Orders of the Day — Economic Situation (Government Proposals)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th October 1949.

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Photo of Mr William Blyton Mr William Blyton , Houghton-le-Spring 12:00 am, 27th October 1949

I will tell the House some of the incentives we got in the early 20s. We got a minimum wage, but there were rules whereby a man over 55 years of age was not entitled to that wage. In fact, if a man produced more coal he got less wages by joint committee procedure. He got the sack if he looked the wrong way at the manager, and if he was militant and sought better wages he had to travel the countryside looking for a better job. If he was injured he was paid 21s. per week compensation. This was the rate paid until 1939 to a man totally incapacitated. Many such men had families and had to seek public assistance in order to live. The Tories brought wages down to 7s. a day, they gave us chronic unemployment and the "Not genuinely seeking work" regulation, as a result of which a man had to be untruthful to get unemployment benefit. These are the kind of incentives that the Conservative Party gave to working men in industry during the inter-war years.

Today, the incentive is full employment. We are not going back to the days of Lord Balfour and 4 per cent. unemployment, to the days when there were always men at factory gates seeking the jobs of the men inside. Today, we have a social security scheme by which a man who is injured is given a higher standard of subsistence during his incapacity than has been known before. The regulations governing compensation are more humane than they were in the 1924 Act, passed by the Tories; there is higher sickness benefit; there is no more seeking public assistance or spending savings during sickness; there are no more doctor's bills and there is no means test. There is a better chance than ever before of people staying in their own homes, instead of having to tread their way to the workhouse. These are the incentives which the Government are offering to the people to maintain full employment. It does not lie in the mouths of the Opposition to talk to us about incentives in industry, in face of their terrible history.

I should like to say a word or two about the mining industry in relation to the present situation. Even at this time I ask the Government to reconsider some of their capital expenditure cuts. There ought to be rapid development in the mining industry on a short-term basis, but our long-term policy should come more quickly into operation than is intended. A general statement of policy was submitted to O.E.E.C. by the Government. We stress in that report that the export of coal from this country is estimated to be 40 million tons in the year 1952–3, and that we anticipate that output will be somewhere in the region of 250 million tons to 260 million tons. At the present time there are being imported from the United States into Europe 25 million tons at a dollar cost of 275 million dollars. The substitution of British exports to these markets would most certainly save these dollars and help Europe's balance of payments. We also know that if we could supply further coal shipments to the hard currency areas of Canada and the Argentine, they would help as dollar earners. We on this side will most certainly do our best to bring that about, but there must be a recognition of the difficulties.

In a constructive way I put some suggestions to the Government in the hope that they will analyse and examine them. The target for this year is 215 million tons to 220 million tons. That means that if we continue at the rate of increase per man-year, we will reach the target of 250 million tons to 260 million tons by 1952–53. To do that there has got to be an increase of output of 5 per cent. each man-year. That is a colossal task in the present situation.

While I am not despondent and while we shall try to reach that target, the economic facts of this matter ought to be looked at. The miners have responded magnificently in this financial crisis, and up and down the country the men, by resolution in their lodges, are declaring their intention to start working on two or three Saturdays per month in order to attain this year's target. It will still be difficult, but ultimately we hope we will get there.

If these targets are to be reached in the next three years, three things must be tackled quickly. We must keep on mechanising the pits on short-term and quick development. Secondly, we should instruct every manager in the country to get on quickly with the long-term policy of new sinkings and developments to meet the loss of receding coalfields and the closing of uneconomic pits. If new sinkings are developed there will be an output of new coal when our present uneconomic pits have to be closed, so that output will be maintained in the years that lie ahead. Thirdly, there must be an increase in manpower in the next three years if we are to achieve the targets that we have promised in our report to O.E.E.C. It would be a shortsighted policy if we did not recognise that for what we spend on a long-term policy we shall be recouped in the future. If we refuse to embark on that long-term policy we shall meet the position of receding coalfields without new developments to provide the output that will be necessary.

I want to speak for a short time on this third problem of manpower. I am very much disturbed about this issue, which is why I raised the matter. It has become very serious. Only 28 per cent. of the annual intake into the industry are juveniles. The rest are made up of Poles and ex-miners, which is nonrecurring recruitment. Unless this industry gets more boys into the pits, then I feel that the average age of the miners with a 28 per cent. intake of recruitment is going to create a very serious position in the future because of the high average age.

This year it was estimated by the Government that there would be 736,000 men in the pits, and that there would be an average over the year of 303,000 face workers. In January of this year the face workers were 296,100 men and in March they had gone up to 298,700; but on 15th October, that figure had dropped down to 294,200 face workers, which is 4,000 fewer as from March, and at least 2,000 fewer than in January of this year. Then when we take the overall manpower position, the target was 736,000 men, but on 15th October there were only 710,600 men in the pits, which is 14,200 fewer than a year ago and 26,000 under the target. The simple point about these figures is that on 15th March this year there were 726,000 men in the pits and now there are only 710,000, which is a reduction since March of 16,000 men in the overall manpower in the mining industry. In spite of all this, up to 1st October the men produced four million tons more than they did in the previous year in the first 34 weeks.

On the question of recruitment, in the first 34 weeks of last year, from all sources 50,955 men and boys entered the pits, which was 7,300 over wastage. From all sources for the first 34 weeks of this year compared with a year ago there are only 36,769, which is 8,178 fewer than the wastage, but there are 8,178 fewer men because wastage now is exceeding intake. Since the middle of this year wastage has slowly overtaken intake. In face of these figures, of which I take a serious view, I ask the Government to consider this whole problem in the way I have tried to outline it. I should like to speak at great length on it, but there are others who want to address the House.

The Government should seriously consider this matter, because it is on the basis of the production of coal that we can maintain full production in this country as well as full employment. Unless we are going to get an inflow of young men to meet the wastage at the other end, and unless there is capital development on the long-term basis to meet the receding coalfields in the future, then I am not too optimistic that the target we have set will be reached by 1953.

In conclusion, I should like to say that the cuts which are now proposed by the Government can be defended in the country. We know from our own knowledge what happened to the people in other years, and from bitter experience we can tell them that had some other party been in power more tragedies would have been created, as was the case in the inter-war years.