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Industrial Disputes (Employers' Responsibility)

Volume 393: debated on Tuesday 2 November 1943

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Captain McEwen.]

I am sorry that the Minister of Labour is not on the Front bench because I gave him notice that I would be raising this matter on the Adjournment today. On 24th September, the last day of the Debate on Man- and Woman-power, the Minister of Labour said:

"Some strikes are deliberately provoked for ulterior reasons by employers. I have known strikes, even in this war, in which the desideratum has been to create conditions to alter contracts."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th September, 1943; col. 665, Vol. 392.]
That was a very serious statement. I would like to assure the House, and I would assure the right hon. Gentleman if he were present, that this is in no way a personal attack upon him. I have a great regard for him. But on 14th October I asked him whether he would give the names of employers who have deliberately provoked strikes for ulterior reasons. His reply was succinct: one might almost say that it was tart; it was one word, "No." I asked whether he could say why not. His reply was that he could not add anything to what he had said. It would be possible of course to add a great deal to the word "No." I asked why, in that case, he had made the allegation that he made recently in the House. He refused to give any further information. I raise this matter because I think it is very important. Members who have made general allegations in this House have always been called upon, rightly, to substantiate those allegations. We have, as Members of Parliament, a very great privilege, and a very great responsibility as well. Nothing that we say in this House can be the subject of proceedings against us outside. That lays upon Members the obligation to say nothing in this House which is not in the public interest and which cannot be substantiated.

There are two possible reasons why this statement has been made. It may be that it is true that there have been employers who have deliberately fomented strikes. I must confess that I find that hard to believe. But if that were so, undoubtedly in war-time they should be proceeded against with the utmost rigour of the law. Anybody, whether master or man, who promotes a strike with an ulterior motive in war-time is an enemy of the State, and should be proceeded against without fear or favour, wherever or whoever he may be. I think we are all agreed on that. There may be another reason. The Debate was on the call-up of women of a certain age. I might say, in passing, that it seems to me a bad sign of modern tendencies that we have Debates on a subject like that, which are much heralded in the Press, to which great public attention has been drawn, and then the Debates take place not on a specific Motion on which Members can express a view but on the Motion for the Adjournment of the House. In that particular Debate, the whole country thought that we were discussing whether women of 45 to 50 should be called up. They expected Members to take a definite view one way or the other, and to express their view in the Lobby. The interest which had been aroused in the country was considerable; it was a matter which touched the homes of the people very nearly. Yet the Debate took place on the Motion for the Adjournment, so that no real division was possible. That is very bad. It tends to bring the proceedings of this House into disrepute, and to lower the prestige of Parliament and of Members of Parliament. It should be possible to debate a subject on a specific Motion if the Motion is backed by a sufficient number of Members. Previous Governments would always have found time for debating a Motion which had 200 or 300 signatures—and there are a number of such Motions appearing on the Order Paper now—and if they felt that such a Motion touched the confidence of the House in the Government they would of course have expressed a view as to whether the division was a matter of confidence or the reverse.

In this case, the Minister of Labour may have had in mind the desire to make this statement for party propaganda purposes. Hon. Members opposite will, I know, always acquit me of any desire to say anything rude or unpleasant, but I want to put the position as I see it. If that was so, it was an exceedingly wrong statement to make in this House. The Minister, alas, is not here. He cannot complain that he did not have warning, because I wrote to him on 14th October, and said that I proposed to raise the matter on this, the first occasion open to me, and I have his letter, saying that so far as he was concerned, 2nd November would be quite convenient.

He expected the matter to come up at five o'clock.

I expected it to be five o'clock, but I took the trouble to be here. So far as these matters are concerned, we are all equal in this House, Front Bench or Back Bench. The Minister has the advantage of having a P.P.S., who can sit here and tell him what is going on, while I have not. If then there is any fault, the fault of the Minister is greater than the fault of the back-bencher. But, no doubt, he has an excellent reason for not being here. His was a very damaging statement. If it is wrong for a private Member to make allegations during a Debate without being prepared to substantiate them, it is doubly wrong for a Minister of the Crown, speaking from the Front Bench, with all the weight which must be given to his words.

