Coal Situation

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Viscount  Castlereagh Viscount Castlereagh , Down

I would first like to congratulate the hon. Gentleman the Member for Spennymoor (Mr. Murray) on the very excellent speech which he has just delivered, but his eloquence and his knowledge were such that I thought he was an old established Member of this House who had been elected while I was away in the Army abroad. I sincerely hope that he will frequently intervene in our Debates, but I must say this to him, that, much as I welcome him as a Member of this House, I deeply regret the fact that his predecessor, an old friend of mine, Joe Batey, found it necessary to resign. As a representative of the coal owners, maybe my hon. Friend will think it wrong for me to say that Joe Batey is an old friend of mine. But he is, and I think he also regards me as an old friend. I hope that in future the same happy relations will exist between the representative of the constituency of Spennymoor and the representative of County Down.

It is so long ago that I made a speech in this House that it is more or less like making a maiden speech, and in many ways it is rather worse. The whole atmosphere has changed. The benches are red instead of green. My clothes are khaki instead of black jacket and striped trousers, and I have no hesitation in asking hon. Members to accord to me the same indulgence which they extend in respect of a maiden speech. I promise that my speech will be of the shortest possible duration. I have been in the Middle East for some time, and there were times when the temperature was of such an excessive nature that any reference to a substance like coal or any substance which generated heat was regarded as the height of bad taste. At the same time, we were interested in the subject of coal, and we realised from the meagre reports we got or from letters from home that the situation at home was not quite as good as it might have been with regard to the production of coal. If we got hold of the papers we read that the output of tanks. Spitfires and other warlike material was going up by leaps and bounds. At the same time we read with considerable anxiety that the backbone of the whole thing, which was coal, was definitely going down. I was abroad at the time and not unnaturally I thought that there was only one cause for this, and that was that the miners had joined the Fighting Forces as they did in the last war. I thought it might be that there had been lack of co-operation between the Ministry of Labour and the War Office and that these key-men, the miners, had joined up before. I remember in the last war that stories were told of the fighing worth of the North country miners in the Northumberland Fusiliers and the Durham Light Infantry. I think that the present Joint Under-Secretary of State for War, Lord Croft, could tell hon. Members a lot of stories about the fighting value of the Durham Light Infantry. I thought this was what had happened. Men in my own unit were recruited in Durham. My own battery, of which I was the battery captain for a year and a half, was recruited entirely in Seaham. Two of the battery sergeant-majors were hewers in the collieries with which I am connected. Naturally I thought that the falling-off in coal production was due to the fact that the miner, as he did in the last war, had joined the Fighting Services.

I am inclined to believe that that is the main argument, but I am also inclined to believe that there are other arguments. I have no hesitation in saying that in my humble opinion there are far too many miners in the Fighting Services. I would like to see them withdrawn from the Forces straight away. If this cannot be done, is it not possible for the War Office to see that these men are seconded temporarily, say for a period of six months? There are many units which were recruited about the same time as my own battery, which, I might add, is still abroad. Suppose the men of my battery came back to this country to the Tyneside area and were stationed about 15 miles from where they used to work as civilians. The men of the battery are trained gunners. What is to stop them from going back to their civilian work and being called back every six months to be given a refresher course, to see that the pneumatic pick has not clumsied their hands for dealing with the 40 ram, gun? They could be taught the modifications of the gun and then sent back to the pits again. Then, if and when the second front starts, they could come out, and I guarantee that they would be among our finest troops. A miner in a pit is a much more valuable man than a miner in the Tanks. A ton of coal is worth a dozen route marches. Somebody once wrote that a large standing Army which was not fighting was a parasite on the country. I believe that to be true. What the extent of the Army is now I do not know, but I do know that there is a very large proportion of highly trained men who could be seconded from their duties to do other work until the time comes for them to be called back for fighting, although I know of two districts where the harvest was very severely held up and where commanding officers thought it very infra dig for their soldiers to be pretending to be farmers, even for a short period.

Hon. Members opposite have had many arguments with me about coal. They have always been of a most friendly nature, but still there have been differences. But everything is entirely different now. We have our gallant Ally, Russia, putting up the greatest fight against tyranny the world has ever seen, and we are doing our utmost to help. The Royal Air Force is smashing the production centres of Germany by night and day, and our convoys to Russia are getting through. The Russians, undoubtedly, are grateful for this, but if they get a paper in Stalingrad—I do not know whether they do—and suddenly read that the output of coal in Great Britain is going down, it will not impress them. I do not know what they would say, but I do know that they would feel that their Ally was not helping them to full capacity. The situation is very serious, and it is the duty of hon. Members of this House not only to find out the reason for it but to put it right. One thing most of us have always agreed about is that the mining engineers in Great Britain are the finest in the world. Our methods of production are first class. They combine efficiency with economy for the future use of coal. We used to have disagreements about the ownership of coal mines. Many thought it quite wrong that private individuals should own coal mines—they may have been right—and that they should have been owned by the State. But that is not the argument now. If somebody says that with Hitler on the doorstep, as he was two years ago, the miner intends deliberately to curtain output because coal mines are not owned by the State, well, frankly, I do not believe it. The shortage of output is not due to any political reason like that.

