Debate on the Address

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st October 1947.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr William Blyton Mr William Blyton , Houghton-le-Spring 12:00 am, 21st October 1947

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty as follows:Most Gracious Sovereign,We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament. Although I have addressed the House on many occasions, I will ask the indulgence of hon. Members today in what to me is an onerous task. Today is a great event in my life. It is a great honour to me, to my constituency and particularly to the miners from whom I came. My constituency is made up of the overspill of the three boroughs of South Shields, Sunderland and Jarrow—the great mining area in County Durham. Its chief industries are the Mercantile Marine, shipbuilding and mining.

In relation to the Merchant Navy, I think I am speaking the feelings of the House when I say that we owe a great debt of gratitude to them for the services they rendered in the war. Many a time I have watched from the piers of my native town, and have seen the convoys lined up and going to Russia to supply the battlefields with the necessary equipment. Many I have seen that never came back, and in my native town the death roll of those who lost their lives at sea in the war is the heaviest in this country. When the story of the Mercantile Marine comes to be written, it will be an epic story. In shipbuilding, the skill of the craftsmen of the Tyneside and Wearside is known the world over. They worked hard during the war. Today they are working hard to replace the Mercantile Marine that we lost in the war, and I wish them Godspeed in their work which will contribute so much to the improvement of the economic position of this country.

With regard to mining, I would inform the House that I am a miner by profession and a Member of Parliament by accident. At the age of 14 I emerged from an elementary school and went into the coal pits. With the exception of the time that I served in His Majesty's Submarine Service, where I reached the exalted position on the lower deck of Able Seaman, I continued to work in the mines. I have lived among the mines in the last 28 years, during which period can be told the most tragic story of British mining. I myself have worked in the pits, six days a week hard going, and in 1928 have taken to my wife and two children the magnificent sum of £2 a week when the minimum wage was 7s. 1½d. a day. We were the despised and rejected of men in the 1920's and the 1930's. Every hand was against us and we were attacked from all quarters. I was the recipient of Poor Law relief during the 1921 and 1926 strikes. When this House discusses the manpower position of this basic industry, it must consider the question in the light of that background. Miners like myself swore by Heaven above that we would never allow our sons to face the distress and tragedy that we faced. Today the mining stock has practically gone from the mining villages. We are finding that the wastage in the mines is exceeding the intake.

I am now in the position of poacher turned gamekeeper. I have now got to say to the men that in the interests of this nation, now that the future of the industry is assured, it is essential that we should let our lads go back into the pits. Now that the nation's prosperity depends upon the mining community, it ought not to be the miners' sons alone who go into the mines; it ought to be the responsibility of all classes. If this industry is to be built up, it must be built up not by bringing in middle-aged men but by getting young men into the pits to take up mining as a career, so that they can start from the bottom rung of the ladder and become experienced miners at the age of 21. Therefore, I appeal to the nation through this House. This industry can solve many of our economic problems if we do the utmost to develop our coal resources, but there ought to be an inducement for all classes in the nation to go into the pits and so ensure our prosperity in the future.

I am pleased to note in the Gracious Speech that the Government intend to give us, as in every industry, the means to perform the task. I venture to make this prophecy. Given new machinery, spare parts to maintain the present machinery, and tubs and trams to ensure that the maximum amount of face coal is speedily obtainable, with the extra standard of work which the miners will give, the target for next year will be achieved and we shall have some coal for export. I say to my colleagues in the mines, "Your prosperity depends upon maximum production from the mines. If the nation should go down, so will the miners." I appeal to them from this House of Commons to give us all they can in the present economic crisis that this country has to face. I say to my Scottish friends who came out of the pits this week, "Go back to work." I agree they have a case. Already, however, their case is under discussion. Actions of this character will jeopardise the negotiating machinery that it has taken men like those we have on the back benches here, and who have come from the mines themselves, so many many years to build up. The miner has always been generous. In my county there stands a monument to his generosity in the Durham. Aged Miners' Homes that have been built for our aged people. The miner has been praised as a great fighter in war. Believe me, as one who has led the miners in strikes, they are great fighters against injustice. They are prepared at all times to risk their lives in explosions, or in falls; prepared to risk their very existence in the gases that arise from explosions. I do feel grieved when I read statements in the Press made by irresponsible people in all quarters of the House attacking the miner and telling him what he ought to do, while they have no knowledge of mining whatever.

