Coal Situation

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

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Photo of Mr Gwilym Lloyd George Mr Gwilym Lloyd George , Pembrokeshire

The problem of coal supply has exercised the minds of Members in all parts of the House on more than one occasion during the year. As the House will recollect, last June the Government decided upon certain steps. I make no complaint that Members are anxious to know what progress has been made in setting up the new organisation, but I am perfectly certain that they will agree with me that the creation of a new Ministry practically at the end of the third year of war cannot be achieved overnight, especially when one considers the many new Ministries that have already been formed and the great expansion that has occurred in some of the older ones. It would be not an easy matter at any time, but it has not been made any easier by the fact that summer was already well advanced at the time when it was decided to create this Ministry. The immediate problem of the supply of coal had to be tackled at once. I am glad to say that we have made satisfactory progress with the new organisation. I have visited many of the regions myself, and I hope very shortly to be able to visit them all. I am pleased to say that while they too have had their difficulties, with regard to staff and accommodation, very satisfactory progress is being made. I do not think anybody would quarrel with me if I were to say that the reorganisation of the industry which is intended as one of the results of the new machine is not likely to have a very material effect on the supply of coal for this winter.

I was, therefore, faced with this problem. First, I had to overcome the immediate difficulty of supply and at the same time I had to create a machine which would enable us to avoid that difficulty next year and in subsequent years. May I remind the House of what the position was when I took office? The coal supply position was this: In 1938 the production of coal in this country was 227,000,000 tons; export and other oversea shipments accounted for 46,000,000 tons which left 181,000,000 tons for the home market. In the year which ended with Dunkirk, the date which marks the beginning of the sharp decline in the industry's manpower and the great increase in domestic consumption—two factors I would remind the House which are responsible for the present position—in that year, the production was nearly 230,000,000 tons. Exports and other shipments accounted for 45,000,000 ions and that left the home market consuming 185,000,000 tons.

I come now to the position in the present coal year, that is, the year beginning on 1st May, for that is the period when stocks are at their lowest and the time when we are beginning to replenish for the winter. The position this year is that during five months output has been at a rate that would produce something under 200,000,000 tons. Together with that decrease in production, requirements have risen steeply since Dunkirk, owing to the increased demand for raw coal at the new war factories, the development of the war industries, the needs of the Services, and the increasing demands made upon our public utility undertakings, including railways. As an example of what that demand is in the present coal year, I may say that certain important munition industries will require 25 per cent. more coal than they did two years ago; electricity will require 40 per cent. more coal, gas 15 per cent. and railways 13 per cent. above the figure for the pre-Dunkirk period. The effect of this increased demand will be that consumption in the United Kingdom will be about 20,000,000 tons in excess of what it was in the year before Dunkirk. This, together with the fall in production—due very largely to the loss of man-power—has created a deficit which even the decline in exports does not make good. The current estimated deficit is about 14,500,000 tons. Against that there is a saving which we have already achieved by running down public utility under- takings' stocks, the use of low-grade fuel from colliery banks and production from open cast workings. The total contribution I expect from these three sources will be about 3,500,000 tons which will bring our deficit down to 11,000,000 tons.

I take this opportunity, in passing, to speak about open cast working. The probable output from open cast working is about 1,500,000 tons. I think hon. Members opposite will agree that there has been a good deal of exaggeration as to the possibilities of what can be got, this year, out of open cast working. One of my difficulties is transport. Many of the open cast sites are, at the moment, remote from load or rail. The fact is that we were accumulating large supplies which had to be got away. While I appreciate that getting large quantities of coal from outcrop is not an easy matter, I do not want anybody to believe that the transport of the coal away from the sites is an easy matter either. But I am glad to say that we have made substantial progress with transport arrangements, and I am satisfied that we shall be able to get rid of the accumulation before long. I only want to make this point—that while the ultimate possibilities will really be such as to give us a real contribution, I do not want anybody to run away with the idea that, in this present coal year, we shall get more than 1,500,000 tons from this source.

That, with the public utility undertakings' stocks and the use of inferior qualities off the banks, would bring our deficit down to about 11,000,000 tons as I have already said. The question which I have to face is how this deficit is to be met, without either injuring the vital war effort of this country or causing unnecessary hardship to our people. While the seriousness of the situation must not be underestimated, I am satisfied that we can get through this winter, provided we get the full co-operation of all, both consumers and producers—and when I refer to producers, I do not refer only to the men but to the managements as well, and when it refer to consumers, I do not refer to domestic consumers only but also to that very important class of consumers the industrial consumers. The deficit in our coal budget has to be wiped out and in my judgment it can be wiped out. There must be an increase of production and a decrease of consumption.

