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Point Of Ayr Collieries (Control)

Volume 389: debated on Thursday 13 May 1943

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— (Major Sir James Edmondson.)

When I gave notice on 6th April that I would call the attention of the House to the Government taking over the control of the Point of Ayr Collieries I hoped that a settlement would have been arrived at and that it would not be necessary to deal further with the matter. Unfortunately such has not been the case, and I feel it my duty as the Member for the Division in which this colliery is situated to deal further with the question of why the Minister of Fuel and Power deemed it necessary to take over the control of this colliery. Since the question was ventilated in the House by Question and Answer, considerable public interest has been aroused, and there is a feeling in the country, and especially among the people I have the honour to represent, that further information should be forthcoming.

It is a serious matter at all times, even during a war, to deprive a company of the right to control its own undertaking, but undoubtedly circumstances can arise which make this extreme measure absolutely necessary. So far as the mining industry is concerned, one can visualise several such circumstances at a time when the production of coal is of such vital national importance. When the public are asked to economise in the consumption of fuel, and the miners are urged to redouble their efforts to produce more, the Minister would no doubt be perfectly justified in taking over the control of any colliery if he thought that the management was inefficient and consequently an obstacle to maximum, or even reasonable, production. Moreover, one can also conceive of circumstances where output is produced at the expense of the safety of the men. I say again that the Minister would be perfectly justified in taking over the control of that colliery. In addition, continual friction between the management and the men, perpetual disputes as to wages or conditions of work, might very well be another justifiable reason why the Government should come in and take over the control of a colliery. But I think the House will agree that an endeavour should be made at all times to remove such causes of friction before this extreme step is taken and the owners are deprived of the right to control their own undertaking.

Having made these few general remarks, I should like to deal for a few minutes with the conditions at this particular colliery. I think it is admitted that there is no inefficiency of management. In fact this company and the men can boast of the finest output in the whole region—s. per man per shift as compared with an average of 19.6 cwts. per man per shift in the whole of Wales. Moreover, that record output has not been over a short period. They held that record for 16 years. They can also boast of having the highest average wage per man in the whole of the region. In addition, the relationship between the employers and the employees has been so cordial that there has been no stoppage at this colliery since the resumption after 1926. When I put a supplementary to the Minister about the peacefulness of the relationship between employers and employees, he replied:
"That has nothing to do with the point I made, which was that there are in this colliery a large number of men who belong to a union and who desire the same rights at this colliery as are available in every other colliery throughout the country."
He also said:
"My only interest is to see that everybody is treated alike."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th April, 1943; col. 487, Vol. 388.]
From this reply, it is obvious that the casus belli between the employers and the Ministry rests upon the question of equal treatment to both unions. My right hon. and gallant Friend naturally insists that equal treatment should be given. I would like to ask him one or two questions, based upon his reply. Is it to be the permanent policy of the Ministry to intervene where there are two unions at a colliery? I can quite conceive the Miners' Industrial Union trying to get a footing. Are we going to have this policy when the boot is on the other foot? I want to make it perfectly clear that I am not suggesting that there is any prejudice in this matter, but I see the danger of such a policy. The second question is: Were representations made to the colliery company before this extreme measure was taken? The third question is: If he is now given an assurance by the Point of Ayr Colliery Company that equal treatment will be given in future to members of both unions, will he remove the control? I put this last question because I am informed that my right hon. and gallant Friend has met the directors of the colliery and has discussed with them this question of equal treatment for the two unions, and that, as a result of that discussion, he has received a letter which sets out the position as it is at present and what the colliery company are prepared to do. Inasmuch as I think that this letter contains the basis of an amicable settle- ment of this business, I should like to read it. It is as follows:
30th April.
"On behalf of my company, I wish to thank you for the opportunity afforded by the meeting to-day of placing the company's case before you. I desire to submit the following notes for your personal consideration upon the equal treatment of the employees at the colliery who are members of the Miners' Federation which is understood to have given rise to the Control Order.
  • (1) The collection of contributions from employees who are members of the Miners. Federation take place on the colliery premises in the usual trade union manner.
  • (2) There is a separate notice board in the colliery premises for the Miners' Federation.
  • (3) In the case of a complaint by an employee who is a member of the Miners' Federation, the employee, if necessary, reports to the North Wales and Border Counties Mineworkers' Association, or to their local branch, or he can make a complaint to the company, and if agreement is not reached between the association and the company a meeting is arranged at the colliery with a representative of the association and the employee concerned. No discrimination of any kind is made between any employees of the company, to whatever union they may belong. No propaganda meeting is permitted on the colliery premises on behalf of the Point of Ayr Industrial Union or the North Wales and Border Counties Mineworkers' Association.
  • These arrangements have been carried out as being terms acceptable to all parties and agreed between the North Wales and Border Counties Mineworkers Association and the company and approved by Sir John Foster at the inquiry held at Chester in April, 1942. Reference was made at our meeting to-day to the difficulty from the point of view of the Association if only one representative could be represented at the colliery when a complaint was made, although no such point emerged in the lengthy discussions which preceded the settlement made at Chester or in the settlement itself. My company is quite willing, as it would have been then, to meet such a point. At the meeting to-day we offered to do this, and I repeat the assurance which we gave on behalf of the company. I think you fully appreciate the necessity of this order for the prohibiting of propaganda meetings on the premises. This applies to all employes of the company alike.
    In making these submissions to you on behalf of my company, I desire to reiterate the desire of the company to collaborate in a settlement of this matter which will enable you to withdraw the control and permit the company to continue with its successful output."
    As the Minister's only interest is to see that everybody is treated alike, will he now state whether he is prepared to remove the control in view of these assurances? If not, will he state what further assurance he requires to enable him to do so? I am sure that the whole House would like to see this matter settled and control given back to the company, which has such a fine record. I hope that my right hon. and gallant Friend will be able to assure the House that there are some hopes of a settlement.

