Orders of the Day — Industrial Fuel Supplies

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th February 1947.

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Photo of Mr Clement Davies Mr Clement Davies , Montgomeryshire 12:00 am, 7th February 1947

The first thing that strikes me about this Debate is that it is rather extraordinary that one of the most serious statements which this country has ever had to face has had to be left until late on a Friday afternoon, and, even then, might not have been made but for the fact that there was a persistent application in the House yesterday for the Debate. It is certainly one of the most serious, because it affects the major part of our population, the whole of the London area, possibly the Lancashire area, in fact, most of the densely populated and industrial areas. We cannot emphasise too strongly the seriousness of this situation today. The Minister has referred to the past situations, which were certainly disastrous, but today we are face to face with a situation which has never faced us before—a shortage of manpower, materials and food, and the need for increasing exports such as we have never done before in order to pay for the raw materials and the very food we require.

May I refer to the speeches which have been made from the other side of the House? Some of them have been made as though this was merely a political Debate. When there is a national crisis let every man forget his own party. We have had two very searching and excellent speeches, one from the hon. Gentleman the Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn) and the other from the hon. Gentleman the Member for Stoke (Mr. Ellis Smith). They were two very courageous speeches. They could have made those speeches without apology, or the need for making comments about the regard they have for Ministers. In a moment of this kind, I feel that the House should be turned into a real Council of State. We all ought to face the facts, however awkward and uncomfortable they may be.

I would like to deal with the coal situation in three parts. First, production. I would like to admit, at once, that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister is heir to a long and bad past which undoubtedly has affected production. There has been a steady dwindling from 1913 until to-day. With regard to the position of manpower in the industry, the Minister of Fuel and Power and the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Pembroke (Major Lloyd-George) succeeded to a situation that ought never to have been allowed to develop. When we began the war there were 800,000 miners. If anything was necessary in order to provide the munitions of war it was coal and the figures were allowed to drop from 800,000 to 740,000 in the course of a few weeks. Though warned of the seriousness of the position, they were allowed to drop still further to 690,000, which was the position when the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Pembroke took charge. Then it was that we had the Essential Work Order, but in order to try to get the men and recruits for the coal mines we had what was known as the Bevin boys scheme. Let it be remembered that the miners and Bevin boys have been the slaves of this country ever since. They were bound to go down into the mines to produce the coal which the country needs.

I agree with the remarkable speech of the hon. Member for North Battersea (Mr. Jay). What is to be done in order to increase production? The mine workers have always been underpaid and they are even underpaid today. Especially have they been underpaid in comparison with workers in industries which offer much more comfortable and better amenities to those who work above the ground. Therefore, let there be more and more amenities and let there be more wages given to the miner. It is comforting to know that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Fuel and Power has succeeded through his organisation—and, I take it, with the assistance of the trades unions—in getting the remarkable number of 67,000 back into the industry. He did not tell us what the amount of wastage was, but I believe it is something very serious. I believe it is above normal, because men are getting older, especially those who worked during the course of the war, while those who can voluntarily retire from the pits are doing so. Something has got to be done there.

I come now to my second point, which is distribution and delivery. It has been known for a very considerable time that we were not producing a sufficient quantity of coal to allow us to provide the amount of fuel required in this country. That became obvious during the war, so much so that two schemes were prepared for the rationing of coal during the war. That was defeated at that time, and in my opinion, wrongly defeated. I only wish that the then President of the Board of Trade had stuck to his guns at that time, or rather had stuck to the scheme which would commend itself better to the House than sticking to guns Ability is a great and necessary quality, but at times courage is even more necessary. We could also see— and. I challenge the Minister of Fuel and Power on this—that there was likely to be a rising need for electric power as we went on. I believe he himself—although I cannot recall the actual instance or the actual words—called attention to the increasing demands for consumption of coal in this country. That being so, preparation should have been made to meet it, and if preparations could not be made to meet it by increasing the production of coal, then one of these schemes should have been brought into operation. It is no good leaving it until the winter is upon us. Some references have been made today to the cold weather we have experienced, but it is not abnormal. It is what we expect at some time during the period from the beginning of November to the end of March. Sometimes it is better and sometimes worse, and it is no worse this year than it has been on many occasions when we have had experience of it in the past. It cannot be expected that throughout that period we shall always have' a sort of normal, mild winter, any more than anybody can expect to have an ordinary, quiet voyage across the North Atlantic from America to England in mid-winter. One knows perfectly well that there may be storms. In the same way one must expect something of this kind with regard to the weather and the only way to prepare for it is to lay down stocks in sufficient time.

My complaint about the right hon.-Gentleman is that he knew this. He made certain preparations, but they were too optimistic at the time. In fact, he thought himself that he would be 10 million tons short, but he hoped that if all went well he could reduce that figure to five millions. One is not entitled to gamble upon a thing of that kind when one knows that our industry and our people may be suffering from the cold.