May I give now the figures relating to consumption? Consumption is divided into two parts, domestic and industrial, and I will deal first with domestic consumption. Although we are now in the fourth year of the war, I doubt very much whether until recently consumption of fuel in all its forms by the domestic population of this country had really decreased at all, per head. I am talking now of the situation before any economies have been made. I am satisfied that very large savings can be made without real hardship, and I do not want people to confuse inconvenience with hardship. There is a very important difference. But, as I say, I am satisfied that it can be done without real hardship to our people. In this connection, I feel that I must remind hon. Members that it was decided by this House last June that they would give—or that I was expected to give—voluntary economy a fair trial. At the same time, it was laid down that all the necessary steps should be taken and administrative preparations made to produce a rationing scheme in case it might be necessary to introduce such a scheme at short notice. I need scarcely now remind the House that the fuel economy campaign has started, under the able and energetic direction of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Commander King-Hall), and it will grow in intensity as the winter comes on. While I am satisfied that we can achieve the necessary savings by voluntary means I have not neglected to fulfil the Government's undertaking as to other arrangements. Some 13,000,000 householders were required to complete forms in the middle of July, and on the information contained in those forms Local Fuel Overseers have been busy assessing the needs of the householders of the country. The arrangements are now practically complete, and the first stage of a really vast undertaking has been successfully completed. Whether we have a rationing scheme or not, the information will be of immense value to us in determining the allocation of fuel to districts this winter, and the work therefore will not be wasted, whatever we decide.

Furthermore, I decided to secure a substantial measure of economy by statutory direction. I therefore made a Waste of Fuel Order, and subsequently a Control of Fuel Order. Under this latter Order I have made certain directions which come into force to-day. I do not know whether anyone in the House has noticed them, but they certainly would have done so yesterday. They came into operation to-day and limit the use of fuel for central heating, for water heating and also lighting in public institutions and larger households. It is obviously too early yet to judge the full effect of the fuel economy campaign. Of one thing I am absolutely certain; it has made the whole country fuel conscious. There are definite indications that the campaign is having a substantial effect on consumption, but it is obviously impossible until later in the year to see how successful it will be, because we are now only at the end of September.

I have not the slightest hesitation in saying that if the cases which have come to my notice are typical of what is happening throughout the country—and I have no reason to doubt that they are-many thousands of tons of coal are being saved. If the House will bear with me, I will give one or two illustrations which I have taken at random. I have tried to take them to cover every activity. For instance, in the case of municipal offices I have examples of savings of from 17 to 42 per cent. since this campaign started; in the case of hotels savings of from 15 to over 50 per cent. have been secured; cinemas, from 15 per cent. to one case, in London, of 59 per cent.; and for flats I have examples of savings of 20 per cent. and under in many parts of the country. But the most remarkable indication of all is one of the big cities of this country, a very important manufacturing city with a consumption for gas of about 1,000,000 tons of coal a year. Before the campaign was started they were using about 17 per cent. more gas this year than last, because it is a big industrial city and the demand is great. That was reduced to 6 per cent. above last year, then to 2 per cent., and now it is one-half of 1 per cent. above last year. An interesting thing is that before the campaign really started the excess consumption of gas over last year was 55,000,000 cubic feet, and this has now come down to 7,000,000 cubic feet excess. This means that not only is there economy in industry but obviously there must be a very substantial economy in domestic consumption as well.

Another important factor in my plan for saving is the restriction of supplies this winter. I have reduced the allocation of coal for domestic consumption, both in its raw state and in the form of gas and electricity, by 4,000,000 tons. The supply restrictions at present in force do not permit any householder to acquire more coal than will raise the stock in his cellar to one and a half tons of coal and three tons of coke. The House will be aware that there is an overriding condition in the case of coal which limits deliveries to not more than one ton in the period of three months ending 30th October. Any householder can under the Order appeal to the local fuel overseer, who may grant licences for greater quantities if he is satisfied that there would be real hardship unless the restriction was relaxed. These restrictions will be continued, but they may be modified as to quantities in the light of the supply position. If supply improves, the restrictions will be relaxed. Some relaxation has already been made regarding coke, because the supply position is somewhat easier at the moment. It is right to point out that the improvement in supply may be in respect of poor quality fuel, and householders and others may have to realise that they will have to take poorer quality fuel than some of them have been accustomed to having. Many people have been rather spoiled in this country in the past in respect of the quality they have had, and they may well have to put up with poorer quality now.

