§ Postponed Proceeding resumed on Question, "That this House do now adjourn."
§ Question again proposed.
§ 8.36 p.m.
§ Mr. MAINWARING
I have declared my intention of laying before the House certain facts which, in my judgment, would enable hon. Members to see that the Home Secretary would be justified to the full in exercising the power he possesses in re-examining the sentences passed upon the persons who are now in prison. I believe I am correct in saying that in 1929 and 1930 this colliery was idle through the depression in trade, that being the effect, as usual, of the colliery 1779 working at a relatively high cost of production and selling its coal at relatively low prices. It had for some time previously been operating at a serious loss and gradually became very deeply involved in the hands of one of the large five banks. I believe the bank was more directly in control of the colliery than was the colliery company itself. During this stoppage a change was made in the personnel of the management of the company. After some months of idleness they decided to inquire into the possibility of resuming work. They concluded that it would be impossible on the piece rates and terms which had operated for a number of years previously, and they decided to approach the men and see whether they could arrive at some new basis of agreement with respect to rates of pay and conditions of work. The men were represented by the local district organisation and the Miners' Federation assisted them. The Mines Department very properly lent assistance to the negotiations and sent a representative who has probably had the widest experience of anyone in troubles of this character in the industry. He knew the situation very well and knew the customs of the South Wales coalfields and his services were placed at the disposal of both parties.
There was no dispute. There was simply an effort on both sides to endeavour amicably to come to an understanding whereby they might resume work. There was no stoppage resulting from a dispute. The colliery was merely laid idle owing to economic depression. Eventually an agreement was made subject, however, to one point. The 2,000 men who were idle were invited by the colliery company to appoint representatives to negotiate with them as to future terms. The 2,000, therefore, were invited to become parties to the agreement. The men asked how they would be treated when work was resumed. Who was to go to work, and how were they going to be reinstated in their former occupation? The services of the representative of the Mines Department were particularly helpful, because he drew up an agreement which was provisional in this sense, that it laid down that, while ultimately the final conditions on resumption for all the men might have to be referred to arbitration, in the 1780 interim period the company was to agree to reinstate all of them. The Government and the House ought to feel some degree of responsibility for any agreement made largely as the result of advice tendered by, a representative of a Department of the Government. Work was resumed, but only for a few days. It transpired that the company was not honouring the agreement. There was another stoppage. It was at that stage that it became a problem for the South Wales Miners' Federation, and I became personally interested in the situation. We had to arrange again for the resumption of work but, before doing so, we had to reconsider the terms on which the men were to be reinstated in their former jobs.
We went into this and once again the Colliery company made an agreement with us. It was arranged that work was to be resumed immediately and that two were to be appointed on each side to go into all the details. The late George Davies, the miners' agent, who was widely respected in South Wales and whose untimely end was so deeply regretted by all who knew him, and I were appointed on behalf of the men. The dispute arose out of the terms made when the colliery was idle and, owing to the peculiar condition of their constitution, the Monmouthshire and South Wales Coalowners' Association refused to accept, any responsibility for such an agreement. Had it been an agreement made while the colliery was working there is no doubt at all that the full weight and authority of the Monmouthshire and South Wales Coalowners' Association would have been used on the side of the workmen in this matter, but as the agreement was made while the colliery was idle through trade depression, the association accepted no responsibility. That is why the company selected Messrs. John Kane and Jayne to act for them. They were not our nominees. They were appointed and given authority by the company to act for the company. We entered upon a consideration of all those matters, and specifically upon the question of reinstatement.
It was ultimately agreed that the Bed-was Colliery Company should agree that no workman outside Bedwas or men not previously employed should be given work at the colliery until the whole of the 1781 men had been reinstated. That was pledge No. 1. Secondly, each workman was to be reabsorbed and reinstated in his former grade and pit. Nothing could be more specific. There was no ambiguity about it. Everybody knew exactly what it meant. The agreement was signed by the two representatives acting with the authority of the company, and by myself and my colleague on behalf of the workmen. Again we discussed and disposed of all outstanding matters. We thanked our lucky stars that we had settled once and for all the troubles at Bedwas. The Secretary for Mines smiles because he, like ourselves, has been informed on many occasions of these troubles. I want the House to realise, as does the Secretary for Mines, how very frequently these troubles crop up despite honourable undertakings. Within a week after we had signed the agreement, the terms were again dishonoured. Although my responsibilities were in a district some 20 miles away, I found myself for 12 months devoting as much time to the Bedwas Colliery, which is outside my area, as I was to the Rhondda Valley, owing to the constant repudiation or attempts of the management, by every means in their power, to avoid operating the terms of the agreement. Strangers were employed in one category or another. All manner of devices were adopted, and men were not put in their accustomed places and other men were substituted. There was such turmoil in the village that I do not think that Members of this House who have not had experience of such things can appreciate the extent to which it really existed.
