Coal Situation

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

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Photo of Mr James Murray Mr James Murray , Spennymoor

A great man and a good man once said: I think myself happy because I shall answer for myself this day. Liberty of thought and speech are very precious things in these days, and I wish to say quite frankly at the beginning that there are some things in the White Paper with which I entirely agree. I realise, for instance, that the nation must have coal, and plenty of coal, and have it immediately. But what I cannot subscribe to in the White Paper is the fact that the Government have decided to concentrate available machinery on the best and productive seams while at the same time they are prepared to leave over the question of the future control of the industry until another Parliament. That is the danger I see in that particular Government suggestion.

I have been in and about the mines since I was 13 years of age. I went down the pit the day after I was 13. I started as a trapper boy, and having had over 40 years' experience in and about the mines, one has at least had an opportunity of making a few observations. In my own division I have discussed this question with managers and checkweighmen, and every one of them without exception says to me, "All the best seams have already gone from the industry in the West of the County of Durham." What has been suggested in this White Paper is no new thing; it has always been done. That has been the system that has operated in the coal industry. The manager has always seen to it that the miners have gone for the best coal so that he might realise his ambitions, never thinking of the poor individual who had to follow him. Therefore the manager's position in the West of the County of Durham is a very difficult one, and I suggest that it is a very unenviable one and is no sinecure by any means. He knows perfectly well he cannot have his cake and eat it at the same time. He understands the suicidal policy that has been adopted. If that same policy is pursued to-day, it must greatly aggravate the future position of the mining industry.

Because of this policy and my activities as a trade union leader, I had the pleasure of receiving unemployment benefit for three years nine months. The manager during that period of time was doing exactly what is suggested in the White Paper, getting the biggest possible production with the least number of men. That was his job. That is the system which has always operated. When the best places became exhausted I was sent for. Work was available, with the result that I had to go into the worst places in the pit where it was hard and wet and low and difficult, and where the lowest possible production was obtainable. More men were employed at that moment, but that did not mean that production automatically went up. That was not the manager's intention. His intention was that he should maintain his prior production so that his costs might be kept down, so that he might deliver the goods, so that the owners might get the profits. He knows that if he fails in that direction, his stewardship is very soon called into question.

I have a note from a friend which bears out this very point. He says that in two months, in March and April, seven sets of men with pneumatic picks produced 800 tons in a week. That coal became exhausted. The men were transferred to other places in the same pits, but the pro- duction of those same men was 175 tons in a week, in other words, a reduction of 625 tons; and no one would suggest that any one of those men was not a trier. They were doing their level best, but conditions had changed. They had to travel two miles to the face to work. So with all the good will in the world and with the most perfect organisation those are some of the things that cannot be altered. They simply happen, they come and go like the swing of a pendulum, but once gone they are gone for ever. To my mind the mining industry cannot simply be considered in the present tense. It is a trinity of thought of past, present and future.

I am glad that the White Paper, as the Minister mentioned to-day, makes provision for the worker to have some say in the industry. A picture comes to my mind of a pit where new stables were erected near a coalface, where new landings for tub standage were placed near the coalface. Steel girders were withdrawn, the roof was allowed to fall, no pony was ever put into the stables, no tub was ever run on to the landing. The part the miner had on that occasion was to pay the piper, although he did not call the tune. He could not even make a protest against the terrible expense and waste. I would be very sorry to see this policy pursued by the Government. I suggest that they would certainly be living in a fool's paradise in following the very short-term policy that has always operated in the mining industry. No firm or combine should be allowed to do what has been done in the past. I hope that they will never again be able to close a colliery where there was a production of 4,000 to 5,000 tons a week, which is equal to a quarter of a million torts a year, to throw 700 employees on to the streets, and to flood the mine, so that it overflows to the mine of another firm. With a little common sense and good will between two colliery firms the pumping cost in that case could have been halved, and both collieries to-day could have been in full production; but the will was not there under private enterprise. As a result, there are millions of tons" of coal still in the bowels of the earth, while the country becomes impoverished. When transport is difficult to obtain, these men, who had their mine at their doorsteps, have to travel a number of miles to find em- ployment. This policy is short-sighted, it is costly, it is a wicked waste, it is a national scandal.

Any combine that desires to close any colliery can always find ways and means of making that colliery uneconomic. In time you will make every colliery uneconomic by ploughing into the best seams and into the places where the best production is to be got. I hope the Government will think again before embarking upon such a policy without also deciding what the future conduct of the mining industry is to be. We people who have been in the mining industry all our lives have long memories. We remember the result of the 1921 debâcle. When I was in Russia I had the privilege of seeing the best mine I have ever visited. There I did not see broken timber: I did not see pressure from the roof; I was able to walk practically to the boundary. Their method was to work that seam on what is termed the retreating system. There is the means of increasing production whenever you want to do so with reduced cost of timber, of stonework, and of Datal work, and with happy and contented men working under ideal conditions. I wish we could have such things in this country, but I know that under private enterprise it is not possible: you have too long to wait for your profits, you have too long to carry on in the narrow places. Under a unified system of control it can be done.

