I beg to move,
That the Coal (Charges) Order, 1942, dated 3rd June, 1942, made by the Treasury under Section 2 of the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, 1939, a copy of which was presented to this House on 9th June, be approved.
I do not think there is any need for me to say a great deal respecting this Order, except that it provides for a levy of 7d. per ton on coal which is to be paid to a Coal Charges account and to be used under arrangements made by my Ministry and approved by the Treasury. The new levy
of 7d. replaces two other levies totalling the same amount hitherto levied by the Central Council of the Mining Industry, the first being a war emergency levy concerned with payments to colliery undertakings for particular purposes and the other to be used for purposes connected with the application of the Essential Work Order.
I believe this is the first speech which my right hon. and gallant Friend has made since he became Minister of Fuel and Power. I am afraid that I cannot hold out the hope that the speeches he will have to make in future will be of such short duration as on this occasion, but I want to take the opportunity to wish him the good luck which he will need in the new office which he has undertaken. I do that all the more warmly because he represents a neighbouring county to my own. It is not very well known that the constituency which my right hon. and gallant Friend represents, and which is generally thought of as containing the beautiful golden sands of Tenby, also contains some of the oldest coal mines in this country, coal mines which produce the best anthracite coal in the world. At one time I was miners' agent and represented the men there in the tussles which went on. I also want to offer my best wishes to my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. T. Smith), who has become Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry.
There are one or two things in the Order which look innocent and may be innocent, because I believe the Minister's intentions are good, on which I should like some information. This Order replaces two other Orders which have been passed at different times. The first was passed in May or June, 1940, and was the Order under which 6d. per ton was levied on all coal supplied to be used for particular purposes. The other Order, made about a year later, imposed a levy of 1d. per ton to be used for purposes connected with the application of the Essential Work Order to the industry.
Until now these levies have been collected and administered by the industry itself through the Central Councils that were set up under a previous Act of Parliament. I should like to ask, first, whether the administration of the new levy is transferred from the industry to the new Ministry. If so, how does the Minister propose to administer it? Is it to be done through the new National Coal Board? I presume that applications for help will once more come forward and I want to ask who will deal with them. A second point is that in paragraph 6 of the Order it is stated that the money paid to the State account shall be used for any purpose connected with the production or marketing of coal. The first Order was used to meet particular circumstances which arose at the time, and I remember them well. After the fall of France and the entry of Italy into the war the coal export trade of the country suffered severely and large numbers of collieries closed down. A large number of others also had to work short time because of circumstances connected with enemy air attacks on the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. D. Grenfell) was responsible for bringing that Order forward and securing the assent of the House to it, and I would pay tribute to the foresight which lay behind that first Order and pay tribute also to the work which he did in the Department which he recently left. What he did by that levy was to secure that a large number of pits which had to be closed at that time were kept in such a condition that they could be re-opened at a moment's notice. That was to render this nation a very great service indeed. Grave as are the problems with, which we are now confronted in the mining industry, the difficulties of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman in his new Ministry would have been infinitely graver but for the fact that that Order kept in condition and ready to be re-opened at a moment's notice a large number of collieries in this country. If we can get the man-power, the pits and everything else are there, thanks to the foresight shown by my hon. Friend.
Is it proposed to administer the 7d. levy still for those two purposes? In future, will the distribution of the levy be confined to pits that can show that they need assistance, owing to loss of trade following the fall in exports or because of short-time working or difficulties of transport, or are other purposes to be brought in? Instead of the levy being used first of all to meet those circumstances and secondly to equalise the charge in relation to the guaranteed week, are other purposes to be brought in? I believe we all agree with the principle, which I and my colleagues have enunciated for a very long time, that the uneven burdens which fall upon the industry should be equalised. It is the same principle which the Miners' Federation have urged, in essence, for 20 years. One of the misfortunes of the industry is that the principle of pooling was not adopted. I hope that hon. Members who support this Motion will remember what they are supporting in principle, which is that the different circumstances of the various minefields and coalmines should be equalised out of this pool.
