§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR WAR (VISCOUNT HAILSHAM)
My Lords, I confess that it is with some regret that I find myself compelled to invite your Lordships to give a Second Reading to a Bill dealing with the coal mining industry. It has always seemed to me almost a tragedy that in the coal mining industry, which is certainly one of the most important, if not the most important, of the industries of this country, it should have proved so often impossible for the persons engaged in the industry to compose their own differences, to regulate their own affairs, and that it should so often have been necessary for Parliament to intervene and to give a decision upon matters as to which the miners and the mine-owners were quite unable to reach any satisfactory agreement. But it is, I think, manifest that it would be quite unthinkable that Parliament or the Government should allow the fact that the partners in this industry were unable to agree with one another, to paralyse its continuance. It is impossible that we should allow them, in the effort to work out their own salvation, to accomplish only their own common destruction. The industry itself is one whose continuance is essential to the well-being of our country. In addition to its own primary importance it is the source of power, light and heat to every industrial and domestic consumer, and it is vital that its continuance should be assured.
In approaching the consideration of any of the problems to which the regulation of this industry gives rise one is of necessity hampered and trammelled by the previous Parliamentary history of the political 650 organisation and political regulation of the industry. There are three or four matters with regard to which Parliament has found it necessary to intervene and to impose regulations. There is the question of hours; there is the question of production; there is the question of prices; and there is the question of wages. In the present Bill three of those matters, hours, prices and production, are dealt with. The question of wages is not directly dealt with, although, as I shall presently explain to your Lordships, it is very closely linked up with the Bill and has been carefully safeguarded in the settlement of the form which this Bill takes.
First of all with regard to hours. I mention it first, although it comes last in the Bill, because it is the question of hours which makes immediate legislation an absolute necessity. As your Lordships are aware, by a series of Acts of Parliament the permissible hours of work are to-day fixed at 7½ hours per day, but unless Parliament intervenes that figure will be altered in exactly one month—namely, on July 8—and will fall to 7 hours a day. No one, I am quite sure, would wish that the hours spent in work, and especially work underground in a hazardous occupation such as coal mining necessarily is, should be fixed at too high a figure. Most of us, I think, would be very glad if it were possible to allow the Change to take place and 7 hours to be substituted for 7½, but, my Lords, that is plainly impossible in the present state of world trade. If 7 hours became the rule in July next the result must be a considerable increase in the cost of production, which would of necessity involve the loss of a great part of our export trade, and it would cause either an increase in price at home, which the domestic consumer cannot afford, or else a fall in wages to compensate for the increased cost of production, which the miners could not be asked to accept. Accordingly, I think there is common consent in the industry that the existing limit of 7½ hours must be continued.
The question, then, which the Government had to solve was whether that extension should be for a limited period. The last Act of Parliament continued the 7½ hours for one year. It has seemed to the Government that to continue the fixation of hours for a fixed and comparatively short period so that 651 at the end of that period the hours would automatically be altered, would be a great mistake. It would involve the assumption to-day as to what conditions would prevail in, say, a year's time, a matter which I suppose no man could be so bold as to prophesy with any sort of assurance, and it might involve that when the allotted time expired it would be necessary for Parliament once again to intervene and interfere, and Parliamentary interference, we think, should be discouraged as much as it is possible to do so. Accordingly the method the Government has adopted has been to extend the hours from 7 to 7½ so long as the proposed Convention which will limit hours in competing countries remains unratified.
As your Lordships know there has been an International Convention drafted which will reduce the hours in the case of those countries which ratify it to 7¼ per day, and the attitude which His Majesty's Government have adopted is that, provided certain modifications can be obtained with regard to which there ought not to be much difficulty, they would welcome the ratification of that Convention and would ratify it themselves if the main competing countries in Europe are able to take the same course at the same time; because to reduce hours in this country while leaving them unaltered in other parts of the world would merely mean that we should lose trade to competitors who are already making very serious inroads into our export business. Accordingly, His Majesty's Government have announced that so soon as the seven principal competing countries are in agreement with ourselves and are prepared to ratify with the modifications which I have mentioned, we shall for our part be prepared to ratify and we shall be prepared to introduce the necessary legislation to give effect to the Convention.
We have already secured the adherence in principle of, I think, five out of the main competing countries and therefore there is a very reasonable hope that before a very long time it may be possible to secure ratification, although I should be misleading your Lordships if I were not to point out, firstly, that even after the agreement to ratify has been made a certain interval must elapse before the 652 actual ratification and the necessary legislation has been passed; and, secondly, that there is a period prescribed in the Convention of, I think, six months before the actual change in hours takes effect. But the method we ask the House to approve with regard to hours is that we extend the time permissible from July 8 next to 7½ hours, which is the existing period, until such time as that Convention becomes effective.
The second matter which requires dealing with is the regulation of production and prices. As your Lordships know, by the Coal Mines Act, 1930, district schemes were set up in the different parts of the country under which district boards were chosen by the coalowners in each district and those boards prepared schemes which regulated the production of each mine and regulated the minimum price at which it was permissible to sell coal. The question which the Government had to determine was whether or not those provisions should continue in force. Under the 1930 Act they would lapse in December of this year. We took pains to ascertain the views of those directly interested in the industry. The workers, through the Miners' Federation, expressed a strong desire for the continuance of the Act and prepared a very careful, reasoned statement of their grounds for that desire. The Mining Association, which, as your Lordships know, is the body representative of the coalowners, was divided in opinion, but the majority of the Association expressed the same view as the Miners' Federation and desired that the Act should be continued. The coal merchant exporters desired that it should not continue, but it is fair to remember that the interest of the exporting merchant is merely to sell as much coal as possible abroad regardless of the price so long as the price at which he is able to sell exceeds that at which he is able to buy. The question whether or not the production is profitable for the mine owner, or whether the wage paid is one which the miner can fairly be asked to accept, is a matter which does not affect him commercially at all. The retail merchants expressed themselves in favour of the continuance of the Act. Accordingly it seemed to the Government that there was a very considerable preponderance of opinion of those directly interested in favour of the Act being continued.
653 It is fair also to say, and I think material to remember, that one result of the Act so far has undoubtedly been to maintain prices in this country at a very stable figure when they were fluctuating much more widely in other parts of the world. If you compare 1929 with 1930 and 1931 your Lordships will find that there has not been a difference of morethan 3d. or 4d. per ton and that practically in 1931 the price was within 1d. of the price prevailing in 1929. It is fair also to remember that the export of coal, although it has dropped, has dropped not owing to any operation of the quota system, but owing to the restrictions which have been placed in our main markets abroad against the importation of British coal. In France, Germany and Italy regulations have been adopted—with regard to same of which we are now in negotiation with the Governments of those respective countries—which have had a very damaging effect on our export trade and which would equally restrict its size whether the price were raised or lowered. It is fair also to remember that in the case of one of our principal competitors, Poland, by means of an export levy equivalent to something like 1s. 6d. per ton bounty on export coal, they have been able largely to reduce their prices, and there is no reasonable cause to doubt that merely a reduction of price in our export coal would not result in any increased sale for our products. It would result in a very considerable loss to our collieries, possibly in the closing of some of our mines, and it certainly would have a very disastrous effect on the industry as a whole.