To secure the measure of economy in domestic consumption of gas and electricity restrictions will be imposed by Order on consumption. In deciding upon the form of the restrictions I propose to impose, I have had uppermost in my mind the need for equity in the distribution of the supplies that are available. I feel it is essential to provide for the small consumer as a first charge on the supplies of solid fuel that are available. To this end I propose to instruct merchants that consumers who normally use about 1 cwt. a week will be the first charge on their coal supplies. Each merchant must set up a regular rota covering all the streets in the area served from the depot. The supervision of the performance of these instructions will be carried out by the local fuel overseer, to whom I should like to take this opportunity of paying a tribute. Restrictions imposed by my Ministry on the lines I have described will continue to apply to those consumers who do not come within this "small con- sumer" class. It is intended to supply these people on a programme basis with a stock of from 1 ton to 1½ tons by the end of December. The House will see that under these arrangements the transport and labour for deliveries during the period when conditions are usually at their worst will be available to serve the needs of the small consumer.

As an insurance against interruption of transport during the winter, merchants have been compelled to hold back a certain quantity of coal in stock, and Government dumps have been established in localities where the effect of interruption of supplies would be most serious. For instance, dumps have been established in practically every Metropolitan borough in London, and the councils have been encouraged to hold stocks at their blocks of flats to meet the difficulties which arose last year and in other years too. Under the scheme of delivering coal to the small consumer, as I have just described, the rota will be laid down for the merchant, but the householder must play his part in ordering coal at the office of the merchant with whom he is registered.

I do not want the House to think that because of recent concentration on the domestic consumer a great deal cannot be done with the industrial consumer. I am certain that substantial savings can be secured in the industrial world as well without seriously or at all impairing our war effort. The consumption of fuel by our industries must be somewhere in the neighbourhood of 140,000,000 tons a year, and a very small saving there would turn out a very large tonnage. Much has already been done. A year ago my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Grenfell), when he was Secretary for Mines, appointed a Committee, under the chairmanship of Dr. Grumell, to advise on how greater efficiency could be obtained in the industry. Their work is definitely beginning to bear fruit. They realise that it is impossible in war to effect substantial reductions in the consumption of coal by the installation of different plants, but they realise that a great deal of saving can be made by proper attention to operation and to maintenance. They have a three-point programme for economy.

First, they realise that however great the willingness to economise, it is useless unless people have knowledge. They therefore started last year refresher courses at the technical colleges throughout the country. Secondly, they were convmced that in many large industries economies could be made by an overhaul of the heat in process work. The accordingly met representatives of about 30 trade associations, to discuss the scope for economy in each industry in turn. These associations undertook to make examinations and to see what savings could be effected. Many industries have appointed whole-time officers to give advice, backed by that of the Committee set up by the Ministry. Large economies can be made in steam-raising plant. For this reason, at the request of the Committee, my staff of combustion engineers has been increased. In addition, the controllers in the regions set up under the White Paper have been asked to recruit the voluntary part-time services of other experts. Nearly 300 of these experts have volunteered to give their assistance. We have thus set up an organisation to help those who want to save fuel in industry.

I could give many examples; there is one that I will give, from South Wales. There, one of these economy committees was set up. They inspected 50 firms, with an aggregate consumption of coal per annum of 700,000 tons. They are satisfied that they will be able to save 70,000 tons in that group of 50 firms alone. I could give many other cases. I am satisfied that people are doing their best to take advantage of what advice is offered to them, and that substantial economies not only can be made, but at this moment are being made in this country.

I have dealt with consumption: I must come to the other part of the effort to get rid of our deficit—that is, production. Leaving out the question of reorganisation, which I shall deal with later, there are at this moment, for the immediate problem, two ways of increasing output—an increase in man-power, and an increased output from the man-power that we have. It is stated in many quarters—and I see there is a Motion on the Paper to that effect—that this problem can best be resolved by releasing more men from the Forces. Members will appreciate that in dealing with this matter considerations obviously outside coal considerations must be taken into account, and I would remind them that that is not an expedient that can be repeated year by year. A great deal has already been done; I wonder whether the House realises how much. The House will remember that in 1941 33,000 men were returned from other industries. This year it was decided to bring back 11,000 more from the Services and from other industries. This programme has, in fact, been improved upon. The total number returned to the mines last year and this year is nearly 50,000.