Clause 2. — (Extension of Area within Which the Board's Activities May Be Carried on.)

Part of Orders of the Day — Coal Industry Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 12th July 1949.

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Photo of Sir John Foster Sir John Foster , Northwich 12:00 am, 12th July 1949

The hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Blyton) made obviously a very sincere speech, and he threw some light on why the Socialist Party have involved us in an economic crisis. He seemed totally unaware of the fact that the export price is not fixed by the National Coal Board but by world conditions, and his whole argument was based on that fallacy. He said about competition that private enterprise would be frightened. They are not frightened of competition, but they are frightened that the National Coal Board will pour the taxpayers' money into subsidising coal exports if they are allowed to do so. Of course, competition of that kind is not worth while, because we now know that when the activities of the National Coal Board are unremunerative, the loss falls on the taxpayers.

Why are we objecting to the National Coal Board entering the export trade? We are objecting to it because we do not believe that the National Coal Board can do the job properly or as well as it is done at present. The Minister may well remember the occasion of the Debate in this House on the Coal Industry Bill, when he was very critical of the Report of the Fabian Society on the National Coal Board. He poured scorn on a body for which, I believe, he was a research worker. I do not know whether he will agree with that? He was not? I cannot see whether the right hon. Gentleman agrees or disagrees. [Interruption.] He disagrees. I understood that he was connected with that Society in some way—I see, but not in research. He was very touchy about the report of that Society. He should have looked at the first draft—he would have been very much more touchy. It was toned down for publication. The first report was much more critical of the National Coal Board.

If we look at the way the National Coal Board have worked the mines and exercised their relations with the miners, we see well that they have plenty of room to cure a lot of mistakes in other directions before they enter into another field of activity. The first objection, then, is that the National Coal Board at the moment have plenty to do to get their house in order before entering another field.

The second objection is that the National Coal Board will, in effect, be regarded as the British Government by other countries who will not enter into the sophistries and distinctions of the right hon. Gentleman as to whether the National Coal Board are or are not an organ of the Government. They might have this consolation, that if the law of the land abroad is the same as it is here, the National Coal Board in their advertising will be able to libel other people without being responsible for their actions. That may be one advantage, but apart from that, the foreign countries who are dealing with a government organisation exporting coal are apt, if there is a dispute, to put it on a diplomatic level. That is a great disadvantage for a nationalised industry entering into the export business.

In Cable and Wireless, one finds that the fact that the concessions are really Government concessions is camouflaged by the old companies being kept going. What is the reason for that? The reason is that it is thought that foreign countries would not like to deal with a government organisation in the field of telecommunications. In the field of the export industry, the moment a foreign Government finds, say, that the National Coal Board are sending abroad the same kind of coal as it sells in this country—full of slate and slack—that Government will object, and the matter will be taken on a government level. That does not make for easy relations between the two countries. It is much better to leave breaches of contract, and objections by the buyers that the coal is not up to sample, or is not marketable, to the ordinary decision of commercial arbitration, or, in the last resort, to the law courts.

In trading abroad, the National Coal Board will find that they are, in a sense, representing the Government, pledging the credit of the Government, and the reputation of the Government for quality trade. And again, the National Coal Board will not be so critical of their own product. The exporter, in a sense, has an objective view. If he is given a quantity of coal which is not up to standard, he will react upon the Coal Board because he has his customers to think about. The exporting department of the National Coal Board will not be able to stand up to the production department of the National Coal Board in the same way. That is why what has been called profit, but is not profit namely, the 6d. a ton, is justified. I understand that the 6d. a ton is not anything like all profit. The profit is probably just under 1d. a ton. That is the information which I am given. I am told that the administration costs, the cost of selling coal and arranging all of that, come to just under 5d. a ton.