We are advised further that if the regulation of production and of price imposed by the 1930 Act were removed the effect must be such a competition as would bring down the price of coal very materially—the best estimate seems to be not less than 2s. a ton. In those circumstances his Majesty's Government have thought it right to ask Parliament to continue the operation of the Act of 1930 for a period of five years; that is to say, until December, 1937. That has the additional advantage that in this trade in which contracts are made for a considerable period in advance the fact that the Act is continuing until 1937 will assist our merchants and producers to make 654 their contracts with a reasonable certainty as to the conditions under which they will be able to obtain the coal which they desire to sell.
Then I come to the third of the four matters which are regulated by Parliament, the question of wages. There is in the Bill no provision regulating wages, and that matter has been made a subject of criticism in another place. But the fact that no such provision is contained in the Bill does not mean that the Government has not been able to make any effective provision for regulating wages. We have, in fact, it is true after very considerable difficulty, been able to secure from every district in the country a guarantee that for twelve months to come—the whole of the next year—wages shall not be reduced. While I for my part have more than once felt it my duty to say some things in criticism of the mine owners, I am bound to confess that in giving that guarantee it seems to me that the mine owners were making a very great concession towards peace and prosperity in the industry. In almost every other country in Europe—I think I might say in every country in Europe—wages have been substantially reduced in the mining industry during the last twelve months. In this country they have remained stable. Since the cost of living has dropped considerably, the miner is actually better off in real wages to-day than he was twelve months ago. That is not true in any other country in the world. In the face of that fact, and in face of the fact that many of our mines to-day, unhappily, are producing at a loss, and in face of the fact that the whole industrial and economic outlook in the world is one of considerable uncertainty, the giving by the mine owners of a guarantee that wages shall not be reduced for twelve months seems to me to have been a courageous as well as a generous act on their part.
Criticism has been directed against us because the guarantee is only for twelve months. I wonder whether in any other European country the miners would not be astonished, as well as profoundly grateful, if they were able to obtain an assurance that for the next twelve months they were not going to have any reduction of their wages. At any rate that is what we have been able to secure for the miners by arrangement with the 655 mine owners. What will happen twelve months hence no man dare prophesy, but one hopes that by reorganisation it may be possible further to reduce costs in this country. One hopes that during twelve months industrial conditions generally will improve, and we are confident that the mine owners will be willing to act reasonably and fairly and to continue the wages which they are at present paying, if it is at all possible for them to do so. At any rate, it has seemed to His Majesty's Government that in securing that concession from the mine owners we have achieved a great deal in support and in help of the miners; and we believe that, by securing that guarantee, we have done much more for them than we should by seeking to impose on the mine owners a statutory obligation for an indefinite period, which circumstances might later on make it impossible to fulfil.
The Bill is a very short one. It consists only of two clauses, of which Clause 2 only provides for the Short Title and exemption of Northern Ireland. By Clause 1 (1) Part I of the Coal Mines Act is continued, as I have explained, till the end of 1937, and by subsection (2) all the existing limit of hours is continued indefinitely until such time as the International Convention comes into force. I at least profoundly hope that, although Parliament has so often had to intervene in this industry, in future wiser counsels will prevail—I am not seeking to apportion blame to one side or the other—that these people whose livelihood and prosperity depend upon the prosperity of their industry will realise that they are partners together in that industry, that the way for each party to gain the best results is not by hindering but by helping the other party, and that by co-operation agreements will be achieved which will render it unnecessary for Parliament in the future to impose a decision from outside. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Hailsham.)
§ LORD SNELL
My Lords, the proposals of this Bill, with all that they mean for an industry which is vital to the well being of the State, as well as to the people who are engaged in its service, have been so fully discussed in another place that, quite apart from the speech 656 which we have heard from the noble and learned Viscount, its alleged virtues and its merits or demerits must be well established in your Lordships' minds. It is, however, my duty to offer a few reasons why we regard this Bill as unsatisfactory, both from the standpoint of the nation's needs and from that of the needs of those who have to earn their bread at the face of the coal. I do so with every sort of personal disadvantage, because I am neither a coal owner nor a. miner, nor have I any personal practical experience of its many and its complicated problems; but I do know something of the opinions of those whose lives have been spent in the industry, and I will endeavour in as few words as possible to explain to your Lordships what I conceive those opinions to be.
The Bill as presented to us is in the main, call it what you will, a Mine Owners' Relief Bill. It aims to safeguard them while giving them yet another opportunity so to organise their industry as to rescue it from the stagnation and decay in which they have allowed it year after year to degenerate. The noble and learned Viscount has given your Lordships the details of the proposals concerned. Subsection (1) of Clause 1, as I understand it, means that the Coal Mines Act of 1930 is to be extended until December 31, 1937: that is to say, it gives to the coal owners five years in which to undertake the belated task of putting their house in order. We, on these Benches, are in favour of this part of the Bill, because the need for reorganisation is so urgent and overdue, but I think I ought, while agreeing to this part of the Bill, to say to the coal owners that the nation as a whole is thoroughly and completely weary and ashamed of these perpetually recurring crises in an industry which is so necessary to its full well being, and that it is impatient that something drastic in the way of reorganisation should be undertaken.
One hesitates to think of what Parliament would be like if every industry in the country so persistently and so obstinately mismanaged its affairs that almost every year those in charge of it had recourse to the good will of Parliament to rescue it from the perils of mismanagement. We feel that the nation has entrusted to the coal owners functions of the very first importance to its welfare, and if they, either 657 from incapacity or perversity, continually fail it, then some other arrangement will have to be made for the industry to be carried on. The coal would not vanish if the coal owners were to depart, but many of the difficulties associated with the industry would undoubtedly do so. Our fear in agreeing to subsection (1) of Clause 1 arises from the fact that the experience of the past gives no one any right to believe that reorganisation, which should have been undertaken ten, twenty years ago, will be faced with any enthusiasm during the five years for which this Bill provides.