I know we can produce grand speeches in Parliament, but grand speeches will not produce the 250,000 tons per week which are required. But I believe that, with proper co-operation, some increase cam be effected. I am glad to note that in Durham the ascertainments just issued show an increase amounting to 889,779 tons for the year. I know that there are more men employed and more shifts worked, but this increase is a step in the right direction. But if you want to increase production, you must increase the number of strong, active, healthy, skilful young men, and they will produce the coal and see that it reaches the surface. It has been said to me time and time again in my division, "Jim, it is not pies we want: we are sick of pies. Let us have some steak and kidney, and our wives will make the puddings. Let us have some suet, and our wives will make the dumplings." The miner is a very hard-working man, but he is also a good eater; look at me if you do not believe it. Many of these men have said to me, with all sincerity, "What we need, Jim, is some substantial food." I want to speak of the consumption of coal. I believe that, with proper methods, fuel can be saved. I have been a very active member of our Durham County mental hospital committee. They were very anxious about fuel costs. After careful investigation it was found that by installing a super-Lancashire boiler better results could be obtained on five tons a day than had been obtained on eight tons a day with the old Lancashire boiler. The cooking in that great hospital was centralised. The electric oven had been simply eating electricity, but that electric oven is now a thing of the past, and the results have been wonderful. We installed new machinery in the laundry, and thousands more articles are washed today—not only for the patients, but also for the military—and overtime has been abolished, with a great saving of fuel and power.

I am now going to say something with which many hon. Members and many people outside may not agree. I cannot understand why the Minister of Food, in this time of stress and strain upon our shipping, has not seen fit to prohibit the sale of bread until 24 hours after it has been baked. There are three reasons why I advocate this. I believe that the community would have better health, and good health is cherished now more than ever. Secondly, I believe the bread would be more nourishing. Thirdly, I believe there would be a great saving in fuel, and in the consumption of bread. I know that people like new bread, and they say that bread will not keep. I am not asking them to keep the bread. What I say is that it should not be on sale until it is 24 hours old. In our house we never got new bread. There were nine robust lads and one daughter, and our maxim was not that of the Food Minister, that we should eat more potatoes and less bread, so that there should be more shipping space: it was, "Eat more pudding, and you will want less meat." If you put that maxim into effect and eat plenty of pudding, you will not want any meat. That is the reason why it is advocated. In our house we were always at war, but it was a war against poverty, an economic war. I have seen my father bring in 25s. for 12 days at the pit, with 12 to keep. You can understand sometimes why we people are so anxious to help the people we represent. My mother was a wonderful woman. She could neither read nor write, but she was a born organiser. She believed in the long-term policy in the home as well as in the pit. When the box was full of bread that was the time to bake, and not when it was empty. No new bread was ever allowed to be eaten in our house, and I do not think that I am a bad advertisement for that, and for what I am advocating.

I know a bakery in the County of Durham where the bakers are anxious to abolish the night shift, and that is what everybody advocates. They do not want any night-shift baking. They built a new bakery and installed modern machinery. What is the position to-day? An hon. Member yesterday said that this new bread was unpalatable, and all I would say is that I hope we shall never have worse in this struggle in which we are engaged. These figures may help to assist that hon. Member. For the week ending 12th September, 1941, 41,168 two-lb. loaves were baked in this particular bakery and for the corresponding week this year 155, 255 two-lb. loaves were baked, just over three and three-quarter times the number that was baked last year. For the two weeks ending 12th September, 1941, 552 sacks of flour were consumed and for the corresponding period this year 1,624 sacks of flour were consumed. These figures speak for themselves, and I leave it at that for the digestion of hon. Members. I humbly suggest to the Minister of Fuel and Power that this simple remedy, if adopted, will save fuel and power and shipping space.

People will grouse. They will grouse at me probably for what I am saying today. It is a good thing that they can grouse. That is their prerogative. I told my people in the Spennymoor Division not to leave a yard of land unfilled, not to waste a scrap of bread, not to bum an unnecessary unit of electricity, not to waste a drop of water, and not to lose a shift at the pit if able and fit to go. And yet I read that outside the Grosvenor Hotel at 1.15 a.m. there were 137 cars waiting to take dancers home, and at midnight, the paper said, the rush was like a peace-time rush for motor cars. I suggest: that such a picture is very aggravating and irritating, and it is certainly grossly unfair that such things are allowed. If people want to dance and have the time to dance, let them dance. I am not a killjoy, but I would not allow them to use vital fuel supplies that might be urgently required in the near future for war purposes. When I was elected to this House I received many letters urging that there should be some move to get this cruel war finished. What I want to say to the Government is, "Be bold, be active, be courageous. The people today are anxiously waiting. Now is your opportunity." My old school teacher used to say to me that opportunities were like snowflakes on the river, a moment seen and then gone for ever. Let the people see that the Government mean business. Stimulate in them a greater faith. Let them see that you intend to get a move on, and if you do, you will find the people are with you 100 per cent. and will do anything and everything to assist you to final victory.