Coal Situation

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

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Photo of Mr Claude Lancaster Mr Claude Lancaster , Fylde

I do not propose to follow the late Secretary for Mines in his very generous and very well-reasoned speech, other than to say that I join with him in desiring to strike a note of warning in regard to the situation. I cannot agree with the Minister of Fuel and Power that the situation is as satisfactory as he seems to feel it to be, or that its solution of our difficulties will be as simple as he suggested to the House. What are the bald facts of the situation? Ever since Dunkirk, or a few months after, it was evident that our growing war industrial effort would require a great deal more coal, and I think it is fair to say that the only concrete steps that have been taken since that time to deal with the situation are these. Possibly the most important was the improvement in transport. By one means or another after the winter of 1941 the railways have been able to transport more effectively and more efficiently a greater volume of coal than in the first year of the war, and they are still making improvements, but the margin is getting very small and we cannot expect a great deal more in that direction. There is also the question of economies by both industrial and domestic users, and there I am in full agreement with the Minister. I think very considerable economies can still be made, with the proviso of the late Secretary for Mines that those economies shall not fall on the poorer section of the population. Thirdly, there has, of course, been a change-over from non-essential production to essential war production. Of course the lag of that has been more than taken up.

Those have been three main factors of alleviation. During the whole of that time increased production has only been effected by, in some small measure, the return of more men to the pits. Fifty thousand is the actual number referred to by the Minister. Of course during that period there has been wastage, and therefore the net figure has been something in the nature of 17,000. We have approached the matter from other aspects, giving increased wages aid attendance bonuses, but by and large that step has not been a success. Not that wages did not require increasing, but the fact remains that the increases given under the Greene award did not bring about either an increase of production or a decrease of absenteeism.

I must ask the indulgence of the House if I return to a theme which I have expounded on every occasion when I have been able to attend coal Debates, and to say that in my opinion the matter can only be effectively dealt with by tackling the question of production. In my view nothing has happened during the war and nothing has been said during these Debates to make me feel that there is any other effective way of doing that than by facing up here and now to rationalisation, covering the men, and managements and machinery. We shall have to face it sooner or later. We have to make it possible for the men in the industry to produce more coal. They cannot do more than their best. If we are satisfied that with the exception of the small percenttage of men who absent themselves—and I will deal with that question later—the men are doing their best, and I believe they are, then we must evolve some means of enabling them to produce more, and that, as I have said, can only be done by rationalisation. In every district, in every section, in every few square miles of the coalfields there are places, as we all know, where coal is more easily produced than in others. What is required at the moment is that men and machinery—possibly lo the extent of about 20 per cent. of the available men—should be moved. The men should not go out of their districts or sections beyond, possibly, an average of four or five miles, but they should be moved into those pits where shaft capacity, transport arrangements, face room and all the other requisites for the production of a higher tonnage per man-shift are available, and thus be given a chance of producing more coal.

Surveys have been taken—I know they are not complete, I know they are up to date in only one or two districts. Surveys should be taken at the earliest possible moment over the whole of the country. We cannot wait for the completion of those surveys. We must be ready, if need be, to go ahead at once in those districts where the surveys have been sufficiently completed. Undoubtedly there will be mistakes, but that cannot be helped. By and large, any steps taken in that direction are bound to be steps in the right direction. In my opinion, if we pursue that objective for the next six or nine months, we shall come to a position where this gap can be closed without having to bring back these essential face-workers from our field Force.

Additionally to that, there is scope in the direction of further use of power-loaded machinery. We are much too apt to be satisfied with mean percentages of mechanisation, when we say that certain districts and parts of coalfields are mechanised to a given percentage. I remember very well, when we went to France at the beginning of the war, how the then Secretary of State for War said that the Army was mechanised to a most satisfactory extent. It took the Battle of France and the first Battle of Libya to make people realise that an armoured fighting vehicle which could do very little more than keep out the rain was not necessarily a very effective piece of mechanisation. Merely to sit back on the fact that we have a high percentage of one sort or another of mechanised mining does not of necessity mean that the mechanisation is anything like as intense as it might be.