The provisions of the Bill in themselves will not restore prosperity to the coal industry. It does nothing in that respect. It does not impose reorganisation upon the coal owners; it merely gives them the time in which to reorganise, if they at long last feel inclined to undertake the task. Thus, for the next five years, the owners are guaranteed against interference, during which time they are, let it be noted, given a complete control over the methods of output and of sale. They therefore should accept the Bill quickly and with great enthusiasm. They may rest assured, I think, that His Majesty's Government, so long as it lasts, will prove indulgent to them, but prudence would suggest that they should not rely too much upon what may in due time supersede it. Their joy over this Bill is with great difficulty hidden. For instance, in the Colliery Guardian of last week, which may be said to represent the owners' opinion, it was stated:We think the Government, in escaping from the toils of a time limit, has met the situation in a rational way which will commend itself to the general body of coal owners. The seven and a-half hour day is to be continued indefinitely or until the Geneva Hours Convention is ratified by all the Powers; so far as can be seen at present, Spain being the only European country to ratify, this is a contingency that need not cause many sleepless nights.Precisely. That, my Lords, represents the old bad spirit which has brought trouble to this industry, and it seems to be, in addition, an affront to Parliament itself.
Your Lordships should not regard the difficulties of the coal industry, as we know them, as new or as having caught the owners unprepared. No industry in the country, I venture to say, has been more completely and keenly aware that 658 things were drifting towards an increasingly dangerous position. It was, for example, stated the other day in another place by Mr. Runciman that the conditions in 1932 are worse than in 1930, and that since 1924 one-fifth of the total mines then at work have gone out of operation, so that the condition of the mines at present is one which must have been very clear to the minds of those engaged in the industry for a long time past. Therefore, I submit, with these facts before us, and before we allow the owners another five years of undisturbed sleep, we ought to ask the Government what it proposes to do if at the end of one year or two years the owners have not awakened from their sleep to undertake their duties. That is so far as subsection (1) of Clause 1 is concerned.
In regard to subsection (2) of Clause 1, which deals with the hours of labour, as I understand it this is to continue in force until, through the International Convention, an arrangement recently made has been ratified. I should like to ask the Government with great sincerity and earnestness for some information on this point. Mr. Runciman the other day said that "immediately the Geneva Convention is ratified by the seven principal coal-producing countries in Europe we shall be parties to the ratification." Is it seriously proposed that England should do nothing until every other country has ratified the Convention, that we shall be the last instead of the first to undertake it? I was not clear from what the noble and learned Viscount said whether some modification of Mr. Runciman's statement is not possible. I have to deal with it according to the words set down. To the miners this question of hours is, as your Lordships know, one of the utmost importance, and I ought to make it clear that they regard this proposal with the utmost dislike and with grave apprehension.
It seems to be necessary that we should enquire into the origin of the legislation which this Bill is to replace. Prior to the Coal Mines Act, 1926, the miners worked 7 hours plus one winding time, which gave an average of about 7½ hours underground. In 1926 the Conservative Government added an hour to this time, making 8½ hours underground, which was a longer time than the miners in any country 659 worked. We have heard from the noble Viscount this afternoon how much better off our miners are than those of any other European nation, but the fact is that by this Act of 1926 our miners were compelled to work longer than those of any other country. This arrangement was limited to five years and the miners looked forward to the end of that period with the hope that the old conditions would be restored. They thought that during this period a drastic reorganisation of the industry would take place, which would enable the mine owners to agree to their demand for reduced hours.
What happened? Instead of that reorganisation being undertaken, the mine owners immediately began a competitive warfare amongst themselves, which reduced the industry to lower levels and at the same time made reorganisation very much more difficult. By last year the conditions had grown so had that the Labour Government, then in power, could only nibble at this hour and reduce it only by half an hour. In spite of that, the position was again accepted by the miners in the hope that by the end of twelve months better terms would be possible. In this respect the Prime Minister gave a quite specific undertaking, which should not be overlooked in dealing with this matter. I ought to say that it was not made in Parliament but to representatives of the men who interviewed him. The Prime Minister said:We shall certainly not allow the owners to go on during the next twelve months without making preparations for meeting the circumstances at the end of the twelve months and we will insist upon bringing before them their duty so as to put the industry in a position to expand when the twelve months are over, expand either in the sense of reducing hours or of giving more wages as you agree with them—or national negotiation, but that is a red rag to a bull. However, even that will come when you get to the right position, although it will not come at the moment.Nobody suspects that the Prime Minister did not intend to fulfil that promise, but he miscalculated the strength of the selfish inertia of the mine owners on the other side.
When the miners protested, they were told to be patient; they were to await the effect of the marketing scheme. Again the miners agreed to be patient as requested and hoped that some real endeavour would be made to organise the industry, and they attempted to en- 660 courage better relationships so that at the end of twelve months the owners and themselves could arrive at conclusions which would be mutually agreeable and helpful. Perhaps I might quote to your Lordships what was said in the House of Commons by Mr. Edwards, who is now the responsible secretary of the Miners' Federation, a man of great judgment and of great moderation and whose word is in every way well worthy of your Lordships' attention. He said:It is not my intention to say a single word derogatory to the employers. After all, this is a political discussion in this House, and we are all agreed that if this industry has to be built up on a sound basis, we must negotiate in the best possible spirit with those with whom we shall have to work in the future. I do not think there is any necessity for a crisis arising at the end of twelve months. … We want to utilise from now onwards—and I take the opportunity of making the offer to the employers now—we want to utilise from now onwards the two great national organisations so that we may not only maintain the existing conditions in the industry, but by joint conscientious and considered action, we may be able to build that industry higher towards the day when it can give to our men a living wage—a real wage on which they can live.As the matter stands to-day, the miners' representatives believe that the failure is due to the refusal of the owners to negotiate with them on conditions. The owners would not agree even to meet the miners until they were required by the Government to do so, and, when they met on April 7, they would not then enter into anything like negotiations. They refused to discuss wages, they insisted upon a 7½ hour day, and both parties reported the interview to the Government. The owners were persuaded by the Government to renew the interview, which took place on the 28th April, and all the owners would offer was precisely the same as is contained in this Bill. The note, which was taken and presented to His Majesty's Government on this interview, was as follows:The owners proposed 7½ hours without limit of time save such as might result from legislation ratifying an International Convention adopted and applied also by the other coal-producing countries.The representatives of the Miners' Federation said that the Federation could not agree to this unless there were satisfactory guarantees on wages.661The owners intimated that, provided legislation were passed continuing the 7½-hour day without limit of time save as indicated above and without reference to wages, they could secure guarantees for wages from the districts for twelve months similar to those given last year.The representatives of the Miners' Federation said that they could not accept such guarantees as satisfactory unless (1) they extended for the same period as that of the duration of the 7½-hour day, or (2) if limited to twelve months national machinery were established for regulating district changes of wages thereafter.The present Bill is therefore precisely that of the mine owners themselves. No concession whatever has been made to the workers and it is therefore, as I said at the beginning, a Mine Owners' Relief Bill and there for the time being I shall have to leave that aspect of it.
