Orders of the Day — Coal

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th June 1948.

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Photo of Mr Robert Hudson Mr Robert Hudson , Southport 12:00 am, 24th June 1948

I have it, if the Committee want it, but I do not want to delay the Committee. However, it would seem pretty clear that the right hon. Gentleman and his friends did not know all about it. Said the Secretary of State: Unfortunately, it has not worked out too well. That is a pretty fair confession, not only of incompetence but of political dishonesty almost unparalleled in history.

Let us take the first test that the right hon. Gentleman said was to be applied, namely, the increase of output and the reduction of costs. I pass over the fuel crisis of last year and turn to the target for this year. The target for this year has been set at 200 million tons of deep-mined coal. I am talking entirely of deep-mined coal. That is less, incidentally, than the Prime Minister suggested as recently as September last year was obtainable. The Prime Minister suggested that the proper target for this year was 208 million tons. He said, four million tons a week. Four million tons a week multiplied by 52 weeks if my arithmetic is correct, is 208 million tons a year.

But even on the modified estimate of the Minister, the production to date should have been 88,550,000 tons for the first 23 weeks. I take the first 23 weeks because it is only for those weeks that we have available the official figures. A figure has been published for the 24th week, but I am told it is only a provisional figure. For the first 23 weeks, the output should have been, on the Ministerial estimate, 88,550,000 tons. The actual output has been 88,107,000 tons. We have yet to face the Summer months when, owing to the incidence of the holidays, production is much lower. It is clear, therefore, that the target—the miserably inadequate target set up by the Minister of Fuel and Power—the target lower than that intimated as possible by his own Prime Minister—is not going to be reached.

If we turn to the question of output per man, the same sorry tale is to be told. I hope that hon. Members from the mining districts and, indeed, the Minister of Fuel and Power when he replies, will not try to ride the Committee off by pointing out the official figures of output per man-shift because, after all, what the country is concerned about is to get its coal, and the really important figure is the total output per man per year. That is the thing that results in the final target being achieved or not being achieved. These are the very disturbing figures so far available: Output in 1938, the prewar year under private enterprise, per man-year was 290 tons; today, the output per man-year is only 262 tons in spite of nationalisation.

It is worth remembering in this connection that between those two years the percentage of coal cut by machinery increased very materially indeed. As has been stated, if the output per man-year was as good as it was in the last year of private enterprise during the war, 1941, the total available would have been increased by 24 million tons, and 24 million tons extra would have made a great difference indeed, not only to the economy of this country internally, but to the whole prospect of restoring our balance of trade abroad.

I see in the Press a statement that hon. Members in this House representing some of the mining seats propose to defend the present fall of output and the present low output by suggesting that the average age of the men, particularly those at the coalface, is materially higher than it used to be. Let me disabuse their minds at once of the idea that that is an adequate excuse, because the figures published by the right hon. Gentleman's own Department show conclusively that there has been practically no change in the age grouping of the men employed in the pits; and, so far as the age of the men employed at the coalface is concerned, the right hon. Gentleman, in reply to a question by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd), told us today that there are no figures available as to the average age of men at the coalface. I make these statements now in order to save hon. Members putting forward arguments later which have no foundation in fact.

The fact of the matter is that one of the causes of the drop in output of which we are only too conscious, and of which the right hon. Gentleman himself has complained, is, as I shall have occasion to show later in my speech, absenteeism. Again, absenteeism is not the fault of the older men; it is due to the younger men. Only last week, Sir Nigel Holmes, the Divisional Controller in the Midlands, speaking at Doncaster, said that it was not the men of 35 to 45, as might be expected, but the young men of 28 and under who were to blame for this state of affairs.

It is clear, therefore, that the target that has already been set is not going to be achieved. Lord Hyndley, in a speech on the 26th May and again on the 4th June, and the Minister himself on the 10th June, all expressed their concern and fear that the target is not going to be obtained. Indeed, the Minister himself said that the whole outlook is not as good as it was earlier in the year. In fact, only 18.6 million tons were produced—over 100,000 tons a week short. The right hon. Gentleman himself bears out what I have been trying to point out.