I hope that the Minister will develop this idea of pooling the resources of the industry, in order to equalise the charges throughout the whole of the industry. 1s it proposed that this 7d. levy shall now be used for other purposes, and, if so, what? That is an important question. The indication in the Order that the Ministry will now consider for what purpose the levy is now being used follows immediately the publication of the coal plan, its adoption by the House and operation by the Government. It has occurred to me and to other hon. Members that the taking-over of the administration of the levy is connected with the other purposes that may be envisaged in the coal plan. I want the Minister to reply to this question. There are several proposals in the White Paper which are of very great interest. There is the proposal to develop a medical service in the industry. When I saw it first I wondered whether it was proposed to use the money or part of it, or the surplus—I believe there is a surplus—for this purpose. I shall not comment upon whether it is desirable but am only asking a question. There are other things envisaged and mentioned in the plan, and I would ask the Minister whether it is proposed to include them.
I still hear of pits being closed here and there. Last week I received a deputation representing men in a pit in my constituency, and, as it happens, the men live partly in the constituency of the Parliamentary Secretary, who knows the circumstances. They told me that the company had notified them that they were proposing, if consent could be secured, to close the mine. Who decides whether a pit shall be closed? I gather that the right to decide does not lie entirely with the owners, and this is very desirable in the circumstances. Does the Minister decide, or someone else? Does whoever decides go very fully into all the circumstances and weigh up whether, in the national interest, a particular pit shall be closed? I have already sent to the Parliamentary Secretary two considerations which ought to be very carefully weighed in the case which I have in mind. The first consideration is that if the pit is closed completely—and I know the area very well indeed, every inch of it—a self-contained unit of coal production will be rendered unworkable, perhaps for a generation. In a few weeks' time the coal of this country will pass into being the property of the nation. Will that consideration be given its due weight by the people who are responsible?
The second consideration is that the company proposes to transfer 800 men, of whom 600 are to go to other collieries and 200 are to remain behind. That kind of thing happens everywhere. It is in the national interest that we should do everything we can to prevent pits closing down and to keep existing pits at work. I should not be presumptuous enough to advise the Minister, but I hope that he will not be very impressed when people advise him that one solution of the coal problem may be found by concentration of production in a few pits. I hope he will not allow anybody to persuade him that if he transfers 300 or 400 men from one coalfield to another there will be an increase of output. He must not be persuaded to assume that the output of such men will be that which existed among the men who had worked at that pit for generations. The 200 men to be left behind are the older men who cannot be transferred. They cannot find work in other industries because there are no other industries. The net result is the loss to the nation of 200 men's work at the present time. Cannot some of the levy of 7d. per ton be used to keep that pit open?
If I understand this Order correctly, the central levy may be used for new purposes. Therefore we support this continuation of the levy entirely. We welcome the proposal to take over the administration of the levy. We believe it will be better administered by the Ministry than by the owners. We hope it will be maintained for the purposes that were described in the original Orders, but that there will be an extension of the principle of pooling after the war. I hope the Minister will be able to give us satisfactory answers on those questions. We hope that this is the beginning of the establishment of the principle of using the common resources of the industry to meet the unequal burdens that fall upon it, through circumstances outside its control, and we hope that the principle will not only be maintained but will be extended, because it is the only way by which the industry can be made efficient and happy.
Like my hon. Friend on the Front Bench, I should like to welcome the Minister, but, unlike him, I do not desire to congratulate the right hon. and gallant Gentleman on the brevity of his speech. For the benefit of those of us who do not belong to the great mining fraternity, either on one side or the other, I could have wished him to be more explanatory when he moved this Order. Therefore, as one of the ordinary members of the public who do not belong to either of the two great organisations, the mine-owners and the Miners' Federation, but as one representing the people who pay for the coal and burn it, I should like to ask one or two questions. I agree with ray hon. Friend that nothing should be done by any Member of the House of Commons or any member of the community which would in any way hinder the benefits which may accrue to the mining fraternity from this Order. I know from my own experience the great difficulties through which the miners have gone, their very great poverty and their depressed conditions, and, despite the strong representation they have had in this House on both sides, their comparative failure during many years to gain a decent standard of life. Therefore, any charge or subsidy which goes into a pool to benefit the miners always obtains ready support from the majority of this House.