I desire, however, to say one or two words on the vital question of wages. Mr. Baldwin, in another place, gave an honourable undertaking that wages would not be reduced within one year, and I gather from the noble Viscount that the miners' representatives and the workers ought to feel very happy at that prospect. But this honourable undertaking is one which I understand cannot be enforced at law, and even while Mr. Baldwin was speaking the Secretary for Mines was informed by a group of owners that they would not keep to the agreement—or rather, I ought to say, that they would withdraw from the agreement. It may be some consolation to a miner earning some few shillings a week that for a year his wage will not be less, but what is to happen after the twelve months are over? Is the reduction merely postponed? In 1920 the average wage of a miner in this country was £224; in 1931 it was £111. That represents, I understand, a fall of something like a thousand million pounds. Therefore the miners have made their sacrifice for the industry, and I should like to know how far the owners have endeavoured to mitigate the sacrifices of the workers by bringing their side of the industry up to an efficient standard. The result of this reduction is, of course, obvious. The home market has been demoralised, shopkeepers and manufacturers have been unable to sell their goods.
The plain facts of the case appear to me to be these: the miners are to be 662 asked to work indefinitely hours which the Secretary for Mines admits are too long, for wages which everybody except the coalowners admit are too low, with the knowledge that until the seven coal-producing Powers have ratified an arrangement nothing is to happen. The miners are to accept these conditions with the probability that in twelve months time they will be placed in a worse position than now, whilst on the other hand the owners are given five years of undisturbed sleep before anything is likely to happen to them.
My last word on this important measure has to deal with the question of the relationships between the miners and the owners. The Bill does not deal with this, yet it is a most vital factor. I cannot close without expressing my own belief, for what it is worth, that the Miners' Federation, with the urgent needs of the men upon their hands, have maintained throughout these difficult times a level of courtesy and of give-and-take of a high order and have shown an understanding of the main problem which has been worthy of the best traditions of trade union practice. They alone at this time, in face of grievous disappointment, have decided to endeavour still further to pursue the hitherto fruitless way of reason and accommodation. We feel, my Lords, very strongly that if this Bill is passed it should provide some machinery for an emergency which may arise twelve months hence. It would be short-sighted on the part of your Lordships to pass this Bill feeling that the next twelve months may take care of themselves and that in the end everything may be all right. There may be a very grievous danger to the nation's industry at the end of that period if things are allowed to drift. The owners, of course, have their difficulties. They are fairly well known, and it is not my business to explain those difficulties because I am sure they will be explained by other speakers. I have endeavoured to the best of my ability—I hope with fairness and with the modesty which becomes a layman—to place before your Lordships the viewpoint of the working miner whose character and capacity are beyond question, and who, like the coal owner, wishes his industry to prosper for the good of himself and the owner as well as the nation as a whole.
My Lords, I am glad the noble Lord who has just addressed you has thought it well to repeat some of the allegations which have been uttered in another place with no representative of the coal owners to reply. I think he would have been better advised if he had adhered to the words of Mr. Edwards when he said that he was not prepared to say anything derogatory of the coal owners, but he has gone out of his way not only to say that the coal owners are asleep but to attach great blame to them for the depressed condition of their industry and—to use his own words—for obstinately mismanaging their industry. He used other adjectives on which it is not necessary for me to dwell. What I feel is that this Bill is not a Coal Owners' Relief Bill, as he stated. The Government, when they hear it said on one side that this is a Coal Owners' Relief Bill and when they hear another noble Lord—myself—say that it is not, may take the view that they have adopted the right course in introducing it, since neither party is satisfied with this measure.
I want to represent to your Lordships that this Bill only meets the owners' point of view to the extent that the Government have been wise enough—the late Government were not wise enough—to prevent recurring crises in the industry by fixing the limitation of hours for an undefined period. This is a question which inevitably causes differences between the owners and the men and is a cause of great disturbance. The Government have wisely adhered to the present hours, and I am sorry that the miners, who recognise to the full to-day that no shorter hours are possible in the present depressed condition of the industry, have not helped in securing the regulation on a permanent basis of hours which they recognise to-day are the hours which can reasonably be expected.
The noble Lord who has just sat down spoke of the refusal of the owners to meet the men. We have never refused to meet the men in connection with any legislative proposal. On the contrary, before the Government came near us we approached the miners and the Miners' Federation about the proposals in this Bill. We invited them to consider with us proposals on hours of work. It is perfectly true that the Miners' Federation 664 and the Mining Association of Great Britain cannot discuss wages, for the very simple reason that in 1926 we had a difference of opinion as to whether a body like the Miners' Federation, which had political objects which they desired to promote and which were not objects which helped the industry, should in future regulate wages or whether we should have regulation of wages by districts. We decided that in 1926, and, from 1926 to the present time, the owners have met the miners' leaders in every district, considered all questions of wages, and made their agreements with the miners. We are all working quite smoothly with the men's leaders in our districts, and we are not influenced, to-day, by the Miners' Federation in connection with our wage settlements. We propose to continue that method, because we prefer meeting the men in our districts, who know the circumstances and conditions in the districts far better than individuals who happen to be promoted to the executive of the Miners' Federation.
The conditions to-day are admittedly more difficult than they were a year ago, and merely to talk about rationalisation and nationalisation, and not to deal with the difficulties of the situation, does not really carry us any further. The difficulties of this industry are very much the same difficulties as those of all the other great industries of this country. If you take agriculture, are the land owners alone to be blamed for agricultural conditions? Are the owners of cotton mills alone to be blamed for the depression in their trade? Are those engaged in any other trade which is depressed to be blamed because of that depression? The owners have been doing their best in very difficult circumstances. They have, under pressure from the Government, undertaken to continue the present percentage rates on wages. They cannot guarantee wages in the way the noble Viscount stated when he introduced this Bill, or in the words of the noble Lord behind me. When men are working on piece, as all the hewers do, you cannot guarantee that each man is going to receive the same wage, day by day, but we do guarantee that the subsistence wage, which is the minimum wage a man can secure on datal work, and the percentages which have been in force during the last year, shall be continued for another year.
665 We have voluntarily entered into that arrangement, and although the noble Lord said it could not be guaranteed in one district, I am informed that that district has come absolutely into line with all the other owners, and that there is an honourable undertaking that these percentage rates shall continue during the next year. But we recognise that we are running considerable risk in undertaking that guarantee, and, as the noble Viscount said, who can foretell what are the circumstances which are going to prevail during next year? What is most important to the men is that they should have their wages and employment, and that the collieries should be carried on. What is more important to the men even than the particular percentage paid is the purchasing power of their wages, because if the cost of living goes down they will naturally be better off. Therefore that is far more important than the undertaking we have given them.
