National Coal Board (Annual Report)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th November 1949.

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Photo of Mr Claude Lancaster Mr Claude Lancaster , Fylde 12:00 am, 10th November 1949

If I do not follow the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. R. Williams) immediately in that part of his speech which referred in particular to the Coal Board organisation, I will attempt to do so when I come to it in the latter part of what I have to say.

In laying down certain generalities in regard to the discussion which would occur in this House in connection with the nationalised industries, I think the Minister left out two points which are of some importance. First, there will be a tendency for hon. Members to become rather more remote from the problem as it goes on. Those who have taken a practical part in the running of the industry will become fewer and fewer; and indeed the managerial side may tend to go by default altogether. Secondly, in regard to our attitude towards public boards and the National Coal Board in particular and this is some reference to what was said by the hon. Member for Wigan—they do carry out many functions and have wide fields of activities which it is the duty of Parliament to consider, and indeed to criticise.

If the Opposition or any hon. Member feels it his duty to draw attention to any shortcomings of the National Coal Board corporately or individually, he is entitled to do so, and it is absurd to stigmatise that as either unfair or unpatriotic. It is his duty to do so, and the Minister will no doubt take the opportunity of defending the National Coal Board and correcting hon. Members who may have made unreasonable criticisms. We have seen one aspect of the organisation of the industry in the speech of the Minister, who quoted a great mass of statistics. They were relevant but I do not think one can either prove or disprove this case purely on statistics. This industry, possibly more than any other, is a living organism, and statistics only represent one aspect of the matter.

As the Minister rightly said, the occasion of today's Debate is something of a precedent. We are today reviewing the stewardship of the National Coal Board, and I should like to add my congratulations on the form of the report which has been brought out. Further, we have an opportunity today of passing judgment on the methods they have used to carry out their job. If we do our job objectively, I think we must have regard to one or two salient facts. To my mind, the most important are the price of coal and the volume of our exports. In regard to the price of coal, the pithead price of coal at this moment is 48s. 5½d., and is higher than ever before. In regard to the volume of exports, we know it is running at about 19 million tons.

In my submission, the price of coal is not only making our position in the home market a very difficult one, but it played no inconsiderable part in the dollar crisis that we have recently been discussing. So far as exports are concerned, as has been freely admitted today, we should, and could, be exporting a great deal more than we are already. If we are to take into account why these two figures are so unsatisfactory, I think we must dwell for a few moments on the course of events which have led up to that situation.

Hon. Members will remember that a short six weeks elapsed before the decision in regard to the date of vesting day was given. A great many very hasty decisions were arrived at, and some unsuitable appointments were made. That was followed shortly afterwards by the fuel crisis, and in due course by the resignation of Sir Charles Reid and Mr. Gridley, followed at a later stage by the setting up of an inquiry by the Burrows Committee, to which I shall refer again. That was followed by the Coal Industry Bill.

At no stage during all that period has there, in my submission, been a clear recognition by the Government or the Coal Board that something drastic needed to be done; that at some point the surgeon's knife was needed. There has been nothing but improvisation and expediency. Let me dwell for a moment on the Burrows Report, to which some reference has been made today. I took the trouble in the spring of this year to make such inquiries as I could into the methods employed by that committee. I found what to me is a disturbing situation. I saw a number of the areas to which the committee had gone to make their inquiries. I asked, and was given very freely, an account of what had transpired.

So far as I can make out, the Burrows Committee turned up with a questionnaire, many questions of which were purely elementary, and the time devoted to these various areas was a matter of an hour or two. Surely the sensible thing would have been to select one or two areas at random and to have devoted a fortnight at least to studying their methods, their form of administration and how a superior authority, either by way of division or the National Coal Board, impinged on their activities. The methods to which we have seen reference in the report might have been done more scientifically, in which case the report might have been a little different.

Almost 18 months ago, in a speech in this House, I criticised the structure and administration of the National Coal Board and gave my views as to how the position could be improved. Despite the various points which have been raised today, I do not propose to repeat at length those views. I have produced them in pamphlet form and they have received very wide publicity. I do not think that I should be justified in asking the House to bear with me if I reiterated them. Certainly nothing has occurred since that time to make me wish to modify or to alter them substantially. I hold by what I then said.

My views which were expressed in pamphlet form were complemented by those of Sir Charles Reid at very much the same time. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. R. S. Hudson) said, the value, such as it was, of those two approaches to the problem was that we had approached it from our separate experiences, Sir Charles Reid most particularly as a technician and I from the point of view of the administration of the industry. Neither the Minister nor the Parliamentary Secretary were Members of the House when the Reid recommendations were debated. I remember clearly the enthusiasm with which those recommendations in the name of Sir Charles Reid were accepted, not only by Labour Members, but by hon. Members in all parts of the House.

It seems odd that because Sir Charles Reid and the National Coal Board have parted company and because their views on various matters do not happen to coincide, Sir Charles Reid at this stage should be held in any less esteem and repute than he was when these recommendations were received by the House. I wish to say quite frankly that I attempted to frame my proposals to give practical effect to the Reid recommendations, and I have yet to hear from the Government that, in fact, they represent something different from what the Reid Committee themselves would have produced by way of a practical form in which to apply the recommendations.

The Minister injected what I thought was a little prejudice into the Debate when he said that I produced these recommendations as somebody who had had some connection with the industry and, indeed, I might have produced them on the advice of Sir Charles Reid. Has it ever occurred to the Minister that I might have taken counsel away beyond Sir Charles Reid? There were other members of that committee. Is it to be supposed that members of the National Coal Board never discuss these matters with hon. Members who do not happen to be members of the Labour Party? Of course they do, and the Minister very well knows it.

What is this malady for which we are attempting to find a cure? Is it not substantially that, whereas during the last 20 years, more particularly during the last decade and most particularly during the last three years, although the amount of mechanisation in the pits has trebled, the output per man-shift has altered very little indeed? Here I wish to correct something which I think the Minister said inadvertently, but which in fact was wrong. Intensive mechanisation relatively means more men on the coalface but fewer effective coal getters. That is an important point. I know that the Minister inadvertently gave the impression that it was otherwise. In fact, it means more men on the coalface although there are fewer coal getters.