I suppose that no man in the country at present, the Prime Minister excepted, has greater powers than the Minister of Labour. He can reach out of his bath, pick up a pencil and paper, and direct a new age group of men and women into factories, under penalties. No other Minister can do that. If you want to call up another age group for the Army, it must be done by Proclamation, and can be discussed in this House. It should be more imperative for him than for anybody else to weigh his words carefully, and not to make a statement of this damaging character in this House, because such a statement insults every employer of labour in the country, be he good or bad. Nobody knows whom he has in mind. This statement should never have been made by him or, if it was justified—I only hope to hear from him that it was justified—he should institute proceedings in the courts against these people who have committed this crime against the State in war-time. It should be incumbent upon every Member of this House, and particularly upon Ministers of the Crown, who, in the public interest, make damaging allegations of this kind, to tell the House upon what ground the allegations are made. I have no desire to make a personal attack upon the right hon. Gentleman. I am only sorry that he is not here. I should have made the same speech if he had been here.

I think this House should demand from Ministers, no less than from back benchers, that when they make a statement of this kind they must, unless there is a security reason to the contrary, be prepared to substantiate it. Employers of this country, at present, lie under the serious implication that among their number there are those who have so far forgotten their duty to their country in wartime as deliberately to engineer strikes in their factories. The House and the country have a right to know the names of these men. If he is not prepared to give the names, the right hon. Gentleman should withdraw his allegation publicly in this House, and clear the good name of those men who have been lying under this allegation for so long.

I rise to support the hon. and gallant Member for Epsom (Sir A. Southby) in his protest against the vague accusation to which he has drawn attention. It is absolutely essential that every Member of this House, at the present time particularly, should avoid wild or general accusations founded on versions of the facts which are not then at the disposal of the House, or are not afterwards given. It is a growing habit in certain quarters to do this. We have heard accusations against miners and mine-owners which have proved, on inquiry, to be totally untrue. We have frequently had accusations made that certain employers are not helping the war effort, and when we have asked for particulars we have not been supplied with them. I would draw attention to the particular case in which the allegation was made that certain mine-owners were working certain seams in order to advantage their pockets and to disadvantage the nation's war effort. We have not had one single case given.

Did not I state a case here last week of a firm that was fined £50 at Glasgow for preventing 600 men working for nine days or 5,400 working shifts? It was in the papers and I said this on the Floor of this House.

I was not present when the hon. Member made that accusation, but what I am stating is true, that no official confirmation of any of these accusations has been given. Because a thing appears in the papers, it is not necessarily confirmed. The only way of confirming an accusation against either employees or employers is by the official Department concerned confirming it, and, as my hon. and gallant Friend points out, taking the necessary action if the case is one that ought to be investigated by the courts.

Will the hon. Member be good enough to put before the House the statement that has been made? We have not had the actual statement but something that was taken out of its context.

By the leave of the House, I will read out the statement. It was as follows:

"Strikes are divided into several categories. Some strikes are deliberately provoked for ulterior reasons by employers."

The words which my hon. and gallant Friend has just read out make a very serious accusation which should have been followed up by prosecution, and it would be better still if the Minister of Labour would give information as to who these employers are. In many ways, it would have been a more serious punishment for such a person to be named in this House than to be taken into court. If we are to get through this war it must be with the minimum of industrial friction. That is admitted on all sides of the House to be one of the objects for which we are working. I do justice to hon. Members opposite in saying that a great many of them have done very well in trying to avoid industrial friction and a great debt is due, particularly in certain industries, to trades union representatives for their efforts to avoid industrial friction. It is very disconcerting, when an effort is being made to obtain that good will which is so necessary for the war effort, to have a Minister of the Crown introducing an element of suspicion not backed up by any details or specific facts whatever. It may be that the Minister of Labour is now about to tell us who these people are, but I cannot conceive that anybody to-day who is widely acquainted with industrialists, and the work that is being done in the war effort, can believe that there are employers who would deliberately provoke a strike, damaging the war effort, in order to obtain some ulterior advantage of their own. Therefore, I would join my hon. and gallant Friend in asking the Minister of Labour to give us some explana- tion of this statement and to assure us that, if it is based on facts, the necessary prosecutions are being undertaken.