We have entered into these serious obligations really in order to try to secure peace in the industry. We are losing money. The last accountant's certificate for the two years 1930–31 indicated that the whole industry made £3,800,000 in 1930, and £2,800,000 in 1931, but the accountant's certificate does not include a great number of items in our costs which are not produced in those Parliamentary returns and we know, with the increased overdrafts at the banks, that we ought to add at least 6d. to our costs above the figure given in the Parliamentary returns; or in other words, in both the last two years the aggregate loss in the industry has been over £1,000,000 in each year, and we have had practically no fresh capital to put into the industry. When the noble Lord behind me talks about the necessity of owners expanding their industry, I say that they are only too anxious to expand it, and if you could find the capital many of us could invest it with advantage to the industry; but who is going to put money into an industry which is not making profits? Unless you are making profits there is great difficulty in finding the capital with which to secure the greatest economy in the production of coal.
Our main losses have been attributable to the fact that one-fifth of the collieries have gone out of production for the 666 moment, and a great number of these have obviously to be maintained under the lease provisions, and in order to keep them available for coal getting in the event of the demand for coal increasing in the future. If it does not increase the collieries might have to be closed down, and a great deal of the coal lost to the nation for all time. Therefore, certain expenditure has to be undertaken to prevent the absolute loss of the coal in the various coal mines in the country; but if we had been able to secure, under the wage agreement made in 1926, 15 per cent. of the proceeds of the industry, which was the amount we received as owners prior to the War, we should have been able to put into our pockets £77,000,000 since 1926. That sum has been spent in paying the minimum rates of wages, so as to guarantee the miners a minimum percentage, throughout the last six years, and but for the loss of that £77,000,000, which in ordinary results we should have been able to secure, it would have been possible to keep the industry up-to-date, and to pay many poor people some percentage upon their investments in the industry.
I want to say something about a question which is vital to the industry. It is true that there have been reductions in our export trade. To what is that attributable? It is attributable to our costs being greater than those in foreign countries. Our precarious position is not only due to the higher wages which we pay as compared with those paid in other countries, but to the fact that we are handicapped by higher railway rates, by levies imposed by Parliament, and by constant interference with the hours of labour by legislative enactment. The result is we are up against a very difficult proposition in securing new markets for our export trade. Whilst we have been able to maintain constantly our rates of wages during the last two years, nearly every other industry has been suffering from a reduction in wages. In Belgium the miners' wage have been reduced 25.7 per cent., in France 12.8 per cent., in the Saar 13.5 per cent., in the Ruhr 21.4 per cent., in Poland 8 per cent., and in the Netherlands 14.4 per cent. It is very difficult to carry on an industry like ours when you are competing with a country like Polish Silesia, with wages just half what they are in this country. 667 We are up against a very difficult problem when our railway rates have to be taken into account. In other countries large subsidies are paid to enable the coal to reach the ports at much lower rates than the normal railway rates.
I should like to ask the noble and learned Viscount if he can tell us this afternoon, or at any time which would suit his convenience, what the Government are doing to try to secure for us those rights and privileges which we believe ought to be secured for our export of coal to France, Italy and Germany particularly. We know that the Government have been making representations, but when we have honourable undertakings, as from Germany after the War, that no preferential position would be afforded to any other nation in comparison with Great Britain, it is unfair to find that that country has been importing coal from other countries in preferential quantities. What the coal trade wants to know is the result of the representations which have been made, and the attitude of these countries with regard to differentiating against us, when people who are prepared to buy our coal are prevented by the Governments of those countries from taking it. It is a very serious problem. We are up against a great number of things in connection with the coal trade and when foreign countries who are supposed to be friendly with us, differentiate against us, it is time our Government stepped in and secured for us fair competitive terms.
My next point is that I think it is unfortunate that there should be any reference in this Bill to the Hours' Convention. If the way in which that Convention was brought about was studied it would be realised that it was not in our national interest to ratify the Convention without very serious modification. The noble and learned Viscount alluded to certain modifications which he thought it would not be difficult to obtain. I believe it would be extremely difficult to obtain them and in the Convention as it stands the dice would be seriously loaded against us in the event of ratification by other countries. Take the case of the United States. The United States are not going to ratify, South Africa is not going to, India and Australia are not going to, and we are up 668 against that competition in the event of ratification. We are very anxious to send our coal into Canada—we have been sending a certain amount recently. We are also anxious to secure the South American market and the Atlantic bunker trade; but if these other countries are not coming in we are going to be prejudiced because our wages are higher and the reduction of hours would entail an increase in our costs of production greater than that of our neighbours. In America they work 8 hours at the actual coal face, while at the mines in this country we are only working 5¾. To suggest that our hours are longer than those of any other country is not, of course, true and, further, those who understand the methods of working abroad realise that when they have these statutory enactments regarding hours and wages, those enactments are, to a large extent, evaded. There are different ways of getting round their laws.
Poland, I think, is mainly responsible for the serious reduction in coal prices, for they cut their prices as low as possible and it has not been difficult for them to compete in the Baltic trade. I want also to point out that the Convention would be inequitable to our country because it does not permit a short Saturday such as we have. Men leave their work before 12 and many of them work eleven days a fortnight. So anxious were the late Labour Government to arrange any Convention that they allowed Germany to exclude lignite mines. The great proportion of their coal is of a lignite character and to allow the Germans to exclude those mines is to place the Germans in a. much better position in competition with ourselves in the event of the ratification of the Convention, because men can work longer hours in the lignite mines. The German Government have also indicated that by a Bill they have introduced with a view, apparently, to carry out the Convention, there may be contracting-out of the hours altogether by agreement between the men and the owners in any district. Then too, France makes its own terms that 60 hours may be worked overtime. Just at the time when prices rise, that is in winter, the French propose to ignore the hours, working rather shorter hours in summer when there is little demand for coal.
669 That kind of competition from France and Germany shows that if we ratify a Convention of this kind, as it is at present drawn, it would operate not to our advantage, but to the advantage of other countries. In our country we do obey the law and we know that in other countries there is great evasion of laws of this character. This Convention, while it deals with the matter in the abstract, takes no steps, so far, to enforce what it deals with in practice. Until there is a Convention which, when ratified, enforces in practice equal hours upon all countries, we as owners are going to offer our opposition because we believe the dice will be loaded against us and that ratification, instead of helping the industry, will tend to destroy it. We have no fear of fair competition even working at our higher rates of wages, but it is unfair to be called upon to ratify a Convention which is going to shorten our hours and permit evasion in other countries, as would be the case in the event of the present Convention becoming ratified. Therefore I repeat that I regret that the Government, without full knowledge of what the attitude of other countries will be in regard to the hours of work, should have introduced a proposal to ratify a Convention which, in the terms in which it is proposed, will not secure fair treatment for the British miner and the industry, but will place them at a disadvantage.
