. Who is going to examine this matter?

We have now a new scheme of control. There was ever a more fraudulent scheme imposed upon a country or upon an industry than this scheme of control. It is there on your White Paper. It was accepted by the Miners' Federation, and by this House, and put into operation, but I defy any person to visit the coalfields—the right hon. and gallant Gentleman has been visiting the coalfields, and it is a pity he had not visited them before this scheme came into operation—and find the slightest change taking place in the outlook or psychology of the coal-owners. Where has the change taken place? The mines still belong to the owners, and they are being operated by the same agents, managers, under-managers and all the lesser fry in the same fashion as before. They are being operated not in the spirit of securing more coal for the nation but in the spirit of securing greater profits for the mine-owners. There is not the slightest difference taking place. They are still squeezing the miners at the coal face.

I visited a colliery the other day where it was a question of 3d. a ton between the management and the men. The management said that they were not going to give that 3d. per ton and said they would put machines into the pit; they would find some other method of operating it, but they were not going to give the other 3d. a ton. That is the spirit in which the mines are being operated to-day. The question of output is not a question of the men at all. There are men at the coalface filling 20 to 22 tons of coal in a shift. Will the Minister or the Parliamentary Secretary in his reply tell me how 22 tons of coal can be scaled down a ton per man before it reaches the wagon? Can he explain why it takes 19 men to take away one man's output? Can he explain how it can be scaled down? In collieries in the county in which I live where they are working without any machinery the output is more than three tons per man per shift. The men are working coal at the coalface, and surely no one is going to suggest that the men are at all responsible for the loss between the coalface and the wagon.

There is only one way in which you can look for increased output. Even supposing 30,000 to 50,000 men were released from the Forces to go back to the pits, they would not, unless there was drastic reorganisation, increase the output of coal. Besides, there is no pit room for these men. During the last three years of the war development has suffered very severely, and while no doubt there may be some pits where more men can be employed, in the majority of pits I know there 1s. no room for any more men. It is only by making proper use of the manpower already there that output can be raised per man-shift. Give me a pit I can walk in and I will dig my 20 cwts. and carry them out on my back. The suggestion that reorganisation cannot take place or that output cannot be increased is ridiculous in the extreme. Do not let any Member say that absenteeism is the cause of the loss in output, because it is not true. There is not a single word of truth in it. We know that a certain number of men have been absent from their work when they ought to have been there. Nobody on this side of the House justifies that, neither does any miners' leader, and we; will take any steps possible to stop it. But do not let anybody come to this House and say that absenteeism is the cause of the drop in output.

Absenteeism in Scotland, both avoidable and unavoidable, is 8 per cent. On the last figures we had from the Government they proved that if men were absent one day a week, they were working extra shifts to make up for it and that during the whole year they had actually worked more than six shuts every week. So the question of absenteeism in Scotland does not arise, although output there, like that in other places, has dropped. Let us not be complacent about the scheme of control which has now been forced upon us. I have heard the Minister say a great deal about production committees, and I want him to investigate the question of the power of these committees to examine collieries where allegations are made that production is being retarded, because I am informed by managers in Scotland, and by the Controller, that men have no power whatever to move from one section of a pit to another in order to have it examined. If there are complaints about safety, there are workmen's inspectors whose job is entirely different from that of the production committees, which have no right whatever to move about the pits.

The managers claim that they are the managers of the collieries, and they will not allow their rights to be usurped. The managers have very serious responsibilities under the Mines Act, and undoubtedly they will maintain their rights. If these production committees are to work efficiently, they will have to be able to visit the different parts of the collieries, and I hope that matter will be examined so that we may know exactly what powers they have.