I am amazed at the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Colegate). I brought forward a case. I brought the paper here and read it out from these benches. I stated at the time that the firm in question was fined only £50 in respect of men losing 5,400 shifts. Nobody knows the circumstances better than the hon. Member as far as mining is concerned and if he will read his own speech on the mining Debate and what he had to say about absenteeism and a good many other things, he will realise that there is a difference between strikes and lock-outs. We do not call them strikes, when the bosses lock the men out, we call them lock-outs. Some folks do not know the difference between a strike and a lock-out.

Is the hon. Member claiming that there has been a lock-out in the mining industry during the war?

No, but there is a scientific way by which the managers so manipulate a lock-out, that it becomes a strike. We have one in Yorkshire at the Hatfield Main Colliery at the present time where the men have been trying to get their case settled for weeks on end. The men have continued to endure it and now they have said, "We are not going on any longer unless we are paid for what we are doing." That is what I call provoking a strike. The hon. and gallant Member for Epsom (Sir A. Southby) has been fair and square in what he said. He has put his case but the Minister, not having been here the whole of the time, has not heard everything he said. Let me tell the hon. Member for The Wrekin that the mining community is seething with discontent all over the country. I have been into my own Division this week-end and met my own people on this compensation business and they are very bitter about it. There are cases in our industry—we are not speaking from a book but from experience—where the owners will not pay up to the price list. Men have gone without their rights for weeks on end, and at the finish they have said, "We are not going to do any more until it is settled." The Minister of Labour and the Minister of Fuel and Power say that there is machinery to manage this business but the provision of machinery to manage it does not feed the wives and families of the men. The machinery is too slow and it makes men throw down their tools. The owners are largely responsible for men going on strike. I have no more to say about it to-day.

The hon. and gallant Member for Epsom (Sir A. Southby) is entitled to bring this matter before the House but it is rather singular that the only complaint he has made is in regard to the statement of the Minister of Labour, in respect of employers. He has not raised any point about charges made against the workers themselves. Charges have been made in this House from time to time that there are workers who cause strikes for ulterior motives and political motives. But no one has thought fit to ask any Member or Minister who has made such a statement to prove his case. I do not know what the Minister of Labour had in mind when he made his serious and responsible statement, but when such statements are made some evidence should be brought. In my view the Minister's statement is perfectly correct. Some of us know that there are employers who have deliberately provoked stoppages—I will not call them strikes—by making attacks upon conditions of price lists or payments far certain work. They have done it in various ways.

The mining industry has been mentioned. Since the change for the better in the military situation the attitude of employers in general seems to have hardened towards the workers. At the present time, they are resorting to peace-time methods of dealing with their employees. In the coal industry it is quite a common thing to-day for the management to say to a worker who complains, "Get out of the pit." If he does so, sometimes his mates follow him and there is a loss of output. An action of that kind is described, under the Essential Work Order, as a dispute and the men cannot qualify for the guaranteed wage because it is said that they are responsible for the action taken. That kind of trouble goes on with the result that thousands of man-shifts are being lost in the mining industry today, due to the provocation I have mentioned.

What we have to do is to define what is meant by strikes. There is a definition under the Essential Work Order. Is it a strike if an employer sends a workman from his employment because of some action he thinks the workman may have done? Is it a strike when the employer causes, say, 50 or 100 men to lose a day's work or a week's work or by provocation causes men to leave their work? In essence, the statement of the Minister of Labour is true in every respect and can be proved up to the hilt. In a longer Debate one could bring instances from the mining industry which would prove the case. I know that there are exceptions, but I believe that the coalowners as a class are doing their utmost to discredit the present form of control of their industry. They can do it in a thousand and one ways. They have their eyes on the post-war position. They are just as anxious to discredit the present form of control, as they were to discredit the control that applied in the last war and then use it as propaganda against nationalisation of the mines. Although hon. Members opposite may smile we have ample evidence of this.