The other part of the Bill deals with the standard prices, the standard output, and the quotas which are permitted by the various district boards under the Coal Mines Act of 1930. We are prepared to accept the continuation of that state of things. Whether it is wise to extend it for five years or not is a matter for discussion in Committee. My own view is that a shorter period would be better in order that we might find out whether the artificial limiting of output and standardising of prices are going to be to the advantage of the country in the long run. The majority of coalowners feel that the standardisation of prices has helped, but at the same time a great number of isolated interests have been very much prejudiced by the quota. Areas which have developing coalfields feel that they have been unduly restricted, and have not been able to produce coal to the best advantage. because when they were able to sell coal 670 they have been limited in their output. But, of course, we are living in an artificial period of the world, when wages are regulated apparently by Parliament, and when there is a great deal of Parliamentary interference of all kinds with industry. If we were only left alone I am quite satisfied that the feeling between the men and the owners in the districts is such that they are anxious to work together. It is the political influence which has been brought in which has caused such untold harm, and if we were only allowed to work out our own salivation in our own way I am satisfied that the industry has just as good a prospect as any other in the country.
§ LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM
May I ask the noble Lord whether it was not his own Party which started all this?
§ LORD GAINFORD
The noble Lord wants me to go back to the original Bill restricting the industry, but he may recollect that the late Lord Rhondda and I objected to that policy from the outset; we divided the House of Commons on more than one occasion.
§ LORD GAINFORD
I believe probably the noble Lord voted with me. At any rate, I have never been in favour of statutory interference with industries in the way that the coal industry has been interfered with, and I am anxious that, now that we have got a permanent settlement, as I hope, of the hours question, Parliament will let us alone in the future.
§ LORD LAMINGTON
My Lords, the noble Lord has given us a very interesting survey of the coal export trade, and I do hope that the Government will consider whether, on the Committee stage, they can accept some modification of the period of five years for the continuance of the quota system. The noble and learned Viscount the Leader of the House said it was not true that the exportation of coal had dropped owing to the quota system. Of course, it is very difficult to say exactly whether that is the case or not, but the quota system imposes many hindrances on export trade. How can a coal exporter, for example, who has probably been offered a contract for twelve months, be sure what his quota will be during that 671 period? The quotas are fixed quarterly. Again, there is the question of the minimum prices of coal. It is very difficult indeed to determine what will be the minimum price for any particular coalfield owing to the diversity in the working of the pits and the difficulty of winning the coal.
In their districts the coal owners are mainly in favour of the quota system because they are able to raise and keep up the price of coal. That is not the case with the coal exporters. When minimum prices are fixed for the sale of coal those prices have to be advertised, and they are at once known on the Continent, where the coal producer can undercut the coal exporters in this country. In Scotland 46 per cent. of the coal trade is opposed to the quota system. It does not allow them to obtain any advantage that they might possibly get by a sudden world recovery of prices, in which the coal exporter would not be able to participate. Or, again, there may be some coal strike in some part of the world, Poland or elsewhere, and the coal owners would be limited in their power of supplying the demand that might thereby be created elsewhere. Therefore I do not think it is possible to contend that the quota system has not retarded the export of coal.
The noble Lord opposite, Lord Snell, puts down all the unhappiness of the coal trade to the coal owners. What happened in former days when our commercial greatness was built up owing to the export of coal, when the coal business was free of all these Government restrictions and of the many obligations imposed by the powerful coal unions? It is desirable that something should be done, if possible, to remove the many restrictions under which the coal business is carried on, and it is very desirable that the quota system should be restricted in its operation to two, or certainly to not more than three years. If it proves during that period to be successful it can always be re-enacted, but, from the point of view of those with whom I am associated, nothing but harm is done by the continuance of the quota system. Therefore, I do trust that the Government will consider the desirability of allowing some elasticity, some power to meet a possible revival of the coal business.
§ THE EARL OF LISTOWEL
My Lords, my excuse for intervening for a very short space in the course of the debate this evening, after the extremely interesting and lucid accounts that we have heard of the extraordinary and almost overwhelming difficulties That confront both the coal owners and the miners at the present time, is that it appears to me that the dissatisfaction felt by the Opposition with the present Bill has not been altogether adequately voiced. First in regard to wages. As the noble and learned Viscount who introduced the Bill has pointed out, in spite of the fact that there is no reference to wages in the clauses of the Bill itself, there has been a guarantee on the part of the mine owners that wages will not fall in the course of the coming twelve months. Yet, in spite of that, the regulations in regard to hours are dependent on an agreement which our Government may make with foreign Governments in reference to the unanimous lowering of the number of hours in the working day. That is likely to take place, if it does take place, at least further ahead than the next twelve months, so that the arrangement in regard to wages does not run pari passu with the extension of the working hours, and it should be added that prices are likely, in the not very distant future, to rise owing to our dependence on foreign countries remaining on the gold standard for raw materials and for foodstuffs, so that in point of fact the coal miner is likely to be worse off in a year's time than he is at the present moment. So much for wages.
In the matter of hours I feel obliged to adopt an attitude diametrically opposed to that of the noble Lord, Lord Gainford, who has just spoken on the subject. I venture to suggest that the ratification of the draft Convention on hours of work in coal mines passed by the annual general meeting of the International Labour Organisation last year would be of very great advantage indeed to our own people and to the coal mining population in other countries. In the first place, as noble Lords probably are aware, the occupation of a coal miner is one of the most severe and difficult forms of manual labour that exist in the whole of our economic system. It is, therefore, impossible for the miner to develop his entire personality during the hours he is at work in the coal mine, so that to him the hours of leisure are really the only 673 time that he has to occupy in those ways that raise life to a level that makes it really worth living. Hence the importance of extending the period of leisure and of diminishing the length of hours devoted to work underground. It is only then that he can develop his cultural interests, that he can experience the joys of family life, and of relationships with his fellow-men.
And, again, in the interests not only of our own mining population, but of miners throughout the world, it is of paramount importance that the functions of the International Labour Organisation, all of which aim at promoting human welfare, should meet with a measure of success. There is no worse discouragement than to feel that the years of labour are completely wasted, and one cannot imagine Governments continuing to support the International Labour Organisation in its practical work so long as they feel that it is achieving absolutely nothing. The present draft Convention has meant three years of labour in committees and in investigation of the facts, and if it is not ratified by the coal-mining nations concerned these years will have been completely thrown away. It is, therefore, of paramount importance to the progress and efficacy of this great institution that its resolutions and Conventions should not be neglected by the Governments concerned.
Turning from considerations that affect the general welfare of the working population of the world to those that are concerned more directly with the interests of our own working people, let me urge, in spite of what the noble Lord, Lord Gainford, has told us, that it is in the immediate economic interests of our own country that the present Convention should be ratified. As regards competition from the other great mining nations of Europe, let me point out that, our hours of labour being shorter than those worked abroad, we should have a competitive advantage, or we should gain at least a relative advantage, if all the seven countries concerned were to reduce the length of their working day. It is not fair, as the noble Lord, Lord Gainford, has done, to mention countries like America and Australia, because they are not competitors in the same markets as ourselves.
