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Mining Industry (Manpower)

Volume 529: debated on Wednesday 7 July 1954

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Sir C. Drewe.]

10.40 p.m.

I wish to call attention to the problem of manpower in the mining industry and to elicit from the Government some idea of what their practical proposals are to deal with this problem which has been raised in Questions to Ministers and has also been the subject of very important and impressive speeches by miners' leaders. There is no doubt at all that the problem of man power in this industry is one which will be more and more apparent as time goes on and one to which this House will have to give serious attention.

First, I want to deal with some of the warnings which have been given by responsible leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers, who have been in conference this week. The President, Mr. Ernest Jones, has said that at least 725,000 miners are needed for the industry and the Secretary, Mr. Arthur Homer, pointed out the danger of between 3 million to 4 million unemployed, or on short time in other industries, through a possible coal shortage if we do not get at least an extra 3 million tons output this year. He was sceptical about getting it from our own pits, hence the need for coal imports, and he was angry at outsiders grumbling. He pointed out that the miners are doing their best and that the traditional recruiting grounds of the mining population, which have been the mining areas, have dried up and that men have to be attracted from outside by better conditions.

The President of the National Union of Mineworkers was equally emphatic. He has appealed to the miners to do their utmost to produce the necessary output, pointing out that the alternative to more coal output is a coal shortage with a slowing down of industry, short-time working and the cutting of exports, or importation of European and possibly American coal. Mr. Jones has stated out that this crisis is rapidly developing. He certainly did his share by appealing to his union and in saying:
"Let us grit our teeth against all these alternatives and make the effort to ensure that the extra required is produced from our pits."
Mr. Horner pointed out that absenteeism is less, that manpower has fallen, that output per manshift overall and at the coal face is higher, yet we have a crisis.

I am aware that there is a slight difference of opinion which has been expressed in a speech today by Sir Hubert Houldsworth, Chairman of the National Coal Board. Nevertheless, Sir Hubert Houldsworth, who, apparently, differs slightly from the miners' leaders, has emphasised that there is a shortage of 12,000 miners to produce this necessary coal and that that is the problem now confronting us. I am anxious that the Government should state their policy. I am quite sure that those of us who represent mining areas, and the responsible leaders of the miners' union, are quite ready to co-operate with the Government in any reasonable attempt that is made to face this problem in the interests of the mining industry and the interests of the nation.

There is now a general opinion in the House that the nationalisation of the mines must be accepted as a fact and that we must do our best, in a non-party spirit, to see that what is one of our greatest national industries has the necessary manpower and the necessary opportunity to carry on its work in the interests of the nation. That was emphasised by hon. Members opposite in a recent debate. The hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams) said:
"I have had the privilege of seeing, hearing and knowing people who are thoroughly practical in every way … I infinitely prefer to listen to a miner or a cotton worker than to any professor from either side of the House."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd July, 1954; Vol. 529, c. 1678.]
In fact, on the Third Reading of the Mines and Quarries Bill there were compliments all round; but what the industry needs now is not compliments so much as men. We want the co-operation of hon. Members opposite to see that the men come into the industry.

I stress that the mining areas in the past have produced the men and now we are looking around the other areas repre sented by hon. Members opposite who are very vocal and critical of the miners at Question time in the House. We want their assistance so that the manpower can be obtained.

I should like to ask the Minister whether he can make any effort not to exploit but to capitalise the speech of the hon. Member for Torquay and to get recruits from that place. I am sure that the citizens of Torquay should be in exactly the same position to become acquainted with all the virtues of the miners and the industry as are people in other places. For my part, I am prepared to go down to Torquay with some of my hon. Friends, or to Brighton or Bournemouth, and to speak on any platform to call for recruits for the industry from these areas whose representatives are so clamant in their demands that we should have more and better coal.

It is interesting to note that the main criticism of the miners has come from Members who represent constituencies in the South of England. For instance, the hon. Member for Orpington (Sir W. Smithers) said in the House recently that the only solution was to increase the production of coal if the country was to survive. He also said that to import coal was sheer lunacy. I should like the Minister of Labour to agree to send a recruiting van to Orpington, so that the hon. Member can co-operate with us and that Orpington might have more coal.

Recently, the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. R. Bell) asked the Minister of Fuel and Power
"… whether he will accelerate the supply of large house coal to the Amersham area of Buckinghamshire in order that householders may be enabled to obtain summer delivery of their supplies.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st June, 1954; Vol. 528, c. 15.]
Why should Buckinghamshire not help? Why should we not get our quota of miners for the mining industry from Buckinghamshire? Why should those areas in the South of England, which are represented by hon. and gallant Members, who are so critical at Question time of the mining industry, Orpington, Buckinghamshire, Torquay and Exeter, all those suburban areas and coastal areas in the South of England, not contribute their share towards solving the problem of manpower in the mining industry?

