Coal Situation

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

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Photo of Mr David Grenfell Mr David Grenfell , Gower

I would like to extend my warmest congratulations to the Minister on his first speech in his new office. I can assure him—if he needs any assurance—that I will do everything I can, wherever I may be, to help him in his onerous task. The Minister has found himself in charge of an organisation which has yet to develop and which has yet to acquire his full influence in the scheme of mining and fuel operations of this country and I sympathise fully with him when he alludes to the need for building up this industry. I thought that when he began his speech he would propose a Vote of Censure upon the Government for having set up this Ministry at this most inappropriate time. I assure him that I have no feeling in this matter at all and that I do not complain of the enormously increased authority reposed in him compared with the authority which I had in my time of office. I served two years m the Department, and for the first year I found no difficulty in the performance of my duties, but I must say that during the last year of my duty in the Mines Department I was very severely restricted in authority. I said so then, and I think I should say so to-day. The Minister has been elevated to a position which will enable him to achieve far more with his own power than he would have been able to do if he had occupied a position similar to mine. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman concluded his remarks on a note of optimism and idealism. He said that this is a long-term policy but that it is equally important as the immediate policy. I would like to assure him that, although the long-term policy will require the combined wisdom and authority, knowledge and experience, of all the people in the industry if the industry is to play its rightful part in the life of the nation, there is to-day a terribly urgent situation that cannot be disregarded. I do not complain of anything that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman said, but I thought he was not quite sufficiently impressed with the importance of the immediate problem.

He referred to certain figures of production and consumption. He gave us some of the history of the industry. I would like to amplify that history a little by saying that there has not been any time in the last two and a half years when the industry has been sufficiently supplied with man-power, except for the period immediately following Dunkirk, when the export market for 500,000 tons a week fell away overnight, and there were no doors open to receive the coal produced in our exporting areas. In Durham and South Wales pits were closed down. We had, it appeared then, a surplus of coal and a surplus of manpower, but it was a very great mistake indeed at that time to assume that those figures would be permanent, that the figures up to the time of Dunkirk would be the figures of consumption and prospective production for the duration of the war. I remember that I gave a very definite and clear warning that there would be a steeply rising curve of home consumption. I am afraid that the wisdom that is displayed by my right hon. and gallant Friend to-day has come all too late to the Government. He referred to the increase of 20,000,000 tons compared with the highwater level of 1938, when we were beginning our war preparations and when there was a consumption of 181,000,000 tons a year for all kinds of industrial, domestic, and miscellaneous purposes.

The right hon. and gallant Gentleman said to-day that we are needing more than 20,000,000 tons additional coal. I will give the figures. Last year we produced and consumed almost an equal balance. It was a great achievement for the industry and for those responsible for the production and distribution of coal. Last year we produced 207,500,000 tons—a very large figure—and consumed almost exactly the same tonnage. This year, according to the estimates—I remember them very well, for I prepared them—from 1st November to 1st May of next year, we shall require no less than 120,000,000 tons for home consumption, plus a minimum of exports which we may not cut down with safety of 3,500,000 tons or 4,000,000 tons. We shall require, according to the estimate already available, 124,000,000 tons for the next six months. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman said that there is deficit of only 11,000,000 tons and he hopes that that will be made good by economies in industrial and domestic consumption. He had better remember that he should be very careful not to rely entirely upon prospective saving? to meet prospective demands. The prospective savings are problematical. He cannot guarantee them. The demands are certain. I should like to give a word of advice—get your coal in the bag before you weigh it.

I would like the right hon. and gallant Gentleman to face the problem as a problem modified in its aspects from the one which he described. We shall need 120,000,000 tons for home consumption in the next six months. Perhaps I should interpolate here that this is a winter problem. The danger is in the winter. There is always a margin in the summer, and that margin should be used for stocking. This year the stocks are not there. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman did not tell us what are the stocks to-day. I do not suppose he is under an obligation to tell the House, it may be dangerous to do so; but let me give the history of stocking before I proceed further. When I went into the Mines Department at the end of the first winter of war, there were 10,000,000 tons of coal in stock. There had been much hardship and complaint about coal shortage, but there were 10,000,000 tons in stock on the day I arrived at the Department. Then came Dunkirk. There was a pessimism in Government circles as well as in industrial circles which I had to overcome, and I make the claim that I stood alone in Government circles and almost in industrial circles for a while when I said, "You will want this additional coal."

The figures that have been quoted today by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman show how right was my forecast of the requirements. In May, 1940, there were 10,000,000 tons of coal in stock. Then came the transport difficulties which set in on 1st September with the blitz. I would like to pay a word of tribute to the right hon. Gentleman the Lord President of the Council, who presided with patience, tact and an extraordinary grasp of the details of the transport problem over the committee of the Admiralty, the Mines Department, the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Shipping, the Railway Executive and the Board of Trade which was in almost constant session throughout the winter. We managed to stock a good deal and I readily tender my recognition to the Lord President of the Council and all who worked with us.