§ LORD GAINFORD
May I interrupt the noble Lord to correct that statement? In the Mediterranean they are direct competitors.
§ THE EARL OF LISTOWEL
The noble Lord has corrected me on a distinct point, and I should like to withdraw what I said, while maintaining still that our principal markets are not affected by the competition of America or Australia. For instance, Poland, which is a very ardent competitor indeed, and which works considerably longer hours than we work over here, would, on the ratification of this Convention, be placed in a position exactly equal to that of ourselves. Let me point out, however, that, so long as there is no limitation of the hours of work in coal mines, the competitive lengthening of the working day, which has already begun since the economic depression on the Continent, is likely to increase so that, unless we are to undermine the structure of social welfare which we have built up in the last fifty years, we should be placed in a still weaker competitive position. On these grounds I urge that it is in the economic interests of the country to ratify this Convention of the International Labour Organisation.
This Convention would limit the working day in underground coal mines, as a general rule, to 7¾ hours, a period which would include the time taken in the ascent and descent of the shaft leading from the pithead as well as the actual hours worked underground. This is the central feature of the Convention and this would become operative not immediately, as the noble Viscount has pointed out, but eventually if our Government and the other mining nations of Europe were to give their consent to its adoption. On those grounds, it would appear that the adoption of this International Convention would really be in the interests of our own mining population and of the mining populations in Continental countries. All I would add is that one cannot be completely satisfied that our Government are taking the steps required in order that this ratification may take place at the earliest possible opportunity.
There is no doubt that unilateral ratification of this Convention would immediately place one country in an extremely unfair and disadvantageous 675 position, but, on the other hand, this difficulty would be avoided by simultaneous ratification. There is no disagreement on principle between the seven great coal-producing nations that this Convention should be ratified simultaneously, but the crux of the matter is that a definite and precise date should be agreed upon and that this date should be the time when the ratification shall take place. At present there is no agreement of this kind and, in fact, the whole matter is vague and indefinite. I would urgently press on the Government the necessity of entering into negotiations in order to fix some specific date on which the nations concerned would simultaneously ratify the draft Convention of the International Labour Organisation.
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
My Lords, you will allow me on your behalf to thank Lord Listowel for his very thoughtful speech on the most difficult aspect of this most difficult question. It is quite clear that the noble Earl fully realises the difficulty with which this industry is faced and his contribution to the debate has been valuable in that he has clearly seen how important is the effect on our own problem of a simultaneous and fair application of an international settlement. The noble Earl's speech was in marked and very agreeable contrast to that of the noble Lord, Lord Snell, from whom we got the old well-worn, dull, and obsolete denunciations of the coalowners. We had sentence after sentence of these attacks, generally founded on very insufficient knowledge of the subject, leading us nowhere and doing what the miners' leaders to-day are not doing, exacerbating the situation by personal attack. Will the noble Lord, Lord Snell, be good enough to take note of the fact that to-day the miners' leaders have seen the futility of that attitude and have abandoned it?
The noble Lord talked of obstinacy, incompetence, unwillingness to move, stagnation, persistent mismanagement, five years of undisturbed sleep—an astonishing statement—and so on. Then the noble Lord made—if I may say so with all respect to him—the most farcical of all is farcical statements, that the coal owners came and had recourse to the good will of Parliament to rescue them. The noble Lord went on to indicate quite 676 clearly that the solution lies in State control of this industry. We have had experience of State control of this industry. Has the noble Lord, Lord Snell, forgotten it? Can he tell the House how much it cost? We had it for years and the cost to the British taxpayer was £40,000,000 a year. That is what the noble Lord is prepared to go back to. I wish to make this point to meet the argument which is so frequently advanced. What is the fundamental and root cause of the difficulties with which the industry is faced? It is unquestionably the attitude and action of the State towards the industry. Let us go back a very few years to a period well after the War, when the State was throwing away £40,000,000 a year on mismanaging the industry. Suddenly the State decontrols the industry at a very few months' notice. The industry, which was on wholly artificial and uneconomic lines, was immediately thrown back into the most acute degree of economic competition. We all remember what happened. There was the great and the prolonged stoppage inevitable from the circumstances—followed by what? By a political settlement in which Parliament came in to clear up the mess which Parliament had created.
That was the first of a series of disastrous interventions by the State. Inquiry followed inquiry. I can only remember five of them in ten years but I am pretty sure there is one I cannot recall to memory. There was the inquiry associated with the name of Sir Herbert Samuel, and the inquiry associated with the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Buckmaster. Then there was inquiry number three associated with the name of Lord Macmillan, number four associated with the name of the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack, number five with the name of Mr. Shin-well, and there was one further inquiry associated with a name that has escaped my memory. Now what happens? When an inquiry of that kind is announced the whole work of the industry has to be deflected from its proper course of looking after business, getting orders, seeing they are carried out, looking after customers: the whole course of the industry is, I say, deflected into preparing for the inquiry. Months are occupied by that.
The inquiries themselves occupy months of time and when they are over they 677 are followed by months of disorganisation. Then a new inquiry begins before the solution imposed on the industry by the State has had a fair chance, and before the industry has had a chance of looking round to see how the economic factors forced upon it are going to work out. There are months of preparing for inquiry, months of inquiry, months cleaning up the mess and then a new Act of Parliament. Then the new Act of Parliament does not work and there is more inquiry and then another Act of Parliament. And in between, if you please, a subsidy or two—enough to ruin any industry—a subsidy forced on the industry, not asked for by the industry but forced upon it. So it goes on. New inquiries, new Acts of Parliament. I ask what other industry could have survived that series of attentions from the State?
§ LORD MARLEY
I did not intend to intervene in this debate, but since the noble Earl puts the question to me I would like to remind your Lordships that if there had been no State interference with the industry we should be back in the time when women and children were working ten or twelve or fourteen hours a day. It was the interference of Parliament with this industry which stopped that. The noble Marquess, Lord Londonderry, knows from his own history that that was the case in 1841 and in 1842.
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
I rise to order. The noble Lord interrupted me by a question about bankers and I was not clear as to what he meant, but I am not going to give way in order to hear a political speech about what happened in 1841. If he has any answer about the bankers I shall be glad to hear it.
§ LORD MARLEY
I raised the question about bankers because bankers are admittedly responsible for a great deal of the mess and trouble in which this country and other countries have found themselves.
§ LORD MARLEY
But I say it is a fact that there has been a monetary mess which has resulted from leaving banks in private control. I and those with whom I am associated desire that the banks should come under public control and be properly managed in the interests of the nation.
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
If that is the view of the noble Lord may I in a friendly way offer him a word of advice?
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
Then I offer it to my very old friend who sits beside him, the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby.