I understand that the miner is at the moment making a decent wage. I hope so. His is a very dangerous and arduous calling and should be rewarded with a decent wage. It has always been my theory that an employer should pay the biggest wage possible and cut hours to the minimum, or cut down the working week so that at the end of the week men had money to spend on recreation, leisure or on their families. Members may not recall it; but I was one of the earliest advocates of holidays with pay. I always thought that the only industry which had holidays with pay was the House of Commons. Although some of us may not have had a holiday, we did, at any rate, get paid. I advocated that all along for the coal industry in order to prevent men getting stale and giving them something to which they could look forward. Now there is no crisis like that, and the miner is not getting too bad a wage, so I ask hon. Members opposite to tell me if they think miners' attendance is quite as good as it might be. I can speak for only a limited area, but some of the voluntary absenteeism on Monday and Saturday is just enough to pull the output down very considerably.

I cannot help feeling that some of the younger people in the mines who are exempt from military service do not realise the gravity of the situation. I used to read, while abroad, that England was a nation conscripted. Well, the only way to take on somebody like Hitler is to have conscription, but let us see that there is proper conscription. Men who do not turn up on Mondays or Saturdays should think of their pals in Libya, Egypt, Iraq and Syria, who, if they do not turn up, are put on a charge and punished. If that sort of thing is clearly put to these men at home, I am quite certain they will respond. The nation is supposed to be conscripted. I admit frankly that the whole idea is repugnant to me. I am entirely an amateur soldier, and the idea of discipline is one to which I object very strongly, but we have to do certain things whether we like it or not. The conscription of civilians is a thing I do not like: it is totalitarian; but I have the feeling that if we do not do this totalitarian stuff ourselves, there is a little man in a brown shirt who would love the opportunity of showing us how it is done properly on a big scale.

I have been told that there is a certain feeling of resentment among the mine workers that they are being paid 30 per cent. or 40 per cent. less than munition workers. That sort of thing happened in the last war and it was a great grievance. I know little about munition workers, but I know that their life is a fairly easy one compared with coal mining. The munition worker does not have to crawl about a 17 inch seam such as was described by the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Grenfell). It is an easier he, but the munition worker is paid far more than the miner. I should have thought that the unfortunate coal miner would be getting used to this sort of discrepancy in wages. A very few years ago coal miners were earning very low wages, but luckily we managed to introduce the principle of central selling schemes and co-ordinated district schemes. I think hon. Members will remember that I was one of the forerunners of that arrangement. It led to improvements in the position. But it must be admitted fairly that part of the cause of low wages for miners was in the industry itself. The coalowners and the miners fought each other with such success that the consumers were able to buy coal at a, rate far lower than they should have done. The central selling schemes put that right. At the present time, the situation is rather different, and the discrepancy between the wages of miners and those of munition workers is not the fault of the industry, but of the Government in not formulating a wages policy. I cannot congratulate the Government on their wages policy, or rather their lack of it.

But there is another aspect of the matter. The miner is getting a pretty fair wage now; many of his comrades in the Army are not getting half as much or living half as well. I have spent three years with a battery consisting 90 per cent. of miners, and I know the conditions in which they are living. They are, it is true, clothed and shod by a grateful Government; they are fed pretty well, in my view; they are doctored rather indifferently; and they are paid abominably. Like other hon. Members, I have read the famous White Paper on Service pay. If anyone believes that, he can believe anything Dr. Goebbels tells him. I do not know who wrote it, but when I read it I was convinced that it was a piece of modern British humour written by the Senior Burgess for Oxford University (Petty-Officer Herbert). But the miners who are serving in the Forces are earning a very small sum of money compared with what is earned by the chaps at home, some of whom are not doing the work they should do.

In conclusion I want to ask the Minister to go straight to the War Office and, with the powerful support of the Minister of Labour, say, "We want every miner, not only in this country, but abroad—send them back as quickly as possible." I would go a step further and say that any miner who is a prisoner in Germany and who is fortunate enough to escape should go down the pit after a week or fortnight leave. Secondly, I want to make an appeal to the leaders of the Miners' Federation. I have been rather out of touch with that body for some time, but a few years ago I used repeatedly to meet the President, Mr. Joseph Jones, and Mr. Ebby Edwards; Very patiently they used to listen to my questions, and to give me a lot of advice and criticism, too. They were two fine men. I appeal to the present leaders of the Federation to go round the districts, to find out who the slackers are, and tell them that they are in the front line just as much as the men who left the pits and joined the Army, that they must do their stuff now, and if they do not, they will get it in the neck. The nation needs coal, it has got to have coal, and the nation is jolly well going to get it.