We want a different approach to the mines if we are to make this great national industry of ours a success. In the past, it has been regarded as an honourable career to go into the Guards. Why should not people, who have hitherto gone into the Guards, go into the coal mines, because coal is absolutely necessary for our industrial production? I believe that mining is just as honourable a profession. We want that idea accepted and we want the assistance of hon. Members on the other side of the House in this way.

I remember when, in the First World War, the mines were combed to find men for the Army. I wonder whether it would not be a good thing to comb out the Army to get recruits for the coal mines. Is it not possible, for example, that we might give an opportunity to the 80,000 men who are in the Suez Canal area to swell the manpower of the coal mining industry? Why should an example not be set by the leaders of public opinion?

Would it not help to stimulate enthusiasm for the coal mines, if, for example, a couple of dukes decided to take up mining as an honourable profession? Would it not be a good thing if this recruiting campaign were extended to Eton, Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge and a really all-round, all-party drive were conducted to get miners from those areas to swell the ranks who have hitherto done the dirty, drudgery work of the community?

The Minister of Labour should be a little more resourceful in his recruiting activities. I think he could use the energy and enthusiasm of the hon. Member for Ayr (Sir T. Moore). He ought to send his recruiting van to Ascot or Epsom to see whether any recruits could be enrolled in that way. The hon. Member for Ayr would be prepared to deliver a recruiting speech between the races.

I know it is over-optimistic of me to think that these sensible suggestions are likely to be adopted. But, surely, we ought to have an indication from the Government of their short-term and long-term plans on how they propose to deal with the very pressing and important question of how we are to get the men necessary to produce the coal which is required.

That is a vital and important question which has to be solved if British industry is to be kept going and our economic problems solved. I hope that we shall hear from the Minister an outline of his plans. I can assure him that any reasonable proposals that he puts before the House will be gladly considered by those who have the honour to represent mining areas, and we would regard it as a privilege if we had the opportunity to help.

I represent a mining area which, not long ago, came to public attention when a mine was flooded and there was a very heroic and successful rescue. The name of Knockshinnoch will always be remembered in the annals of mining rescues. I was at the pithead for two days and two nights, working and co-operating with representatives of every section of public opinion directly interested in the rescue work. There, around a table, were the chairman of the National Coal Board in Scotland, the Earl of Balfour, Arthur Homer, the Communist—people who had been at daggers drawn and fighting bitter battles in the industrial arena.

Before us was a map, with arrows showing where the men were entombed. I remember the wonderful spirit of cooperation and comradeship which prevailed during those two grim days. That should be the spirit which should animate the mining industry in its problems. I hope that in something of that spirit we shall have a statement from the Parliamentary Secretary which will give some confidence and hope for the future.

10.57 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour and National Service
(Mr. Harold Watkinson)

I am very glad that the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) has raised this matter, and equally glad that he ended on the note that he chose. Half way through his speech I was deciding that it would be a pity to make fun of this subject, on which the very life of the country depends, and I do not think that he really means me to follow him in his very light and amusing flights of fancy about Eton, Torquay and other places.

It is my duty, I think, not to take this problem at all lightly, but to try to perform the duty of the Ministry of Labour, which is to give the facts. If we know the facts in this case—and I am not saying that I agree with the hon. Member as to what the facts are—we shall, perhaps, come to a clear knowledge of what we have to do and what a great industry has to do to fulfil its national duty.

I must say, quite frankly, that the reason the mining industry has not met its promised target for this year has nothing at all to do, in the short run, with manpower. I must make that plain, because it is an entirely contrary view to that expressed by the hon. Member. I think that I cannot do better than quote from the speech Sir Hubert Houldsworth made to the mining industry today. He said:
"A 2½ per cent. increase nationally in production in 1954 with existing underground manpower is a reasonable minimum aim."
I am not arguing this, and I quite agree with the hon. Member that there is no party politics in this, but let us get the facts right and not delude ourselves that there is some easy way out of the difficulties.

I want particularly to deal with that point. I am sure that I carry the whole House with me when I say that it is unfortunate that the increased productivity of British industry as a whole is not being matched in the coalmining industry. Therefore, as the hon. Member rightly pointed out, we are faced with having to use some of the hard-earned foreign currency that we receive from our exports to buy coal from our competitors. That is a most disheartening position for those in industry and for those working so hard in the shop in an endeavour to compete with German and Japanese competition.