I have referred to this matter before, and I refer to it once again. We should do well to consider what has been effected in the United States during recent years. They have had very considerable difficulties in their coalmining industry for one reason or another, but they have been able to increase the intensification of their mechanisation. From what I have been told by people whose opinions I respect, I am satisfied that conditions in a great many seams in this country are such that we could make a very much greater use of the type of power-loaded machinery which is achieving such remarkable results in the United States of America at the present time. As the House is aware, America is producing four times the amount per man per year that we are able to produce in this country. There are reasons for that, including the more virgin state of their coalfields, but nevertheless we cannot completely discount the, very marked improvement which they have made in recent years in regard to intensive mechanisation.

I recognise that the Government have acknowledged this aspect of the matter and have taken certain steps in regard to it. A purchasing commission has recently been in America, but fully five months have gone past and no machinery has arrived in this country. People familiar with coalmining will agree that, even if the machinery arrived to-morrow morning, some considerable time would have to elapse before the necessary adjustments and modifications could be made to enable the machinery to be put to effective use. Time is against us. We have not started rationalising, and we have not intensified our mechanisation to the point which I consider possible—according to those whose technical opinions I respect.

A word about absenteeism. Both sides of the industry have made mistakes in their approach to this problem. The trade unions have pressed for increased wages, and a section of the coalowners have thought that the situation could be dealt with by the weapon of fear. I think they have both made a psychological mistake. I believe the men will respond to the right appeal, but I do not think it practicable for that appeal to be made at this stage through the medium of the pit production committees. These committees have had the invidious experience during the greater part of the year of having to deal with absenteeism as a disciplinary matter. It is asking too much of those committees to say that they should turn round overnight and be the medium by which a call is made to the higher and better feelings of the men. Mistakes have been made both by the Minister and by the Regional Controllers. They are depending too much upon the pit production committees for getting their results. The appeal to the men will have to be done upon a national basis. I have little fear that if it is done effectively and a call is made to the men's consciousness of the gravity of the situation, we shall get over the winter. It must not be an appeal as to what they can get out of it. The situation is, much graver than that. The gravity of the situation should be brought home to the men on the highest possible basis and not the basis "Obtain more if you can possibly get it "on one side and" We shall punish you if you don't turn up" on the other side. By all means pay the men what they ought to have, but I would observe that soldiers give of their best not merely because they will be shot if they do not, but because they feel that their country needs their best. I am convinced that the miners will give on exactly the same basis. I have had the advantage of knowing miners for a number of years in peacetime, and I have known them intimately during the last three years of war-time. I have not the slightest doubt that if the right appeal is made they will respond, and that absenteeism will cure itself, in great measure.

For that section to whom no appeal is possible, discipline must play its part. It is not as well known as it might be that managements still have considerable power of exerting discipline if they wish to do so, without appeals to the National Service officers in the first instance. It is their duty to report cases immediately with the full circumstances. They have power to observe a measure of discipline beyond that of which a great many of them are at present fully aware. I do not put much reliance on the most recent suggestions that young men, rather than go into the Army, may be allowed to go down a pit for a month. If those men have had no previous connection with mining life or with the mining community, I do not think they will be welcomed very warmly. No one would suggest that miners themselves are not undertaking a job of work which in some senses is every bit as important and front-line work as any, but I think they have much too shrewd an appreciation of human nature to be impressed by a young man who might decide, because he thinks it a safer thing, to go down the mine rather than join the Armed Forces.

I have made three suggestions. They are, an immediate rationalisation of the industry to an extent which will cover the gap of our immediate requirements and provide the basis for meeting our requirements, whether the war lasts two years or ten. I ask the Government to push ahead at the earliest moment with the question of an intensification of mechanisation, with particular reference to what has been achieved in the United States. I beg them, to appeal to the men on the highest possible level, and on one which puts the duty of the miners precisely in the same light as the duty of the Armed Forces of the nation. In view of what seems to me the extreme urgency of the situation, I appeal to the Minister to do this here and now.