Coal Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 1st October 1942.

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Photo of Mr George Ridley Mr George Ridley , Clay Cross

I would like, first of all, to join with the Noble Lord the Member for Down (Viscount Castlereagh) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Spennymoor (Mr. Murray) on the attractiveness of his maiden speech. The great movement to which he belongs, and which he distinguishes, has made a great contribution to the Benches on this side of the House, and we had every right to hope that, on coming to the House, the hon. Member would make the great contribution he has done. I would like also to thank the hon. Member for Down for the gracious reference he made to my hon. Friend's predecessor in the representation of Spennymoor. Joe Batey held the very great affection of hon. Members on these benches, and I feel sure the references that have been made to him will warm his heart in his retirement in Spennymoor. I congratulate the Noble Lord, too, in not having lost, after a fairly considerable absence, his facility in addressing us and in trailing his coat for the purpose of providing further argument for sustaining debate. I wish I had the opportunity and time to debate with him the three principal provocatives he propounded—first, the ownership of the mines, secondly, absenteeism, and, thirdly, the curious doctrine that if we are to beat Hitler, we must out-Hitler Hitler by the use of his totalitarian methods.

I rise for a few minutes to ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, whom I congratulate on his appointment to that position, to underline, for the purpose of bringing more conviction to us, at least one of the statements made by his right hon. and gallant Friend. In the last 20 years, debates on coal have been almost interminable and generally inconclusive, and there is one direction, not so far referred to, except in a different way by my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Grenfell), in which I think this Debate may really be conclusive. I do not ask for a rationing arrangement, and certainly I do not ask for a rationing arrangement merely for the purpose of having a piece of machinery on which a label can be stuck saying, "This is rationing." But I do beg for some more conclusive assurance that whatever coal is produced will find its way into the places where it is most needed in conditions of equity and not conditions of inequity. On that ground, despite what has been said, I feel some misgiving and some disquiet. The House does not know much about the work of the Ministry of Defence, and it does not expect to. It is willing to believe what it cannot prove, although the first verse of "In Memoriam" must not be carried any further than that. But we are entitled to hope that in such vital matters as the when and where of a new offensive there has not been displayed so much timidity and vacillation as has been shown in this matter of fuel consumption.

