Oral Answers to Questions — Coal Industry. – in the House of Commons on 5th May 1931.

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Photo of Mr Carlyon Bellairs Mr Carlyon Bellairs , Maidstone


asked the Secretary for Mines, in view of the closing down of the Richmond low-temperature carbonisation plant, whether the experiment is completed; and whether he can now make a statement of the Government's intentions in regard to this and other processes and their relations to the coal industry?

Photo of Mr Gordon Macdonald Mr Gordon Macdonald , Ince


asked the Secretary for Mines whether he is now in a position to make any statement to the House of the results of the consideration he indicated he was giving to the question of the scientific treatment of coal?

Photo of Mr Emanuel Shinwell Mr Emanuel Shinwell , Linlithgowshire

With your permission, Sir, I will make a statement in reply to these questions at the end of Questions to-day.

At the end of Questions

Photo of Sir Charles Edwards Sir Charles Edwards , Bedwellty

I have been asked to read the reply:

In answering these two questions, I am authorised on behalf of the Government to make a statement of the policy which the Government propose to follow in relation to those aspects of the problem of the scientific treatment of coal on which decisions have been reached.

I will deal first of all with the Richmond experiment which is referred to in the question of the hon. and gallant Member for Maidstone (Commander Bellairs). The decision to close down this experiment was taken after full discussion between the Mines Department and the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research acting for the Government and the Gas Light and Coke Company. This experiment was inaugurated by the late Government in the belief that it would provide definite information as to the commercial possibilities of the process. In a statement made in the House on behalf of that Government on 11th May, 1927, it was stated that it was hoped that the plant would be at work in the following winter. The agreement with the gas company provided that a site would be made available till the end of 1930, at which date the company should have the option of purchasing the plant, or if they did not wish to do this they could require the subsidiary company formed to operate the plant to clear the site. The plant did not come into operation till February, 1920, so that less than two years remained of the period covered by the agreement. For part of that period the plant was entirely closed for various reasons and at no time worked at full capacity. Towards the end of 1930 the company gave notice that they did not propose to exercise their option to purchase the plant. Accounts which had been made available to the Mines Department under the agreement indicated that the financial results of the experiment were disappointing. In view of the large expenditure of public money on the scheme I entered into discussions with the Gas Light and Coke Company with the object of exploring the possibility of continuing the experiment for a period of three or four years with the Mines Department and the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research supervising the operations. The Gas Light and Coke Company expressed then-inability to agree to this proposal. They were willing to continue the experiment themselves for another year or so on the limited scale on which operations were then being carried out (only eight out of 40 retorts were working); but they intimated that in view of contemplated changes at their works they were not able to afford facilities for the longer period.

The Government reached the conclusion that a continuation on the basis suggested would serve no useful purpose, and the experiment was closed down at the end of February last. Since then I have given careful consideration, in consultation with the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, with which my Department is working in the closest touch, to the question of how best the Government could assist the development of low temperature carbonisation and other processes for the scientific treatment of coal. The Government believe that the development of these processes should be encouraged as their successful operation would be of benefit to the coal mining industry and to the country generally.

Since 1927 substantial progress has been made with low temperature carbonisation, and certain processes are being operated on a commercial scale. As is the case with any new industry, difficulties are still being met with, but it is the hope of the Government that they will be overcome. The Government desire to render assistance in the development of low temperature carbonisation, and after a careful review of the position they have come to the conclusion that there are two main directions in which effective help can be given. The first is in attempting to improve the value of the tar oils which are a substantial by-product of low temperature carbonisation. At the present time the prices which can be obtained for these crude tar oils are at a very low level, and the main hope for a better return lies in improving the methods of treating these tar oils. Experimental work has for some time been carried on, on a comparatively small scale, at the Fuel Research Station. As a result of these experiments it is considered that the most promising field for the utilisation of the tar oil is the production of motor spirit and Diesel oils. It is therefore proposed to proceed at once to develop the laboratory scale experiments to a small commercial scale to cover the hydrogenation, cracking and refining of tar oils. The erection of the necessary plant is estimated to cost about £33,500, and the annual cost of the additional staff and maintenance is estimated at £8,000. The Department of Scientific and Industrial Research is also prepared to make a grant subject to the usual con- ditions now applicable to co-operative industrial research associations, if schemes of research on tar oils are submitted to them by any recognised association connected with the industry. Such research work would be carried out wherever the association has the necessary facilities.

The second direction in which the Government are prepared to assist is in inducing a wider use of the smokeless low temperature fuel. Instructions are being issued to Government Departments which purchase fuel that they should use a proportion of low temperature fuel wherever it can be obtained at a price comparable, value for value, with the price of coal, and the Ministry of Health have also agreed to endeavour to persuade local authorities, who have much to gain from smoke abatement, to help on the same lines.

As regards the granting of direct financial assistance for the development of particular processes, assistance can in certain circumstances be afforded to public utility undertakings under the provisions of the Development (Loan Guarantees and Grants) Act, 1929. The attention of concerns working low temperature carbonisation processes has been directed to the possibilities which this Act provides. I propose that my Department should keep very closely in touch with these developments, and to help in any direction in which assistance on the lines indicated can possibly be given.

I have also been considering whether anything can be done to increase the use of pulverised fuel, especially for marine purposes. Important research work is being carried out at the Fuel Research Station, and it is intended that this should be continued. The Government have decided to consider with the shipping industry what can usefully be done to supplement what is already being done by certain shipping firms so as to secure the carrying out by the industry of a thorough test under sea-going conditions of the various systems of pulverised fuel with the object of stimulating greater use of it. In this connection I note with much appreciation the public support given to the idea of conducting large scale experiments by the right hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Runciman), who speaks with great authority as a shipowner.

The adoption by the Government of the proposals I have outlined will, we believe, do much to stimulate the work already being done to secure the more scientific treatment and utilisation of coal.

Photo of Mr Carlyon Bellairs Mr Carlyon Bellairs , Maidstone

While thanking the Government for that statement, may I ask whether the Admiralty are cooperating in the programme which has been outlined?

Photo of Sir Charles Edwards Sir Charles Edwards , Bedwellty

Perhaps the hon. and gallant Member will put that question to the Minister. I think I have said enough for one day.


Can the hon. Gentleman tell us whether these are the definite proposals alluded to by the Lord Privy Seal in his speech on the recent Vote of Censure, when he said that this would be one of the contributions of the Government towards the solution of the unemployment problem?

Photo of Sir Charles Edwards Sir Charles Edwards , Bedwellty

I am afraid I cannot say anything on that.

Photo of Mr William Thorne Mr William Thorne , West Ham Plaistow

I had intended to put a number of supplementary questions to the Secretary for Mines, but I think I had better have a personal interview with him.

Photo of Mr Fenner Brockway Mr Fenner Brockway , Leyton East

In view of the public assistance which has been given to the mining industry in these developments, will not the Government consider the desirability of the nation taking over the mines altogether?