Economic Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th March 1947.

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Photo of Mr Harold Neal Mr Harold Neal , Clay Cross 12:00 am, 10th March 1947

I regret that I am unable to follow the hon. and gallant Member for Ecclesall (Major Roberts). He brings to this Debate knowledge acquired in the coal industry, in his capacity as a former mineowner. I can only contribute from my practical experience as a miner, and as a local trade union leader. In the time at my disposal, it is impossible for me to attempt to reply to many of the amusing arguments which the hon. and gallant Gentleman has adduced. If I were to attempt to do so, I think I would be imprudent in detaining the House at a time when so many Members want to catch Mr. Speaker's eye. But I want in the course of my remarks to make some reply to some of the points which were made by the hon. and gallant Gentleman. In paragraph 83 of the Economic Survey is an expression of opinion with which I think Members on both sides of the House will agree: The 1947 industrial problem is fundamentally a problem of coal. The target of 200 million tons that has been fixed by the Government in this White Paper appears to be a very modest one. In my submission, it is much better to fix a target that is realisable, than to put down some fantastic figure that cannot be achieved. Coal is the currency that will preserve our solvency, and that can only be preserved by the indispensable minimum which the Government has fixed. This is a target of 200 million tons, representing an increase of 11 million tons on the 1946 output, and it cannot be achieved without a substantial increase in manpower; additional incentives to the men engaged in the industry and those who are expected to come into it, and a speed-up in the provision of mining machinery.

With regard to the question of manpower, there are, at the present time, engaged in the industry 695,000 to 696,000 men, and the Government propose that the manpower shall reach 730,000 by the end of 1947. Superficially, it would appear that only 35,000 men are necessary to make up that figure, but, when one considers the wastage that is taking place in the industry, and has made allowance for that, it means that the number required will be an extra 80,000 to 90,000 men coming into the industry to make up the figure to 730,000. I, therefore, ask from where is this additional manpower to be recruited? The President of the Board of Trade, in his admirable speech referred to the fact that the National Union of Mineworkers have already agreed to the engagement of Poles in the mining industry. I want to say at once, as a responsible member of the Miners' Executive, that the guarantees that have been offered us, so far as unionism and redundancy are concerned, are guarantees with which nobody will quarrel, but, when that proposal was first made, we heard that there were 1,000 men, English-speaking Poles, who were immediately available and capable of working at the coal face. That was in May of last year. By November, this figure had become reduced to 270 men, as the Poles had been screened into three separate categories.

I have heard some hon. Members glibly talk about importing hundreds and thousands of displaced persons into the mining industry. They talk as glibly about that as if it were opening the doors of a factory to dilutee labour. From my experiences, in visiting displaced persons camps on the Continent, I cannot imagine that there is within them the preponderance of younger men whom we want in the industry in this country. Furthermore, the standard of physique of displaced persons is so low, because of the low number of calories which they have been consuming, that they are unfitted for the laborious work of the mining industry. I have seen some miners in pits on the Continent who were working underground on 1,500 calories, and I can say from experience that they could not do as much work as an English schoolboy on our present rations, I cannot look forward to any very extensive recruitment from that source.

Must I repeat that the problem really is that mining is an arduous, skilled and dangerous occupation? Hon. Members have only to peruse the documents issued by the Ministry of Fuel and Power to be convinced of that. They will notice that the accident rate is continuing almost at the same figure as that of seven years ago. Every time the miner strikes at nature, nature strikes back, and the coal in the domestic grate and in the industrial furnace represents men's lives. Before a man can be taught to get coal, he has to be taught to keep himself safe. Consequently, any foreign labour that might be introduced into the industry would take a long time to train before being capable of undertaking the operation of coal getting. Indeed, I question whether there is, at the present time, pit room for more than 20,000 men in the industry. My hon. Friends on this side of the House who have practical experience of the industry will confirm my statement that, for years, the technique of the mining industry has been developed along lines of a contracting manpower. Many of us on this side of the House have bitter memories of the days when we tramped from colliery to colliery in search of work. We are paying dearly for that policy now. If pit room is to be made for these extra men, the National Coal Board will have to insist on new places being opened up, so that work for these men may be found.

Inseparably bound up with recruitment is the question of housing. It is no good talking about bringing new people to work in the pits when there are no houses for them to live in, and, as a consequence, immediate recruitment for the mines will have to depend on the mining areas only. I beg the Government to use every possible endeavour to recruit the young men of our own country, and particularly those in the mining areas, into this industry before they talk about any others.

