Orders of the Day — State of Emergency

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 15th November 1973.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby 12:00 am, 15th November 1973

Indeed, Mr. Speaker. I was not meaning to imply that you were involved in the well-planned operation—although we know that if you had been it would have been an extremely well planned one. I make no aspersions as to your conspiring with the Government. Before you took your present office you may have done so, but not since then. If I have offended you, Mr. Speaker, I apologise. I accuse the Government. I do not accuse the Chair.

The right hon. Gentleman is right. The state of emergency arises from the miners' situation taken together with other matters, but that was not by any means clear on Monday. It was not clear in the reports coming here before Monday. There was then an emphasis on the coal miners. The trade balances, the trade returns, interest rates and the value of the £ were all getting worse over the past month. The Government must have known this, though they denied it every time. The Opposition told them often enough. Many of the Government's own back benchers told them often enough, as did many people outside the House. The Government pretended that it was not happening; they took no obvious notice. They made a determined effort to go for boom or bust.

The Prime Minister is not in control of events outside the House, but he is obviously in control of his party inside the House. It may not be so much that his colleagues trust his judgment or believe that this is the way forward. They obviously know that their choice is that they will sail or swim with the Prime Minister, or they will sink.

Over the past six months the Prime Minister and members of his Cabinet have been apostles of joy and confidence. Everything was going well, they said, Col-gate's had nothing on them. They claimed that the export boom was going ahead and that we were turning the corner, that lasting prosperity was on the way. Even last week one Cabinet Minister went so far as to talk about the problems of success. That was the atmosphere which was being engendered. Even in the opening days of this Session people were saying "It looks like being a quiet Session." How misguided and optimistic could we have been!

During the Middle East war we were told time and time again that there was no danger of any cuts in our oil supplies, that for one reason or another we were the friends of the Arabs. Some said that we had to sell the Israelis to guarantee that supply. It may be that friendship was the price of oil and oil was the price of growth. Time and time again we were told by Ministers and by back benchers that there was no danger to our oil supplies. Many people believed it.

That has been the background to the negotiations on stages 1, 2 and 3. The National Union of Mineworkers is a responsible union. It has been negotiating with the National Coal Board. The union was well aware of the outline proposals for the Government's phase 3 limits, but carried on negotiating its claim with the NCB. There is no bad feeling between the NCB and the NUM. The NCB has done all that it can to meet what it considers to be millers' real needs. The quarrel is not between the NCB and the NUM. It is between those who are asking for a living wage and the Government, because of the limits the Government have imposed at this time.

Flexibility is a current topic. There are continuing negotiations. There is no law which compels miners to work overtime. The leaders of the NUM are well aware of the very strong feelings of their members. They recommended a ban on overtime. The effect of that ban is a good measure of the support that the recommendation had from the areas. If the recommendation had not been acceptable in the areas, pits would still be working overtime. Men would still be working overtime. The acceptance of the recommendation for the ban is a measure of the support that the men are giving to their leaders.

The Government should recognise that as a measure of the confidence and support of the miners for their leaders and as an indication of what the result of a ballot might be if that were put to the members, whether it be for a strike or anything else.

Less than two years ago the Wilberforce tribunal recognised the right of British coal miners to a living wage. That tribunal was set up after difficulties that could have been avoided. All that the miners ask is that they be allowed to negotiate with the National Coal Board a living wage for 1973 and 1974 and a standard of living not less than that which was recognised by the Government's own tribunal less than two years ago.

The wage negotiations and the wage scales are complicated. The best offer, under the proposed stage 3 proposals, under the national power loading agreement, is £39·36. These are the most skilled workers doing the most dangerous and difficult work in the country.

Now that we are in the midst of a fuel crisis, no doubt the Secretary of State is following the advice which has been given to him and is coming to work by Tube rather than in a Government limousine. If so, he will no doubt have seen a poster which I have noticed particularly on Northern Line Tube stations. It is a large green poster containing very few words, advertising for temporary shorthand typists at £40 a week. Are the Government arguing that the most skilled coal miner in Britain, producing the coal that we need, is not worth more than a temporary shorthand typist in London?

Members of Parliament have to work 52 weeks a year. In the ordinary way, people working outside this place can work 48 weeks a year. A coal miner is lucky if he works for 40 weeks in a year. This is because of the nature of his employment with injuries, accidents and disease such as pneumoconiosis. A shot firer on £16 a week was at one time taking home more per year than a man ripping at the coal face who was supposed to be earning £10 a week more. A skilled coal miner is worth more than a temporary shorthand typist in London.

The Government have a choice. There is a crisis in the short term and in the long term. If the Government can get a settlement accepted reluctantly, unwillingly, unfairly by the NUM and the workers, we shall not keep the workers we have and we shall not attract any more workers into the industry. We may get work moving again in the coalfields, and we may get some increased production and solve some of the short-term difficulties, but we shall not stop men from leaving the pits at the rate of 500 or 600 a week—not only the older men but of all ages and grades. In that event, in the long term Britain will not get the coal we need.

In every other sphere it is said that we should pay the rate for the job. We need British coal. We now have a great opportunity. I hoped at one time that we could export some coal to the Continent, but it now looks as though we shall need it all for ourselves. The only way to get coal in this society is by paying the rate for the job.

Negotiations are continuing. If the claim of flexibility is right, let the Government say "We accept the need. It is not blackmail. We will correct some of the misunderstandings which have arisen over the past few weeks and allow the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers to continue their negotiations without the threat—real or imagined—implicit in some of the sayings emanating from the Government in the past few weeks. This is not a confrontation or war with the miners." This must be proved. There is still some time for these negotiations, without breaking stage 3. The Government must recognise that if we want the coal, as we do, they must pay the rate for the job. This is all that the miners are asking. This is what they deserve.