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
I would say to him do not let him try to break them before he does it. Do not let him subject them to five inquiries in ten years and twelve Acts of Parliament and so smash a great organisation. I beg your Lordships to realise before we come to the Committee stage of this Bill that it is no good making vague denunciations such as we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Marley. Those are the glib denunciations of the doctrinaire. They are not serious contributions to the solution of our difficulties. We really want to face facts in these matters and the more speeches we hear like those from the noble Lords, Lord Snell and Lord Marley, the further we shall be from a solution.
§ VISCOUNT HAILSHAM
My Lords, the speech to which we have just listened from my noble friend the Earl of Crawford relieves me of a good deal of what I should otherwise have had to say. As I listened to the criticism which the noble Lord, Lord Snell, was good enough to address to us about this Bill, I could not help regretting that he had not seen fit to follow the advice which he himself quoted from the leader of the miners that there was no necessity to express a 679 single word derogatory of the coal owners. Instead of that a great deal of his speech was directed to, I will not say vulgar abuse, because we are in the House of Lords, but to violent abuse of people who at any rate do not suffer from the disadvantage which Lord Snell claimed. They do know something of the subject about which he was talking. I could not help wondering whether he really was addressing his observations to this House or whether he was not trying, as has so often been done in the past, to make political capital out of the difficulties of a very great industry.
When I opened this discussion I was careful to say that so far as I was able to appreciate the facts it was not possible to attribute all the blame to either side. The noble Lord nods his assent. He will forgive my saying that when I listened to his speech and heard that throughout the miners' leaders had shown a spirit of reasonable accommodation worthy of the best traditions of trade unionism, and that the mine owners were guilty of selfish inertia and incapacity and perversity and all those other attributes which have been quoted, I thought that he was not agreeing with me then so completely as he seems now to be disposed to do.
Really my purpose in rising was not to detain your Lordships for more than a few minutes, but because, in courtesy to those who have taken part in what to me at any rate has been a very interesting debate, I want to answer one or two questions which have been addressed to me. My noble friend Lord Gainford referred to the difficulties which had been created for the export trade by the restrictions which have been imposed in foreign countries, and he asked if I could give any information about what the Government are doing. I am speaking without having had an opportunity of consulting with the Foreign Office since the question was directed to me, and therefore I speak under reserve, but I think I am right in saying that there are four countries—France, Germany, Italy and Belgium—in each of which regulations have been adopted which, in the opinion of His Majesty's Government, are not consistent with their treaty obligations to this country and are inequitable to the mining industry of this country. In each case the actual form which the 680 restrictions take has been somewhat different. Therefore one is not able to generalise about them or to point out what the particular unfairness is.
In each case the matter has been actively taken up with the Government concerned, and we have received replies. We have continued to press our point of view, and the matter is still under active discussion with each of those four countries. I know it would be more satisfactory, of course, if I were able to announce that we had achieved a success in persuading any one of the four countries to accept our point of view. I cannot say that, but I do not think it would help us to achieve that success if I were to detail the exact state of the discussion in any one case. I can only assure the noble Lord and the House that the matter is being actively prosecuted, and that the Government do not intend to allow it to drop. Then there were some questions raised from different angles with regard to the desirability of a Convention limiting the hours of work. Lord Gainford took the view that it was undesirable ever to ratify such a Convention.
§ LORD GAINFORD
I am all in favour of a Convention if it can be secured on fair terms between all the Powers and without any preferential position being attained by any Power and means taken to enforce its provisions.
§ VISCOUNT HAILSHAM
Those naturally are very reasonable requirements, but one must remember that a Convention, if signed by a number of powers, equally binds every signatory, and I do not think it is possible to proceed with an international agreement on the basis that we all assume that some at least of those who sign will not carry out the agreement which they enter into. If one makes that assumption then international agreement is a hopeless undertaking, and for my part, while I quite recognise that in some other countries there are hours now being worked and wages being paid which make it very difficult for our country to compete with them, I should have thought that it would be better, if possible, to secure the adhesion of such a country to a Convention which limited the hours of work, rather than leave it free and unfettered to carry on its industry under conditions which give it an unfair advantage over its British competi- 681 tor. We have not reached, fortunately or unfortunately, the stage in which it is possible to discuss in this House ratification. Of course we are not going to wait until every other Power has ratified and then do the same ourselves. What we are going to do is what my right hon. friend the President of the Board of Trade stated in another place. We are negotiating with the seven principal countries and hoping to secure their agreement to a simultaneous ratification, and when that simultaneous ratification is secured then, as Lord Listowel pointed out, it is very important to see that the Convention comes into operation simultaneously in the various countries.
Then I was asked as to the five years limit for the extension of Part 1 of the Coal Mines Act, 1930, and, as both my noble friends quite accurately pointed out, that is a Committee point. I can only say, with regard to that, that the Mines Department went into the matter with some care, that the period named in the Bill is a period which seemed to them, after full examination and discussion with the interests affected, to be the best; but of course His Majesty's Government will be prepared to consider —I do not say accept Amendments, but consider any argument brought forward to convince them that the period, which so far they think is the best one, can for any good reason be extended or shortened.
I will just add this, that I think Lord Lamington a little under-estimates the elasticity at present provided by the quota. For instance, he said that if some particular crisis arose, or situation emerged, in which it was desirable that we should have an increased quota, we should be likely to lose our markets by reason of the rigidity of the quota. It so happens that there was an example last year when the country went off the gold standard, and it was hoped that an advantage would be secured, in consequence, by our export trade. Within forty-eight hours an alteration was made in the quota to enable advantage to be taken of the situation. In truth, owing to other circumstances, the whole advantage was not gained, by reason of the fact that our opponents, by export bounties and other means, were able to bring down prices. Still it shows that it is possible, even under the existing system, to take advantage of any particular situation which may arise.
§ LORD LAMINGTON
The instance to which the noble Viscount refers was one of general application, was it not? It might be more difficult in the case of some two or three collieries only.
§ VISCOUNT HAILSHAM
They would be at perfect liberty to represent the facts to the district committee, and that committee would have power to give effect to their representations. I think that really does exhaust the specific questions put to me. I do not pretend that this is legislation which we have embarked upon with any enthusiasm. I agree with a great deal that the noble Earl, Lord Crawford, said as to the misfortune of constant legislative interference with industry. I profoundly differ from the view of Lord Snell that one way in which you can make everything right in this industry is by constant threats of nationalisation. I can imagine nothing which can do more harm than living under a perpetual threat of confiscation, or of unfair interference being applied, which would prevent people from putting into the industry capital which is urgently needed for development, or from carrying on the industry with any long view of the future. It is not necessary for me to elaborate that point of view because it has already been far better put before the House. I will only say that I am glad to see that by the great majority of people the necessity of some such legislation as this is recognised, and I think the great bulk of your Lordships accept also the view that the particular provisions we are bringing forward are provisions which are fair and reasonable to both sides.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.