I was glad to hear the President of the Board of Trade declare that the Government were prepared to offer every facility for ex-miners returning from the Armed Forces to go into the industry, but the facilities to which he referred do not cover those men engaged in the regular Armed Forces. No facilities are available to them to come out of the Forces in Class B, and, as a consequence, they have to remain in the Forces and are lost to the industry. There are many men in the regular forces with experience of mining, men who would be of valuable assistance to the country at the present time, much more valuable in the mines, I think, than where they are today, and I beg the Minister of Defence to look at this question again and see if these men cannot be returned.

Paragraph 87 of the White Paper declares that the policy of the National Coal Board is to make the industry attractive enough to draw the necessary number of recruits. This job of mining can never be made as attractive as a job on the surface, and 25 years experience underground qualifies me to say that, but there is no reason why it should be less dignified and less honourable. The miner in 1947 is contributing as much to his country as the airmen who fought in the Battle of Britain. I once heard the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill), speaking at a secret conference of miners' delegates, say that where there is danger there is honour. I think we might implement that statement now, and offer to the miners all the necessary inducements—the maximum food and so on—to get us out of this economic crisis. The miner is in no mood to hold the country up to ransom. All he needs is the honourable recognition of his value to the community and some sense of security for the future. An hon. Member opposite referred to the inducements that ought to be put before the men. That is the one burning question that is talked about in the mining areas, and it must be within the recollection of hon. Members that this is the only country where rationing obtains and where miners do not get more allowances than other workers.

I think the Government ought to take steps to improve the rations of miners if they intend to achieve the increased output of coal. I know that there would be protests from other sections of the community if more food were given to the miners, but, after all, those people who are outside will always have the chance of availing themselves of the additional rations if they are given to the miners. I believe that the country will forgive error after error, but they will not forgive the Government lack of courage in anything they do in this crisis.

One of the chief incentives to make the industry attractive is the five-day week, which it is proposed to introduce in May of this year. I warn the Government that there must be no attempt to snatch back the promise which has been made to the miners to introduce it in May. Nothing could be more calculated than that to frustrate the spirit of the miners and to create dissension in the coalfields. It is all right people thinking that all that is necessary is for the miner to work harder and longer. That is a mistake. What we require is not harder and longer work. but better work. In this connection, I appeal to the Government to do something with regard to improving and speeding up the provision of machinery in the mines. Miners are often blamed for hold-ups in production which are no fault of their own. Equipment has deteriorated much during the war, and hon. Members on this side of the House could tell of reports in coalfields of worn-out motors and broken conveyor belts. which continually hold up production. Therefore, priority ought to be given in the matter of machinery for the industry in order to get the coal that is required.

Between May, 1946, and February, 1947, with an average of 3,400 fewer millers in the industry, eight million tons more coal were produced than in the corresponding coal year. If that increase had not been achieved by the miners, as the hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. D. Thomas) reminded the House this afternoon, the crisis which is now upon us would have developed months ago. I am sure that my colleagues will agree that there is a better spirit prevailing in the industry at the present time than, in their experience, has ever prevailed before. Everywhere there is a willingness in the mining communities to make this Socialist experiment a success. Whatever may be the shortcomings of the Minister of Fuel and Power, he has recovered the good will of the men engaged in the industry. There is no industry so dependent upon the good will of the men in it as the mining industry. If there is any clamour for the right hon. Gentleman's resignation, it certainly does not come from the mining areas. The mining areas appreciate the unexampled difficulties with which he is confronted, and they know that, since assuming office, he has had more difficulties to meet than any of his predecessors.

In conclusion, I assure the Government as a member of the Executive of the National Mine Workers' Union that the miners will co-operate with the Government to the fullest possible extent, in achieving the target of 200 million tons of coal in 1947. But I hope the Government will not respond to the clamour to import coal from other countries. Coal is the only natural wealth we have in great quantities in this country, and it is a sad commentary on the way the mining industry has been conducted in the past, that the suggestion should ever be made that American coal should be brought into this country. Given the necessary short-term and long-term improvements proposed by the Government in this White Paper and given a prevalence of the spirit which is now in the mining communities, this target can be achieved. Finally, I commend to the House, and to the country the words spoken by the Prime Minister to Congress in America: We did not stand up to our enemies for six years to be beaten by economics.