Orders of the Day — Economic Situation

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

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Photo of Mr Harry Taylor Mr Harry Taylor , Mansfield 12:00 am, 12th March 1947

I do not propose to follow the noble Lady on the question of equal pay for equal work. I was impressed by one remark made by the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. P. Thorneycroft), to the effect that coal production per man-shift was less now than it was before the war. While there are many factors in this connection, the average age of the miner is now greater than it was before the war; further, the working faces are much further away from the shaft bottom than they were, and that represents an increase in haulage costs. I am sure that the hon. Member for Monmouth will look over those two points in the light of the statement that he made.

To turn to the White Paper, which has been the subject of much discussion, and sometimes of heated debate, I would say that it is certainly both an interesting and a sombre document. As I read and reread it, I was reminded of how devastating and how destructive are the circumstances of war. Let us, for one moment, think of our losses, both human and material. Our attention is drawn to them in the White Paper—losses in men, losses in exports, losses in investments, losses in capital equipment. In the last Parliament, I remember the right hon. Gentleman the _timber for Woodford (Mr. Churchill), who was then Prime Minister, frequently coming down to the House, and telling us of the way in which our productive forces were being geared up. He used to describe to us how, in 1940, this process started merely as a trickle, and by the end of 1944 had reached a mighty crescendo. What was accomplished in that field during the period of the war was really tremendous and terrific.

May I draw the attention of the House to the deployment of our manpower in that period? The White Paper informs us that 42 per cent. of our manpower was engaged either in the Forces or in the supply of arms for them. Only two per cent. of our manpower were employed for the purpose of our exports, and only 8 per cent. on the maintenance of our capital equipment. What was accomplished in that period was a tremendous achievement, and it was certainly no easy job. But I submit that the unwinding process has been no less difficult, and that the Government, in this field, have done a remarkable job, and in my view have every reason to be proud of it. What has been the main task of the Government during the past 18 months? It has been to demobilise the force which was built up during the period of the war, and to set in motion our civilian economy. That has been done with a minimum of dislocation. The best proof of that is to compare the number of days lost at the end of the 1914–1918 war through industrial disputes, and the number that have been lost in this period. In paragraphs 31 and 32 of the White Paper hon. Members will find a clear picture of the switch from war to peace, and I congratulate the Government on the way they have done it.

I wish to make one or two observations about a topic which has been much discussed during this Debate, that is, the subject of coal. I make no apologies for this, not only coming from a mining division as I do, but having spent the major portion of my life working in the pits. First, I would say that of the many issues raised in the White Paper, none is more prominent, and certainly none is more important, than this question of coal. Our exports, our housing, our consumer goods, transport and distribution, all depend upon coal. It is basic and fundamental to our economic prosperity. I recall that many years ago, when I started work in the pit, as a boy, when we were going down the shaft and walking along the roadways, we used to sing a song. I have not heard it for many years but I would like to quote a few words now. [HON. MEMBERS: "Sing it."] I am an Englishman, not a Welshman. The part I want to quote runs like this: Coal, precious coal,What would the world do without it?What would become of our ships on the sea?Our railways, our workshops and big factories? We certainly now know what it is like to be without coal.

I had the opportunity, in early January this year, of unveiling a notice board at the colliery where I started work, and where I was employed for many years. In a little speech, I said that, as a nation, without coal we have nothing, not even a future. In view of what has been said from the benches opposite during the past few weeks, and what has been written in many daily newspapers, I went on to say that the misdeeds perpetrated during the period between the two wars were responsible for the fuel shortage that we have been experiencing during the past few weeks.

Of what does the White Paper remind us? Take 1946. Coal production was not enough to meet our industrial and domestic needs. How many times have we been reminded here that last year, only 189 million tons were produced, but 194 million tons were consumed? The right hon. Member for Woodford had much to say in that regard during his dissertation on the coal situation. I submit that the reason why this commodity is scarce is not because the miners have not played their part but because there are too few of them. Why is that so? It is because the boys have refused to take up mining as a career owing to the treatment their fathers received in the period between the two wars. Mining was for too long the Cinderella of industries, the cockpit of the economic struggle. In my generation there have been three national stoppages. They were in 1912, 1921 and 1926. On each occasion the odds have been heavily against the miners. At the end of the last dispute, they decided to employ a new technique to enable them to achieve what they had been struggling for in these three national stoppages.