    I only want to add one or two words to the case which has been put so clearly and moderately by my hon. Friend, but there is a very important question of principle here which has become a little more definite during the last two days. The point is, What is the object of control? My hon. Friend pointed out that there might be various reasons of inefficiency or bad management. These reasons are not alleged here. The basis for putting on the control was simply that there was the possibility of a labour dispute, not in the colliery so much concerned, but in neighbouring collieries. I am with my right hon. and gallant Friend on the Front Bench. I think that is a justifiable reason. This particular colliery is not a member of any association. It is not a member of the Mining Association, and it is rather in a world of its own. The employers are independent, and the men are practically an independent union. I do not defend them. They have the right to do that if they wish to do it. I would prefer to see both the men and the employers in pits of this kind in their respective associations. It makes for peace and the possibility of negotiations, which otherwise often descend to personalities.

    That cause, which, we admit, might be reasonable, has disappeared. Now we are faced with another question. The real question now is the interpretation of a wages award, or, rather, the interpretation of an interpretation of a wages award. That surely is a complete change of ground, and that cannot be accepted by this House as a reason for putting control into any industry. If it is, you are undermining the whole basis of conciliation machinery, and that is particularly important in the case of this dispute, for this reason: As Members of the House know, a new conciliation machine has been set up. There was a hitch at the start, but the matter was settled yesterday by Lord Justice Greene. The Mining Association and the miners accepted his arbitration in the matter. Therefore, you have this new machine to deal with disputes in the mining industry, and, in the words of the award:
    "Either side is to have the right to have changes in wages or conditions brought before the tribunal."
    I hope the Minister will assure as that he will not undertake to interfere in management or put in a control when there is any question of dealing with wages or wage conditions. That must come to the new machinery; otherwise, the efforts to make peace in this industry will look foolish. We must stick to the machinery which has been set up, and I beg the Minister to assure us that the control will be withdrawn and that if there are any disputes about wages or conditions at this or any other colliery, he will exercise this constitutional machine, which has been brought about with great care and a great deal of thought by all concerned in the industry. It would be a terrible thing if the new machinery was to be sabotaged the first time it ought to be used.

    I am not making any complaint about my hon. Friend the Member for Flint (Mr. Rowlands) bringing this matter before the House, because it gives me an opportunity to explain the other side of the case, which we have not been able to do very much, up to date. He asked me several questions. First, whether it was the permanent policy to interfere in trouble between two unions. I made it plain when I answered Questions in the House that it was not the intention of this control to interfere between any one union and another, but simply to see that a union in existence, as it was in this case, should have the same facilities as others. He asked me whether representations had been made to the owners. I can only say that in no case with which I have had anything to do have so many representations been made to the owners over so long a time without any progress being made whatsoever. A blank refusal was given on every occasion.

    He asked whether, if assurances were given, I would withdraw the control, and he referred to a letter he had received and also to circumstances in which it was conceivable that control could be imposed. Although a great deal has been said about the output of this colliery, my hon. Friend knows better than I that it is quite irrelevant to compare this colliery with others in South Wales. The geological conditions in this colliery are exceptionally good, and although output has been good, I am glad to say it has been better since control has been imposed. [An Horn MEMBER "That is unique."] It may be unique, but it is the fact. The next point made by my hon. Friend was that the safety of the men might be in jeopardy, but that does not arise here.