In the Gracious Speech there is raised the question of the direction of labour. This is no new thing. Direction of labour has been in existence under the Unemployment Insurance Acts ever since I knew them. In the northern counties, and in Yorkshire and in Kent, there are thousands of my people who were hounded out of the pits and the factories in the years of depression. Because of the fact that they would have received the disallowance of unemployment benefit for refusing what is termed in the Act "suitable employment," direction by starvation was the lot of our people under the Unemployment Insurance Acts. I was taught at school that every one was equal under British law. If it was equality that my people should have been directed to parts of the country where they would lose their local associations, I see no reason why people who do no useful work at all should not have the same direction as under these Acts, and be directed into suitable work in the hour of crisis in this country.

I welcome in the Gracious Speech the end of the Poor Law. This Act, which originated in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, has been revised and amended many times. All through the Acts of revision there was always the basic principle as far as we were concerned, that poverty was a crime. In the last century Charles Dickens indicted our Poor Law system in his great book, "Oliver Twist," in which he asked for more for the poor. We have the depiction of the people who administered public relief in the parsimonious Board and Bumble the Beadle. We have Noel's criticism of the burial of the poor who died in our institutions: Rattle his bones over the stones.He's only a pauper whom nobody owns. We have had books written by men like the late Lord Passfield on this subject. I remember that the definition of the word "destitution" has never been laid down by Statute. It was applied differently in the country.

I remember as a boy my grandmother receiving Poor Law relief. I remember how she cried after the visitor had accused her of wasting the relief she had received because she was enjoying the luxury of a herring—and herring in my days as a boy were 20 a penny. I remember also when people had to sell their furniture before they were given relief. This law went on until I myself became not only a recipient under it but became an administrator of it in my own local town. If ever there was an Act that people shunned to receive assistance from, it was the Poor Law Act. I am pleased today to be able to play some little part in the funeral of this particular Act of Parliament.

I leave this question by dealing with Poor Law relief in the workhouses. A better name has been found for them now—"institutions." They were built in the last century. They were built like barracks. In many parts of this country we find in them the mental ward on one side; on the other side the hospital; and in the middle we find our own veterans of industry who have had to go into the institutions because they have fallen on evil days. I have seen a couple who had been married 40 years who went into the workhouse, and the wife was sent one way and the man the other—parted at the workhouse gates in the middle of their happy married life. I hope that with the new national assistance Act we shall obliterate this sort of thing from the fair face of England and that those places will be re-adapted, so that if our people fall on evil days and go into the institutions, they will continue to the end of their days to lead their normal married lives.

I come to my last point. I am pleased that in the Gracious Speech it is predicted at long last that areas like mine are to receive fairness of treatment from the Treasury—that is, in the redistribution of the block grant system. The numbers of sick and aged people are always heavier in the big industrial areas. That fact arises from the industrial work. In the inter-war years not only have we had to carry those, but we have had to carry unemployed people as well, and it has meant in the North, where I live and where my constituency is, that we have had to meet terrifically high rates when wealthier boroughs far away from the industrial areas were enjoying a lower rate. The redistribution of the block grant will mean great benefit to the local authorities, enabling them to give to the working class people the amenities that they are entitled to have—as the richer boroughs can. The rates in my area are terrifically high. In my home town they are about 22s. in the £; in Gateshead they are somewhere about 25s. in the £; in Jarrow, of world wide fame, the rates are 20s. 10d. in the £; in Sunderland, 20s. in the £. With the new education estimates to go against them, it would mean, were there no revision of the block grant, that it would be a sheer impossibility for local authorities to carry on. I believe that this message to the local authorities—of the revision of the block grant—will be regarded as a half-way road to victory, because we have all believed that equalisation of the rates was the thing to be aimed at.

I want to conclude. The reference in the Gracious Speech to the Poor Law and to the revision of the block grant are to me and to my constituents like bright metal on a dark background. They are all the brighter because of the sombreness of their surroundings. I have great pleasure in moving the Motion.