We do not make these statements out of sheer prejudice towards the coalowners; we make them because we know that we can bring evidence to prove that what we are saying is true. I could show that in the mining industry the coalowners have exploited the present form of control when it suited them, have discredited it when it did not suit them, have exploited the guaranteed wage fund to save the cost of production and have not paid the guaranteed wage to workmen. By means of all this, they have lost thousands of tons of coal to the country. I only wish that we had the same power to prosecute employers as we have to prosecute workmen. We would be able to prove that the employers have lost thousands of tons of coal every week. While agreeing that these are statements which ought to be proved, I hope that if they are to be proved in the case of employers they will also be proved when the charge is against the workmen.

It being after the hour appointed for the interruption of Business, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

I cannot help thinking that the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Foster) has travelled rather a long way from the issue raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Epsom (Sir A. Southby). The important point is not whether the facts as stated are true or not but whether, if a charge like this is made, it should be an anonymous charge, a general charge, or whether the culprit should be specifically named. That, I think, is the reply to the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. G. Griffiths) who seemed to think that he had met the case by quoting an instance where an employer had been prosecuted and details had been given in the newspapers. But that was not an anonymous case. The name of that employer was broadcast throughout the length and breadth of the land and what we ask is that when charges of this kind are made, the particular offenders' names, if asked for, should be given in this House. We ask this because it is the way in which hon. Members themselves are treated by Ministers. When sometimes an hon. Member has put a Question or made a statement the reply of the Minister is, "If you give me a specific instance of the charge you make I will investigate it." That, I think, is a perfectly proper reply and one which has been very frequently used by the Minister of Labour. It is no use coming to this House and making wild and general statements. I appeal to the Minister to admit that anonymous charges of this kind are undesirable. It is unfair to the great majority of employers who are trying their best to make a good contribution to the war effort. A general charge of this kind tars them all with the same brush. I hope the Minister will be big enough to recognise that he made a mistake and that as a result of the appeals which have been made to him, he will reconsider his decision.

During the recent Debate on the coal situation an hon. and gallant Member alleged that in Scotland machine men were working two or three hours less than the regulation time. I challenged him to say where those fortunate men are, but to this hour I do not know where they are to be found. Not even the county where the colliery was situated was indicated. All the machine men I know are working full time. The colliery companies see to it that sufficient work is set out to ensure that during the whole of the shift they are busily engaged, so there is not very much in the point made by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson). The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Colegate) adopted the usual pose of the colliery owner—innocent, perfectly innocent. Colliery owners have never at any time done anything for which they need be ashamed or make any apology. They are kind to the workmen, most considerate, and that is most extraordinary because the miner is represented as greedy and lazy; all the bad attributes are the possession of the miner, but the colliery owner is different. We are familiar with that pose, and yet it is the colliery owners who are at the root of all the troubles we have in the coalfields and all we have had for many years. The right hon. Gentleman was quite right in saying that employers have provoked strikes. Of course they do not hold meetings of the men and deliberately ask them to go out on strike, but there are a thousand different ways of doing it. There are pin-pricks day after day which provoke men to take certain action.