We began the winter of 1940–41 with 28,000,000 tons of coal in stock. I ask the House to note the figure. We survived a very severe winter 1940–41, during which the position was aggravated by transport difficulties, magnetic and acoustic mines when there were reports of sinkings all around the coast, and bottle-necks and obstacles of all kinds on the railway system. The 28,000,000 tons of coal in stock helped us to overcome the difficulties. We ended my first winter with 14,000,000 tons in stock, 4,000,000 tons more than I had when I entered the Department. The next winter, in the light of the increase in the prospective demand, I insisted on more stocking, and we began the second winter with 31,000,000 tons of coal in stock on 1st December, 1941. I ask the House to note that we ended the winter with exactly the same tonnage; at the beginning we had 3,000,000 tons more in stock, but the stock worked down to the same level of 14,000,000 tons. We took 17,000,000 tons out of stock in the second winter and finished up when I left with 14,000,000 tons. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman must face this matter before the Debate ends. It is in the interests of the country and in his own interest that I speak. He knows that he will not be able to draw 17,000,000 tons out of stock next winter. He has not got it. He will not have it. It is not there.

I speak with complete approval of the plan of reorganisation. I submitted the first draft myself. It is still there. I am convinced that it ought to work to the advantage of the country, and I wish the right hon. and gallant Gentleman Godspeed and the utmost success in its operation. There is a plan which has given the best possible results from the equipment and the men at his disposal. He cannot by any efficient management get more than the capacity of the pits. Are there enough men? The right hon. and gallant Gentleman has been given a very fine office, which is much more dignified and elevated than mine was. I admire his modest demeanour in this very exalted situation, but no top dressing, no well-proportioned scheme of organisation, will get coal from the pits without men going down the pits, and there are not enough men. I shall be told, "You were there a long time. Why did you let the men go?" I did not. Everyone knows that I was opposed to letting them go. I tried to impose a limitation upon the number who were to remain. After all, what is important in an industry like ours is. What have we left when they have gone? I gave a minimum figure of 720,000 in September, 1940. We fell to below 690,000 for a very long period.

The right hon. and gallant Gentleman must really watch this. The production of coal was never, more efficient than in May and June, 1941. We then had 688,000 men. They had not been driven too hard through the winter, because there were transport stoppages. They had not been worked too hard. They had a surplus productive capacity which was never fully employed. When the spring, came, they responded readily, and, despite their attenuated numbers, they produced nearly 4,200,000 tons. That is just about the limit. All kinds of inducements were put to me to promise a greater output, but I said I would never promise more than a 5 per cent. increase. Under the best conditions you might get 2½ per cent. from better management and 2½ per cent. from better attendance. When you have added the lot together, 5 per cent. increase is a very good achievement indeed. We were producing nearly 4,200,000 tons with fewer than 690,000 men, a number lower than we had had for 50 years, and at no time in the 50 years which have passed since I began to work have we had better production results than in May and June last year. The House can check these figures. The figures of mining are very simple. The ramifications inside the pits are beyond the layman altogether—the cannot understand them—but the figures are simple. If you get from every man employed at and about the coalmines in this period of stress and pressure which the Minister contemplates, with all the persuasive influences of neighbours and colleagues upon the workmen and all the pressure of the Regional Controller upon the management, if you get six tons per person per week in 50 weeks, you will have achieved a very good result indeed.

May I show some of the obstacles to reaching this high rate of production? It has been suggested that there are two factors which deal with the efficiency of the men in the mines. One is the average age of the men employed, and that is highly important. I was in my prime when I was in the pit. I left coalface work at 35, feeling good and strong, but I knew men, my own father among them, the cream of the industry, who remained in the mines till 50, 55, and 60. At my age we could run away from them. Youth does count. It is a very arduous occupation. I take a rather more pessimistic view than the Minister about age. The average age is well over 38 to-day.

I know he has expert statisticians, whose work I admire, but this is one of the points which have not come into their computation. We have far more men over 60 than we ever had in the industry. I am afraid that some men over 64 are not known even to the Ministry of Labour. To my knowledge some of the old boys suddenly take six or eight years from their age in order to get a job. The average age is well above 37½. I should say it has gone up from 33 to 38 in the last 10 years. It is now 38. It was not more than 33 in 1937. Suppose you pick two football teams, one of an average age of 33, and other other of 38. What number of points do you expect to go to the older team? You cannot expect the productivity that you got from younger men. Of course it drops as the men get older and, if you try to retrieve the loss due to that cause by excessive driving, you only make matters worse. You must take care of the older men. You must work them within their strength. You should set aside, if you can, the non-mechanised parts of the mines for them and they will give you far better value.