Towards the end of last autumn there was a serious situation. The company 12 months before had pledged their honour to me personally, and I had pledged myself to the workmen, that no stranger would be employed in Bedwas until all those men had been absorbed. When I was in Bedwas in the late autumn of last year, the men asked me, "When are you going to implement the pledged word which you gave to us. Where is your pledge that no stranger would be employed in Bedwas? There are 80 or 100 men in Bedwas to-day who never worked there before." That was the position in the autumn of last year. So keenly did I feel the situation that I actually advised the South Wales Miners' Federation to recommend the Bedwas men to tender 14 days' notice, and put an end to 1782 the agreement. The recommendation was adopted, but before making it operative we again approached the Bedwas company. We had had enough of bickering and attempts to ignore responsibilities. Once more we talked things over and tried to get the company to apply those terms sensibly and reasonably. During the short time that we were discussing the matter with them the employers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty said, put half a dozen men at one coal face. Here was a situation which had been brewing, week after week, for 12 months. There were deliberate evasions of an honourable agreement. Men were walking the streets without any work to do, while other men were taking their places. There were men who had been idle since 1929. There are Members in this House who think that a man who has been idle for two or three years is a malingerer. These men were seriously looking for work and, were anxious to get back again, but they saw strangers taking their places behind what they had expected should have been an honourable agreement.
While the last effort of all on our part to get the matter disposed of was being made the thing started again. It was like a spark setting the whole of the powder alight. The men stopped work. Who could blame them for stopping at that time? They had been subjected to 12 months of the most severe testing to which any body of men could have been subjected. I make bold to suggest that if an association of business people in this country had made a contract with a body of people in another country, and the latter had failed to carry out their obligation, there would have been a warship or a regiment of soldiers sent over to enforce it. That is how we should have treated foreigners who deliberately dishonoured an agreement made with British citizens. This so-called British citizen company for 12 months deliberately used their powers to avoid the agreement into which they had entered. What wonder is there that the men stopped work? But the company proceeded further with their brutalities. They said, "Since you have stopped, no man from Bedwas henceforth shall work at this colliery." And immediately they entered upon an arrangement with the railway company and chartered a train to load their "scabs" at one end and to 1783 unload them at the other, all of which was done with the deliberate intention of causing frenzy, as indeed it did.
In the very early days of the Election which I fought before I came to this House, I often spent from 5 o'clock in the morning until midnight in that area seeking to dissuade the men who were acting as blacklegs from continuing their action. I tried my level best, both early and late, to try and avoid a situation arising similar to that which arose eventually. Men were being taken to the colliery in trains and omnibuses, and eventually, as my hon. Friend pointed out, there was a larger crowd than usual, and feelings possibly rose to a high pitch and someone hurled a stone, so it is said.
§ Mr. MAINWARING
Even if you assume the statement to be correct and that there was one who was less restrained than the others who hurled a stone, and that the police, possibly also less restrained than usual, immediately rushed forward and there was a bit of a tumult, I want the Home Secretary to realise the circumstances which led up to the affair. There is an old saying that "To know all is to forgive all." I would therefore ask the Home Secretary, in order really to understand the matter, to consider the situation which developed during the three years at this colliery. Knowing all these facts as they developed, is there a man inside or outside this House who would dare say that these men and women are to be blamed? Really, they are subjects for our extreme sympathy in the circumstances in which they find themselves. No matter how much we may say there has been a breach of the law—of course, there was a breach of the law if the stone was hurled—surely the greatest condemnation ought to be not upon those helpless men, women and children but upon that dishonest colliery company. The condemnation ought to be upon the men who pledged their word to me personally not once but several times; men whom I charge deliberately with seeking to dishonour their agreement. I hope the Home Secretary will reconsider the whole circumstances of the case.
§ 8.56 p.m.