Does any hon. Member on this side or the other believe that all the trouble in the Nottingham coalfield was caused because a boy was directed to go underground? Does anybody believe that? That was simply the last straw, and before that last straw was put on the camel's back there were widespread burdens in the whole of that area that were really the cause of the trouble. In Lanarkshire we had a number of strikes. Again, does anybody believe they were caused because a few miners were arrested for refusing to pay fines? That was only the culmination of a whole series of incidents and conditions existing beforehand. Things had reached a point when the men refused to go on any longer. Even in these times, when the Government are so anxious to get coal, matters which ought to have come up for settlement are delayed and delayed, not because of anything the men do but because of the action of the employers. The delays go on until a stoppage occurs. Again it is the men who are to blame. The innocent employers walk away and pretend that they are interested only in increasing production and assisting the war effort. My right hon. Friend was perfectly right when he said there are employers who provoke strikes. I am not making that charge against the general run of employers. The majority are anxious to see their works going well, but there are exceptions. [An hon. Member: "Who are they?"] Hon. Members should look where the trouble is. Where there is trouble from time to time they will find the employers are largely to blame for the trouble that has been caused. Where there are strikes and disputes there they will find employers who are creating conditions that cause strikes. It is the miners whom I know best, and I do not know the miner who likes to lose a shift. He wants to get to his work. It has been characteristic of the mining industry all through. We have good reason to air, on the Floor of this House, the attitude that has been taken up consistently for years back by these people. If they really were concerned about the getting the best out of industry they could make things very different from what they are to-day. I am pleased that the hon. and gallant Member for Epsom has raised this matter, because it gives us again an opportunity of drawing attention to the fact that the colliery owners should change their attitude.

I apologise to my hon. and gallant Friend for not being in my place at 4.30. I had been in touch with the Whips' Office all the afternoon. While trying to deal with the difficulties in the Department I was also trying at the same time to keep my eye on when I would be required here. I understand that the previous Debate finished rather earlier than was expected, and I came as quickly as I could.

I do not object to my hon. and gallant Friend raising this issue, although I am sure that neither he nor I want the Debate to turn into a general charge against industry as a whole. I certainly did not, when I made the statement. I would like to say that I made the statement, with very great deliberation, at a time when, if I may use a simile, there was an earth tremor going on in the industrial world, throughout this country and other countries, by which the war effort was likely to be seriously endangered. I proceeded to go through many of the inquiries held at the Ministry of Labour and to analyse what I regarded as the contributory causes of many of these disputes. If I proceeded to give names in the case of one class—there were about four classes mentioned in my statement—I should have to be willing to give names in every class. I mentioned Trotskyites, Communists and a number of others in this connection. I do ask the House to try to read the Debate in the atmosphere in which I made the statement. I think the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The statement I made that day in connection with this very difficult industrial trouble had a very salutary effect, as I think employers and trade unions in general will agree, and there died away what looked like a very difficult situation.

Of course it may be said that I am an old poacher turned a game-keeper. I suppose I have had a much wider, longer and more intimate experience of these problems than my hon. and gallant Friend and it probably leads me to judge motives in a different way. I am not going to put anybody in a white sheet in relation to strikes, which are brought about by very many causes, and I tried to convey that in my speech. I said that some of them were provoked by the employers. I did not for one moment say that all employers were provoking strikes. The great federated employers of this country have been, like the trade unions, a tremendous asset in carrying on peacefully the industries of this country during the war. But there are instances on both sides. There is nothing in any Order for which I have been responsible or which the Government have authorised me to issue, that gives me any power to prosecute for provocation. On the other hand, it would be unfair for me to come to this House and, after the inquiries I have held over a tremendous field in this war, to ignore that, in certain cases, a limited number of cases, I have been perfectly satisfied that provocation has produced the dispute.

Therefore, I utter this warning. I do not think there is anything wrong and I have had no complaint from any great federation of employers that they have misunderstood what I have said. My relationship with them has not changed in any way. They quite appreciate—those who know me—exactly what I meant and what I intended to convey. I go further and say that there has been a tendency in the last six or seven weeks towards a greater desire to under- stand, where previously I had been experiencing some difficulty. It is equally true that the warning I uttered against political interference with trade unions has resulted in its dying down since that Debate. I make no point about it, but we are prepared, if there should be a recrudescence, to take the necessary steps to prevent it arising again. What I was aiming at in this very serious statement was to impress upon the House and the country the desirability of utilising the opportunities these discussions allow, for the careful consideration of the matter, and not to approach them with any ulterior motive on either side. Directly you get, on the part of a management, in a very limited sphere, any feeling of "Now is the chance, with this discontent, to achieve some objective other than the settlement of the strike or of the grievance," you immediately import into the situation an atmosphere in which settlement is impossible. On the other hand, if a legitimate grievance arises, the intervention of any political party with an ulterior motive, also makes settlement impossible. I tried to the best of my ability in that difficult man-power discussion, when the question of unofficial strikes had been raised—not by me but by hon. Members and I do not think incidentally it had very much to do with the Debate—to indicate in my reply, the difficulties.