But there is a far more important point, and that is the percentage of men at the coalface. I wrote a memorandum on this in the first three days that I was at the Mines Department. It is there now. I described the effect of losing a proportion of your face workers. Again the proportions are very easy. I mentioned an average production of six tons per person per week. If you get an average production of 16 tons per person at the coalface you are doing very well taking mechanised and non-mechanised mines in the lump and thick seams with thin seams. I myself have travelled along seams in recent years, I admit with extreme difficulty, less than 17 inches in thickness. If you take your good and bad seams and mechanised and non-mechanised mines and lump them together, you can get an average of 16 tons per man for a week at the coalface. It requires full attendances.

That requires good attendance and diligence. If the overall output is six tons a year and the output at the coalface is 16, you want only six men at the coal face out of 16 persons employed. Three-eighths of the men should be employed at the coalface. That is the optimum percentage but we have lost that optimum level. We are working now with a, proportion of face workers of less than 36 per cent. Before the war we had 800,000 men on the colliery books, and 38 per cent. of them were at the coalface. Multiply 38 by 8,000, and we get a total number of men at the coalface of 324,000. We have now come down to 36 per cent. of the men in the industry who work at the coalface, but that is 36 per cent. of a number that is reduced by 10 per cent. If you multiply 8,000 by 36 you get 288,000, and then, if 10 per cent. is taken from that number it gives 256,000 men at the coalface. They are now expected to produce as much as 324,000 men would have done before the war.

There is no mystery about this at all. The only man who fills coal in the coalmine is the man who works at the coalface, but we must have the other men—the winding and engine men, the banks men, the onsetters at the bottom, the ventilating men and the pumps men. Many of them have to work whether men are filling coal or not, but if we want to get the best overall results we must see that the optimum percentage is maintained at the coalface. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman has not got sufficient men at the coalface. If he could put an additional 20,000 men at the coalface without adding one man anywhere else, he would be able to get the 250,000 tons a week that he wants. Let him not delay in putting these men there. He has no coal in stock now. He is millions of tons down now, and from 1st November to 1st March he will want, after all his economies have been achieved, something in the neighbourhood of 116,000,000 tons. There are 24.6 working weeks in the mining half-year, less than 25 weeks. I have given him 6,000,000 tons to take from stock; he will, therefore, have to get 110,000,000 tons in the next 25 weeks. Can he get it? With new organisation, with good will and with the pooling of managerial responsibility, will it give him 4,400,000 tons a week? There is a more simple way, and that is to add to the number of men at the coalface and to treat them properly when they are there.

I do not wish to speak very harshly about the Government. They have their responsibilities and none of us would exchange responsibility with them. They cannot run the risk of going without coal this winter. They have sent men into munition works. The Government have persuaded them, appealed to them, coaxed them and done everything to get production. We are talking about a second front. Who dare send men to fight on any front if in December, January and February the works are unable to maintain war production because there is no coal? Coal is at the bottom of it. You have to get your production right and your organisation right. Let the Minister have all the help he wants in economy, in production and in distribution, and he will have all the help he wants from people on this side. I have not spent a day in the last four months without taking some time of every day to prepare a favourable atmosphere for the right hon. and gallant Gentleman to do his job.

Let me say a word or two of warning about domestic rationing. I submitted three alternative rationing schemes on 3rd February this year. The Cabinet knows of them. I put them up under my own initials to be held in reserve. I favoured a restriction scheme, the kind of scheme the right hon. and gallant Gentleman has described to the House to-day. We may have to come to rationing, but let me warn the Government not to dare to cut down the consumption of the 2,000,000 or 3,000,000 poor people who have never had enough coal. They have been rationed by circumstances all along. There are the poor of London, of Glasgow, of Birmingham and of Liverpool; I know them well and know their difficulties. We must try to overcome some of those difficulties. We must improve transport. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman has assisted materially by preventing people putting in too large stocks. A large stock often makes a person selfish, for while he holds on to it he wants his share of the limited supply that will be made available in winter time.

I wish the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the utmost success in his attempts at distributing the restricted amount of coal on the fairest basis, but I warn him not to attempt miserable economies at the expense of the poorest people. This is not the speech I would have made if I had spoken first. I do not wish to appear unappreciative of the Minister's speech, but I do want him to think again and to consult his good advisers. I worked for two years at the Ministry and learned to respect them. Let him have consultations with them again. Let me assure him that he stands in very grave danger. He will carry us all into the danger zone with him if he under-estimates the enormity of this problem. This is a whale of a problem. Let him not be content merely with counting the shrimps of economy. It is the biggest problem facing this country. There could be nothing more demoralising if we broke down because there was no fuel in the munition works and if we let people suffer from the cold. There is nothing more demoralising than cold. You cannot make war with cold feet. You cannot even make love with cold feet. Let us not be led into the temptation of assuming that because a Minister has been changed and the Ministry exalted he can give up a claim for the essentials of production in this vital industry. There are three essentials. The first is a suificient number of efficient men of strength and staying power to do the arduous work underground; the second is ample pit room—that can be improved; and the third, labour and steel, which are difficult to command, for the essentials of the new mechanised mines. But first of all my right hon. Friend will be doing himself and the industry justice and doing his duty to the country by insisting that the industry is properly staffed.