    Then he referred to continual friction and said that that did not apply here either. That is where I part company with him. In 1942, owing to the refusal of the management to give equal facilities to members of the Mineworkers' Association, strike notices were handed in, and, as the result of the intervention of the Minister of Labour, an inquiry was held at Chester, as the result of which an agreement was drawn up. It is a very important document in relation to the letter that the hon. Member has just referred to. They came to see me and asked, "What can we do to see that this control is removed?" I repeated what I said in the House, that I wanted equal facilities for members to whichever union they belonged. All I got in return was, in effect, the terms of the Chester agreement, and it is because the Chester agreement was carried out in the letter, but certainly not in the spirit, that this control was imposed. Let me give two examples. The agreement says that a collection of contributions from employees of the company who are members of the Association shall take place in the usual trade union manner. What happened? At one time I am told the official had to take a little card table from his house and was made to put it front of the colliery window, where he had to collect the dues whether it was wet or fine. Eventually, after the Chester agreement, they approached the company for a hut. There was some dispute, but eventually a licence was drawn up by the solicitors to the company. The terms were that the hut should be 6 ft. x 6 ft. and no more, that the site should be decided by the company, and that it should be used for the purpose of collecting dues and for no other purpose whatever. The next thing was that they had to supply the names of all Association members and, if the Association membership fell below 20, the hut was to be removed. TThat was not a reasonabl request.

    Surely the whole of this is antecedent to the letter of 30th April, which gave the assurance required?

    I said that the letter was an exact repetition of the Chester agreement, and I am informing the House how the Chester agreement was carried out. Then came the question of propaganda. Propaganda was not to be conducted on the premises. There are different ways of conducting propaganda. There are subtle ways, and they were going on at the time. These are small points, but in the accumulation they are very serious. In one instance the secretary of the local lodge asked if men could have some small change in order that their assistants could be paid. No reply was made to the. letter, but on the following Friday he himself received 43 shillings, 23 sixpences, 14 threepenny bits and a penny. That again is a trivial point, but does the hon. Member think that is the way to get peace and good will?

    Another point was this: The secretary apparently, an official of the Association, was allowed to go on the colliery in case of a dispute. There was a dispute, and he asked to see the manager. As is common practice on these occasions, he asked to be allowed to take with him the local lodge secretary. That was refused, because it was stated to be propaganda. This same secretary was appointed on my authority to be a member of the Regional Control Board under the White Paper authorised by Parliament, and we thought it desirable that they should make courtesy visits to collieries in the area. He was refused permission to do so because this agreement stated that the secretary should not go on the colliery. I was asked on what terms I would remove control assuming the spirit was present. I made it plain to these gentlemen when they came to see me that it was good will I wanted and not agreements that were not fully carried out. I have ample evidence of independent investigators that there was a state of exasperation among the men, and when I said in the House that I was faced with a position in which we might have a serious dislocation of output in that district I said what I believed to be true.

    Reference has been made to my "interference" with the award. At this interview I did not raise the question of the award. These gentlemen challenged my interpretation of the award and I said, "This is a matter of opinion, but in order to make perfectly certain that there is no misunderstanding about this, I will ask the judge who was chairman of this tribunal whether my interpretation is the correct one." They said to me that if I assured them that my interpretation was the correct one, they would have nothing more to say. I got that assurance from the judge, who told me that my interpretation was correct in every particular. What is the result? There is an appeal against the original decision against them in the court. That is still waiting to be heard. There is a writ issued. That is still waiting to be heard. These are the people who say to me that if I can assure them that my interpretation is correct, they will have nothing more to say. My last words to them were these, "If a little less litigation and a little less pressure and a little more good will can be applied to this matter, I shall be far happier about removing control." As I said to the House when I spoke last, I am perfectly willing at any time to consider removing the control, but I must be satisfied that the danger to the war effort that led me to impose it would be removed. I was not satisfied, and I am sorry to say I am still not satisfied.

    I am one of those who cannot support my right hon. and gallant Friend. In this colliery the output is greater than any other colliery in the area, and the wages are higher. There is no justification for the right hon. and gallant Gentleman imposing control under conditions like that. It is a matter of deep regret that his Department is associated with what I regard as an act of tyranny. Instead of holding a level balance between the two trade unions, the right hon. and gallant Gentleman has come down heavily on the side of the big battalions. I hoped that we should hear from him something more in keeping with his traditions.

    It being the hour appointed for the Adjournment of the House, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.