§ Mr. HARCOURT JOHNSTONE
I should not like it to be thought by the 1784 Under-Secretary that the facts that have been placed before us this evening can be viewed or heard of without emotion by hon. Members other than those belonging to the Labour party, and representatives of the mining constituencies in Wales. Hon. Members opposite have a much more intimate acquaintance with the facts of the situation than I can hope to have, and I do not propose in any way to go into the merits of the industrial dispute that preceded the events which we are discussing. The hon. Member has given us an interesting and long account of the negotiations which he carried through, and the whole of the circumstances. The point which has been raised this evening is not whether the colliery company behaved badly or whether the miners were at fault, but whether the sentences upon the men and women are justified. I do not think there is any pretence that the offence which these people committed is an exceptionally grave one. It. is the kind of offence that, admittedly, might be committed by undergraduates at Oxford on the night of a bump supper, where the throwing of one or even two or three stones, shouting and riotous behaviour of a kind might be dealt with firmly but tactfully by the police. It is not the sort of offence which merits savage punishment. That should be reserved for breaches of the law committed with much greater deliberation and forethought and involving much more formidable results for other people.
In one case which was put by an hon. Member opposite where there was defalcation, deliberate intention to commit a crime, and suffering was inflicted upon other people, you have a comparatively light sentence, but here you have a case in which women are concerned, who have children in their homes, and those women are to be withdrawn from their natural function of looking after those children for six months in two cases and four months in another case. Unless the Home Secretary has information which is not in our possession—and I do not believe there is any foundation for believing that he can have any such information—that these people are habitual criminals. and have conspired to commit a crime, I cannot see how he can justify these sentences. In another court on a charge against similar people for an exactly 1785 similar offence, a much lighter sentence was inflicted.
It is not my duty to go into the merits of the case and into the provocation which may or may not have preceded it. It is no justification in a court of law for an act of violence that you have received provocation, either from a colliery company or anybody else, but the Secretary of State has in his hands the prerogative of mercy. The conditions in this valley have, by all accounts—the Secretary for the Mines Department will agree with me in this—been deplorable for years past. There has been an atmosphere of hatred and unrest and general demoralisation, and if the Secretary of State wishes to see that atmosphere changed he cannot do better than exercise his prerogative of mercy and make it the beginning of a new start in that coalfield. It is on that account, and because I believe that these sentences are in themselves not justified, that I join with hon. Members opposite and implore the Secretary of State to give these cases reconsideration.
§ 9.0 p.m.
§ The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for the HOME DEPARTMENT (Mr. Douglas Hacking)
I must start by apologising to hon. Members opposite and to the House for the absence of my right hon. Friend. He has already explained to the hon. Members opposite the reason for his absence. He regrets very much that he cannot be present to reply to the Debate. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Mainwaring) dealt with many matters which are not the direct responsibility of my right hon. Friend. He spoke of the terms of the agreement, the reinstatement of these people, the employment of people outside Bedwas, and other matters of that kind. They were all very important and undoubtedly were largely the reason for the disturbance, but I repeat that they are not the direct responsibility of the Home Department, and in consequence my hon. Friend will not expect me to reply to those observations.
My right hon. Friend before he left the House listened to the presentation of the case by the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. C. Edwards) and the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. M. Jones) who, obviously, feel the position very keenly. Generally speaking, neither my 1786 right hon. Friend nor myself has any complaint as to the fairness of the presentation of the case, with one possible exception. I think it was the hon. Member for Caerphilly who spoke of a man who had been defrauding his fellow citizens to the extent of about £6,000. He said that that man had been committed to 12 months imprisonment in the second division and inferred, although he did not say so directly, that that person was in better circumstances in prison than the people about whose treatment he complained. The fact is that these nine people are also in the second division.
§ Mr. HACKING
I know that my hon. Friend would not have made that statement except out of ignorance, I need not discuss the conditions which led to the arrest of these people a month or six weeks ago, but I do feel it is necessary to say something in regard to their trial. The trial lasted four days and the jury were absent considering their verdict for one hour. No steps subsequent to the trial and sentence were taken by any of the defendants to appeal against his conviction or sentence, but, as described by the hon. Member for Bedwellty, on the 20th June representations were made to my right hon. Friend by a deputation of 10 hon. Members of this House representing Welsh constituencies, urging him to remit part of the sentence passed on the two women, who received the longest sentences, namely, sentences of six months. I understand that the appeal was really confined to the case of the two women.
§ Mr. HACKING
I was not present at the deputation but I understand from my right hon. Friend that the representations were, in the main, shall we say, connected with the case of the two women. The appeal was not based on any complaint as to the action of the police—I should like to make that clear—or the conduct of the trial, but on humanitarian grounds alone. On receiving these representations my right hon. Friend took immediate steps to inform himself fully as to the circumstances of the dispute at the colliery and as to the facts leading up to the prosecution. He 1787 then carefully considered all the relevant factors and regretfully came to the conclusion that there were no grounds for advising interference in any of these cases. The result of his consideration was communicated to my hon. Friend about a week ago by myself, and upon the answer I gave to his question he asked that the matter should be considered on the Adjournment of the House.
