Page 13, 11th February 1938

11th February 1938
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Page 13, 11th February 1938 — WHO SHALL DECIDE THE PRICE
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People: J. R. KIRWAN
Locations: London

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WHO SHALL DECIDE THE PRICE

WE MUST PAY FOR

OUR COAL?

That Mine-Owners' Advertisement !

Is THEIR PROTEST JUSTIFIED?

Mr. J. R. KIRWAN, of the Catholic Workers' College and contributor to the Christian Democrat, puts the case against the owners.

The Mine-Owners have lately bought large spaces in the national journals to protest against the Coal Bill now being debated.

A famous London cartoonist drew the owners standing behind the last coatbag parapet and hurling lumps of coal at our Bolshevik-led government.

What is the truth about this Bill? Here is a view unofficially representative of Catholic Social Teaching in this country.

A Bill to deal with the coal industry and providing, among other matters, for the compulsory amalgamation of undertakings is now on its way through Parliament. It could not have been expected that it would be allowed to pass without serious opposition, and the mine-owners have intervened to make sure that opposition would be aroused. A flaring advertisement has appeared in sundry journals warning the ignorant citizen of the stealthy advance of bureaucracy into one of Britain's major industries and painting a frightening picture of what the coal industry would become if the bureaucrats had their way.

Whoever it was who wrote the advertisement certainly made out a good case. If Part 2 of the Coal Bill is passed, it claims, confidence will be shattered (though whose confidence and in what is left unspecified), development will be stopped (there are no reasons given for this alarming statement), and the future of the industry will be jeopardised.

The appeal then proceeds to mourn the faded glories of the Act of 1930, which allowed the principle of compulsory amalgamation but only under the most stringent safeguards. These safeguards were, of course, in favour of the mine-owners.

"A Blank Cheque to Bureaucracy"

Part 2 of the Coal Bill, the rrianifesto goes on, will give a blank cheque to bureaucracy. "A body of five officials subject to the direction of the Board of Trade are to determine the size of the coal industry and of its constituent units. " There is an appearance of Parliamentary supervision . . . but this is largely illusory." And, worst of all, " the traditional right of the British subject to appeal to the courts is, in effect, taken away."

We are then told that voluntary amalgamation has proceeded steadily, it being inferred, no doubt, that the pace has been sati.sfactory in other particulars. A nel finally we are warned that the passage of the Bill in its present form must almost certainly lead to the creation of new derelict areas.

Looking at the Facts \

That appears to be a fairly heavy indictment. Let us look at the facts, not only those mentioned in the advertisement but also those left out.

It is obvious that the fear is not of amalgamations in themselves. The mine-owners appear to welcome amalgamations. They tell the world with pride that " at present sonic 80 per cent. of the total output is produced by 129 large undertakings." So on that score there is no quarrel between the mine-owners and the advocates of the Bill. It seems that the quarrel is over the one word "compulsory."

But here again we have to make a careful distinction. It seems that the mineowners have no fear of the principle of compulsory amalgamation. All they ask, or seem to ask for they mention the 1930 Act favourably, is that the safeguards should be sufficiently adequate.

That standpoint is surely reasonable enough, one would say. Perhaps it is. But the trouble is that the safeguards laid down in the 1930 Act have in fact made compulsory amalgamation impossible. No wonder then that the Act has found favour with the mine-owners.

Since the War the coal industry has been torn by the most bitter internal competition. Prices have been cut to uneconomic levels and wages so reduced as to have provoked two major stoppages of work within ten years.

Less than two years ago another serious stoppage was averted only by the voluntary submission of the public to higher coal prices. But this obviously could do nothing to remedy the fundamental weakness of an industry which insisted on trying to keep the same number of pits working to supply a market which had shrunk considerably.

As long ago as 1919 the Sankey Report showed the necessity of amalgamation. The Samuel Commission in 1926 was led by its investigations to give a tentative blessing to compulsory amalgamation, though it favoured voluntary amalgamation as the better method—which, no doubt, it is.

The industry was given four years, from 1926 to 1930, to solve its troubles on its own initiative. The way had been pointed out for it, and it had been told fairly bluntly that if it did not succeed in setting its own house in order the task would have to be done from outside.

