Coal Situation

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

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Photo of Sir Arnold Gridley Sir Arnold Gridley , Stockport

My hon. Friend the Member for Clay Cross (Mr. Ridley) has devoted his speech mainly to the problem of rationing. As there is no proposal to introduce any compulsory rationing scheme until the House has an opportunity of debating it, I am sure that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not treat the question as a live issue to-day. We have a much more urgent matter to face. When the present Minister was appointed to his onerous office his appointment was received with good will and approbation in all quarters of the House. The Minister retains that approbation to-day, and I am sure he feels that it is the desire of everyone to help him as far as they can in the problems which face him. I do not want to say anything to-day other than with the intention to be helpful. We know that he is as anxious as anybody to avoid having to introduce any compulsory fuel rationing scheme, but this obviously depends upon whether coal production can be sufficiently increased to make compulsory rationing unnecessary. Unfortunately, he figures that have been given in answers to Questions this week and again by the Minister in his speech to-day—on which I would like to congratulate him—show that production has, if anything, fallen and is nowhere near the target which has to be reached if all the requirements of war munition industries and domestic consumers are to be met.

I think that the majority of Members agree with the view that the situation is now so grave that steps much more drastic than any that have been taken hitherto and which are long overdue must be taken if the output of coal is to be increased. I am sure that the majority of Members do not look upon this as a party question at all. It is a national question which concerns all parties. For that reason there was no difficulty in getting the support of Members of all parties to the Motion dealing with the release of coal-face workers from the Services which I thought fit with many of my hon. Friends to put on the Paper for to-day's Debate as a direction to which we might devote our consideration. I claim to have received sufficient information to enable me to speak on this subject and the position in which the industry now stands in a more informed way than others in the House except those who work with me on the Select Committee on National Expenditure and who for nearly two years had at regular intervals the position of the coal industry and of electricity, gas, oil and transport under review. It was our business to call witnesses before us in order to inform ourselves of the situation from quarter to quarter and we consulted all interests. We had before us representatives of the mineowners, the Miners' Federation, the coal merchants, the gas and electricity industry, the Mines Department and of oil.

The House will forgive me if I remind it that 18 months ago the Eighth Report of the Select Committee dealt with the then serious coal situation and made certain recommendations. Three months later, in the worse situation which had then been reached, it was urged in the 16th Report that the situation could only be remedied, first, if thousands of experienced miners now in the Army and in various industries were released for return to the pit; second, if by hearty cooperation between mineowners and workers output could be steadily increased and sustained by reducing idle time and absenteeism to the minimum; third, if the users of coal, coke, gas and electricity for domestic purposes exercised economy to an extent few have yet attempted to achieve. In the body of that Report it was emphasised that economy must begin at once and be maintained until coal production had been increased by at least 25,000,000 tons per annum. That was 15 months ago. Four months later, just under a year ago, the 24th Report recommended, first, that greater efforts should be made by the Mines Department and the, gas and electricity industries to secure voluntary savings, and, second, that the question of releasing miners from the Services or other employment should at least be reconsidered. We used that careful term in the Report because we knew that up to then the Government had stuck their toes in and said, "No more men from the Field Forces." Finally, another Report which dealt solely with the coal situation and was presented to this House on 19th February last included among some 14 recommendations this outstanding one: that a plan should be prepared for the temporary release of men from the Army this spring to help in building up stocks for the winter of 1942–43.

I wonder of what use all these recommendations have been? For 15 months there was little effective action. In the past three months there has been some activity. We now have a Minister of Fuel and Power, we have Government control over the industry, and there is now in active operation a scheme for securing a reduction in domestic consumption by voluntary means. Can it be wondered at that in the circumstances, and having regard to the serious, indeed, most grave situation, in which the country stands as regards the Supply of its coal needs, many of us are driven now to raise very definitely the issue of urging the recall of coal-face workers from the Field Forces? And I have been advised since the Motion was put on the Paper that we could well have added "and from industry," because I am told there are still thousands of miners working in the industries of the country who could be combed out of those industries and go back to the coal face.

No one will be so foolish as to deny that there are weighty arguments on both sides of the suggestion that trained men should be called back from the Forces. One can appreciate the strenuous opposition of commanding officers to having battalions broken up, but having regard to the relatively small amount of serious fighting by large British Forces it would not have entailed any serious weakening of those Forces—as we have heard in an excellent speech from the Noble Lord the Member for Down (Viscount Castlereagh)—if men had been released temporarily to return to the coal-face. After all, if a battalion goes into battle it is fortunate if it comes out of it without serious losses, in engagements such as are fought to-day, and then commanding officers have to fill up the gaps with reserves. In Germany when active warfare diminishes for a time in the winter months it appears to be the practice to send many thousands of soldiers back from their armies to resume their former occupations in munition works and the mines. If the Germans, with a far greater man-power than we have, find that pays surely there is much to be said for our bringing back a relatively small number of our men—whose absence from the Army and other Forces would not be materially felt—to their former occupation, where their value cannot be over-estimated. War coins new words. One of the new phrases of this war is the term "browned off." There are a great many men in the Forces today who would be very much better off in occupations where they would be black with coal-dust rather than left brown with boredom.

There are some who, I think, still hold the view that we cannot expect increased output from the mines until the mines have been nationalised. On that I want to say a word without the least intention of being provocative. There are many in this country who point to Russia as an example that it would pay us to follow, and in many respects I agree, but I have here the "Soviet War News" of 21st April and 22nd April. An article in the first is headed "More coal," and from it I quote this short extract. It is dealing with what is needed if the shortage of coal is to be made up and says: Above all, improved organisation of labour in the mines. It is necessary to carry out the repeated directions of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party and of the Soviet Government about staffing the workers with sufficient hewers and team leaders. There we have the question of the coalface worker again. The second article is headed "Absenteeism must be punished," and on this point the article says: In the conditons of this unprecedented war managers who tolerate violations of labour, discipline, or self-interest undermine the work of their factories. Even if only a few such persons are to be found in a factory, they must not go unpunished, but must be held responsible according to the law. We must remember Stalin's words. It must be explained to the workers, and particularly to those who have only recently entered' factories and workshops, that by admitting absenteeism and not furthering labour productivity, they are acting contrary to the interests of the whole working class and harming our industrics. Do not those two quotations suggest that even where industries are owned by the State the same human difficulties are found as we are confronted with in our coalfields?