In order that I may be able to explain to my constituents, who have also suffered from the miners' difficulties, I would have liked to know how much it is expected to obtain from this particular levy. Will the Minister be perfectly frank about this? Does he consider that the amount obtained will be sufficient materially to benefit the mining fraternity of this country? Or does he contemplate an increase in the future, and, if so, will he tell us, and let the consumers of this country know exactly what position they are in, in order that between the two conflicting parties we may be able to form an opinion? Will he guarantee that none of this money will be used to ease the position of the mineowners with regard to the miners' wages? I would like an answer to these two particular questions before I shall be satisfied that this Order really carries out the task for which it is designed.
I wish to raise only one single point with my right hon. and gallant Friend, and at the same time may I congratulate him on the brevity of his speech? I would have preferred that some of the observations made to the House by the hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) had been made by my right hon. and gallant Friend. For example, I was not aware that this only represents what is already in existence, and that the levy of 7d. was in operation before the Order was introduced on 2nd June. Such being the case, this Order should not affect the price of coal one iota. I should like to ask my right hon. and gallant Friend, recognising his experience at the Ministry of Food with maximum price orders, whether he will give us now in presenting this Order to the House some kind of undertaking that at a very early date we shall have a maximum price Order for the different varieties of coal? I ask this, because I am very sorry indeed for the plight of some people who have had to buy coal and coalite in small bags or parcels during the past weeks.
They cannot help having to go to the greengrocer, who cannot get green vegetables, but who can at least get bags of coalite and small bags of coal to sell. The greengrocer finds that it is more profitable to sell fuel, now that the 6d. bags which he used to buy have advanced in price even up to 1s. for 14 lbs. of coalite. I do not know whether there is any way of controlling that. This Order deals with the owners and with the industry, but it does not deal with the person who sells the coal to the consumer. Can the right hon. and gallant Gentleman give us an assurance that before winter and the difficulties associated with winter come upon us, a maximum price Order similar to those which he introduced at the Ministry of Food will be put into operation? If he does not introduce something with all speed, we shall find that little bags of coal will be costing as much in London as a hundredweight of coal in Lancashire, Yorkshire or Durham. I feel that something can be done. The housewives and consumers have a right to complain against this injustice. Some form of regulation is absolutely essential, and I hope my right hon. and gallant Friend will take action without delay.
The last two hon. Gentlemen who addressed the House rather complained, I gather, about the brevity of my observations. I have given two reasons for that brevity. One was that I was particularly anxious to speak on the subject which was before the House, and the other was that the very full explanations given when the levy was first brought in to this House have been published, and I naturally assumed that my hon. Friends took some trouble to read them before voting here. Both the two levies, which are now amalgamated into one, were accompanied by very full explanations, and I assumed naturally, that m hon. Friends had already learned all about them. I did not want to waste the time of the House, and that is the only reason I was brief.
One or two of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) referred to this levy and possibly other charges. I am sure he will forgive me if I only say to him now that a good many of the things which are foreshadowed in the White Paper will be matters of very serious discussion. For instance, take the medical service. Naturally, it is a very big question in which the details will have to be settled, and all I can say at the moment is that the two levies previously administered by the Council will now be taken over by the Government administration under this Order. The hon. Member knows as well as I do the purposes for which these two levies were raised. With regard to the future of them, it may be necessary—I do not know—under the Greene award, or under the White Paper, to have other charges, but that of course will be a matter for further discussion in this House. I can only say that the only real change is that the administration of these two levies has now been made into one, and has been transferred, in fact, to my Department.
With regard to the closing of mines, I am very much alive to the point which the hon. Member raised about the transfer of labour. I took very careful note of what he said on that matter. It may be that where a transfer is necessary it will be possible to help, for instance, in travelling expenses. When it comes to the question of closing the mine itself, the responsibility for that is entirely mine and nobody else's. The final decision is mine, to be delegated possibly to a controller. That is all I can say on the matter, because so many of the subjects involved are at this moment the subject of discussion in the reorganisation necessary to fulfil some of the things in the White Paper and the Greene award.
This Order is not in itself concerned with the price to the consumer. It would be useless to me to give the undertaking asked for on a matter that has nothing to do with it.