At this stage one thing must be made clear. The Rouse of Commons is not a court of appeal. The law provides the machinery by which convictions and sentences of the court can be questioned. Under the Criminal Appeal Act, 1907, it was open to the defendants to apply to the Court of Criminal Appeal for leave to appeal within 10 days of their conviction, and I would remind hon. Members that it is still open to them to do so, if they can satisfy the court that there are special grounds to justify an extension of this kind. If they have not, however, chosen to avail themselves of the provisions of the Act of 1907 the inference to be drawn from that, and also from the representations made to my right hon. Friend when he was visited by hon. Members, is that any request for a reduction of the sentences is based upon grounds which are not of a purely legal character.
§ Mr. MORGAN JONES
I hope the hon. Member will not stress the point of the failure of these people to appeal. I have no doubt that his statement of the law is correct, but he will know that there is great poverty in this area and that the finding of money to cover an appeal to the higher court is an absolutely impossible proposition.
§ Mr. HACKING
I did not wish to stress that point, but this, that the appeal was made on humanitarian grounds alone. All grounds, other than those of a purely legal character, which, as I have mentioned, were not raised, have been given full and sympathetic consideration, as I have said, by my right hon. Friend and he has decided that he would not be right in advising interference with these sentences. I am glad that hon. Members opposite have not asked my right hon. Friend, directly at any rate, for the reasons for coming to the decision he has reached, although the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Johnstone) did say that unless reasons other than those 1788 known to the House were considered by the Home Secretary he ought to give reconsideration to this case. May I tell him and the House the general principle involved in case's of this kind and in appeals which are made to the Home Secretary. The general principle has been stated in this House on many occasions, and on a recent occasion an answer was given by Mr. Clynes when he was Home Secretary to a question he was asked on the 24th July, 1930. I quote his words not because he happened to be the Home Secretary of the Labour party but because they are words which should be borne in mind by every hon. Member and which ought to be adhered to and agreed to by every hon. Member of the House. Mr. Clynes said:It is the long established practice, which has often been approved by this House, that the Home Secretary does not state publicly the reasons in any particular case for advising or not advising the exercise of the Royal Prerogative.The Secretary of State to-day cannot undertake to discuss the details of this case. All I can say on his behalf is that he has carefully considered all the circumstances relating to the question of guilt or innocence, that no material has been placed before him which was not before the jury, and that he cannot go behind the verdict of the jury. On the question of the sentences he has given full consideration to what has been represented to him as to the circumstances of the dispute and also the facts as to the antecedents of the defendants, as well as all the incidents which led up to their prosecution. I ask the House to accept the statement that all the relevant circumstances have been taken into account. But the conclusion which after full consideration the Secretary of State has reached is that it would not be consistent with his public duty to advise any interference with the sentences passed on any of these persons.
May I say this. One of the most difficult of the duties which fall to the lot of any Home Secretary is that of advising the Crown on the exercise of the Prerogative. Having served under the present Home Secretary for some months I hope the House will pardon me if I give expression to my own personal opinion. I am confident that the House will accept my assurance that the present Secretary of State is no less 1789 sensible than any of his predecessors of the importance which attaches to the discharge of these duties in a fair, a just and an impartial spirit. It must be fatal to the administration of justice in this country if cases of this description were ever dealt with in a political atmosphere. I am confident that these cases have not been raised in that atmosphere to-day, and I hope that my reply has been completely free from political bias, that it will be accepted that this matter has been considered solely in a judicial spirit, and that the decision not to interfere with the sentences has only been reached after the fullest and most sympathetic consideration has been given by my right hon. Friend to all the representations which have been addressed to 1790 him. Nobody regrets more than my right hon. Friend the decision which he has felt compelled to reach in these cases.
§ Mr. C. EDWARDS
Does that mean that no further consideration whatsoever is to be given to these cases? These two women have another five months to go. Is this the last word in this matter?
§ Mr. HACKING
My right hon. Friend is satisfied that he has given the fullest possible consideration to all these cases and he feels that it is quite impossible, in the circumstances, to take any other action than the one I have mentioned.
§ Adjourned accordingly at Fourteen Minutes after Nine o'Clock.