The hon. Member rather indicated that if we could get a lot more men into the mines right away it would solve the problem. I must say, in support of the statement by Sir Hubert Houldsworth which I read to the House, that as part of their wage settlement the N.U.M. agreed with the National Coal Board only in January last on a target of 2½ per cent. increase in coal production this year. That is roughly 5 million tons of coal, and, as Sir Hubert said today, we have still to get 3¾ million tons before the end of the year if we are to reach that target.

If the alibi is correct, that the present position is due to loss of and lack of workers, then the number of face workers must have fallen very substantially since that promise was made. I am afraid that that is not so, and I must give the facts. Since January, there has been an increase of over 1,000 in the total number of wage earners on the colliery books of the National Coal Board. I quite agree that new recruits are not much good at the face for a very long time, but, none the less, there has been a net intake of 1,000 new recruits as against a decrease of about 700 face workers.

That represents only a 0·3 per cent. loss in the number of face workers, so that there is really no logical excuse, as Sir Hubert rightly said, for a failure to meet the minimum target of 5 million tons, or an increase of 2½ per cent., set for this year. Having made that plain, I am not saying that we do not want more men in the mines. But we do not want them spread equally over all the coalfields. We want them in places such as the rapidly developing North-Eastern area of the National Coal Board: Yorkshire and the surrounding areas. There, the Board could employ a good many thousands more men. That is not denied. But that is the second thing we have to make plain.

I do not accept the hon. Member's point about a lot of criticism being made from this side of the House, or, for that matter, from either side, about miners. But it is the duty of this House and of every hon. Member to point out that the mining industry is not reaching its essential output target in the national interest. That, surely, is the duty of each one of us, and it is not a criticism of individual miners.

The deficiency is not satisfactorily explained on manpower grounds, because the face workers have not substantially decreased. There are obviously enough of them to enable the industry to reach the promised target which, as I have said, was part of the wages settlement in January. The second thing is that where we want more miners is not throughout the country as a whole, but in the developing areas. It is only fair to the National Coal Board to say that it has been trying very hard to get the men, and it is now, as I think the hon. Member knows, conducting a nation-wide propaganda campaign in an endeavour to attract miners into the developing areas.

We are trying to attract men by offering houses; by running a coupon scheme with which I expect hon. Members are familiar; and conducting this very wide recruiting campaign. More than 14,000 coupons have been returned, and more than 8,000 men have returned application forms for this great change-over operation. Fourteen hundred have already accepted jobs. That is a good result to this practical operation. It is an operation which is more practical than sending recruiting vans to Torquay, Eton, and Harrow. These men are skilled miners. They are the people we want.

More generally, the Ministry in the past has carried out several quite successful recruiting campaigns. It is prepared to do that again, and in collaboration with the Ministry of Fuel and Power it is examining the position to see how it can help. What has to be done is first to see how many miners we can attract from the declining into the expanding areas. That is in the miners' interest.

I cannot think of anything more dreadful for a skilled man working at a skilled trade—for it is a skilled trade and, as we know, a dangerous one—than to see his livelihood diminishing as a pit is worked out, knowing that while he must be left without work, in another part of the country his services are needed. Such men must be offered new homes if they are to be persuaded to move. The National Coal Board's building programme is one way to solve the problem. Something is being done, but it is only fair to say that not enough is yet being done.

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Ayrshire for raising this matter appropriately at the moment when the miners are in conference. Government policy certainly is first to state the facts; which is what I have tried to do tonight. I must say again that I hope we shall not fall into the error of imagining that the present manpower position is an alibi for deficiency of production. We need more men in certain areas. The National Coal Board is pursuing this scheme, and the Government are considering what plans must be made. It is no good trying to recruit during the summer, but as soon as the autumn comes we must think again about plans for a proposed nationwide recruiting campaign. I am glad to say that the number of boys going into the pits is increasing a little; but it must increase more.

There are, therefore, three points to be considered. First, the present man- power position is no alibi for deficiency of production; secondly, we must persuade miners to move from worked out areas to new areas; and, thirdly, the Government must keep the manpower situation under review and must be prepared to increase recruiting in the autumn, if that seems to be the best way to improve the position.

I hope that I have given the hon. Member a factual answer. I agree that this is a matter for the attention of the whole House. It is a matter affecting the livelihood of the country. I hope that every hon. Member will do what he can in this matter. It is also a matter for the miners who, when they see what their duty is, will, I believe, do it.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Nine Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.