"Safeguards "

By 1930 little had been done and the Act of that year, having provided again for voluntary amalgamation, tried to make possible also compulsory amalgamation if all else failed. ,Opposition from. the mineowners in the Lords, however, attached. safeguards to the Act (those very safeguards for which the Mining Association's advertisement shows so tender a regard) which have in practice made it impossible to proceed with a single compulsory scheme.

So bad had the position become by 1936 that a new Bill was introduced in May of that year. Mr. (now Lord) Runciman, introducing the Bill, declared that " the Government has been left with no alternative but to introduce effective machinery for carrying out the intentions of Parliament expressed in the 1930 Act."

Opposition from the mine-owners killed Oita Bill. Now comes a new Bill which they are seeking in turn to kill.

" Five Official Tyrants"

Consideration of the Bill the mineowners killed and of the Bill they are trying to kill brings one peculiar fact to light. Their main complaint against this Bill is not true, but it was true of the 1936 Bill.

Under the 1930 Act the Railway and Canal Commission had to approve a scheme of amalgamation before it could be put into force. The 1936 Bill abolished appeal to the Commission. The new Bill reinstates it. Now a scheme must satisfy not only the Coal Commission, which is to be the statutory body for the regulation of the industry, the Board of Trade, and both Houses of Parliament, but also the Railway and Canal Commission.

It is simply not true to say, as the advertisement says, that " a body of five officials subject to the directions of the Board of Trade " are to tyrannise over the industry.

The mine-owners are rather late in pointing out that in legislation of this description the appearance of Parliamentary supervision is " largely illusory " and " appeal to the courts is, in effect, taken away." It is several years since Lord Hewart raised the alarm over these developments in legislation, but even his powerful voice failed to prevent what is at the same time a necessary and an inevitable development.

Appeal for Indefinite Delay Parliament simply cannot perform all the multitudinous tasks asked of it, and the courts are not only over-burdened but are also not competent to deal with industrial cases not involving points of law. The cl,tirl'ismiof the right of appeal to the courts anato Parliament is often no more'sthanA'.c0Ver, for the continuance of laissez faire, a fact •whielvVisis very clearly 'revealed in the OppiWiticift to the Cotton InduSttly Act of 1935.

In any clige"'itiPai to the Railway and Canal CommisSiOnSthree members of which are judges and which sits as a court, is a very real safeguard against bureaucracy.

It would seem, then, that the charge of bureaucracy cannot stand. The safeguards of the 1930 Act are so framed as to make compulsory amalgamation impossible.

Therefore, if compulsory amalgamation is admitted to be necessary, the case against the removal of those safeguards cannot stand together. This argument has the more strength when it is noticed that the safeguards are to be modified rather than removed. And since the mine-owners themselves admit, in praising their own efforts at voluntary amalgamation, that amalgamations are good things, and since none but they think that their voluntary efforts have been adequate. we must take it that the case for compulsory amalgamations is a good one.

" A Bogey, Nothing More"

To put the matter shortly. The mineowners admit implicitly that amalgamation is the correct policy to follow. After more than ten years of grace their efforts have been found insufficient. Only compulsion remains.

What then is left of the case put by the mine-owners? Nothing save the fear of more derelict areas. This is a

bogey, nothing more. We have the choice in the coal industry of waiting for cut-throat competition to finish its work, meanwhile letting wages bear the brunt of the struggle; or of planning the industry to suit the markets which rapid technical changes have left to it.

Planning is likely to be at the same time . . adjustment. On the other hand, even though new derelict areas are possible under the compulsory schemes, we are faced with the fact that they are certain under a continuance of competition.

Persuasive Plausibility

And yet the mine-owners appear to have won their case. So successful has their propaganda been that the Government, clearly against its better judgement, has felt compelled so to amend the offending clause in the Bill as to meet the mineowners' demands.

The Government has agreed elat any proposed scheme for compulsory amalgamation which is opposed shall be examined by a Select Committee of both Houses of Parliament.

Every such proposal will be opposed. That is plain.

The Coal Commission, therefore, is faced with yet another hurdle which it must surmount if it is to perform the duties that are to be expected of it. Already, as has been pointed out, the safeguards enjoyed by the mine-owners arc sufficient. Though the new safeguard will not become the insurmountable legal barrier such as the safeguards of the 1930 Act were found to be, it entails throwing every scheme into the welter of party politics, and that may well be, in practice, almost as serious. In view of the enormous influence which the mineowners obviously have in Parliament the Coal Commission might well hesitate before it faces this last defence of the mining interest.




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