Now I am asked to mention names. I tell the hon. and gallant Member that sometimes one does not get the real facts of a dispute for months afterwards. One does not get to the bottom of the matter till after the men have returned to work. You must have inquiries. Matters are gone into, and very often you can see that there are basic causes and that the actual merits of the dispute were not the real factors in the matter at all. There have been such cases over the past three and a half years, since I have been a Minister, which, looking back over them and reading them up, made it important for me to utter that warning and statement on that day. I should be cowardly if I stood at this Box and gave the names of people. My hon. and gallant Friend says it would be a castigation, but that I did not do it outside, so that the man concerned could defend himself in the courts. I am in this difficulty that, if I mentioned names—

Will the right hon. Gentleman allow me to explain? He was not present to hear what I said and it may be that something written down by a colleague does not give him the right idea of what I did say. I did not say that at all. I said that there was a responsibility on all of us, and particularly on Ministers, because we were privileged to make statements in this House on which we could not be challenged outside and that our statements should be properly substantiated in this House.

One hon. Member said that nothing would have such a derogatory effect as the statement of a person's name in this House. I agree, but I think it would be grossly unfair—I agree here with my hon. and. gallant Friend the Member for Epsom—to make statements about individuals in this House, unless I was prepared to make them outside.

I really must not be misrepresented like that. We all have the right to make statements in this House, if we believe it to be in the public interest to do so, and we cannot be forced to repeat such statements outside. I am not suggesting fiat the right hon. Gentleman should be forced to make outside the House statements which he has made in the House. That would be, contrary to Parliamentary practice. I suggested that, when he makes such a statement he should justify it in this House.

I am justifying the statement, without particularising individuals. If I proceeded to substantiate my case by naming individuals, I should be in honour bound to do that outside, to give them the opportunity to defend themselves. That may not be Parliamentary practice, but it is equity. If I mention a person in this House and then protect myself with Parliamentary privilege, that is a cowardly thing to do. I base my statements on the general deduction I have made from a number of inquiries, without castigating anybody. I make no general charge either against the coalowners, the engineers or anybody else in the whole country. I said "Some." Nor did I refer to employers as a whole. Indeed, I am grateful to them. No Minister in my position could have carried on his very difficult task unless I had had what I call the policing of the orders for which I have been responsible by the trade unions and the employers' organisations of this country.

In fact if I pass out of this office with the same record in regard to industrial disputes in the war effort that I have maintained up to now I shall be a very proud and happy man. It is no easy job. I did not, I assure the hon. and gallant Member for Epsom, make this statement lightheartedly. As Minister of Labour I knew that during that fortnight I was absolutely living on an industrial volcano. There were many forces working in all directions; they were boiling up as it were. There were many motives at work. In a very short reply at the end of a long Debate, perhaps too concisely, I summarised them in three or four headings to try to indicate the kind of thing which was producing difficulties and had wide repercussions, not only on the works immediately concerned but on the whole difficult industrial problem. I am satisfied that the course I took that day had the effect of helping the executives on both sides to co-operate with me in a way which got over the most dangerous point we hays come to in the four years of the war. It was centred around one or two well-known disputes then in being. As it was, it helped to tide us over and get us on to a line which I believe will enable us to deal with what to me was the most vexed problem of all, the tiredness associated with the war effort, giving provocation having such an easy field, such fruitful ground to grow upon. I believe that as a result of that Debate, the drastic statement I made will help us to a clearer understanding and to avoid some of the difficulties and get through this terrible fifth year of the war.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.