Let me turn to the sad hope expressed by the late Minister that costs would be reduced. We shall have to wait until we get the first report of the Board to get the exact details, but if rumour is to be believed, despite the increase of prices that has taken place, the Board has lost something in the order of £20 million. I do not know what the figure is; it is merely hearsay, but we shall no doubt hear. Quite apart from any loss they made, as everyone in the House knows from his own personal experience, the cost of coal to the consumer has been steadily rising, not only to the domestic consumer but to the industrial consumer, and, even more important from the point of view of our overseas balance of trade, to the foreign consumer.

To take two examples: One of the largest consumers in the country in 1939 paid 19s. 8d. a ton for industrial coal, and in 1948 paid 51s. a ton—more than double. The Sheffield Electricity Company, buying a lower quality coal, paid 20s. a ton in 1939 and 405. a ton last year—again double. There is not much sign there of the hopes which the Secretary of State for War expressed only a few months ago being carried out. Finally, let me quote one figure as regards the export trade. I am informed that as recently as the middle of last December, the exporters were told that there would be an increase of no less than 25s. a ton, in one jump, for coal sent abroad, and also for bunkers to date from 1st January. The old price of Welsh large was 52s. 6d. and the new price is 77s. 6d.; Tyne coal 47s. 6d., now 72s. 6d; Yorkshire coal 525. 6d., now 77s. 6d. We hear a great deal about the advantages of bulk buying, but here is a pretty good example of the evils of bulk selling. One of the answers with which the Argentine Government can promptly retaliate when we complain about the increased prices being charged for meat and maize is, "What about the increased price you are charging for your coal?" What is sauce for the goose is obviously sauce for the gander. We cannot have a better example, I suggest, of the evils of the system into which we are being driven.

I turn to the matter of organisation. The Secretary of State for War said that the organisation was going to be flexible; that it was not going to be too centralised or too rigid. Complaints, as everyone knows, are universal today of the set-up under the Coal Board and its rigidity; its excessive centralisation and, above all, so far as the men are concerned, the fact that the ownership is too remote. It may well be that the individual coalowner had many faults, but at least he was someone who was close and handy—someone whom one could see and abuse and who, at the worst, if a decision had to be taken, could take it reasonably quickly; whereas under the present system, a decision has to go right up to the top and slowly percolate down again. There can be no question at all that one of the causes of the failure today to get better results out of the men is this remoteness of ownership, and they are finding, contrary to what they believed, that the new boss is really the old boss under a new name but slightly more remote.

Another very important point is that of managers. The Secretary of State for War indicated that one of the objects of the Board was to try to improve the status of the managers and to give them more opportunity. The Leader of the House—and I am sorry he is not in his place, because I have several useful quotations from him—said in the Second Reading Debate that managers have been denied by the nature and the character of 'the ownership, freedom of initiative and elbow room in management." [OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th January, 1946; Vol. 418, c. 971.] Well, the implication of both speeches, surely, was that managers would have a better and freer time under the new set up than they had under the old. What has been the result? Everybody knows that some of the best men have been lost to the industry; and only this month, in South Wales, speaking at a meeting of the Colliery Managers' Association, the Association President said: There is a strong feeling of disgruntlement and frustration"— not what we had been led to believe would be the case. It is a lamentable fact that since vesting day we have lost mining engineers the industry can ill afford. That hardly bears out the high hopes expressed by the Secretary of State for War.

I turn now to safeguards for the consumers, which we were told would be brought in by this Bill. Not only is coal much more expensive—of which I have just given some illustrations—but its quality has steadily deteriorated. This affects, not only our domestic consumers and our industrial consumers, but also our export market. Even the miserable target of 200 million tons will be obtained this year—if it is obtained—only by selling as coal seven million tons of dirt. I wonder what would be said if a farmer, working towards the targets that are being set by the Minister of Agriculture, were asked to produce so many gallons of milk, and boasted at the end of the year that he had reached that gallonage, for the public only to find that a lot of it was water? There would be some considerable complaint. Or suppose a grocer made up the weight of sugar for the ration by adding a little sand.