Coal Industry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th July 1947.

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Photo of Mr Robert Hudson Mr Robert Hudson , Southport 12:00 am, 17th July 1947

I am comparing like with like. After the Greene award, despite the promise of the Miners' Federation, output per manshift in fact dropped. I do not suppose that the Parliamentary Secretary would deny that. A month after the Greene award, Mr. Lawther, who was quoted just now by the Minister, said: We pledge our word. We express our faith that the changes we have obtained will help to get the coal we need day by day. If we fail, it will be a long day before anyone again listens in patience to any of our proposals. Yet they failed. In the first quarter after the Greene award, output was no less than 1,676,000 tons less than the previous quarter when there were 13,000 more workers employed. That hardly carries out Mr. Will Lawther's promise. Then we come to Lord Porter's tribunal in 1944. Lord Porter awarded a minimum of £5 a week, and it was also agreed to stabilise the wage agreement until the middle of 1948. The miners' representatives again undertook, in consideration of the acceptance of that award by the Government of the day, to ensure maximum output and efficiency and regularity of attendance. But despite that, output continued to go down steadily and.absenteeism to rise. To make matters worse, as far as breaking agreements, was concerned, Mr. Horner announced the other day that he had told the Prime Minister in the presence of the right hon. Gentleman that—I do not know whether he did or not but he said that he did—the miners would expect a new wage agreement to be brought in by the end of this year, although they had promised under the Porter award that that agreement should stand up to the middle of 1948. When the Parliamentary Secretary replies we shall be glad to know what the Government and the Coal Board propose to do about that.

The right hon. Gentleman, in the course of his speech, referred to a decrease of absenteeism. He quoted figures showing a substantial decrease in absenteeism this year as compared with last. We are very glad to hear that there has been some decrease in absenteeism, but I think that the figures which he has quoted show altogether a greater decrease than has actually taken place because, if my information is right, the men who used to be absent every Saturday morning, when there was a Saturday morning shift, and who were, therefore, counted as absentees during the week, now, as there is no Saturday morning shift, are no longer counted as absentees. That is making the best of your figures. It is not very difficult to juggle with figures in that way.

One of the terms of the recent agreement was a bonus for attendance. If one attended five shifts in a week one got paid for six. It did not take the miners long —and I am not blaming them for it; I am merely stating the facts so that everyone shall know both inside and outside the House—to find their way round that. I remember that in the '30s, when we were discussing the anomalies of the Unemployment Insurance Acts, the Government of the day—as a matter of fact a Labour Government—had to bring in a special Bill to close a loophole in the Insurance Acts which had been perfectly legally taken advantage of by the men and the owners—the continuity rule, and so forth. The miners have discovered another continuity rule or a variant of it. One week they work five-days and get six days pay, and in the next week they work three days, the result in a fortnight being that they work eight days and get nine days pay—an extra day's pay and longer holidays. I cannot believe that that was intended by those people who said that they would give a bonus of six days' pay for five days' work.

Our task today is not to discuss nationalisation; it is to discuss the results of nationalisation. I am bound to say that the right hon. Gentleman skated over the actual results pretty skilfully. What is the history? He selected 1946 as the best comparison, and I am not surprised. Actually, 1946 was the nadir of coal production. Coal production had been going steadily down and down, but in November, 1946, after the Essential Work Order had been take off in September, there were signs of recovery, and I think that it was in November that, for the first time, the output of deep-mined coal—and the figures I am giving throughout are purely deep-mined coal—rose to 3¾ million tons per week. One would have expected that if there was anything in nationalisation that trend would have continued. It should have continued beyond 1st January with all the advantages of nationalisation, so called. [Interruption.] There was the fact that the men, at all events, had got what we have always been told they have been longing for and in the absence of which they had been depressed as regards output and willingness to work during all those years.

The men have nationalisation and, for the first time, they were working, as we have been told, for the national interest instead of for private profits with the advantages and conditions of being able to shift men about, and the advantage, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, of improved recruitment for November steadily improving, and not only recruitment of new people, untrained men, but recruitment of men coming out of the Forces and recruitment of miners coming back from other industries. So, on balance, the labour force was steadily improving in efficiency. All these things, one would have expected, would have resulted in the maintenance at least and an improvement in the steady up-trend of production. In May, there was the further psychological advantage, if it is an advantage, of the five-day week. Again that was something which had been asked for always, pressed for and given. Again one would have expected the trend of production to go up. What do we find? Instead of the trend going up and up, it goes up, then drops, then suddenly up for a fortnight in May, and then steadily drops.

The figures which the right hon. Gentleman gives today are really deplorable. What was the target stated at the last Coal Debate? I remember saying at the time that the minimum coal required was 220 million tons, and that has been confirmed since on all sides. The Trades Union Congress, Mr. Lawther and everyone agreed that 220 million tons was the right target. I have not heard anyone of experience of the industry say that with good will and hard work that could not be obtained. In spite of that, the right hon. Gentleman persuaded his colleagues that a beggarly 200 million tons was to be the target. Two hundred million tons, even assuming that we do not require any more, means an average output per week of 3,900,000 tons, including opencast coal. The figure this week is below 3,900,000 tons. Lord Hyndley, the Chairman of the Coal Board, speaking recently, said that we had to get 11 million tons more this year than last and that in the first half we had only got four million tons. That leaves the remaining seven million tons to be got during the remainder of the year, which is the most difficult part of the year with the holidays coming on, the possibility of the introduction of bad weather, and only yesterday we were told that wagons were going to be a bottleneck.

The right hon. Gentleman very wisely today said nothing about whether the target was going to be achieved, but his own paper the "Daily Herald," which was evidently inspired, blew the gaff by saying that it would fail by 4 million tons. The right hon. Gentleman did not tell us whether there was going to be a fuel crisis this winter, nor did he express the hope that we would avoid a fuel crisis this winter. After his experiences last year and the various statements which he made he is getting wise in his old age, and he is beginning to realise that it is a wise thing to refrain from prophesying. I wonder if, in his heart of hearts, he believes that he will be able to avoid a fuel crisis. Does he think we are going to get through this year without a fuel crisis?