In a sentence, that new technique was that they gave no encouragement at all to the boys to go into the pits. I say sincerely, and with emphasis, to hon. Members opposite that the responsibility is theirs for allowing coalowners to do irreparable damage technically and psychologically to this great basic industry of ours. At one time, coal was plentiful. I recall the time when 400,000 miners were on the roads looking for a job. During this Debate we have heard much about restrictive practices. I well recall that in the middle 1930's there was a system of quotas established in the mining industry. When any pit turned out more than its alloted quota, a financial penalty was imposed on the owner. At that time coal-owners "scrounged" around trying to find a pit which was unable to produce its quota. They were prepared to buy the coal for half-a-crown a ton. If ever a wheel has gone full circle, it is this one. There are not too many miners, nor is there too much coal now. Instead, there are too few miners and too little of this precious commodity which the late Mr. Lloyd George used to describe as "black diamonds." They really are black diamonds. Without them—and this has been impressed upon us during the fuel crisis—industry would stagnate and die. The hon. Member for East Aberdeen (Mr. Boothby) said recently that the miners were the shock troops of the industrial army. I will put it in another way. In my view, they are the saviours of this nation. They hold in their hard, battered, horny hands the destiny of this country. It is my view that they will rise to the occasion.

The White Paper informs us that the 1947 industrial problem is fundamentally a problem of coal. Never were truer words spoken. The Government realise this, and they have put down only a minimum target which must be achieved this year. In that connection, I recall that only two weeks ago during the Debate on fuel distribution the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden) said that this was too low a target. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Pembroke (Major Lloyd George) said that it was too optimistic a figure, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade said it was a realistic figure. Each of them gave reasons to prove his argument. Whatever their opinions were, and no doubt still are, I say that it is a necessary figure in order to fulfil our industrial and domestic needs for 1947. If our industrial and domestic needs are to be met, and we are to start next winter with a more reasonable stock than that with which we started this winter, I say to the right hon. Gentlemen on the Government Front Bench that by hook or crook, they must discover some means of improving the position. We must not start next winter, remembering the vagaries of our climate, with a lower stock of coal than 14 million or 15 million tons.

There are aspects of the mining industry which are peculiar. Accidents and industrial disease take their toll. In 1946, the wastage was 16,000. That figure is the equivalent of a pit employing 1,500 people going out of production every week. The incidence of wastage is really colossal. Silicosis, pneumoconiosis, nystagmus, dermatitis, fatal and non-fatal accidents, take their toll of the fine fit men employed in the industry. In the past too little attention has been paid to these difficulties. I hope that the Coal Board will give immediate attention to the problem. It is important that wastage should be reduced to a much lower percentage. I note that it is the intention of the Government to build up the personnel to a figure of 730,000 this year. If we take into account the wastage on the basis of last year's figures, that represents an additional recruitment this year of no fewer than 100,000 men. I doubt very much whether they can be found in the mining areas. Assuming that they can be found, it is wrong to expect that the mining communities alone will fill the gap. In regard to the remarks of the Minister of Labour yesterday, I say to him, in all seriousness, that if this target is to be achieved, his propaganda and publicity must be nationwide and not confined to the mining areas. Additional manpower is the key to the problem of this industry.

I would have liked to say one or two words about food, machinery and transport, but my time is limited. I would only make these observations about food. It has been stated that additional supplies are to be directed to the mining areas in the form of sugar, fats and tinned goods. Some of the mining areas are cosmopolitan in make-up and contain other workers instead of miners, and I hope that some means will be found whereby miners in those areas will get the food which is being sent to them.

The miners of this country are behind the Government if for no other reason than that the Government have fulfilled their pledge in nationalising the mines. What has it done? It has rekindled their faith and brought them a new hope. I have a quotation for the benches opposite from an ex-Conservative Member of Parliament, Mr. Walter Higgs, speaking in New Zealand. This was reported in one of our daily papers on Monday this week. I would like to know whether it is the Tory policy: Empty bellies are the one thing that will make Britons work. Empty bellies will force the miners back to the pits. It is the only economic way. Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for the privilege of allowing me to put these few points.