I came to the House, as many others did, on 7th May, generally having the idea that a rationing arrangement in the matter of domestic fuel was desirable but not having any strong or conclusive Views about it. Then I listened to the speech of the President of the Board of Trade, a speech which I thought one of the most cogent and convincing and complete that I have ever heard him make. Having known him for a large number of years and listened to a great many of his speeches, that is indeed high praise. I then became convinced that a rationing scheme something on the lines of the Beveridge scheme was immediately imperative. I should like to take an abstract of the speech. He knew that from many directions there were demands for a reorganisation of the industry, and he knew also that the view was gaining ground that an increase in production was making a decrease in consumption less necessary. Against that my right hon. Friend said, The case for rationing as an urgent necessity emerges through all the other hopes and possibilities on which we are working. Time is pressing hard upon us. Next winter is not very far away. In the view of the Government rationing cannot be delayed, even though other steps must be taken as speedily as possible. This was obviously a serious declaration of Government policy, or so it was assumed to be. The Government was in favour of compulsory rationing as an urgent necessity. That was my right hon. Friend's phrase. He dismissed the idea of propaganda as an alternative to rationing by saying: I wish to submit that propaganda alone will not do what we want. It can be a very-valuable supplement to a rationing scheme. It can be an educative influence and a stimulus, but it will not alone achieve the purpose. That is generally accepted and I need not stop to argue the point. The idea of a voluntary scheme was dismissed peremptorily and the Lord Privy Seal having later in the day forcibly underlined what the President of the Board of Trade had said, and, having gone through the alternative scheme proposed by the hon. Member for Stockport (Sir A. Gridley) as a warm knife goes through butter, dismissed the idea of a voluntary appeal by saying, When the country approaches a state in which there is liable to be, and indeed almost certain to be, a shortage of a commodity, that we should in advance, if possible, arrange a fair scheme of distribution of that commodity which is going to be in short supply."—[OFFICIAL, REPORT, 7th May, 1942; col. 1563, Vol. 379.] He said also that the whole essence of a voluntary scheme was that a lot of people would deny themselves those commodities which were in short supply in order that other people might consume them. Let the House consider these extracts carefully and then consider the present situation. We are now in a position in which we have not a rationing arrangement, which the President of the Board of Trade said was an urgent necessity. We have a kind of voluntary scheme which was rejected almost with contempt by both the President and the Lord Privy Seal. There must be some reason for this sudden such substantial change of policy and the House is entitled to know what it is. There are on these benches some grave suspicions, but there are suspicions in other and even more surprising quarters." In the "Observer" of 17th May, immediately following the first Debate, I discovered this amazing editorial: The Government declared fuel rationing to be necessary and asked Sir William Beveridge to produce a scheme. He produced one. Ministers approved it. The Conservative 1922 Committee disapproved it. The Government, not persuaded by Debates on the Floor of the House but intimidated by a party meeting upstairs, thrust the whole thing back into the melting pot and announced that after the Whitsuntide Recess it would produce a new and more voluminous scheme embracing not only fuel consumption but the organisation of the industry. The "Observer" went on to say—this is the "Observer," not the "Daily Worker"— Fuel, like food, is a necessity of life, and the basis of any rationing scheme must be, as with food rationing, individual need. The Beveridge scheme starts from that, which is perhaps why the Labour Party approves it and the 1922 Committee does not. In the Debate of 10th June the Lord President sought to discount the view that there had been a change of policy on account of the 1922 Committee when he said: I deny that absolutely. I took the view more than a year ago that, having regard to the uncertainties of war, it was necessary to have a rationing scheme in readiness, and the first steps were then taken to prepare one. That is precisely the position of the Government to-day. Some may say that a month ago the Government were all for introducing the scheme at once. Why did we change? The answer is quite simple. To give any scheme a fair chance, if it involves complications and a certain amount of trouble and inconvenience, it is very important that the public should be reasonably satisfied that it is unavoidable. The last Debate, and discussions outside have shown that conviction on that point is at present lacking."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th June, 1942; col. 1086, Vol. 380.] I do not know what the Lord President meant by saying that public conviction in the matter of fuel rationing was lacking. I admit that he might have thought so from speeches made on the other side of the House. This is an old House, and a General Election is along way behind us. I am convinced that, if an election came to-morrow, some Members on the other side would be swept like chaff before the wind. As far as I have been able to test it, they certainly do not accurately represent public opinion in this matter, and, if they did, they would be representing a very selfish kind of public opinion. In any case I do not understand the fear of public opinion in the matter of rationing. There has been no objection to rationing in the scores of directions in which it has been applied. On the contrary, it has been pressed for from these benches and has been welcomed, because it would relieve the gravity of the existing situation and further because a rationing scheme not only involves a shortage of supply but has come to be regarded as a guarantee of supply. If the Minister says he cannot apply a rationing scheme to fuel because he cannot even guarantee a rationed supply, a calamitous situation would then be revealed. I ask him to say whether that is the case, and, if it is not, why he does not propose even now, late though it may be, to implement a rationing scheme. I believe that, because of vacillation in this matter, we are heading for a very serious situation. It is now very likely too late for any rationing scheme to be effective for the coining winter, but I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to say definitely whether he is satisfied that, with the arrangements announced to-day by his right hon. Friend, there will be this winter an equal distribution of domestic warmth between rich and poor, between those who have coal cellars already well filled and those who have no cellars at all and have in consequence to rely on small weekly supplies.

In other words, if there is to be shivering this winter, will there be an equality of shivering? If there is inequality it will be a scandal. It will simply be due to the fact that the Government do not pursue with resolution the policy they announced on 7th May. I beg that we may be assured, in spite of what my right hon. and gallant Friend said to-day, that every resolute attempt will be made to ensure that whatever may be the shortage this winter there will be equitable distribution of whatever supply there is. One of the most serious aspects of the problem is that we continue to endure an entirely chaotic method of coal distribution. I beg my right hon. and gallant Friend to tell the House what he is doing to deal with it. With some little experience I again warn the Government that if we get this winter, as we easily may, a combination of the circumstances of last winter and the winter before, the Government will make a grave mistake if they repose on rail transport burdens which could, if other steps were taken, be to some extent avoided. I wish the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, in spite of his peculiar ideas about voluntary rationing, every success in his new and most responsible position, although I confess to some grave misgivings about the future because of the vacillations in Government policy in the last few months.